Amtrak could be turning a corner

Ridership is at an all-time high along its short-haul corridors. But the story is quite different on the longer routes.

By Bruce Kennedy Mar 4, 2013 11:05AM

File photo of an Amtrak train in Norfolk, Virginia on Dec. 11, 2012 (© Abhi Ahmadadeen/Corbis)Remember Amtrak, America's poor excuse for a national rail line? In the decades following its establishment in 1971, Amtrak came under constant criticism for its uncomfortable and undependable service -- as well as for what the Brookings Institution remembers as a "big, bloated bureaucracy, incapable of change and dependent on federal subsidies."

Well, apparently no longer. On Friday, Brookings released a new study that describes Amtrak as "in the midst of a renaissance" fueled by consumer frustrations with the rising costs and hassles of both car and plane travel as well as a renewed interest in passenger train travel.

The study notes Amtrak ridership is up 55% since 1997, with the rail service now carrying an all-time high of over 31 million passengers annually. That makes it the fastest-growing mode of transportation in the U.S. The nation's largest 100 cities, especially those in the Northeast and Far West, generate nearly 90% of Amtrak's customers.

Ten U.S. metro areas account for nearly two-thirds of overall Amtrak ridership. With the exception of Chicago, they're either on the East Coast -- from Washington, D.C., to Boston -- or the California cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento and San Diego.

What seems to be working best for Amtrak are the short-haul services between big cities, which carry about 83% of all passengers.

Conversely, Amtrak's 18 long-distance routes, those that run 400 miles or more, are all bleeding money and operating on negative balances. Three of the "shorter" long-distance routes, the Vermonter, the Pennsylvanian and the Carolinian, which travel between 400 to 750 miles, reportedly combined to lose a relatively modest $10.4 million in 2011.

But Amtrak's Chicago-to-San Francisco California Zephyr and the Los Angeles-to-Chicago Southwest Chief, two of the service's longest routes, each lost over $60 million in 2011.

As Brad Plumer in the Washington Post's Wonkblog reports, Amtrak still needed $1.4 billion in federal subsidies last year. And he notes that the Brookings study suggests Congress should take a hard look at Amtrak's long-distance, money-losing routes and work out a deal with the states involved.

"If a route is losing money," Plumer says, "then the states along its path should negotiate how best to provide financial support and fill the hole. (Under the Brookings plan, they’d be allowed to use federal transportation funds.) If the states can't or won't chip in, then the routes get pared back."

And one of the big differences between now and the bad old days of Amtrak, according to the Brookings study, is a growing involvement by state governments with the passenger rail service.

"States now have formalized relationships with Amtrak to upgrade tracks, operate routes, and redevelop stations," the study notes. "The result is a new federalist partnership where Amtrak, the federal government, and states share responsibility for the network’s successes and failures."

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Mar 4, 2013 2:07PM
I'd really like to see major improvements in Amtrak's long-distance servicea.  I'd rather take a beating than get on an airplane anymore, and generally drive if the distance is 1000 miles or less, but would ride a train if there were more routes available.  Limited routes and the aging infrastructure (railroad tracks) in many states is a problem, as is the cost of fuel.  But as air transport continues to degrade, and gas prices and traffic impede travel by car, why not make a real effort to expand and improve rail travel in this country?  I realize the shear size of the U.S. is an issue, but other contries rely heavily on rail travel, and seem to have it figured out.  We could learn from them. 
Mar 4, 2013 2:08PM
There is nothing more relaxing than traveling through the Rockies by train.
Mar 4, 2013 3:48PM
Disgusted w/air travel, esp TSA, I took my family Denver to NYC by train for Xmas and had a blast.  Not only was there plenty of wiggle room for my kids & me to play in but the food was great needing no excuses vs what I'd have at home or in a restaurant.  When we weren't exploring the train it was nice to see more of the country from a comfy seat w/o needing a seat belt nor having any turbulence.  It took 2 days but at the time air travel would have taken a week due to the snow storm.  W/2 large pcs of luggage (50 lb limit) per passenger carried onto the train (plus a cooler, food bag, & laptop bag per person) we had plenty of clean clothes & tech toys for the trip (we also get to check 2 large bags so 4 large bags per person plus cooler and laptop w/no fees).  Std AC outlets by each seat recharged the tech toys but they didn't have wireless on most of the trains but staff told me that was coming.

