Political Piñata Amtrak Is the Fastest Growing Transportation Mode

Amtrak has seen ridership grow 55 percent since 1997, faster than any other transportation mode. Image: ##http://www.brookings.edu/research/reports/2013/03/01-passenger-rail-puentes-tomer## Brookings##

Let it be known: Amtrak is the fastest!

Fastest-growing, that is. Since 1997, Amtrak ridership has grown 55 percent — faster than the general population, faster then GDP, faster than air travel, faster than driving, faster than any other mode of transportation.

Even in a difficult political environment, more people are choosing Amtrak, according to a new analysis by the Brookings Institution. A record 31 million passengers took advantage of the rail service in 2012.

But the picture is very uneven. Almost two-thirds of Amtrak’s total ridership comes from just ten metro areas — mostly big cities in the Northeast Corridor and in California. The New York metro area alone accounted for more than 17 percent of boardings and disembarkments. Greater Washington, D.C. accounted for a 9 percent share and Philadelphia 8.5 percent.

Big cities, in general, make up a disproportionate share of Amtrak ridership. Together, America’s 100 largest metro areas combine to produce almost 90 percent of all the agency’s trips, Brookings found.

But it appears the single biggest determinant of the success of an Amtrak line, however, is the length of the trip. Routes under 400 miles — short-distance corridors — carried 83 percent of all riders. Almost all of the ridership gains over the last 16 years came from the 26 routes that travel distances less than 400 miles. These routes, taken together, operate at a profit.

“Simply put, short-distance routes are the engines of Amtrak ridership,” wrote authors Robert Puentes, Adie Tomer, and Joseph Kane.

On the other hand, Amtrak’s 18 long-distance routes carried less than 20 percent of all riders but accounted for 43 percent of Amtrak’s route-related operating costs. Every single one of these routes lost money in 2011. Those losses were great enough to offset the gains made by the more popular routes — hence the ghastly “subsidies” that Amtrak takes such a beating for in Congress.

Brookings recommends that long-distance, money-losing routes should require state financial support. Currently, federal law requires just the opposite, requiring states only to support routes within their borders that are under 750 miles.

“The goal of such a policy reform is not to eliminate routes but to strengthen the federal-state partnership and reaffirm the commitment of states to long-distance routes over time,” the authors write. “If states cannot agree that certain routes are worth supporting, then they should be scaled back in much the same way as short-distance routes.”

35 thoughts on Political Piñata Amtrak Is the Fastest Growing Transportation Mode

  1. Because states are awash with cash? Let’s just say you have a route from Chicago to Minneapolis with a few stops in Wisconsin and the state governor of Wisconsin, where most of the track is located, refuses to contribute a cent?
    If the federal government pays for federal highways and state government pay for state highways why would you reverse this for rail transit? I’m completely missing the logic and economic basis for this.
    Was this proposed by a certain VA governor?

  2. “Brookings recommends that long-distance, money-losing routes should require state financial support. ”

    Stupid.  Why should the states pony up $$$ for routes that can be flown in 1/10th the time.

    The short distances are making $$ because the states that operate the <750 mile corridors are doing it more efficiently than Amtrak.

    Drop the long distance trains all together

  3. Stop subsidizing airports, stop subsidizing gasoline/ethanol through subsidies to oil companies and corn farmers, and start charging road users fees that truly capture road repair costs, as well as the environmental damage, accident costs, and health damage their driving inflicts. Then raise Amtrak fares to whatever price they need to be to break even plus 10% extra to invest in speed increases so that Amtrak can average 100 mph. Amtrak ridership will soar and even the long distance lines will make money.

  4. “Then raise Amtrak fares to whatever price they need to be to break even plus 10% extra to invest in speed increases so that Amtrak can average 100 mph. Amtrak ridership will soar ”

    Do you even read what you write before you post?  Hope you are being as sarcastic as I think you may be

  5. there’s a great article in the Times this week profiling the people who use amtrak. one rider (a train fan) pointed out that airlines and autos get tons of subsidies – they’re just not a line item on the budget so they don’t take the crap amtrak does.

    I took a trip a couple of years ago from DC to SF and it was great. I also take the Capitol Corridor when I go to Sacramento – beats driving and you can relax, read a book or have a beer instead of flipping off morons in traffic!

