Amtrak's $100-million trains

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, April 22, 2011

I'm old enough to not be frightened by big numbers. But I have to admit catching my breath when I saw what it costs Amtrak to operate three of its most popular and endearing trains. We're talking nine digits.

The National Railroad Passenger Corp., dependent upon taxpayer largess, lives a perilous, hand-to-mouth existence. Perhaps that's why long-term changes in ridership, revenues, and yes, deficits, get so little attention. Why worry about yesterday, in other words, when there may be no tomorrow? 

In this and following blogs, I'm going to examine these trends, starting today with the long-distance trains. Subsequent pieces will look at short-distance trains and the Northeast Corridor. 

So which are those $100 million trains? Leading the parade is the Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder, whose fully allocated costs during 2010 came to a startling $123 million. If you're having trouble imagining how one pair a trains can consume so much cash, so am I. What's helpful to know is the actual operating cost. Amtrak no longer publishes the direct costs of running individual trains. But it did through 2009 (all years are fiscal, ending Sept. 30), and then the Builder bore crew costs of $69 million, plus another $23 million paid to host railroads and for fuel, locomotive and car maintenance, reservations, stations, and the like. Finally, the train's share of corporate overhead and other shared costs came to $18 million. At least, this is how I interpret the rather byzantine footnotes to the 2009 financial report.

So balance the Empire Builder's $123 million in 2010 costs against the $62 million in revenue it generated. Passengers paid for 51 percent of what it took to keep this train going, in other words. At that, it did better than the typical long distance train, whose revenue constituted just 46 percent of its costs, a percentage that's unchanged from 2003.

The other $100 million trains are the Southwest Chief (Chicago-Los Angeles), $107 million, and California Zephyr (Chicago-Oakland), $103 million. In the past eight years, the cost of operating the Builder rose 38 percent, but that of the Zephyr just 14 percent. The Chief saw its costs fall from $123 million in 2003, but then so did revenue, from $69 million in 2003 to $62 million in 2010.

Some other ways of looking at operating results:

Ridership. The biggest gains from 2003 through 2010 came from the Capitol Limited (42 percent), Lake Shore Limited (37 percent), Texas Eagle (34 percent), Empire Builder (28 percent), City of New Orleans (26 percent), Southwest Chief (25 percent), and Auto Train (22 percent). Please don't ask me how the Southwest Chief can handle 25 percent more people on falling revenue and expenses. At the other end come the Silver Star/Silver Meteor from New York to Miami (up 3 percent), Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Seattle (no change), and Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to New Orleans (down 12 percent).

Losses.  I wish this came under the heading of "profits and losses," but no long-distance train comes close to closing the gap between revenues and costs. Well, I take that back. The Auto Train recovered 74 percent of its costs in 2010, thanks those 15-17 Superliner cars it trundles daily between Northern Virginia and Central Florida, followed by dozens of auto carriers that require no care and feeding en route. The Empire Builder, Palmetto, Capitol Limited, Silver Meteor, California Zephyr, and Texas Eagle managed cost recovery of 51 to 46 percent, in descending order. Worst of all are two tri-weekly trains, the Sunset Limited (22 percent) and New York-Chicago Cardinal (30 percent).  

Finally, the I'm Speechless Award goes to the Silver Meteor and Silver Star. Together, their losses in 2010 came to almost $100 million. 

By now you're probably napping between paragraphs. So let me leave you with some top-line and bottom-line numbers for the long-distance fleet, for both 2003 and 2010. 

Route Ridership change 2003-2010 Revenue change 2003-2010 Fully Allocated Loss 2003 Fully Allocated Loss 2010
Auto Train 22% 26% $12 mil. $21 mil
California Zephyr 17% 13% $49 mil. $56 mil
Capitol Limited 42% 15% $21 mil. $22 mil
Cardinal 20% 47% $11 mil. $17 mil
City of New Orleans 26% 33% $19 mil. $23 mil
Coast Starlight 0% 21% $36 mil. $50 mil
Crescent 17% 17% $38 mil. $44 mil
Empire Builder 28% 28% $44 mil. $61 mil
Lake Shore Limited 37% 15% $37 mil. $38 mil
Silver Star/Meteor 3% 27% $57 mil. $92 mil
Southwest Chief 25% -19% $69 mil. $62 mil
Sunset Limited -12% -28% $30 mil. $38 mil
Texas Eagle 34% 26% $29 mil. $29 mil
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