Why was Amtrak’s April traffic off? Blame the moon

May 21, 2013

Amtrak’s ridership and revenues have been climbing steadily—and steeply—since the nation’s economy began to emerge from recession in 2010.

Amtrak trumpeted those gains last October when it announced it had carried a record 31.2 million passengers in the 2012 Fiscal Year ending September 30, up 3.5 per cent over FY 2011.

And the hits just kept on coming through the first six months of FY 2013. October, November, December, January, February and March all turned in record-setting performances. The company finished March with its ridership nationwide up 1.9 per cent over the year before, with some trains turning in double-digit performances that seemed to defy explanation.

North Carolina’s Charlotte-Raleigh Piedmont service, for example, was up 10.3 per cent, and the third train on the route, Amtrak’s New York-Washington-Raleigh-Charlotte Carolinian carried a jaw-dropping 60.8 per cent more passengers than in March 2012. Other corridor trains proved popular too: The Chicago-Carbondale Illini/Saluki route was ahead by 14.8 per cent, and the Michigan-sponsored Wolverines between Chicago and Detroit posted an 11.9 per cent year-over-year gain.

Then came April, and the bottom appeared to fall out. Total ridership versus April 2012 was off 3.8 per cent. On the state-supported corridor trains ridership was off 5.8 per cent, with revenues down 8.3 per cent. The long-distance network took a big punch, with ridership down 7.5 per cent and revenues off by 9.6 per cent.

Only three routes on the entire system showed ridership increases: Michigan’s Chicago-Detroit Wolverine service was up 4.4 per cent, the Seattle-L.A. Coast Starlight managed a 5.2-per-cent bump, and the Northeast Corridor’s high-speed Acela service eked out a .9-per-cent gain. But the rest of the roster looked dismal. The Chicago-Galesburg-Quincy Carl Sandburg/Illinois Zephyr service was off 19.5 per cent. The Lake Shore Limited took a 16.8-per-cent loss. The Chicago-Grand Rapids Pere Marquette was down 21.7 per cent.

So what happened, anyway? After four years of record-breaking ridership gains, did Americans suddenly get sick of train riding and go back to their cars? Is the party over?

“Not at all,” said an Amtrak spokesman. It was just a calendar anomaly.”

Easter, which generates lots of holiday and spring-vacation travel, usually comes in April, but this year it fell on the last day of March, he said. Spring vacations were moved ahead, so that virtually all travel normally associated with the Easter holiday was pushed from the fourth month into the third.

A review of March ridership and revenue figures suggests the Amtrak spokesman was right: The Easter bump that should have occurred in April got pushed into March, causing some March ridership bumps that got downright freaky. Although ridership on most Amtrak routes has been enjoying healthy year-over year growth, March ridership on the New York-Savannah Palmetto was up 59.8 per cent. On North Carolina’s Piedmont service it was up 30.3 per cent, while the New York-Rutland, Vt., Ethan Allan was up 13.7 per cent. It all suggests a major holiday distorted the normal growth figures—in both directions.

“Most American holidays are pretty predictable,” said Corridor Capital CEO Scott Braverman. “We have a number of public holidays which by law are fixed on a specific Monday in a specific month, such as Labor Day in September and Memorial Day in May. Thanksgiving is always on the fourth Thursday in November, Christmas is always December 25, and New Year’s hast to be on January 1.

“But Easter is different,” he said. “It’s our only holiday that’s calculated according to the phases of the moon, which means it can shift around from year to year. Easter can occur anytime between March 22 and April 25.”

That means April has about three times more eligible Easter dates than March does, Braverman said, leading some people to just assume that April is always the Easter month.

“When Easter doesn’t occur in April we feel a little surprised,” he said. “Well, this year Easter occurred in March, and a lot of Amtrak travel shifted in that direction. Next year Easter will occur on April 20, and the Amtrak ridership numbers will reflect it by returning to what we think is ‘normal.’”

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