I'd expected the cost to be a lot cheaper than air travel and it was only slightly cheaper.  But it felt great seeing the Indianapolis Airport shut down by the snow storm with the snow plows being blown off the runways while the train woofed past at between 60 and 80 mph.  The only drawback was that the seat was a little uncomfortable for sleeping so next time we might try a sleeper car.
Mar 4, 2013 2:40PM

Makes perfect sense as the more populated areas of the west coast and North East especially, as well as further down the east cost, train travel really is the most all around efficient option. One that I imagine could be further improved with additional partnership between Amtrak and the local and state governments (to an extent) like stated. The problem has always been the long routes so this is nothing new. Obviously I'm going to guess that the crap service we receive at airports has effected both here postitively but still the time and delay on the long routes is the issue, from what I guess. I would imagine if we had a high speed rail system that gave direct trips between metro cities it would potentially do well. Get rid of all the intermediate stops and make it non stop, cutting the time down would be the biggest help. Perhaps an intermediate service from regional stops to hubs in larger cities would do better? Certainly wouldn't be perfect but a little rework might do wonders. I would also think that a more streamlined system like this could do well in the upper midwest to ohio river valley area. Cities like KC, to St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Indy, ect. All close enough (maybe not end to end but intermediate travelers) that a good high speed rail non stop might just do well. Anyway you slice it I think we could do better and public transit as whole could do better as well.

I think its time

Mar 4, 2013 7:51PM
I LOVE travelling by train, wish I could do it more.
Mar 4, 2013 10:28PM
Amtrak is a good ride long distance. I'd love to take a ride from Florida to California and see the whole country.
Mar 4, 2013 3:28PM
I take Amtrak at least once a month.  I sometimes ride on the long distance train.  I don't recommend using The Coast Starlight That runs along the west coast.  Some of the conductors I have had to deal with are very rude and they make the ride very uncomfortable.  I have run into a few rude conductors on the commuter between San Luis Obispo and San Diego, but for the most part that is a better train to ride.
Mar 5, 2013 10:49AM
Long distance trains are for tourism, not for traveling unless you are not in a rush. They should be marketed as such. 
Mar 5, 2013 12:09AM
I tried Texas to California - took 2 days instead of half a day and twice the cost of an air fare.  I've ridden Amtrack and enjoy it, but if they lose money on the long distance and the price is still double airfare, then they've got a bad business model needing updating.  There's millions of passenger fares out there to seek, but you've got to give something if you're slower, and on the train, they only have a few things with price being a major component.  I'd love it if they could build a better business model that justified the extra time.
Mar 5, 2013 12:42AM

No smoking car no train !  Most seniors that would love to ride the train can't afford it. The slow train from Arizona to

Los Angeles takes  all day and that's ok but the cost is $ 400~ bucks we can drive it for $50 bucks. Last time we took

a train was 1948 and loved it.   

Mar 5, 2013 8:48PM
I've heard plans for a high speed rail service connecting Chicago-Milwaukee-Minneapolis.  And maybe with some kind of connection to a service from some "feeder" cities nearby such as Indianapolis and Peoria IL -- I think it would be wonderful!  
Mar 6, 2013 2:42PM
I took Amtrak to Southern Illinois to New Orleans a couple of years ago and I am looking forward to going again in May.

One of the most enjoyable trips I've ever had. Had a sleeper car, though didn't really need it, used the diner car, the bar lounge car and met some great people I still keep in touch with.

It was great getting to lounge back, let someone else do the driving and enjoy looking out at the scenery.

