As Highway and Air Travel Slump, Intercity Train Trips Increase

If your holiday plans happen to include taking the train to another city, you’re in good company. As has been widely reported, Amtrak has broken ridership records throughout the year. A total of 31.2 million passengers boarded Amtrak trains in the fiscal year that ended September 30; that’s an increase of 3.5 percent over the previous year.

As car travel becomes more expensive, trains are growing in popularity. Photo: ## Viewliner Ltd.##

What’s also interesting, as reported by our friends at All Aboard Ohio, is that as more people opt for intercity trains, highway driving is dipping and air travel is losing ground.

Over the past 12 years, Amtrak ridership has grown 46 percent [PDF]. Meanwhile, highway travel — excluding freight — is down 7 percent over that time. Total plane boardings grew just 3 percent over the same period, compared to U.S. population growth of 12 percent.

All Aboard Ohio’s Ken Prendergast points to the increased costs of driving as a major factor:

The costs of driving rose 54 percent from 32.5 cents per mile in 2000 to 50 cents in 2010. It climbed higher in 2012, to 55.5 cents per mile.

Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman credited increased investments in the nation’s passenger rail system with propelling the trend. With funding from President Obama’s $8 billion high-speed rail initiative, routes like St. Louis-to-Chicago and Detroit-to-Chicago are undergoing significant improvements that are likely to entice additional passengers.

Boardman also cited the popularity of WiFi service, available on more and more trains.

Commenting on the trend earlier this year, the New York Times pegged the hassles that come with flying — increasing delays, more stringent security measures, and rising costs — as another factor.

And while the Times focused on Amtrak’s most highly traveled route — the Northeast Corridor, which saw a 4.8 percent ridership jump — it’s also worth noting that many lower-profile lines enjoyed similar, or in some cases even larger, percent increases.

The number of passengers on St. Louis-to-Chicago routes went up 11 percent last year. North Carolina’s Piedmont corridor, serving Charlotte and Raleigh, enjoyed the highest annual increase in the system, at 16.2 percent. Even long-distance routes saw impressive growth. On the Texas Eagle, between Chicago and San Antonio, boardings were up 12.8 percent to almost 338,000 [PDF].

Amtrak takes a lot of heat — especially from the current House of Representatives — because it’s subsidized. But clearly, Amtrak is providing a service that — for a variety of reasons that don’t seem likely to reverse themselves anytime soon — a growing number of Americans find appealing.

25 thoughts on As Highway and Air Travel Slump, Intercity Train Trips Increase

  1. Roads are HUGELY subsidized and airports too.  Amtrak cover their expenses at 85 %, which is quite high.  If Amtrak could have more cars, more trains in all routes and restore closed routes in 1979 and 1997, network will expand and passenger numbers too.  Two thrice weekly trains must be run daily to reduce their fixed expenses (more trains to share station costs).  And of course we let outside of this the “Essential Air Service” that very very few people use and has really HUGH costs per passenger.

  2. Roads are HUGELY subsidized and airports too.
    I came in to say the same thing.  Providing or facilitating transportation is one of the basic functions of government.  The folks who pick on Amtrak (and transit, too) don’t have any real rational basis for doing so–we might as well just admit straight up that they don’t like Amtrak and transit.

  3. Air travel isn’t going to get any better.  Because it wasn’t just the public sector that subsidized it.  So did investors, via repeated bankruptcies.  Labor costs have been cut to the bone.  And jet fuel probably isn’t going to get much cheaper.

    So air travel is going up in price. And capacity is being cut, to the point where the planes are full most of the time.

  4. Air travel is on the way out for two reasons. In the short term higher fuel prices will push ticket prices to the point where mainly only the wealthy can afford to fly. Because the majority of air travel is optional, demand is highly elastic. Higher ticket prices will certainly mean far less flying for business and pleasure. Taking advantage of internet connectivity will mean less need to physically travel, even without higher ticket prices. Second, and more important, there are alternatives to flying which are as fast and less energy intensive. High-speed rail can match air travel over distances of at least 500 miles, potentially even further out. Within 20 years maglev in an evacuated tube should be feasible. With potential speeds of up to a few thousand mph, this will offer much shorter than air travel times out to any distance, and at a fraction of the energy usage. The only reason in 30 years to get off the ground will be if you’re going into space. Maybe a portion of existing airports can be converted to space ports, but most will be converted to other uses.

  5. @flug32:disqus I personally have no problems with the government building rail tracks, or airport runways, or roadways. I think most people wouldn’t see a problem on that.

    The issue I personally have against Amtrak is that it operates as a monopoly, and, gosh, the idea of government-employed restauranteurs on trains is nauseating, unacceptable. 

