Amtrak ridership up almost 6%, revenue up 9%

Okay, you know how much I like the Acela, so I’m not at all surprised to see that Amtrak has shown solid growth through the 2010 fiscal year, which ended on September 30. More than 28.7 million customers rode the rails, a year-over-year gain of 5.7 percent. Ticket revenue surged 9 percent to $1.7 billion, and Acela ridership, indicating growth in Amtrak‘s upscale offer.

Nonetheless, Amtrak did rely on our tax cash. We chipped in $1.49 billion to cover the railroad’s $3.5 billion in expenses, not to mention another $1.3 billion from the federal stimulus program. The stimulus payout went to finance work on tracks, cars and train stations.

[photo by cliff1066 via Flickr]

Five reasons why the Amtrak Acela Express is far superior to flying

There are four basic ways to travel among Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. You can fly, drive, ride a bus or take a train. Every traveler has his preference, but having played with all four options, I’ve found that hitting the rails is the right one for me, an increasingly popular position. I hate to be behind the wheel (a side-effect of living in Manhattan), and buses do tend to be slow, uncomfortable and unpleasant (though incredibly inexpensive). Flying … well, flying is everything a bus is only more expensive, a little bit faster and still slower, usually than driving or taking the train.

Usually, my decision on how to travel these routes comes down to flying versus rail. There’s no choice any more. Last weekend, I took the Amtrak Acela Express on a Boston-to-New York round trip, my second this year, and I was thrilled with every aspect of the experience.

Here are five reasons why the Acela is far, far superior to air travel in the Bos-Wash corridor:1. Save time up front: whether you’re in Boston or New York, you don’t have to leave the middle of the city to get to your transportation, and the same holds when you arrive at your destination. In New York, you get on at Penn Station, and in Boston, you can choose either South Station or Back Bay Station.

2. Save more time up front: the track isn’t announced until around 15 minutes before your train departs. So, don’t worry about having to get there an hour early or longer. I know, I know: for the Delta Shuttle, you don’t have to get to Marine Air Terminal an hour early, either. If you’re flying at a peak time (think Friday at 5 PM or Monday at 7 AM), you really do need to get to the terminal more than an hour ahead of time. They’re “peak” for a reason.

3. Stretch your legs: business class is the minimum on the Acela Express, and I won’t even begin to fantasize about what first class is like. Everything is comfortable, from being able to recline (and have the person in front of you do so) to the clean, spacious bathrooms. It can be difficult to get up and walk around when the train is moving at its top speed, but you are free to do so – with no “fasten seatbelt” light to slow you down.

4. Service with a smile: several of the announcements on the ride came with the simple yet highly effective suggestion, “Have a positive day.” It worked. I’ve hear similar announcements on planes before, but not often and not with the same voice (this guy was good). The food options weren’t great, and you do have to pay for them, but again, there was that smile involved.

Note: I have no problem with airlines charging for food and think they should have moved to this model a while ago. A la carte just makes sense to me. The differentiator for the Acela is the service that puts it into your hands.

5. There’s no dehumanizing security process: first, there’s no reason not to feel safe, and there are security measures in place to protect Amtrak’s customers. That said, you don’t have to squander your youth waiting to get wanded by someone from the TSA. You just carry your bags on board and take your seat.

[photo by Mr. T in DC via Flickr]

New England is barrier to high-speed trains

Nothing was more exhilarating than hearing the announcement on the Acela Express last weekend: we were traveling at the train’s top speed of 150 mph. I was comfortable, and I was moving quickly. I was also pretty psyched about the incredibly friendly service (airlines, you could learn plenty from the Acela). So, I’d love to see more high-speed rail travel, not to mention a greater number of faster stretches on the existing Acela routes.

An increase in triple-digit time seems unlikely in parts of New England, despite the feds are committing $8 billion in stimulus cash to put more high-speed trains on the rails nationwide. According to the Associated Press:

But in populated areas of New England where city streets and railroad tracks intersect and trains must negotiate curves, hills and tunnels, travel at speeds as high as 150 mph are out of the question.

