Political Animal


March 09, 2013 8:50 AM Some Long-Haul Amtrak Routes Have Seen Spectacular Growth

By Ryan Cooper

I was poking around this Brookings report mentioned by Brad Plumer the other day and was fairly impressed at the growth numbers on even the longer routes. The Texas Eagle route, for example, saw 256% growth in ridership from 1997-2012:

It is from a very low initial number, but still pretty impressive.

Offhand, I’d guess this is the result of rising airfares, squeezed incomes, and the deeply irritating, mostly pointless security procedures at the airport. (I myself bought my first long-haul Amtrak ticket for a wedding in Georgia just the other day.) Trains are far more fuel-efficient than planes, and it seems reasonable to project that fuel prices are only going to go up from here.

So cost issues aside, I would hesitate at shuttering all these long routes in favor of plowing the money into infrastructure maintenance for the Northeast Corridor routes (which is indeed badly needed), as Matt Yglesias suggests. Perhaps some routes could be consolidated or eliminated, but trains are only going to make more sense going forward, and it seems sensible to keep at least a skeletal national rail network in place. I would bet inside of a decade half these routes will be near the breakeven point.

Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • T-Rex on March 09, 2013 10:20 AM:

    I'm a train lover from my earliest youth, and I too agree that the revival of passenger rail in this country would be great. But I hope you make it to that wedding, because right now any and all freight trains get absolute right of way over passenger lines, and arrival times are at best an optimistic guess. Since maintenance of the infrastructure is abysmal, there's also the likelihood that all trains will be cancelled on the date you planned to go, and they'll put you on a bus instead. I've been there and done all of that.

  • John on March 09, 2013 10:28 AM:

    We ought to be dumping the long haul routes in order to focus on building adequate short-to-medium haul routes in parts of the country besides the Northeast Corridor.

  • c u n d gulag on March 09, 2013 10:38 AM:

    Maybe someone can help me with this:
    Why do Conservatives, who love Ayn Rand, and her creation, John Galt, hate the choo-choo trains so much?

    None of them want to help the nations railroad infrastructure, and turn down Federal money, for new lines - and even upkeep.

    Why is that?

  • Don on March 09, 2013 10:44 AM:

    We have foregone the airlines for the train for long trips for several years, primarily because flying has become such a nightmare. We also take long trips in our fuel-efficient car where trains don't go. Not only that, Amtrak prices are more than competitive when one considers all te aded costs not shown in the airfare numbers.

    We should be INVESTING in long-haul trains, not abandoning them. And our clueless Governor, Scott Walker, has plunged our state into the transportation dark ages.

    We are doomed.

  • John on March 09, 2013 10:51 AM:

    To expand on this - Dallas and Houston are about as far from one another as New York and Washington.

    You can get from Washington to New York in 3:20 on the regional train, or in 2:55 on the Acela. There is more or less one regional train and one Acela every hour leaving from Washington throughout the day.

    There are no direct Amtrak trains from Houston to Dallas. To get between them, you have to take the single Sunset Limited that runs from Houston to San Antonio each evening, which takes 5:10 and drops you in San Antonio at 12:05 AM. Then you have to wait until the next morning, and take the 7:00 AM Texas Eagle to Dallas, where it arrives at 3:20 PM - for a travel time from San Antonio to Dallas (274 miles apart, so your travel up to this point has been to get you further away from your destination) of 8:20. Total travel time: 20 hours, 25 minutes - 13 hours 30 minutes on trains plus almost 7 hours layover in San Antonio.

    With a little infrastructure investment, you could get an adequate line running from Houston to Dallas direct in less than 4 hours. That's the kind of thing we should be doing.

    Also, investing so it doesn't take over 8 hours to get from San Antonio to Dallas would make a lot of sense. 274 miles is about the distance from Washington to Stamford. That'll take you about 4:20 on the Northeast Regional and about 3:45 on the Acela. So even on the "slow" train, you're going the same distance in almost half the time. Why does anyone tolerate the complete awfulness of any short to medium range route on Amtrak?

  • fostert on March 09, 2013 10:52 AM:

    Some long haul Amtrak legs could raise their fares and still make money easily. The California Zephyr is notorious for losing money, but they could double the fare on the Denver to Emeryville, CA route and it would still be worth it. The views are spectacular. They might want to add another observation car and sell it on the scenery.

  • John on March 09, 2013 11:01 AM:

    Why should the government subsidize train routes whose purpose is to give a pleasant vacation to train enthusiasts?

  • Karen on March 09, 2013 11:05 AM:

    John, those long distance routes contain a number of important local routes. The Texas Eagle, frex, goes through San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas. Encouraging train travel between those cities is a very good idea.

  • psinfl on March 09, 2013 11:06 AM:

    Would love to be able to take the train from central Florida to New Orleans, but no passenger trains west bound without first going north to the DC area. We planned a trip from my home to Seattle and back on trains, but have to drive 11 hours to New Orleans (and back) to bea able to do it.

