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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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
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
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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