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

Follow Adriene Hill at @adrienehill