Amtrak, which is officially called The National Railroad Passenger Corporation, is a passenger railroad provider that runs short-distance (under 750 miles) and long-distance trains between more than 500 destinations in 46 states and in three Canadian provinces.
It operates more than 300 trains daily over 21,400 miles of track. Amtrak only owns about 623 miles of this track. The rest are owned by a variety of other “host railroads,” private companies that Amtrak pays to use their tracks.
- Amtrak is a state-owned enterprise. This means that Amtrak is a for-profit company, but that the federal government owns all its preferred stock.
- Amtrak made $2.4 billion in 2020.
- Amtrak provides rail service to over 500 destinations in 46 states and three Canadian provinces.
- Amtrak customers took 16.8 million trips in 2020. That's 46,200 trips every day.
Amtrak was founded in 1971 as a state-owned enterprise when the federal government stepped in to save an American rail industry that had been pushed to the brink of collapse by a host of macroeconomic forces. By the 1960s, the proliferation of air travel and highways increased competition in the civilian transportation industry to unsustainable levels for rail companies.
This, combined with rising labor costs and outdated regulation that deterred private expansion, resulted in the U.S.’s two largest rail companies, Pullman Company and Penn Central to declare bankruptcy by 1970. The Nixon administration intervened and Amtrak was the result.
Amtrak receives considerable subsidies from both state and federal governments but is managed as a for-profit company. This is not unusual. No country in the world operates a passenger rail system without public support.
That said, Amtrak’s “for-profit” status is sadly ironic. The train company has never been profitable since its founding nearly fifty years ago. It is only thanks to its subsidies, which over the years amount to over $45 billion, that the provider has survived.
In fiscal year 2020, Amtrak earned $2.4 billion in revenues.
The Business Model
In 2020, Amtrak customers took 16.8 million trips, which is nearly 46,200 trips per day, while employing more than 17,500 people. According to the company's annual report, ticket sales from short-distance corridors make up the bulk of Amtrak’s revenues. Amtrak also makes money by leveraging its infrastructural assets.
Sixty-four percent of Amtrak’s customer revenues in 2020 came from ticket sales and 75% of gross ticket sales came from short-distance trips. This means that ticket sales from short-distance lines are the bread and butter of Amtrak’s business.
One of these lines in particular, the Northeast Corridor (NEC), which runs from Washington D.C. to Boston, is vitally important to Amtrak’s financial survival. In 2020, this line accounted for 36% of Amtrak’s passengers.
This line accounted for 52% of its gross ticket revenues in 2020. Six of its 10 busiest stations are along the NEC. To give you an idea of how heavily Amtrak relies on this line, consider that the first section of the “Principle Business” section in the company’s 2020 annual report is dedicated to the NEC.
Amtrak operates on 21,400 miles of track but derives 52% of its gross ticket revenues (from 2020) from the Northeast Corridor, which is only 457 miles long.
Relative to the NEC, all of Amtrak's other lines are small potatoes.
Amtrak’s long-distance lines are its least profitable, making up only 25% of the company’s 2020 gross ticket revenue. Short distance ridership decreased by 50% in 2020, and long-distance ridership decreased by 39%.
Ticket prices for Amtrak trains range anywhere from $6 to $1,000, depending on the trip.
State and Federal Subsidies
Amtrak receives funding from 20 state agencies and 17 states to support its short-distance lines (all except the NEC). Forty-seven percent of all Amtrak trips in 2020 took place on state-funded lines. In total, Amtrak received $342 million in state subsidies in 2020, which amounts to 14% of its total revenue.
Furthermore, Amtrak received roughly $2.0 billion in federal grants in 2020. In its annual report, however, the company does not consider these subsidies revenue. These funds are part of the $8.1 billion sum that the Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act of 2015 allocated for Amtrak to use between 2016 and 2020.
Leveraging Infrastructural Assets
Amtrak derives the remaining 24% of its revenue, $575 million, from an assortment of business activities related to the infrastructure it owns. Amtrak owns 623 miles of NEC track as well as station structures, platforms, and parking facilities near some of the 526 stations it serves.
Amtrak leverages these assets by charging freight train and commuter train companies to use its track, and by charging access to and/or development of its stations, platforms, and parking lots. Revenues from this segment of Amtrak’s business grew by 1% YoY in 2020.
Despite its heavy reliance on state subsidies and inability to turn a profit, Amtrak is growing, and it has big plans for the future. In the face of the changing economy and climate, Americans are increasingly eschewing cars and airplanes for more efficient and environmentally friendly modes of transportation.
This trend bodes well for companies like Amtrak. To capitalize on this trend, Amtrak must make quick progress toward its primary goal; replacing its aging fleet.
