Monday, May 09, 2011


"35 years without a profit must qualify for some kind of record."

Amtrak Fail
Long time readers here know two things about me: I love trains and I think they are a failure. The problem is that while trains are nostalgic and romantic, they just are old technology. For freight, trains still work pretty well, but when it comes to carrying people, they are a huge failure.

Sure, they can get you from point A to point B, that's not in question. The problem is that trains cost so much to run that trains cannot charge people enough to turn a profit with passengers. For Amtrak, that problem is compounded by the fact that they own no rails and thus have to rent every mile from railroad companies.

Amtrak used to be pretty cheap to get around, but it has become as expensive as a plane ticket - and the plane flight gives you food and gets you there in hours, not days. When trains were luxurious and comfortable, that wasn't such a problem but the newest train cars have tiny airliner style seats and are about as luxurious as a Grayhound.

On the website, Amtrak admits their cost problems, noting that last year the train took in "approximately $2.51 billion in revenue and incurred approximately $3.74 billion in expense." Revenue including "government subsidies" by the way. Amtrak loses money every year. Every passenger rail system on earth loses money every year, from that light rail in your city to the Eurorail system. They all operate in the red. Amtrak has lost a billion dollars a year, every year, since 2000.

Mike Opelka quotes a Pew study at The Blaze:
The line with the highest per passenger subsidy—the Sunset Limited, which runs from New Orleans to Los Angeles—carried almost 72,000 passengers last year. The California Zephyr, which runs from Chicago to San Francisco, had the second-highest per passenger subsidy of $193 and carried nearly 353,000 passengers in 2008. Pew’s analysis indicates that the average loss per passenger on all 44 of Amtrak’s lines was $32...
The fact is, even with the subsidies, they can't charge people enough to make money because nobody would ride the train if it costs that much more than a plane ticket.

Part of Amtrak's problem is that because they rent rails, they always have to give way to more lucrative freight trains. That means you never get a straight shot anywhere, you have to sit as your train gets deflected to a spur to sit motionless for as long as a half hour while it waits for the freight train to clear. That means they're never on time, and what ought to take two hours can take three or more.

Another problem is that the service isn't that great. There are no stewardesses, the snack bar charges five times what the items are worth, the seating is lousy, the stations are usually ancient and while not as decrepit as they once were, still not real up to date, and almost always in the worst parts of town.

And to top it off, they have so few trains that they run them at poor hours. Taking a train somewhere means waking up at 4 in the morning or running late into the night. Often, some of the most beautiful, scenic parts of the journey are run during the dead of the night.

Its almost as if Amtrak is deliberately trying to make riding a train as unattractive as possible. For people to want to take trains, they have to be more attractive than a plane and "woo its a train" isn't enough. I really want trains to work, I'd love to take one traveling, and I don't like airplanes. The problem is, trains suck as bad as airplanes to ride these days and cost nearly as much while taking many times longer and dumping me in lousy areas.

That's just not a recipe for success. Even one of Amtrak's founders has figured this out:
The embarrassment of Amtrak has even struck a chord with someone who rallied for its creation. Anthony Haswell, founder of the National Association of Railroad Passengers and a person widely recognized as the inspiration for Amtrak, is not happy with the current state of the railroad’s affairs. Mr. Haswell opines on Amtrak in Red State Uprising: How To Take Back America
Amtrak is a massive failure because it’s wedded to a failed paradigm. It runs trains that serve political purposes as opposed to being responsive to the marketplace. America needs passenger trains in selected areas, but it doesn‘t need Amtrak’s antiquated route system, poor service and unreasonable operating deficits.
When the Founding Father of Amtrak calls it a ‘massive failure’ and states that the politicians involved are getting more benefits from it than the passengers and taxpayers, you would hope that someone in the Federal government would respond.

Washington did respond. Their answer to Amtrak’s problems? Spend more money. Throwing money at a problem rarely solves it. Amtrak’s losses have topped a billion dollars each year since 2000. But that won‘t deter the current administration from pushing it’s plan to spend $53 billion dollars over the next six years on questionable high-speed rail systems.
Which fifty-three billion was part of the "draconian" GOP cuts to the budget. They passed legislation that increased government spending, a new spending project, even while pretending they were trying to cut the deficit. Here's a clue guys: if you're trying to cut back on your spending habits, don't buy a new house. Of course, the Democrats wanted eighty billion and claim we don't have to cut anything so...

