Amtrak Expects 10 Billion Passengers

April 1, 2042

Washington – the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (AMTRAK) expects ridership in fiscal 2042 to top 10 billion and net profit to top $8 billion, after an aggressive program of expansion. Ridership in fiscal 2041 was 9.8 billion, predominantly on a network of regional lines in the Northeast and California, and net profit was $7.3 billion, split about evenly between the core regional networks and the national high-speed intercity train network.

The members of the board who resigned during the shakeup of 2014 sent Amtrak President Natalie Biden a letter of congratulations for Amtrak’s achievement of its long-term goals of fiscal sustainability, network expansion, and mode shift; Amtrak is credited with spearheading the growth of mass transit use in the United States, which as of the 2040 census stands at 30% of commuters.

Although the members who resigned in 2014 and 2015 left the railroad indefinitely and pursued other interests or joined the private sector, an insider within the company who spoke on condition of anonymity explained, “The entire structure of Amtrak was put together in the reforms from 2013 on. The people who implemented them were simply unfortunate enough to get caught in the scandals about the cost overruns, but the people who took charge later just implemented the original plan.”

Amtrak had initially proposed to spend $117 billion on implementing high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, but backlash due to the plan’s high cost led to a scaling back behind the scenes. After the regulatory reforms of 2013, a new team of planners, many hired away from agencies in Japan, France, and Switzerland, proposed a version leveraging existing track, achieving almost the same speed for only $5 billion in upfront investment. They explained that the full cost of the system would be higher, but service could open before construction concluded, and profits could be plugged into the system.

To get the plans past Congress, President Barack Obama had to agree to limit the funds to a one-time extension of Amtrak’s funding in the transportation bill S 12, which would give it $13 billion for expansion as well as ordinary operating subsidies over six years. To defeat a Senate filibuster, the extension had a clause automatically dismantling Amtrak and selling its assets in case it ran out of money, leading to the first wave of resignations by longtime officials.

Despite assurances that both the cost and the ridership estimates were conservative, the program was plagued with delays and mounting costs, and to conserve money Amtrak needed to cancel some of its money-losing long-distance routes and engage in a controversial lease-back program selling its rolling stock to banks. The modifications required to let the Shinkansen bullet trains decided for the system run in the Northeast pushed back the completion of the first run from the middle of 2015 to the beginning of 2017. The president and most of the board as well as the engineers resigned in 2014, and many of their replacements resigned in the subsequent two years. When the reformed system opened in 2017, it was still incomplete because some of the high-speed segments had no funding yet, travel time from Boston to Washington was four hours and a quarter, rather than the promised three and a half.

2017 was also the last year in which Amtrak lost money. Ridership on the Northeast Corridor intercity trains topped 20 million, and in 2018 it operationally broke even, allowing it to use $1.5 billion in unspent S 12 money on completing the full system by 2020. To simplify its temporary deals with track owners in Connecticut and Massachusetts, it made a complex deal with the Northeastern commuter railroads in which it took over operations, with existing amounts of state money lasting until 2022. The primary purpose was to allow rapidly moving workers between divisions, away from commuter trains, which were being streamlined to reduce staffing, and toward the growing high-speed rail market. A similar deal was made in California, where Amtrak leveraged its operation of commuter trains in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay Areas and its fledgling profits to take control of the California High-Speed Rail system, whose initial operating segment opened in 2019.

Although industry insiders believed that the takeover was intended entirely to streamline labor issues, in 2020 Amtrak announced a reorganization, in which commuter trains within each metropolitan area would be run without respect for state boundaries or previous agency boundaries. Starting with the preexisting fare union with the MBTA, from which it bought Boston’s commuter rail operations, it entered into fare union and schedule coordination agreements with the major cities in the Northeast and California, allowing the local commuter rail lines to act as complements to the urban subway networks. Although this had been hinted in the original plans drawn up in 2013, the separation of agencies and Amtrak’s focus on building the core high-speed network delayed this.

Together with aggressive construction of extensions and long-desired urban commuter rail projections, usually at much lower cost than advertised in the 2000s and 10s, the changes led to a rapid increase in ridership. Together with the commuter lines, Amtrak’s ridership was 700 million in 2020. By 2030, it had risen to 4 billion. By then, high-speed lines opened along more corridors, connecting from the Northeast to Albany, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Atlanta; from California to Phoenix and Las Vegas; and in the Midwest from Chicago to Cleveland, Detroit, and St. Louis. Most, though not all, are operated by Amtrak, with seamless inter-railroad operation through trackage rights, and in many of these cities, beginning with Chicago, the local transit agencies engaged in the same commuter rail modernization afforded to the Northeast and invested in additional rapid transit or light rail lines. The effect on the share of commuters using public transportation to get to work was large. In the Philadelphia region it rose from 12% in 2020 to 36% in 2040, in the Chicago region it rose from 15% to 39%, and in the Los Angeles region it rose from 9% to 40%.

