We frequently receive questions from elected and government officials, members of the news media and other stakeholders on topics such as Amtrak’s financial performance, its operations and services, and improving and expanding intercity passenger rail service. In order to make information about these topics readily available to all of those with an interest in Amtrak, we have compiled below responses to frequently asked questions. Many include links to further details about a topic (FY 2019 figures are preliminary). General information about Amtrak can also be found in our Company Profile.
Amtrak and Freight Railroads
What is the relationship between Amtrak and its host railroads?
The creation of Amtrak in 1970 reflected a public bargain between Congress and the private railroads (now generally called “freight railroads”). The railroads were relieved of their legal obligation to provide intercity passenger service, on which they were incurring huge losses that threatened their financial viability, in exchange for making their tracks available to Amtrak. Amtrak pays the incremental costs the railroads incur because of Amtrak’s operations, and they can earn additional payments for providing good on-time performance.
Why are Amtrak trains delayed by freight trains?
Amtrak owns only about three percent of its 21,400-mile route network, primarily on the Northeast Corridor (NEC). The rest of the rail lines on which Amtrak trains operate are mostly owned and dispatched by freight railroads. By law, Amtrak is supposed to receive preference over freight trains. But freight companies often ignore the law. In fact, freight trains delayed Amtrak passengers over one million minutes in FY 2019.
How does Amtrak’s financial performance compare?
Amtrak’s financial performance is better than at any time in its history. Revenues equaled more than 99% of operating costs in FY 2019, and Amtrak is on track to breakeven operationally by 2020. Amtrak’s farebox recovery — the percentage of operating costs paid by passengers — is the highest among U.S. passenger railroads. Amtrak’s financial performance compares favorably to the financial performance of passenger railroads in other countries, most of which receive much higher subsidies from their federal governments than Amtrak does.
How does Amtrak calculate route financial performance?
Amtrak operates an interconnected network of intercity trains and routes that share facilities, equipment and services provided by Amtrak employees. The revenues and costs associated with all the things Amtrak does are allocated to individual trains, routes and service lines to track their financial performance. Some costs, such as wages paid to engineers and conductors, are easily attributable to a specific route. Other costs that benefit multiple routes, such as the cost of maintaining shared tracks at Washington Union Station and the cost of overhead functions such as Amtrak’s IT help desk, are allocated based upon relative usage.
How do long distance trains perform financially?
Amtrak’s 15 long distance (over 750 miles) routes, which carried 14% of Amtrak’s passengers in FY 2019, receive a disproportionate share of Amtrak’s federal funding because they account for most of Amtrak’s operating losses ($475 million in FY 2019) and the federal government is their only source of capital funding. Long distance trains’ revenues per available seat mile are lower, and their operating costs per available seat mile are higher, than for Amtrak’s NEC and state-supported services.
Equipment and Infrastructure
What is the status of replacing Amtrak’s equipment fleet?
Amtrak’s equipment fleet does not have sufficient capacity to accommodate the record demand for Amtrak service and much of the fleet has reached the end of its useful life. Amtrak is acquiring new high-speed Acela trainsets that will increase capacity and redefine the customer experience on the NEC when they enter service in 2021. Amtrak is also taking delivery of the final Viewliner II cars that have replaced the oldest equipment on its long distance routes; has recently placed an initial order for new Charger diesel locomotives for long distance trains; and will soon seek proposals for new equipment to replace Amfleet I equipment used on Northeast Regional and many state-supported services. Amtrak intends to seek additional funding from Congress in its forthcoming reauthorization to continue the process of replacing its equipment fleet. Additional information can be found in Amtrak’s Equipment Asset Line Plan.
Who is responsible for stations?
Amtrak owns about 80 of the more than 525 stations we serve. Other Amtrak stations are owned by cities, freight railroads, transit and commuter rail agencies, state departments of transportation and even individuals. Ownership information for the station building, platform, tracks and parking lot at each station can be found on the station profile pages on Amtrak’s Great American Stations website. If you have a concern or question about your station, contact the Amtrak Government Affairs staff member for your region.
Benefits of Amtrak
What is Amtrak’s economic impact?
