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.