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Amtrak Ridership Continues to Set Records -- Despite Sandy Damage

Tuesday, April 09, 2013 - 09:05 AM

Rail ridership continues to grow in America.

March was the best single month ever in the history of Amtrak, and October, December and January each set records for their respective months, according to a company spokesperson. (UPDATE: Full release here.)

All of that is despite the damage and closures caused by Sandy.

It's also because Amtrak has been setting ridership records for just about every year for the past dozen years (chart), so any growth -- whatever size -- is also a new record. Amtrak set 11 consecutive monthly records last year. (PDF)

Amtrak reports ridership numbers by fiscal year. For the first six months of FY2013 (October 2012 to March 2013), Amtrak grew about one percent over the previous six months, putting the rail network on pace to break the 2012 yearly ridership record, despite Sandy. The damage from that storm shut down much of the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak's busiest route, for days.

Amtrak will release line-by-line ridership numbers later this morning. A statement from the company says 26 of 45 routes posted ridership increases and suggested its growth is evidence for more sustained capital funding for a passenger rail network.

Why passenger rail is on the rise

A recent Brookings Institution report found that on shorter trips, passengers are shifting to rail. That's partly because airlines are scaling back on short haul flights, which aren't as profitable for carriers.

All of that means Amtrak has been slowly but steadily gaining travelers who used to fly, especially on the Northeast corridor.

Consider this chart from an Amtrak presentation showing how, over time, passengers traveling between Washington, D.C. and New York City have shifted to rails from planes. Of the people who flew or rode a train between the two cities in 2000, 37 percent of them took Amtrak; but by 2012, 76 percent were riding Amtrak.

Chart courtesy of Amtrak

Amtrak's D.C-N.Y. route is beating the airlines. The chart excludes cars and buses, which themselves are increasing dramatically despite a crackdown on so-called Chinatown buses, and longer-route planes certainly carry more passengers, but it's the trend that is telling, and confirmed in the Brookings report.

Beyond the Northeast, Amtrak is doing better as well, with some local clamor for more service on state-subsidized routes, even where it has little chance of breaking even financially. We'll see how ridership is doing on those routes later this morning when Amtrak releases its full passenger counts.

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