Not all commentators and transportation professionals agree with Amtrak’s role in the trend of rising public transportation use. The libertarian Reason Foundation and its associated Siemens Institute for Urban Development both note that the largest cities in the United States also upzoned to allow for taller buildings near train stations. SIUD’s statement cites 2020s development near Secaucus Junction in New Jersey, two stops away from Penn Station, as one example. The head of the Reason Foundation’s transportation program said, “Amtrak is fully unionized, and this may spell problems in the future,” adding that so far it had only been able to maintain productivity because of its fast growth, but in the future layoffs and pay cuts may be necessary.

On the left, the Mayor of Atlanta attacked Amtrak’s focus on profits and its unwillingness to help set up regional rail in the South. He said, “We have a lot of people here who think that trains are just something for rich people. I know that it’s not true – I mean, this focus on public transit began back when it was opposite – but nowadays rich cities like New York and Los Angeles have this infrastructure and Atlanta doesn’t. None of the people who set up this system intended to have this racial effect, but it’s there, and we need to address it.” Both members of Congress representing part of the city released statements agreeing with the mayor’s remarks, and one of their staffers, speaking on background, added that she finds it suspect that the revival of public transportation in the US began just as African-American motorization accelerated in the early years of this century.

In fact, Senator Katrina Schweitzer (D-MT) announced her intention to introduce an amendment to the existing Climate Change Reduction Acts, to lower the carbon and pollution taxes collected from rural states. Beltway insiders consider the friction point to be remarks made by several members of the Amtrak board in the early 2030s, taking credit for near-unanimous Northeastern and Californian support for the first such act in 2030. Sen. Schweitzer’s office released numbers showing a divergence between living standards in the Northeast, the West Coast, and the Chicago region, and the rest of the country, coming from reduced urban costs of living and increased rural costs. As an alternative, Sen. Schweitzer’s office added, Amtrak should be required to spend its profits on expanding to the South and Interior West. Amtrak ruled out such a move in the short run.

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21 Responses to Amtrak Expects 10 Billion Passengers

  1. Adirondacker12800 says:

    Amtrak should be required to spend its profits on expanding to the South and Interior West.

    Yet another way for the yokels to suck money out of the Northeast and California. Capntransit says if the transit is making money your fares are too high, something he and I can agree on especially if the high fares in Chicago, New York, Dallas and LA are financing stuff in Georgia and Alabama. Let ‘em go ask the Tea Partiers they elected in 2016 why they shouldn’t take the money.

    • Alon Levy says:

      Is there any doubt that this is how the people in Montana and Georgia would feel?

    • Danny says:

      I don’t really agree. I would rather say that if your transit is making money, your frequency is too low, or your investment levels are too low.

      • Adirondacker12800 says:

        I seem to remember that the theorem was that once they have a state of good repair they can contemplate increasing service and once everybody has good service, if they are still making money, the fares are too high, it’s not time to rejoice that the system is making money.,,,, and anyway, a corporation that exists for public benefit as opposed to private profit really shouldn’t be making money, once they’ve salted away some money so that they don’t have to borrow or can ust it to maintain service during a economic downturn etc.

        • BruceMcF says:

          It hinges on 3rd party benefits ~ one way to see that is that if there are substantial 3rd party benefits, and the passengers are paying the full cost of the service, then the people receiving the 3rd party benefits are free riding.

  2. tehgreengrass says:

    The way ridership’s growing lately…

  3. Jiim says:

    How pleasant it is, on the day that CHSRA releases its revised revised business plan, to retreat into fantasy. It’s a nice touch that Amtrak rescues CHSRA in this history.

    One cavil: there was a plan at one point to build a fairly complex commuter rail structure around Atlanta. Should this history have come to pass and Atlanta become an HSR end-point, that plan could have been revived and integrated into the overall passenger rail structure. Georgia, then, doesn’t become a loser state and it’s not the Mayor of Atlanta complaining about the new order of things. The Mayor of New Orleans, perhaps.

    • Alon Levy says:

      Yeah, I know.

      The main reason I made Atlanta the city that gets crap rail is an issue of core and secondary products. In this future history, Amtrak’s core products are HSR, and the regional rail networks in the Northeast and California. It’s meant to mirror the practice of DB, SNCF, and the mainland JRs somewhat. It would run commuter trains in Atlanta if Georgia paid it, but it wouldn’t invest or risk its own money, and Georgia’s state legislature hates and underfunds its primate city in ways that make New York look like a model government.

      The other one is pure trend-projection: Georgia is becoming poorer. Will it do as poorly in the next 30 years as it has in the last 10? Maybe, maybe not. Reversals do happen, as we can see with Upstate New York. Gun to head I’d say this trend is going to continue, but I don’t really know.

