Amtrak: Big Nuisance or Vital Service?

Amtrak faces many of the same problems as urban transit: low gas prices, crumbling infrastructure, late trains, and declining service (Amtrak provided about 0.4 percent fewer seat-miles in 2017 than in 2016). Yet even as transit ridership is dropping, Amtrak ridership grew by 1.5 percent in F.Y. 2017. Moreover, ridership is growing in all three of Amtrak’s divisions: the Northeast Corridor, state-supported day trains, and long-distance trains.

Amtrak’s 2017 ridership growth was about twice the nation’s population growth, indicating per capita ridership is also growing. A lot of the new riders must have taken short trips, however, as passenger miles only grew by about a third of a percent.

Still, it is easy to overestimate the significance of Amtrak’s growth. Usage of many forms of transportation are growing. Domestic airline travel, for example, carries a hundred times as many passenger miles as Amtrak and is growing by 4 to 5 percent per year. Automobiles carry Americans 500 to 600 times as many passenger miles a Amtrak, and rural driving (the kind that competes with Amtrak) grew by 1.7 percent so far in 2017.

A former North Dakota state senator named John Andrist is one who overestimates the importance of passenger trains. He argues that freight trains are just a “big nuisance” while railroads in Europe are “vital . . . because they are people movers.” He has it backwards: it is here in the United States where railroads are vital, moving close to 40 percent of our freight, saving energy, and minimizing subsidies from taxpayers.

In order to move about 5 percent of passengers (compared with one-tenth of a percent in the United States), European railroads only move about 16 percent of freight. That puts a lot more trucks on the roads without taking all that many cars off the roads.

It’s easy to imagine a politician from New Jersey making the mistake of thinking that trains are still a vital form of passenger transportation. But North Dakota? Amtrak serves the state with one train a day each way that reach the state’s biggest cities in the middle of the night and don’t even go through the state capital.

An average of about 10 people a day get on or off each train at each of the seven stations in North Dakota, which is hardly vital. Amtrak isn’t even vital in the Northeast Corridor, where it carries only about 6 percent of the intercity travel between the cities it serves in that corridor.

The problem is that politicians such as Andrist, and the leaders of European countries, care more about what is visible than what is truly economically important. Passenger trains are more visible than freight, so government-owned railroads end up being devoted to passengers while private railroads are more likely to emphasize freight.

The Antiplanner’s hero, James J. Hill, is reputed to have said, “The passenger train is like a male teat: neither useful nor ornamental.” In fact, there’s no evidence he actually said that (the earliest reference I can find is to a 1951 humor book). But he did say that passenger train riders are “but a small, and the more fortunate class of the community” while almost everyone benefits from freight trains, so those who, like Andrist, would put passenger above freight do an injustice to the nation as a whole.

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12 thoughts on “Amtrak: Big Nuisance or Vital Service?

  1. prk166

    It would be cheaper for the taxpayers to buy these passengers bus tickets to places like Grand Forks or Fargo or Bismark to catch a flight.

    The Amtrak station in Grand Forks handled an average of 38 passengers per day.

    The passenger airport in Grand Forks ( GFK ) handled an average of 817 passengers per day.

    The Amtrak station in Grand Forks doesn’t handle freight.

    The airport at Grand Forks handled over 48 million pounds of freight last year.

    Devil’s Lake gets a sweet deal. They got $4million for their 6,290 passengers

    https://www.heitkamp.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/2017/4/heitkamp-fights-for-continued-essential-air-service-in-devils-lake-dickinson-jamestown

  2. Paul

    What I want to know is why do you want to kill Amtrak instead of finding out ways to make it work without everybody subsidizing it? I’m pro passenger rail and anti-subsidy, transit agencies shouldn’t get to burn billions on flashy light rail with flashy stations. Do you really want to ride a 50 passenger coach bus 2000 miles where you sit cramper than the most cramped coach on an airline? You want to ride like broke citizens of 3rd world contries in run down Coach buses with lavatories that are a glorified porta potty (if your lucky)??

    Amtrak is in a negative feedback loop – the less intercity riders, the less revenue, the less revenue for service improvements and innovations for the passenger cars, the less riders.

