Amtrak ridership has grown 55 percent since 1997. That is faster than any other transportation mode over the same time period. Here are some comparison figures: Driving, as measured by miles traveled, only grew by 16 percent. Domestic air travel grew by 20 percent. But here's the catch. Eighty percent of Amtrak's ridership are on short corridors of 400 miles or less. The short runs are responsible for almost all of Amtrak's ridership gains over the last 16 years. Not coincidentally, they are also the only corridors that are operating in the black.
These are the most relevant take-home facts in the latest report on passenger rail from the Brookings Institution.
The success of Amtrak's short runs shouldn't be a surprise, according to the researchers. "Research and international experience show that routes less than 400 miles are the most competitive, especially with air travel," the report says.
Even so, the researchers recommend that state and federal governments concentrate on bolstering the longer rail lines--not because they are profitable but because they will establish parity across the nation with the more heavily trafficked areas. The 18 Amtrak lines that are longer than 400 miles represent the "geographic equity" part of the rail line. "They pass through nearly all 46 states that Amtrak serves, far more than their short-distance peers do. These routes also travel for vast stretches between major population centers and offer service to many smaller, relatively isolated communities with limited inter-metropolitan alternatives," the report said.
In other words, even rural residents should have a rail option, at least according to this report.
Congress, particularly Republicans, is not particularly friendly to Amtrak. This was most definitely the case when Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., had the helm of the House Transportation Committee. The committee's hearing this week on the role of freight and passenger rail in the transportation system could shed light on the new chairman's, Bill Shuster, R-Pa., views on Amtrak and passenger rail in general. He has generally sided with Mica on the issue, but perhaps he will be less vocal about it. (I'm told the hearing is not intended to be "gotcha.")
What does the data on Amtrak suggest about travelers' habits, particularly with trains? Is there an untapped market between major metropolitan areas for rail? Why are short distances so popular? Why is it important to include longer runs on a rail system if they aren't profitable? Are the areas of the country that aren't cut out for rail? How should intercity passenger rail connect with intracity transit? Do we need another passenger rail system besides Amtrak?