What Brookings found is not surprising. There are only two routes that do better than break even — New York – DC and New York – Boston — and even those only make money on an operating basis, they don’t cover their capital costs.
Brookings finds that the operating profits (if the federal government subsidizes capital expenses) would cover the top 26 Amtrak routes (which carry 80% of passengers). They recommend having affected states cover the losses of other routes if they want those to survive.
I’m not sure how it would no longer be a subsidy if the states are paying rather than the federal government, but the supposition is billion dollar operating subsidies may no longer be in the cards for Amtrak. So how can they save the service that people actually use, while recognizing that the Chicago – California routes (Chicago Zephyr and Southwest Chief) are unaffordable. Fifteen routes account for over $600 million in annual operating losses.
Put a different way, Amtrak’s long haul operation is bleeding the entire system of the funds it needs to maintain shorter and medium-length routes where the passengers are.
The Hoosier State Line sees about 100 passengers a day on average. Four routes see fewer than 300 per day (one of which loses nearly $40 million per year on an operating basis).
The Brookings report is accompanied by an interactive tool that shows passenger count for each station and for each route, as well as Amtrak’s financial performance by route, so you can see how your favorite Amtrak service fares.
Train aficionados will hate this report, because it’s grist for the argument to kill of Amtrak’s long haul service (or at least that will be their fear, that if the federal government doesn’t subsidize it that affected states won’t pick up the slack).
But it’s at least as fair to characterize it as an argument to ‘save’ Amtrak. By claiming that the federal government should fund capital costs, rather than suggesting that the Northeast corridor’s ‘profits’ should go into its own tracks, they can argue there are enough profits to cover 80% of service — thereby taking the bulk of Amtrak off the table for cuts. I read it as a paper that’s looking for ways to shield Amtrak from a hostile budget environment, but that the technique only goes so far and they can’t credibly protect it all.
And truly, Amtrak’s little-used long haul routes, which meander through towns that were historically important for Congressional reasons rather than ridership purposes, are hard to defend when budget battles are even threatening air travel through major cities.