We frequently receive questions from elected and government officials, members of the news media and other stakeholders on topics such as Amtrak’s financial performance, its operations and services, and improving and expanding intercity passenger rail service. In order to make information about these topics readily available to all of those with an interest in Amtrak, we have compiled below responses to frequently asked questions. Many include links to further details about a topic. General information about Amtrak can also be found in our Company Profile.
All About Amtrak
Amtrak — America’s Railroad — is an intercity passenger railroad company, created by Congress and tasked with providing “efficient and effective intercity passenger rail mobility consisting of high quality service that is trip-time competitive with other intercity travel options.”
Historically, by law, private railroads had a “common carrier” obligation to move not just freight, but passengers. By the 1950s and ’60s, shifting transportation patterns — driven in part by public subsidies for air and highway travel — meant that most railroads were losing money on their passenger operations; as a result, many were on the verge of bankruptcy. At the same time, Americans recognized that passenger service remained an important public good, and were unwilling to let that service disappear. As a solution, Congress created Amtrak; the company relieved private railroads of their obligation to serve passengers, receiving in exchange a combination of equipment, one-time funding, and certain permanent rights (including the right to operate over other “host” railroads’ tracks). Amtrak began national operations on May 1, 1971.
Amtrak is a federally chartered corporation, operated and managed as a for-profit company, but with the U.S. government as its controlling shareholder. The Amtrak Board of Directors are appointed by the president of the United States and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
Ninety-seven percent of the route-miles traveled by Amtrak trains are on tracks owned by other railroads. Known as “hosts,” these include large “Class I” freight railroads; other, smaller private railroads; and commuter (regional passenger) railroads owned by public agencies. On nearly all routes, Amtrak, its state partners, and/or the federal government have funded capital investments to upgrade or increase the capacity of hosts’ tracks, and Amtrak pays its hosts for the incremental costs they incur from the company’s use of their tracks, and for other necessary resources and services. In most cases, hosts control dispatching over the tracks that they own. As a result, along most routes, Amtrak cannot by itself guarantee that its trains will arrive on time (the company offers incentive payments to many of its hosts in order to encourage good on-time performance, but the payments are just that: non-binding incentives).
In some places, however, Amtrak does have direct control over, and responsibility for, the tracks over which its trains travel. The company owns 363 route-miles of the 457-mile NEC main line, and maintains and operates an additional segment between Boston, MA, and the Massachusetts-Rhode Island border. Nationally, Amtrak also owns and maintains other rail line segments between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, PA; Porter, IN, and Kalamazoo, MI; and New Haven, CT, and Springfield, MA. Additionally, the company operates and maintains (but does not own) segments between Kalamazoo and Dearborn, MI, and between Poughkeepsie and Hoffmans, NY (near Schenectady).
Amtrak Service & Customer Experience
Amtrak’s intercity passenger trains serve approximately 528 destinations in 46 states, the District of Columbia, and three Canadian provinces, along more than 21,400 miles of routes. In FY22, the company carried roughly 23 million passengers on its three service lines: Long Distance, State-Supported, and Northeast Corridor (NEC).
In addition to operating intercity trains, the company also performs several directly-related functions, including provision of connecting (Thruway) bus service, contract operations for certain commuter (regional passenger) railroads, and railroad infrastructure management (especially along the Boston-to-Washington Northeast Corridor).
This map depicts Amtrak’s current routes, which serve 46 states and the District of Columbia.
Amtrak, the FRA, and other stakeholders are working together to expand Amtrak’s network using new resources provided by the IIJA (bipartisan infrastructure law).
If a State-Supported route and Long Distance route serve the same segment, that segment is shown as State-Supported (blue). If the NEC and either a State-Supported or a Long Distance route serve the same segment, that segment is shown as NEC (red). Seasonal routes are not shown.
In 2008, the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA) established three operating intercity service lines within Amtrak:
Long Distance, which includes routes at least 750 miles in length, generally operated over unelectrified “host railroad” tracks, for which the federal government provides operating support;
State-Supported, which includes corridor routes up to 750 miles in length, generally operated over unelectrified “host railroad” tracks, for which sponsoring states work with Amtrak to determine the exact route, station stops, and service frequency, and for which those states provide operating support; and
The Northeast Corridor (NEC), which includes Northeast Regional and highspeed Acela service on the electrified, largely-Amtrak-owned main line (likewise called the NEC) between Washington, DC, and Boston.
The Long Distance and State-Supported service lines together form Amtrak’s “National Network” (as distinct from the NEC); note, however, that both “NEC” and “National Network” can have other meanings in other contexts.
