Report: For Short Trips, Passengers Flock to Rail

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An Amtrak train in Fort Worth, Texas (photo by StevenM_61 via flickr)

(Tom Lisi - New York, WNYC) A new study from the Brookings Institution shows that Amtrak ridership has grown by half since 1997, and the bulk of that growth has come from inter-city trips less than 400 miles long, especially outside the Northeast.

The study split up the number trips on Amtrak by metropolitan area. Boston, Tampa, and Dallas ridership tripled, all of which have other urban centers nearby. Trips longer than 400 miles grew, but barely and they operated at the greatest loss. The Northeast Corridor, which links Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston, continues to be the only Amtrak line that makes a profit, generating over $200 million in 2011.

Brookings released its findings in part to garner support for reauthorizing the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, which expires in September. The PRIAA has eliminated the uncertainty of funding renewals from the federal government, and it has pushed states to invest in corridors that serve them. With the help of state funds, shorter corridors like the Carolinian and the Vermonter are now close to breaking even. “There is recognition of the importance of passenger rail as part of transportation costs,” says Robert Puentes, a senior fellow at Brookings. “[The states] are seeing the popularity and the economic connections.”

The study also tries to make the case to Congress and state governments that Amtrak deserves to be looked at as a smart investment. “There’s the convention that Amtrak is part of some big bloated bureaucracy, but Amtrak is actually reinventing itself,” says Puentes.

House Republicans, and former Republican President candidate Mitt Romney have repeatedly slammed Amtrak funding as bloat.

That might have to do with the heavy losers, which are the coast-to-coast lines like the California Zephyr, which operated at a loss of over $60 million in 2011. Some might point to those losses as a case against future high-speed rail projects, but Puentes says the shorter city-to-city Amtrak rides that now get help from states could be the template. “If you look at those key criteria, LA to San Francisco is exactly the right distance, there’s a clear economic connection, and the state has supported rail for decades,” he says.

The Brookings study also comes the same day the sequester takes effect, which will cut $100 million in Amtrak’s federal funding. “We’re not seeing support from Washington for high-speed rail. States have to pick up the slack,” says Puentes.