Why can't amtrak turn a profit
August 6, 2012 11:53 AM   Subscribe

Why is Amtrak not profitable despite massive subsidies? And just how environmentally friendly is Amtrak?

I'm planning to do a lot of long-distance Amtrak trips in the upcoming year and at first one of the draws for me was the fact that its been advertised as an environmentally friendly way to travel. Upon doing some research, however, it turns out that Amtrak is mostly run on diesel (electric is mostly in the NE corridor), not to mention the amount of food presumably wasted. So not as environmentally friendly as one would think.

And with the recent splash across the net of how Amtrak can't even make the "easiest profit" as indicated by major food losses, I'm even more curious now. I've heard bits and pieces of how Amtrak is constantly on its deathbed and heavily dependent on government subsidies, how it was only supposed to be a temporary organization, and how part of the reason for its inefficiency is its bloated administration.

I'd love to hear thoughts about this, but more specifically, I'm looking for well-written articles on this subject (the un-profitability of Amtrak). Also, sources on how "green" Amtrak really is since running on diesel is only part of the equation since I suspect that Amtrak generates quite a bit of waste. But well-written articles on the benefits of Amtrak are also welcome as well since I've already booked my tickets and would love to hear those benefits too :)

posted by bluelight to Travel & Transportation (64 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Not sure exactly why, but I'd like to point out that very few passenger mass transit systems are profitable. And the ones that are are in high density cities in Asia.
posted by Mercaptan at 11:57 AM on August 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

The idea that publicly operated railways are "supposed" to be profitable makes no sense to me.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:57 AM on August 6, 2012 [26 favorites]

@sidhedevil: well I guess since after buying my incredibly expensive tickets, seeing train bedrooms that sell for over $1000 get regularly sold out, and having seen the prices they charge for food on the menu...you would think that they'd somehow be making money at those prices...
posted by bluelight at 12:01 PM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Short answer: The decisions that are made are not made with the view of being profitable. It's very easy to lose money. You have to do a lot of things right, and relatively few (relevant) things wrong, to consistently earn a profit; that's why so many businesses go out of business so fast.

Also note that there are few consequences to Amtrak (or the Post Office, or Social Security) being unable to remain self-sustaining. Sure, congressmen and fiscal conservatives will gripe, but note how long Amtrak has survived, and how much its executives make, despite having been totally dependent on subsidies for so long.

I'm not arguing (here) that this is a bad thing - only that you need either positive or negative reinforcement if you expect performance improvements on a given metric, and Amtrak has none to speak of.

(To put it another way: it's for the exact same reason that elite-level basketball players rarely graduate from college.)
posted by SMPA at 12:02 PM on August 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Rail travel is actually incredibly cheap if you calculate by hour. The $1000 bedrooms you're talking about are designed to sleep a whole family.

You should actually read their financial reports. I did recently; it was very interesting.

And it's important to remember that Amtrak isn't a company. It is, essentially, the government (the government owns all its stock). It is a hodgepodge of former private companies, but largely it leases rail lines ("Outside the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak contracts with freight railroads for the right to operate over their tracks.")

The 2011 report (PDF) shows a few things:

* Amtrak’s total revenue increased to $2.7 billion for fiscal year 2011, which was an increase of 7.7% over fiscal year 2010

* Total expenses were $3.9 billion

* $1.9 billion of those expenses were salaries, wages and benefits.

A lot of those other expenses are structural or technical; they are capital improvements for the company, such as building bridges and upgrading railway. I will also point out that now every major US airline has gone bankrupt as well.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 12:05 PM on August 6, 2012 [13 favorites]

1) Why should a public service be profitable? I shudder to think the state the world would be in if the police and army had to be profitable. Piratical looting would abound.

2) "Wasted" food can be used to generate electricity and/or as compost in a field. I don't know if they actually do do that, though. In any case, it's certainly biodegradable. To the extent it isn't biodegradable (preservatives and plastic wrappers, etc), they presumably don't have a waste problem. You can keep a hot dog frozen for a loooong time.

3) Amtrak's environmentalism doesn't come mainly from its fuel source. It comes from the economies of scale. Your car would taken you N gallons to move you M miles (say). The train takes 100N gallons to move 1000 passengers M miles. That's a big win.
posted by DU at 12:05 PM on August 6, 2012 [10 favorites]

you would think that they'd somehow be making money at those prices...

Sure. Those expensive tickets for the train bedrooms and the NY-DC Acela tickets are themselves turning a profit and then the money made from them is being turned around to subsidize the New Orleans-to-San Antonio route.

Amtrak is a nation-wide network. While some tickets and some routes might turn a profit, the overall system costs money to keep in operation.
posted by deanc at 12:06 PM on August 6, 2012 [7 favorites]

In terms of energy use, Amtrak uses 2,435 BTUs per passenger mile, compared to 2,826 for air or 3,538 for car.
posted by zsazsa at 12:09 PM on August 6, 2012 [19 favorites]

This post has an excerpt from a DOE report on the fuel efficiencies of various modes of transportation. It quotes Amtrak as using 2,650 BTU per passenger-mile and air travel as using 3,261 BTU per passenger-mile.

Planes in recent years have been very full, which is bad for comfort but good for energy efficiency. Passenger railcars in the USA are also required to be built far heavier than elsewhere in the world, which also increases their cost as US-specific equipment must be used.

On preview: the post uses 2006 data, versus the improved 2009 data on Wikipedia.
posted by akgerber at 12:13 PM on August 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Train In Vain. Europe and Asia have figured it out, so why is the American rail system still so unspeakably awful? GOOD hops aboard a transcontinental train to find out.
So in 1971, Congress and President Nixon relieved the rail companies of the burden of moving people, eventually forming the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, more commonly known as Amtrak (which is an only slightly less awkward moniker than Railpax, its original incarnation) to take on the losses associated with passenger rail. Though the company is entirely owned by the U.S. government, funded at the government’s discretion, and has its leadership appointed by the president and subject to Senate approval, it still has a mandate to achieve profitability and financial independence. In essence, it is a private company wholly owned and operated by government bureaucracy. Nixon’s aides figured Amtrak would only last a few years.

…The company, too poor to own nearly any of the rails that it runs on, operates on borrowed infrastructure, using tracks owned by private freight companies who are legally bound to let Amtrak roll on their rails, but little else. Meaning that when a freight train needs to get by, Amtrak waits.
posted by zamboni at 12:14 PM on August 6, 2012 [10 favorites]

I would just add that food is not really the easiest sell, since all major Amtrak train stations are in urban centers and they're generally well-stocked with convenience foods of all types. (Even my suburban Amtrak stop is close to several restaurants and coffee places.) I travel Amtrak every couple of months and I've never, ever bought food because I can walk on the train with a complete lunch, snack, and multiple beverage options. My parents take the overnight auto train every year and I think they do buy dinner but they also bring snacks and stuff on board; they don't mind the prices. So the prices are high in part, I imagine, for the staffing costs of a specialized car, the cost of the specialized car, which has no paid-for seats, and the economies of putting food on the go in a crowded space anyway...all for a consumer base that probably bought their coffee ahead of time.

