The Stagnant Investment in Amtrak, by Station Count

Graph of the number of stations operated by Amtrak and urban rail transit systems from 1984 to 2014Amtrak, the country’s intercity passenger rail company, has had its funding stuck in the doldrums ever since it was founded in 1971. There have been sporadic bursts of money to the government-sponsored company, mostly to invest in new locomotives and train cars and the occasional upgrade to the tracks on particular routes. However, there hasn’t been a sustained effort to repair and expand underlying infrastructure on a system-wide basis. This is reflected in the fact that the number of stations served by Amtrak has barely changed over time, in stark contrast to the growth in urban rail systems over the same period.

The graph above shows the number of stations for both Amtrak and the nation’s urban rail systems from 1984 to 2014. Over the course of 30 years, urban transit systems grew from 1,822 stations to 3,355, an increase of 84%. Growth in urban systems been pretty linear, with about 51 stations added per year on average.

Graph of the number of Amtrak stations, 1984 - 2014Meanwhile, Amtrak began the period with 510 stations and ended with just 518, an aggregate increase of just 1.6%. Amtrak’s station count has fluctuated more than that over time, with the system reaching a low of 487 stations in 1987 and attaining a peak of 542 stations in 1996. It’s a bit difficult to explain why Amtrak has been stuck in this rut for so many years while there has been a sustained investment in local rail service within metropolitan areas, but there has been a lack of coordination for new or restored routes in most of the country.

The United States’ population grew from 238.5 million to 318.9 million over that period of time, so Amtrak’s reach should have enlarged too. If Amtrak had grown at the same rate as our urban transit systems, there would have been about 940 stations in their system as of 2014. That doesn’t necessarily mean the system would have 84% more mileage, though: One of Amtrak’s biggest failings is that most routes only have one train per direction per day. Increasing service frequency could allow a mix of local all-stop trains and faster limited-stop trains along a single route, with the local trains potentially serving new/restored infill stations along the way. (Many Amtrak trains today are essentially “hybrids” of what used to exist, stopping more frequently than old express services, but less often than what locals used to do.)

Each new or enhanced route requires the involvement of multiple cities and metropolitan areas, so it needs to at least be coordinated at a state level, and many good potential routes (even if they’re fairly short) are spread across two or more states. Amtrak is structured so that individual states are responsible for planning and finding funding for routes that are less than about 700 miles (following legislative changes passed in 2008, the states can still get federal funding for building lines, but operational costs must be borne by the states for these shorter “corridor” routes). That creates a disincentive for the company to pursue new routes on its own, since adding even a single new train on a 700+ mile route is very expensive (hundreds of millions of dollars if the PRIIA studies from 2009 are any guide).

What’s the right way to coordinate new intercity train lines in the country? The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) played a critical role in organizing planning across states when the highway system was developed (back before “and Transportation” was added to the group’s name), but it’s not clear if they’ve ever had much of a hand in planning rail service. Their Standing Committee on Rail Transportation meets once a year for what they describe as a “debrief and networking meeting”, which sounds like a very passive group (plus, the committee only has members from 33 states versus the 46 that are currently served by Amtrak). AASHTO should take their interstate coordinating role seriously and reexamine the potential for intercity rail across the U.S.

Here in Minnesota, we’ve also had a very weak structure for coordinating intercity rail plans. The state’s Passenger Rail Office has been underfunded and understaffed, requiring a heavy reliance on outside consultants rather than MnDOT employees tasked with working in the best interest of the state. The Republican-held state legislature is attempting to entirely defund the office as part of the state budget, even though it has only represented a tiny percentage of MnDOT expenditures over its existence (a couple million dollars per year), and it’s particularly galling to have it happen when the state is projected to have a $1.65 billion surplus anyway.

The employees of the Passenger Rail Office also have an essential role in helping lead monthly meetings of the Intercity Passenger Rail Transportation Forum, composed of stakeholders along the routes that are supposed to see passenger service added under the state rail plan. Defunding the Passenger Rail Office would probably stall out plans for future lines within the state, and we’re far behind where we should be on implementing that plan.