  • rrk1 on March 09, 2013 11:19 AM:

    Part of the animus towards rail service among the trogs has to do with unions, much the same as it is with public education. Rail unions were also once heavily African-American. The trogs would probably like privatizing rail service and killing all the unions.

    Rail travel in the northeast is fairly convenient and civilized though not overly fast. The TGV in France is far superior in every way, as is train travel throughout western Europe. I would love to take a cross-country rail trip in the US, but the horror stories of endless delays and cancellations makes me reluctant to try it. Airport security is demeaning, and commercial air is a cattle service. I don't like to drive long distances, so I travel only when I have to, or when I'm leaving for more pleasant places, i.e., not the US.

  • Karen on March 09, 2013 11:20 AM:

    Ah, the update key should be my friend. John has quite adequately stated my position. FWIW, my 80-year-old parents live near Dallas. I would sooo love for them to be able to ride a train from there to Austin where I live.

  • Gene O'Grady on March 09, 2013 11:34 AM:

    Another reason to despise Yglesias -- always trying to save money by cutting back on people who aren't like him.

    I've ridden some of these long haul routes, some of them fairly frequently, and one of the wonderful things about them is that you see an America that people like us rarely see. I even rode with a group of Norwegian bachelor farmers across North Dakota once, who explained what would grow where. Matt needs to get off his ass and see the country.

  • fostert on March 09, 2013 11:36 AM:

    I'd agree John, the routes shouldn't need subsidy. But some routes like the California Zephyr and the Coast Starlight could charge more and they'd still be worth taking. And while we are at it, we can stop subsidizing air traffic and car traffic, too. Let the market set the prices. And in general, we should stop subsidizing oil. It's a profitable industry that can afford to pay its costs. Want to ship oil through the Straight of Hormuz or the Suez Canal? Fine, pay for the US Navy's Sixth Fleet. Or, you know, we could just let Iran or Egypt decide whether your ship gets through.

  • Heather on March 09, 2013 12:03 PM:

    We live in St Louis and last October decided to take the City of New Orleans to NOLA rather than drive. Granted we had to pick up the train at midnight in Centraila IL, about 1hr east of us, and didn't get to New Orleans until the next afternoon but the train was comfortable and the customer service exceptional...airlines could learn something. On the return journey we ate in the dining car with low expectations...we were pleasantly surprised because the food was so good and again service was excellent. It was very civilized (especially compared to air travel these days) and our almost 3 yr old loved it. We need more train routes, not less. I just wish the routes that exist were networked better like in Europe so we could have taken a train from St Louis that would connect in Centraila rather than drive. The comments above about the freight trains having priority is also true and did delay us a bit on the return trip.

  • Fess on March 09, 2013 12:25 PM:

    I would like to go from San Diego to San Francisco on the train. I can get on in San Diego, but only go as far as Santa Barbara where you have to get off and take a bus the rest of the way for a total travel time of 12-13 hours. How about to Oakland? That's pretty close to SF. That route stops in Santa Barbara, bus to San Jose, and then the train to Oakland, this time for an investment of 13 hours and an extra $13. San Diego to Sacramento is even better - train to LA, bus to Bakersfield, train to Stockton, and bus to Sacramento for a ride of 10.5 hours. If we take our car, going to either SF or SAC takes about 9 hours including a lunch stop.

    Here's a no-brainer, SD to Las Vegas: train to LA, 90 min. wait in LA, bus to Vegas, another 9 hour trip by "train" for a 5 hour car ride. This is a route heavily traveled by people from LA and SD. There are lots of accidents on the return trip by over-tired, frequently over-indulged drivers. It is beyond me why there isn't train service on this route. Wait, I can't even get from SD to LAX on the train; it stops at Union Station where you can spend the equivalent of the train ticket to catch a ride from the train to the airport. So, this spring we'll once again drive to LAX and park the car for a couple of weeks instead of taking a train.

  • Tigershark on March 09, 2013 1:24 PM:

    Fess: To get to San Francisco from San Diego is easy. Coaster/Metrolink to Union Station, Coast Starlight to Oakland/Emoryville, BART to San Francisco.

    As for rail to Vegas, you are right, but AMTRAK had service years ago but cancelled it due to lack of ridership. With $4 gallon gas, and some speed in the train (100 mph?) that would surely change today.

  • leo from Chicago on March 09, 2013 2:39 PM:

    In China, the new high speed trains take 5 hours to go the same distance from NYC to Chicago. Imagine what kind of business Amtrak's 'Lake Shore Limited' would be doing if we had infrastructure like that.

    Instead, we've got infrastructure like the UK had in the 60's-80s -- i.e. everything falling apart.