I think the real thing to think about is how you would plan to get to your destinations otherwise. Is Amtrak more environmentally friendly than driving to the airport or taking a taxi? Are you comparing the train to Megabus or Greyhound? (Consider too the cost of those buses idling and being pulled in and out of service.) Will you personally waste less food if you drive or if you take food on board the train?
posted by jetlagaddict at 12:29 PM on August 6, 2012

Thanks for the great links everyone.

About environmentalism: I would like to hope that Amtrak is green and sustainable and I'm all in support of introducing transportation alternatives to the automobile, however, I'm now always skeptical of that term 'green' since it's used so widely in marketing and there's always more than meets the eye.

I'll start some digging around after I get off work, but I was looking for articles that play the devil's advocate; how non-green is Amtrak? Sure you can say that food can be turned into fuel but does Amtrak really do that? Saying that food is biodegradable doesn't mean that they don't have a waste problem. I mean, look at how much food Americans throw away everyday. Does that mean we're not wasteful because food decomposes over time??

Also, its good to have the numbers for per passenger mile. I will have to click around to see how its broken down. The fact that trains are a lot heavier and that most of the trains are presumably older and more expensive to maintain/probably less fuel efficient is something I was concerned about so I would like to see how many variables were taken into account for that per passenger mile number...any thoughts? Since sure, if I were driving by myself I would have more carbon emissions than if I were a rail passenger...but what if I had five people in my car? Would the offset still be less or more?

And on preview, kindall hit a point I was going to make about police quotas; but as for "piratical looting"...I think that's what a lot of amtrak employees are being accused of with regards to food but I guess that could be expected in lots of places, not just Amtrak
posted by bluelight at 12:31 PM on August 6, 2012

This discussion might be helpful, as might this response from the Economist editors. The Economist editors seem to reaffirm what others have suggested above: that expecting a public railroad to turn a profit is missing the point. It's a public good, like schools or postal service. Frankly, I would much rather my taxes go to pay for railway infrastructure than to subsidization of commuter flights from small towns, aka "Essential Air Services". It would be both more cost- and energy-effective, considering that commuter trains can make multiple stops and pick up passengers, whereas commuter flights, of course, have only one departure and destination, so that a scheduled flight might, say, only a handful of people--a huge waste of fuel and other related transportation expenses.

Personal observation: as a long-time Amtrak rider who has ridden cross-country on many of the long-distance trains, it always drives me a little nuts when I see the anti-Amtrak contingent say that demand for long-distance train travel is lower than it ever has been. Because it's so clearly not, and Amtrak ridership statistics bear that out. Most trains are sold-out or nearly so weeks before departure. The problem is that there aren't enough trains, which is compounded by the fact that the ability to go as fast as the tracks allow is very frequently hampered by the need to yield to freight trains--freight companies own the lines on which Amtrak runs, and they get priority. So passenger trains are often stuck waiting for twenty or thirty minutes or up to an hour or more while a very long, slow-moving freight train transfers from one line to another.

Some lines are worse than others--I've spent five to ten hours extra (no kidding) on the Texas Eagle line, for example, which had hourlong delays from Bloomington, Illinois, to south of Dallas-Fort Worth, and the Cardinal, while a fun ride through gorgeous country, is often late and never manages to make up all the time it loses. And yet, despite these delays, the trains are often packed from end to end. A dedicated track, high-speed or not, would make these trains vastly more dependable and, possibly, more frequent, assuming that more engines and cars could be added as well.
posted by tully_monster at 12:33 PM on August 6, 2012 [12 favorites]

And on the general Amtrak customer experience:

Travelling the United States Cross-Country by Train: Asking the Government to Provide Transportation Services is Like Asking the Government to Provide Pretty Much Anything Else As Well
As someone who has travelled long distances by train at least six times, I have some advice that perhaps you will find useful. A series of fourteen train tips follows.
  1. Why the Hell the Train.
  2. Human Tetris.
  3. Train Throat.
  4. Don’t Touch My “Stuff.”
  5. The Very Young and the Very Old.
  6. Coach v. Sleeper: The Decision is Ea$y.
  7. Sleeping in Coach: Now You’re Talking My Type of Crazy.
    • Oh God Where Do I Sleep Where Do I Sleep
  8. The Dressing Room: The Money Room Where It All Happens.
  9. Power.
  10. Train v. Non-Train Food.
  11. Platform breaks.
  12. Train Love.
  13. California Zephyr.
  14. Chicago Union Station.
posted by zamboni at 12:34 PM on August 6, 2012 [8 favorites]

If you were to compute the overall balance sheet on passenger air travel, including subsidies and spending on infrastructure and bankruptcies and bailouts, you'd probably be stretched to see a profit. Warren Buffett once joked that "any right-minded capitalist who had seen the Wrights' contraption take to the skies in Kitty Hawk might have shot it down and saved investors 100 years of agony." Large transportation networks simply aren't sources of profitability, whether public or private: the only way to carve out a profit is to operate within the kind of constraints seen with a carrier like Southwest.

Amtrak is constrained both by the existing restrictions that give freight priority, and by the reluctance to invest in projects that would expand its network, so it keeps hobbling along, and the trains are by no means empty.

why can't a non-profit be run as well and as efficiently as a for-profit service?

Usually because non-profits have service obligations (in exchange for the privileges of non-profit status) that for-profit services don't. In some sectors, non-profits can shade those obligations -- there was a recent piece on how non-profit hospital groups were providing very little in the way of need-based waivers or discounts, which is supposed to be a condition of their status -- but that's not as easy in transportation.
posted by holgate at 12:36 PM on August 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

"I'm now always skeptical of that term 'green' since it's used so widely in marketing and there's always more than meets the eye."

It's great to be skeptical but a lot of these claims are really "we are greener than..." claims. So, when you compare to the alternative -- planes, buses, private vehicles -- there may be economies of scale which make the service "greener" without achieving some platonic idea of what it would mean to be totally green or totally neutral toward the environment.

To use the same metric on the profitability. As others have pointed out, the air industry isn't very profitable these days and many are bankrupt. Is our national highway system profitable? I'm not sure where profits figure in to your concern about using the rail system. Would it generate more revenue if more people used it? Undoubtedly. So what are the barriers to use? One is that it travels on freight rails. Freight takes precedence and so there are routes that are notorious for being late. If you're just lollygagging about the country, enjoying the view, then maybe being late is not such a big deal. But if you're trying to use it to commute between cities, a four-hour delay kind of takes over your day.

