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As Amtrak's Train Cars Age, Ridership Skew Young


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.




UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: ...6.112...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: ...225,840.

MARTIN: Time for some number crunching from our data expert Mona Chalabi from fivethirtyeight.com. And she has given us this number of the week.


MARTIN: That's the number of daily passengers who ride through the Northeast corridor where the train derailed on Tuesday killing eight people and injuring hundreds. The crash has brought attention to one of the busiest passenger rail routes in the United States. Mona Chalabi has been looking more closely at this route. Hey, Mona.


MARTIN: How does this particular area, this route, compare in terms of ridership to other train routes in the country?

CHALABI: So this is one of the most important passenger routes in the country. In fact, it is the most important. Every day over 2,200 trains travel along that corridor carrying with them 750,000 passengers. Those are daily numbers that come from the commission that's tasked with taking care of this route. They say that almost half of all passenger trips that happen nationwide take place along this one route. Now when it comes to Amtrak specifically, Amtrak says it carried 11.6 million passengers along the Northeast corridor in the 2014 fiscal year. That was their highest ridership year yet. Ticket sales from those passengers generated $1.2 billion in revenue.

MARTIN: OK, $1.2 billion, that sounds like a lot. But we hear all these news headlines that Amtrak has had all this financial difficulty, right?

CHALABI: That's right. In the same fiscal year, Amtrak still managed to report an operating loss of $227 million. And Amtrak gets help from Congress to cover that operating shortfall.

MARTIN: So operating shortfall - so this is just an operating budget to keep the trains running on time? Or is some of this money supposed to be used for maintenance or upgrading infrastructure?

CHALABI: No. The way to think about this is kind of, like, a bit of a snapshot. I'm looking at the balance sheet here. And it's the difference between Amtrak's revenues - and that comes from things like passenger ticket sales - and the money it spends on things like salaries and fuel. So it's not the same as the money it needs to actually improve the service and invest. That sum is way higher. So in 2010, Amtrak said it needed $52 billion for repairs and capacity expansion on the Northeast corridor over the next 20 years.

MARTIN: So what kind disrepair are we talking about?

CHALABI: Well, the Bureau of Transportation statistics collects numbers on this, and they are surprisingly detailed actually. They found that in 2013, the average age of an Amtrak passenger train car was 28.6 years. In 2001, the average age was just 18.5 years.

MARTIN: But is it just about replacing old trains and improving infrastructure because, you know, Amtrak, as you've pointed out, the busiest passenger lines are along the East Coast. But they are also subsidizing routes throughout the rest of the country in parts of the Western states, in particular, that are far less populated and people aren't using those routes. Is there something systemic that's at play here, especially when it comes to the financial problems of Amtrak?

CHALABI: Yeah, I think you're right. There's a much bigger question here even beyond kind of small scale investment which is the way that Amtrak is actually run. So we know that some routes just aren't all that profitable, as you say. In 2013, Brookings released a detailed report into this. They basically found that you can split the Amtrak system into two. On the one hand, there are 26 Amtrak routes that run to 400 miles. They actually operate at a profit. They made $47 million in 2011. On the other hand, there are 15 routes that are really long. They're over 750 miles, and they don't do so great. That same year, those long routes resulted in a loss of $580 million. In its recommendations, the Brookings report argued that if a path is losing money, Congress needs to make a deal with the states along those routes about how best to make it financially viable. If states can't do that, they have to be prepared to see those routes just disappear.

MARTIN: Mona Chalabi of fivethirtyeight.com. Thanks so much, Mona.

CHALABI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.