Why DO We Need Amtrak?

December 14, 2015 by
Filed under: The Right Answer 

So, just why do we in America need Amtrak or an equivalent organization? All developed countries possess robust passenger train networks, some more modern than others. The economic benefits of dense intercity passenger rail networks have been clearly documented. The ability of business to maintain and expand contacts across the country is greatly enhanced by this connectivity (the effect has been documented in Europe and China). Connectivity also benefits ordinary citizens in countless ways. Amtrak contributes to expanded mobility, providing an affordable alternative to the automobile and airplane for travel between cities and from smaller communities to larger ones (and vice versa). A healthier Amtrak would provide more destinations and a higher frequency of service, along with competitive journey times, to successfully compete with the automobile and the airlines.

Amtrak serves many communities that have no other options. The airlines and intercity bus companies have been steadily reducing the number of cities and towns they serve, despite massive federal subsidies funneled to the airlines to serve smaller communities. The retrenchment of intercity bus service has resulted in entire states being left without service.

It really is quite simple. The future will (must) be multimodal. Our over reliance on the automobile and, to a lesser extent, the airlines, for long distance travel is already resulting in chronically overcrowded highways and clogged airports. Relief must come from bolstering other modes of transportation or implementing policies that reduce the overall need for travel in the first place. Our current direction is unaffordable and our efforts to expand highways to relieve congestion has not worked (and likewise unaffordable).

Studying the past instructs us on how to approach the future (and avoid past mistakes). That is a constant conservative position. Losing sight of how we got to this point means we will blindly continue to choose the wrong policies. We once possessed a comprehensive intercity passenger rail system connecting all parts of the continental United States (to and between communities large and small) with frequent, efficient, and affordable service. This system was operated by private railroads and was profitable until the government began pouring funds into highway building and, later, underwriting the airline industry. As the highly regulated private railroad industry had to contend with government funded roads and subsidized airline travel, intercity passenger rail unsurprisingly began to wither (freight traffic suffered too until it was freed from strangling regulation). The Interstate Highway program and the cancellation of the mail carrying contracts by the Post Office Department were the final blows. The private railroad industry finally convinced Congress (and the Nixon Administration) in 1971 to gather all remaining passenger rail operations under a government corporation (RailPax, then Amtrak). Most expected, indeed assumed that intercity passenger rail would melt away quietly. Nothing of the sort happened, of course. Instead, from 6 million passengers in 1971 to 30.9 million in 2014, Amtrak ridership has blossomed, especially since the mid-1990s.

It is no secret that the current institutional setup at the federal and state levels favoring the automobile (and the trucking industry) is antiquated and archaic and in desperate need of reform. Perhaps the short term funding of the federal transportation re-authorization bill wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Federal transportation programs desperately need updating and extensively reformed rather than mindlessly pumping additional revenue into programs that prioritize the wrong activities. The defenders of the status quo (the oil and automobile industries, the concrete/asphalt industry, the construction companies, trucking interests, etc.) want to protect the current system of funding and administering our transportation modes because it benefits them. It also perpetuates the inequities and distortions that bring us unwanted/unneeded infrastructure. Studies have documented that many state DOTs continue to invest the bulk of available funds into roadway expansion while shortchanging maintenance, even as traffic counts decline or remain flat on a per capita basis.

Yes, Amtrak is subsidized, the naysayers scream time and time again, as if that alone disqualifies Amtrak from having the right to exist. What they choose to ignore is that ALL modes of transport are subsidized in this country (that is, roads, transit, intercity passenger rail, airline travel, barge transportation, etc.). A recent Texas Transportation Institute study documented that no road in the state of Texas generates enough revenue from the gas tax to cover construction, operation and maintenance. With regard to subsidization, the federal expenditure for Amtrak amounts to about .03 percent of the 2014 federal budget, or about $1.4 billion. By contrast, Great Britain, a country with a population 1/5th the size of the United States, subsidizes its intercity passenger rail network to the tune of $6 billion plus annually.

Intercity passenger trains are one of the safest modes for travel in the United States. In fact, train travel is about ten times safer than driving. Here, too, providing a viable alternative to the automobile is good policy.

