The Future of Amtrak
February 20, 2018
The Transportation Museum's online exhibits are based on previous museum exhibits or similar, transportation-related exhibits found online, in the media, in other museums, or something else. This exhibit explores the newest US government budget plan that is likely to eliminate Amtrak's long-distance train routes across the country. Have an idea for an online exhibit? Contact the museum and use "Online Exhibit" in the subject line.
Amtrak, America's national passenger rail service and a portmanteau of "America" and "track," was formed by the Rail Passenger Service Act in 1970. Today, Amtrak serves more than 500 destinations in 46 states, the District of Columbia, and three Canadian provinces on over 21,300 miles of train and bus routes. On an average day, nearly 85,700 passengers ride Amtrak trains and in there was a ridership of over 31 million passengers last fiscal year. More Amtrak Statistics >
While Amtrak set records last year for ridership and earnings, it still lost $194 million overall. That loss mainly came from Amtrak's long-distance routes. (Amtrak runs the high-speed rail Acela service in the Northeast Corridor, state-supported routes like the Capitol Corridor, and 15 long-distance routes. Click here for all of the routes.) Long-distance routes serve only about 15% of Amtrak riders, but they serve over half of the stations in Amtrak's network. Many of these towns are small communities that lack any other form of intercity transportation. At what cost to the federal government should Amtrak provide this service?
March 23, 2018 Update
Congress passed a spending bill that provides nearly $2 billion worth of federal spending for Amtrak, meaning its long distance routes will survive! Scroll down to "Amtrak's Trains Have Survived!" to read about the update.
What's Happening Now
Amtrak's long-distance routes have long been the target of government funding cuts, but nothing has ever been passed. In his original budget plan, President Donald Trump proposed similar cuts, but lawmakers have ignored him so far. But in early February, Trump proposed again to end these routes, by significantly reducing government funding:
While Amtrak has in recent years improved its ridership and revenue on the Northeast Corridor and State Supported Routes, Amtrak continues to rely exclusively on Federal subsidies to operate long distance train routes, which have large operating losses and serve a small number of passengers. The Budget proposes reforms to Amtrak to improve efficiencies in long distance services and reduce reliance of the Federal Government. In particular, the Budget proposes that States begin to share the operating subsidy costs of Long Distance routes with the Federal Government. State contributions to long distance routes is only one tool in the menu of options for reform the Administration will be exploring to improve the current system and reduce Federal subsidies in the Long Distance network.
The federal subsidy, under the plan, would be cut in half, from $1.4 billion to $738 million. However, many states are unlikely or unable to come up with the needed funding to save the routes. More than half of states have faced budget shortfalls in the past two years, and already state and local governments account for 77% of public infrastructure spending in the U.S. Lastly, with the recent tax reform that ultimately made state and local taxes more expensive, it will be even less likely for states to be able to come up with the money to save the Amtrak routes.
What else is happening with Amtrak?
There have been quite a few recent stories involving crashes on Amtrak trains. Many, if not all, of these crashes could have been prevented by a system called Positive Train Control, or PTC, which is designed to slow or stop trains that are going too fast, take control, and prevent collisions with other trains. Amtrak already has this system in place on its 700 miles of track, but this is less than than 4% of the tracks Amtrak runs on (the other tracks are owned by freight carriers). Amtrak is considering suspending service on tracks that don't have this speed control in place by the December 31, 2018 deadline. Congress originally mandated the system be put into place in 2008. The deadline was extended until 2015, then 2018, and now some railroads are asking for an extension until 2020. Richard Anderson, the President and CEO of Amtrak, said that the train service is considering ending service on tracks that don't have PTC installed by the end of the year. Read more in this CBS News article >
Two Sides to The Story
As in most situations, there are arguments in favor and in opposition to Trump's budget plan:
Pros to Cutting Back Amtrak:
Long-distance routes are the cause of most of Amtrak's operating losses, yet they serve the least number of passengers. Even as ridership increases on all of Amtrak's routes, the long-distance routes are nowhere near profitable. The Northeast Corridor, on the other hand, is profitable and serves nearly 3 times as many passengers annually. These tracks haven't had a complete overhaul since 1976 and the American Society of Civil Engineers' "Infrastructure Report Card" found that the total repairs of this system would cost $28 billion. Why should Amtrak continue to lose money on a service that only a small number of riders travel on, when the highly-traveled, successful commuter service is in desperate need of repairs? (Read More Here >)
Cons to Cutting Back Amtrak:
Long-distance routes provide what is, in some cases, the only method of intercity transportation. Amtrak's long-distance routes are the only Amtrak trains in 23 of the 46 states covered by Amtrak. Eliminating funding, and as a result ending service, for these routes would eliminate the primary intercity transit service in many rural communities across the nation, making it incredibly difficult for the residents who live there to travel. Many residents depend on the train service for work, for school, and for other important purposes.
"What can I do?"
If you're interested in helping to save Amtrak, here's what the National Association of Railroad Passengers suggests:
Here's what the organization is trying to pass this year:
Pass the bipartisan-supported FY 2018 transportation budget that includes additional funding for Amtrak, allowing Amtrak to improve its infrastructure and install Positive Train Control technology
Support full, multi-year funding for Amtrak and passenger rail programs, giving states and Amtrak some certainty for the next few years related to planning projects and maintenance
An infrastructure bill that funds passenger rail and public transit throughout the nation, and closes the gap for representatives to eliminate Amtrak service
Interested in learning more about saving Amtrak? Read the 2018 Passengers' Guide to Advocacy!
Amtrak's Trains Have Survived!
Under the budget bill that was passed by Congress on Friday, March 23, Amtrak (including its long distance routes) will be preserved. President Donald Trump had threatened to cut $630 million from the railroad's federal subsidies, but the spending bill gives Amtrak $1.9 billion for this next year.
$1.3 billion of that money goes toward funding Amtrak's long-distance routes, and $250 million will go to help railroads install the Positive Train Control automatic-braking technology system. The passing of the budget gives Amtrak fans and railroad passengers a welcome relief.