Amtrak is a leftist baby, it is America's version of Eurorail, and the left dreams of one day having the same system: buy a pass, go anywhere. The problem is you can fit Europe several times in the space America covers, and the distance between places people want to go is usually much further as well. I mean, people tend not to use Eurorail to go from Turkey to England, they use a plane if its that far.

But the dream persists, and the left wants Amtrak to be there no matter what, even if its a total waste of money.

To top it all off, Amtrak is a union shop, so getting any cuts or trimming anywhere is very difficult to accomplish. Engineers are paid nearly six figures a year because of this combination of public employee union and favored political position. Government run, public employee union staffed, with a politically appointed CEO and budget by congress. Hard to see how that could go wrong.

I love Amtrak, I ride it whenever I can but I recognize that its a massive failure that is unpleasant to use. When we're in the red by trillions of dollars its time to start looking at places that aren't working and cutting them back. That means a lot of lost jobs and lost dreams.

That's the sad part about all the waste and stupidity that's been going on in Washington for a century or more. We have to cut to the bone because generations of voters kept sending generations of politicians to spend money wildly and now its going to hurt. People made their choice for decades, now we have to pay that price, before later pay an even greater one.

Maybe if we can get our house in order, some day we can have passenger rail again in America, or maybe someone will find a way to make them more cost efficient and make money, in which case the established railroads will do it instead. But for now, Amtrak is a luxury we just can't afford any more.


Bob Greenwade said...

This is totally fallacious.

First, the idea that trains have to make a profit is a fiction. If they could, Amtrak wouldn't exist; the service would still be run by the private railroads.

Roads don't make a profit. Airports don't make a profit. Both are paid for with tax money. In fact, one could fit Amtrak's entire budget several times over into the amount paid into either of those other two transportation modes.

Other countries recognize how important rail travel is, particularly for middle-distance travelers. The USA is well into the lower half of countries for investment in passenger rail on a per-capita basis. They know that trains run with much better energy efficiency than automobiles or airplanes, and that passenger rail service to a community creates jobs -- not just direct jobs through the service itself and connected businesses, but hospitality-sector jobs and many others.

Amtrak doesn't "own no rails," either. It does own its own tracks from Boston to Washington, where the Acela Express runs. Yes, the rest is leased, but the only other options are to either build a national rail network specifically for Amtrak, or have the government declare Eminent Domain and take it all.

No airline that I'm aware of "gives" food. It's an extra charge, and from what I've been hearing it's about the same as the $3-5 I tend to pay on the train for a simple meal.

For cross-country trips, airlines are more efficient. For middle distances of under 500 miles, trains work better, when you add in how long it takes to get from the front door to your seat. Even many airline executives favor Amtrak for those distances.

Amtrak does not "have to give way to ... freight trains." By Federal law, passenger rail is given precedence. A couple of the rail companies have tried circumventing this law, or even breaking it outright, but that is what the law is.

Stewardesses? I've never used the service myself, but in some cases you can ask a porter to bring you something in your seat. But why do that when you can sit at a regular table?

The snack bar prices I've encountered are only a tad higher than what I find in a typical convenience store. What, are you having to pay $4 for a pair of cookies, or something? $10 for a hot dog? That would be "five times what the items are worth."

This is the first place where I've seen complaints about the seating on Amtrak trains. Someone else has posted that a coach seat on Amtrak measures the same as business class on an airliner.

This is also the first I've heard of stations being "almost always in the worst parts of town." Rail stations are generally in the downtown area of a city. Every Amtrak station I've been to has been in a good part of town, and I've never heard of a specific one in "the worst [part] of town."

Service at most major cities runs during the day. There are a couple of exceptions, most notably Spokane, Indianapolis, and Salt Lake City; and, yes, if there were more trains then everyone would have access to trains at convenient hours. In Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Dallas, New York, Boston, and just about every other major city the trains arrive and leave during normal business hours.

And of course the scenic areas are often run in the dead of night. If the trains arrive and leave major cities during normal business hours and take more than a day to arrive, this is normal.

The problems with things happening at night would indeed be improved by running each long-distance train twice a day. I'm among those who support that, but it's not going to happen if we let the system collapse.

All of this makes me wonder if you really have ridden Amtrak as much as you say.

Maybe you enjoy going through the multi-layered and intrusive airport security, waiting a half hour to board, and then waiting a half hour once you're aboard to get started, and then taking a trip where there really isn't any scenery to speak of.

eric said...