For Amtrak to turn around, it would require a major public investment. Without the public spirit for it, it'll continue to putter along and do the best it can with what it has.
posted by amanda at 12:39 PM on August 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh and one last thing: I suppose using the word 'profit' was not correct. I'm actually less concerned about that and more concerned with what I've been hearing (listening to NPR segments about Amtrak from 2001) about how Amtrak just a track record of losing ridiculously large sums of money.
posted by bluelight at 12:42 PM on August 6, 2012

Also, every restaurant in the developed world wastes food. Yes, even the ones that have great relationships with innovative local food banks. Wastage and spoilage is part of the "selling food to people for money" system.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:43 PM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is this still a question, or are you just complaining about Amtrak now?

If you'd like Amtrak to lose less money, use it.
posted by hwyengr at 12:47 PM on August 6, 2012 [10 favorites]

Oh and one last thing: I suppose using the word 'profit' was not correct. I'm actually less concerned about that and more concerned with what I've been hearing (listening to NPR segments about Amtrak from 2001) about how Amtrak just a track record of losing ridiculously large sums of money.

If you don't mind my saying so, I don't really understand what you're wondering about.

Amtrak operates at a loss. Many of the train routes are maintained out of legal obligation, and in part because congressmen wish to maintain passenger rail service in their districts. Certain routes and services (NE corridor Acela, dining, sleeper cars) are exploited for their popularity and demand by Amtrak allowing Amtrak to command high prices for them which supports the system.

If your question is why Amtrak loses SO MUCH money, when it could be losing LESS, I suppose that's a good question. I don't really know where the major "efficiency points" are that Amtrak would be able to take advantage of while maintaining its present levels of service.
posted by deanc at 12:47 PM on August 6, 2012 [7 favorites]

Amtrak is like the majority of all the world's public railways in requiring public subsidies to keep operating.

It's not like the people who travel on Amtrak would not be draining public coffers by driving instead; the additional traffic on highways, bridges, and local roads would cost public money.

Railways are part of a nation's transportation infrastructure, and thus cost public money to maintain.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:47 PM on August 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

I don't know if this really answers your question, but here's a counter-question.

Why does it matter to you, personally, whether Amtrak is profitable or not?

I would assume, for instance, that you'd rather shop at a local farmer's market than Walmart despite the fact that the latter is an extremely profitable business. Whereas farmers' markets are often nonprofits or even directly administered by the government.

Re the "green" thing, I think it's fairly obvious that train travel is more fuel efficient than either air travel or individual car travel. It may not be more efficient than bus travel, but are you likely to opt for Greyhound just because it's the most fuel efficient? How does train travel compare to how you would otherwise reach your destination?

Re food waste -- I'm no expert on Amtrak, but is there a reason you're fixated on this? Surely every food serving establishment in the US has food waste. Do you only cook at home due to your concerns about other venues' food waste problems? Keep in mind, too, that the average US household wastes 25% of the food it brings in. How do you measure up there? Chances are if you're an average home cook, you waste at least as much as Amtrak does, if not more.

Do the research on this, by all means. But it sounds like you have pretty unrealistic standards for Amtrak. If those standards mean you'll choose to stay home or get to your destination on human power alone, more power to you. But if they lead you to fly or drive, it sounds like your problem isn't greenwashing but green burnout.
posted by Sara C. at 12:50 PM on August 6, 2012 [4 favorites]

Part of the problem with Amtrak is that it often not less expensive than just about any alternative. It is not less expensive than driving, and often not less expensive than flying. Sometimes it is faster than driving, but not always, and the times that it is, the cost is multiplied by a factor of four or five.

So people look at Amtrak, and then decide to take something, anything else, instead.
posted by corb at 12:54 PM on August 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

@deanc: Yea, sorry if it's unclear. I've heard that one of Amtrak's goals is to break even, but it continues to fall short but a lot and this is partly in due to a bloated administration and because it has public/political obligations. I just wanted to hear more on that.

And I'm not bashing Amtrak. I don't own a car and I hope to continue to live in cities where I will never need to. Please don't confuse my desire to know both sides of the story with complaining or a personal vendetta against train travel.

This all matters to me because I am simply curious but also because I'm planning to do an eight month trip across the US by only public transportation. That means greyhound, amtrak, megabus, rideshare, etc. So I want to know the good and the bad, even though I'm personally advocating and in favor of all the of the good.
posted by bluelight at 12:58 PM on August 6, 2012

The thing about all forms of transportation is that they have various externalities which are very difficult to account for. So we fund the living crap out of bus transit systems, even while they have, in aggregate, abysmal fuel efficiencies per passenger mile, because we're both trying to mitigate traffic along those bus routes (because everything works better at lower traffic densities) and because we're doing income redistribution and all sorts of other things.

Ferries are another not terribly fuel efficient transportation option that we subsidize for a lot of reasons, ranging from reconfigurability to costs of bridges and other infrastructure to emergency preparedness.

With buses and cars especially it's very hard to pull out the costs and impacts of the roads.

So, yes, rail has some set of externalities which is different from automobiles and trucks, and public funding of rail, as it is of all transportation modes, is partially an attempt to balance that out. Hell, if you go back to the rail barons of the 1800s, they took out huge public loans, siphoned off much of the money through construction subsidiaries, and when the rail companies went bankrupt and drove the country into the horrendous recession after recession (or one long one that lasted for decades, depending on how you count) their personal fortunes were eerily close to the amounts that the railroads defaulted on. And I'm sympathetic to the notion that Stanford is a very prestigious public university...

The question is not "is Amtrak losing money": Our roads lose lots of money that isn't accounted for in, say, gasoline taxes (let alone health costs and deaths from "accidents"). The question is "is the public funding making our transportation system more efficient?". Or something closer to that.

You're going some place: If you put 3 people in a car, it's hard to get more immediately energy efficient (maybe Greyhound and other long-distance bus operators do). But then the greenest thing to do is to stay home, and, taken to extremes, then the "greenest" thing to do is to kill yourself and take as many people as you can with you, and... yeah. Does taking the train make you happy? Go for it. Should you lobby regarding public policy on railroads? Lemme know if you come to any conclusions, I've spent quite a while looking into transportation systems and feel like I could spend a decade or so more doing so before I got to the point where I could form reasonable opinions.
posted by straw at 1:03 PM on August 6, 2012 [8 favorites]

Actually, this report suggests that the most ecologically sound choice is bus travel, although it's not always particularly enjoyable. But the Union of Concerned Scientists considers rail travel consistently preferable either to flying or to driving by car.

