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The Tool That Informs Amtrak Service Levels and Helps Keep Half of All Riders Moving

Federal legislation enacted in 2008 shifted certain passenger rail costs to states, and allowed states to more actively manage their own rail service. Currently, 18 states fund 29 Amtrak passenger service routes shorter than 750 miles.  

Amtrak and the states use a jointly negotiated, common pricing policy for state-supported services. In 2015, the State-Amtrak Intercity Passenger Rail Committee (SAIPRC) began coordinating service decisions and policy matters. SAIPRC includes representatives from states, rail agencies, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), and Amtrak.

An Amtrak train stopped at a passenger platform.
For more than a decade, U.S. DOT Volpe Center analysts have collaborated with Amtrak on behalf of FRA to provide critical financial performance expertise. (Brandonkleinvideo/123RF photo)

The Challenge

There are 21 state departments of transportation (DOTs) or independent rail authorities that financially support passenger rail service across 29 routes nationwide. State-supported routes delivered 15 million trips during fiscal year 2017: roughly half of the almost 32 million Amtrak trips during that period.

When SAIPRC began coordinating service and policy decisions, it needed financial data that was high quality, current, and vetted to make informed choices relating to levels of service.

The Solution

For more than a decade, U.S. DOT Volpe Center analysts have collaborated with Amtrak on behalf of FRA to provide critical financial performance expertise. In 2005, Volpe worked with Amtrak and FRA to develop the Amtrak Performance Tracking cost accounting system that Amtrak uses in its system-wide financial reporting.

Volpe experts applied that long-term perspective on Amtrak’s operations and financial reporting to create cost validation reporting prototypes. These cost reports provide line-item state costs and activities that drive those costs. Costs might include the following:

  • Onboard food, beverages, and Wi-Fi
  • Crew costs
  • Station operation costs

Costs for providing Wi-Fi, for example, might be driven by the number of passengers served by a particular route.

Volpe collaborated with Amtrak staff and SAIPRC to create the report prototypes and also wrote the code to deploy each report in Amtrak’s database.

The Impact

The Volpe team completed 18 cost validation reports in 2017 and works with Amtrak to reproduce these reports each month with current data. Amtrak and Volpe, in consultation with SAIPRC, are developing the remaining reports.

These new cost validation reports enhance the quality of financial information that Amtrak provides to states—helping those states manage their passenger rail services with greater precision.

The reports also provide states with insight into the costs they pay Amtrak, give agencies the information they need to make data-driven decisions, and strengthen relationships between Amtrak and its partners.

Updated: Thursday, April 19, 2018