Are there ways that Amtrak could become profitable?
As a large fan of both Amtrak and the idea of a national passenger rail service, these are some ideas that I believe would give Amtrak the ability to turn a profit. These are not necessarily ideas that I would like to see them pursue. Some I would actually hate to see happen but it might create profitability.
1. Sell everything except the Northeast Corridor (NEC)
2. Emulate the NEC in other areas
Sort of a median ground between a commuter rail system and a long distance train service. More regionally based.
3. Invest more in upgraded equipment
4. Increase ownership of infrastructure
5. On the long distance routes, make ticket prices actually reflect the cost.
6. Try some long distance trains that are coach only.
7. Increase service on the longer routes.
An old adage that is oft repeated but I cannot verify is that if you double service frequency, you triple ridership.
8. Sell off the Amtrak buses.
You are a rail line, not a bus company. I've also never heard an Amtrak fan speak positively about the buses.
9. Express trains.
Especially on the long distance routes, try to re-arrange scheduling that express service is added between a limited number of cities in addition to the regular scheduled LD trains.
10. Have select LD trains that are sleeper only and have additional amenities
These would be for the real rail fans willing to pay a premium for a "cruise the iron horse" experience. Fine dining. A band / dancing car. Observation cars with guides and / or lectures. Excursions.
11. In Summary
Whether profitability should be a goal for Amtrak is open to discussion and beyond the scope of this list. The premise here is that it has been decided to seek profitability. For the past several years Amtrak has been taking the steps of reducing services (primarily on LD trains) to reduce costs. Likewise, they have focused on equipment upgrades over track, bridge, and other roadway improvements.
What I propose is an all of the above approach. The NEC model works. Do everything possible to improve that. Equipment, increasing infrastructure to increase speeds, buying more trackage, etc.
Next use the NEC model to create pockets of profitability in other regions. For example, Amtrak's Empire State Service runs several times a day and does a fair job connecting the various major cities of New York. If this service was more frequent and / or faster (more upgrades to trackage and rolling stock) it could easily follow in the steps of the NEC. Likewise the Wolverine Service in Michigan.
These regional nodes would inject more cash into the coffers. With 3 or 4 regional copies of the NEC, Amtrak as a whole would be in much stronger financial position and could then reimagine the long distance routes.
Bottom Line: Continue to cut costs and discontinue unprofitable routes and services or invest boldly with larger deficits to make the improvements necessary to ensure profitability in the medium term.