Amtrak’s Doing Great…Just as Long As the Trip is Under 400 Miles

I have a lot of great things to say about Amtrak, based on my last two journeys, which took me up the west coast from Bellingham, Washington to Vancouver ,and then back down to Seattle. Everything was lovely, and it was a most comfortable trip. In the news today was a report about Amtrak’s money losing routes…and those which are making the most money. All of that legroom, the copious plugs, the easy security…it was a joy to travel even for a five-hour run from BC to Seattle. Then it was even better when getting to the airport was a mere $2.50 ride on a light rail system to SEATAC. With no one driving it, totally automatic.

It comes down to an undeniable fact–for trips more than 400 miles, the railroad is a laughably nostalgic fantasy journey, and for those shorter trips, it’s a perfect answer.  Here are some of the numbers from a Brookings Institute study just released.

Amtrak routes that go long distance all lose dozens of millions a year. But the shorter haul routes are making lots of money.

Amtrak ridership between 1997 and 2012 up 31.2 million.

Growth in ridership between 1997 and 2012 55%

Share of riders stopping at the 100 largest metro areas 88%

2011 operating surplus on shorter routes $47 million.

2011 operating deficit on routes longer than 400 miles $614 million

This all bodes well for the Northeast, where we are looking forward to new service between Springfield, MA and the “Knowledge Corridor,” Holyoke, Northampton, Greenfield and into Vermont. I can’t wait until 2014 to ride from Greenfield to New York City!

Maybe it’s time to face facts and eliminate the biggest losers, like the California Zephyr (-$62M), The Southwest Chief (-$66.5) and the Empire Builder (-$54.6) and let the train buffs who really love these long distance trains pay double today’s fare for the privilege.