Riding the Amtrak rails on the government's dime

amtrak southwest chief cross country train origwx js_00002504
amtrak southwest chief cross country train origwx js_00002504

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    Amtrak's cross-country trains lose money and win hearts

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Amtrak's cross-country trains lose money and win hearts 02:28

Story highlights

  • Amtrak can be an interesting and affordable way for riders to get across the country
  • But it's costing the federal government quite a bit

The Southwest Chief, Middle America (CNN)There's something about taking a shower as you hurtle at 90 mph through Kansas cornfields.

The bathroom is so compact there's a high probability it was designed by NASA. The water sloshes around your feet. It slaps the walls. You slap into the walls. You're basically standing on top of the toilet.
By the time it's over, you feel like you need a shower.
    Bizarre and unnatural as this experience may feel, it happens nearly 365 days a year -- in two directions along this route and 14 others. The Southwest Chief runs from Chicago to Los Angeles and back every day, spanning 2,265 miles and eight states.
    This is long-distance train travel in America. Highly subsidized long-distance train travel.
    Most Americans aren't taking showers on their trains. Those who do ride Amtrak are bopping up and down the Eastern seaboard on the only routes that make Amtrak money: the Northeast corridor trains and the Acela.
    But it's still possible to hop on the train at one end of the country and end up on the other. end. And while it isn't always that expensive for riders, it's costing the taxpayers quite a bit.

    At taxpayers expense

    Taking a cross-country train can be an affordable, albeit slow, way to travel. A 24-year-old engineer named Derek Low blogged about how he spent less than $500 to see the country on Amtrak. Trains crisscross through parts of the lower 48 that most Americans never see. It can be a mode of transportation or a hobby.
    "It's fun and stress-free, and as a photographer, I can take pictures from the window," John Corbett, a long-time Amtrak rider says.
    But the federal government coughs up a portion of the cost, too, in the form of subsidies for the Amtrak system. The system lost $340 million in 2014 (the long-distance routes alone lost over $600 million), despite Amtrak receiving $1.4 billion in federal subsidies.
    "These routes are not, from a business standpoint, successful -- they couldn't possibly be," says Charlie Gentry, who was traveling from Chicago to Lamie, New Mexico over the summer. "And so we're enjoying this trip at the expense of taxpayers all over the rest of this country."
    The golden age of rail travel fell in the early 20th century, when upwards of 1,500 railroad companies were operating. Nearly all interstate commerce and travel was conducted by railway.
    By the time the 1950s rolled around, cars had become more affordable. Government regulators mandated that railroad companies offer passenger rail service, which in turn drove nearly every one out of business. It wasn't until the 1970s that regulations were relaxed under what became known as the 4R (Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform) Act. Amtrak took hold and the remaining railroad companies focused almost primarily on freight.

    'A Soviet-style train system'

    At the top of the Amtrak corporate strategy map, it says one of the rail carrier's business objectives is to "reduce our ... adjusted net loss" by maximizing revenue and minimizing operating costs. It's a basic formula. Yet, Amtrak as a whole has never been profitable.
    "Amtrak has had a long history of waste, fraud and abuse," says its biggest critic, Rep. John Mica, R-Florida. "We're running a Soviet-style train system and a third-world country operation."
    Mica says that despite billions in federal subsidies, the rail system continues to bleed money, and high-speed rail service -- something many Americans are clamoring for, he says -- is not possible through Amtrak.
    Joe McHugh, Amtrak's vice president for corporate communications, says his organization is doing its best with what it's got.
    "The infrastructure that we operate over was modernized in the 1930s and then again in the 1970s," he says. "We continue to do work on it."
    But the money does not exist for the kind of dedicated train line with electric power that, according to McHugh, would be required for true high-speed rail service, a la what exists in parts of Japan, the United Kingdom and throughout much of the eurozone.
    Nor will that money be there, according to Mica.
    "Congress is never going to give Amtrak $150 billion or wait 30 years for high-speed train service in the Northeast corridor," Mica says.
    And beyond the Northeast -- the only sector of Amtrak's system that is profitable -- the financial situation is bleak.
    Indeed, an April 2014 Amtrak financial plan lays out the dire state of the organization's finances. While operating losses are projected to fall each year through 2018, losses are expected to increase each year on long-distance routes like the Chief.
    Despite losing a combined $620 million in 2014, Amtrak calls its long-distance routes "the backbone of our system." In a way, despite the losses, they're right. Small communities far from the interstate highway system and even farther from major airports rely on Amtrak to connect their residents to metropolitan areas. Some towns even raised what amounted to token sums of money for Amtrak when budgetary concerns earlier this year raised the prospect of rerouting the Chief away from their communities. The small city of Newton, Kansas -- population, 19,000 -- offered $27,500 toward the $100 million Amtrak needed for track improvement.

