Crowds Heed Amtrak’s ‘All Aboard’

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It looks like Aaron and Susan Donovan are just two of many that have recently replaced air travel with train travel. Daniel Machalaba of The Wall Street Journal reports on a significant increase in ridership on the passenger rail system over the last year, and the trend seems to be intensifying. Meanwhile, Amtrak has improved its service and its allies in Washington have noticed. The House recently passed a fiscal 2008 funding bill with $1.4 billion for Amtrak:

Airplanes are getting stuck in lots of traffic jams this summer, but Amtrak is on a roll.

Ridership on the passenger rail system is up 6% so far this year, the biggest jump since the late 1970s. On the Acela Express, trains that run at higher speeds between Washington, New York and Boston, the number of riders has surged 20% over the past 10 months. That’s enough new passengers to fill 2,000 Boeing 757 jets.

Richard Rosen, who heads a pharmacy-fulfillment company in Boston, is making as many of his trips to New York as possible on the Acela.

Flying to New York, with traffic to and from La Guardia Airport, flight delays and security lines, has become "an absolute horror show," he says. A recent one-hour flight turned into four hours of exasperation. Mr. Rosen says the Acela, which takes about 3½ hours to get from Boston’s Back Bay Station to Pennsylvania Station in midtown Manhattan, is more comfortable and reliable. "The train is much better, and you can do your work and use your cellphone during the whole trip," he says.

Photo: Elizabeth Homes, Getty Images

  • Hilary Kitasei

    Amtrak rightfully advertises itself as the scenic route. But here in New York City, it erects hideous billboards in the right-of-way, which are invisible to its own passengers while marring the views for the other modes that share the same scenic corridor — the river, the greenway, the roadway, the park trails and overlooks. Despite having a law prohibiting billboards along parks, the city has been unable (or unwilling) to enforce it against Amtrak’s billboards that sprout up right in the middle of them. When the railroad was covered with an esplanade in Riverside Park, windows were cut to preserve the river view for train passengers. The railroad should extend the same courtesy to everyone else.

  • steve

    And don’t forget the automated ticket kiosks! Just disembarked from the Acela having arrived 10 mins early.

  • John Hunka

    According to this article from the BBC, aviation is a huge contributor to greenhouse gases. In light of this fact, the federal government should dramatically increase funding for Amtrak to expand capacity and modernize its fleet of aging equipment. Of course, for the past seven years, the Bush Administration has been trying to completely eliminate federal funding of Amtrak. Anyway, here’s the link to the BBC article:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/6955009.stm

  • In Europe, the trains are advertising that passengers should shift from air travel to trains in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Whether AMTRAK as it is will ever work is an open question, but I do believe the heyday of cheap airfares is ending.

    Airline labor, having been allowed to price itself at astronomical levels due to government regulations pre-1980, has now been beaten down so far that airlines are having trouble recruiting staff. So labor costs won’t be falling anymore once the last pension goes under, and will likely rise.

    From a capital perspective, airlines have been subsidized by the willingness of investors to lose money over and over again. In fact, I read at once point that the airline industry had made a loss over its history. But the industry will need new planes, which means attracting investment. These days, people even want to make money on sports teams, so you can’t expect airlines to be viable as rich man’s toys.

    And then there is the cost of energy. Nuff said.

    A siginicant, permanent, real change in airfares could have significant consequences. Closer to home vacation destinations will become more attractive to the middle class relative to places like the Caribbean. So will travel by bus and train. People may be more resistent to taking jobs far away from friends and family. The “fly in for one meeting” thing, and couples working in two different cities, may be out the window, replaced by telework.

  • Ian D

    If only we had a Central Planning Agency – oh, to be a Communist nation!

    Seriously, why the hell are we flying jets from NYC to Albany, Hartford, Philly (it’s 70 miles EWR-PHL, but to satisfy ATC you end up flying double that) – or even Boston, Providence, or Washington/Baltimore? Anyone with an eye on “what’s best” would shift all of that travel to rail and significantly declutter the air traffic in the Northeast Corridor.

