AMTRAK, THE nation’s passenger rail system, has, to use a cliched but nevertheless fitting expression, reached a crossroads. Nearly half a century after its formation out of the private sector’s loss-making intercity lines, the National Passenger Railroad Corporation is, in some ways, doing quite well. Carrying a near-record 31.7 million passengers in fiscal 2018, the system pulled in an all-time high $3.3 billion in revenue, with an operating loss of just $170.6 million. Though Amtrak accounted for less than 1 percent of all intercity passenger miles provided by common carriers (airlines and buses did the rest) in 2015, it is a vital transportation mode in the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, where Amtrak turns about half a billion dollars in profit annually and helps reduce airport and road congestion.
However, when you account for depreciation (wear and tear on its assets), Amtrak’s losses are much larger, requiring roughly $1.5 billion per year in subsidies from Congress. The system badly needs an expensive overhaul to both its rolling stock and aging infrastructure. With Congress in the initial stages of a new five-year Amtrak authorization bill, the corporation’s leadership has just produced a modernization program whose twin purposes are to make better use of federal dollars and to boost Amtrak’s earning power by meeting new potential demand. The heart of the plan is right-sizing the system: cutting back little-used long-distance routes, such as Chicago to San Francisco, which lost a combined $543 million in 2018, while adding more frequent service in growing regions such as the area between Atlanta and Charlotte.
Fiercely protected by the members of Congress through whose districts they run, the long-distance routes should have been trimmed long ago; unfortunately, Amtrak will once again face a difficult fight to trim them now. Perhaps even more significant, though, may be objections from the nation’s freight rail carriers, which own most of the tracks (outside the Northeast Corridor) over which Amtrak would have to run the passenger trains in its proposed more efficient, consumer-friendly system. Though legally bound to provide Amtrak preferential access to their track, freight companies have historically interpreted that mandate very narrowly, arguing that the passenger trains don’t pay the true full cost of their track usage and interfere with the equally pressing needs of shipping and commerce. They have a point; even if its ridership were to double, Amtrak would barely dent congestion and carbon output, whereas freight rail takes the place of countless trucks that would otherwise spew diesel fumes into the atmosphere.
Congress should at last overcome the special-pleading of rural railway stops and help Amtrak eliminate its wasteful long-distance service. Then, it will have to weigh the legitimate demands of both freight and passenger users of the nation’s rail system with the goal of maximizing the value of each. If the legislation can induce or require freight companies to make even modest additional accommodations for Amtrak, the result could be a more sustainable passenger system, serving a small but necessary niche in the country’s transportation mix. Otherwise, this aging but valuable national asset may be headed for a financial dead end.