The availability of Amtrak’s service enhances economic opportunity, business competitiveness and quality of life in both large metropolitan areas and rural communities. Amtrak employs about 20,000 people from 46 different states, generating an annual payroll exceeding $1.6 B annually. Nearly six jobs are created across the U.S. for every job in the rail transportation industry. On the NEC alone, 820,000 people board commuter and Amtrak trains each weekday to head to work, school and other destinations, making the NEC a major driver of the regional and national economy. Nearly one-third of the NEC region’s jobs are located within five miles of an NEC station.
Is Amtrak a sustainable transportation mode?
Amtrak is 47 percent more energy efficient than traveling by car and 33 percent more efficient than domestic airline travel on a per-passenger-mile basis. Amtrak embraces sustainability in our daily operations — over the course of the last decade we’ve implemented new technologies and changed employee behavior to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 42,259 cars driven for a year. We are also focused on improving the efficiency of our fleet, delivering safe and reliable service to our customers, and evaluating ways to improve operations in the face of changing climate conditions across the national network.
How does funding for Amtrak compare to other transportation modes?
According to the most recent data compiled by the Congressional Budget Office, in 2017 the federal government spent $45.8 billion on highways, $4.4 billion on water transportation and navigation, $16.7 billion on aviation, $12.3 billion on mass transit and $4.7 billion on rail (of which $1.495 billion was for Amtrak’s federal grant). Unlike highways, aviation and mass transit, there is no trust fund for intercity passenger rail. This means that Amtrak’s funding, including the amount of money that will be available to initiate or continue multi-year capital projects, is currently dependent upon annual federal appropriations, the amount of which is often unknown until several months after the fiscal year has begun.
Should Amtrak services and infrastructure be privatized?
It is not clear what problem Amtrak privatization proposals are intended to solve. Amtrak was created because the private railroads were losing large amounts of money providing intercity passenger rail service. Despite limited funding, Amtrak’s ridership and financial performance are at record levels. Amtrak is already operated as a for-profit company, as required by federal law. It has business-focused leadership with experience in successfully operating for-profit companies in the transportation and other industries. Many countries that have privatized their rail service have been compelled to return it to public stewardship due to private operators’ safety, financial and infrastructure maintenance deficiencies.
Could Hyperloop or Maglev supplant high-speed rail?
The thought of levitating aboard a 300-mile-per-hour Maglev, or whooshing through a steel tube in a Hyperloop capsule at twice that speed, may have a certain appeal to some travelers. However, the likelihood that either Maglev or Hyperloop will become a viable option for U.S. intercity travel during their lifetimes is very slim. A high-speed Hyperloop able to safely transport a human being is an unproven theoretical concept that does not exist. While Maglevs have operated on a few short demonstration lines since the 1970s, Asian and European countries where they have been tested have invariably opted to develop high-speed rail systems first because construction of a Maglev line through heavily populated urban areas would be extraordinarily expensive and environmentally disruptive. Only 2.6% of Amtrak’s NEC passengers could potentially use the federally-funded Maglev between Washington and Baltimore that some have proposed, while investments in NEC infrastructure benefit all NEC users.
Why doesn’t the United States have high speed rail like other countries?
The United States does not have the high-speed rail systems found in virtually every European and Asian country because of lack of public investment. Since Amtrak’s inception in 1971, U.S. spending on intercity passenger rail service on a per capita basis has been only a tiny fraction of what all of these countries have spent. As a result, outside of the NEC, only 213 miles of the 9,200 miles of high speed rail lines that Congress and DOT have designated since 1991 are currently operated at speeds of 90 mph or higher. While the United States had the fastest passenger trains in the world in 1959, today 18 other countries have trains that are faster than Amtrak’s Acela, the nation’s only high-speed rail service.
Amtrak’s Route Network
Why doesn’t the Amtrak network go everywhere? How can communities get Amtrak service?
Adding new routes requires public funding for capital investments for equipment, stations and infrastructure, as well as funding for operating costs not covered by ticket revenues. Federal law requires states or others to provide most of the funding for Amtrak routes of 750 miles or less, which are known as state-supported routes. On state-supported routes, states decide where service will be provided, subject to operational considerations and provision of necessary funding. On other routes, Amtrak will add station stops that are operationally feasible and will attract sufficient additional ridership so as not to diminish financial performance if funding is provided for any necessary capital investments such as station facilities at new stops.
What are Amtrak’s plans for growing service?
