Friday, June 10, 2011

What is Michigan Paying for Amtrak Service?

Ever heard someone say something like this? "I'm not going to pay to subsidize passenger rail, because I never use it. Always loses money, anyway!"

This is an important question for Wake Up Washtenaw, because we strongly support the idea of making public transportation profitable for the transportation providers without degrading service to the public.

So how much subsidy does rail get in Michigan? Here's a tidbit based on 2010 figures in the Michigan Department of Transportation Rail Draft Plan:

In 2010...

  • 775,997 passengers boarded or alighted from trains in Michigan
  • Amtrak collected $24,600,000 in fares from those passengers
  • The State of Michigan paid $7,585,976 to Amtrak to operate the Blue Water and Pere Marquette trains
  • Amtrak paid about $35 million for the Wolverine trains
  • Average fare on all Michigan services was $31.70
  • Average state contribution per trip $9.78
  • State contribution plus passenger contribution was $41.48 per trip
  • Passengers contributed 3.243 times more for Amtrak service than the state did, 76% of the state+passenger contribution

By contrast, the Federal Highway Trust Fund (paid for mainly by fuel taxes and other user fees) covered only 70% of its expenditures for new highways and existing highway maintenance.

John Langdon, Governmental / Public Affairs Coordinator of the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers, writes in an email dated June 8,

Going back over 5 years ago a Amtrak spokesmen stated that it takes 35 million to cover the operation of the 3 Wolverines trains with 10 million being generated from fare box leaving 25 to come from state support per PRIIA section 209. The rolling 12 months [revenue] ending May 11 is
Oct 10 - May 11

The question is how much has the cost of operation gone up?

As we face the looming deadline of 2013 when we'll have to pay for our own Wolverine service, an important question is, how can revenue be increased without increasing fares or expenses? There are several possible ways.

  • Adding cars without adding locomotives or staff. Amtrak has been doing this, as a matter of fact. Many of the Wolverine trains are powered by two 4,250-HP locomotives, one at either end to avoid a lengthy and expensive turn-around procedure in Pontiac. I believe 8,500 HP is enough to propel ten or twelve cars to 110 MPH. The problem as I understand it has been a shortage of coaches, but as ARRA funds allowed, refurbished coaches have been added to trains. (Amtrak purchased a lot of locomotives in the 1990s when they planned a big expansion of rail-express service, but they had to get out of that business, leaving them with more locomotives than they really needed. Some were leased to other passenger lines, but most remain available.)
  • Marketing efforts. A surprising number of people aren't aware of Amtrak service availability, and might ride the train if they knew the schedules and fares. The universities along the lines (MSU, WMU, WSU, and UM) already provide a great many riders, but might provide more.
  • Volunteers at stations. Station agents often have long lines waiting for either tickets or information. If the information could be reliably given by volunteers, it would make the experience much more pleasant and attract more repeat business. With proper training and authorization, volunteers might be able to open one or two more doors of the train and help passengers on and off to speed boarding.
  • Booster groups. Amtrak's Texas Eagle (Chicago to San Antonio) went through a hard time ten or fifteen years ago, when it was threatened with discontinuation. A number of cities and businesses along the route got together and worked for its continuation, forming the "Texas Eagle Marketing and Performance Organization". Each of our lines could have similar organizations.

There really is a lot we can do to preserve and improve our train service, and we should get busy and do it.

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