I remember when Oklahoma resumed Amtrack service after a 20+ year absence... the state government had lobbied heavily for it, the towns along the rotue were excited, it was going to be a big deal...

And then everybody got on the train and headed out of the state, to Dallas/Ft Worth, to spend their money.

Now the politicians and Chamber Of Commerce folks don't like Amtrack much, but it is too popular for them to call for shutting it back down... instad they are trying to expand service north to Kansas and Nebraska, hoping to bring some travelers in to OKC. I bet KS and NE are smarter than that!

Anonymous said...

There are trains running other places than the Northwest, Bob. Go look at the train stations elsewhere some time.

Manny Trejas said...

"Amtrak does not "have to give way to ... freight trains." By Federal law, passenger rail is given precedence. A couple of the rail companies have tried circumventing this law, or even breaking it outright, but that is what the law is."

Have you ever actually ridden a train? They're constantly being pushed to a side rail for freight lines. There's no federal law requiring freight to give way, where on earth did you read that nonsense?

Philip said...

For Amtrak, that problem is compounded by the fact that they own no rails and thus have to rent every mile from railroad companies.

Amtrak owns the Northeast Corridor.

Unknown said...

Wow! I never thought this topic would get people so worked up. I love the passion.

docbill said...

I think most of the complaints are valid. You can't compare Amtrak to airlines, as the experience is not comparable. Yes, Amtrak is always to downtown. Unfortunately in many cities that is the worst part of town. I find it crazy that usually there is no connection from the train station to the local mass transit. Many times I took Amtrak from Kalamazoo MI, to Chicago, so I could catch a flight. There was normally both drug dealing and prostitution near the train station in Kalamazoo. In Chicago, the big problem is I would have to cart my luggage out onto the street and walk several blocks to catch a subway. While I can testify it was not the most dangerous part of Chicago, venturing out on those streets alone in the dark was very scary. If I had a cell phone at the time, it would have been pre-dialed 911 waiting for me to press send.

eric said...

"I find it crazy that usually there is no connection from the train station to the local mass transit."

That is one of the things I like about the Ft. Worth station. When you get off the Amtrack you are at a central bus station hub, and also at a waypoint for the small train that runs between Dallas and Ft. Worth. There are many hotels and one big performance hall within walking distance. Free trolleys run from there to the Ft. Worth Zoo and to the Stockyards.

It is a pretty good set up. We've taken Amtrack to Austin and San Antonio a few times, and in those places the train unloads in the middle of a barren part of town where you just pray your taxi arrives before anyone makes a move for your wallet.

Christopher Taylor said...

I tried to deal with some of the criticisms and points brought up here in another post, above:

Warren49 said...

When there is only a single daily train running across a long distance route that is several thousand miles in length, it stands to reason that about 50% of the route will have a schedule that is not convenient. Even in the days when there was significant train travel, many cities had trains that stopped in the middle of the night. The upside was that usually there were enough trains running so that there was also service during more convenient daytime hours.

Other than between Boston and Washington DC and a couple of lines in the upper midwest, Amtrak does have to lease track time from freight railroads. It is true, however, that federal law mandates that Amtrak be given priority for it's scheduled trains by the freight railroads. The freight railroads face fines if they intentionally do not adhere to that practice. That issue was recently reinforced by Congress. Exceptions are made for weather or accidents.

Many believe that Amtrak bleeds a significant amount of money from the government. The fact is that Amtrak accounts for about 2% of the federal transportation budget (a little less actually). Most transportation money goes to subsidize highways (in addition to gas taxes). Airlines have a hard time making profit even though they are heavily subsidized by federal, state and local governments. Remember, your local city or county probably paid for the local airport.

Amtrak has had record ridership for several years in a row. Most of that is from "corridor" service, which is shorter distances, often also supported by the states. Trains, contrary to this article are comfortable. On corridor routes, they are also often competitive to driving in terms of time and cost. It's too bad that people write this kind of stuff based on a train ride they took several years ago or on a ride they took on a less than convenient route.

Christopher Taylor said...

It is true, however, that federal law mandates that Amtrak be given priority for it's scheduled trains by the freight railroads.

Not according to the Amtrak official I spoke to, and not according to my experiences riding Amtrak. They absolutely have to give way to freight.

Anonymous said...

I have been on Amtrak several times sitting on a siding and watching a freight train pass by. I have been told by a conductor that Amtrak has to wait for freight trains.