While there is no universal, one-size-fits all definition of “high-speed rail service,” Amtrak’s flagship Acela trains reach speeds of up to 150 (soon to be 160) miles per hour along the Northeast Corridor, and therefore constitute high-speed rail service under the federal statutory definition codified at 49 U.S.C. § 26105(2) (i.e., they “reach sustained speeds of more than 125 miles per hour”). Many other Amtrak trains that do not technically qualify as “high-speed rail” are still highly trip time-competitive with other modes of travel; systemwide, nearly half of Amtrak trains reach top speeds of at least 100 mph.
Internationally, many high speed rail systems operate at speeds above 186 mph and require dedicated and specially-constructed rights-of-way and infrastructure. Amtrak strongly supports high-speed rail in appropriate markets in the United States, but we note that the construction of high-speed rail systems around the world was possible due to large infusions of governmental funding provided specifically for this purpose. Historically, Amtrak and our state partners have never received the level of sustained federal investment required to enable such development.
The single largest cause of delay to Amtrak passengers is freight train interference (FTI). FTI is frequently caused by a host railroad making Amtrak passengers wait so that a freight train can operate first. Federal law requires Amtrak to receive dispatching preference over freight, but too often that law is ignored by some host railroads.
Why does Amtrak need public funding? Shouldn’t we just have whatever level of rail service private companies can feasibly deliver?
Around the world, almost every large-scale passenger railroad depends upon public funding. This is because much of the value of passenger rail service accrues to the communities served in the form of reduced highway congestion, enhanced economic development, and environmental and quality-of-life benefits that can’t be captured through the fares charged to riders.
In the U.S., intercity passenger rail service was by the late 1960s consistently unprofitable; this change was due largely to the development (enabled by major federal investments) of commercial air transportation and interstate highways. At the time, many private railroads were required to provide passenger service, and were incurring huge losses as a result; this dynamic threatened the industry’s survival. In response, Congress established Amtrak to ensure the continued availability of intercity passenger service. As the Congressional Research Service has explained,
Amtrak was created because private-sector railroad companies in the United States lost money for decades operating intercity passenger rail service and wished to be relieved of the obligation to do so.
Congress never seriously expected Amtrak to be profitable, in part because of the same realities that required its creation, and profitability is not one of Amtrak’s statutory goals; rather, Congress has directed the company to “provide modern, cost-efficient, and energy-efficient intercity rail passenger transportation throughout the United States,” and to use “its best business judgment in acting to maximize the benefits of Federal investments.”
While operated and managed as a for-profit corporation, Amtrak is majority-owned by (and accountable to) the United States federal government; nearly all company directors are presidentially-appointed and Senate-confirmed, and the board engages with the general public at an annual meeting.
Precisely because the company relies on taxpayer support, it has put in place stringent internal controls to ensure that funding is put to its best and highest use, and to prevent both actual and apparent conflicts or improprieties; for instance, official company policy requires that the work of the Government Affairs and Corporate Communications Department be funded exclusively by non-federal sources like ticket revenue, to avoid the appearance of taxpayer dollars being used in a way that affects policy outcomes.
Moreover, Congress has prescribed a clear mission and goals for Amtrak, codified in law at 49 U.S.C. § 24101, and annual appropriations are made available only subject to detailed grant agreements containing extensive transparency and accountability requirements. The company is also subject to robust additional oversight by elements of both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, including the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), multiple congressional committees, and an embedded Office of Inspector General (OIG), which is tasked with promoting efficiency and preventing fraud or abuse.
Finally, by law, independently-audited, GAAP-compliant information on Amtrak’s financial performance is published annually, and reports containing substantial additional information on the company’s performance are available at amtrak.com/reports.
At one point, Amtrak was almost breaking even — right? Will the company ever get back to that point?
In FY19, just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Amtrak recovered roughly 99% of its total operating costs from passenger revenues. Since then, much has changed. Enactment of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA, or bipartisan infrastructure law) means the “capital delivery” part of Amtrak’s business is rapidly growing: as Congress intended, the company is using IIJA funding to undertake major capital investments. That growth is creating new costs that have to be considered “operating” costs rather than “capital” expenses under generally-accepted accounting principles (GAAP). While Amtrak’s ridership is returning to pre-pandemic levels, the company has lost years of ridership and revenue growth, and (like the rest of the travel industry) is experiencing a continuing reduction in high-revenue business travelers; at the same time, expenses have grown significantly due to inflation. As a result, operating costs are expected to continue to exceed revenues for the next several years on a consolidated basis — although our total adjusted operating loss is expected to lessen as we rebuild our business. In the long term, Amtrak seeks to regain the record-level financial performance exhibited just before the pandemic; the capital investments that we are making now will ultimately help us to deliver a more valuable service; grow our market share; and generate much higher revenues while carrying many more passengers.
