Forget the Damn Break Even!

Year after year . . . hearing after hearing . . . in report after report, the complaint from Congress has been that Amtrak should at least break even. For years, that’s been the goal.

And constantly reaching for that goal is why fares have inched up, especially for sleeping car passengers. And it’s why my preferred dining car desert, a generous slice of cheesecake, was replaced by some kind of yellow pudding in a plastic cup. 

But hold on!  As Rail Passengers Association president/ CEO Jim Mathews pointed out at a  Congressional hearing a few days ago, the real issue is not that Amtrak loses money  . . . the real issue is that Amtrak generates money for the local economies in every big city and every small town served by one of its long-distance trains.

For years, I thought it would be fun and interesting to get off the Southwest Chief in Dodge City, Kansas, and spend 24 hours visiting the historical sites like Boot Hill and the local museum and have a great steak dinner. The next day, I’d get back on the Chief and continue on my way.

A couple of years ago, I finally did it. I reserved a room at a bed-and-breakfast in Dodge City. The owner met the train despite the early-morning arrival and he brought me back to the station the next morning to resume my rail journey to the  West Coast. I thanked him for the courtesy shuttle service, but he waved it off, saying it was part of his routine . . . that he met the train several mornings a week to pick up guests.

And that’s the point, isn’t it! 

Fourteen Amtrak trains a week stop at Dodge City—two trains a day, one in each direction. Let’s assume that three of those 14 trains bring guests for that B&B and that one of those will stay for two nights. And let’s also assume that the rate paid for a room at the B&B is $140 a night. That’s four room nights at a rate of $140 times 52 weeks and suddenly we see that the Southwest Chief is generating almost $30,000 a year in income for one small business in one very small town.

The Chief stops in 30 cities and towns on its route. And there are two trains a day—one in each direction. The numbers add up and get quite large very quickly.

I wonder if I can arrange to have someone from Congress call the owners of that B&B in Dodge City and explain that they’re cutting back the number of trains from 14 a week to six because Amtrak hasn’t been able to reach break even.