Amtrak Should Provide Passenger Rail Services, Not Make-Work Jobs

The kid's here for the trains, not for the make-work jobs
The kid’s here for the trains, not for the make-work jobs

Photograph by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Amtrak.

I worry that the news that Amtrak loses millions of dollars a year on food services is going to be misinterpreted. To a lot of the people who matter in media and politics “Amtrak” means “the guys who run the Northeast Corridor trains” and it seems unimaginable that they could lose that much on food service. If you delve into the report, however, it’s clear that the losses are coming from Amtrak’s weird long-haul routes off the NEC rather than from the Boston-D.C. service that actually approaches sensible intercity rail.

That said, this is no excuse for losing tons of money on food service! If selling food on trains isn’t a profit center for the train operator, then the train operator is doing something badly wrong. And Nick Rahall’s comments on this make me want to cry:

Representative Nick J. Rahall II, Democrat of West Virginia and the ranking member on the committee, said the hearing was a not-so-veiled attempt by Republicans to get rid of Amtrak food service workers, who number about 1,200.

“It’s a whopper of an idea, trading good-paying jobs for cheaper hamburgers,” Mr. Rahall said.

This conception of government agencies as primarily jobs programs for public sector workers rather than public service providers is really toxic. The point of Amtrak is to provide passenger rail services. Its workforce practices should be designed with that end in mind. If adopting a leaner workforce would allow Amtrak to invest the money needed to run faster trains while holding fares constant, that would be a huge win for American transportation. And over the long run, the only way to have a vibrant railroad workforce in America is to have a vibrant railroad sector. But to have a vibrant railroad sector, Amtrak has to be focused on trying to run a railroad, not trying to create a handful of make-work jobs.