  6. Read the rest of her comment. She’s saying that even with higher Amtrak fares, taking the train will be more appealing than paying the real cost of driving (or flying).

  7. The Brookings Institute, in their analysis of traffic between corridors which connect the 100 major metro centers of the nation, fail to mention that a large part of the trips of 400 miles or less are made on those long-distance “money losing” routes!  A very small percentage of Amtrak riders on the LD trains actually travel from origin to final destination.  Unlike airlines, a train can (and does) stop in both towns and cities of every shape and size between the big Point A and the big Point B.  Also, take into account that as a larger Nation-Wide system (key point here being Nation Wide) that one Long Distance train acts as a feeder for the Short Distance trains.  The opposite is true just the same.  If we’re talking apples to apples here, maybe we should just stop maintaining all those “money-loosing” suburban roads and only invest in the “money-making” major highways?  You don’t need to have a street in front of your house, or even a network of roads in your neighborhood. Just have the boulevard which runs through it all.

    It should also be noted that punching bag Amtrak covers more than 85% of their operations with ticket revenue.  That is the best cost-recovery ratio of any rail carrier in the entire world.  Better than even the flashy, high-tech systems in Asia and Europe.  Not bad for a so-called mismanaged Federal Frankenstein that Nixon and his administration crafted to intentionally fail.

  8. Better yet drop the long haul trains, which are just subsidized vacations for rail buffs.  You will lose 17 percent of your ridership, but you will slash 43 percent of route-related costs.  The ridership drop can be made up by adding more routes that are 400 mile or less. 

  9. Only few people have 3 free nights to travel coast to coast… for most Americans (for which train would be just other form of transportation, not a thrill on itself), even on vacation, wasting 4 nights on transit usually mean foregoing 1/3 of their annual vacation.

  10. Even if that were to be the case, the way long-distance routes are arranged is non-sense. Sleepers cars, even fully booked as they usually are, are still hemorrhaging money away as they don’t pay for their marginal operational costs (and Amtrak has too many staff employed to cater for them anyway). 

    They should cut off completely these long-distance routes and, when and where applicable, transform them on daytime seat-only routes of no more than 600 miles each. At night, trains can be stored (empty) in some siding, staff can take a rest a hotel and then other day trains are used on the same route. 

    That way, two goals would be achieved: offering daytime connections on seat cars (that carry much more people than retiree welfare in the form of sleepers) and drastically reducing the size of train crews (daytime service doesn’t need dome cars, restaurants, etc).  

  11. @andrelot:disqus And if we actually built a national high-speed rail, eventually the endpoints of the various corridors would probably be close enough to just fill in the gaps for a coast-to-coast HSR system. Not many people would ride the entire way, but for those who did the trip could take probably under 15 hours, certainly well under a day. Japan for example has some trains which run along the entire combined Tokkaido and Sanyo Shinkansen routes. Few travelers go end to end, but the trains have enough passengers boarding or leaving at intermediate stations to make them viable. Granted, this is only ~600 miles, but the point is HSR can serve both intermediate and long distance trips. There is also a growing segment who either won’t fly, or won’t be able to afford to fly as fuel prices rise. Again, HSR will serve well here.

    On the other hand, conventional trains running coast-to-coast in my opinion will never get more than a handful of passengers going the entire way.

    Here’s an interesting set of articles on the subject:








    I personally don’t see the USA becoming anything but a Third World country if we don’t divest ourselves of fossil-fuel based transportation.

  12. ahem, let me correct you on this one.

    Yes, not everyone can take a cross country 3 or 4 day trip or whatever. However, when I left Chicago and got to know many of the other passengers, they noted that as residents in rural areas not near an airport, if there was no amtrak they’d have no way to get to O’Hare to travel by air except by car, which would mean driving (which takes a lot longer) and would have to pay to store their car for the duration of their trip (expensive) and then have to drive home regardless of how long their flight was.

    The common theme I heard from many regular folks was that if there was no Amtrak, they’d be fucked. Not everyone is on the annual vacation model, just as not all transit riders in cities are on the “commuter” 9-5 model either.

