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NYT: Travelers Shift to Rail as Cost of Fuel Rises

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The steady drumbeat of news on the recent growth in passenger rail travel continued on Saturday when the New York Times reported that Amtrak is “bumping up against its own capacity constraints” as intercity trains are already sold out for some days this summer. However, “despite its popularity with passengers, the biggest determinant of the railroad’s health is still the federal government, and in Washington, views diverge sharply,” according to the article. The future of Amtrak “hinges on who wins the White House; Senator John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee, was a staunch opponent of subsidies to Amtrak when he was chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. Barack Obama, the probable Democratic nominee, was a co-sponsor of the Senate version of the bill to provide an 80/20 financing match.”

Amtrak is an alternative to airlines along the Boston-New York-Washington corridor, and on some routes out of Chicago and a few in California. But most of its other routes are so slow that people take those trains because they have no alternative to reach places like Burlington, N.C., or Burlington, Iowa. Or they go for the train ride itself.

The railroad carried about 25 million passengers last year and may hit 27 million this year. (That is all intercity traffic; commuter rail, connecting suburbs and cities, is also growing, but that is not Amtrak’s market.) By contrast, the airlines carry about 680 million domestic passengers a year. If Amtrak were an airline, in terms of passenger boardings it would rank approximately eighth, behind Continental and US Airways and ahead of AirTran and JetBlue.

H. Glenn Scammel, a former head of staff of the rail subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the railroad should give up on some of its cross-country trains and redeploy the equipment on relatively short intercity trips, where it could provide enough frequency to attract new business. (Providing one train a day in each direction will not draw many new business travelers.)

But the railroad’s labor contracts provide stiff penalties for dropping routes, and dropping states from its itinerary would hurt its political support, especially in the Senate, where thinly populated states are overrepresented relative to their population.

Scarcity is not all bad for the railroad, though. It has raised ticket prices, so that it recorded ticket revenues of $153.4 million in May, up 15.6 percent from $132.7 million in May 2006. That jump is higher than the ridership increase of 12.3 percent, to 2.58 million, from 2.30 million.

Read “Travelers Shift to Rail as Cost of Fuel Rises,” by Matthew Wald for The New York Times


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