    That’s not to say that Acela is a reasonable alternative. Take NYC-BOS – oooh, it cuts the 4-hr. train ride all the way down to 3-1/2 hrs! If a European or Asian country was running the service, it would take 2 hours, and there would be only 2 stops in between where you’d connect to regional or local trains.

    But in the meantime, we’re saddled with capitalism, where it’s not about what’s best but how to get money. And a political system that thinks railways must pay for themselves, but highways should be totally tax-funded. At least Continental pairs up with Amtrak for code-sharing in the Northeast, but I don’t think that is promoted heavily enough (note: Continental is my employer).

    This airline employee says, “take the train.”

  • John Hunka

    France has a superb high-speed rail service, the TGV.
    England has the Intercity 125 that runs from Edinburgh to London.
    Japan has the bullet train.
    Seventy years ago, the United States had a stellar national rail system running from coast-to-coast. Now, we have a ramshackle system that is a national disgrace. I hope someday we see a candidate for President in the United States who sees the light and proposes the construction of a national, high-speed rail network comparable to the Intercity 125, the TGV and the bullet train. When every plane was grounded on 9-11, a decent rail network could have served as a substitute for air travel. Just as Eisenhower called for the construction of the Interstate Highway System in part for purposes of national defense, a case could be made that a national high-speed rail network is also essential for our national security in the event of another major terrorists attack.

  • Since Eisenhower’s grand plan for highways, our nation has been moving the wrong direction on rail transit. Here’s a map of United States rail routes through the years (I don’t think it includes commuter trains) from an NARP flier in PDF format:

  • John Hunka

    “World’s Fastest Train You Can Ride Dumps Energy Like a Prius”
    http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/transportation/4219935.html

  • John Hunka

    While the Bush Administration has been working diligently to destroy Amtrak, train manufacturers abroad have been busy developing the next generation of high speed trains. Thanks to our idiot President, the United States is falling farther and farther behind the rest of the world in terms of technological leadership and economic competitiveness. Read this article and weep… http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/technology/technology.html?in_article_id=477222&in_page_id=1965

  • anonymous

    I am amused by the “dumps energy like a prius” statement, given that regenerative braking was first used on trains, many years before anyone even thought of making a Prius. Unlike a Prius, by the way, trains can dump their regenerated electricity right back into the grid, rather than into batteries that end up wasting most of the energy in the process of charging and discharging.

  • Rider

    In all these debates, no one has yet to ask any of the candidates if they support Amtrak.

    Hillary Clinton has a notable Amtrak history. Little Rock, her once home town, has next to Cleveland, the worst Amtrak service in the country. A train north to St. Louis at midnight and one south to Dallas at 4:30 a.m. The schedule has been this way for years.

    When the Clintons took the White House, they could have easily had extended one of the Chicago St. Louis trains to Little Rock and have given it at least day service to and from Chicago.

    In eight years of office, the Clintons did absolutely nothing for Little Rock Amtrak service.

    I don’t think they cared either for Amtrak or Little Rock.

  • Emily Litella

    By the time we get serious about a national rail system we won’t have the capital to recreate it.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Chuck Schumer isn’t running for anything this year, but he is our other Senator, and I’ll point out that while he and Clinton have both voted for the maximum Amtrak subsidy and issued supportive press releases, they haven’t done any of the heavy lifting they’re capable of.

    It’s well known that in Schumer’s first campaign in 1998 he realized that the upstate transportation system could use some help. So did he go to bat for the restoration of passenger train service? No, he helped create JetBlue. The transportation section of his website is all aiport this, FAA that. He’s no Ted Stevens, but on this issue Trent Lott has him beat.

  • Ian Turner

    Ian D.-

    The current system is anything but laissez-faire capitalism; it’s rather a form of socialized corporate capitalism where certain major private industries (in this case, the auto and airline industries) are able to secure favorable legislation in funding and other areas. Small or public industries (Amtrak) are not able to lobby on this scale and are therefore marginalized.

    But don’t blame capitalism, because the current system is not that. If we did not have the transportation subsidies that we do, rail transport would be much stronger than it is — doubly so if environmental market externalities were priced in.

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