I notice there was some kind of House of Representatives hearing on Amtrak and food waste/overcharging last week. The Republican congressman leading the charge was expressing outrage that a hamburger on an Amtrak train cost $9.50 while one at McDonald's cost $1. (I've had both. Maybe the Amtrak burger is overpriced, but it's definitely better.) This is puzzling, because that's how much I've paid regularly at concessions in airports for a similar sandwich, and no one ever seems to express outrage about that. Somehow, it's OK if private enterprise does it.

I hate to introduce politics into this discussion, and please don't let this comment derail the thread into angry general political wrangling, but it does seem lately that whenever a conservative complains about government fraud and waste (from voter ID to Solyndra), there's an ulterior political agenda afoot, because the fraud accusations never seem to turn out to be founded, and legitimate fraud charges against corporate interests, meanwhile, are ignored or shouted down. Maybe there's something to Rep. Mica's claims, but color me skeptical in the meantime.
posted by tully_monster at 1:06 PM on August 6, 2012 [10 favorites]

Re whether Amtrak is less expensive than X or Y other option.

I'm actually in the process of organizing a trip across the country.

So far, it's looking like Amtrak might be more expensive than flying, because I have frequent flyer miles I can use. That said, if I were paying full price for my plane ticket, the costs would be roughly comparable. The major difference is that Amtrak will take four days, and thus I'll have to feed myself for four days. But then I'll have to feed myself for four days, regardless.

Amtrak is definitely cheaper than driving cross-country, no matter how you slice it. An Amtrak ticket from New York to Los Angeles is cheaper than just the gas would be, even in a fuel-efficient compact car.
posted by Sara C. at 1:08 PM on August 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Don't forget that driving (both cars and buses) is relatively cheap because drivers don't pay for most of the infrastructure that they use—or rather, they pay out of general taxation that's not specifically linked to owning and using a motor vehicle.

My permanent home is Massachusetts, home of the Central Artery/Tunnel Project, which ended up costing over five times the initial estimate of $2.8 billion (yes, billion), and which I and my fellow taxpayers will be paying for until 2038. That was a big project, but it's only one project in one major US city. This site suggests that total governmental spending on highways in the US (construction, operation, and other expenses) ends up at well over $150 billion per year. Vehicle excise taxes, registration fees, and fuel taxes do not come anywhere near covering those costs, and based on my experiences driving in the US recently, we should be spending more to keep our roads properly maintained.

If bus companies had to finance their share of the road infrastructure, they wouldn't be turning a profit unless they raised ticket prices substantially, and private passenger cars would be far more expensive to operate. Daniel Gross's 2008 Slate article on the subject addresses that point, though it's far from the last word on the subject.

As for the greater cost vs. driving or the bus: on a train, you can get up and walk around. Seats are generally a lot more comfortable than in all but the most luxurious buses or cars. That's worth a lot for me. Last December I flew from Paris to Chicago, took the El downtown, walked to Union station, and then took the train to my hometown (Kalamazoo) for a holiday visit. Sure, Amtrak does a horrible job handling holiday crowds, and I could have rented a car at O'Hare and driven, and it might have cost me less. But spending those hours relaxing in a train, vs. dealing with traffic on I-94 after a transatlantic flight? Well worth it. On the trip back, I could use the time for reading and writing.
posted by brianogilvie at 1:24 PM on August 6, 2012 [13 favorites]

I'm sitting on an Amtrak train right now using the Amtrak provided wi-fi. I roundtrip one day a week from San Diego to Burbank via the Surfliner. (Beautiful route by the way, right along the Pacific Ocean.)

It's not a question of profit, but a question of community benefit. When I think of the community benefits of this route, I consider:

- There are 100 seats in this train car and seven cars on this train. Every seat is full today. That means there are a slew of cars not clogging Interstate 5. It's not just the gas and infrastructure costs of car travel. It's the horrible congestion of those roads.

- The Amtrak train connects to the LA city light rail Metro, San Diego light rail Metro and Coaster, and Inland Empire routes on the Metrolink. Oh, and gobs of buses. That allows much greater employment employment opportunities to residents of those areas.

- Even with the "Amtrak goes last" policy it's faster to travel via the train during rush hour.

- Train travel provides travel options for seniors and people with disabilities who are unable/uncomfortable driving.

Yes, I understand that the Surfliner route which is pretty popular (San Diego, Disneyland, LA, Santa Barbara) subsidizes less used routes. That drives my ticket price up a bit, but it's still cheaper than driving. It's worth it to me to subsidize routes in other communities because a robust transportation infrastructure is a public good.
posted by 26.2 at 2:11 PM on August 6, 2012 [7 favorites]

Long distance train travel in the US has never been profitable on its own. Even in the golden age of rail travel, before cars and airplanes became practical, passenger travel was highly subsidized by the postal service. People are really the worst kind of cargo. They demand a smooth ride, cannot be packed tightly, and tolerate delays even less than perishable foodstuffs.
posted by ckape at 2:11 PM on August 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

I hate to introduce politics into this discussion, and please don't let this comment derail the thread into angry general political wrangling, but it does seem lately that whenever a conservative complains about government fraud and waste (from voter ID to Solyndra), there's an ulterior political agenda afoot, because the fraud accusations never seem to turn out to be founded, and legitimate fraud charges against corporate interests, meanwhile, are ignored or shouted down. Maybe there's something to Rep. Mica's claims, but color me skeptical in the meantime.
posted by tully_monster at 1:06 PM on August 6 [1 favorite +] [!]

I am generally skeptical that Democrats support Amtrak out of their wish to maintain a public benefit for everyone. Rather, it seems that keeping Amtrak afloat is motivated by a desire to keep their constituency employed that would otherwise vote for someone else on Election Day if they lost their jobs.
posted by otto42 at 2:34 PM on August 6, 2012

Is the national staff of Amtrak really big enough that losing their votes would be such bad news for the Democrats?

I think this might have been a big deal 50+ years ago when railroad workers were thick on the ground and the railroad industry touched more Americans' lives. Especially since, back then, the semi-sketchy relationship between union labor and the Democratic political machine was actually relevant.

In this day and age I'm pretty sure that the few remaining members of railroad unions probably vote across the spectrum and not as a bloc. If said bloc would even be meaningful considering how few railroad workers there are nowadays.
posted by Sara C. at 2:51 PM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am generally skeptical that Democrats support Amtrak out of their wish to maintain a public benefit for everyone. Rather, it seems that keeping Amtrak afloat is motivated by a desire to keep their constituency employed that would otherwise vote for someone else on Election Day if they lost their jobs.

That's the strangest thing I've ever heard. As the majority of Amtrak's rail lines run through the rural south, southwest, and midwest, I find this somewhat difficult to believe. Amtrak has 20,000 employees. By contrast, the post office has 574,000, and the military (not counting civilian employees and contractors) has 1.5 million active personnel.
posted by deanc at 2:54 PM on August 6, 2012 [6 favorites]

Remember also that you vote with your dollars. Sure, Amtrak is less than ideal in terms of fuel efficiency, pollution, etc, but increased demand for rail service can only help bring more (and better) rail service.

