Trains, market gains and monopolies…
Yesterday, my colleague, Sarah Brodsky, posted on the report on Missourinet about MoDOT’s desire to improve Amtrak’s performance in order to increase ridership. We discussed Amtrak around the office for about 1/2 hour, which is one of the great parts about working at a think-tank like the Show-Me Institute. I come at this issue from the perspective of someone who loves riding trains. My dad loves trains, and he passed that on to me. I have taken several overnight train trips in my life, including trains to Seattle via Glacier National Park and a three-week jaunt around the east coast via Amtrak after college. So it infuritates me that every time I make a point to ride Amtrak something goes wrong. I took it to Chicago last summer for a bachelor party and the train was two hours late leaving St. Louis. I have taken the Missouri Mule to Jefferson City or Kansas City a couple of times and the delays while freight trains pass are exasperating. As simple as it may seem, I really believe that if Amtrak would just operate more efficiently more people would give it a chance. Perhaps Sarah is right that eliminating the subsidies would force Amtrak to shape up. Eliminating the subsidy to a de facto monopoly would more likely just cause Amtrak to close in Missouri, and I think Missouri benefits from Amtrak, if only for the drunks it takes off the highways after Hermann Octoberfest.
We have been trying to determine the extent of Amtrak’s monopoly. It is a monopoly in reality, but not necessarily legally codified as such. By that I mean Bill Gates could go insane and tomorrow put $20 billion into a new passenger railroad across America, in a way that he could not just go ahead and decide to start selling nuclear power to Missourians. The new railroad would be heavily regulated, no doubt, but private business can operate passenger rail service. The problem is doing it on a large scale profitably, which is quite likely impossible. I hope Missouri keeps at least the subsidy to have Amtrak operate at the current schedle, while insisting that those service levels improve. If a better operating agreement can ‘t be reached with the railroads that own the lines Amtrak operates on giving preference to whichever train was first scheduled as opposed to the freight line every time, than I don’t have much hope for the Missouri Mule.
With train tickets now generally costing signigicantly less than the gas to drive between comparible cities, not to mention to ability to drink beer while on a train, or the zany hijinks, there is an opening for better service to bring in more custmers. How about that for a crazy idea? That plus adding a train connection from St. Louis to New Orleans. That bus ride to Carbondale to catch the train just is not going to cut it.