RPA Hits Amtrak Accounting Practices

A rail passenger advocacy group is trying to put Amtrak’s accounting practices back into the spotlight.

The Rail Passengers Association released a white paper last week that concludes that how Amtrak measures and allocates its revenues and costs is “catastrophically flawed” and does the American public a disservice.

RPA is hardly the first critic of Amtrak’s accounting, which has come under fire for years by critics and policy makers.

In the RPA white paper, Amtrak’s bookkeeping practices are said to have four major flaws.

Amtrak is described as allocating costs in a way that inaccurately portrays the economics affecting each part of the system without reporting avoidable costs, as required by law.

It also omits all costs of capital consumption and uses imprecise or inadequate data.

“The upshot is that APT exaggerates the cost of operating the national passenger train system, overstates the costs of expanding it, and trivializes the effects of killing it, because it fails to consider the benefits accruing to the communities it serves,” the report concludes. “In short, it radically undercuts the ability of Congress and Amtrak to plan wisely.”

One practice singled out is allocation of track maintenance costs to routes that do not use the given tracks.

The report also said that some Acela equipment maintenance costs are allocated to non-Acela routes.

Amtrak is said to fail to determine each route’s fuel cost and to report reliable station cost data for stations that the carrier owns or maintains.

The carrier fails to accurately count commuter rail passengers using Amtrak-owned stations, thus overcharging the Amtrak trains that use them.

RPA said Amtrak’s accounting practices make the Northeast Corridor system appear less costly than it is while making long-distance trains appear to cost more than they do.

The funding needs of the Northeast Corridor greatly overshadow those of the rest of the system, where the majority of infrastructure costs are underwritten by Amtrak’s host railroads

This results in the false assumption that eliminating long-distance routes would substantially cut Amtrak’s public funding needs.

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