Acton Institute Powerblog

Not Enough Funding? Maybe Too Much…

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

“Amtrak officials seem to be working hard to patch up the older parts of the system. But recent delays serve as only the latest reminder that Amtrak’s problems are not bad management so much as stingy government. With gas prices up and airplanes overloaded, the nation’s leaders should be trying to figure out why this advanced nation does not have a more advanced passenger rail system.” Thus says an editorial in today’s NYT, blaming the lack of government subsidy for the woes of the US train system.

It doesn’t seem to occur to the editorial writer that the current situation may in fact be the result of the railway system’s historic dependence on the government, which has fostered the inability to run competitively, independently, and efficiently. To me this sounds like the lament when any other government program fails: “But we didn’t have enough funding!”

I do know that booking travel on an Amtrak train can often be more expensive than flying by plane to the same destination. If a slower, more expensive form of transportation is what government subsidization gets you, no thanks.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • J. Howard Harding

    Apparently the writer is unaware,or in denial of, the enormous federal, state and local subsidies provided to all forms of transportation other than rail freight and passenger service. One wonders if he is also unaware of the facts that in the U.S., less than 1% of all federal transportation funding supports rail service while European nations with far better rail passenger service than the U.S. allocate about 20% of their transportation funding to rail. Not surprising, rail service provides about 20% of intercity travel in Europe but less than 1% of such travel in the U.S.

    The issue is not government vs. private funding — private U.S. freight railroads were not able to profitably operate passenger rail service, particularly after passage of the Interstate Highway Act — but why and how the funding is provided. In nations with good passenger rail service, funding is provided to carry out a well-planned, service-oriented operation that is an integral part of a national/continental transportation network. Meager U.S. rail passenger funding is provided in response to intense political pressure from service users, but there is no serious national transportation policy framework to guide its use. Further, Amtrak’s annual fight for survival renders it unable to develop and carry out any long range service plan of its own.

    As for airline service sometimes being cheaper than rail passenger service, there are multiple issues to be considered. First, residents of many towns served by Amtrak do not have cheap air fares available locally and athet-y are far from a major airport that does have low fares. Second, Amtrak’s fare structure is more heavily influenced by absurd demands for its profitability than by the competitive market. Thirdly, although Amtrak has improved its accounting practices, its antiquated cost and revenue allocation models do not provide a clear accurate, picture of what each service generates in revenue or costs to operate. Nor does it clearly document how many individual passenger trips use multiple trains between their origin and desination. Thus it is unclear to most critics just how interdependent are the trains that operate over Amtrak’s skeletal network.

    Amtrak service is too expensive and too small in scale, less because of bad internal management than because of incompetent federal, state and local transportation funding policies that starve rail service while subsidizing auto and airline passengers.

  • Jim RePass

    Mr. Bailor ignores facts that undercut his opinion. The airline flight he wants to book can be less expensive than an Amtrak ticket because the airlines’ subsidies are far greater than Amtrak’s, tsratingwith a multi-billion FAA that fees don’t even remotely cover, landing sites paid for by someone else (again, landing fees cover a fraction of costs) and most important many6 billions in technological R&D paid for by the Defense Department, which is the real subsidy.