Amtrak’s Losses

A few points about the new study of Amtrak’s per passenger losses that’s being cited by some as an argument against investments in passenger rail. For one thing, there’s all this about the lack of context in the report.

But for a second thing, I would merely emphasize the fact that the whole point of advocacy for high-speed passenger is precisely that Amtrak as it currently exists isn’t a good idea. The United States doesn’t have a real high-speed passenger rail system, and the problems with Amtrak don’t justify that situation, they’re a symptom of it. If you look at the Acela routes, which is the closest thing to HSR we have in the United States, they’re turning a profit. The biggest losses are on low-speed long-distance routes like New Orleans to Los Angeles and Chicago to San Francisco. That’s dumb. To get from Chicago to San Francisco, people should fly. The HSR point is that a reasonably speedy train from Chicago to Milwaukee or from Chicago to Indianapolis would be valuable.


Third, while we probably should try to avoid running routes that involve huge operating losses, there’s no particular reason the government should treat passenger rail investments the way a business would treat investment in a new factory and expect it to earn a financial return. Infrastructure is infrastructure. Highways don’t “make money” they facilitate activity. Transit and intercity rail are the same way. Charging money to avoid overuse and to efficiently allocate scarce spaces makes sense. But the creation of public infrastructure in general, and of passenger rail in particular, isn’t a bad business proposition it’s just not a business proposition at all. It’s a policy proposition.