Amtrak’s numbers soar to a record high

Soaring ridership fuels the argument to increase high-speed rail in the U.S.

November 14, 2011

Last month, Amtrak reported that it carried more than 30 million passengers in the latest fiscal year––an all-time record, indicating a renewed interest in high-speed rail and a need to invest in the demand, Fox Business reported.

Amtrak ridership was up more than 5% year-over-year in the fiscal period ended Sept. 30 and ticket revenue climbed more than 8% despite significant weather-related disruptions in the Northeast, Central and Western U.S. More than half of Amtrak services set all-time records this year, including seven Amtrak routes that carried more than one million passengers.

These results come in the middle of a stormy discussion over high-speed trains in the U.S.; its supporters say that numbers like this show an obvious need, while its detractors state that its high price tag cannot be justified in the current economic climate.

At the very least, the increased demand offers another sign travelers are getting fed up with rising airfares and fight cancellations, according to said Andy Kunz, CEO of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association.

Global air travel slowed in August, withpassenger traffic falling about 1.5% from July, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). The U.S. saw the weakest advance in traffic in August at 2.9%, with U.S. domestic travel contracting 1%.

The economic headwinds have started to create problems for major U.S. airlines. Total industry profits are expected to fall to $4.9 billion in 2012 from $6.9 billion this year, according to the IATA. 

Amtrak’s results show that people “want and need a third form of transportation,” Kunz said.

Supporters of more rails say that it would fill a necessary void for medium-distance travelers, where it may be too inconvenient to drive but too costly to fly––trips like New York to Washington, D.C., or San Francisco to Los Angeles. 

Amtrak credited high gasoline prices, continued growth in high-speed rail business travel and successful ad campaigns for its recent success.

With the exception of 2009, the commuter rail service has reported record ridership and revenue every year since 2002, which is about the time airlines started to struggle.

“We were created by Congress to fulfill a vital national transportation need and to connect the nation in ways no other mode of transportation can,” said Amtrak chairman Tom Carper.

Of course, government-run Amtrak and its Acela Express still have their problems: low funding, meager profits, speed regulations and sharing tracks with freighters, to name a few. High-speed rail supporters call for a system that is built from the ground up, using rails designated only for high-speed trains and new technologies that allow trains to go more than 200 miles per hour. 

The U.S., however, does not seem to be primed for this just yet, since the ground-level builders of high-speed train infrastructures and technologies receive little funding, and the argument rages on between supporters and protestors over whether the benefits will outweigh the costs.

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