What makes passenger trains work? Frequencies and funding

March 8, 2013

CHICAGO (Mar. 8)–U.S. passenger-train ridership and revenues have been growing for a long time, but not until this month have the media really started taking notice.

How come the change? Why did dozens of newspapers from USA Today to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram suddenly start running pro-passenger-train stories during the first week of March 2013?

  • “Lancaster County train ridership triples in 16 years,” headlined the Intelligencer Journal in Lancaster, Pa.
  • “Amtrak carried record passenger traffic in 2012,” announced the Washington Post.
  • “Amtrak traffic jumped 68 percent in Birmingham in 15 years,” trumpeted Birmingham Business Journal columnist Brent Godwin.

The sudden rush of stories was no coincidence. All followed the March 1 release of a 30-page Brookings Institution report titled A New Alignment: Strengthening America’s Commitment to Passenger Rail.

Like many recent analyses by Beltway think tanks, Brookings reported—correctly—that Amtrak ridership and revenues continue to rise.

But what appears to have grabbed the media’s attention is that Brookings authors Robert Puentes, Adie Tomer and Joseph Kane packaged and presented the numbers in a way no other think tank has so far. Amtrak ridership isn’t just growing, they said. It’s growing much faster than any other travel mode and way faster than the nation’s population or its gross domestic product.

“Amtrak’s boardings and alightings jumped 55.1 percent from 1997 to 2012,” they wrote. “To put this increase in perspective, it outstrips population growth (17.1 percent) more than threefold over the same period and exceeds the growth in real gross domestic product (37.2 percent).

“In addition, Amtrak’s passenger growth also exceeds all other domestic transportation modes,” the Brookings team wrote. “Amtrak more than doubled the growth in domestic aviation passengers (20.0 percent) over the same sixteen-year period. Similarly, Amtrak also exceeded the growth in driving measured by Vehicle Miles Traveled per year (16.5 percent) and transit trips (26.4 percent).”

The Brookings team noted that the growth curve was virtually continuous, dipping only briefly during the recession in 2009.

“But since then Amtrak staged a major rebound, recapturing all its passenger losses and setting record highs through the end of 2012,” they concluded. “In contrast, the number of domestic airline passengers remains at late-2004 levels, still having not recaptured the record passenger levels pre-recession.”

Why has rail travel boomed while growth in auto and air travel lags?

The Brookings analysts weren’t sure. They noted that “the 100 largest metropolitan areas generate nearly 90 percent of Amtrak’s ridership,” but that’s a tautology that tells nothing about train travel that isn’t also true for sales of groceries and cosmetics: Any product will sell better in areas with lots of customers than in areas with fewer of them.

The Brookings team also noted that “The short-distance routes consistently dominate Amtrak ridership share and captured nearly all of Amtrak’s recent growth. Simply put, short-distance routes are the engines of Amtrak ridership.”

But the Brookings authors stopped short of claiming that the under-400-mile corridor trains were attracting passengers simply because of their short itineraries. They cited three short-distance trains, the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State, the New York-Rutland (Vt.) Ethan Allen Express and the Oklahoma City-Fort Worth Heartland Flyer that have not experienced strong ridership growth.

Prof. Joseph Schwieterman, Director of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Studies at DePaul University in Chicago, suggested that what makes the under-400-mile routes attractive is not so much their short distances but the amount of support they receive from their sponsors.

“The Hoosier State, Ethan Allen Express and Heartland Flyer are lagging in ridership growth because they run only once a day,” Schwieterman said. “The strong growth is occurring on routes with two or more daily round trips, like the four daily Lincoln Service trains between Chicago and St. Louis, the three daily Wolverine trips between Chicago and Detroit and the five Downeaster trips between Portland and Boston.

“Where Amtrak or a state government supports the trains with multiple departures the trains flourish,” he said. “Travelers want the option of coming and going at their own convenience.”

Schwieterman also said multi-train corridors are high performers because “a generational change” is occurring in the nation’s travel culture.

“For young people today, driving no longer is the default travel mode,” he said. “They want to stay electronically connected and engaged while they travel, and they can’t do that while driving. The digital lifestyle has enabled them to add value to their travel time–and that’s good news for trains.”

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