OPINION: For more riders, make rail travel an adventure
In the cost-cutting frenzy that is sweeping Washington, Amtrak is a prime target. Contrary to what many people think, Amtrak is not an arm of the government – like the Postal Service, it is a separate corporation created by legislation, with some federal and state input and funding. It’s safe to say that if passenger rail had stayed profitable in the U.S. in the 1950s and ’60s, Amtrak would not have been created.
The most recent threat to Amtrak service comes in the Midwest, where Indiana has balked about continuing to fund the Hoosier Express linking Indianapolis and Chicago. And because Amtrak often shares its route with private freight railroads, performance on many lines is “iffy.” For example, I once waited for an hour and a half in Amherst, Mass., for a train to New York. When I called the Amtrak help number, I was told that our train had to wait until a huge freight train cleared the tracks.
Despite the problems, Amtrak’s ridership is growing rapidly. According to a Brookings Institute report that was released this year, Amtrak went from carrying 20.1 million riders in 1997 to 31.2 million today. However, the Boston-to-Washington segment provides 44 percent of the traffic for the entire system (it also provides enough of a surplus to pay for most of Amtrak’s other short routes). Some of Amtrak’s long-distance routes, according to the study, only operate at about 20 percent of capacity. Indeed, the great majority of Amtrak’s ridership increase comes from people who travel less than 400 miles.
Some politicians have talked about cutting Amtrak down to its highly-traveled East Coast and, to a lesser extent, West Coast corridors. However, before we try that, maybe we should take a look at the way Amtrak is promoted.
Government proponents of Amtrak say that it costs less per person to subsidize passenger rail than it does to subsidize bus lines, that passenger rail creates less pollution, that it promotes “green” energy, and that if Europe and Japan can do it, so why can’t we?
While these arguments all have merit, they’re all somewhat abstract and won’t necessarily move the average American. Many people have never been to Europe or Japan, don’t care about green energy, and don’t spend time thinking about pollution unless it hits their immediate neighborhood.
If you want more people to take Amtrak, focus on the train experience itself. Show people that it’s much more comfortable to travel by Amtrak than by bus, that you can move around in a way you can’t on a long-distance bus, that you can look out the window at scenic sights such as the Rockies like you can’t on a plane, and that you can’t get food on a bus or (nowadays) a plane—but you can on Amtrak. Tell them that being in the train stations, many of which are historic buildings, is a pleasing experience, unlike the seedy atmosphere you find in many bus stations and the confusion you find at airports.
Make rail travel itself into an adventure. If you do so, you’ll definitely increase ridership.
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