It’s Not All Roses   Leave a comment

Amtrak is suffering from success in its Northeast Corridor, but is still losing hugely on its long distance trains. Some advocates say Congress should fund Amtrak through a multi-year expert-driven trust fund. With respect to the experts, Congress should not cede control of the taxpayers’ property to transportation experts. Instead, they should look at the situation realistically.

http://www.theatlanticcities.com/politics/2013/04/3-part-case-long-distance-trains/5330/

When it comes to profitability, one of Amtrak’s main three services is not like the others. While routes in the Northeast Corridor make a decent profit and individual state corridors just about break even, long-distance routes that traverse thousands of interstate miles and often connect remote areas suffer an indecent loss. Rep. Bill Shuster, chair of the House Transportation committee, suggested it was time to cut these routes loose.

“We’ve tried to impose this on the nation and it doesn’t seem to be working. We talk about rural areas — I come from a rural area, and 98 percent of the people have cars, people aren’t clamoring to get on trains and travel the United States. They have other modes to do it.”

I have a confession to make – I love trains. I would gladly give up the convenience of a car while on vacation to ride the rails. But, I agree with Shuster because his response to the situation is logical. Amtrak’s long-distance routes lose, on average, $111 per rider, while the Northeast Corridor makes $20 a head, and state routes lose about $11. The state routes could be fixed with some fare adjustments. Long-distance trains did carry about 4.75 million riders in 2012 (which is an increase, btw), but they cost more than a billion dollars to operate, and stood more than $500 million in the red.

The article posted makes a three-way argument for not dumping the routes.

Ridership on those long-distance routes is increasing and the class as a whole had its best ridership in two decades in 2012. The Texas Eagle (Chicago to San Antonio) jumped 13% and the Empire Builder (Chicago to Seattle and Portland) rose nearly 16%. The Midwest High Speed Rail Association and the National Association of Railroad Passengers are calling for service upgrades (longer trains and more frequency), infrastructure improvements (track and station design changes to reduce travel time), and new equipment (a fleet more suitable to overnight rides), concluding that “lack of service, not lack of demand, is what limits usage.”

System map

The advocacy group argues that these trains run in a region where intercity air and bus service is decreasing and that long-distance trains offer a service that’s fundamentally distinct from air travel. They also complain that government should pick the winners and losers:

Goals like “operational self-sufficiency,” “profit” or “minimize federal operating support” are neither reasonable nor sound public policy objectives. Their effect is to block improvements needed to modernize the nation’s intercity passenger train system and rejuvenate our increasingly expensive and dysfunctional transportation system. The driving purpose should be to harvest the public benefits that trains produce for the communities they serve and for the nation as a whole.

Social reasoning, while making folks sound compassionate, should carry less weight than finances when federal subsidies are involved. Boardman himself made a fiscal case for keeping money-losing long-distance trains in service. Once you cut back on long-distance service, it becomes prohibitively expensive to add it in again because freight trains that use the extra track room place a premium on it. Which brings me to the third phase of this analysis.

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