Alternative forms of transportation are essential in the future of the American economy. Passenger trains are certainly doing their part. Amtrak, which has shown growth in nine of the past 10 years, set a ridership record in March, and in the past 15 years has posted a 55 percent increase in riders. That far outpaces increases in miles traveled by car (16.5 percent), airline (20 percent) and transit (26.4 percent).Clark County residents have had front-row views of Amtrak’s soaring popularity. According to a Brookings Institution report, the Portland-Vancouver-Beaverton area posted an 89.6 percent gain in Amtrak riders over those 15 years. That ranks 12th in the nation, and impressively ahead of No. 21 Seattle (59 percent).
Encouraging as this train trend might appear, it is accompanied by negative baggage. Amtrak has always been heavily subsidized by the federal and state governments since it began in 1970, and has always operated in the red. Compounding that bleak fiscal picture are looming cuts related to the sequestration, although a recent Amtrak statement said the passenger train service “is planning to take actions to allow it to withstand a funding cut and not cut service.”
Whether that scenario unfolds as described remains to be seen, but what we do know is that Americans — particularly Pacific Northwesterners along the Cascades Corridor from Eugene, Ore., to Vancouver, B.C. — are growing more fond of Amtrak. High-speed rail remains a hotly debated topic, but traditional passenger rail service has established a strong presence in our region, as it has in the Northeast and parts of Virginia and North Carolina. In Dallas/Fort Worth, the 15-year gain has been 483 percent; two cities in Pennsylvania have increased ridership by about 250 percent each.
A spokesman for Amtrak told USA Today that train passengers are “fed up with highway congestion, they don’t like the hassles of airline travel, gas prices are high, and there’s a movement to support rail travel.” But other, smaller factors also are in play. For example, most Amtrak stations allow passengers to present their tickets on smartphones. Free Wi-Fi is available to about 70 percent of passengers, and on-time performances are improving.
Granted, we have not always been complimentary of Amtrak. An editorial in 2006 noted that, although “it makes sense to spend federal dollars to assist commuter lines and some intercity routes through populous corridors,” Amtrak’s financial losses cannot continue. That was before the Great Recession, which forced ghastly funding deficits upon governments, and suddenly Amtrak’s losses were even more troublesome.
The challenge now is to wean this subsidized passenger rail service away from the public dime and make it more heavily dependent on the passenger dime.
That goal would be virtually possible if there were no ridership increases. But with more travelers — both business commuters and vacation folks — hopping on trains these days, it’s reasonable to expect Amtrak to start standing more on its own.
If you haven’t joined the shift to train travel, check out the possibilities at http://amtrak.com.