I just found the amtrak tracker and see that there is a lot of space between the trains. I was wondering why there aren't any non Amtrak controlled carts and trains that run on the same tracks to fill that empty space? Anyone should be able to create a company, build safe carts, and by using their tracks they can help to maintain them. So why isn't this possible?

The benefits would be to get lower rates and more frequent trips for passengers.

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    Locomotives are expensive to purchase and operate, rails are expensive to maintain; they are not subsidized, unlike airports and roads and canals. The United States has low population density, very distant metropolitan centers relative to Europe or East Asia, and a well developed air and road network. Almost all private passenger rail lost money after World War I, and contributed to the collapse of the railroad companies in the mid 20th century. There are many books and articles on this topic. For mass transport, it's easier to start an airline, and that's far from a sure thing. Rail=novelty.
    – choster
    Jan 12, 2019 at 19:23
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    I would vote to close this question as offtopic, as its not about travel.
    – JonathanReez
    Jan 13, 2019 at 0:56
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    @pipe Sure. And private companies are welcome to negotiate with the freight companies that own the tracks in the US. But the plain fact is that it's very hard to make passenger rail in the US commercially viable, so such a private company is going to have a really hard time. The tracks are owned by freight companies and they're not going to move their 50mph-max freight out of your way, so your passenger train is limited to that speed, too. Jan 13, 2019 at 11:39
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's about politics and economics and not about travelling. Jan 13, 2019 at 11:40
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    @Mast I guess he doesn't want to act unilaterally in this case. Jan 13, 2019 at 20:01

4 Answers 4


A few issues to think about:

  • There are plenty of other trains running on those tracks - freight, commuter trains, maintenance vehicles, etc. The tracker simply doesn't show them.

  • Only a small fraction of the track used by Amtrak is actually owned by Amtrak (mostly along the Northeast Corridor). The rest belongs to various private railroads and Amtrak pays for the right to run their trains there. In principle other operators could do the same, but it wouldn't be up to Amtrak to decide.

  • Amtrak requires a variety of government subsidies to stay in business. It's unlikely that another company would find it profitable to run long-distance passenger trains. (Short-distance rail is usually done by local transit authorities, which are also usually subsidized.)

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    Other operators could do the same if they can reach an agreement with the track owners to get access to the track at a commercially sustainable price. The private railroads are required by law to give priority access to Amtrak on objectively reasonable terms; this does not extend to other train operators. Jan 12, 2019 at 20:37
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    Trains are subsidized as well as cars (most roads are paid with tax money and gratis to use) and planes . Jan 12, 2019 at 22:58
  • @HenningMakholm They do? Not sure about that here, I've regularly been stopped behind freight trains for hours plus on the Vancouver/Seattle line. Jan 13, 2019 at 18:15
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    @AzorAhai: Apparently it's complicated. washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2016/04/29/… thehill.com/policy/transportation/… Jan 13, 2019 at 18:32

Forget it. That space is stuffed solid!

The US national rail system is privately owned, relatively unregulated, and reasonably profitable. It handles almost exclusively freight. Freight business in the US has been very, very good. It's a highly productive country still with a lot of industry, that is too dry and rugged to have an extensive canal system. The freight railroads regularly "jackpot" - so many trains that every siding is full of trains waiting for opposing traffic.*

After World War II, Europe and USA's freight rail networks were both doing the same thing - circling the drain. Penn Central bankruptcy, all that. Everyone loved trucks and airplanes. In Europe, they kept upping the regulations, Britain had the Beeching Cuts where they cut a bunch of lines. In America we had the 4R and Staggers Act, which deregulated the railroads and gave them a free hand to abandon lines. It was like an Ayn Rand fable. There was a flurry of abandonments and suddenly Boom! Even the wreckage of the bankrupt northeast railroads, merged into US-owned Conrail, was turning wicked profits. Pretty embarrassing to report a 600M profit while the government is trying to sell it off for $1200M! To be clear, US railroads pay their own way on infrastructure, which they own, unlike Europe.

Today something like 40% of US ton-miles move by rail, a much higher ratio than Europe despite the US's well-developed freeways.

Anyway in the US, if you have a boxcar you want to route to a destination, it's a seller's market. Grain elevators are running into this; the railroads don't even want to talk to them unless they can deliver an entire unit train. They just don't have the precious track bandwidth needed to send a local job out there to switch single cars out of industries. They would rather have you container it, truck it to a container terminal withon 200 miles and handle it in a container train.

They've been on a tracklaying binge, putting back double-track they previously ripped out, putting in double track that never was, even triple tracking in some places. The abandonments have hit rock bottom and now it's all about building. Of course the new trackage is mostly going in the west and south, the previous abandonments were in the east.

About 10 years ago in Railway Age there was an article saying the national rail network was going to come unglued unless it got about $60 billion of additional capital. This was beyond anything the privat sector can finance. **

So why does the freight industry even return Amtrak's phone calls? Because they know economic downturns happen. They've seen yards stuffed with cars that are not circulating and locomotives not needed. And in those times, Amtrak is their most reliable customer.

