The Sunset Limited: Your Tax Dollars At Work

From New Orleans CityBusiness today

In 2008, a Pew Research study determined that Amtrak’s Sunset Limited line from New Orleans to Los Angeles was one of the least used routes, and one of the biggest money losers for the government owned transportation company.

Three years later, the cost per trip ticket has risen, but the loss per passenger still remains around $400. The silver lining could lie in the revelation that only 72,000 passengers made the trip in 2008, compared with 353,000 passengers who rode the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco at a loss of $193 per ticket.

As Amtrak celebrates 40 years of service in the country, some groups andindividuals are revisiting the study and alarming financial picture it paints.

In all fairness, the Sunset Limited route has been shortened since Hurricane Katrina.  Before the storm, the line ran from L.A. to Jacksonville, Fla., but track damage forced the line to halt service east of New Orleans. The expected date for service to the full route to resume is still unknown.

Does anybody seriously believe this is a valid use of taxpayer dollars?

It takes 48 hours to ride the Sunset Limited from New Orleans to Los Angeles (or L.A. to N.O., if you’d rather) – assuming the train’s on schedule, which happens a sterling 83 percent of the time – and the train apparently stops 19 times along the way from start to finish. A train ticket on the Sunset Limited is $216, according to Amtrak’s web site. But you’ve got to travel on Wednesdays. That’s the only day the train runs. Any other day and you’re catching a train to Chicago or even to Washington, DC and then transferring to another one going to L.A. – and that 48 hours becomes more like 68 hours, or 99 hours, or something just as ridiculous.

You can make the trip by car in half the time if you average 70 MPH along the way, factoring in stops for gas and food/bathroom breaks – in 28 hours if you average 60 MPH. At 30 miles per gallon and $3.75 per gallon in fuel costs, the trip goes for about $250 in gas. Bring a driving buddy and you’re probably looking at $350 or so for the voyage. Do it yourself and it’s probably about that price since you’re in a hotel in El Paso or Las Cruces halfway through the trip.

Or you could take a bus. Greyhound says you can buy a refundable ticket from New Orleans to L.A. for $215, or as low as $172.80 if you buy a non-refundable ticket over the web, and the trip will last about 42 hours. It looks like the bus will stop about 17 times along the way and you’ve got to transfer at Houston and El Paso. How much you spend on provisions along the way is hard to determine; call it $100 or so and you’re somewhere between $275 and $325.

You can also fly. On a one-day-in-advance booking on Expedia.com, I got a price as low as $722.99 from New Orleans to Orange County, connecting out of Salt Lake City and Phoenix. That’s a nightmare itinerary – it will take a whole nine hours and 43 minutes. With a week’s worth of advance time, the options get far better – in fact, it only costs $268 for the 4 hour, 10 minute nonstop Delta flight from New Orleans straight to LAX. That $268 includes peanuts and Cokes and whatever else they give you on the plane.

Remember – that $215 ticket on Amtrak that takes you two entire days to make the trip? The government loses $400 on it, as the article notes. It’s all-inclusive, but remember – the airlines and bus lines will charge you $200-something on an advance booking and actually make a profit doing it.

But not only is it necessary for us to continue subsidizing Amtrak; we need to put some $50 billion into laying down high-speed rail lines. Because by doing so we can make it so you can take a train from New Orleans to Los Angeles in the same amount of time you can drive that distance. But the government still probably loses $400 on you if you make that choice.

Does anyone need to ask why we’re running a federal budget deficit? When the government loses more money on a rail passenger than air and bus lines are even charging, it’s not hard to see how far they stretch our tax dollars.



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