The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

The Ghoulish Amtrak Blame Game

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


Within hours of the deadly crash of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia, big spenders from Washington and New York pounced on the tragedy as a reason to throw more taxpayer money Amtrak’s way.

Let’s begin with the fact that eight people lost their lives in this accident. More than 200 were injured. Politicians and liberal talking heads did not even wait for the victims’ bodies to be recovered before cynically using them as a political prop in a budget fight.

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While the sheer ghoulishness of this display should shock the conscience, it is an all too familiar line of attack when a crisis, man-made or otherwise, befalls any federal agency. Last fall, when Ebola patients were transported to the United States, a liberal interest group ran an ad claiming “Republican Cuts Kill.” This group was joined by a chorus of Democratic lawmakers who blamed the Ebola outbreak on budget cuts to the CDC and NIH. Also last year, when the Secret Service found that a bullet had struck a window at the White House and a fence jumper entered the president’s residence, District of Columbia Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton was quick to pin blame on funding levels, claiming Congress, “has to take some responsibility” for the Secret Service’s ineptitude. When incompetence at the VA reached scandalous levels in 2014, Democratic leaders in the Senate urged for more funding as the solution. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen blamed his agency’s “abysmal” ability to field taxpayer phone calls to budget cuts, as well.

And so too it is with Amtrak. Nevermind the fact that the train conductor took the fatal turn at more than double the legal speed limit. Nevermind that a lack of funding didn’t inspire IRS workers to target conservative political groups and it didn’t prevent Secret Service agents from locking the White House doors. And funding levels certainly were not a factor in the malicious secondary wait-lists created for veterans (VA’s funding growth has actually outstripped patient and treatment growth).

Since Amtrak was created in 1971, it has not turned a profit once. Amtrak actually loses $32 per customer for a total taxpayer cost of $37 billion. Amtrak’s Office of Inspector General reported in 2012 that employee fraud is rampant; One employee received $143,300 for work he never performed. Employee theft was blamed for Amtrak wasting $834 million in food and beverages. Former Amtrak spokesman Joseph Vranich put it best:

“Amtrak is a massive failure because it’s wedded to a failed paradigm. It runs trains that serve political purposes as opposed to being responsive to the marketplace. America needs passenger trains in selected areas, but it doesn’t need Amtrak’s antiquated route system, poor service and unreasonable operating deficits.”

That is why CAGW has included elimination of Amtrak subsidies as part of its Prime Cuts recommendations.

In the end, tragedies like the one that occurred on Wednesday or scandals like those that plagued agencies in 2014 have very little to do with the amount of funding agencies receive from taxpayers; these agencies have been wasting the millions they already take. The root problem is mismanagement and operator error, in this case. It is there that the investigation and the media coverage should focus.

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