* Amtrak has had to follow a coal drag for 100 miles simply because there is no siding without a freight train in it. One time I was on the northbound Coast Starlight. We passed the tail of a train going our way who was sitting in the siding. There was a man on the tail with a lantern and radio As soon as we were by the south switch, it started backing up southward. (!) We passed his engines, then we passed the engines of another train, also on the siding, also starting to move south. And then we stopped at the north switch of the siding. As soon as the second train's tail was by us, we proceeded. They did All that for us to slip by these two trains passing each other.

** Just to give you an idea how close to "tilt" the system is, one time the Southern Pacific (former Central Pacific, west end of the Transcontinental Railroad) decided to close two small railyards in Houston and work their business out of the biggest yard. Within 24 hours trains were backed up to the Texas border (and Texas is huge). SP just took a little-used branchline and told all the backed-up trains to drive down the branchline until they couldn't, then stop. With them off the board, they immediately reopened the two yards, got flow moving again, and unstacked the branchline during any spare time. Lesson learned. 20 years later Union Pacific (east end of the Transcontinental) bought Southern Pacific...

...and said "hey, why bother having 4 yards in Houston?" The SP old-heads said "bad idea". And when trains were backed up to Texas border, UP doubled down. Trains backed up to L.A. And started backing up everywhere else too, since there was nowhere for anything to go, and so many locomotives are trapped in this mess. No railroad will interchange their cars to UP because they know if they do, they'll never see those cars again. It was a month of hell, and finally so many customers gave up on UP, plus them pulling every trick in the book, they finally figured out how to make it without those yards... But it was insane. They made the stock market dip.

  • 5
    As for "returning Amtrak's phone calls", it also helps that they're required to! If Amtrak wants to run trains and the railroad is unwilling to negotiate reasonable terms, Amtrak can apply for the Surface Transportation Board to dictate a contract between them. Jan 13, 2019 at 1:44
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    @HaakonDahl well, all passenger service loses money in all developed countries, and freight service in most of them too. Amtrak is the most profitable (least unprofitable) of any of them. It is true that Amtrak hasn't started many new lines, because freight RR's would be free to charge Amtrak the full impact cost to its business i.e. Displacing other traffic they then could not take... Actually the freights would rather have all that business including other business they already can't take, but the limiting factor is the inability to self-fund track expansion. Jan 13, 2019 at 8:32
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    Europe is wetter but not flatter than North America. And all passenger service loses money in all developed countries is a bit too absolute a statement, although true in most cases. One exception tends to be express lines between airports and city centres, with plenty of wealthy business customers paying the premium to reach the city centre 30 minutes faster than they would by a taxi, perhaps because society not capitalist enough (yet) to have roads where the wealthy can pay to skip the traffic queues on premium lanes. Eurotunnel is also profitable and running mostly passengers (in cars).
    – gerrit
    Jan 13, 2019 at 12:16
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    Do you have a source to back up that Amtrak the most profitable (least unprofitable) of any of them? Are the effective subsidies for Amtrak less than rail in Great Britain, Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland?
    – gerrit
    Jan 13, 2019 at 12:18
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    @Harper As Gerrit already pointed out, your statement that ‘all passenger services lose money in all developed countries’ either mean that you consider Japan a non-developed country or you have access to calculations that show how the major railway companies such as JR West (¥60b), JR East (¥245b) or Keihan holdings (at least ¥15b; in Japanese) (cont)
    – Jan
    Jan 13, 2019 at 14:30

This data is from 2014, but the broad patterns are still the same today: Amtrak routes by 2014 cost recovery. With the exception of the Northeast Corridor (and we're ignoring capital costs here, which are substantial as well) and adjacent routes, Amtrak's routes do not come remotely close to covering their costs. Most of the passengers are on the shorter routes between major cities, while very few are riding the long distance routes.

If Amtrak is hemorrhaging money on most of these routes, there's no reason a private investor is going to want to compete with them, especially as they won't be getting the subsidies Amtrak receives. If the California Zephyr loses large amounts of money operating as a once-a-day service, there's little appetite for anyone to pay to run it more often.

There is one privately-owned intercity passenger railroad in the US: Brightline in Florida, which just opened last year. There are also proposals for new private high speed rail projects like XpressWest. These routes do not duplicate current Amtrak service.

  • 3
    This is, of course, the answer. Nobody does it because it wouldn't be possible to make money doing it.
    – phoog
    Jan 12, 2019 at 22:04

Tracks are used by freight trains in addition to Amtrak. I have witnessed this many times.

  • So then why aren't there passenger trains that use the same tracks that aren't operated by Amtrak? Jan 12, 2019 at 18:45
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    @SomeGuyOnAComputer Trains are very very expensive
    – Midavalo
    Jan 12, 2019 at 18:47
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    @SomeGuyOnAComputer The major (only?) rail line owned by Amtrak is the northeast corridor. Other passenger trains do run on those tracks.
    – phoog
    Jan 12, 2019 at 22:03

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