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Puttin' on the Amtrak feed bag

| Sunday, Jan. 5, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

LORTON, Va.

They just drove our car up the ramp onto Amtrak's Auto Train near Washington, D.C., for our overnight train ride to Sanford, Fla. (near Orlando).

This is the day each year when we get to be on the receiving end of multiple doses of federal welfare.

As Fred Frailey of Trains magazine reported in November (“Amtrak's fiscal report card for 2013”), Amtrak's operating losses were $1.2 billion in fiscal 2013, a jump of $28 million in losses over fiscal 2012.

Amtrak's 2013 revenues were up by $115 million while expenses increased by $143 million.

The largest losses in the Amtrak system occurred with long-distance passenger trains. The Chicago-to-Oakland Zephyr lost $74 million in 2013. Altogether, long-distance passenger trains lost $627 million in fiscal 2013, slightly more than half of Amtrak's total losses, and up $37 million in red ink from 2012.

The Lorton-to-Sanford Auto Train loses 14 cents per passenger mile. For the 1,710-mile round trip, that's a loss of $239.40 per passenger. For two of us, that's a $478.80 federal subsidy per trip.

Dinner is included in the price of our bedroom tickets, with reserved seatings. Amtrak's Inspector General Theodore Alves said in testimony in November to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that Amtrak's food service losses were $72 million in 2013, with almost all of the losses due to providing meals on long-distance trains.

And the $72 million might hugely understate the losses, according to the chairman of the Government Operations Subcommittee, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. “The Amtrak inspector general has confirmed that Amtrak cooked the books to cover up food service losses that now approach $1 billion,” Mica said.

Amtrak's two Auto Trains are simultaneous operations, with 4 p.m. nonstop departures from both the Lorton and Sanford terminals, except for a quick halfway stop in Florence, S.C., to refuel and change the engine crew and conductors.

To kick off the trip, there's a complimentary wine-and-cheese party for sleeper-car passengers while the crew is connecting the train's passenger cars to the vehicle-carrying rail cars, which transport a diverse assortment of cars, vans, SUVs, limos, hot rods, jet-skis and small boats.

The Auto Train's wine-and-cheese party, along with complimentary wine parties offered to sleeper-car passengers on three other long-distance routes, cost Amtrak $428,000 in 2012, according to Alves.

Further putting the food operation in the hole are Amtrak's employees traveling on freebie passes, who consumed $260,000 in free meals while enjoying their free rides on the rails, Alves said.

If everything goes right, our arrival time is 9:30 a.m. tomorrow after a complimentary breakfast of bananas, oranges, cereals, bagels, muffins, milk, orange juice and coffee, for an endpoint-to-endpoint average speed of 49 mph — a third of the 150 mph top speed of Amtrak's Acela in the Northeast Corridor and a sixth of Japan's 300 mph passenger trains.

Note to our central planners: We'd eat and drink less per trip if the trains traveled faster.

Ralph R. Reiland is an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University and a local restaurateur (rrreiland@aol.com).

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