Lies, Damn Lies, and Amtrak Accounting.
For years, there has been a simmering controversy surrounding Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, which refers to the Boston-New York-Washington portion of the Amtrak system over which the sorta-high-speed Acelas operate.
Amtrak says the Northeast Corridor is profitable. The media reports that it’s profitable. Politicians believe it’s profitable. The public doesn’t care if it’s profitable as long as the trains keep running.
The trouble is, the NEC may be popular and may even be essential, but it is not profitable.
A lot of people who know a great deal more than I about Amtrak and its accounting system claim that Amtrak cooks the books to make the NEC look better than it really is. A lot better. As an example, in calculating the NEC’s bottom line, they don’t include anything for the cost of deferred maintenance or the inevitable future infrastructure projects, some of which are massive. But if you simply take revenue from ticket sales and subtract the actual cost of running the trains … well, yeah … then there’s a profit.
But of course it’s not that simple. For instance, the routes of several of Amtrak’s long-distance trains include the 225 miles of the NEC between Washington and New York. For the two Florida trains, the Silver Meteor and the Silver Star, plus the Crescent and the Cardinal that part of their run is only about 15-percent of their entire route. However, Amtrak apparently allocates a disproportionately high dollar amount to those trains for the relatively few miles they travel on NEC track. In other words, Amtrak’s accounting arbitrarily inflates the operating cost of the long-distance trains, thus making the NEC look good by making the long-distance trains look bad.
In fact, many people—those who really understand this stuff—say that a more equitable accounting system would show that the long-distance trains actually make money. Unfortunately, it would also show that the NEC loses money. Lots of it.
Here’s the problem with this accounting deception: It seems to have helped provide support for at least two possible moves by the Trump Administration: (1) stop subsidizing Amtrak because the NEC is supposedly operating at a profit, and (2) pressure Amtrak to discontinue many or even all of the long-distance trains because they’re supposedly losing a lot of money.
We should all know in a few weeks just how bad things are going to get. Meantime, taking nothing for granted, the NARP staff in Washington is organizing and will be ready to mobilize the membership. This really sucks.