    As far as routes needing subsidy -- what form of transportation doesn't? I'm sick and tired of paying for motorways so people like John can drive around thinking the cost of transportation is what he put in his fuel tank. Basta

  • Tired Liberal on March 09, 2013 4:44 PM:

    Why is passenger rail the only form of transportation expected to be 100% self-supporting? Taxpayers build roads and airports. Why shouldn't taxpayers help support passenger trains? We are falling behind the rest of the world. Air travel for short distances is wasteful and inefficient.

  • TT on March 09, 2013 5:20 PM:

    I don't think it's a question of bias against passenger rail or demanding "self-sufficiency" so much as it is a question of passenger rail requiring massive upfront capital expenses and O&M expenses with very little return outside the NE corridor and limited other environs. Rail carries less than half the number of passengers in a year that the airlines carry in a month, all told less than 30 million annually (it's barely budged over the past 35 years) to the airlines' annual 750+ million, a number that has almost tripled in the past 35 years. Roads carry drivers and passengers about 3 trillion miles annually.

    I'm a heavy HSR skeptic, though I'm certainly sympathetic to the idea of improving short-haul and even some medium-haul intercity "low-speed" passenger rail service, i.e. the feds dedicating funding for construction and O&M. But I don't see the point in investing massive amounts of money at substantial environmental cost in order to build a dedicated nation-wide HSR network or to keep other little-used, little-traveled networks going. Actually, it would probably make more sense from an economic and environmental point of view to heavily invest in inter-city bus travel, since the infrastructure is already there and the technologies (clean diesel, biodiesel, natural gas, plug-in hybrids, et al) are already abundant.

  • tbert on March 09, 2013 6:04 PM:

    The argument advanced by TT is naive in assuming that the highway infrastructure of today is adequate to meet future demand. It isn't. Expansion of our transportation infrastructure is going to happen. The question is what kind. Rail carries more people for less monetary and energy investment than interstates.

  • CP on March 09, 2013 7:16 PM:

    Air travel is highly subsidized- massive airports and infrastructure to support them, FAA to guide the flights, the TSA, and we bailed the airlines out after 9-11....rail subsidies are a pittance right now in comparison-

  • John on March 09, 2013 7:26 PM:

    I am not opposed to putting money into trains, as I think two of my three posts make clear. I am opposed to putting money into ornamental long distance routes when the short and medium range routes outside the Northeast Corridor are terrible. We should be putting money into improving service along routes of 500 miles or less, not subsidizing impractical trans-continental vacations for train enthusiasts.

    A train trip ought not take twice as long as driving. If it does, nobody is ever going to do it. The status quo, where we spend a ton of money subsidizing once a day long distance routes nobody uses, is a waste of money that we should be using to improve service along various medium range axes. The long-range routes are a political boondoggle.

  • exlibra on March 09, 2013 8:18 PM:

    I wonder whether trains could have "car cars", the way ferries (in Europe) do. Get to the train -- from whatever little town you live in -- in your own car, stash it on the train for the long distance part of the trip, then finish the trip to wherever you're going (and which might have no train tracks or station) in your own car again...

  • docdave on March 09, 2013 9:16 PM:

    a modest proposal: return the original subsidy to those passenger lines: the U.S. Mail. Put RPOs back on the tracks and lord knows how parcel delivery might improve, not to mention underwriting passenger service.

  • rayspace on March 09, 2013 11:36 PM:

    To the Texans: the reason you don't have high-speed rail among your major cities is because Southwest Airlines killed it. They want to keep their monopoly on short-haul travel in Texas, and threatened to pull out of Texas if the state went forward with high-speed rail.

    I live in Chicago, and we could have high-speed rail to 9 other Midwestern cities, with Chicago as hub. The Midwest High-Speed Rail Association is advocating for such a system, which would relieve overcrowding on the roads, eliminate some short-haul flights, and create jobs. We need to keep pressing our elected officials to move forward with this, and to elect new Governors in our neighboring states who will do their part as well.

  • Ron Byers on March 10, 2013 10:24 AM:

    As America continues its slide into backwater status railroads will return. Don't believe me, just look at the importance of railroads all over Asia. The masters want the masses to be able to move between cities on the cheap. Rail is a wonderful way to do that. On the otherhand how do the elites of India or China travel. Yep they travel by air or maybe by luxury automobile.

    I guess what I am trying to say is, travel by air and automobile are essentially American responses to the need to move people from city to city. They cost more than trains but given the choice people choose to drive or fly. Otherwise there would be a real market for long haul rail.

  • paul on March 11, 2013 9:30 AM:

    There seems to be a consensus that rail routes shouldn't need any "subsidies". That's stupid.

    We can argue over the size of the subsidy, but when those routes are "competing" with an entire #@#$ national superhighway system built and maintained with tax dollars, or with airplanes landing at airports built and maintained by tax dollars and controlled throughout their flight by federal employees, calling out the railroads as money-losers seems a little off.