Getting Right Down to Basic Rights.
I really hate it when people casually throw ridership numbers around: this train is up 2 percent; that train is off a half percent. We all do it and, most of the time, it’s all (just for fun) kapakahi and a lot of ho’omalimali. (Very free translation: ass-backwards and bullshit).
Here’s what I mean, with two hypothetical examples.
Joe is going from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to New Haven, Connecticut, where he goes to college. He boards train 646 in Harrisburg and gets off at Penn Station in New York, transfers onto a Northeast Regional train and in less than two hours, he arrives in New Haven. For this he paid $67.
Then there’s Chuck. He’s traveling from Galesburg, Illinois, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, on the Southwest Chief to see his elderly mother. He boards the Chief at 5:45 in the afternoon, enjoys a nice meal in the dining car about the time they cross the Mississippi River, and has a good night’s sleep in his roomette. They get to Albuquerque on time at 4:00 the next afternoon. The cost of Chuck’s ticket was $692, more than ten times what Joe paid.
OK, so which passenger is of greater value to Amtrak? Well, it sure looks like that would be the guy they hauled all the way to Albuquerque, but well-meaning people get into real arguments over questions like that.
For example, what did it cost Amtrak per mile to transport those two guys? What did it cost per hour? But wait . . . Amtrak made a little extra money on Joe because he bought some food in the cafe car, but the three meals that Chuck had in the Chief’s dining car were included in his fare. Here’s another wrinkle to factor in: Amtrak counts Joe as two passengers even though he paid just one fare.
Among the insiders, tempers really flare when there’s a media report that refers to what it costs Amtrak “per passenger”. Just a damn minute, say the people who know something about all this, the real question is what it costs “per passenger mile”. And on and on it goes.
My father-in-law used to say, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” But it sure seems like that’s what we’re doing—getting bogged down in the details and forgetting that Amtrak is literally the only practical, affordable public transportation for about a third of all Americans . . . the only means of visiting family, or of getting specialized medical treatment, or of just taking a break and getting away? Isn’t the real question … whether or not all Americans should have the right of access to affordable public transportation?
The confusion re “costs” was created by Amtrak not following GAAP accounting standards to identify, correctly isolate, and categorize all costs. One has to wonder why oversight over this issue has languished over the years by Congress, GAO, FRA, and DOT to tolerate such aberrations in GAAP definitions. For example:
1) Why is the common nomenclature in transport disregarded, as it is only “costs per passenger mile; never but on Amtrak, “cost per passenger.” Apparently, this veils the higher costs of the Northeast Corridor vs. the lower costs of the long distance trains that do not require extensive infusion of infrastructure investments, as Amtrak pays the Class 1 railroads for track access, dispatching, etc.
2) How could the Northeast Corridor ever be declared profitable before including the extensive infrastructure costs, that surely tanks any concept of profit.
3) In essence, the target should not be on the long distance routes; when you appropriately add in, per GAAP, the infrastructure costs to the Northeast Corridor, that sector obviously eats up more funding than both the long distance and state corridor sectors.
4) This “shell game” has also included Amtrak’s annual subsidy to the Northeast commuter lines pegged at $300-$500 Million for many years now, until Congress finally called it out late 2015.
5) As well, the non-GAAP approach to incorrectly dumping most of the corporate and Corridor overhead costs on the non-Corridor sectors. This new definition to GAAP has played havoc not only in the dis-investment in the long distance trains, but in the opaque pricing to the states; dis-incentivizing any new or additional services at Amtrak’s “rack rate,” regardless of how many other trains use the depots, or the mere incremental track and dispatching cost to the Class 1 railroad.
To avoid the limelight of ProPublic stories as we incessantly see on fraud and waste in Afghanistan and Iraq, and to diminish the recrimination by enemies in Congress, the new management team for Amtrak in 2016 must insist on embracing the integrity of numbers and data to be incredible.
But if passenger numbers are up, chances are, the same kind of passenger already using that train is up. So it does tell something about people using a certain service. Of course, it’s not the only statistic that is important, but I wouldn’t discard this information entirely. Like with averages, it’s usefulness is limited, but not non-existing.
Amtrak seems to feel that they are attracting new customers to the sleeping car service because of the reduced fares. I guess the issue is, will there be enough of these new customers to make it all come out ahead. The improved food quality is also a factor. Amtrak now admits it was a mistake to require sleeping car passengers to stand in line for microwaved hot dogs and pizzas.
Of course, if you’re under way for more than say 12 hours, most people would want something more consistent than fastfood. I don’t mind ordering some pizza every now and then, but wouldn’t want to eat it every day. And even less more than once a day.