The need for expanded and improved Amtrak service has never been greater. Our nation’s population is growing, and is increasingly concentrated in urbanized areas along short-distance corridors where Amtrak can alleviate air and highway congestion by offering service that is trip time competitive with other modes. Amtrak’s route map has not changed significantly since it began operation in 1971. Many of the nation’s fastest growing regions and major metropolitan areas have no Amtrak service, or are served only by daily or tri-weekly long-distance trains. Meeting the growing demand along heavily traveled corridors will require Amtrak to rethink our national network. While there will always be a role for long-distance trains, we see a huge opportunity to better serve many corridors along existing long-distance routes, as well as new corridors, with more frequent corridor services. Amtrak plans to seek legislation and funding authorizations to advance corridor development in our forthcoming reauthorization by Congress.
What drives decisions about food service on trains?
Amtrak’s food service on long distance trains is evolving to meet the needs of today’s customers, many of whom prefer healthy, high-quality food options over traditional railroad dining car meals; eating when they feel like; and eating alone rather than at communal tables. States decide whether to offer food service on state-supported routes. The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act of 2015 requires Amtrak to eliminate the operating loss associated with its onboard food service by the end of 2020.
Why has Amtrak eliminated ticket agents at some stations?
When Amtrak began operation in 1971, nearly all passengers purchased their tickets from agents at stations or ticket offices. Today, the vast majority of our passengers find it more convenient to make reservations and print or display their tickets using their electronic devices, just as they do when traveling by plane or bus. Only about five percent buy their tickets from station ticket agents. Given that few passengers use station agents for ticketing services, maintaining the same number of staffed stations we once had would be inconsistent with Amtrak’s statutory mandate to maximize productivity and efficiency. Amtrak continues to provide a variety of ticketing options for passengers boarding at unstaffed stations who do not use the internet.
How does Amtrak determine fares?
Because Amtrak is operated as a for-profit company and is required by law to maximize revenues, its fares vary based upon demand, like airlines and intercity buses. On state-supported routes, decisions regarding fares are made in collaboration with the states involved. Passengers who travel during off-peak periods and passengers who book early generally pay the lowest fares. Amtrak also has frequent fare sales. To find out when they occur, sign up for Amtrak Guest Rewards or follow Amtrak on social media.
What is Amtrak doing to improve customer service?
We are committed to improve the customer experience by significantly investing in our trains, stations, amenities and infrastructure. In FY 2019 we invested $1.6 billion on capital projects that improve the customer experience, the highest in recent Amtrak history. Major station development is happening in New York, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Chicago. We are enhancing service on the Auto Train and providing more flexible dining options on other Eastern long distance trains. Work continues to upgrade NEC infrastructure to increase track capacity and improve ride quality and reliability, which will benefit Amtrak and commuter customers. Amtrak is refreshing its passenger car fleet with enhancements that include new seat cushions, carpeting and curtains. We also continually invest in improved WiFi connections. On the vast majority of our trains, passengers have access to free WiFi that has been enhanced with performance tuning, more reliable VPN connections, upgraded processors and modem cards, as well as new antennas that improve WiFi speed (a few trains that travel through remote areas with limited cell coverage do not offer WiFi).
Safety and Security
Is Amtrak safe?
Our goal is to become America’s safest passenger railroad. We believe that zero accidents and zero serious injuries are possible — and we work together every day toward this level of performance. We operate at the highest level of safety — by exceeding regulatory standards. Our engineers and conductors have extensive training. Amtrak is a leader in implementing Positive Train Control across our network, and we are instituting a comprehensive new Safety Management System (SMS) to improve our safety culture. SMS is intended to move Amtrak from reactive responses to individual safety events toward a continual assessment and predictive understanding of risks facing the entire organization before an unwanted event occurs.
Why doesn’t Amtrak have the same security measures as airlines?
Because of advantages such as easy access, convenient locations and intermodal connections, rail and mass transit systems are completely different from airlines. Through a multi-layered approach, Amtrak uses enhanced security measures to make it harder for those who seek to do harm to our passengers, employees, equipment and facilities and ensure an efficient response to potential threats. This approach includes deployment of Amtrak Police Department patrol officers, K-9 units, detectives and intelligence gathering teams. Amtrak also has strong partnerships with local, state, federal and private sector organizations and international emergency management and law enforcement agencies.