Amtrak Weaves a Tangled Web.

“The Northeast Corridor makes a profit, but the long-distance trains are big money losers.”
Do you buy that? The media does. Congress does. But you shouldn’t … because it’s wrong. In fact, if we could just once find our way out of all the weeds, a lot of smart people are willing to bet that the long-distance trains are actually making money!


The confusion starts when Amtrak releases a bunch of numbers and says—ta-dah!— the Northeast Corridor has an “operating surplus”. The media sees that and comes away thinking it means the NEC is making money. Then, taking it one mis-step farther, they figure (1) if the Northeast Corridor is making money, but (2) the entire Amtrak system is losing money, then (3) the long-distance trains must be the reason. See? You apply simple logic to a false premise, and the result is the exact opposite from the truth … and the truth is, the Northeast Corridor is not profitable.
Amtrak’s notorious accounting system is to blame. For the Northeast Corridor, it simply subtracts direct operating costs from ticket revenue and voila … we’re making money! But most of the cost to repair and maintain the tunnels and bridges and the tracks and overhead wires is not included. That’s like a farmer claiming he makes money selling his corn without counting the mortgage on the land or the $350,000 combine that does the harvesting.
By the way, it’s interesting that you don’t actually hear individual Amtrak executives claiming the NEC is profitable. They let the media do that. And members of Congress.
I’ll bet there are a lot of smart young staffers in Congressional offices who do the research and write the reports for their bosses and then think, “Why does that dumb bastard keep saying the Northeast Corridor makes money when I keep showing him that it doesn’t?”
For me, there’s a very simple bottom line to this entire discussion: Affordable public transportation is a basic right for every American. And for millions of people all across the west and mid-west, Amtrak is all they’ve got.