People have been talking about the gross numbers of Amtrak carrying more riders than at any time since its founding in 1972. I have a couple of thoughts on this.
First, we now need a new benchmark to measure Amtrak ridership by. It's tricky, because Amtrak didn't take over all the passenger trains in the country. Commuter services were often retained by the railroads, eventually being taken over by state-run agencies or authorities like Metro-North, New Jersey Transit, Metra, the MBTA and Caltrain. When they are reinstated, they are often controlled by state agencies or authorities like Sound Transit, Valley Metro or Denver's RTD.
We could compare Amtrak ridership with pre-Amtrak ridership on all non-commuter trains, but now Amtrak runs some routes that primarily serve commuters (the trains to Lynchburg and Newport News in Virginia, for example), and some current non-commuter routes are run by other organizations, such as the LIRR's Montauk service, the Alaska Railroad and the Grand Canyon Railway. So it would be nice to see the ridership on all pre-Amtrak long-distance trains compared to all Amtrak long-distance trains, for example.
My second point is that there are some very interesting specifics in the data, particularly on Pages C-1 and C-2 of the July Monthly Performance Report (PDF). Last July, there were only four services that ran an operating surplus from January to July: the Acela and Northeast Regional, the Lynchburg service and the "Non NEC Special Trains," whatever they are.
This year all four of those are making a larger operating surplus, and so are the "NEC Special Trains," the Washington-Newport News service ($3 million surplus), the Pere Marquette (Grand Rapids to Chicago, $100,000) and the Carolinian (Raleigh to Charlotte, $700,000).
Even more interesting, many of the "state sponsored trains" are close to breaking even. The Ethan Allen Express has a year-to-date loss of less than $100,000. The Piedmont, which goes from Washington to Charlotte, has a year-to-date loss of $300,000. Kansas City-Saint Louis service is down $1.4 million. All three of them earn a significant chunk of their revenue in the fall, presumably from leaf-peepers and skiers, and all three will probably run a net surplus for this year.
The following trains all have year-to-date operating losses of less than three million dollars: the Adirondack ($2 million), the Heartland Flyer (Fort Worth to Oklahoma City, $2.2 million), the Maple Leaf ($2.3 million), the Illinois Zephyr (Chicago to Quincy, $2.4 million), the Downeaster ($2.5 million), the Vermonter and the Hiawathas ($2.6 million), and the Blue Water (Chicago to Port Huron, $2.8 million). Of those trains, only the Blue Water had an annual operating loss over a million dollars in 2011. Most of them will probably make a slight operating profit this year.
The question then is what to do with these services. I don't know the details of Amtrak's agreements with the states. It may make sense for the states to shift their contribution from operating to capital and buy more rolling stock. If we get a congress that wants to invest in Amtrak, it may buy the rolling stock, leaving the states with money to invest in new routes.
The most profitable routes, like Washington-Lynchburg, may be of interest to private companies. What makes the most sense would be for the host railroad, in this case Norfolk Southern, to take it back and maybe extend it to Danville and Greensboro. In any case, it's good news.