Intercity trains don’t get the same attention that urban rail systems do, and I find that to be a shame, since I think it makes it a lot harder for many people to give up their cars, even in cities with good transit service. I personally hold on to my car due to my need to travel to areas in or near Fargo, Eau Claire, and Rochester for family and work, and all of those places would get rail service if we implemented the plan that’s been on the books since 2010.

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5 Responses to The Stagnant Investment in Amtrak, by Station Count

  1. James Warden
    James Warden May 8, 2017 at 12:24 pm #

    This video has some great insight into the cost of running trains, which in turns limits Amtrak investments: https://youtu.be/fwjwePe-HmA

    In particular, there’s this part :

    “The single biggest expensive for train operators such as Amtrak is staffing. Trains require a lot of people to operate. 85,000 people take a journey on Amtrak daily, but to do that Amtrak employs 20,000 people — meaning that, daily, Amtrak requires one employee for every four passengers. … The cost of employees is so high for train operators largely because trains are slow. For a flight from DC to New York, an airline would only have to pay employees for an hour of work while Amtrak has to pay their employees for three and a half hours of work. The difference is even more striking on long-haul routes — Chicago to Los Angeles for example. An airline would have to pay for four hours of work, while Amtrak pays for 44 hours of work.”

    By contrast, staffing levels aren’t an issue with intracity rail because bus, the mass transit mode rail is most in competition with, has no great staffing advantage (and arguably requires more staff since buses are smaller).

    So Amtrak can build all the stations and new lines it wants. But if those stations and lines don’t bring in more resources than they take to operate, that’s only going to further stretch the profitable lines that are already bearing the burden for the whole system.

    • cobo Rodreges May 8, 2017 at 12:40 pm #

      Looks like we need faster trains.

      I road the maglev in Shanghai, 200+ mph is magical.

  2. Swiss Miss May 8, 2017 at 7:33 pm #

    If only we had a permanent funding mechanism in place, like the Swiss do.

  3. David Markle
    David Markle May 9, 2017 at 11:45 am #

    Yes, the best future for economically viable expansion of long distance train transportation lies in modern high speed connections, but the initial expense of creating them arouses serious political resistance.

  4. Dan May 16, 2017 at 1:43 pm #

    I’m a big train booster, but the concept of intercity trains is pretty much a non-starter for anywhere in the United States that isn’t the Northwest Corridor. Considering strictly scheduling logistics considerations (i.e. ignoring the capital costs of laying track, which are considerable), there are two main problems.

    First, there is the problem of creating a intercity network where people can get from one city to another in a reasonable amount of time. If you want to connect, say, Detroit, Chicago, and Cleveland, there will be significant decisions regarding route that have to be made to get good travel times between the cities. You simply can’t connect them in a straight line. Airplanes avoid this problem because they have faster travel times, so you can fly to a regional hub then go to your final destination. Trains that attempt this model simply can’t compete on time. The Washington->Philly->NY->Boston region avoids this problem by having all its major population centers lined up in a straight line. This allows many routes (Boston->NY, NY->Philly, DC->NY) all to run on the same tracks.

    The second big problem is on end-point transportation. Supposing you just got dropped off by the train at your destination. Now you have to go to your meeting or whatever you made the trip for. Transportation connectivity matters, and outside the Northeast Corridor it doesn’t exits. For example, if you arrive in any of the NE corridor cities, pretty much everywhere you might want to go is nearby and well-connected by mass transit. A Boston arrival in South Station can get to Downtown by walking, the Medical district by 10 mins on the Orange line, and Harvard or MIT by 15 mins on the Red line. A Los Angeles arrival might want to go to Beverly Hills or Century City, which is an hour away by transit, or Burbank or Pasadenam even farther by cab. Even a dense city with developed transit like San Francsico isn’t a good match. What if you want to go to Mountain View or Cupertino? You pretty much have to cab or rental it (or Uber, I guess that is more appropriate in San Fran).

    In conlusion, the only city outside of the NE corridor that is really a good fit for intercity rail is Chicago, and that is simply too far from anywhere else for rail to make sense.

    Amtrack should concentrate on the NE corridor and shut down its loss-making efforts elsewhere.

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