  13. @njudah:disqus You bring up a good point. The people who assume everyone who travels very long distances by Amtrak is either a retiree or a rail buff fail to realize not everyone has easy or quick access to airports. As you mentioned, people in towns in flyover states have to drive many hours to reach a major airport. And then many airports aren’t easily accessible except by car, effectively leaving those without cars out even if they live nearby. You also have the significant minority who won’t fly, period (I’m one of them), or can’t fly due to their physical condition.

    Finally, many people take trips which last far longer than a week, making the travel time relatively unimportant. In all honesty, I’ve never understood how people can travel thousands of miles to a place only to spend a lousy week there. What’s the point, just to say you were there? It takes way more than a week to really see somewhere. I’d just as soon not bother going at all if I’m only going to spend a week somewhere. I’ve never been to the West Coast, but if I were to bother spending 3 days each way on a train, I sure as heck would spend a lot more than a week there. Same thing if I ever went to tour Asia, even if I only toured one or two countries. I might spend at least a month there, possibly even much longer. I never understood the point of these really short trips where you fly somewhere, spend a few days, then come home. I’ll guess that I’m not the only one who feels that way. Probably many Amtrak users are the ones who might want to take their time getting there, perhaps stop at towns along the way which look interesting, and in general take a trip which is open-ended as far as when you return home. You just can’t do that taking a plane. It’s not all retirees, either, I’m sure. You might have young people taking a semester off from school, or people “between jobs”.

  14. 0.6 percent of passenger trips are by Amtrak and 0.1 percent of passenger miles are by Amtrak. To get all excited about that insignificant of a share of total travel increasing by 55 percent in 16 years is the epitome of getting all worked up over nothing. At that annual growth rate (less than 2.8 percent per year), it will take about 10,000 years for Amtrak to achieve a 10 percent market share.

  15. I got that part.  What I was surprised to read was that she said “raise fares to whatever price they need to be to break even”

    That would probably triple+ current fares.  You really think that will make ridership double?!

  16. Before the US created the federally built and subsidized road system, long distance train travel was popular and cost effective. People used it to crisscross the US with surprising regularity. Today, high speed rail could make a trip from California to New York 15 hours. But not, of course, if we don’t ever build it.

    You can’t fly an airplane with electricity. With peak oil and climate changes threats, most airplane travel will disappear, likely within the next decade. It is possible that a biofuel will be developed dense enough for planes, but it will be expensive. Think $2000 plane tickets to travel across the country or across the Atlantic. As a nation, we are going to be extremely grateful for every mile of at least medium-speed rail we can manage to produce.

    Oops, forgot the sarcasm.

    Forget train travel! Americans want fast and convenient on their own schedule, that’s the American way. Better to spend 400 billion a year keeping oil flowing in foreign countries so we can have cheap gasoline and jet fuel than spend 100 billion a year on foolish things like trains and transit. Why worry about silly scientists who say if the permafrost melts, drought, famine and massive flooding will ensue? If our coastal cities are underwater, we’ll build new cities. This is cheap! If drought and famine cause hundreds of millions to die and violent uprisings around the world, no big deal, we’ll just watch it on TV. High speed rail is just too expensive and likely communist, socialist or worse. After all, it’s better for the planet to turn into a crispy tostada than for people’s vacation plans to be inconvenienced.

  17. And, before trains, there were horses and the Pony Express carried mail. But, horse travel was replaced by faster, more efficient rail…which was later replaced by cheaper, faster, more flexible, and more convenient highway travel.

    Throughout history better modes of transport replaced lesser means of transport because they were some combination of faster, more convenient, cheaper, etc.

    The reason why rail has failed to catch on is because it fails all of those tests. As others have said here, people free to choose do not value rail transport high enough to pay what it costs to provide it. That’s why it will always need to be supported by people who don’t ride trains…in other words, just about everybody else.

