Amtrak's long-distance network

Does it make sense for Congress to continue investing federal dollars in Amtrak's money-losing long-distance routes when the intercity passenger railroad has so many other expensive infrastructure needs, such as the more profitable Northeast Corridor?

That's one of many never-ending questions related to federal spending on Amtrak services. The debate over the long-haul routes was rekindled in recent weeks when the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's subcommittee on railroads held two hearings as part of T&I's preparation for passenger-rail reauthorization legislation. (The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, which authorizes Amtrak, expires in September.)

At a hearing in May and at another last week, Subcommittee Chairman Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) had positive comments for Amtrak's NEC service, but questioned whether it makes financial sense to continue pouring federal resources into long-distance routes. Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman defended those routes. Even if they don't make a profit, they are the only long-distance mode of transportation available in some U.S. communities and people rely on them, Boardman has said.

And yesterday, leaders of the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) wrote to T&I Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) to ask that the committee focus on legislation that "will encourage and support improvement and expansion of the long-distance network." Revenue from Amtrak's long-distance network has grown 24.4 percent between fiscal-year 2008 and FY2012, and ridership also has increased. Those trends come in spite of unchanged capacity and aged equipment, and reflect "strong public support" for long-distance trains, NARP officials wrote.

The debate over long-distance Amtrak trains is the subject of this week's poll question on www.progressiverailroading.com. Let us know your thoughts on the topic by taking the poll or posting a response to my blog.

6 Replies

  • My wife and I want to take the train to Indy from Croton, NY because we can't do the airlines anymore. Hiwever with the lousy layover in Chicago, it is just too,discouraging. Schedules just are awful, outside the NEC.

  • In reply to Anthony Merante:

    Go to New York City & take the Cardinal to Indy . Good connection 3 times per week.

  • Amtrak should re-enter the freight business to operate long-distance trains to offset losses and possible profit. Amtrak should go to the Class 1's and offer their services to tap markets (team truck driver and Just in Time freight traffic) that conventional Intermodal service will never tap.  This was being explored prior to Amtrak exiting the freight business. Run quality on board long distance service, with approximate, but non-guaranteed schedules. Previously when Amtrak was in the freight business , some railroads perceived them as adversaries. The member railroads own Amtrak stock since 1971.  The member roads should receive a return on their investment and Amtrak should be weaned away from the Federal well , as well as the other modes.

    Long Distance service can be preserved and expanded , and the modal share of traffic that the rails handle can be expanded with an alliance between the freight carriers and Amtrak.

  • Julie, you stated that the Northeast Corridor is more profitable than long distance trains. As Don Phillips pointed out in this months issue of Trains magazine, "No form of ground passenger transportation anywhere on earth earns a profit using normal accounting standards of private business except maybe a couple of foreign lines." Also as he pointed out, "Acela does not make money. It loses money, big-time. What's more, long-distance train are money-losers but not big ones. If Amtrak calculated long-distance train financials the same way it counts Acela financials, most long-distance trains would be profitable." Comparing the corridor to long-distance trains is apples to oranges because Amtrak does not adjust cost evenly across the board just like Amtrak does not use normal accounting practices. I have heard this complaint many times in different publications over the years. They adjust the cost to make the corridor look good and long-distance trains look bad.

  • In reply to Clinchfield:

    Does this inffo solve your problem travel problem?

  • In reply to RonHill:

    Don Phillips is not the first to question Amtrak's accounting,especially as it relates to long-distance trains.

    Behind the long-distance national network is the issue of how to grow an energy-efficient, potentially fossil fuel independent, coordinated national public transportation network.  President Obama,called for intercity rail passenger service serving 80% of the nationa's population; but I have seen nothing but a small map with no details, priorities, or costs, nor did he provide information on how much of the population currently is reached.  

    My own opinion is that if 60% could be reached, popular support would drive state support for improvements and expansion to reach 80%.  Sixty-five percent of Illinois' population is served by Amtrak; and popular support has driven the state to fund improvements and expansion.  

    Most urban connections cross state lines; and the fundamental flaw for a natinal system is that many states have little or no service and relevance to gain public support.  More interstate routes, many less than 750 miles long, are needed for a truly national network.  Withdrawing funding to unload the cost of shorter corridor thains threatens the national network as much as the war against long-distance trains, even if this is a strategy to survive a draconian budget cut proposed in the House.  

    For instance, Illinois is upgrading the Chicago - Saint Louis route for 110 mph service that will shave an hour off current schedules while Indiana and Ohio have not cooperated in developing any more convenient service between Chicago and Cleveland than that provided in the dead of the night by long-distance trains.

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