Largest metro areas lead growth in Amtrak ridership, report concludes

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 1, 2013 


Passengers walk on the platform at Union Station in Washington, D.C.


— Amtrak’s ridership increased 55 percent from 1997 to 2012, and much of that growth was driven by the nation’s 100 largest metro areas, according to a report by the Brookings Institution.

Major cities served by state-supported passenger train corridors in California, Washington state, Missouri, Illinois, Pennsylvania and North Carolina posted large ridership gains during those 15 years.

“Simply put, short-distance routes are the engines of Amtrak ridership,” said the report by the center-left research group.

Yet Amtrak, which has always required a federal operating subsidy since its inception in 1971, faces automatic spending cuts and ongoing efforts to reduce or eliminate federal support.

Amtrak isn’t exempt from an across-the-board array of federal spending cuts, called sequestration, that’s due to go into effect Friday. Throughout its history, the passenger railroad has never had a dedicated source of funding, and its annual subsidy has varied according to the whims of Congress and the White House.

“Amtrak is used to these irregular budgets,” said Robert Puentes, a senior fellow at Brookings who’s one of the report’s authors. “I think they’re going to be in better shape than other agencies.”

In a statement, Amtrak said it anticipated the potential funding reductions and built them into its budget.

“Amtrak is planning to take actions to allow it to withstand a funding cut and not cut service,” according to the statement.

Amtrak posted record ridership of 31 million passengers last year. The 55 percent increase in riders in the past 15 years outpaced the growth in other travel modes, according to Brookings. It far exceeded a 16.5 percent increase in miles traveled by car, a 20 percent increase in airline passengers and even a 26.4 percent increase in transit riders.

Though the total number of people who travel by car, plane and transit far exceeds those who travel by train, the Brookings report said the increase in Amtrak ridership indicated that the public was embracing passenger rail.

“All three modes do carry larger aggregate quantities of people, but these growth trends serve as evidence of changing attitudes toward train travel,” according to the report.

The increases were especially pronounced in states that subsidize short-distance trains between major cities. The country’s 100 largest metro areas generated almost 90 percent of Amtrak’s ridership, according to Brookings.

Amtrak contracts with 15 states to operate 21 routes, and those states contributed $191 million to operate the trains in 2011. Corridors of 400 miles or fewer have the most riders and require the lowest subsidies, but virtually all of them still lose money.

Neither Amtrak nor the states could rely entirely on federal funding to run these trains, and Puentes said the shift toward state funding of passenger trains might result in better service on both short- and long-distance routes.

“This is the kind of conversation that has to happen in these states right now,” he said. “It’s not going to come out of Washington.”

The report found these increases in Amtrak ridership:

_ In California, state-supported Amtrak corridors saw big gains over 15 years. Modesto and Fresno, connected by the San Joaquin service, saw passenger increases of 75 percent and 84 percent, respectively. Ridership in Sacramento, an anchor for the San Joaquin Corridor, as well as the Capitol Corridor to San Jose, nearly tripled.

_ In Washington state, the Cascade Corridor trains from Portland, Ore., to Vancouver, British Columbia, accounted for a nearly 60 percent increase in ridership in the Seattle-Tacoma metro area.

_ In Missouri, Amtrak ridership more than doubled in St. Louis and increased 56 percent in Kansas City, largely because of the state-supported trains that connect those two cities. St. Louis also is an anchor point for another state-supported corridor to Chicago called the Lincoln Service.

_ In North Carolina, Raleigh and Charlotte posted gains of 93 percent and 98 percent, primarily because of the state-supported Piedmont and Carolinian trains between those cities.

_ In Texas, the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area experienced a more than fivefold increase in Amtrak passengers, reflecting a new train, the Heartland Flyer, which began operating to Oklahoma City in 1999 with funding from both states. An extension of that train to Wichita, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo., has been discussed.

_ In Illinois, Chicago serves as the nexus of several short- and long-distance Amtrak corridors, including state-funded routes to Milwaukee, St. Louis and Detroit. It saw a 64 percent increase in riders.

_ In Pennsylvania, the state capital of Harrisburg saw more than three times as many Amtrak passengers in 2012 as it did in 1997, thanks mostly to the state-funded Keystone Corridor service to Philadelphia.

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