Positive Train Control Creates Doubts for Amtrak in Missouri
With the recent Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia, the push for increased passenger-rail safety measures has greatly increased. As part of this effort, the federal government may force the speedy implementation of long-delayed positive train control (PTC) systems for all Amtrak routes. PTC is a system of improvements to locomotives, railroad tracks, and IT connectivity for the purpose of preventing train-to-train collisions. While PTC’s effects on passenger rail safety are debatable, what is not debatable are its costs, which should cause a rethink of Amtrak subsidies in Missouri.
Amtrak currently serves three routes in Missouri: the River Runner, the Southwest Chief, and the Texas Eagle. The Missouri River Runner runs entirely within in the state of Missouri (and is primarily subsidized by the state), while the Southwest Chief and the Texas Eagle are long-haul routes that make only a couple of stops each in Missouri. Amtrak has in the past garnered a fairly negative reputation. In most parts of the country, Amtrak has few riders, low levels of service, and large subsidy requirements. However, in the last decade inter-city passenger rail has seen large ridership growth in Missouri and elsewhere, although recently that growth has slowed:
Much of the increase is due to capital investments that have improved Amtrak’s previously notorious on-time performance. Unfortunately, while passenger levels have increased, all the routes that serve Missouri still operate deeply in the red. In 2014, the River Runner was able to generate more than $5 million in revenue. However, in the same year state subsidies to the service topped $8 million. That’s a $42 state subsidy per rider, more than the cost of a standard ticket.
The long-haul routes perform even worse, with the Southwest Chief requiring federal subsidies of $177 per passenger. The implementation of PTC on Amtrak routes will greatly add to this red ink. In fact, Kansas City Terminal (KTC) has estimated that improvements will cost $32 million in the Kansas City area alone. Statewide, the costs could be tens of millions more.
As of today, there is no agreement on who will pay for PTC improvements. The obvious candidate is the federal government, but Congress has been reticent to increase funding for Amtrak. Some policymakers want to push the costs of PTC onto the profitable freight rail industry, for the reason that they own the tracks. But freight rail companies are balking, because as they rightfully point out, they only need these immediate upgrades because Amtrak operates on their rails.
Missouri taxpayers will likely have to pick up some of the costs of upgrades, especially for the state-funded River Runner, or risk losing service. Perhaps it’s time for Missouri residents to give Amtrak subsidies another thought. With profitable inter-city bus and airline service, passenger rail is a redundancy. That’s all well and good if passengers are willing to pay for it, but they are clearly not, at least as it’s currently run. If the choice comes down to large state payments for PTC implementation and cutting Amtrak loose, residents should choose carefully.