By KRISTEN BELLSTROM and JEN WIECZNER
1. "We've never been in the black."
First, the good news: Amtrak ridership has never been higher, up 6 percent to nearly 29 million rail passengers last year, and on track to hit 30 million in 2011. But when it comes to financials, the numbers aren't so sunny, and Amtrak's budget has become a political football. The company is projecting an operating loss of $507 million for the fiscal year ended in September -- even more than its $420 million loss in 2010 -- and next year, it expects to lose $616 million. Amtrak, which hasn't had a profitable year since it began operations in 1971, was created by Congress as a public-private partnership tasked with continuing American passenger-rail service, which was foundering at the time. The company blames this mission for its financial woes, saying its federally mandated long-distance routes eat into returns it sees from other services, like its speedy Acela trains.
2. "Accidents can and do happen."
After dropping in recent years, a couple of key safety metrics for Amtrak ticked upward in 2010, such as the number of highway-rail incidents, which the Federal Railroad Administration says rose by 7 percent per million train miles. This number refers mostly to collisions -- usually with vehicles or pedestrians -- at railroad crossings, the most common type of accident. James McCommons, author of Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service, estimates Amtrak is involved in a collision nearly every day. And as the collision between an Amtrak train and a tractor-trailer outside Reno, Nev., grimly demonstrated, they can be deadly. Amtrak says it has a "very good safety record" and that such accidents are typically not its fault; it also says it has cut the number of traffic crossings on tracks it controls by more than 75 percent. But Amtrak owns only about 3 percent of the tracks it operates on, and the FRA says there are roughly 130,000 public crossings nationwide.
3. "Our trains are ancient."
The average Amtrak passenger coach in operation is 26 years old; the oldest is 63. "We have some that were in service when Harry Truman was president," says Steve Kulm, Amtrak's director of media relations. The company's last major equipment update was in the 1980s, and it has "been running the wheels off ever since," says McCommons. Experts say some equipment goes so long without updates that features from intercoms to air conditioning function sporadically. What's more, some critics say aging trains hamper the transition to current technology. Last year Amtrak approved the acquisition of 130 cars to replace the oldest ones, or about 9 percent of its fleet, but the company says those won't be on the rails until 2013.
4. "Security's a bigger deal than it looks..."
After combing Osama bin Laden's hideout following his death, authorities discovered al Qaeda had been planning a train attack in the U.S. on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. In June, Amtrak Police Chief John O'Connor told a Senate committee such threats against rail travel are "very real," and "catastrophic losses could occur." While Amtrak testified such attacks would likely involve explosives or a shooter, a bomb has more "wow factor," says security expert Carolyn Hayward, of Booz Allen Hamilton, a consulting firm whose federal transportation business includes Amtrak. Recent events seem to support her view: Train bombings have occurred in Madrid, Mumbai and London since 2004, and many speculate the U.S. could be next. "I don't think there's any reason to think we're immune," says Brian Pickerall, a Booz Allen specialist in defense.
5. "...but we can't do much about it."
Hefty airport-style security is still absent from train stations -- no metal detectors, routine baggage screenings or pat downs. These measures would be too expensive and impractical, without providing "any real assurance," Pickerall says. After all, while it's possible to secure a plane from takeoff to landing, trains run through numerous stations, and tracks are generally accessible on foot. Plus, with roughly 30 million passengers a year, screening them quickly enough to keep trains on time would be "physically impossible," says Hayward. Amtrak touts its stepped-up security efforts, including canine bomb-detection and SWAT-trained police, but their range is limited -- bag searches, for example, are done only randomly. It "makes it harder for a terrorist to predict the level of security," Amtrak told Congress in June. One pillar of Amtrak's "robust counterterrorism" effort is the Partners for Amtrak Safety and Security initiative, which it describes in promotional material as a "neighborhood watch-style program" that asks passengers to stay alert. Kulm says Amtrak uses a multilayer approach: "There's a whole range of things we're doing all the time. We're just not doing everything all the time."
6. "We're way behind on technology."
