Amtrak ridership hits new heights

People board an Amtrak train at Penn Station on February 8, 2011 in New York City.

Kai Ryssdal: Amtrak says 30 million passengers climbed aboard last fiscal year. Nearly $2 billion in ticket sales, which sounds pretty good. But the service costs more than that to run.

Marketplace's Adriene Hill reports.

Adriene Hill: Gas costs a lot these days. The economic downturn has pulled expendable income down with it. And for a lot of people, the desire to just jump in the car doesn't seem as much free-spirited fun as a $60-a-tank drag.

Joseph Schofer is a professor at Northwestern University.

Joseph Schofer: It's more challenging, it's more difficult financially to travel by automobile.

But those trends have been a plus for Amtrak.

Schofer: I don't think that paints necessarily a rosy picture for Amtrak, but it sure is encouraging at a time when other travel is being pinched.

Sounds pretty rosy to me. What's the problem?

For one, if the economy improves, riders might not stick around. Also, Amtrak needs federal money, and Congress is in a cutting mood.

Joshua Schank heads the nonprofit Eno Transportation Foundation.

Joshua Schank: If you don't subsidize Amtrak, you probably don't have a passenger rail network.

Schank says passenger rail is a plus for the riders, sure. But it's also good for the environment, and the people who do drive -- more people on trains mean fewer cars clogging up the evening commute.

I'm Adriene Hill for Marketplace.

About the author

Adriene Hill is a senior multimedia reporter for the Marketplace sustainability desk, with a focus on consumer issues and the individual relationship to sustainability and the environment.
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If our government put more money into passenger rail and less into roads and air travel, we could have a decent high speed system all across the country. Just think -- that would create massive amounts of jobs, be great for the consumer, and even better for the environment. Win-win, if you ask me.

A close friend of mine is an engineer for Amtrak, and constantly having to fight with management about safety issues owing to years of underfunding. It’s more “starve the beast” strategizing by free-market ideologues who would sell off our National Parks off to the highest bidder for their want of commercial value if they had their way. Destroying the global financial system wasn’t enough, I guess; it’s time to move on to public transportation. Some things, like transportation, utilities, education, and—I would argue—banking and health care, should have public service rather than private profit as a primary goal. Most, if not all, developed countries have more advanced transportation systems than ours, and guess what? It isn’t owing to laissez-faire capitalism. This is why we have (or used to have) a progressive tax system. Don’t you WANT to have something to point to for it other than war?

They wouldn't have to subsidize Amtrak if they stopped subsidizing road transportation. If they aid for fixing our roads and bridges with fuel taxes instead of general taxes in the form of stimulus then less people would drive and more would take the train.
As we see, one subsidy creates problems and the need for yet another subsidy in another place. The ripples from a pebble thrown into a pond radiate outward for miles.

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