    So Amtrak could convert itself into a rail infrastructure manager, owing stations and tracks and letting private companies run vehicles (trains) over their tracks.

    The current situation is akin to have, for instance, a Federal Airlines as a government entity operating flights (whose schedules and network would then become subject to political considerations – oh, no, it’s not fair Tulsa is without a direct flight to Chicago when Oklahoma has one!) directly with pilots as government employees, or a Federal Trucking operating a fleet of trucks over the interstates instead of the current situation where we have reasonable competition. 

  6. @andrelot:disqus 
    “So Amtrak could convert itself into a rail infrastructure manager, owing stations and tracks and letting private companies run vehicles (trains) over their tracks.”

    Yeah, because that worked so well in Britain. Railroads aren’t like airlines, you can’t separate the infrastructure from the operations.

  7. @Nikko_P:disqus Of coure you can separate them, as long as you have standards and as long as , like government does with highways, it just gets out of the day or how trains are run, in which routes, charging how much. Leave that to the market, impose some common standards ans safety procedures, then auction off timed paths for whomever wants to run trains over public railroads.

    Sure, that will mean no integrated timed network, but so what? We don’t have that with airlines, and air transportation works just fine. 

  8. Piedmont is good, subsidized at less than $2 per rider, much less than almost any other mode, but dear god, routes like the Texas Eagle are nothing to brag about. These are the long distance routes that, at their best, lose more than $60 per rider (Texas Eagle is about $86). Of course, these routes exist by legal mandate, not because Amtrak necessarily wants to run them or could probably ever hope to make them profitable. But they’re the entire reason Amtrak loses money every year–if they were allowed to focus on their routes that are currently profitable or have a hope of becoming profitable they’d be doing amazingly well. As long as they’re forced to operate the long distance routes, however, we don’t have a right to complain about them losing money every year. Just those ~15 routes lost them about $530 million last year. Without them they’d have profited about $60 million.

  9. @google-6bd4d5085f3de5f0622280ad4b5e50c2:disqus   I think cutting subsidies to Amtrak could be quite beneficial. It would force Amtrak to abandon prestige or “must be good on the map” routes and would let it focus its efforts where states chime in money and/or where it can make profits. In turn, it could use its newly found profitability to take on debt and buy new rolling stock, improve the Northeast Corridor etc.

  10. @google-6bd4d5085f3de5f0622280ad4b5e50c2:disqus   I think cutting subsidies to Amtrak could be quite beneficial. It would force Amtrak to abandon prestige or “must be good on the map” routes and would let it focus its efforts where states chime in money and/or where it can make profits. In turn, it could use its newly found profitability to take on debt and buy new rolling stock, improve the Northeast Corridor etc.

  11. I love trains. But the #1 reason that keeps me from riding Amtrak is that I have to box my bike for the trip. So I drive with my bike sitting safely in my minivan. If they removed this restriction I’d might start taking trains up to Adirondacks instead of driving. But there is also #2 reason: I live in Queens so I’d have to either take the subway or ride my bike to Grand central which is over an hour wasted and I hate coming to the city when I’m off work.

  12. @andrelot:disqus “The issue I personally have against Amtrak is that it operates as a monopoly.” 
    Nobody is stopping Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Union Pacific, CSX or Norfolk Southern from operating passenger trains. In fact, they or their predecessors once used to. But since private companies are in business to make money, and passenger routes’ revenues are lower than their costs, private railroads don’t run passenger trains. That’s how Amtrak got all the passenger routes. 

  13. Oh, PLEASE! Why is it seemingly so difficult to discuss these issues without someone dredging up the ol’ “Amtrak-Would-Be-So-Wonderful-If-It Wasn’t-For-All-Those-Horrible-Long-Distance-Trains” routine?!

    The only thing which saddened me more than reading your fact-deprived rant was seeing you take God’s name in vain.

    Garl Boyd Latham
    Dallas, Texas

  14. So…

    Where will this society find the political will necessary to fund the creation of “public railroads”?!

    “And who will bell the cat?”

    I thought so.

    Garl Boyd Latham
    Dallas, Texas

    P.S. Where did you EVER get the idea that “air transportation works just fine”?!


  15. This may be a special case, because it’s Amtrak California intrastate service, but one can go from Los Angeles to San Francisco for $58 on some Amtrak services (admittedly, they have bus connections at both ends).  Unless one drives a very economical (and probably uncomfortable) car, driving costs more (for one person, at least) and airline tickets are usually over $100, plus whatever it takes to get to the airport. 

