11.06.2009 Policy Points

Amtrak Costs: National + NC

It is no secret that the United States lacks a robust inter-city rail system, even in regions of the country where the population densities exist to support such services. Instead, the U.S. provides inter-city rail through Amtrak, a hodgepodge system made up of a higher-speed  rail line in the Northeast (Acela), a mix of state-supported regional services like North Carolina’s Piedmont, and a smattering of long-distance routes like the Sunset Limited running between New Orleans and Los Angeles).

Like all forms of public transportation in the United States, Amtrak’s routes require public subsidies to operate, thought the exact size those subsidies has proven controversial and difficult to compute. In response, Subsidy Scope,a project of the Pew Charitable Trusts, has attempted to comprehensively measure those costs (though not any of the benefits, such as environmental impacts).

According to the study, when the costs of depreciation are included, 41 of Amtrak’s 44 routes lost money in 2008. The greatest losses, and therefore the greatest subsidies, were incurred by long-distance routes like the California Zephyr, which runs between Chicago and San Francisco and lost $193 per passenger in 2008. At the other extreme, the higher-speed Acela line running between Boston and Washington made $41 per passenger.

The study illustrates both the shortcomings of America’s  limited inter-city rail system and the opportunities for improvement. Although long-distance routes likely always will require larger public subsidies to operate, higher speed routes built around regional transit corridors (e.g. the Acela) can make money or at least minimize the amount of subsidy needed.  That suggests that a system of inter-city rail corridors, especially on distances of 500 miles or less, could represent the foundation of a more robust inter-city rail system.

Additionally, here are the per-passenger subsidy amounts required by the Amtrak trains that served North Carolina in 2008:

Short/Medium Haul

  • Carolinian (state-supported in part; Charlotte to New York): $22.98
  • Piedmont (state supported; Charlotte to Raleigh): $37.94

Long Haul

  • Silver Star (New York to Miami): $145.23
  • Silver Meteor (New York to Miami): $142.50
  • Palmetto (New York to Savannah): $92.12
  • Crescent (New York  to new Orleans): $154.78
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