NPR report on oilfield workers’ Amtrak use was timely, but biased

National Public Radio aired a report on Friday morning on the growing number of riders Amtrak’s Empire Builder is carrying to and from their jobs in the booming oil shale region of western North Dakota and eastern Montana. While NPR deserves credit for highlighting a story that most media outlets have overlooked – that so many oilfield workers find the one daily train to be the most convenient and affordable way to access the region. This is due to the fact that taking the train is more cost-effective than driving the very long distances that many workers travel to get to the shale region, and that very few airlines serve the area, and those that do are able to charge fares that are usually more than double Amtrak’s coach fares.

But NPR made the common error of referring to Amtrak as “money-losing” and “government subsidized” without acknowledging that highways and aviation are subsidized to an even greater degree, and that the airlines also lose money on low-volume flights to smaller communities like Williston, ND. NPR interviewed an Empire Builder passenger who described himself as a libertarian who opposes government subsidies for transportation, but still found Amtrak to be the best travel choice for his needs. The interviewer did not press him to defend his use of government-subsidized highways like he did with regard to the train.

Amtrak has received less money from the Federal government in its 41-year history than the Highway Trust Fund received from the general fund just in the last four years.  In 2011, 41% of the $133 billion spent on highways came from payments other than the gas tax, tolls, and vehicle taxes and fees.  This amounts to more than $50 billion in subsidy in one year, while NPR chooses to highlight Amtrak’s "losing" a comparatively minute approximately $2 billion per year. 

The money the federal government has spent to make the well-used Empire Builder possible was not “lost,” it was spent to provide a basic transportation service that makes productive economic activity possible, just like that spent on the parallel US Highway 2. The press should hold air and road transportation to the same standard as rail, and give passenger train advocates a chance to respond to misleading claims about “money-losing trains.”

Comments   

 
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0 #5 Mark Meyer 2013-01-27 02:41
Before criticizing NPR, which is simply relaying a common misperception about Amtrak, NARP needs to understand it's just as guilty. I'd be willing to bet that NARP doesn't know that "and that the airlines also lose money on low-volume flights to smaller communities like Williston," but rather, like NPR, is just chiming in on something that is somewhat common knowledge. But the reality is that the airlines serving Williston probably are NOT losing money. Indeed, until November 2012, the only airline serving Williston was Great Lakes, which was an Essential Air Service route, but had long since stopped receiving the EAS subsidy because it didn't need it. Since November 2012, United and Delta have started jet service in and out of Williston. It's probably a fair bet that they didn't do that on the premise that they'd be losing money (at least in the way they figure it, not taking into account the cost of all the infrastructure they use). Also, NARP's "argument" that Amtrak's losing "only" $2 billion per year is inconsequential to highway subsidy of $50 billlion in the same time frame doesn't hold much water. Look at it this way: The highway subsidy was 25 times that of Amtrak. Did highways handle 25 times the passengers? Considering all trips, be they competing with trips that could be taken by Amtrak or just a trip to the corner store, the answer surely is that many more than that number of trips were made using the highway system. This is not to say that Amtrak's "subsidy" is not worthwhile and should be looked at in perspective, but NARP needs to build a better, more bullet-proof case.
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0 #4 steve johnson 2012-12-27 14:38
the selective notice of most people as to the extent of any subsidy is based on the knowledge that person has of the wider world. be it oil or transportation or education the biggest complainer is most likely a heavy user of a different subsidy. most reporters and the general public use the terms that they hear. repeat something enough and it is believed by most. does the term "big lie" register? as for reporters just listen to see how often they use the term "decimate" for
"devastate". one in every ten was killed in a roman legion as a punishment for poor showings in battle. you would have plenty left to fight and the hope was for better performance. devastation is the total ruination that often occurs when modern reporters (with little classical education) use the description of decimate. a similar usage is "lock and load" a slogan used often by a later disgraced Drexel Burnham Lambert (one of the early modern big time Wall Street financial blowups) top trader. his supposed military background was as fake as his financial results. the true usage would have been "load" then "lock". referring to an artillery piece. i have not rode a train for decades and amtrak does not stop in my home state but i support napr and npr with my own contributions.
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0 #3 Bryan Roberg 2012-12-25 16:41
Lets start cutting the subsidy with NPR and see if they like it. I would rather subsidize amtrak with my money than use it for NPR. They are liberal and very biased .
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0 #2 Ron McCoy 2012-12-11 06:36
Bias need not be willful. We might converse on which is more dangerous, willful or ignorant bias, but bias on the part of NPR is readily apparent in this story and worries me either way. My opinion, the bias in this report is a sign of ignorance. Accepted norms often lead to bias induced blindnesses.
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+2 #1 James Toy 2012-12-11 06:01
Does the error indicate NPR is biased, or merely ignorant?

“Never ascribe to malice that which can adequately be explained by incompetence.” - Napoleon
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