  16. @andrelot:disqus The problem isn’t the subsidies, it’s the fact that Amtrak is required by law to run unprofitable routes. We either need to accept that these lines will probably always require subsidies and stop scapegoating Amtrak, or allow Amtrak to actually make business decisions for itself and decide which lines have a shot of being profitable. I don’t think that the system has to be profitable as a whole, but people can’t have it both ways. Cutting subsidies is an impossibility unless they also allow Amtrak to cut lines–you literally can’t have one without the other, but that seems to be what some are proposing.

    @89f7a4a254aa9e9c03238e3631791b97:disqus Which of my facts are incorrect? It’s absolutely true that the long distance lines lose HUGE amounts of money per rider, whereas state routes lose small amounts on average and the NEC corridor is profitable. I never said that Amtrak is wonderful, nor did I say that we should just abandon the long distance routes. My point is that we can’t talk about getting Amtrak to profitability (assuming that’s a goal we wish to seek–I don’t think it should be) unless we talk about long-distance routes, and our options there are either to get rid of them or charge a LOT more for them.

  17. I think some people here are totally misunderstanding the purpose of Amtrak, and public transportation in general. Transportation is the lifeblood which enables our economy to function. It’s not supposed to make a profit in and of itself. It’s that kind of wrong-headed thinking which has caused massive cuts in public transit over the last 50 years (ironically at the same time automobiles were subsidized to the hilt). Yes, sometimes you’ll be running routes where the costs will exceed the fares. Yes, sometimes you’ll be running less than full vehicles. That’s fine. The purpose of public transit is to allow people who otherwise have no way to get around to travel from point A to point B. Of course, it could be argued in certain situations that running an Amtrak train isn’t an efficient way of providing this transportation. Unfortunately, some inefficient routes are political third rails. If we want funding for the heavily used NEC then we need to accept a few money-losing long distance routes in flyover states. In the scheme of things a couple of hundred million a year spent on money-losing Amtrak routes is a rounding error. I don’t get why some people get so annoyed about it. I get more annoyed on the $2 trillion and counting spent on wars to secure oil supplies so Americans can continue to profligately waste gas driving SUVs. If there was ever a big, glaring, inefficient way of providing transportation, we need look no further than our auto-based system. Cars are lousy at long-distance transport, pointless for urban transport, and at best mediocre for medium distance transport, compared to the alternatives.

    Let’s stop making Amtrak a punching bag. It’s not bad as is, and in fact should be a lot more heavily funded. If I had my way, I would fund Amtrak further by cutting highway and airline subsidies, both the direct ones, and the indirect ones. It may even make sense to break Amtrak into a couple of regional passenger rail providers, and/or perhaps start a new entity dedicated solely to high-speed passenger rail (real high-speed rail, as in >125 mph, not the 90 mph diesel trains we call high-speed). If there was ever a glaring deficiency in the US, it’s the lack of a national comprehensive HSR network. No place in the US should be more than maybe 100 miles from a HSR station. If we had a comprehensive network of 220 mph trains, the Interstate highway system would largely no longer be needed. You could use the same network to run priority freight at night.

  18. @2555783a6f62598b6aadd2d882a4830f:disqus You obviously ignore the fact that high-speed rail and Interstates cater to very different travel markets. The overwhelming majority of Insterstate traffic is regional, not national, not even medium-distance. Of course, being a network of interconnected standardized roads, it makes possible long-distance travel (especially trucks), but that is not its main market.

    Even if you had tons of high-speed freight railways (on a FREE MARKET BASIS, e.g., public-owned railways with OPEN ACCESS to competing operators), you’d still need Interstates for last-mile distribution.

  19. @andrelot:disqus You would need local roads for last mile distribution, not interstate highways. It would make sense for the high-speed freight yards to be in or near central cities or large towns. That’s a perfect location for the freight to be distributed by short-haul delivery trucks on local streets. Remember this exact model worked well 100 years ago when there were no interstate highways, only local streets and two-lane country roads. In fact, you had spurs going to a lot more locations back then, obviating the need to move the cargo to trucks. The honest truth is the Interstate Highway system is becoming a white elephant. Much of it has reached the point where it needs to be rebuilt. The question is should we invest the money repairing what is fast becoming an energy-intensive, obsolete form of transport, or should we build a new system better suited to 21st century realities? I think the latter. Sure, parts of the Interstate Highway system serving metropolitan areas are still needed, but we can just let most of it return to nature, or perhaps convert it to bikeways.

  20. @2555783a6f62598b6aadd2d882a4830f:disqus Are you crazy? You most definitively DO NOT want freight stations anywhere near inhabited areas where night-time trucks, bright-lit transshipment yard, noise thermal insulated containers are all being shuffled along all the time, especially on the wee hours. 