    You’re the executive a intercity passenger train company that piggybacks on freight main lines. You have X dollars at your disposal for service and capital improvements. What should you spend it on that will attract people to your service?
    -a fancy station on one of your routes?
    -overhauled trainsets with innovations that bring modern amenities (lie-flat coach seats modeled after business class on airlines, should be able to maintain same seat density).
    -a siding on one of your routes?
    -a 50 mile section of higher-speed track in Indiana?
    -attracting millennials?
    -overhauling your online booking system & integrating with popular travel sites?
    -doing everything in your power to turn the negative feedback loop positive?

    What do people remember most about a train trip? Their experience on the train itself. Not how flashy or fancy the train station was, not the 89 mile running speed on 5% of the trip, not the use of an extra siding.

    I want to see the day that Amtrak stands on its legs without needing a dime of subsidies from everybody else.

  3. Paul

    Amtrak is a vital service that needs to use its limited funds to improve the passenger experience on the train as a means to get its ridership and revenue into a positive feedback loop.

    Everybody on here wants Amtrak dead instead of implementing ways to make intercity passenger rail independent of subsidies.

  4. TCS

    Paul,

    Dallas to Austin, Texas, next Tuesday, one-way, refundable fare:
    Amtrak, $56, six and a half hours, one train
    Megabus, $12, four hours and fifteen minutes, four buses
    Greyhound, $15, three and a half hours, eleven buses
    Vonlane, $100, three hours and fifteen minutes, four buses
    Southwest Airlines, $225, fifty-five minute flight time, ten planes

    Not something I’d want to see happen, but just a thought experiment: imagine what US intercity bus service could be like with passenger/mile subsidies like Amtrak gets.

    BTW, ‘broke citizens of 3rd world countries in run down Coach buses’? Take a trip on Vonlane and get back to us on that.

  5. prk166


    Amtrak is a vital service
    ” ~Paul

    No, it’s not. The measly 38 people a day who use Amtrak in Grand Forks, ND can drive, take the bus or take a plane.


    Everybody on here wants Amtrak dead instead of implementing ways to make intercity passenger rail independent of subsidies.
    ‘~ Paul

    I can’t speak for everyone.

    I can point out that one can not support the existence of a government owned business and claim to oppose subsidies. Ownership is and leads to all sorts of subsidies. If you want to remain a virgin, you don’t rent a room in a brothel.

  6. Frank

    “You want to ride like broke citizens of 3rd world contries in run down Coach buses with lavatories that are a glorified porta potty”

    When I lived in Eastern Europe, I preferred to take the bus because the bus for intercity trips because the bus was newer, faster, operated more frequently, and was more comfortable. The bus usually had TVs to watch, too. The toilet was clean, and the bus made 15-minute rest stops along the way. Most people in the country preferred and actually took the bus.

    The train, however, which was operated by government, was atrocious. Cramped. Old cars. Noisy. No getting off of a stop. I took a narrow-gauge train once, which the locals called the “cowboy train,” and it was disgusting. The toilet had a hole going right down to the tracks. The toilet was metal and the seat was rusted and had a big turd right on it.

    Please tell me about your experiences with trains and buses in Second and Third World Countries.

  7. Sandy Teal

    Imagine the network of intercity bus transportation that could be had with half the subsidy of Amtrak. You could really see the country by taking bus on the overnights and awaking in a new city. So many major cities are 8-12 hours apart by bus, connected by interstates that are empty at night. Interesting how the SF to LA buses even slow down to make the trip eight hours of sleep rather than arrive early.

  8. Henry Porter

    Paul,

    If you kill the subsidy, you effectively kill Amtrak. Without a 50 percent subsidy, ticket prices would double and ridership would plummet. The only passengers who would continue to ride Amtrak trains at double the cost are the hardcore train buffs, rail heads and foamers who ride the trains not to get somewhere but to be on a train.

    If somebody doesn’t cover the huge losses, Amtrak ceases to exist.

  9. Henry Porter

    If all you want is to get from Point A to Point B, you have choices. But, if you’re a train buff, there is no alternative to a nostalgic train ride. Only a train will do.

    There are so few real train buffs that there aren’t enough of them to share the HIGH cost to provide rail service. So,….

    Enter taxpayer subsidies and trumped-up public benefits. With Amtrak, benefits are concentrated among a few while costs are dispersed among many…the hallmark of a boondoggle.

    So, if you’re a foamer, a triple figure subsidized train ride is worth fighting for. But, if you’re a taxpayer, a $3 a year tax isn’t worth fighting against. Politicians understand that. If they don’t, there are always lobbyists available to explain it to them.

  10. Paul

    I’m replying now because I have a life offline.