  18. @Doyourmath:disqus Did you bother to read the parts of Karen’s posts about auto travel being highly subsidized? Americans didn’t choose the automobile-it was chosen for them. And highway travel certainly isn’t faster than train travel, at least state-of-the art train travel. With stops for fuel, food, and bathroom breaks, you’re lucky to average 60 mph on a long highway trip. That’s assuming you can cruise at 75-80 and don’t hit congestion. HSR typically averages at least twice that fast, and travel times are MUCH more reliable. Even if you factor in travel to/from the stations, plus waiting time, HSR handily beats car and airplane over distances up to at least 500 miles. The only time car might be marginally faster than HSR is trips under about 100 miles, but then that’s where local commuter and regional rail comes in. HSR needs to be part of an integrated system which includes these other types of rail, plus local subway/light rail systems in urban areas. Rail can get you practically door-to-door also, and often in less time than car travel will, if you have a good system. It’s also far safer. A huge externality of car travel is the injuries/deaths caused by motor vehicles, plus the premature deaths from air pollution and asthma.

    It’s a chicken and egg thing. If Americans spent as much on rail as they did on their personal cars, traveling by rail would be more convenient and faster than car travel. As it is, people still choose rail here, despite the low level of funding. Ridership is at record levels on local transit and commuter rail systems. Now if our substandard system is this popular, then it’s telling me a more up to date system would be even more popular. The fact that rail survived at all despite all the attempts to kill it tells me it’s hardly a lesser means of transport. We’ve yet to find a way to move people or goods with less energy at any given speed than by rail.

  19. “Since 1997, Amtrak ridership has grown 55 percent — faster than the general population, faster then GDP, faster than air travel, faster than driving, faster than any other mode of transportation.”

    I suppose this must be for intercity travel – within cities I believe that bike travel has grown far faster than that in this period.

  20. @KarenLynnAllen:disqus : intercity long-distance train travel was not killed by highway travel (few people travel regularly thousands of miles by car just to get somewhere), but by the emergence of relatively cheap air travel. And, not only that, cheap air travel made the number of people travelling between coasts or elsewhere explode – far fewer people traveled, ever, during their life spans to somewhere 2000 miles away.

    Likewise, during the age of clippers and sail vessels, the percentage of population ever crossing an ocean was small, and most of them did it only once on their lifetimes if they were not ship crew themselves.

    @2555783a6f62598b6aadd2d882a4830f:disqus : people travel for different reasons. Some people take one big vacation every many years and get off their routine for 6 months to explore in detail some place or route. Others travel every other holiday to some resort elsewhere. Some fly always to a place they like and is far away (Hawaii, a specific Caribbean island, some big city in Europe). No form of travel, especially leisure travel, is inherently better than other. Just because you or me don’t see the merits of traveling in a certain way, doesn’t make it futile or useless.

  21. Not everyone has the time or money to take lengthy trips for leisure travel. I flew thousands of miles for a long weekend, and I had a fine time.

  22. Very interesting; regarding the long haul versus the short runs (under 400 miles).  And you are on the right track (excuse the pun) regarding Federal funding . . . is there maybe a way that the long hauls could reduce their expenses?  Or, is it simply diesel/electric and operating costs?

    We need to highlight the short runs as be self-supporting.  Are you involved in the Midwest movement for High Speed Rail?

    Thanks again!

  23. @andrelot:disqus You actually hit the nail on the head about people just not traveling as much back when it took longer and/or cost more. That’s actually a valuable insight for transportation planning-namely that the demand for long distance travel (both business and pleasure) is highly elastic. As such, if the modes for long distance travel have large negative externalities, as cars or airplanes do, then it might be better public policy to charge heavily for these externalities, as well as eliminate the business travel deduction. The immediate effect of this policy would be to take a large number of planes out of the sky. The long term effect would be to increase public sentiment for a faster, more comprehensive rail system. Incidentally, the furthest I’ve ever been from where I was born was Montreal, about 400 miles away from NYC. That was once. Not counting that, I’ve only been further than 200 miles a handful of times, and further than 100 miles under a dozen times. HSR might increase my desire to travel substantially. Right now the only way I can travel long distances is via Amtrak since I don’t drive, can’t afford a car even if I did, and refuse to fly (and don’t have easy access to most airports anyway since I don’t drive).

    @p_chazz:disqus To each his own. To me spending three days in a place is just running through it. And although it is possible for people to travel thousands of miles on a 3-day vacation, to me that’s an almost criminal waste of dwindling fuel supplies. I get it that some people might want to travel a few times in their lifetime, but I don’t get why it seems nearly everyone has to be Magellan. Seriously. Considering many people travel only to stay mostly in expensive tourist traps, they’re essentially making long distance shopping trips, and not even seeing much of what might be unique where they’re going. Might as well just take a trip to the local mall, or the tourist trap in the closest city. Starbucks is the same whether it’s in NYC or London or Beijing.