  21. I was on a Wednesday night Hiawatha train from Chicago to Milwaukee and I saw a strategy that at first was puzzling, but made a lot of sense by the end of the trip.  An “Ocean View” car (a dome view lounge) was located at the middle of the train, which was leaving just before sun down, through a highly urbanized, not to mention flat, region.  The train was packed, essentially standing room only, and the lounge car eliminated the need for the normal beverage cart service, as well as providing additional seating.  I don’t know if this is a common holiday practice that I have just missed in the past, or an innovative solution to a problem that hopefully will be solved by the new bi-level train sets being built in Rochelle, IL. Either way, it was a capacity train, and the traffic jam caused in Milwaukee around the station showed why dedicated transit infrastructure is a must for cities seeing a growth in both intercity rail and bus travel.

  22. @andrelot:disqus So the alternative is to waste energy and resources transporting goods by truck from freight yards located in the middle of nowhere? Usually freight yards would be located in an industrial area of a city where the bright lights, late night truck movements, and so forth are a non-issue. In fact, we already have train yards (Amtrak and the subway) in such places without issues. If you want to talk about late night noise, there’s nothing worse than highways like the LIE which carry trucks right through solidly residential areas. Think instead if you had one or two freight trains running each day instead of the near continual stream of trucks. The fact is one way or another some people are going to be annoyed or inconvenienced by freight movement unless we put everything underground. Moving freight mostly by rail is a lot less intrusive overall than by truck on highways. It’s also a lot safer in that you don’t have 40 ton vehicles mixing it up with cars, bikes, and pedestrians. 

  23. @2555783a6f62598b6aadd2d882a4830f:disqus You clearly don’t understand the economics of (cargo) logistics. We live in an era of just-in-time management, where time lost in yards, transshipment etc. is much mode damming than extra fuel costs. 

    If you take out bulk cargo such as grains, minerals etc., the cost of transportation is rather low compared to the cost of cargo. That is why even a massively more expensive (on a per ton-mile basis) truck option is preferred to bring, say, clothes or electronics hundreds of miles over land instead of a rail + truck operations.

    We do not live in 1910 anymore! 

    If you or me were logistics managers of, say, Sears, and proposed to make deliveries weekly instead of daily or twice-daily just to use one big train instead of dozens of trucks, we’d be fired overnight. 

    SPEED is everything (for passengers and cargo). For sake, it’s 2012. 

  24. @andrelot:disqus You could still have just in time local deliveries via truck with my model. You have the train make a big delivery once a week to the rail yard, and you offload part of the shipment to trucks each day, with the remainder of the cargo staying in rail cars in the freight yard. By the time the next weekly rail delivery comes, the rail cars from the first shipment will be empty. This is still just-in-time truck delivery, except the trucks are going from a local rail yard perhaps 5 or 10 miles away instead of hundreds of miles. It’s massively inefficient on many fronts to ship cargo by truck hundreds of miles. It also produces unnecessary wear and tear on roads, plus trucks create a major road hazard. As an aside, I personally think the entire just-in-time management idea is silly. If a shipment arrives late, you often have to shut your entire operation down because you have no reserve stock to continue operations. I’ve known some business people who tried JIT and went back to weekly or twice weekly deliveries on account of downtime due to late shipments. The fact is in many places you can’t rely on road transport for timely deliveries due to traffic congestion, particularly if the cargo is going hundreds of miles. A late shipment means you might need to shut down. On the other hand, if the trucks leave early to allow a cushion for delays, and arrive early, the business might not be ready to offload the cargo.

    Yes, speed is everything for passengers and cargo. With a decent HSR system, you could operate cargo trains at 150 mph during the nights, effectively covering >1000 miles in one shift. It takes a truck at least 20 hours to cover the same distance. Even accounting for loading containers in rail yards, high-speed freight might still beat truck door-to-door, and at a substantial savings in energy. Rail is also inherently more reliable as far as keeping to schedules.

  25. For proof that your entire argument is built on sand, one needn’t look beyond the “NEC…is profitable” claim.

    You say our ultimate goal should not be “about getting Amtrak to profitability,” yet you also state the “problem [is] the fact that Amtrak is required by law to run unprofitable routes.” Unfortunately, even the “profit” of Amtrak’s much vaunted Acela isn’t sufficient to cover anything more than its above-the-rail costs – and no other operation along the N.E.C. even accomplishes THAT much!

    Eliminate Amtrak’s entire national network and the company STILL wouldn’t be “profitable”!

    Amtrak’s overriding “problem” isn’t its long haul trains. Rather, it’s an anemic route structure combined with a lack of frequency. The U.S. doesn’t have too many passenger trains; it has far too few!


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