Amtrak Ridership is Up…

So let’s cut the funding.

This video from CBS News does a good job of explaining the predicament of passenger rail in the United States. The figures near the end of the piece show some stark numbers: Amtrak receives 1.4 billion dollars per year (the same as it received in 1980), compared to 14.5 billion for air and 30 billion for highways. It almost goes without saying that the current budget put forth by the Bush Administration slashes funding for Amtrak by almost 40 percent. The measure put forth by Senator Lautenberg of New Jersey sounds more reasonable, as he wishes to double Amtrak’s funding. Unfortunately, I highly doubt that any positive movement will happen on this front (or any other front) before 2009.

Comments 10

  • AMTRAK ridership is highly concentrated in the NE corridor (area between Boston and Washington), where it no doubt keeps some cars in garages and planes on the ground, since it is about as time-efficient as either of the other modes of intercity transportation.

    It is not time-efficient at all for travel outside the NE corridor, nor does it have large numbers of riders outside those nine states (plus DC).

    Do the political math: 18 US senators and maybe 50-80 representatives directly affected. No one else has to go home and defend a vote to cut funding in an era where everyone wants someone else’s pet project cut.

  • You’re right that Amtrak is not time efficient outside of the Northeast Corridor. Which is why it needs expanding and enhancement. Train travel has the best prospects for surviving past the near future, as they can be powered by electricity. Trains also do not encourage suburban sprawl.

    I am not optimistic on the future of the automobile. Of course, we can not ignore them in the present day and should continue to fund their improvements. But if we want to move past foriegn oil to avoid things like this, I feel the best thing we can do is move towards train travel

  • Kevin – I completely agree with you. Getting some expanded Amtrak service here in the Midwest would be fabulous. Maybe a high speed train? If they can do it in Europe and Japan why can’t it be done here? Here’s to hoping…

  • Amtrak was set up in the 70’s to re-jump start American passenger rail, with the promise that it would be completely self-funding with a few years and then privatized. Long-Haul rail doesn’t work in the US because any two Metro areas are more than an hour car drive away(outside of New England). In Japan, besides the mountainous center and frigid north of Honshu, you basically are driving in one huge metro area. I lived in Mito for a summer and can say that from there to Tokyo on a bus I saw rice fields and other greenery maybe a total of an hour in which we were stuck in a twisty road that cut through some hilly terrain. The rail(Joban line I think it’s called), which has been in use for a long time, would have taken half the time to this city which is only 50 miles north. Osaka is only 70 miles to the south of Tokyo, Kyoto 100 miles to the west. It makes sense their because: Japan has half the population of the US fit into a USABLE land area equal to about half of California.

    Do you realize that you could fit the entire world’s population in America and it would only be slightly more dense than New Jersey? At that time, America’s density per square mile of non-water area would be 1880 people. Japan’s is only 873 going off standard area figures, but if you reduce it’s area by the roughly 70% that is unsuitable for use, their figure jumps to 2911 people. So even if you figure in America’s rocky terrain that is similarly unsuited to development, Japan would probably still be about 30% more dense in real terms than America hosting the entire world’s population.

    I hope that puts some perspective in their for you. Rail is great for intra-city and intra-metro travel in the US, but crummy for all but the chowder-eaters in the NE as far as inter-city or cross state travel. But don’t cry, People are researching ways to electrify the airline industry through electromagnetic resonance transmission, microwave power transmission, and other methods. So no, we don’t need a damn Shinkansen from Chicago to Indy, though I guess HSR could be an option in New England/BosWash.

    Let’s kill Amtrak in areas that can’t support it, privatize in areas that it can, and let government work on it’s constitutional responsibilities like our currency, national defense, and the court system. Then let people come in and innovate on inter-city transportation methods by ending all subsidies of transportation and transportation research. This creates a level playing field that encourages investors to bring their capital and entrepreneurs to bring their ideas without risk of being out subsidized by an inferior technology.

  • That’s a good response Speed. I think you may have something, although I disagree with you about the rail line to Chicago. The problem I have with air transportation is all of the delays, as well as getting to the airport an hour and a half early. When you finally arrive at your destination, you’re in the middle of freaking nowhere. This is aggravating for short-to-medium-distance trips.

    Indianapolis would not be the city it is without railroads. And it also would not be the sprawling mess it is without the automobile.

  • They already have high-speed rail in the Bos-Wash corridor. I have a brother-in-law who used it fairly frequently. It’s not 180mph, but it does run over 100 on all-welded rail.

  • Keep in mind that virtually all of the funding distributed to roads and air travel come from taxes levied on drivers and passengers.

    The only thing rail gets from its customers is the fare, and that usually doesn’t even cover the cost of operation, much less the capital stock. (Motorists and private companies pay almost the entire operating cost for road and air travel).

    I did a study some years back of Chicago’s Metra commuter rail system. IIRC, for every dollar collected in fares, they received something like $6.85 in subsidies.

  • Thanks U-phile. Rail is expensive. There is no doubt about that. It is also unfortunate that much of our right-of-way has been lost. It would take a massive untertaking to restore our passenger rail system to where it even remotely resembles the glories of the past. Still, it is my preferred choice for medium-distance trips over cars, and maybe buses.

  • Roads and air traffic control are public goods whose tax and fee systems attempt to approximate cost-per-use. IOW, all highways are toll roads but the vehicle for collection is the fuel tax. Additionally, in Indiana we pay the “wheel/surtax” on our registrations. That goes to localities for roads, too.

    Similarly for air traffic; the airlines pay a fee to take off and land and rent gates. The air traveler just doesn’t see it in the price of the ticket.

    Since the initial growth era of railroads, they have not been considered “public goods”. Until recent years, most commuter rail ran on privately-owned rail lines owned by Conrail (now CSX or NS). So it’s hard to fairly allocate a cost per train or per passenger mile.

    It would be interesting to compare commuter rail subsidies on a “per passenger mile” basis with the gas tax’s average cost per passenger mile and with subsidies per passenger mile to urban transit systems that are exclusively bus lines.

  • This proves that if the track conditions and travel times are adequate, Americans are more that willing to choose trains over planes and cars. Imagine if the conditions in the NE corridor were upgraded to the standards of Germany’s ICE. This proves that the only reason people don’t ride trains out side of the NE is that the travel times are so slow. You can’t decrease the distance between cities, but you can decrease the travel times. Indy and Chicago are about 200 miles apart. If you increase the speed to make it comparable it Acela, the travel time would be about an hour. Cincy and Louisville would be even less. You would already be at your destination while someone who flies would still be waiting in security. The only reason train travel died was because they could not compete with the federal funding that the airports and highways received.

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