Assuming travel by car is out for reasons of fuel use and plane for reasons of fuel use and GHG emissions, you are left with rail or bus for long distance travel. Buses are great in some ways, but for long distance travel, they aren't nearly as comfortable as trains. If we want to give other people an alternative to flying, we'll need more trains, not more buses. Trains also can be made much more fuel efficient, while buses probably can only be made somewhat more fuel efficient. Trains can also be made much faster, while buses cannot. Vote with your dollars for the system that you want to expand and improve!
posted by ssg at 2:55 PM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, when you take the train or a bus, someone is driving you, allowing you to read a book or look out the window or whatever. When you drive, you have to drive.
posted by goethean at 3:01 PM on August 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also, its good to have the numbers for per passenger mile. I will have to click around to see how its broken down.

The study that the numbers are from has more data. For Amtrak, they give an average of just 21.8 persons/vehicle, and for cars, 1.55 persons/vehicle. Unfortunately, there is no data for intercity bus service.
posted by zsazsa at 3:04 PM on August 6, 2012

Yes, I really doubt that Amtrak persists because of the fear of losing votes from its 20,000 employees! Far more likely is the fear of losing votes from the people who think that developed nations should maintain mass transit systems, who are likely to number in the millions.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:08 PM on August 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

There is no other reason for Amtrak to persist. It is a service that has to pay people to use.

At various times in the past, Amtrak has charged less to go from NYC to Vermont then it charged to go to Springfield MA (it's the same line, but vermont is another 60 miles north.

In any case, a myriad of special interests butter the Democrats bread. 20k Amtrak employees, 584k post office employees, however many GM employees, huge army's of local, state, and federal employees that rely on tax revenue for their income.

To suggest that Repubs Are motivated to pass laws only to appease their benefactors and deny that the Dems have the same intentions is not realistic.
posted by otto42 at 3:29 PM on August 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

otto42, you don't seem to know very much about Amtrak or how rail travel (or any other long distance travel, or economics in general) works.
posted by Sara C. at 3:33 PM on August 6, 2012 [11 favorites]

As to why passenger rail is usually not profitable, it is because transportation systems - along with other public goods like fire coverage, police, national defence, flood control, education, street lighting - are prime examples of market failure.

You can read the market failure article or google the term for more info, but market failures are, in short, areas where the 'free market system' just plain doesn't work. The incentives are all in the wrong direction. So you either get a system that is profitable but doesn't serve all the functions we need it to do as a society (in the case of the transportation system, it would cherry-pick serving all of the profitable routes and leave all the others entirely unserved) OR it provides the service the rest of the economy needs to function while losing money hand over fist.

Amtrak is in a very uncomfortable position sort of halfway between those two extremes.

The other huge reason services like Amtrak requires subsidies is that its largest competitor by far--road & highway travel--is hugely, hugely subsidized.

Roads & highways are (nearly) all built and maintained by tax money. So, a huge, huge ongoing subsidy. Without those multiple hundreds of billions of dollars of annual tax subsidies, the road & highway industry would collapse rather instantly. Yet we never hear the same kind of talk about our federal highway system that we do about Amtrak. Nobody even pretends like the system needs to be made profitable somehow.

The usual reason given for that is, "Roads and highways are paid for by fuel taxes. So they are entirely paid by user fees. And the equivalent would be, all Amtrak costs paid by ticket fees!"

Two responses to that:

1. Why in the world is it "fair" that all fuel taxes get diverted entirely to roads and highways? In a "fair" system we would have a general tax on fuel sales - certainly equal to sales tax levied on general sales in those states & cities that have a sales tax - and this sales tax on fuel would entirely go to the general fund and pay for all the general things that taxes pay for. None of it would go for roads and highways. And then on top of "fuel sales tax" you would add an additional fuel tax that would completely cover the entire cost of all roads and highways.

In that case, and only in that case, could you fairly claim that automobile drivers are paying the entire cost of the road and highway network and say that "roads and highways are not subsidized".

Or to put it another way around, Amtrak would be "self sustaining" in the same way roads and highways are self sustaining if we merely took a huge sector of our tax revenues--maybe all the taxes related to railroads and transporting goods--and earmarked that sufficiently large amount strictly for Amtrak. That's exactly what we do for roads and highways.

2. Even leaving that aside, fuel taxes don't even come close to paying the actual, full cost of our road and highway system in the U.S. The current estimate is that fuel taxes would need to be raised by about $1.00 per gallon to cover all of those costs.

This is not a new or radical conclusion--everyone who has looked at the situation comprehensively has come to the same basic conclusion.

To answer your question more directly: It is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to break even or make a profit when your main competitor is hugely subsidized.

And another, similar answer: You can't just look at a company like Amtrak in isolation - it must be compared to other similar and competing industry in terms of subsidies, public support, and so on. How profitable would the automobile industry be if the government weren't busily building roads and highways - how profitable would the airline industry be if governments across the country were not building and maintaining airports - and so on.
posted by flug at 3:35 PM on August 6, 2012 [14 favorites]

otto42, you seem to be missing the following points:

All nations in the developed world, with very few exceptions, provide government subsidies to their mass transit systems, including railways.

Many US voters feel that the US should offer public amenities comparable to those of other developed nations.

Therefore, Amtrak is popular with many US voters, as it is one of the government-subsidized public amenities comparable to those offered by the world's developed nations.

Occam's Razor suggests that the perpetuation of Amtrak is far more likely to be due to the millions of US voters who believe that the US should provide a baseline of public services than to some imagined influence of its employees. 70 to 80 percent of US voters who self-identify as Democrats want nationalized healthcare; why does it seem so odd that an equally high percentage of Democratic voters would support nationalized railway service?
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:37 PM on August 6, 2012

I am generally skeptical that Democrats support Amtrak out of their wish to maintain a public benefit for everyone.

Of course you are. You wouldn't be able to demonize your opponents if you thought they might actually stand for something that benefits someone other than themselves.

Count me as a Democrat that supports Amtrak out of a wish to maintain a public benefit for everyone.
posted by hwyengr at 3:45 PM on August 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Occam's Razor suggests that the perpetuation of Amtrak is far more likely to be due to the millions of US voters who believe that the US should provide a baseline of public services than to some imagined influence of its employees

I think it has less to to with "the millions of US voters" than with the significant number of Senators who, given equal representation of their otherwise sparsely-populated states, support continued Amtrak service through the rural expanse of the USA. These regions benefit from an economic subsidy via continued rail service that would otherwise be non-viable. In exchange, these Senators and representatives grant a "political subsidy" to keep Amtrak going in the regions where it serves as a crucial piece of transportation infrastructure.
posted by deanc at 3:45 PM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


So there's actually basically three different types of Amtrak service and essentially three different systems. The first is the Northeast Corridor. This is the only right of way that Amtrak ones (almost all of the right of way DC to Boston, and from Harrisburg to Philly). This is the segment most competitive with air travel (it has similar travel times from downtown to downtown and is priced accordingly). This is the segment that usually breaks even on operating costs, and there is rarely talk of getting rid of this, even in the worst times.

