June 21, 2008

Amtrak Gets Some Respect

The New York Times seems to be giving Amtrak some respect in an article on the national passenger rail system's rising ridership. (Free registration required.)

The facts on fuel economy are simple:

Amtrak can move a passenger a mile with 17.4 percent less fuel than a passenger car can, and about 32.9 percent less than an airline can, according to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

As a resident of rural Colorado, I do depend on Amtrak for some cross-country travel. (I just rode it back from Virginia.) The cross-country trains are heavily used, but some politicians don't like them. Don't ask me why--we subsidize cross-country air travel heavily, not to mention interstate highways.

...dropping states from [Amtrak's] itinerary would hurt its political support, especially in the Senate, where thinly populated states are overrepresented relative to their population.

And if you live in southeastern Colorado, for instance, Amtrak is actually fairly convenient -- as long as you want to go in the direction of Los Angeles, Kansas City, or Chicago!

In Colorado, the Salazar brothers at least have good pro-Amtrak voting records.


Mark Churchill said...

I have an uncle who, despite a long career in the automotive industry (as mechanic, service manager, and salesman), is a passionate railroad advocate. He's participated in a few inaugural runs, and many more final runs. And in that pattern lies a big part of the problem: rail service, especially passenger rail service, is contracting, not expanding.

As you point out, air travel is heavily subsidized, as are the automotive and trucking industries through government construction and maintenance of the nation's roadways. The railroads, of course, were the beneficiaries of enormous subsidies (in the form of land give-aways) in the 19th century, but have received relatively little public support over the last several decades.

As fuel prices continue to rise, and air travel becomes a more and more dehumanizing experience, maybe Americans will rediscover rail travel. (And if Amtrak is smart, they will budget for "little luxuries" to distinguish their service from that of the increasingly stingy airlines.)

Chas S. Clifton said...

I think that a generous luggage allowance plus the absence of TSA goons both count as "little luxuries."

The Coast Starlight has wine tastings, but that idea has not taken hold on the Southwest Chief yet.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Amtrak subsidies on long haul trips outside the NE Corridor are several orders of magnitude greater than subsidies for any other kind of transportation -- on some, more than the cost of flying someone to the same destination. Amtrak pays virtually nothing for the rail infrastructure outside the NE corridor (and gets what it pays for). Amtrak's operating subsidy on most of its routes is 50% of more of the ticket prices.

The fuel efficiency of Amtrak outside the NE corridor is also not very impressive. It is comparable to riding in a compact car; yet half as fast on a good day.

Reliability is abysmal, times inconvenient, and the service area is seriously lacking. Amtrak doesn't even offer rail service in corridors like I-25 which are high density, but achieved that status after the 1970s when it was established.

Amtrak is far more vulnerable to terrorism than air travel as well, as soon as any terrorist would care . . . its share of passenger traffic is too small outside the NE corridor to make a difference.

We would be better off scraping most of Amtrak's non-NE corridor routes, creating a modest subsidy for bus travel, and starting over building a passenger rail infrastructure in the places where it makes sense from scratch. We should spend money on intercity transit, but Amtrak's dollars are not money well spent.

Chas S. Clifton said...


You write as a Denverite not concerned about people outside the metroplex. I'm not surprised.

And your fuel economy figures come from where?

Anonymous said...

The quality of passenger services at the present time is rather important. The company should necessarily operate across the whole country to be able to stay on the market. At www.pissedconsumer.com I found out that Amtrak is the National Railroad Passenger Corporation. The company operates passenger service on routes across the continental United States of America connecting hundreds of destinations in 48 states; routes to Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. In addition to the passenger service, Amtrak expanded into freight transportation market and now operates a captive bus service. I think the company is worth trusting.