The Worst Reason for Subsidizing Amtrak

There are a lot of bad reasons for subsidizing Amtrak: it provides a vital service to small towns (how vital can it be when only a handful of people get on or off the train in any of those towns each day?); it saves energy (extending the tax credit to the Prius and other low-mpg vehicles would save more energy for less money); it relieves congestion (how congestion is there between Wolf Point and Glasgow, Montana?). But the worst reason was laid out a couple of days ago in a New York Times op-ed: Amtrak’s dining car will heal our political divisions.

On a 9,000-mile trip on six Amtrak trains, songwriter Gabriel Kahane learned that, when you eat in the dining car, you are often seated with other riders. Where most of our digital world “finds us sorting ourselves neatly into cultural and ideological silos,” the dining car “acts, by some numinous, unseen force, as a kind of industrial-strength social lubricant.”

In other words, he met people whose politics were very different from his–“abhorrent, dangerous, and destructive”–and discovered they were still human beings. “That ability to connect across an ideological divide seemed predicated on the fact that we were quite literally breaking bread together.” This made him “wonder if the train might be a salve for our national wound, bringing us into intimate conversation with unlikely interlocutors, and allowing us to see each other as human rather than as mere containers for ideology.”

In a word, no. In a few words, Amtrak will not heal our political divisions. The test is very simple: name any political dispute–race, poverty, immigration, international relations–and ask yourself whether those divisions are truly worse today than they were in the 1880s (when trains began including dining cars) through the 1940s, the period when most intercity travel was by train. The answer, almost invariably, will be no: racism, poverty, hostility towards immigrants, and the threats (or reality) of war were far worse then than now.

Part of the problem is that rail travel is extremely expensive–roughly four times the cost of flying when all subsidies are included, roughly twice the cost when just fares are counted. Moreover, traditionally most dining car passengers are also sleeping car passengers, and sleeping car fares are three times regular coach fares. This is exacerbated by the fact Amtrak’s policy of including the cost of meals in sleeping car fares whereas coach passengers have to pay stiff additional prices for mediocre food.

Notably, the second photo in the New York Times article is of a parlor/dining car that it only open to sleeping car passengers. While it is certainly a nice car, it is hardly going to heal the divisions between rich and poor.

What this means is that, while the people Kahane met in the diner may have seemed diverse, they were hardly a representative cross-section of the American public. In turn, that means that we can’t expect Amtrak dining cars to heal the nation’s divisions.

Kahane’s idea is hardly new. Collectivists have long claimed that we would be better off riding transit, forcing us to rub shoulders with a diversity of peoples, than isolating ourselves in individual automobiles. But there is little evidence that is true: New York City in 1890 through 1930, when mass transit was about the only way to get around, was hardly a utopia.

There is no doubt that the diversity of news sources now available have made American political divisions more visible than before. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. Those with short memories may claim that the 2016 presidential election was the most divisive in history, but for splitting up the country nothing could top the election of 1860.

Fewer remember, but the the elections of 1800, 1828, and 1884 weren’t exactly picnics either. Well into the dining-car era, the 1912 campaign, which elected a supposedly Progressive president who ended up supporting some of the most oppressive policies and laws in American history, would have to be counted.

Kahane may have just been using Amtrak as some sort of metaphor for what’s wrong with America, but the New York Times chose to play it as an appeal to keep Amtrak running. There will always be opportunities for people of good will to sit down and peacefully air their differences if they want to. But spending a billion dollars or so a year subsidizing Amtrak is not a good way to provide those opportunities.

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4 thoughts on “The Worst Reason for Subsidizing Amtrak

  1. prk166

    I hope Mr. Kahane continues his journey. At the end he doesn’t want to open his New York Times. I hope he realizes that as humans we’re not built to see reality. His consumption of the time is shaping his reality but it doesn’t not describe the reality of the world.

    Mr. Kahane seems to get that to some degree. Yet he takes to twitter on his return, proclaiming things like the current tax bill being satanic. Why is he finds having those conversations so pleasant yet can’t let go of his distorted feelings about the world? Why does he pay lip service to those dialectical conversations yet gets home and goes right back into laying bricks using extreme language to create a wall between himself and others based on how he __FEELS__ about some minor issue?

  2. TCS

    If Mr. Kahane really wants to meet folks with different life experiences, he should take a long, multi-leg trip in the USA on Americanos, El Conejo, Los Paisanos, Tornado and Turimex.

  3. Aarne H. Frobom

    Considering how few Amtrak dining cars there are, it would take about 3,000 years to cycle all Americans through them. Another means will have to be found to help us all get along.

    But you can hear some amazing stuff across those little tables full of reheated food. The wife insisted we take the Zephyr to Oakland a while back, and I said okay, so long as you don’t tell me what the Pullman room cost. It was gorgeous, and I got to see the Central Pacific, which lent a lot of meaning to reading Empire Express a few months later. Most of the other dining-car occupants were vacationing schoolteachers, plus a “fully-informed jury” crank and the ubiquitous garrulous railfan, who showed me track charts of the line west of Denver so I could spot the scenic parts. The high point was probably a Hungarian refugee who had spent the years since 1956 teaching on an Indian reservation. Now, there was a guy with a story, which he made known to a dirty-looking Russian immigrant with some badly-behaved kids that were going wild in the lounge car. But by Reno they realized they were both refugees and were getting along nicely.

  4. LazyReader

    Fresh off his biggest legislative victory of the Trump era, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Saturday disputed projections that the Senate’s tax bill would add to the nation’s debt woes. We don’t have a tax issue, we have a spending issue…….It amazes me democrats in California, New York and Illinois suddenly care about fiscal accountability after riding a gravy train for the better part of a decade. The Democrats are worried about the national debt increasing 1 trillion over 10 years when the nation debt increased over 9 trillion while Obama was in office for just 8. Damn these people have short memories………..

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