Greater Greater Washington has a post up invoking almost every myth Amtrak and its backers use to argue that the National Railroad Passenger Corporation is actually doing okay. Of those, the single worst is about finances: “Amtrak nevertheless covers over 80% of its total costs through revenue from passengers, whereas most of the world’s passenger train operators fall in the 50% to 60% range.” The link sends us to an Amtrak page that states revenue and expense numbers leading to a 67% operating ratio and contains the following lie:
In FY 2010, Amtrak earned approximately $2.51 billion in revenue and incurred approximately $3.74 billion in expense. No country in the world operates a passenger rail system without some form of public support for capital costs and/or operating expenses.
Until Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore are erased from the face of the Earth, this statement is trivially false even in its weakest reasonable form; in those countries the government constructs many lines but then charges the private operators market rent. The JRs get no slack from the government: recall that the notion that the government wiped their Shinkansen construction debt is a myth. But even in Europe, intercity rail is profitable. Those profits are net profits, counting depreciation and interest on capital (often obliquely, e.g. SNCF’s LGV construction interest shows up as tolls to infrastructure owner RFF), which Amtrak prefers not to in order to boost its farebox recovery numbers.
The GGW post has worse whoppers than the Amtrak page does, but the one about profitability is the worst: not even Amtrak dares claim it has better finances than the world’s major passenger railroads. But there are others. One is about seat occupancy: the blog claims “Amtrak still manages to fill most of the seats it carries between Washington, New York, and Boston on both on Acela Express and Northeast Regional services”; in reality, while Acela seat occupancy is 60-65%, Regional seat occupancy is about 45%, both figures coming from comparing per-passenger-mile and per-seat-mile finances in Amtrak’s monthly reports. Another is a general claim that Amtrak is at capacity because Penn Station is; in fact, Penn Station itself has ample unused capacity, and even the North River Tunnels could support a few more trains per hour with better signaling.
The only myth missing from the post is the one that states Amtrak has majority share of travel in the Northeast Corridor; in fact, Amtrak only has majority share of the air/rail market, and its Vision claims 89% of present travel is by road. This myth I believe is a product of honest confusion; it’s simply easier to talk about mode share without specifying that it’s just air/rail, and there’s much more literature about air-rail competition than competition with roads, leading people to conflate the two. Here Amtrak is actually more honest than JR Central, which only states air/rail shares and ignores highways. My own preference is to make it clear which share I’m talking about, to prevent such misunderstanding.