Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Is Amtrak outrageously expensive to run?

Earlier, I'd dredged up Amtrak's costs per train-mile in an effort to see the breakdowns in expense for each route. Unfortunately, it's a touch out of context being composed solely of American routes. We can see that some routes are rather more expensive than others, and others apparently being absurdly cheap, but the major question of whether Amtrak's costs are reasonable is unanswered. For comparison purposes, let's look at the Japanese railways.

According to JR Central's 2005 annual report (page 60), they ran a total of 94,273,000 train kilometers in that fiscal year. Against this, page 3 reports $7,605,074,000 in operating costs and expenses for the railway sector of their business, which comes to a total of $80.67 per train-kilometer or $129.83 per train-mile. Adjusting for inflation, from 2005-2011 dollars, it comes out to $150 even.

For JR East, using Central's reported figures, they ran 259,594,000 train-kilometers on an expense of 1,677,929,000,000 yen (page 15), or $15,681,579,439 at the applicable 107:1 exchange rate, producing an operating expense of $60.41 per train-kilometer, $97.22 per train-mile, and $112 adjusted for inflation.

With JR West, again using Central's reported train-kilometers figures, we have 199,796,000 train kilometers on $8,225 million in transportation operating costs. This equates to $41.17 per train-km, $66.26 per mile, and $76.30 after adjusting for inflation.

As it turns out, Amtrak is actually in decent ground when it comes to expenses per train-mile, thought it must be kept in mind that these numbers do include a large amount of commuter work, which should have lower expenses. Where the problem lies is in the fact that the trains are so small, raising the costs per seat-mile and rendering them unprofitable as a result. It's actually rather puzzling why Amtrak chose to build the world's smallest passenger capacity high speed rail train especially at a time when both Japan and France were building double deckers to add even more seats and capacity to their future trains.


  1. As far as the Acela goes the problem may well be New York, for two reasons: clearence in the North River Tunnels and platform length at Penn Station. That being said Amtrak is buying additional cars for the existing train sets, so some expansion is possible.

    1. Clearance does present an issue with regards to trying to use double deck cars, but Acela could certainly be longer as well. The major stations, to my knowledge, should be more than capable of handling a 400m train; the rest can simply be bypassed or have some extra concrete poured to lengthen them.

      The real problem is that Acela is wasteful when it comes to space. Compared to a 500 Series Shinkansen, it has half as many seats per meter. The comparison isn't quite as bad with the single level TGV RĂ©seau, but that still has about 25% more seats per meter.

      Largely the poor performance compared to the Shinkansen can be explained by the use of power cars instead of EMUs (and uncorrectable in future designs as the FRA now prohibits passengers in the lead cars of Tier II trains, those going faster than 125mph). If we adjust for them, the Shinkansen's effective seating density is about 50% higher instead of double.

    2. Many of the major stations do not have long platforms yet, though the most constrained (New York, Washington) do, and of the rest, all can be extended fairly easily with the exception of New London.

  2. Costs are less of a worry if revenues are high enough, and low margins may not be the product of poor cost control so much as they are the result of brutal competition with the airlines and bus lines.

    Acela has vigorous competition from the airlines on BOS-NYC-PHL-WAS. In Japan between the inconvenience of the airports and the speed of the train, there is no such competition. Couple that with Japanese people being (at the median) smaller and accustomed to crowded trains, and JR is freer to pack more people on trains. JR comes out ahead, but that doesn't mean Acela is dumb.

    Acela has chosen to compete on space and price with the airlines because it does not have the luxury of being obviously faster point-to-point. In such a market, giving more room to passengers seems like the right competitive choice.

    1. Acela really isn't competing on price with the airlines (if it were, it wouldn't be a business class minimum). Comparing a one-way ticket, from New York to D.C. with Amsnag and Matrix Airfare Search, the Acela's are universally more expensive except for last minute business class travel. With return fare, they should be more expensive even then.

      Right now Acela is basically running at capacity (hence the additional cars for each train set); they would have even greater market share if they had more seating availability.

      As for why "Acela is dumb": You're building a train set that, in theory, should last for about thirty years of service (currently, they're planned to be retired after 25). There are several countries with extensive experience in high speed rail, ridership gains from it (which is one of the reasons you are buying it), and as you are having bids for it, not only do you not consider the trend of the major HSR countries (including one of the successful vendors, Alstom), of double-deck trains (which we might grant as reasonable due to tunnel clearance), but the train itself has fewer seats than any other HST in the world. I mean, it really is absolutely absurd that Amtrak would do that when the best examples were doing 400 meter long double deckers. You build for the future, not for today.

    2. Seat pitch on business class on the Acela, or on coach on the Regional, is 42". That's 1,067 mm. On the Shinkansen, seat pitch in standard class is 1,000 mm on Tokaido and Sanyo and 1,040 mm on the newer trains on Tohoku.

      Amtrak has wider seats, but even if you look at 2+2 Shinkansen trains, they have way more seats per unit length than the Acela.

      By the way: the trend is toward single-deck trains, except in France. All the export products are single-deck, and the double-deck Shinkansen are considered a failure and are being retired early. Korea, whose first-generation trains are TGV clones, is developing EMUs to increase capacity rather than adopting double-deckers.

  3. Since Acela Express is unusually heavy in order to meet FRA crash requirements, I suspect the adverse performance effects of longer trainsets would not tolerable.

  4. FRA weight requirements. Platform lengths. Signal block lengths. But probably, most of all, *funding shortages*. Amtrak has *always* purchased fewer railway carriages than it needs because it has always had a funding shortage.


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