Amtrak and the Economics of the Sunset Limited

By Deane Barker on June 30, 2005

Some good news — it looks like Amtrak isn’t going to die anymore, given that Congress just gave them $626 million. But are we just shoring up an industry that, sadly, hasn’t been self-sufficient in this country in maybe 20 years (total speculation there)?

I love trains, and I wish I could catch one out of Sioux Falls (sadly, there’s a huge hole in Amtrak service in the South Dakota – Montana – Wyoming area). What geek doesn’t get excited at a big ol’ locomotive?

I wish Amtrak could thrive in this country, but it’s never caught on much outside the Northeast. The sad fact is that it’s just cheaper and more convenient to fly.

An example —

Did you know Amtrak has a cross-country line? The Sunset Limited runs 68 hours between Orlando and Los Angeles. Hardly anyone knows this, because hardly anyone would even consider it.

And why would we? Coach fare on the Sunset Limited is $295. Northwest Airlines, on the other hand, is offering the same trip in six hours (with a stop in Memphis) for $283. With economics like this, it’s a wonder the Sunset runs at all. (According to this page, the Sunset costs $0.36 per mile to run, but the fare only covers $0.24.)

But where’s the romance in flying? Train travel can be a group endeavour to a much greater extent than flying. For $570, you and a friend can travel the Sunset in style:

The Viewliner Roomette is designed for one or two passengers, with comfortable reclining seats on either side of a sweeping picture window. At night, the seats convert to a bed, and an upper berth with its own picture window folds out from the upper wall.

For $1,295 you and the kids can travel like kings:

The Family Bedroom spans the entire width of the car and has two picture windows. The sofa and two reclining seats convert to beds and the two upper berths fold down from above. Located on the lower level of Superliner sleeping cars, these bedrooms include two adult-sized berths and two child-sized berths.

Plus, you get to travel on a trains with cool names like the “Silver Meteor,” “Capital Limited,” and “Southwest Chief.”

So, is that worth 68 hours? No, I guess not, and that depresses me.

So what’s the trick? What would make Amtrak survive in the United States without massive subsidies? Maybe this question is unfair — the Wikipedia article on Amtrak asserts that no mass transportation system in this country is really self-sufficient:

Highways, airports, and air traffic control all require large expenditures to build and maintain, although some of those taxpayer dollars are gained for other modes under the guise of user fees and highway fuel and road taxes.

But this still doesn’t address the popularity issue. Why does train service have such an image problem in this country? Any ideas?

Some links:

(The image at the top of the post was taken from the excellent Wikipedia article on Amtrak.)

What Links Here


  1. I did AMTRAK Seattle-LA and back in 1990. It was about 1 1/2 days and was totally relaxing. You get to see sights that you can’t see from the road and the food was pretty good. However, there were numerous unexplained delays and the train stops in some pretty weird places (like Martinez, CA). It was also fairly clear that the train personnel needed a very strong kick in the ass.

  2. It’s all about freedom and convenience. We want to go where we want to go, when we want to go and we want to be able to get around once we get there.

    Trains take too long and don’t go all the places we want to go. Let’s see, 68 hours vs. 6 hours with 3 kids under 4 years old; I would pay 3 times (maybe more) as much for the 6 hour trip. And certainly, airplanes don’t go all the places we want to go either, but the trips are faster giving us more time.

    I am not saying this is a good thing. It would probably be better if we were all a little less hurried and would take the time to ride the train.

  3. Noel has got a point; it’s the freedom and convenience that we get with cars that has doomed the trains. Sure it’d be great to go on a cross-country train ride with my family and see all the sights there are to see, but with the train you’re confined to the train and bound to its schedule — no room or time for side trips and doing your own thing.

  4. There is one reason train never cought on… its called the big three auto makers.

    They understood how to get their way in congress. Just think about what Amtrak has to pay for. Tracks, maintinance, right of way… that big shiny new super highway… someone had to pay for the land… and highway up keep… yup, paid for by your tax dollar. I bet $700m is a drop in the bucket compared to the highway spending. Trains would be more frequent and more convenient and go more places if they got the funds highways do.

  5. Keith’s comment has a good point about comparing federal AMTRACK spending to highway spending. Rail travel also competes with airlines, which have gotten (and continue to get) billions of dollars in federal funds in recent years.

    But here’s something to consider: what if the true cost of each transportation mode was passed through to users, instead of being disguised and lumped in with our taxes. Consider how expensive auto travel would be if you paid directly for roads (tolls), parking, oil cleanups…suddenly rail travel looks a lot more favorable (as in Europe).

  6. There are other geographical and cultural factors. The United States is a big country. It is far more spread out then our European counterparts. The easiest way to get across those distances is by plane. The compact nature of Europe is more amenable to trains. Trains also save space. In compact places, numerous cars means greater headaches. Think of New York City. Virtually impossible to really drive around. Ride the subway and get virtually anywhere.

    Most cities in America did not have the forethought in city planning like NYC did. The compact and dense nature of NYC forced city developers to come up with an adequate transportation system. If you look at a lot of the public transportation systems in most cities, they are afterthoughts, plugged into the already crazy conglomeration of poor city planning. I live in Saint Louis. We did not have any light rail transportation system until the early ’90s. Thats almost ninety years after NYC. And almost one hundred and thirty years after London. One hundred and thirty years!

    I tell ya what though, if gas hits $3 a gallon I will have to find a job that I can get to by public transportation or work from home.

  7. price/convenence comparisons vary a lot. san antonio to new orleans is $65 each way. by air it’s $350 round-trip, and by the time you add in the “check in two hours before departure” policy at the airport and parking expenses, hassles and delays, amtrak brgins looking very fast and convenient. i can easily take my bicycle on an amtrak train, for $5, whereas airlines charge $80-$100 each way, and really make travelling with bkes a hassle.

    check the congressional record. our congressmen are on record deliberatly keeping amtrack down so that they won’t compete with the airlines.

  8. Amtrak is unpopular because it is slow. It is slower than travel by car, slower than travel by plane, and often, slower than travel by bus. End of story, full stop. You can’t charge more the the cost of travel by car for travel by a slower means of transportation.

    Europe and Japan which have relatively thriving rail systems, have high speed rail. So does the Northeastern Corridor, the only successful part of the Amtrak system.

    But, a profitable high speed rail system requires greater population density than is present in most of the United States.

  9. The problem is tha americans dont want to spend the money on such a massive undertaking. In japan and europe,its easier because of more sufficient government funding and france is a lot smaller than the united states. I hope One day americans will invest in this.

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