These days, folks can go online anywhere from coffee shops to airplanes. But Amtrak still lacks Wi-Fi on most trains (fewer than 200 of its 1,510 passenger cars now have it, though Amtrak says that number should rise to more than 600 by the end of 2011), and the majority are part of Amtrak's fastest and priciest service, Acela Express. "They want you to buy the ticket that's twice as expensive to have [Wi-Fi]," says Bart Robison of Eurotech North America, which installs Wi-Fi systems on trains. And while Amtrak says it would like to offer it on all trains, currently, "we're in a capital-constrained environment," says Matt Hardison, Amtrak's chief of customer service. A complicating factor: The company is still working out the kinks, saying that since its network mostly uses cell phone signals, the connection can be spotty and slow. In the past few months, Amtrak says demand has doubled and the volume of people logging on diminishes the quality of Wi-Fi service; a few folks streaming video on Netflix or YouTube can shut down access. (Amtrak now blocks such sites.) "We're a victim of our own success," says Hardison.
7. "We can't help running late."
In the first five months of 2011, roughly one in five Amtrak trains ran late, with a few routes making a particularly dismal showing. The California Zephyr had an on-time record of just 48 percent for the 12 months ended May 2011 ("We're getting creamed on that one this year," says Hardison), and the Michigan Services route, 29 percent. When Hilary Verson, a Salt Lake City nurse-practitioner, took her 10-year-old daughter and a friend on a trip to California, the train was four hours behind schedule -- showing up at roughly 3:30 a.m. But Verson says she wasn't surprised; she'd tracked the train's performance online: "I don't think it was ever on time," she says. (Amtrak says it posted advance notices of delays for Verson's train on its website.) Amtrak says most delays are due to "train interference." Because it doesn't own most of the tracks it uses, Amtrak must often yield to freight trains traveling the same routes. Still, according to the company's most recent report, Amtrak itself was responsible for 22 percent of delays. It does its best to keep passengers informed, Amtrak says.
8. "High-speed rail? Not anytime soon."
Amtrak's latest high-speed-rail plan proposes a $117 billion investment in a train network capable of hitting speeds of 186 to 220 miles per hour (its fastest trains now max out at 150 mph), projected to wrap up in 2040. But given the economy, critics say that's unlikely. In fact, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) recently introduced a plan to cut federal funding for certain Amtrak lines and allow private companies to submit bids to run high-speed trains along the Northeast Corridor, the rail route connecting Boston to Washington. Amtrak says it's already reaching out to private industry and is in the process of taking bids from companies to help it revise its plan and look for nongovernmental sources of funding. As for Mica's proposal, Amtrak's Kulm says it lacks specifics and doesn't identify exactly who would take Amtrak's place. "There is no private company that's stepped forward," he says.
9. "There are cheaper ways to travel."
Amtrak's prices have climbed steadily in recent years, with the average ticket now costing $62, up 11 percent from five years ago. The company says the plan is to raise fares about once a year, but having "a couple changes in a year isn't unusual," Hardison says. Amtrak also uses so-called dynamic pricing to fill trains at the highest possible ticket price. (Tickets usually start low, then go up as a train starts to book up.) But unlike the airlines, Amtrak doesn't offer last-minute deals to fill seats. Critics say it's often cheaper and faster to take a bus. The Bolt Bus, which offers Wi-Fi and runs daily from New York to Boston, for instance, takes four and a quarter hours and costs up to $30. An Amtrak train on the same route can run as high as $164 and take up to five hours, 10 minutes. Hardison says Amtrak is "watching closely," but that buses are going after a different customer segment.
10. "We burn through taxpayer dollars."
Amtrak relies on federal subsidies; in 2011 it received $1.4 billion in federal funds. The company says that because the bulk of the funding is earmarked for long-distance trains, most of the subsidies go toward high-end services, like sleeper and dining cars, which most passengers never use. According to a Rasmussen Reports survey of likely voters in the U.S., 53 percent want the funding to stop. Experts say the competition that keeps many businesses on their toes is absent from passenger rail service. "Amtrak is it," says Charles Banks, president of rail-consulting firm R.L. Banks & Associates. "If you were the only business in America, you'd get fat and lazy too." This means higher prices, a labor force not motivated to provide good service or move the trains on time, and a lot of red tape that slows down mechanical improvements, Banks says. Amtrak says it does face competition from other transportation companies and cites improvements like expanded Wi-Fi service that attract riders.