The case against passenger rail

The case against passenger rail

Virtual public hearings were held this week on a proposal to add a second daily round-trip Amtrak train between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg in about three years.

But the economic efficacy of the addition remains more virtual reality than anything worthy of ever more taxpayer dollars.

Advocates long have argued there is a groundswell of demand for the additional run. Some very rosy predictions have it that ridership from Pittsburgh would increase an astounding 88 percent in 2025 from 2019 levels and 76 percent from Greensburg.

Those numbers were predicted long before the coronavirus pandemic. But even without Covid-19, such a projection is hard to take at face value.

As the Post-Gazette reports it, citing Andrew Waple, director of transportation planning for the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission:

“In addition to providing much better access for people traveling to Pittsburgh and from Harrisburg and points east along (Amtrak’s) Pennsylvanian, increasing efficient, multimodal options for travelers would have a positive impact on connectivity, mobility and economic vitality, as well as decreasing highway congestion and improving air quality in the Southwestern Pennsylvania region and across the state.”

As we are wont to react to such claims: “What, it won’t automatically straighten children’s teeth, too?” Sounds like a pretty good job of oversell to us.

For the simple fact of the matter remains that the Amtrak trip between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg takes a plodding 5 ½ hours. One can drive to Harrisburg in about 3 hours.

And it also remains a fact that, as we noted two summers ago, passenger rail – too often romanticized — long has proven to be an expensive folly in all but the densest population corridors.

It was in 2018 that noted transportation scholar Randall O’Toole put passenger rail in stark context.

Not only did Amtrak fares at the time average twice as much as airfares, “when all subsidies are counted it costs Amtrak nearly four times as much to move one person one mile as it costs the airlines.”

“Similarly,” he concluded, “urban transit costs more than four times as much, per passenger mile, as the average cost of driving.”

O’Toole also notes that the much-vaunted European rail transportation model doesn’t work much better than that of the United States. To wit, the average European rides intercity and urban rail less than 700 miles a year, “little more than half the miles that Americans traveled by rail in 1920.

And to even achieve that level of ridership, the transit researcher reminds how “European countries heavily subsidized rail and heavily taxed motor vehicle fuel, effectively suppressing total travel: The average European travels only about half as many miles each year as the average American.”

O’Toole’s bottom line is that passenger rail should be allowed to survive “only where it is truly superior to other modes of travel.”

And that clearly would not include adding a second daily Amtrak run between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, despite the dubious “benefits” that its afficionados long have claimed.

As the Allegheny Institute’s Jake Haulk also reminded a few years ago:

“Romantic notions surrounding train travel should not drive the decision.”

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (