More Bad News about Amtrak

MSN.com recently ran an article called ‘To see why Amtrak’s losses mount, hop on the Empire Builder train’. In a nutshell it explains why Amtrak is such a lousy system.

Empire Builder is the historic name for the Chicago-to-Seattle passenger train. It is named for the “empire builder” James J. Hill who, beginning in the 1880s, created the mighty Great Northern Railroad that opened up the Northern Plains and the Northwestern US to development. But the train’s economic viability died after World War II with the rise of highways and air travel. Here are excerpts from the MSN article with a Nikitas3.com comment about each:

MSN.com reports: Its passengers are mostly silver-haired retirees, oil-field workers and a few young families gazing out the windows of Amtrak’s least-profitable and third-longest line, rumbling from Chicago through eight states and on to the American West Coast. Nikitas3.com comment: You should not run a whole railroad line of more than 2,000 miles for “silver haired retirees” out for a train ride. This is huge waste of money. This train alone has been losing large amounts of cash for decades, as has the entire Amtrak system.

MSN.com reports: As the Empire Builder snakes along 2,230 miles on a 46-hour journey, it offers insights into the financial problems plaguing America’s passenger railroad at a time of intensifying scrutiny over its aging infrastructure and safety record. Following Amtrak’s May 12 fatal derailment in Philadelphia, the 86-year-old (Empire Builder) line sums up its problems — and its promise. Running most of its length near no major highways, the Empire Builder reaches into some of America’s most rugged, remote and rural regions. A coach ticket between Spokane, Washington and Williston, capital of North Dakota’s oil boom, costs $111, much cheaper than flying. Nikitas3.com comment: This train serves very sparsely settled areas with few passengers. The reason it has cheap fares is because so few people ride it and thus there is no demand for its seats, and second because the taxpayer subsidizes the train. The same route is served by airlines and by Trailways intercity buses which make a profit and take nothing from the taxpayer.

MSN.com reports: The (North Dakota oil shale) boom has helped swell passenger numbers, which are up 28 percent between 1997 and 2014. The increase comes from workers like John Dirby, who rides the Empire Builder from his Montana home to North Dakota’s oil fields, where he works as a truck driver, a 10-hour trip. It’s longer than by car but worth it, he says. “I spend tons of time for that job driving already. Why would I want to add on more time behind a wheel?” Nikitas3.com comment: Ridership up 28% over 17 years? That is a preposterously low figure. And we cannot solve every little social problem by running this grossly inefficient and expensive train. Dirby can take the bus if he does not want to drive.

MSN.com reports: But the demand isn’t enough to make it financially viable: the service lost $34.8 million between October and March, more than the same period in the previous fiscal year when it lost $31.9 million. Many seats remain empty. When a Reuters reporter traveled from St. Paul, Minnesota to Williston, several sleeper cars were vacant at various intervals. In the coach cabin each passenger had at least a two-person seat to themselves for most of the trip. Nikitas3.com comment: Astounding… $34.8 million lost in just 6 months on one single route. And these empty sleepers and seats are common on long-distance Amtrak trains outside the busy Northeast Corridor (NEC) from Boston to New York to Washington, DC. Amtrak passenger loads are notoriously low nationwide, and even sometimes in the NEC, like the Amtrak train that derailed in Philadelphia on Tuesday, May 12. It had a 40% passenger load which is very low for the allegedly crowded and crucial NEC on a busy weekday. That passenger load should have been 90% or more.

MSN.com reports: To pay for its money-losing routes, Amtrak peels funds away from its profitable ones such as the Northeast Corridor, where its high-speed Acela and Northeast Regional trains saw a combined $484.7 million profit in its last fiscal year. Nikitas3.com comment: Nonsense. Amtrak is just shuffling cash around but still takes $1.5 billion annually from taxpayers, to keep funding routes like this Empire Builder. And to make matters worse the Empire Builder runs on the tracks of the busy freight-hauling BNSF railroad, slowing and obstructing freight shipments, which is bad for the overall economy. This is a major problem nationwide with Amtrak. For this reason alone these Amtrak routes should be terminated.

MSN.com reports: That’s stoking debate over the future of Amtrak and how far Washington should foot the bill for upgrades to aging infrastructure and safety technology at the federal railroad that has bled red ink since its 1971 creation. Of its 48 lines, only five make a profit and one breaks even. Nikitas3.com comment: So let’s shut down the unprofitable routes. People can find alternative ways to travel. Millions of riders every year take Amtrak because they want to go for a train trip. That is absurd.

MSN.com reports: Democrats have called for $1 billion in additional funding for Amtrak. Chuck Schumer, a Democratic Senator from New York, says such investments could have prevented the Philadelphia accident, citing Amtrak’s failure to install Positive Train Control on the sharp bend where the train derailed. The mechanism, federal safety officials say, would have automatically slowed the speeding train. Nikitas3.com comment: As usual, Democrats are blaming the Philadelphia accident on lack of funding. In fact the crash appears to have been the fault of the unionized engineer – who also is a vocal union activist – who drove the train 106 MPH on a 50 MPH curve. But this is being hushed up by the Leftist Media so as not to make unions or government workers look bad.

