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Amtrak Works, As Long As It Doesn't Take People Very Far

A new report finds that our train system would make money if it stuck to short routes between major cities. It’s when it tries to be fair to the wide open parts of the country that the problems start.

You might think of Amtrak as grand routes across the country. But, recently, all its growth—and it has been growing—has been around cities. According to a new report from the Brookings Institution, more than four-fifths of riders now use routes less than 400 miles. More importantly, if Amtrak ran no routes running more than 400 miles, it would have made money last year.

The report comes with a great little interactive tool that lets you see where ridership is increasing and where it’s decreasing. Plus, it gives you a sense of what the rail network in America looks like (which is not close to this beautiful vision of an American high-speed rail network).

Amtrak is focusing on denser areas with more customers, in a bid to improve its finances and fight off criticism in Washington. Cities like Phoenix, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Austin have seen the highest passenger growth in the last 15 years. The shorter routes are now operationally profitable, helped along by increasing state aid. In 2011, 15 states contributed to 21 of them. Ridership in total is up 55% since 1997, mostly on the back of these shorter routes.

By contrast, 18 routes longer than 400 miles lost $608 million in 2011 (see chart for egregious cases). The Southwest Chief, running 2,265 miles from Chicago to L.A. lost $66.5 million on a ridership of 355,000. The California Zephyr, from Chicago to California lost $62.6 million. And the Empire Builder, from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest lost $54.6 million. You can fault Amtrak for losing money, but at least they have great names for their train routes.

Adie Tomer, co-author of the report, says Amtrak increasingly looks like "a set of two different systems." Longer routes may serve remote communities—for example in the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Montana—but at a big cost. "That geographic equity comes at a real cost to the American taxpayer: $600 million in a single year is a ton of money, even for federal budgets these days," he says.

Under the 2008 PRIIA law, starting this October states will be obliged to pay for routes under 750 miles, if they benefit from the services. The report suggests a similar "partnership" for longer routes—or else see certain tracks no longer run passenger services (only freight).