If Wishes Were Iron Horses: Amtrak Gaining Airline Riders?

Andy Kunz of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association commented to Fox Business News on the recently announced record ridership on Amtrak that, "At the very least, the increased demand offers another sign travelers are getting fed up with soaring airline fares and fight cancellations."  In the article, which read more like an Amtrak or high speed rail press release than a news story, reporter Jennifer Booton made what Gulliver, in The Economist, called "a fairly convincing argument that Americans are turning to trains as an alternative to driving and air travel." The Economist should have known better.

Yes, Amtrak ridership is up and airline patronage has been up and down in recent years. But, trains as an alternative to air travel? In fact, Amtrak's ridership is so small that distinguishing between the bottom of the graph below and the Amtrak ridership is difficult (see Figure). While Amtrak ridership rose five percent last year, the same number of new airline passengers would have constituted only 0.06 percent increase (or nearly 1/100th the impact on Amtrak). Amtrak's ridership is so low that the monthly change (increase or decrease) in airline patronage has exceeded  total 2011 Amtrak ridership in 120 of the last 125 months.

Booton and Gulliver may imagine business travelers abandoning frequent airline service to board trains slower than cars that run once daily. Or perhaps they imagine faux-high speed rail service that will still be too slow or too infrequent. Airline executives aren't losing sleep over potential losses to trains.

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While frequent, this service

While frequent, this service isn't much faster than a car, so why are so many people using it? I would guess, that like me, they appreciate the fact that they can sit baterie do e-papierosów back and get work done rather than focus on driving, or in the case of air travel on short segment, spend much of the trip in activities where computer use isn't possible.

Spurious comparison

I fail to see the relevance of comparing the whole of domestic air travel to Amtrak ridership when clearly there are many routes served by air that are not served by Amtrak. More useful would have been a comparison between individual Amtrak routes and the corresponding air routes.

The modal share for Amtrak between NY-Boston and NY-Washington is quite favorable. Given that this is probably the best rail service in the country, wouldn't a comparison between on these routes to the comparable air routes be more useful to the discussion on inter-city rail investment?

"Booton and Gulliver may imagine business travelers abandoning frequent airline service to board trains slower than cars that run once daily. Or perhaps they imagine faux-high speed rail service that will still be too slow or too infrequent."

During the work week I observe a high proportion of the people on Amtrak Northeast Corridor trips are business travelers. While frequent, this service isn't much faster than a car, so why are so many people using it? I would guess, that like me, they appreciate the fact that they can sit back and get work done rather than focus on driving, or in the case of air travel on short segment, spend much of the trip in activities where computer use isn't possible.

If you are priced out of flying

I see few taking the train over a plane for price. In a lot of cases the train is more expensive then the plane. In many places the train is as much of a hassle to get to as flying.

If the price is high for flying, people will drive instead. If that price is still too high they will take a intercity bus, not a train. Or they won't go.