Then there are the state supported routes. These are the regional lines in places like California (the Surfliner from San Diego to San Luis Obisbo via LA), and the Pac NW (Vancouver to Eugene), and a ton more. The states where these services run usually run several times a day (from 2 a day in North Carolina to 22+ in California). These routes largely wouldnt run without the state subsidy.

THEN there are the long distance trains. These are usually the ones that get highlighted for poor efficiency, because, as you could imagine, they tend to be pretty expensive to run. These are the ones with dining cars, sleeper cars, and pricing that is often pretty low (compared to the Northeast Corridor for example). THey require a lot more staff and the frequency (once a day) is low enough that you dont get some of the efficiencies you get when you get increased ridership. These lines, however, cross the nation. They are often the only intercity access that some rural communities have, especially as Greyhound (private operator) has cut its routes back tremendouly, and those are often really, really slow. These routes are often politically difficult to cut, since you have to cut the entire line (not stopping at a town doesnt really save that much money), and they again are often critical access. I have taken most of the crosscountry lines, and you realize that most people that cheap intercity travel via plane is only a luxury that people that live in a handful of airplane hubs have. Flying out of small and rural airports is often out of reach of many people, and a once a day train through Rugby ND may still be preferable to driving 6 hours to Fargo Airport (still not a cheap flight!). This is largely supported by the federal support to it.

So there you go - the nationalwide network enjoys nationwide support because of the access that each part of the network provides. But it really still is a criticla part of our nation's infsstructure (you'll really see this when you talk to people on the long distance trains)
posted by waylaid at 3:47 PM on August 6, 2012 [6 favorites]

[Do not start an argument about Amtrak. Please answer the OPs question and don't turn this into a bad political post. Thanks.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 3:50 PM on August 6, 2012

OK so I think this thread is getting a bit unorganized and that is probably my fault. Just to clarify: I don't mean to intertwine Amtrak's business model with environmentalism. I really meant to ask two separate questions (in retrospect maybe I should have asked them separately...):

1. What is up with Amtrak's business model because they seem to be having trouble breaking even.

2. What is up with Amtrak and environmentalism.

Flug's and waylaid's answers are pretty much the closest things I was looking for for an answer, at least to #1. (other people were helpful too, I'll go through and mark best answers afterwards)

And for the record, even though I don't think this relevant at all (but I feel that certain people do), I am FOR public transit. I will be taking tons of Amtrak trains. I'll be giving them over $1500. So telling me to either give them my money or stay home/stop complaining really doesn't help answer this question at all.

Also, even though I want to retract my statement about profitability (because it seemed to detract from the conversation...I think people became fixated on it) I'm partly through the 2011 Amtrak report that RJ Reynold linked and it says in the foreword:

"The National Railroad Passenger Corporation (“Amtrak” or the “Company”) is incorporated under the District of Columbia Business Corporation Act (D.C. Code section 29-301 et seq.) in accordance with the provisions of the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970 (P.L. 91-518)....The Company is operated and managed as a for-profit corporation providing intercity rail passenger transportation as its principal business."
posted by bluelight at 3:59 PM on August 6, 2012

I'll start some digging around after I get off work, but I was looking for articles that play the devil's advocate; how non-green is Amtrak? Sure you can say that food can be turned into fuel but does Amtrak really do that? Saying that food is biodegradable doesn't mean that they don't have a waste problem. I mean, look at how much food Americans throw away everyday. Does that mean we're not wasteful because food decomposes over time??

I don't really get why this is an issue. Restaurants and grocery stores waste more food than Amtrak. Trains have a very limited storage area for food, so they don't bring in a bunch of items and hope to make a sale. They replenish it at particular station stops. In the cafe, most of the food is prepackaged- if they run out of the roast beef, you buy the turkey sandwich instead. In the dining car they know exactly how many people they will be serving because you need to make reservations. No restaurant has the same level of certainty that the kitchen on the train does. They don't make a bunch of meals and then throw them away. They refrigerate what they don't use, like any other kitchen. The vast majority of the food waste is generated by passengers that don't eat all their food. that is not Amtrak's problem.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:05 PM on August 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

how non-green is Amtrak? Sure you can say that food can be turned into fuel but does Amtrak really do that? Saying that food is biodegradable doesn't mean that they don't have a waste problem. I mean, look at how much food Americans throw away everyday. Does that mean we're not wasteful because food decomposes over time??

This seems like a pretty odd line of questioning. Amtrak's "greenness" is based on its fuel efficiency, and to a lesser extent on the NEC on its use of electricity (which at least on some parts of the route comes from hydroelectric and nuclear stations) rather than fossil sources.

I don't think they have ever really claimed to be particularly green in other ways. They may have recycling containers in the cafe cars, but that's about it. They use paper cups and plasticware, same as just about any other chain coffee shop in the country. Much of the food comes prepackaged, etc. They're neither better nor worse on that front than a meal eaten just about anywhere else in the country, e.g. at an airport or on a plane. But I don't think they've ever indicated anything much different.

If you're really that concerned about wasted food, you can always bring your own on in tupperware, I guess. But food waste seems like an issue that is probably not even close to on their radar screen, not any other major transportation provider's, at least that I'm aware of. Except, perhaps, insofar as the airlines have stopped wasting food by just no longer serving anything...

One further note: one big reason that many rail proponents, myself among them, are fans of Amtrak isn't just because of their current service offerings (which are a mixed bag at best), but because rail transportation is fundamentally more efficient and offers significantly more room for improvements than other transportation options. Looking at BTU/passenger-mile only tells part of the story. Airlines and long-haul buses don't have a lot of low-hanging efficiency improvements left. Passenger rail, as implemented in the US, is nowhere close to being tapped out efficiency-wise, which makes it pretty interesting, given that it's already better per pax-mile than air travel.

If you assume that the cost of energy (and petroleum in particular) is going to increase in the future, then having a passenger rail system is only going to become more important. Air travel is fundamentally tied to the price of refined petroleum products in a way that trains aren't. And all that without even thinking about the environmental reasons for eschewing the idea of burning a lot of kerosene in the upper atmosphere.
posted by Kadin2048 at 4:13 PM on August 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

To more directly answer your request for research and articles on this general topice, the chapter "Transportation Cost Literature Review" (PDF) from Transportation Cost and Benefit Analysis:
Techniques, Estimates and Implications
gets to the heart of some of the questions you are asking. Though the chapter doesn't address Amtrak costs specifically or directly, those costs and 'inefficiencies' of Amtrak travel are going to be similar to those found in other national rail systems, which are quite directly addressed in the chapter.

