The Current (Sad) State of Amtrak
This very headline for this article is a huge reason why I am in support of a bullet train in America. It is very well known that Amtrak has had (and still has) many problems, both from an economic standpoint and a service standpoint.
For starters, let’s go back to 1970 for a second. At this time in American history, the railroads were in sharp decline and many lines closed for business because they were losing money. The automobile and the airplane had solidified its place in American transportation. However, there were a number of people who still liked the idea of having trains run and didn’t want to see them go. In 1970, Congress passed a bill that was signed into law by then-President of the United States Richard Nixon that established Amtrak. Amtrak would be a government-run company to re-establish passenger rail service to most of the country. The service was launched in 1971.
It was commonly expected that this was a last-ditch measure to save passenger rail service in America. Many predicted Amtrak wouldn’t make it past 5 years after its formation. They are still around today and it doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. There are riders who still prefer to use rail to get to their destination. For a number of people, it is one of the cheapest ways to travel the country. For others, they would prefer to ride on a train than in an airplane.
Now let’s get into some details about Amtrak. The first one, and the most troubling, is that it has never turned a profit since it began operation in 1971. Low ridership has contributed significantly towards this. Taxpayers have had to pay billions over the years to subsidize the service to keep it going. Just last year alone, Amtrak had a $1.4 billion dollar operating loss, of which the government covered to keep the operation going. Why does the government continue to fund Amtrak when it consistently loses a significant amount of money every year? That’s a question with an answer I would like to see changed, but you’ll see the more we go into this post.
Let’s look into how the Amtrak train system works. Amtrak is operated by a diesel locomotive of which only has a limited speed speed. Excluding the Acela Express on the northeast corridor, an Amtrak train can hit speeds of about 110 mph but that rarely happens. That may sound like a high number, but let me explain. Most Amtrak passenger trains can reach a top speed of only 80 mph. And even 80 mph is not possible because of either bumpy freight rails, steep elevations, and speed limits going through cities (with stops).
In addition, Amtrak operates on 21,300 miles of track in America, of which over 20,500 miles are freight lines that they have to share with freight trains. And freight trains have first priority on those tracks because the freight companies own the lines. This means that Amtrak trains have to wait if there is a freight train passing through. This causes delays of course and make the service more unreliable.
These rails have speed limits on them because of the way they are built. And if the train does travel fast, it could be a very bumpy ride on the train, lowering the customer experience. Freight trains don’t necessarily care as much how bumpy the tracks get, they care more about being able to get to their destination. These freight rails also wear out much faster because of the weight of the loads on the train cars on the rails. Passenger rail trains are considerably lighter in weight and are used less frequently on rail tracks. Separating these from freight lines and building their own dedicated track would result in a much more smooth (and faster) experience for riders.
Amtrak also stops at just about every single rail station on the line. This means on a trip of 500 miles, you’d likely have to make anywhere from 15-25 stops along the way, depending how close the stations are and distance travelled. And the train doesn’t just stop for a few minutes normally, it stays there for 5 to 15 minutes, depending on the number of people boarding and leaving the train. That adds a lot of time to the trip. You could travel 70 mph for 500 miles in a car with rest stop breaks and still easily beat the train by several hours. That’s one reason why Amtrak has low ridership in places that are not densely populated is that it’s not a very efficient way to travel.
For these reasons, Amtrak is an outdated passenger rail service. It was true from the very moment of its inception. It was not created to turn a profit. It was created to keep the legacy that helped grow the American economy back in the 1800s and early 1900s. With new technology and engineering, trains can be built to go very fast and continue to grow our economy. It’s time to replace Amtrak, when they leave, it will be remembered as a failed relic of America’s pastime.