Alex Goldmark is a senior producer in the newsroom for New Tech City and Transportation Nation.
The Wednesday before Thanksgiving was the busiest day in the history of Amtrak with a total of 140,691 passengers riding in the 46-state network. Over the full Thanksgiving holiday weekend Amtrak carried 737,537 passengers, up 1.9 percent over last year, the previous record for passenger rail travel volume.
This happened despite a switching problem that shut down train traffic in Penn Station on the day before Thanksgiving for over an hour on some routes. At one point so many waiting passengers were trying to crowd into one of America's busiest (but by no means not roomiest) rail stations that they were forced to wait outside the building. See pics of the gathering crowds of stressed and stranded passengers here.
Nonetheless the ridership record is an impressive feat considering the water deluge that flooded four of Amtrak's six New York area tunnels, stopping service for days, costing the rail network $60 million in lost revenue and badly damaging electrical components, like switches. Amtrak has already asked Congress for $276 million to upgrade facilities to enhance resilience in the face of future storms.
As we reported, the tunnels in and around New York City are 102 years old, and though this is the first time they flooded, some of the electrical equipment in the area is antiquated legacy stock inherited from before Amtrak incorporated in the 1970s making it hard to repair and replace. All the more reason it is impressive that service was restored and capacity added for the record ticket sales over Thanksgiving.
It was also the most lucrative weekend ever for Amtrak, generating $56.1 million in revenue, up 17.9 percent over last year, meaning that revenue-per-Thanksgiving traveler was up significantly.
Regulators on Capitol Hill may be more interested in that latter data point on Thursday when a Congressional committee will call Amtrak brass to answer questions about the future of rail in America. The GOP-led hearing's title is a hint of the tenor we should expect to see: "Northeast Corridor Future: Options for High-Speed Rail Development and Opportunities for Private Sector Participation." Expect Republicans to again push a case for privatizing passenger rail and reducing federal spending, while pressing Amtrak to cut waste and costs. Outgoing Transportation Committee Chair has made no secret of his distaste for Amtrak's spending habits, even going so far as staging a burger eating photo-op to decry the money-losing food service offered on-board Amtrak trains.
In previous hearings Amtrak has said it is 85 percent self-sufficient with revenues rising, pointing out that states ask for increased service on many lines that are not likely to turn a profit.