Washington — U.S. taxpayers spent about $32 subsidizing the cost of the typical Amtrak passenger in 2008, about four times the rail operator’s estimate, according to a private study.
Amtrak operates a nationwide rail network, serving more than 500 destinations in 46 states. Forty-one of Amtrak’s 44 routes lost money in 2008, according to the study by Subsidyscope, an arm of the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Stephen Van Beek, president of the Eno Transportation Foundation, a think tank, said the analysis could help guide decisions on how to spend $8 billion set aside for high-speed and intercity rail in a $787 billion economic stimulus bill. Rail planners might decide that spending the money on high-speed rail makes more sense than spending it on slower intercity rail, which, according to the Amtrak numbers, need higher subsidies.
According to Subsidyscope, the review counted certain capital expenses that Amtrak does not consider when calculating the financial performance of its routes, namely wear and tear on equipment, or depreciation.
Leading the list was the train traveling between New Orleans and Los Angeles — the Sunset Limited — which lost $462 per passenger. Taxpayers subsidize the losses to keep the passenger train service running.
The Northeast corridor has the highest passenger volume of any Amtrak route, greatly enhancing efficiency.
The corridor’s high-speed Acela Express made a profit of about $41 per passenger. The more heavily utilized Northeast Regional lost almost $5 per passenger.
Passenger rail systems throughout the world lose money and require government subsidies to cover operating expenses.
Marcus Peacock, project director for Subsidyscope, said his group’s analysis should lead to more scrutiny for the Amtrak routes that are losing the most money.
Van Beek cautioned against setting higher standards for passenger rail service than for other forms of transportation.
“Let’s not hold rail up and say it needs to make money when highways don’t make money, transit doesn’t make money and a lot of small airports don’t make money, and they all get subsidies,” Van Beek said.
The Government Accountability Office had previously reported the omission of depreciation substantially understates the capital expenses associated with Amtrak’s routes.
Amtrak officials said they’re working with the Transportation Department to come up with a fair way to determine capital expenses, but they said the method used in the report unfairly burdens routes with equipment that was sold and then leased back.
AP writer Joan Lowy contributed to this report.