Amtrak Ridership Up, Deficit Down.

At a NARP luncheon a few years ago, I was chatting with an Amtrak executive who said, albeit facetiously, that Amtrak is the the most profitable money-loosing national railroad system in the entire world. He was right then and even more so today. Amtrak has just released their numbers for the fiscal year just ended and once again ridership set a new record, with 31.3 million passengers, which is roughly 400,000 more than the prior year.
Furthermore, total revenue was $3.2 billion and that, too, is a new record that reduced the operating loss to $227 million, which is $78 million less than last year and the smallest number since 1973. Putting that another way, Amtrak recovered 94-percent of it’s operating costs from the fare box and other income.
 That’s all well and good, but these numbers suggest something else to me … that the American public really wants and needs passenger trains. As proof, I cite the fact that ridership continues to increase despite the fact that the Amtrak experience is, in a number of ways, less pleasurable than it once was.
For one thing, the equipment is old. Most of the Superliners, both sleepers and coaches, were built in the 1970s. They have been rebuilt and refurbished several times since, but are really starting to show their age. Locomotives are aging, too, and breakdowns are again becoming more frequent. In fact, Amtrak routinely stashes spare locomotives in various locations around the country as emergency replacements.
The cut-backs, most likely noticed even by occasional rail travelers, include more and more unmanned stations, loss of the nice little perks for sleeping car passengers, and in Amtrak dining cars, fewer menu choices and less-than-adequate staffing. It’s all been done to reduce costs and bring Amtrak closer to break even, but the problem is, an overnight train ride is just not the unique memorable experience it was even ten years ago.
The frustration, of course, is that Amtrak’s good financial showing will not impress most of the Republicans in Congress, who will continue to pinch pennies with Amtrak’s pitiful subsidy, effectively preventing any serious expansion of rail service.
And that’s rich in irony, because almost all of the proposals for increased frequencies and new routes are for red states which would be of direct benefit to the people who voted for those very same Republican legislators. Go figure.

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