Feb 20, 2019

Amtrak's big, unlikely idea

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

America's only real passenger rail company wants to ask Congress for permission to stop losing tens of millions of dollars on long-distance routes, the WSJ reports.

The big picture: "Amtrak says it will need $2.2 billion to $2.7 billion between now and 2030, as part of a total $3.8 billion it expects to spend on replacing the long-distance fleet, including locomotives Amtrak has already ordered."

All 15 of Amtrak's long-distance routes lose money. The bottom 10 lose an average of nearly $10 million a year, each.

  • The Northeast Corridor — from Boston to D.C. — is the only Amtrak route to run a surplus, Bloomberg notes.
  • Amtrak wants to establish others by investing more heavily in city-to-city routes where a reasonable person might opt for a train over a plane — the WSJ lists examples like Charlotte to Atlanta and Cleveland to Cincinnati.
  • This means more frequent trains outfitted to move lots of people, instead of infrequent trains with sleeper cars utilized by hobbyists. 

Between the lines: U.S. passenger rail is having a miserable 2019. California is dialing down expectations for the much-vaunted high-speed line from San Diego to Sacramento and San Francisco, which now will focus just on the Central Valley.

Why it matters: A strong passenger rail system would help America reduce greenhouse emissions, ease the stress on our degraded road infrastructure and provide an option for young urbanites to keep avoiding cars.

The bottom line: Amtrak will struggle to make this happen. The Senate blocked a proposal to convert part of one long-distance line into a bus route last year, by a vote of 95 to 4, the Journal notes.

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