Just for example, one research studenty comparing certain external costs (pollution, CO2, noise, accidents) for three modes in the EU finds those costs are: car $0.06/mile, electric train $0.015/mile, aircraft $0.037/mile.

Another study funds that external costs per vehicle mile driven in the U.S. amount to $0.15 per mile. (These "external costs" are quite a lot more comprehensive than the external costs listed in the previous student, and amount to the sum of all costs *besides* the direct travel costs, like the cost of the car, car maintenance, the fuel, the insurance, parking costs you pay, the cost of the roads and maintenance done by cities, counties, and states - see the linked article for details.)

Yet another European study summarizes five other studies that show that external costs per mile of road travel are about 5X those of rail travel.

None of these give you a direct/exact answer to your question but at least they have some definite facts and figures you can use to think about your questions. The introduction to the chapter is especially valuable--he talks in detail about the different purposes, perspectives, and methodologies of the studies and what you need to be thinking about to get valid comparisons going.
posted by flug at 4:21 PM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

OK I will stop baby sitting the thread after this:

@oneirodynia and @kadin2048: yes both of you bring up very good points. Food isn't really the issue I am trying to pinpoint..and it was probably not a very good example at that. What I was trying to get at is the whole picture. Like amtrak is better per passenger mile than air and car as indicated by the numbers and probably a bit of common sense, but I was wondering if it fell short in other areas like food preparation or waste disposal. Like how environmental is Amtrak in all aspects?

And let me address why that is important: ...it's not. I'm just curious. No really. I have no hidden agenda other than curiosity. I think some people are hung up as to why I want to know but maybe my life is just so boring that I wonder about these things. Don't mean to raise people's hackles.
posted by bluelight at 4:25 PM on August 6, 2012

bluelight, you're asking a question that is essentially unanswerable which is why it simply sounds like you have some ax to grind with Amtrak. If passenger load is good, then what about food? If food is also good, then what about trash? What about bio-waste? Community benefit? If all that is good why isn't it profitable?

To answer that you'd need to have some prioritization criteria. Are you more concerned about environmental impact or profit or something else.

The whole picture of any entity as large and complex and interstate railways is contradictory. If you can't provide your evaluation criteria and weighting, the question becomes unanswerable.
posted by 26.2 at 4:34 PM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Why does Amtrak have trouble breaking even? For the same reason that other national rail systems have trouble breaking even: it isn't a priority. Keeping fares comparatively low is a bigger priority.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:43 PM on August 6, 2012

@Sidhedevil: Yup. Fares need to be comparatively low to compete with comparable modes of travel. In the NE US for example, train travel is competitive with air travel and is a premium mode of travel, hence the prices people will pay for faster travel with the Acela (and for NYC to Boston and NYC to Philly and NYC/DC to Philly, Amtrak is usually the fastest for downtown to downtown and often cheaper especially when airport taxis are taken into account.
posted by waylaid at 5:02 PM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

"The National Railroad Passenger Corporation (“Amtrak” or the “Company”) is incorporated under the District of Columbia Business Corporation Act (D.C. Code section 29-301 et seq.) in accordance with the provisions of the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970 (P.L. 91-518)....The Company is operated and managed as a for-profit corporation providing intercity rail passenger transportation as its principal business."

@bluelight: Amtrak is a for-profit corporation where all stock is held by the US Government. There's a lot of reasons for this and that it's not a federal agency itself, but it does preserve some indepedence (although its leadership is presidentially appointed)

There's a great book called Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service that is both well worth the read (covers EVERY Amtrak line and tells a narrative history of passenger rail) and goes over the history and current status of Amtrak and rail in the US. Can't recommend it enough and its non-wonky enough to recommend to my intellectual but non-transportation interested family and friends.
posted by waylaid at 5:12 PM on August 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Why does Amtrak have trouble breaking even? For the same reason that other national rail systems have trouble breaking even: it isn't a priority. Keeping fares comparatively low is a bigger priority.

And then this cycles back to the question of other modes of travel. If you paid the true cost of owning and operating a vehicle in this country, suddenly the cost of a rail ticket might seem more affordable. Which points to the larger issue of this American idea of the "free market economy." There are myriad and many ways in which our economy is not at all free. It is pushed, pulled, subsidized, penalized, etc., etc.. So, yeah, your question is really broad and hard to answer.

But, on the "green" topic. I'm reminded of conversations that go on among people who practice "green" building. There's a group called LEED which awards buildings with Platinum, Gold or Silver status depending on how sustainable or "green" they are. The thing is, these buildings could always be more green. But under this system, you get points for certain things. So, let's say you're targetting LEED Gold. And LEED Gold says you need to have enough bike parking on-site for 25% of your users (forgive me, I don't remember exact numbers). Well, guess how many we will spec for the project? Exactly enough to get those points and move on. Maybe it suggests that we get a point for reducing overall energy consumption for lighting by 25% compared to a national average? We could put in even more energy efficient systems but if it pencils out to stop at a 25% savings then that's what we'd do. We could do more but it has an adverse effect on the bottom line. This can feel kind of demoralizing when you're on the inside trying to do a good job. On the other hand, without these benchmarks and rewards, you wouldn't see even that amount of effort. So, Amtrak may be "green" in its efforts but there has to be a balance (generally) in how far it can go for the dollar investment.

And I think it's so sweet that that Representative was wanting to subsidize the hamburgers on the train! What a guy!
posted by amanda at 5:18 PM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

regarding the environmental question - a lot of people are looking at the BTU/passenger mile cost. It's also worth looking at the lifecycle energy costs and carbon emissions (ie, capital construction and maintenence). Train travel does involve some pretty heavy infrastructre costs, thus, it's really worth spending the money on it when the travel corridors justify it (ie, California, NE Corridor, Seattle-Portland-Eugee, etc). However, as noted in a UCS report above, intercity bus service is really competitive (and is much more justified for areas with intercity travel needs, but not superfrequent service).

WIth that being said, for everywhere outside the Northeast, a small route in MI, and Harrisburgh to Philly, Amtrak doesnt own the track or has to maintain it, or deal with the dispatching - they just have to pay the marginal cost of operation for running on it (very minimal especially for a once a day train). Amtrak gets to do this because it was the deal the US Government struck with the railroad companies when the companies were trying to get rid of their common carrier obligations, which were sinking their overall businesses (which had largely shifted to freight) - the companies got to get rid of their responsibilities to carry people, and Amtrak got to runon their infrastructure.

