Is Amtrak ridership on the rise or not?

via Bob Poole of Reason Foundation:

In lobbying for increased federal funding last month, Amtrak CEO Wick Moorman told a Senate subcommittee, “More than ever, our nation and the traveling public rely on Amtrak for mobility.”

Politifact looked into this assertion, and came up with the following numbers:

  • Ridership: 31.3 million passengers in fiscal 2016, a new high
  • Passenger miles: 6.5 billion in FY 2016, slightly less than in 2015
  • Load factor: 50.9% in 2016, down from 51.3% in 2015
  • Fraction of intercity commercial passenger miles on Amtrak: 0.7%, down from 1.2% in 1990.

Based on this not exactly sterling performance, Politifact rated Moorman’s claim Half True.

As a further check on Moorman’s point, Bob Poole of the Reason Foundation went to the U.S DOT’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) website and reviewed its graph of monthly Amtrak passenger miles from January 2000 through December 2016. The seasonally adjusted monthly numbers were basically flat at around 470 million/month from 2000 through 2004, showed a modest uptrend from 2005 to 2010, and have been basically flat at around 550,000/month for the past six years.

Amtrak_-_GE_P42DC_-_Heritage_Phase_III_LiverySo Amtrak’s ridership is not soaring, and its dismal 50% load factor calls into question its plans for spending $120 billion over the next 30 years to upgrade its Northeast Corridor (Boston to Washington) to four tracks all the way, with some new tunnels, bridges, and stations, in order to accomplish two main goals: to greatly increase the number of daily trains and to reduce trip times by 45 minutes between Boston and New York and 35 minutes between New York and Washington. Amtrak hopes to get most of that $120 billion ($4 billion a year over 30 years) from federal taxpayers.

Poole finds both justifications weak in terms of benefits versus $120 billion in costs. Amtrak could nearly double its ridership if it simply filled all its existing trains, given its dismal 50% load factor (compared with airlines running about 85% on average these days). To be sure, there would be some increase in ridership if Amtrak provided faster trips, but a 21% decrease in the Acela Express New York-Boston trip time (now 3.5 hours) is not really that much of an improvement.

All this neglects Amtrak’s massive losses on long-distance trains. One of the few reforms in recent decades was the elimination of its biggest money-pit, the Sunset Limited route between New Orleans and Florida. A political coalition called the Gulf Coast Working Group is pushing for that route to be restored. Freight railroad CSX, whose tracks would be used, estimates the cost of upgrades to bridges and right of way to make Amtrak service reliable (and non-interfering with its freight trains) as $2 billion in capital costs, plus ongoing maintenance, as well as operating subsidies of several hundred dollars per passenger.

And where would Congress find the money for either the Northeast Corridor plan or the restored Gulf Coast route? The new Gateway Program Development Corporation—formed to oversee the $24 billion Gateway project for new tunnels across the Hudson River (part of the overall Northeast Corridor plan), voted in January to apply for a $6 billion loan from the Federal Railroad Administration. As Poole has written previously, since Amtrak has operated in the red every year of its existence, it has no way to repay such a loan—other than getting much larger congressional appropriations. In other words, federal loans to Amtrak are a sham; they are deferred grants. And there is no reason to think that the $2 billion Gulf Coast project or the $120 billion Northeast Corridor project would be any different.

Categories: Government, Travel

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