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Amtrak loses $32 per rider

By Sean O'Neill
October 3, 2012
blog_091030_amtrakbridge_pano_original.jpg
Courtesy <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/73784413@N00/3447007368/" target="_blank">amtrak_russ/Flickr</a>

Fun fact of the day: Every time a passenger rides Amtrak, the railroad loses $32 on average, say researchers at Pew's Subsidyscope project.

Taxpayers cover that $32 per rider loss through federal government subsidies. Last year, taxpayers gave Amtrak $1.3 billion in direct payments.

So it's not just death and taxes that you can count on. You can also count on paying taxes to prevent the death of Amtrak.

Amtrak disputes the numbers, saying it only loses $8 per passenger on average. But researchers say that Amtrak isn't including depreciation—that's wear-and-tear on tracks and trains—and overhead (such as the cost of running human resources). The independently calculated numbers count those additional costs.

Only three of Amtraks's 44 lines made a profit last year, despite 2008 being the railroad's second-best-ever year for ridership.

Amtrak's Acela Express service is one of the rare exceptions. The premium-priced route along the northeast corridor is profitable. The average ticket price for Acela is $41 more than the cost of transporting the passenger.

Amtrak has claimed that the Northeast Regional is profitable, making $20 per passenger. But the new Pew study disagrees, saying that the most-heavily-traveled route is—incredibly enough—unprofitable. It loses an average of $5 a passenger, once you figure in depreciation and other unallocated costs of $24.29 per passenger.

The worst performing line? The Sunset Limited, which runs between L.A. and New Orleans. It loses an average of $462 per passenger(!)

In defense of railroads, highways don't make money either and the government subsidizes their construction and maintenance. Many small airports don't make money, as well, yet they also get subsidies as a cost of keeping the economy humming along.

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The study is online at Pew's site.

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