Destroying the village to save it is still a bad idea: Amtrak Corridors and Long Distance

The commentariat is going yet another round on Amtrak, in advance of provisions of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA) taking effect this year. This time, it’s Henry Grabar in the Atlantic Cities (with the linkbait title “How Amtrak Could Become a Robust, Profitable Enterprise”), highlighting the difference between what is painted as “Good Amtrak”, which is made up of the routes under 750 miles that are subject to PRIIA’s state funding requirements, and the “Bad Amtrak” of long distance services of the National Network, which Amtrak has a political mandate to run. The short haul services, it is alleged, made a $46 million operating profit, while the long distance trains lost $597 million.

The problem — and in Grabar’s defence, it’s an easy mistake to make in going through the accountantese of Amtrak’s financial statements — is that the table he is reading (and republishing) is not the actual financial performance of these routes. Instead, it is the table of financial performance after state subsidies to routes that receive them. In truth, the only short haul routes that cover their own operating costs are Acela Express, Northeast Regional Boston-Washington, Northeast Regional Washington-Lynchburg, VA, Northeast Regional Washington-Richmond-Hampton Roads, VA, and Carolinian. The rest are either currently state subsidised (like the Chicago-St. Louis Lincoln Service, about to be state-subsidised under the terms of PRIIA (like the New York-Albany Empire Service, or are in imminent danger of discontinuation (two routes: the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State, and, very close to home, the NYC-Philadelphia-Pittsburgh Pennsylvanian).

Meanwhile, the long distance services don’t do quite so badly. While the point that they only make up 15% of total ridership is well taken, most routes have seen serious financial performance improvements in recent years, and many could do even better, but are stuck against Amtrak’s rolling stock shortage, a recent problem that is slowly being addressed, but not fast enough to lift some of the best-performing National Network trains, like the NYC-Chicago Lake Shore Limited and the NYC-Florida Silver Service, into black ink. There is fierce debate in railroading circles as to whether Amtrak’s rolling stock shortage will become acute before it’s addressed by new car orders currently in process. And of course, Amtrak’s best-performing route in dollars per train-mile is the sui generis, long distance Auto Train. Grabar never mentions it.

The larger point here is that the reduction of Amtrak into Good Corridors and Bad Long Distance is, well, reductionist. The most successful corridors are the densest segments of long-distance routes, and the most successful long distance routes overlap with the corridors. Both sides contribute to Amtrak’s impressive ridership growth. They may serve different markets and different purposes, but they reuse quite a lot of physical and human capital between them, and it makes no sense whatsoever to sacrifice one to “save” the other.

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