    How to travel relaxed

    Before the shower in Kansas at 90 mph, a dinner of the Amtrak signature steak will cost $24.75, and can be enjoyed as the westbound train crosses the Kansas River. If you manage to get a full eight hours of shut-eye, you'll wake up rested and you won't be in Kansas anymore.
    The attitude on the train is decidedly Midwestern. Ask how to lock the bedroom door from the outside before exploring the train and an attendant might tell you, "It doesn't, really." Express concern about the thousands of dollars of equipment inside and she'll say, "Nobody will take that. Besides, where would they go with it? And even though the petite dining car attendant collects hundreds or thousands of dollars in cash over the course of 44 hours and five meals, there is no formal security on board (though Amtrak says security measures are in place to protect its passengers and employees).
    It's a far cry from the TSA line at the airport. The situation in the sightseeing car is likewise a far cry from the sardine-sized coach class seats on a jetliner. Large, outward-facing seats behind a nearly 180-degree bank of windows offer stunning panoramic views of America's heartland. Inside looking out, the assembled passengers consist mostly of retired folks and Mennonites.
    "I know a plane's fast where it takes you, but if you really want to relax yourself, this is what you need to do," says Ruben Barry Hubbard, who traveled on Amtrak from Savannah, Georgia, to Washington to Chicago and from there was on his way to Hutchinson, Kansas, to pick up a used fire truck to drive back to Georgia. "When you're on the train, especially one of these supertrains, these high-riding trains, you can see out the windows. ... It's really nice."
    The base fare for Hubbard's trip is about $260. It's also more than 56 hours long. Alternatively, Hubbard could have booked a flight from Savannah to Wichita -- 39 miles from Hutchinson -- for $200 and traveled only five hours.
    "I used to fly the planes, but I don't like flying planes no more," Hubbard says. "It's a little bit longer and a little bit more tiresome, but I feel a little bit more safer on the train."

    Savannah to Hutchinson: A 'torture ride'?

    Mica, the anti-Amtrak congressman, describes Hubbard's journey as "a torture ride."
    "You bring in entrepreneurs and there's an opportunity to make that a pleasure ride rather than a torture long-distance ride," he says.
    The Florida Republican wants the government to privatize the national rail system.
    "Why wouldn't you open it up to getting funds from the private sector that can also get a return?" Mica says. "They've done it in Europe, they've done it in the Far East, they've done it in other countries. Why can't we do it here in the United States?"
    The reason, Amtrak's McHugh says, is simple: "It's really difficult for anyone to say that moving people can be done at a profit."
    "I think that's why the freight railroads got out of the business in the first place," McHugh says. "It cost them a whole lot more money than they were making."
    Could a private company make money serving the whole country, and not just "cherry-picking the best routes," as McHugh says? Doubtful.
    "It's probably not feasible in the short run that a private operation would sort of take over those long routes, considering how expansive those routes are and how many players are involved," says Joseph Kane, a researcher with the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.
    McHugh calls Amtrak a "well-run operation" that has "been a net positive and a bargain for the American taxpayer."

    End of the line

    Rolling through the Southeastern California night on your way into Los Angeles, the only light for miles around is the blinking red railroad lanterns at the end of dark, desert roads.
    You can sit on your bed and lean over the sink to brush your teeth and watch the sun rise over Fullerton -- founded as a railway town in the 1860s. There's plenty of time on the trip to wonder if more people knew that such quaint travel was still possible, would such quaint travel be so unprofitable? Or is the railroad not worth the cost?