      • Nathanael says:

        Georgia is going to wither and die; not *only* is there the 150-year history of racism driving totally reactionary politics, it’s also in the direct line of fire from global warming. I mean, yeah, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama will die first, but Georgia is in big trouble.

        If Atlanta — a town built to serve a railroad junction! — ever gets freed from the state of Georgia, perhaps if the rest of the population of Georgia flees, it could thrive; it’s just far enough inland and just far enough north…

        • Eric says:

          You do know that Georgia contains the Appalachian MOUNTAINS and Atlanta is at the foot of them? NY, LA, SF, DC, and Boston are all MUCH more vulnerable to global warming.

          • Alon Levy says:

            All of those coastal cities are just mildly vulnerable to a sea level rise. The terrain is too hilly for a realistic catastrophic sea level rise to flood more than a few neighborhoods. Miami is the most vulnerable to that.

            I think the point is more that the associated climate change would make the South uninhabitable. Personally I’m skeptical; if Georgia’s climate becomes the same as that Phoenix has today, we have bigger problems to worry about than which cities grow and which don’t. Problems like “Will high-income industrial civilization survive?” and “Will we be able to limit the mass die-off of humans to less than a billion?”. My own take on Georgia is purely economic; it’s had negative income growth in the last ten years.

          • Adirondacker12800 says:

            Climate change doesn’t mean it’s going to be evenly warmer all over. Hong Kong is barely going to change. Moscow and Minneapolis on the other hand might see much warmer weather. So even in worst case scenarios Atlanta goes from being Hong Kong-like 4 months of the year to being Macau-like six months of the year. Snow becomes rare. Minneapolis turns into Memphis… If the Great Plains and Australia get wetter we have more food. If the Great Plains and Australia get drier we have a problem. But then the steppes of Russia and the Ukraine might get warmer and wetter and make up for it. Tax meat and more people eat more Quorn and tofu…

  4. Well, that’s vision and only a mathematician born and raised outside the US of A. with a passion for transit could come up with this. Believe me, toward the end I had tears in my eyes and at the same time I was laughing my behind off thinking about those jerks at reason,com trying to explain that….
    However I believe that this has the same likeness as Greece coming out its sovereign debt in 30 years, and smelling like roses on top of that…

  5. Amber says:

    If money can be made by transporting passengers over routes owned by freight railways, then the freight railways will elect to provide the service. Which business would let an outsider use valuable resources so that the outsider can profit?

    • jim says:

      That’s true. I would expect BNSF to take over the Cascades and probably the Hiawathas and Heartland Flyer once PRIIA 209 is fully implemented. It wouldn’t surprise me if UP took over the Chicago-St. Louis service once it’s upgraded to 110 mph.

      Amtrak will continue to run the money-losing long distance services, corridor services that either freight lines don’t want or where a state wants to deal with a single entity (e.g. perhaps California) and services on (or mostly on) its own tracks: Chicago-Detroit and the Northeast considered broadly, Maine and New York State to North Carolina, including, one hopes, HSR on the NEC.

      • Adirondacker12800 says:

        Privatize the profits and socialize the costs, eh? If Amtrak starts making money on Chicago-St.Louis why should they turn it over to UP? They could use the revenue to upgrade Chicago-Milwaukee. When they start making money on Chicago-Milwaukee they could use the money to upgrade Chicago-Detroit even more. Then upgrade Chicago-Cleveland. Or use the money they are making on DC-Charlottesburg to upgrade DC-Richmond. Or use the money they are making on Chicago-St.Louis to finish the EIR etc on full fat HSR between Chicago and St.Louis…

        • jim says:

          If Amtrak starts making money on Chicago-St.Louis why should they turn it over to UP?

          It’s an Illinois-sponsored corridor service. Illinois can bid it out. UP can play hardball over further upgrades or service level increases to encourage Illinois to bid it out. If it is bid out UP can outbid Amtrak. Amtrak has to bid the standard cost structure negotiated across all the states.

  6. Matthew says:

    April 2nd, 2042.

    Just kidding, yesterday. Actually, Amtrak was disbanded 25 years ago, along with all HSR plans, and all right of ways were sold off to build more highways. Trains are for liberal elites, and anyone caught violating the Automobile Mandate by walking in public will be arrested and strip searched on the spot.

    For May 2042, we forecast that approximately 10 billion people will be sitting in a traffic jam in the United States, combined, at any one moment in time. President George Bush the IV is preparing to announce a plan to address this and create jobs by doubling the amount of available highway lane-miles in a press conference tomorrow.

  7. T. Caine says:

    Great post, Alon.

  8. Pingback: Quick Note: Vancouver’s Transit Revival | Pedestrian Observations

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