When the Numbers Lie, Bad Things Can Happen.

One of the most frustrating problems rail advocates face is the continuing misinformation about Amtrak that appears in the media. Most of that comes from individuals who simply don’t know what they’re talking about. Some, however, comes from sources and people who should know better.

For instance, the Pew Research Center recently reported that Amtrak trains are subsidized by something like $32 for every passenger carried. Of course, all the knee-jerk anti-rail ideologues pounced on that and, predictably, used those numbers to renew attacks on Amtrak’s long-distance trains.

The mistake the Pew people made was in not understanding Amtrak’s accounting system. Just one example …

More than half of the depreciation reported by Amtrak is along the Northeast Corridor (Washington-New York-Boston), but those costs are allocated equally throughout the entire system.

I suppose one can defend that as acceptable accounting practice, but it’s certainly not fair to do so, then claim those numbers show that the long-distance trains are losing that kind of money.

At any rate, one phone call to NARP, the non-partisan, non-profit National Association of Railroad Passengers in Washington, would have cleared that up and ultimately resulted in much better information for the public.

The Pew organization has a good reputation, but their failure to make that phone call meant their research generated misleading information that was repeated by all major news services throughout the country and it unquestionably resulted in a set-back for more and better passenger rail service in the U.S.

And that’s a damn shame.