WASHINGTON - There is something about Amtrak - perhaps the romance of railroads or the promise of relieving traffic congestion and economizing on oil and greenhouse gas emissions - that causes otherwise sensible people to lose contact with reality.
The reality is that Amtrak is a waste of taxpayers' money and has been since its creation in 1970. It doesn't significantly reduce congestion, fuel use or greenhouse gases. Amtrak is too small to have any appreciable effect in any of these areas.
Yet Amtrak retains an aura of respectability with much of the public and many "experts," who believe it should survive and perhaps expand.
The latest example is a report from the Brookings Institution, one of Washington's premier think tanks. The report points out that Amtrak's 2012 ridership of 31 million was a record and that some of its most heavily traveled routes have an operating profit (what Brookings calls a "positive operating balance").
Amtrak is undergoing a "renaissance," said Brookings. It adds: "Passenger rail is a vital component of the country's national transportation network."
Actually, it isn't.
To see why, dissect that historic ridership of 31 million.
The number looks impressive, but on any given day, it's about 85,000. Not much. Even if it doubled, it wouldn't be much.
Domestic airline passengers total about 650 million annually; that's 1.8 million a day.
More important are the 140 million Americans who commute daily to work, about 85 percent of whom drive. And then there's personal, vacation and pleasure driving.
If Amtrak vanished, hardly anyone would notice except Amtrak's workers and its small number of daily riders.
Before World War II, intercity rail passenger service flourished. But postwar changes caused rapid decline.
Air travel was faster and cheaper for long distances. Suburbanization hurt shorter trips, because travelers usually needed cars to get to their final destinations. Passenger losses mounted for railroads, imperiling their essential freight operations.
In 1970, Congress allowed the railroads to abandon intercity passenger service by creating Amtrak, which would become profitable by preserving the most promising routes. That was the theory.
It hasn't worked.