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Why Amtrak Keeps Breaking Ridership Records and Will Continue To Do So

Why Amtrak Keeps Breaking Ridership Records and Will Continue To Do So
Reuters

Last week, Amtrak announced its highest annual ridership … ever [PDF]. America's passenger rail provider carried 31.2 million people in fiscal 2012, which ended with September. That's a 3.5 percent increase over 2011 and led to ticket revenues of roughly $2 billion. Since the year 2000, ridership is now up 49 percent:

Amtrak's broken ridership records are beginning to sound like a broken record. As the above chart shows, the 2012 mark was the ninth annual record in ten years. September's numbers marked a twelfth consecutive monthly record. July of 2012 was the single best month in Amtrak's 41-year history.

As usual, the bulk of Amtrak's success came in the Northeast Corridor. Regional and Acela services carried some 11.4 million passengers in 2012, a spike of nearly 5 percent over the previous year. That's more than a third of all riders for the year, but the actual numbers for stations in the northeast, which Amtrak released yesterday, are even more impressive [PDF].

The ten highest station figures for the corridor came at New York (9,493,414), D.C. (5,013,991), Philadelphia (4,068,540), Boston (1,447501), Baltimore (1,028,909), New Haven (755,669), Wilmington (737,846), BWI Airport (703,604), Newark (680,803), and Providence (669,576). Those are on-and-off passenger numbers for Acela and regional trains as well as others that traverse the sector. They add up to roughly 24.6 million riders, or about three-quarters of Amtrak's record-breaking 2012 total.

Still it's worth noting that the northeast isn't the only place where interest in Amtrak is growing. Passenger records were broken for 25 of Amtrak's 44 services in 2012. Ridership increased to previously unseen heights in the Midwest (particularly Chicago-St. Louis), the West Coast (Bakersfield-Oakland rose 7 percent), and the Mid-Atlantic (the Charlotte-Raleigh train is up 16 percent).

Even long-distance trains reached their highest combined levels in nearly two decades. Much of that increase went through the Windy City. Records fell on trains between Chicago and New York (up 4 percent), New Orleans (8.5 percent) and even San Antonio (nearly 13 percent). Only five routes lost riders, with the biggest disappointment being the Pacific Surfliner between San Luis Obispo and San Diego, down about 5 percent.

What's most impressive about Amtrak's recent success is that it's not attributable to any one clear factor but rather speaks to a general attraction toward train travel. Amtrak itself points to improved services like WiFi and electronic ticketing, as well as high gas prices. In the Northeast Corridor the shift reflects sustained discontent with air travel; as the New York Times recently reported, Amtrak now captures 75 percent of the intercity market between New York and Washington, and 54 percent between New York and Boston. A growing perception of the train as a "mobile office" surely contributes as well.

Of course you wouldn't know about this success listening to many Republican politicians. House Transportation Committee chair John Mica recently led a series of three Congressional hearings slamming Amtrak's food and beverage services [PDF], its "monopoly mentality" with regard to commuter trains [PDF], and its long history of taxpayer subsidies [PDF]. Mitt Romney has promised to end federal support for Amtrak if elected. (Perhaps Big Bird can conduct the final train.)

Some of that criticism is justified, but it's a strange time to call the provider a fiscal burden on Americans. Ridership figures aside, Amtrak is now a (relative) success at the ticket window. Revenue in 2012 covered 85 percent of Amtrak's operating expenses [PDF]. As a consequence of this improved financial footing, Amtrak requested only $450 million in federal operating funding in 2013 — less than Congress was willing to appropriate.

The size of Amtrak's taxpayer subsidy still remains an important topic of discussion. On this count, both sides are massaging the numbers. Amtrak chief Joseph Boardman puts the burden at $1.48 per American; that takes into account operations but not capital funding, which altogether comes out to roughly $1.4 billion. Mica uses the latter figure to declare a per-ticket subsidy of nearly $51 in 2012; the missing context here is that intercity railroads universally require government contributions for capital expenses if they're going to run at all.

A far more productive conversation about Amtrak's subsidies requires a look at individual services. Those only exist as prospective 2012 figures for the moment [PDFvia Transportation Nation], but they're instructive nonetheless. In the Northeast, Amtrak makes about $20 per rider, and among the individual state routes, it loses a little less than $11 per rider. That works out close to a wash.

The real drain on taxpayers is Amtrak's long-distance routes. Ridership may be up 4.7 percent on those services for the year, but the projected loss comes out to more than $111 per rider. If there's a substantive discussion to be had about the future of Amtrak, it's about the viability of these long-distance services, which unlike many local transit routes that lose money don't seem particularly necessary as a public service.

(On that last note, Boardman recently claimed the number of people whose only public intercity transportation option is Amtrak has "tripled in just five years" [PDF]. That statement appears to be based on a 2011 Bureau of Transportation Statistics report, which found that the share of rural Americans who rely on rail as their only option rose from .3 to .9 percent between 2005 and 2010 [PDF]. Coverage is important, for sure, but those aren't exactly italics-worthy figures.)

While many in Mica's camp believe Amtrak would be better off privatized, that's an unlikely outcome even under a President Romney. So barring any drastic changes, there's little reason to think Amtrak's ridership won't continue to increase. On the contrary, with some focused, substantive discussions it should only become more efficient. There's even a conceivable scenario in which train popularity explodes in the near future.

Consider: As Boardman recently pointed out [PDF], highway user fees accounted for not quite 46 percent of road funding in 2010, and in the past four years the general taxpayer fund has given 30 percent more to roads than Amtrak has received, in full, since its creation in 1971. If that subsidy discussion ever made its way into the spotlight, it would become clear that the gas tax isn't keeping pace with the times and must be raised. Anyone who watched the second presidential debate knows how well a major spike in fuel cost will go over with Americans. You might even see a record number asking, for the first time, what's the fastest way to the Amtrak station.

Top image: Passengers wait for trains in Washington, D.C.'s busy Union Station. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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