MSN.com reports: Many Republicans, backed by conservative groups including Club for Growth, say the federal passenger rail authorization spending of $7.2 billion over four years is already too much. The Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee voted on May 13, a day after the crash, to approve a $1.14 billion Amtrak budget for next fiscal year, a $252 million cut from this year. John Mica, a Republican in the House, urged privatization for Amtrak as a solution to what he called a “third-world rail system … run in a Soviet-style operation.” Nikitas3.com comment: That is a good characterization. Amtrak’s overpaid, unionized employees are notoriously incompetent and rude while its on-time record is horrendous. Its long-distance trains can be 10 hours late, or more. But you won’t hear one single complaint from the so-called “consumer activists”. Because they are left-wingers who never criticize the horrible performance of a government-run system like Amtrak. They only criticize private, profit-making companies.

MSN.com reports: “If one can afford the time, this is a fun, carefree way to travel,” said Mary Firestine, who took the Empire Builder’s entire route from Chicago to connect with a ferry in Seattle en route to an Alaskan job. Nikitas3.com comment: She should fly. It is cheaper and faster – 4 hours on a plane to Seattle versus 46 hours on the train. She could fly all the way to Alaska. Just imagine all the time she is wasting – many, many days – and then talking about how wonderful Amtrak is. This is absurd. This is typical of the debate around Amtrak. It is surreal.

MSN.com reports: Other long-distance routes are also growing, while losing millions of dollars. The Southwest Chief, from Chicago to Los Angeles, recorded a 10.5 percent increase in ridership in the year to March, a period when it lost $30 million. The number of passengers on the Sunset Ltd, from Louisiana to California, rose 14.5 percent while it lost $18.1 million, according to Amtrak data. Nikitas3.com comment: If they are “growing” but losing money that makes no sense. But this is typical of the bizarre world of Amtrak which moves about 85,000 passengers per day with a $50 per ticket government subsidy while US airlines move about 2 million passengers per day with no government subsidy.

MSN.com reports: In total, long-distance routes carry about 14.6 percent of Amtrak’s passengers but soak up about 41 percent of the costs. Nikitas3.com comment: Stunning. A private business could never stay in business for one week with that model while this government-run business has stayed in business for 44 years.

MSN.com reports: Those who board the Empire Builder have noticed some cost-cutting recently, including the loss of a free wine tasting program the rail network discontinued after Amtrak’s inspector general in 2013 called the practice too expensive. Nikitas3.com comment: Imagine that – wine tasting on a money-losing train. Do we have wine tastings on our airlines? No. Airlines are focused on moving people, not ridiculous frills like wine tasting. That’s one of the many reasons why our airlines make a profit and are infinitely more crucial to the American economy than Amtrak, while doing a vastly more complex job than Amtrak.

MSN.com reports: “I miss the wine and cheese nights,” Theo Anderson, a retired banker from Seattle, said over a plate of eggs in the train’s dining car as the North Dakota prairie retreated behind him. “I guess they’re trying to save money.” Nikitas3.com comment: If this guy’s bank ran like Amtrak he would have been out of work decades ago.

Meanwhile the Washington Free Beacon reports:

Timesheets for employees of Amtrak are riddled with abuse, according to a recent audit report, with cases of workers claiming over 40 hours of work in a single day. The audit released by Amtrak’s Office of Inspector General …found examples of abuse in the overtime system, which totaled nearly $200 million in overtime pay last year. One such trend was employees claiming the impossible feat of working 48 hours in a single day. “Employees reported 1,357 days in which they worked more than 24 regular and overtime hours,” the OIG said. “Ten employees reported working at least 40 hours in a day.” Of those 10 employees, a serving attendant in the Café Car, who earns an average of $23 an hour, recorded 47.95 hours in one day, 31.01 of which were recoded as overtime.

Numerous employees also claimed to work 20-hour days. There were 1,891 timesheets that recorded a range of 22 to 24 hours in a single day, and 7,145 that listed between 20 and 22 hours in one day.

Another troubling finding that likely indicates abuse of Amtrak’s payroll system was the high number of employees claiming overtime. Some employees reported over 74 hours of overtime on top of a normal 40-hour week. Amtrak’s overtime is paid at either 1.5 or 2 times the hourly rate.

One employee, a locomotive technician, claimed to have worked 130 hours in a single week, with 90 hours of overtime on top of 40 hours of regular time. There are 168 hours in a week. Another train attendant claimed 110.56 hours of overtime in a single week, and no regular hours. A coach cleaner, who is responsible for cleaning the trains and draining and flushing the waste tanks, claimed to work 108 consecutive days. Amtrak paid roughly 19,300 employees $1.2 billion in 2014, including $199 million in overtime pay. Labor costs account for 29 percent of Amtrak’s annual expenses.

Nikitas3.com comment: This is surely the tip of the iceberg. We should shut this terrible railroad down today and sell off its usable parts. It is not even a transportation system. It is a corrupt, inefficient political entity designed to funnel money to the Democrat party through its unions.

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