Didn’t the IIJA (bipartisan infrastructure law) take care of Amtrak’s funding needs for years to come?
Unfortunately, no. While the IIJA provides historic levels of capital funding for Amtrak, Congress set clear ground rules for how those capital dollars can be used. By law, IIJA funding is reserved for specific categories of capital project (mostly repair or replacement of obsolete assets) and other clearly-identified purposes; in general, those IIJA dollars cannot be substituted for the annual grant funding necessary to operate trains and maintain the railroad each year. If Congress declines to provide Amtrak with robust annual appropriations, the company might not be able to sustain current service levels on the Northeast Corridor and National Network — compromising the very foundation on which the IIJA seeks to build.
Every year, tens of millions of Americans rely on Amtrak to get them where they’re going — and then carry them safely home. These trips are just as important as trips by highway, by airplane, by ferry, or by any of the other travel modes the federal government helps to support.
More generally, passenger rail plays a key role in the nation’s intercity transportation system, offering a safe, reliable, and convenient alternative to travel by car or airplane. Amtrak’s trains take vehicles off of congested highways; give options to those who cannot drive or fly; and offer a vital link to small and rural communities where there may not be another intercity travel mode. Short-distance trips are often trip time-competitive with air travel, and tend to deliver passengers directly to the urban centers where many of them are headed. Amtrak is sustainable (34% more energy-efficient than domestic air travel), accessible (we plan to spend more than $1.4 billion on ADA-related projects in the coming years), and exceptionally safe (as a mode, passenger rail is almost seventeen times safer than car travel).
Amtrak is also a powerful economic engine for the nation. The company produces direct user, safety, and emissions benefits worth $2.0 billion per year, and its operations support another $7.2 billion in annual economic activity. Importantly, these benefits are concentrated in local communities throughout the United States; for instance, in FY22, 98% of Amtrak’s purchase order procurement spending was domestic. Amtrak’s operations also support well-paying, middle class jobs: that same year, the company paid out more than $2.3 billion in salaries, wages, and benefits to its roughly 20,000 employees — and its operations support roughly 36,000 jobs in total.
Amtrak is requesting that Congress provide $3.650 billion in annual grant funding for the company in FY24. This amount matches the total level that Congress recommended in the most recent reauthorization of Amtrak’s grants, and would take the form of a $1.700 billion Northeast Corridor grant (for activities associated with the Boston-to-Washington Northeast Corridor) and a separate $1.950 billion National Network grant (for activities associated with the rest of Amtrak’s route network).
Amtrak would use the requested FY24 annual grant funding primarily to meet needs for which projected revenues are insufficient, and for which separate IIJA (bipartisan infrastructure law) funding is not eligible to be used, including train operations, important routine maintenance and inspection work, and ”baseline capital charge (BCC)” investments along the Northeast Corridor, among other priorities. Importantly, if Congress declines to provide a robust annual appropriation, we might not be able to sustain current service levels on the Northeast Corridor and National Network — and our progress towards other important goals (such as bringing key assets into a state of good repair) could be severely undermined.
Benefits of Amtrak
Amtrak is America’s Railroad: the company exists to serve the nation. In part, that means linking major urban centers — but our trains stop in every kind of community. One of Amtrak’s statutory goals is “serving customers throughout the United States”; by law, this means “connecting urban and rural communities.” We are committed to providing all of our customers — urban and rural — with an easy, pleasant, high-quality experience.
In FY22, Amtrak carried roughly 23 million passengers, from every walk of life; a substantial majority traveled on State-Supported or Long Distance routes, which together pass through 45 of the 48 contiguous states (and Washington, DC). All told, Amtrak’s trains serve approximately 528 stations; most are in rural communities, towns and smaller cities. In many of these places, Amtrak is residents’ only non-car travel option; its trains offer these Americans an irreplaceable link to their families and friends; to jobs and economic opportunities; and to crucial services and resources.
Passwords are case sensitive, should be at least 10 characters long and should include 1 uppercase and 1 lowercase alpha character, 1 number and 1 special character. ! " # $ % & ' ( ) * + , - . / : ; < = > ? @ [ \ ] ^ _ ` < | > ~
Enter the email address or member number associated with your account. We will send password reset instructions.
An email with password reset instructions is on the way.
That answer wasn’t correct either. We’ve sent you an email with instructions to reset your password instead.