New Acela Express Trains
Amtrak’s most important assets are its trains, and Amtrak's most important trains are its Acelas. These high-speed trains travel up to 150 mph, making them the fastest trains in the western hemisphere, and generated $306 million in revenue for Amtrak last year. However, like most of Amtrak’s fleet, its Acela’s are getting old. The company’s fleet of 20 Acelas has been in service since 2000.
In 2016, Amtrak announced plans to build a new fleet of 28 Acelas by 2021. All of these trains will be put to work on the NEC line, its most frequent trips being between Boston and New York, which is likely to remain Amtrak’s most popular route.
In 2018, Amtrak awarded Siemens Mobility, a subsidiary of the German conglomerate that manufactures traffic systems and railway technology, an $850 million contract to build 75 new passenger diesel “Tier 4 locomotives." These trains travel up to 125 mph and are meant to replace aging trains used for regional travel. Many of the soon-to-be-replaced trains have over 25 years of service.
Aging trains are a huge problem for Amtrak’s public image, which has undergone serious damage due to the company’s poor safety record of late. There have been eight serious crashes or derailments in the past five years alone.
In response to these shortcomings, Amtrak has been implementing what it calls the Positive Train Control (PTC). The PTC is a communications network that combines GPS, radio signals, data centers, and dispatchers to closely monitor the status of every Amtrak train, all the time.
Extending the Network
Amtrak is working to extend its reach into some of the fastest-growing regions of the United States, i.e. the South, Southwest, and Mountains States. Recently the rail provider added stations in Virginia and North Carolina. Going forward, Amtrak will also extend its NEC further into Maine and plans to lengthen its Southwest Chief long-distance line to Colorado.
Keeping Prices Down
To improve its competitive edge over busses, air travel, and private cars, Amtrak must keep its prices down. This won’t be easy, even with government subsidies. As it stands, Amtrak tickets are generally cheaper than flights, but still cost considerably more than buses. For instance, it costs at least $69 to take an Amtrak from Boston to New York, but a bus starts at $28.
Amtrak's high prices are attributable to a confluence of factors that make the rail business extremely costly in the United States. Amtrak’s trains are old and thus depreciate quickly, are costly to maintain, and require significant investment to replace.
Volatile oil prices have increased Amtrak’s expenditure on fuel in recent years, and poor track coverage and maintenance decrease Amtrak’s reliability, making it harder for the company to justify higher prices.
NEC Repair Backlog
Amtrak’s cash cow, the NEC, is approaching the limit of its capacity. Unfortunately, the price tag for the corridor's urgently needed repairs and infrastructure expansions, which include massive tunnels and bridges as well as general maintenance, is a whopping $42.2 billion.
If Amtrak fails to secure this astronomical amount of funding, the NEC will begin to face increasingly serious operational constraints while its ridership increases. Of all the challenges Amtrak faces, this one may be its Achilles heel. If NEC ridership begins to buckle, so will Amtrak’s cash flow.
On Nov. 15, 2021, President Biden signed into law the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The legislation calls for approximately $550 billion to be spent on improving America's roads, bridges, water infrastructure, resilience, Internet, and more. As part of the legislation, Amtrak will receive $22 billion in grants in order to eliminate its maintenance backlog and for other uses.
In April 2021, in Amtrak's FY 2022 grant request to Congress, William Flynn, CEO of Amtrak, requested $3.88 billion, for base operations and to offset the impact of COVID-19 to its business, and an additional $1.55 billion for necessary infrastructure improvements, for a total of $5.42 billion.
Is Amtrak Cheaper Than Flying?
Depending on the journey and the seats chosen, Amtrak's ticket costs are usually higher than the cost of flying. This, however, applies mainly to tickets that come with cabins and meals. Coach class on Amtrak is most often cheaper than coach class on an airplane.
Why Is Amtrak Failing?
Amtrak is failing for a variety of reasons, one being that it is underfunded. Many of the railroads it operates on require maintenance. Maintenance requires funding from state legislatures, which often underfund or cut the money needed. With the passing of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, $22 billion will be allocated to Amtrak to fix its maintenance backlog, which should help the company.
Is Amtrak Taxpayer-Funded?
Yes, Amtrak is taxpayer-funded. The company receives annual subsidies to keep it operating. Many of these subsidies are allocation amounts from legislation that seeks to improve transportation throughout the nation.
The Bottom Line
Amtrak makes the bulk of its money from ticket sales, primarily from short-distance trips, and mainly from one, the Northeast Corridor line. Amtrak also receives significant subsidies from the government to keep it running. The company faces many challenges, some of which should be remedied through the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.