For a more modern analogy, think about if airlines flew both freight and people, but flying people was no longer profitable and they just wanted to fly freight. They still couldnt pull up stakes and drop passneger routes just because they wanted to (and airlines have common carrier obligations too, so this is a pretty good analogy)
posted by waylaid at 5:27 PM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

There is no other reason for Amtrak to persist. It is a service that has to pay people to use.

I'm not trying to get into any kind of a tit-for-tat on issues like this, but since I've quoted studies above that document how much we are subsidizing private vehicle travel in the U.S., let's just compare the Amtrak subsidy with the private automobile subsidy in the U.S.

A common trip that I sometimes take either by car or Amtrak breaks down like this:

Car: 300 miles round trip, 15 gallons of gas. Costs:
  • $51.75 cost to me (fuel, including state & federal gas tax, which taxes pay about 40% of road/highway construction & maintenance cost)
  • About $110 additional automobile cost to me for the pro-rated cost of car ownership, maintenance, insurance, registration, property taxes, parking, etc etc etc. (This is based on the US govt figures for total vehicle operational costs to the user: $.555/mile. That figure includes fuel costs and taxes as well as these other ownership and maintenance costs and seems to be right on target for new-ish cars, but you might save 1/2 or even 2/3 of this amount if you drive an older car. The exact figure is not that important for this discussion so I won't say any more.)
  • $15 cost to local/state/federal govt ($1.00/gallon subsidy from general tax funds for road construction & maintenance, reference in article I linked above)
  • $45 external costs paid by local/state/federal govt plus random members of society at large ($0.15 per mile, reference in article I linked above)
Total private automobile subsidy: $60

Train: 300 mile round trip Costs:
  • $46 ticket cost to me
  • $20 govt subsidy of ticket cost (based on the numbers quoted above: Amtrak makes $2.7 billion of its $3.9 billion annual operating costs and the remaining $1.2 billion is subsidized)
  • $9 external costs paid by local/state/federal govt plus random members of society at large (based on the study quoted above, that external costs of rail travel per passenger mile are about 1/5 those of automobile)
Total Amtrak subsidy: $29

So for the very same trip the private vehicle trip is subsidized about twice as much as the Amtrak trip.

I could really get on my soapbox here, but I'll restrain myself to addressing one of your actual questions: One reason Amtrak isn't profitable is that the U.S. subsidizes the main alternative a lot more.

We could solve the problem of Amtrak unprofitability by chilling out and realizing we really should subsidize Amtrak about twice as much as we currently do in order to put it on par with the other transportation modes that we already subsidize.

Or we could cut our current subsidies to private automobile travel in half - which would raise the direct consumer costs of automobile travel enough that Amtrak could raise its ticket prices by a comparable amount and thus become profitable.
posted by flug at 5:36 PM on August 6, 2012 [17 favorites]

Another component of how green a form of transit is is the lifespan of the equipment. The average age of an Amtrak passenger car was 23.3 years in 2005. The average Greyhound bus is 9.4 years old. Forbes tells me the average passenger car age reached a record 10.8 years early this year.
posted by sepviva at 6:59 PM on August 6, 2012

If it helps at all, try to consider why Amtrak exists - because no one was going to run passenger rail anymore after the post-WWII railroad bankruptcies & reorganization. No one thinks they can make money doing passenger rail service for the entire United States; the only reason Amtrak keeps doing it is because there is sufficient interest in having passenger rail service at all, that the fact of its not being self-sustaining is irrelevant.

The way we pay for roads in the US, especially the interstate highway system, is very deeply flawed; the way we set them up killed the profitability of the rail system, and we're still about ten to fifteen years out from where we all will start seriously suffering for the messed-up highway structure (whereas rail is 40 years past where the roads hurt it.) You'll see the effects of infrastructure degradation locally quite a bit sooner if you live in certain places.

It's actually really interesting to contemplate whether a maintenance/development crisis on the highways or a crisis in fuel availability/cost will be the bigger part of the redemption of rail as an economic option.

I speak as someone who has lived about half of her life in one of the largest US cities not serviced by Amtrak - if I want to take the train to Chicago or New York, I first have to drive for close to two hours, or take a three-hour Greyhound trip after driving thirty minutes into the not-so-safe downtown of my city. When I was a kid and visited Fresno by rail from Los Angeles, I first spent a few hours on a bus, and boarded the train in freaking Bakersfield.

I also work in a transportation agency, and we haven't had the kind of investment we've needed - just to keep the roads we already have in halfway OK condition - in probably twenty years. No one I work with remembers a time when our "it's a really good idea" budget items got approved; there are some years when our "critical but not life-or-death just yet" items are denied. It's hard for rail to fight against that kind of budgeting, at least in the short run.

posted by SMPA at 7:37 PM on August 6, 2012 [4 favorites]

Wow thanks for the answers everyone, esp. those I marked as best answer. And agreed 26.2, I probably did not frame my question as well as I could have since I definitely don't have an ax to grind with Amtrak. I'll try to keep my questions more pointed and direct next time. Still, even if I were an Amtrak skeptic, I'm kind of surprised by the unnecessary and unhelpful snark/assumptions made in some of these comments...take your aggression somewhere else please? But I guess all the attention helped get a terrific turn out of really helpful answers so all's good.
posted by bluelight at 7:47 PM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


That's not a fair comparison. While rail vehicles do last longer than buses, the comparison you made is apples to oranges. A rail passenger car is essentially an empty shell - no engine, propulsion, etc. THis is why Amtrak and commuter rail cars last a long time - they're basically a car with seats in it and some electrical power (maybe A/C and heating). That's it. Far different and less complex than a bus with engine, drivetrain, etc. Most urban transit buses last about 12-20 years. Given that they are stopping and starting all the timeand often running in very rough conditions, this aint bad.

Also, a train takes far more energy to move even before you think about the lifecycle costs. They are MUCH heavier than a bus or car and correspondily take need more people for the benefits of moving a mass of people to come to fruition.
posted by waylaid at 9:36 PM on August 6, 2012

Railcars with motors can also last a very long time.
posted by akgerber at 11:04 PM on August 6, 2012

I'm kind of surprised by the unnecessary and unhelpful snark/assumptions made in some of these comments

I wouldn't take it personally. It's just that a lot of your questions happen to be the same questions that a lot of conservative drown-the-government-in-the-bathtub types tend to ask rhetorically, as a sort of dog whistle / concern-troll, and many people who are on the other side of the argument are highly tuned for them. Griping about Amtrak's unprofitability and expressing doubts about its environmental impact are two favorite conservative talk radio whipping boys. I don't think that's how you're asking them, but it's why many people are unusually sensitive. Frequently when these questions come up in conversation IRL, it's by people fueled on AM talk radio who really aren't interested in the answers and just want to hurf-durf about Obama.

It's nice to have someone asking the questions in good faith, though.
posted by Kadin2048 at 5:05 AM on August 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

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