This is a source of disagreement around the nation, but we firmly believe Amtrak is carrying a significant burden in Americans’ need to get from here to there.
In the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, Amtrak set records for number of riders and ticket revenues received. A total of 31.6 million travelers took the train in 2013, including 11.4 million in the Northeast Corridor, which includes us. (It also includes Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York City and Boston, which accounts for the impressive volume.)
That’s the second-best figure recorded in that sector in Amtrak’s 41 years of operation. So why are the critics so relentless?
Amtrak is subsidized, as are all forms of transportation in American, including cars. The federal government contributes billions in highway funds every year.
Amtrak maintains that it pays 85 percent of its bills from ticket sales and other revenues, leaving about 15 percent for the government. Still, the per-ticket subsidy for Amtrak is acknowledged to be higher than other forms of transportation.
But Amtrak fills a need that no other form of transportation could fill, except one — the automobile.
Just imagine what our streets and highways would be like, especially through Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston, if those 31.6 million riders were forced to use automobile transit. Amtrak is fulfilling a vital service by keeping them off the roads.
And this is in spite of some admittedly lax service. If you’ve ever ridden the Adirondack train that runs between Montreal and New York, through Plattsburgh, you know the train is late more often than it should be. Why that reliability factor can’t be improved upon remains a mystery.
In England, for example, if you arrive at your station one minute late to catch your train, you almost certainly missed it. Departure and arrival times are strictly adhered to. Keeping on schedule can be done.
Amtrak trains are at least close to being on time through the metropolitan corridor. Otherwise, they wouldn’t enjoy their robust ridership from business people, who have to be punctual.
The train is not as fast as an airplane, but it’s far more convenient. Unlike airports, train stations are generally situated in downtown areas close to most eventual destinations.
And trains are faster (and more comfortable) than buses and getting faster. Hopes for higher-speed trains rely on continued heavy ridership of the ones we have.
We say the numbers are going in the right direction for Amtrak. We recommend taking a train when it’s handy to do so.
We also recommend that Amtrak work on its own punctuality and on providing services that riders want, such as allowing people to bring their bicycles along.
Increased ridership, a necessary ingredient for a thriving future, is going to ultimately rely on it.