    Prk166
    “I can point out that one can not support the existence of a government owned business and claim to oppose subsidies. Ownership is and leads to all sorts of subsidies. If you want to remain a virgin, you don’t rent a room in a brothel.”

    I want to see Amtrak stand on its own without a penny of subsidies. I want to see Amtrak become a solvent, privatately owned company.

    On coast starlight, they devote TWO cars to “business class” which on two separate intercity trips I saw only a few passengers sitting in business class, what a gimmick. You’re right, only subsidies can keep business class cars that see less than a dozen farepaying passengers on most trips running.

    There are so many things Amtrak can implement & improve upon but Amtrak can’t/won’t do. Because of all the political appeasement they can’t/won’t innovate the experience on the train. Amtrak can have traditions alongside trendy/modern if that’s what it takes to change tracks to a positive feedback loop.

    Amtrak can attract more riders without changing a thing today if they marketed better to passengers.

    They can do so many things that would bring fuller trains on the long haul routes. It costs about the same to move 5 passengers as it does 500 in a trainset so they could take in the fares by a reverse pricing model where fares drop as departure time nears. Basically a reverse auction. Most who got on board with the low bids would spend some or all of their perceived/actual fare savings on-train which would bring in more revenue (especially on $10 personal pizzas heated in the microwave – but we’ll get to food in a bit). In order to get profitable you have bring revenue up while keeping expenses the same or less (finance 101 guys!)

    I agree with antiplanner that most of the food is subgrade. Just because you have a captive market doesn’t mean you can’t improve on quality and options. They need to stop sellling $6 microwaved hot dogs & $10 microwaved personal pizzas. They need to bring all the dining car food above Dennys quality at the very least. They need to Offer a set of menu items that are constant and available on all routes all the time. I understand they can’t serve everything so offer passengers the option to have food delivered (they can partner with doordash/Uber eats) to the next stop which is timed to arrive on the platform 5 minutes before the arrival of the train (if Amtrak feels like this would kill sales for its food they can charge a small flat fee for this) For all I care they could even re-box Dominoes pizza that is delivered to the platform and sell it onboard for $1 or 2 a slice while its hot if that will help bring in more revenue. Anything to get out of Subsidy Subdivision.

    Amtrak needs to do everything in its power to have more charters. A huge, untapped, annual charter oppurtunity I know of is for a temporary city of 70,000 people in the Black Rock Desert known as Burning Man. Say 1% of the Burners are foaming with money for a Burner Express Amtrak charter to the Gerlach (the nearest town with the nearest siding to Black Rock City (site of burning man)), 1% of 70,000 is 700, that is nearly two full trains using the long haul Amtrak consist with a capacity of 400 people. They could originate the Burner trains in Reno or if they’ll fill the seats originate in Los Angeles/San Jose/Emeryville/sacramento.

    These improvements are just a drop in the bucket, there are just soo many ways for Amtrak to become Subsidy-free.

    I’ve ridden greyhound and Amtraks thruway buses so I can say those bus rides are worse than the worst coach on an airline. At least on a jet you’re going at least 400 miles an hour so that puts a limit to how long you sit in coach, and you can flush the toilet and wash your hands with soap and water on a jet.

    Somebody mentioned Vonlane bus lines which doesn’t look like they’re in service and they’re in Texas which I’m in California.

  11. Paul

    And Frank. I’m not saying all intercity trains are more comfortable than all intercity buses. The experience on that train you describe sucks.

    I want to be alive for the day Amtrak has its first fiscal year with a total subsidy amount of $0.00.

    I live in San Jose CA and Used to like our VTA light rail until I read the Antiplanner truth that buses can do pretty much everything light rail can for 1/20th of the cost. SJs first & second street transit mall is a revolving door for businesses due to regulation with half the storefronts full.

    I want the cops called on the Light Rail/BRT/Streetcar/Commuter Rail Money Burning Party. For the price of running the Light Rail VTA could dress up the entire bus fleet to look and ride like sleek European trolleys and have money left over. Best yet, drop the buses for everything but big sporting events and hand out taxi vouchers to everyone who can’t or won’t drive. A one seat taxi ride door to door is the best public transit I can think of.

  12. Paul

    *best yet. drop the buses for everything but big sporting events and hand out taxi vouchers to everyone who can’t or won’t drive. A one seat taxi ride door to door is the best public transit I can think of. This is if a city MUST have a “transit agency” in this day and age.

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