When Is a Subsidy Not a Subsidy?

We continue to read about how Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor is making money and how the long-distance trains are a money pit. That constantly recurring bit of misinformation is inevitably followed by a ominous prediction about the long term future of passenger rail in the U.S. if Amtrak doesn’t get it’s act together and at least break even. Of course all this badgering comes from the Republicans in Congress, many of whom are philosophically opposed to subsidizing Amtrak at all.
You seldom see or hear anything about all the commuter trains that operate on the Northeast Corridor—trains using Amtrak’s tracks and the Amtrak electricity coming through Amtrak’s catenary. In an article from the current edition of Progressive Railroading, there was this one-sentence which I found quite startling:

 “ . . . Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, where it owns 363 miles of infrastructure, is the nation’s busiest railroad with 2,200 daily high-speed, commuter and freight trains.”
That sentence was forwarded to me this morning by a knowledgable reader. He said he has made a very rough count and of all those 2,200 trains operating up and down the Northeast Corridor every day, only about 100 are Amtrak trains. All the others are trains belonging to commuter railroads serving Washington, Philadelphia, New York City, Boston and the cities in between.
It is true that those commuter railroads pay Amtrak for the use of the Northeast Corridor, but it is universally accepted as fact that those payments don’t come close to being fair shares of what it costs Amtrak to maintain that infrastructure.

 And here’s what that means: Amtrak has been getting roughly $1.5 billion a year as a subsidy from the federal government. But the reality is that many millions of those federal dollars should, in fairness, be considered “pass-through subsidies” for the commuter railroads by the federal government. Frankly, I’ve never thought of it in those terms before and it’s a revelation. I wonder if it would make a difference if we could get the Congress to see it that way.
My knowledgable reader concluded his email this way: “If that’s what we as taxpayers (through our representatives) want to do, fine and dandy, but stop blaming the long distance trains for Amtrak’s big subsidy needs.”