  24. Not going to read all the comments, because a large number of them will probably annoy me but here are some points to consider:

    o The proper measurement of travel output is the passenger-mile (one passenger traveling one mile).  This adjusts for the fact that some “riders” (in ridership figures) travel 100 miles while others travel 1000 miles.

    o Those 10 Metros have a disproportionate share of passenger-miles because they have a disproportionate share of train-miles.  Give people more opportunities to take the train and more people take the train.

    o 2008’s PRIIA will, as of this October, make states like Michigan and Pennsylvania and others pay for train service in their state just as states like Oklahoma and Texas are already do.  As a taxpayer in the the latter group, I’m glad to see this since those eastern states (primarily states where Penn Central ran trains before Amtrak) have been getting a free ride. 


  25. I suppose that explains why the average American takes a train trip once every ten years …a round trip once ever 20 years.

    One can only imagine how “popular” it would be if passengers had to pay the full price.

  26. @Doyourmath:disqus If there’s no train where people want to go then they can’t take a train, now can they? That’s the problem. If the trains went to more places, more people would use them.

    And train travel would win hands down, even at full price, if all the other modes were also paying full price. If driving or flying included the full cost of negative externalities, it would cost well over $1 per mile.

  27. Name ten corridors where Amtrak and a highway coexist and where the train has more passengers than the road has vehicles. Name three. Name one.

    Americans drive 3 trillion vehicle-miles a year (USDOT, BTS). At a dollar a mile, your assertion suggests the “negative externalities” add up to $3 trillion per year. Think it through before you stick your neck out.

  28. Absolutely, $3 trillion per year of negative externalities from auto travel sounds reasonable.  As I’m sure you will agree, the auto has profoundly altered our life.  All you have to do is look at pictures from 100 years ago and you can see the damage, in both land-use and environment.  Simply adding up the real estate to parking and you have a sizable figure.  Then there is the injuries, deaths, from motor vehicles.  The wars we have fought to secure oil.  

    Of course the auto has brought huge positive changes too.  As a society we’ve decided the negatives are worth it.  But that choice has been made without having to pay from the externalities.

  29. Actually the report is dead wrong.  The short hauls are not self-supporting if you don’t count state support – except the northeast corridor, which still does not pay the cost of capital.

    And, furthermore, the long-hauls have the potential to be more successful than short-hauls, but they have not got the same resources and political support as short-hauls and have suffered for it.  If they had enough equipment, connections and frequency per capita as short-hauls, their performance would be closer to self-supporting than short hauls.  Why?  Because the long-hauls are really a collection of overlapping short-haul markets.  Very few people go the full distance.  But the overlapping short-hauls mean more potential riders than a single short-haul.

  30. Not true.  Sleeper cars contribute money, not drain it.  

    They do indeed pay for their marginal costs.The largest cost to running passenger trains is equipment.  Keeping it running day and night maximizes revenue per car, spreads costs out and is more efficient than your suggestion of parking it overnight.  

    Lastly, breaking trains up in less than 600 mile lengths makes them useless for the majority of riders.  Suppose, for instance, you changed the Chicago- New York train into two trains, broken at Buffalo.  Most passengers do NOT actually go Chicago- New York on this route.  But most passengers DO pass through Buffalo, going, say, Toledo – Syracuse, or Cleveland – Rochester.  

  31. @b6b090e79078cab29bb4c7ad763b58b7:disqus : Passenger-mile is fine if you are analysing transportation systems in isolation, but since transportation is intrinsically connected with urban design, the passenger-mile is an innappropriate measure for intraurban trips.

  32. I’ve often wondered why you “get all excited” over the idea that rail-based passenger options may eventually be treated with some modicum of respect by our elected officials (i.e., those who hold the purse strings) – so excited, in fact, that you regularly move about the internet in order to spread your venomous, anti-railroad tripe.

    If this matter truly represents “the epitome of getting all worked up over nothing,” then why are you here?!

    That’s what I thought.

    Garl B. Latham

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