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it's Time for an Amtrak Fact Check

National Association of Rail Passengers • February 2005

The following analysis of the US Bush Administration's claims about Amtrak, and their proposal to eliminate funding in the 2006 budget, has been slightly edited and re-published from the original on the website of the National Aossociation of Railroad Passengers:


President Bush's fiscal 2006 budget, page 243:
"With no subsidies, Amtrak would quickly enter bankruptcy, which would likely lead to the elimination of inefficient operations and the reorganization of the railroad through bankruptcy procedures."

President Bush's fiscal 2006 budget, page 813:
"With no Federal subsidy, Amtrak will be confronted with the need to take steps to implement structural reform. The funding provided in 2006 to be made available to the Surface Transportation Board will support existing commuter service along the Northeast Corridor should Amtrak cease commuter rail operations."


With no Federal subsidy, Amtrak would be forced into bankruptcy and would be controlled by a bankruptcy trustee whose statutory responsibility is to the railroad's creditors. For more details, read Senator Patty Murray's (D-Wa) letter to Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta:


Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta (New York Times op-ed, Feb. 23):
"...the reform package that the administration will soon reintroduce to Congress would establish a 50-50 partnership between the federal government and the states for investment in passenger rail improvements..."


Such a partnership would be meaningless if Amtrak is forced into bankruptcy because loss of the foundation Amtrak provides (which Mineta refuses to acknowledge) would dramatically increase state costs to provide service. [Nonetheless, we strongly support such a partnership, although we would prefer an 80% federal share to put rail closer to an equal footing with highway and aviation projects.]

Amtrak needs $1.2 billion for a Northeast Corridor-only operation in fiscal 2006; a mere $300 million more would permit nationwide service to continue; another $500 million (for a total of $2 billion) could provide the federal match for a state-controlled corridor development program.


Mineta (New York Times op-ed, Feb. 23):
"…dozens of state and local governments are planning new investment in passenger train service. A good example is the Cascades service that connects Portland, Ore., and Vancouver, British Columbia. The State of Washington has upgraded stations and tracks, and purchased new, higher-speed trains. It subsidizes the operating costs, while Amtrak's role is reduced to running the trains under contract."


Amtrak fully funds half (two) of Amtrak's four Portland-Seattle daily round- trips as part of its national network service; the Amtrak-funded trains are Trains 11, 14, 500 and 509. Beyond that, Amtrak's disappearance would drastically increase the cost to the state of funding the two Portland- Seattle trains it currently pays for, as well as the single Seattle-Vancouver, B.C. train.


Mineta (prepared remarks, Charlotte, NC, press conference, Feb. 22):
"Ridership on the Carolinian service is up more than 47 percent, and in North Carolina that line is now covering its operating costs."


This train does not "cover its operating costs," which is why the state paid Amtrak almost one million dollars for its operation in fiscal 2004. This payment, like other state payments, covers only direct operating costs, and not the various overhead items that would become state responsibilities if Amtrak actually disappeared.


Mineta (New York Times op-ed, Feb. 23):
"The problem is not that Americans don't use trains, it is that Amtrak has failed to keep up with times, stubbornly sticking to routes and services, even as they...attract few users."

Mineta (Charlotte, Feb. 22):
"Amtrak today clings to routes that have long since faded from use..."

Mineta (prepared remarks, Chicago, IL, press conference, Feb. 14):
" trains that nobody rides between cities that nobody wants to travel between."


In fiscal 2004, the average number of travelers on a national network (NN; long-distance) trains at any one time (measured in passenger-miles-per- train-mile) was 170.6. That is 17% higher than on short-distance trains, where the comparable figure was 133.9. NN trains accounted for 48% of all Amtrak passenger-miles but only 42% of all Amtrak train-miles.

[The previous paragraph assumes Mineta's criticism is aimed at the NN trains, since they get no state operating-grant support. However, many corridor trains around the country also get no such support. We believe any service crossing multiple state lines, including the NN trains as well as intercity trains on the Northeast Corridor, require federal leadership and support if they are to survive and prosper and thus are placed at risk by the President's budget. Even where states do provide operating support, they are funding direct operating costs only, not various overhead costs that would be thrust upon them if Amtrak actually did go bankrupt.]

Amtrak Three RiversAmtrak's Three Rivers near Marysville, Pa in September 2003.
[Photo: Dave Kerr]


Mineta (New York Times op-ed, Feb. 23):
The Administration's planned Amtrak "reform package...would introduce fair and open competition when picking someone - be it Amtrak, a regional organization, a state agency or a private company - to run the trains."


Most tracks Amtrak uses are owned by private freight railroads. The Association of American Railroads' Amtrak reform principles include this: "Safety and the integrating nature of railroading require that intercity passenger rail be provided by one entity – Amtrak. Further, Amtrak's right of access, preferential access rates, and operating priority should not be transferred or franchised."

Speculation: in this matter, the railroads almost certainly would beat back any attempt to change federal law in a way that they regard as hostile.

Light Rail Now! website
Updated 2005/02/26

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