Amtrak’s ‘High-Speed’ Trains Not Fast Enough

Posted July 15, 2007 at 11:00pm

Recent testimony provided to the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee reported that Japan’s Shinkansen high-speed train is remarkably safe and highly profitable. The project’s initial investment was recovered in 12 years, and since then the revenue from Shinkansen has provided critical resources for local lines in Japan.

Why doesn’t Amtrak’s high-speed Acela train generate similar profits? Because Amtrak lacks two key elements of success: speed

and reliability.

In March, I hosted a forum on high-speed rail with experts from around the world. We learned that high-speed trains worldwide have much higher average speeds than Acela. The average speed of Acela from Washington, D.C., to New York City is only 86 miles per hour, while the slowest Shinkansen train has an average speed of 125 mph. France’s high-speed TGV trains average 173 mph, Germany’s high-speed trains average 153 mph and South Korea’s averages 125 mph. By comparison, Acela does not even qualify as high speed.

If rail cannot offer a high-speed alternative to other modes of transportation, it is unlikely to become a real option for potential passengers.

Speed is only one part of the equation. Amtrak’s Acela also falls short on reliability and has had many mechanical problems over the years. Amtrak bungled the Acela acquisition by designing a tilting train that was too wide. Only after the train was built did engineers realize that in some locations a tilting train could sideswipe another passing train. The Acela also was plagued with manufacturing defects and suspension problems. In 2005, cracks in the train’s disc brakes sidelined the entire fleet for months. During repairs on the brakes, Amtrak temporarily replaced the Acela with aging Metroliner cars, and their schedule was nearly the same as the “high-speed” Acela.

Acela’s on-time performance is still only about 88 percent. In contrast, the average delay time of the Shinkansen, with as many as 300 trains running per day, is six seconds. And the Shinkansen has never had an accident-related fatality.

It often is claimed that all of Amtrak’s troubles are because of a lack of adequate funding; however, the sad truth is that Amtrak has wasted billions of tax dollars.

In 2005, an investigation by the Government Accountability Office revealed that Amtrak lost nearly $245 million from fiscal 2002 to fiscal 2004 on food and beverage service. The Amtrak inspector general recently found that for every $1 in food and beverage sales, Amtrak incurred more than $2 in expenses. According to the IG, Amtrak also pays its food service workers 3.5 times the average restaurant industry wage. Amtrak covers up these huge losses by burying its food and beverage expense figures in various accounts while reporting only the revenue figures.

A report by the Amtrak IG released last fall revealed that Amtrak’s legal department was squandering tens of millions of tax dollars every year by handing out wasteful contracts to politically connected law firms.

Though it has received billions in federal funds, Amtrak is incapable of tracking its own costs. The GAO found Amtrak’s internal accounting system to be barely functional. According to the GAO, “Amtrak’s cost data are unreliable. Of $4.3 billion in costs for 2002-03, only $357 million was directly assigned to each train line. Amtrak allocated the other costs to the various lines using arbitrary formulas.”

Amtrak now has a new CEO, but it has made little progress in fixing these problems.

Every ticket on Amtrak receives an average federal subsidy of $53, and some routes are subsidized at more than $500 per ticket.

Amtrak’s food and beverage department continues to massively subsidize onboard service, including fancy meals and alcoholic drinks for first-class passengers. Amtrak still cannot provide a monthly profit and loss statement on its food and beverage business.

The legal department has not only failed to reform itself, but continues to stonewall investigators from the Amtrak IG’s office.

The accounting department still cannot provide separate cost details for the Northeast Corridor.

With Amtrak’s troubled record, it is no surprise that neither Congress nor private investors are willing to risk the billions it will take to improve the Boston-to-Washington, D.C. Northeast Corridor to true high-speed service. Estimates for the work range from $15 billion to more than $30 billion; however, no one would trust Amtrak to handle a project of this magnitude. To properly develop and manage a project of this size, only an entity empowering state stakeholders and backed by private-sector participation could make the project a reality.

High-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor has the potential to reduce congestion at our airports and on our highways. Americans would waste less time and money stuck in traffic, and our environment would benefit from fewer emissions from bottlenecked vehicles. When the French high-speed TGV train began running from Paris to Lyon in 1981, rail’s total market share increased from 47 percent to 74 percent. Many motorists switched from car to train, the highway share of travel dropped from 32 percent to 19 percent. Safe and efficient high-speed rail from D.C. to Boston would produce similar benefits.

In an era of growing congestion, America can no longer afford to ignore the benefits of true high-speed rail. We know it works, we have the capacity to build it, and we must make high-speed rail part of our national transportation strategy.

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) is the ranking member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.