I HIGHLY recommend it!
Mar 4, 2013 11:03PM
Sounds like the Brookings study has some merit.  The reason that long-distance runs which hemorrhage money exist for the most part is that politically powerful Member of Congress represent all of most of the states that they go through, and raise unholy hell at the thought of them being cut, and frequently threaten to hold other things hostage until the subsidy for "their" routes is restored.  Other areas with more junior/less militant congresscritters lose their long-distance runs.  If the states involved can't give up any of their revenues, then let the routes be cut back.  There is exactly one Amtrak route through my state and two stations, both between 140 and 200 miles from me.  But as a Federal taxpayer, I'm paying to subsidize it, along with a nearly-empty Chicago-San Francisco run, and lots of other, similar runs.  Just a few years ago there will still four trains a day across Montana; don't think that this is still the actual case but I'm not certain.  While I realize that I also pay for roads I'll never drive on, there are also millions of other people who will never drive on the road in front of my house paying to help me, so it's even in the long run.  Not so with trains,  The few are benefitting from the many, as is so often the case. 
Mar 7, 2013 3:51PM

WE HAVE TAKEN THE CA ZEPHER and also the  Empire builder and BOTH have been a dissapointment to be honest. Meals were limited, but great, sleepers were private,but VERY VERY  tiny when opened to a sleeping arangement.,

Also very expensive, like $4800 plus from Boston to San Fran

Put in some smoking cars with their own ventilation and the trains will fill up with those of us who love smoking and won't give it up!
Mar 6, 2013 4:51PM
This would be a great time to start to construct the Maglev train system in the US which would make for fast cost efficient travel for trips under 1000 miles. The versions that exist in Japan,China and Germany are not the best choice. The original design was done by an American Admiral.
Mar 7, 2013 3:44PM

amtrak costs way to much to travel from deming nm to st. louis. if oyu gwet one lowest price sleeper it still


costs over a thousand dollars

Mar 7, 2013 1:29AM
 I haven't been on but one train trip since I was a child in the 50s it was fantastic then. My grandfather worked for the railroad so it was a great experience for a kid he knew most of the crews. We took the train last year from Atlanta to NOLA  it was 12 1/2 hours on the Cresant  Not really that bad for a 7 hour drive in a car  The obviouse benefits to train travel is you get to see every cornfield, junkyard and ghetto along the way. There's no WiFi aboard the train either. Train travel in the US leaves a lot to be desired.  It's a two tank trip in a Ford Excursian  You can Fly Airtran for $150 Or Amtrak for about $80 bucks It's far easier and cheaper to drive. As much as I like the Trains  it's not something that easy to do in the US, other countries have obviously mastered train travel, but we aren't that smart. 
Mar 7, 2013 11:29PM
Here is the northwest we have an international agreement for Amtrak Cascades between Eugene, OR and Vancouver, BC.  It is the best.  Reasonable, mostly on time and getting better.  Most trains sell out and there are several every day.  The trains are Spanish and can run faster than they are allowed.  Still, one can beat traffic on I-5 some days by riding the train between Seattle and Portland.  It is comfortable, the food is excellent (Northwest fare, wines and microbrews).  I take the Seattle to Portland leg several times a year and would rarely drive these days.  Seattle, Portland and Vancouver have excellent public transportation.  The states(Oregon and Washington) and province (British Columbia) have spent a bit of money on upgrading the tracks for a smoother and quieter ride.  Now if they will allow the trains to go 110 mph that they were built for, the trip to Portland or Vancouver would be about 1 1/2 hours instead of the 3 hours now.  The cars are equipped with WiFi and at times have movies playing. 
Mar 7, 2013 12:28PM
By using regional travel hubs and overnight stays in those cities to connect the following day
to other cities you can attract those travelers who would use train passes as American
travelers do in Europe.  Cheap airfares in Europe haven't diminished train travel.  Example.
Train one to St. Louis from Chicago.   Train two to Dallas, side trips available to a host of
Texas cities and Oklahoma City.  Train Three to Albuquerque/ Tucson/ Phoenix depending
on route.  Train four to LA/ San Diego/ Las Vegas/ Salt Lake.   Train five if needed would go
up the Pacific coast.  Voila, a week or so to see 2/3 of the US.  Now market that to those rich
Asian, Middle Eastern, and European young travelers and you have your trains running at
capacity.  Maybe even at a lower cost.

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