Report: Amtrak’s Growing But Bleeding Money On Long Trips

Vice President Biden is hardly alone on the rails these days. When the sequester sparked the return of Amtrak Joe (as a senator, Biden famously made about 8,000 trips between Delaware to D.C. on the train), it coincided with a report from the Brookings Institution that says Amtrak ridership is up 55 percent in the last 15 years.

The report from the venerable left-leaning think tank (accompanied by this interactive map of each route’s ridership and revenue) includes another rosy number: 31 million people now take Amtrak each year, an all-time high, it says. More than 80 percent of riders travel on routes of 400 miles or less. Longer routes are bleeding money, according the report, to the tune of $614 million in 2011.

The report, issued March 1, created a flurry of positive tweets and articles about Amtrak repeating the Institution’s message: “American passenger rail is in the midst of a renaissance.”

But the Cato Institute, another think tank, quickly chimed in with a different train of thought and theories. Its reality check noted quite a few downers:

-1997 marked the “bottom of a trough in Amtrak ridership,” so it’s easy for today’s numbers to look impressive. Compare them to 1991 instead and the growth is 8 percent, not 55 percent. Air travel, by comparison, grew 68 percent in the same period.

-Population has grown 25 percent since 1991, so more riders might not reflect a growing preference for Amtrak.

-Amtrak ridership may be up, but intercity train travel is still so miniscule – accounting for just .36 percent of total intercity travel on all modes of transportation – that it’s nearly irrelevant.

-Bus travel between cities is growing faster than train travel.

-Amtrak twists its numbers. By categorizing maintenance as a capital expense instead of an operating expense, the organization can claim that its operating costs are half of what they really are. Cato says none of Amtrak’s lines are profitable when maintenance is taken into account.

-Amtrak counts its substantial state subsidies as revenue.

Sounds like average Joes still aren’t as excited about Amtrak as Biden is.

[Photo credit: Flicker user Russell Sekeet]