Passenger rail in the United States is experiencing a renaissance, maintain the authors of a new Brookings Institution report. Amtrak ridership has increased 55% since 1997, faster than other major travel modes. The secret, the authors contend, is Amtrak’s collaboration with states to upgrade tracks, operate routes and redevelop stations.
Hmmm… The report downplays the fact that Amtrak required about $1.4 billion in federal and state support in Fiscal 2012, or that 40 of its routes lose money while only four ran a positive cash balance. The report does note, however, that there really are two Amtraks — a profitable core in the Mid-Atlantic/New England states and an unprofitable everything else. It’s worth noting that Virginia’s Amtrak service, a modest appendage to the profitable core, essentially broke even between 2007 and 2011.
Amtrak runs two high-volume routes in the Washington-Boston corridor, the most densely populated region of the country, where trains are competitive with air for mid-distance travel. The high-speed Acela, which runs 308 miles, carried 3.4 million passengers last year and generated a positive cash balance of $179 million in Fiscal 2011, by far the most profitable leg of the system. The Northeast Regional route, which runs 330 miles, carried 8 million passengers last year and generated a surplus of $28 million in Fiscal 2011.
Then there’s everybody else. Of those routes in the “everybody else” category, only two generated a positive cash balance, both miniscule. One is the Adirondack route, with a surplus of $1.3 million, and the other… drum roll, please… is the 173-mile Washington-Lynchburg route, which racked up a $3.3 million surplus on 185,000 passengers.
Every other route in the country lost money. Of those, the 187-mile Washington-Newport News route was one of the few to come close to breaking even, losing only a half million dollars on 624,000 passengers.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the Virginia routes are profitable because the state negotiated a sweet deal with Amtrak several years back. Kudos to the unheralded administrators in the Department of Rail and Public Transport who struck such a good bargain. The bad news is that the deal is expiring and Amtrak wants more money. Virginia will be hard-pressed to maintain those routes profitably.
As much as I loathe transportation modes that fail to pay their own way, Virginia is probably justified in supporting its inter-city passenger rail service. Traffic is growing (and will grow even faster in the Old Dominion with the launch of Washington-Norfolk service), and will continue to grow as gasoline prices rise. The long-term future of passenger rail looks bright for the Northeast corridor, which bodes well for Virginians using the train to reach Northeast destinations. Maintaining the rail option for a modest sum provides Virginia inexpensive insurance against future run-ups in gasoline prices that make travel by car, bus and rail more costly. The McDonnell administration’s inter-city rail policy has not been ambitious but it has been sensible.