As early as this decade, passengers will instead board trains moving at between 65 mph and 80 mph. That’s slower than true high-speed trains.

This should be sufficient to cut driving, though, which is the main objective. Hey, it’ll also give us another alternative with flying, which I’m pretty happy about.

[photo by Mr. T in DC via Flickr]

Travel Trends: Train travel in the USA

Paul Theroux, the great American travel writer, once said, “Almost anything is possible in a train” — and that still holds true today. While the U.S. has not embraced rail travel as a primary means of transportation for several decades, a resurgence is growing. Passengers frustrated with airline delays and rising costs, the high cost of gasoline and road construction are beginning to give train travel another look.

These Aren’t Your Parent’s Trains
Without a lot of fanfare, Amtrak, which operates most of the passenger rail system in the U.S., has quietly been making small improvements. While capacity and routes have actually decreased since 1985, today’s passenger trains tout high-speed wireless access (on some routes), no baggage fees for up to three checked bags and the ability to bring golf clubs, bicycles and ski equipment. Some business class seats also have electrical outlets, conference tables and complimentary newspapers.

On longer routes there are dining and sleeping cars offering first class dining and turn down service. An Auto Train which runs from Lorton, Virginia to Sanford, Florida allows passengers to bring their vehicle along for the ride. It is arguably the longest passenger train in the world and is pitched as a cost-effective and environmentally-friendly alternative to driving for families on the East Coast heading down to Disney World.

Improvements for 2010 and Beyond
According to Bruce Richardson, President of the United Rail Passenger Alliance, “Even if train travel evolves at lightning speed over the next 10 years, it will still not be at the same point in North America it was in 1956.” The U.S. is severely behind other nations in providing high speed rail infrastructure and Americans are just now beginning to consider it as a mode of transportation again.

In looking at statistics provided by the Federal Railroad Administration, rail travel has fairly consistently increased over the past 25 years (see below). While there are no federally-approved forecasted numbers for 2010 and beyond, the expectation is that passenger rail travel will continue to increase every year. (For the purposes of this article, Gadling forecasted passenger traffic for 2010 and 2011, as shown in the graph below.)

As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the Federal Government allocated $8 billion for high-speed and intercity passenger rail (HSIPR). In addition to that, the HSIPR Program includes an additional $92 million from an existing state grant program (see below for the allocation of money by state).Unfortunately, most of this money is going to a backlog of rehabilitations and upgrades of old Amtrak routes that have been needed for years — rather than to new routes — and some of the money is being spent on new maintenance facilities as well as IT projects. But still, improvements are being made:

  • In California, the Pacific Surfliner Route which runs from San Diego to San Luis Obispo with stops in Los Angeles is getting $51 million to build a new track between Fullerton and Commerce to ease congestion and upgrade the speed to 110 mph.
  • A whopping $590 million is allocated to the Cascade Service route which goes from Eugene, OR to Seattle, WA with routes to Portland, OR. Infrastructure improvements will allow for 2 additional round trips from Seattle to Portland (there are currently 4).
  • A few new routes are in the works. The Hiawatha route from Milwaukee to Madison, Wisconsin will be extended and have 3 new stations in Brookfield, Oconomowoc and Watertown. A new 3C Route in Ohio will go from Cleveland to Columbus to Dayton and Cincinnati.
  • Other existing routes are getting signals, stations and other infrastructure type improvements.

So where do these improvements leave us? We’re still way behind where we need to be for Americans to consider rail travel as a cost effective, first-choice of transportation. Existing routes need to be extended, more daily frequencies added and new long distance routes implemented. Amtrak routes that were discontinued in the 1990’s such as the Sunset Limited, which ran from New Orleans to Orlando, and the Desert Wind route between Chicago and Los Angeles need to be put back into operation to give travelers enough choices to ride the rails.

Data sources:

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