Tales from the Public Sector: Train Wreck Edition

It’s an old joke that may have originated with Milton Friedman (though Ronald Reagan liked to tell variations, too) that if the federal government took over Saudi Arabia, within a few years there’d be a shortage of sand.  (Just look how well government control of water works out.)  Just three days ago we noted here the epic failure of the U.S. Postal Service to avoid a long-term descent into bankruptcy despite having a legal monopoly for its core product.  Today’s tales from the public sector department carries the news that Amtrak loses bucketloads of money—$833 million over the last decade—selling food on its trains, despite the fact that it has a completely captive audience, and charges $9.50 for a burger.  Think McDonalds or a private food service contractor could do this badly if they tried?

The report from the AtlanticWire has some shocking, only-in-government details:

Amtrak has been trying to figure out how to break even on food since Congress required it to do so in 1981, and it’s never been able to, The New York Times’ Ron Nixon reports. That’s because two different Amtrak departments oversee food service, and they haven’t coordinated with one another to stop losses, largely from employee theft, Amtrak inspector general Ted Alves told the hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Some 87 percent of that theft happens on long-haul routes, Alves said. In a report last year, he outlined some of the schemes, including shorting cash register sales, inflating first-class meal checks, selling non-Amtrak items, and plain old stealing. Amtrak has some plans in place to counter that theft and waste, including a loss-prevention unit, more cashless purchases, and a better inventory-tracking system. But so far, Amtrak’s food service program still costs it, and by extension us, a fortune.

Of course, fixing these problems might require crossing a labor union.  Can’t have that.