Intercity passenger trains are experiencing a “renaissance” with Amtrak ridership growing “faster than other major travel modes,” says a new report from the Brookings Institution. Indeed, the report continues, Amtrak’s short-distance trains (generally, routes of around 200 to 600 miles) have, on average, a “positive operating balance,” so more such short-distance routes should be added.
As a long-time lover of passenger trains, I wish the report’s statements were true, but they are not. To reach these conclusions, Brookings scholars have selectively used data; ignored one of the major travel modes; and relied on Amtrak accounting tricks to disguise losses.
The rapid growth of rail passenger travel that they report is from 1997 to 2012, but 1997 was near the bottom of a trough in Amtrak ridership. If they had gone back to 1991, which was Amtrak’s peak before 2010, the would have revealed a very different story.
From 1991 to 2012, Amtrak passenger miles grew by a paltry 8 percent (compared with 32 percent between 1997 and 2012), while airline passenger miles grew by 68 percent (vs. 26 percent from 1997 to 2012). Let’s see: air travel grew 68 percent; Amtrak 8 percent. Not much of a rail renaissance, is there?
Of course, using 1991 instead of 1997 makes me just as selective as Brookings. So the chart above just compares the trends from 1990 to 2012. The important thing to note about the chart: Amtrak is insigificant, carrying in recent years little more than 1 percent as many passenger miles as the airlines. Amtrak would appear even more insignificant if the vertical scale were raised to show intercity driving of personal vehicles (as opposed to trucks and buses), which moves about 200 times as many passenger miles as Amtrak.
Amtrak’s performance looks even more dismal on a per capita basis. Amtrak may have posted record ridership in 2012, but the nation’s population was also 25 percent greater than in 1991 when Amtrak per capita ridership peaked at a mere 25 miles per person. Today, it is 13 percent less.
When Brookings compares Amtrak with “other major travel modes,” it implies that Amtrak itself is a major travel mode. In fact, Amtrak’s 22 miles per person in 2012 compares with more than 1,800 miles in air travel and 4,200 miles in intercity auto travel. As a result, Amtrak carries only about 0.36 percent of intercity passenger travel in the U.S. That’s up from 1997, when it was 0.32 percent, but down from 1991, when it was 0.45 percent. Fluctuating between a third and a half percent does not make Amtrak a “major travel mode.”