One of the issues is that Amtrak runs many different types
of passenger rail service. For example, the California Zephyr
(Chicago-Oakland; Amtrak does not
run into San Francisco) you cite is essentially land cruise with local intercity stops in between. Full end-to-end berths on this train, and its peers (Empire Builder
, Super Chief
, Sunset Limited
, and, to a lesser extent, the Crescent
) cost about $500 and have a waiting list a year in advance; these berths subsidize cheaper coach seats for people wishing to go Chicago-Topeka or Denver-Salt Lake.
This is a very different type of rail service than the next type down, the overnight trains between Chicago and the Northeast, or the Northeast and Florida, or Chicago and the Gulf Coast. These trains do not have the (profitable) land cruise operation to subsidize local runs, and through runs are not too long--albeit still uncompetitive with airlines. Unlike with the land cruises, which are not
in direct competition with airlines (would you say that Royal Caribbean directly competes with e.g. U.S. Air?) these trains are
, and are also in direct competition with intercity buses. It is thus that you find that trains such as the Capitol Limited
, Lake Shore Limited
, and Silver Meteor
tend to have the highest subsidies of any of Amtrak's operations. On the other hand, the Auto Train
in theoretically belongs to this class but is one of Amtrak's least-subsidized operations.
The third type of train Amtrak runs is what we could think of as the extended commuter-intercity
class. Amtrak California, the Keystone Corridor, Downeaster
, and Northeast Regionals belong to this class. Unlike the overnight train, these trains have shorter still runs (the longest are the San Joaquin
and Northeast Regional) and tend to make up a good deal of their costs from ticket sales alone; the subsidy is commonly split between Amtrak and the state. The average subsidy for these trains is actually equivalent with the land cruises.
The forth type of train Amtrak runs is the high-speed rail
train. This is theory more than practice in America; but the Acela
does make a slim operating profit despite its relatively slow speed. In most of the world, high-speed trains are the most
profitable, and their profits subsidize the intercity and overnight trains. CP, DB, SNCF, SJ, RENFE, and Trenitalia, for example, all follow this trend. In theory Amtrak ought
to be able to operate in the same manner, but has been starved of the money needed to make these investments and thereby internally subsidize itself, much less turn a profit.
If we wanted to reform Amtrak--and there is no question Amtrak needs to be reformed*--I would suggest spinning off the land cruise operations à la the privatization of British Rail, while doubling down on investment in high-speed rail as a means to eliminate the need to subsidize the intercity and overnight trains**.
* Although, as I've pointed out before, the current rail regulation in this country is antithetical to passenger rail, and as I've also pointed out before
, the main argument used in support of the current FRA rules ("it's a different railroading climate!") is just plain bullshit, pardon my French. Adoption of an Australian regulatory climate would be a reasonable interim step.
** The second major argument FRA- and Amtrak-defenders commonly field is that the major European (and Japanese) railroads (cf. supra) keep fraudulent books. This claim, too, is a false assertion, which Alon Levy debunked today