Amtrak: Overview Page: 2 of 29
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Amtrak is the nation's primary provider of intercity passenger rail service. It was created by
Congress in 1970 to preserve some level of intercity passenger rail service while enabling private
rail companies to exit the money-losing passenger rail business. It is a quasi-governmental entity,
a corporation whose stock is almost entirely owned by the federal government. It runs a deficit
each year, and relies on congressional appropriations to continue operations. Amtrak was last
authorized in the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act of 2015 (Title XI of the Fixing
America's Surface Transportation (FAST Act; P.L. 114-94). That authorization expires at the end
of FY2020. Amtrak's annual appropriations do not rely on separate authorization legislation, but
authorization legislation does allow Congress to set multiyear Amtrak funding goals and federal
intercity passenger rail policies.
Since Amtrak's inception, Congress has been divided on the question of whether it should even
exist. Amtrak is regularly criticized for failing to cover its costs. The need for federal financial
support is often cited as evidence that passenger rail service is not financially viable, or that
Amtrak should yield to private companies that would find ways to provide rail service profitably.
Yet it is not clear that a private company could perform the same range of activities better than
Amtrak does. Indeed, 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.
By some measures, Amtrak is performing as well as or better than it ever has in its 47-year
history. For example, it is carrying a near-record number of passengers, and its passenger load
factor and its operating ratio are at the upper end of their historic ranges. On the other hand,
Amtrak's ridership is barely growing at a time when other transportation modes are seeing
ridership increases. Amtrak contends that improvements to its infrastructure in the Northeast
Corridor (NEC), between Washington, DC, and Boston, would enable it to offer faster and more
reliable service and thus boost ridership. However, such improvements are expected to be
Amtrak's ridership may also be hurt by its relatively low on-time performance, which is
especially low on routes which use tracks owned by freight railroads. In 2008, Congress tried to
put in place measures that could improve Amtrak's on-time performance on these routes, but that
effort has been blocked by the courts.
There are perennial calls to privatize Amtrak, but it could be argued that Amtrak is already
privatized to a considerable degree. Efforts to create intercity passenger service independently of
Amtrak have had limited success.
Several efforts are under way to build high-speed rail lines independent of Amtrak. These include
the state-sponsored California High Speed Rail project and private passenger rail initiatives in
Florida, Texas, and Nevada. It is unclear whether any of these initiatives, if completed, will
ultimately be operated by or have business relationships with Amtrak.
Congressional Research Service
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Peterman, David Randall. Amtrak: Overview, report, September 28, 2017; Washington D.C.. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc1042337/m1/2/: accessed December 16, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.