The Amtrak system operates 44 intercity passenger routes over a 21,000 mile network worked by 300 intercity and commuter trains. In addition, hundreds of daily commuter trains operate over a number of Amtrak routes, largely in the Northeast Corridor. Fifteen train routes are over 750 miles long and are classified as long distance. Twenty-nine routes are shorter and are labeled corridor services. Many of these corridor services are or will be fully funded by the states, as per the PRIIA of 2008 (and re-authorized in 2015). Otherwise they will be discontinued. Expect that battle to continue. The anti-Amtrak forces operate at the state level too.

Increased emphasis on intercity rail passenger rail will bring added incentive for and pressure on cities to improve and expand their own connecting transit systems to allow intercity rail passengers to easily reach their final destinations (“the last mile”). After all, the train station is the intermediate destination, not the final one.

The utility of Amtrak also has an important national defense component. When the commercial airline industry shut down in the aftermath of 9/11, Amtrak continued to operate its nationwide network without interruption, providing key mobility options to many desperate citizens in one of the nation’s darkest hours. Had the Department of Defense needed to move units on an emergency basis, Amtrak was available.

Finally, the attached chart clearly debunks the cry that many critics make, that is, “nobody rides it.” Au contraire, Amtrak trains are actually thriving. More and more Americans are voting with their feet (and wallets) on how they feel about Amtrak.

The mindless assault in the U.S. Congress on Amtrak smacks not only of ideological rigidity but also reflects the influence of those interests that do not want intercity passenger rail to succeed.

Glen D. Bottoms serves as Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation, based in Washington, DC


           [Includes Services > 300,000 Annual Ridership]


Route Type FY 96                   [unless otherwise noted] FY14 Percentage Increase in Ridership FY 14 over FY 96
Northeast Regional NEC Spine 5,417,308 8,100,776 50%
Acela [*] NEC Spine 2,473,921 3,545,306 43%
Pacific Surfliner Short Distance 1,565,162 2,681,173 71%
Capitols [**] Short Distance 456,769 1,419,134 211%
Keystone Short Distance 276,571 1,326,450 380%
San Joaquins Short Distance 567,390 1,188,228 109%
Empire Short Distance 762,060 1,119,959 47%
Hiawathas Short Distance 320,188 799,638 150%
Cascades Short Distance 303,719 782,519 158%
Lincoln (Chicago-St. Louis) Short Distance 254,581 633,531 149%
Downeaster [***] Short Distance 245,135 514,708 110%
Wolverines Short Distance 375,129 477,157 27%
Albany-Niagara Falls-Toronto Short Distance     N/A 410,344 N/A
Shuttles (New Haven – Springfield) Short Distance 329,125 370,895 13%
Washington-Newport News [****] Short Distance 434,453 344,335 -21%
Illini &Saluki (Chicago-Carbondale) Short Distance 84,915 315,963 272%
Carolinian Short Distance 228,207 302,601 33%
Ridership Totals: FY 1996 -2011 14,094,633 24,332,717 73%
[*] Full Year Acela Service in FY 2002
[**] Full Capitol Corridor Service initiated in Dec 1991
[***] Full Downeaster Service initiated in Dec 2002
[****] While ridership on the Wash-Newport News train dropped to 344,335 in FY 14, Amtrak and the state of Virginia inaugurated two new services: Wash-Richmond & Wash-Norfolk which carried a combined 342,974. All three services are now carrying 100,000 more annual passengers than the previous single Wash-Newport News service.
Amtrak Fiscal Year runs from Oct – Sep
Note: Chart only includes corridor services exceeding 300,000 passengers per year
Amtrak Total [Corridor Services > 300,000] 14,094,633 24,332,717
Amtrak Total Ridership   18,294,792 30,921,274
FY 96 FY 14 Percentage Increase in Ridership
NEC Spine 7,462,155 11,646,082 56%
State & Other Corridors (all services) 7,010,941 14,731,993 110%
Long Distance Trains 3,821,696 4,543,199 19%
Total 18,294,792 30,921,274 69%
Source: Amtrak
This Chart Prepared by The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation



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