Amtrak Carried 86% of Pre-Pandemic PM in May


Amtrak carried 492 million passenger-miles in May 2023, which was just 86.4 percent of the 569 million passenger-miles it carried in the same month of 2019, according to Amtrak’s latest monthly performance report. Considering that Amtrak’s April passenger-miles were nearly 91 percent as many in 2023 as 2019, this is a disappointing result. Since Amtrak ridership usually usually picks up in May due to increased vacationers, this suggests that Americans aren’t enthusiastic about riding trains for discretionary travel in a post-COVID world.

For detailed comments on transit and highways, see my July 12 post.

All three types of Amtrak trains underperformed in May, with Northeast Corridor trains carrying less than 88 percent of pre-pandemic riders, long-distance trains carrying 85 percent, and state-supported day trains carrying less than 81 percent. It is worth noting that Amtrak is putting most of the money it received for expansion in the infrastructure bill into state-supported trains even though they are the worst-performing part of its network. Amtrak’s reasoning is that Congress gave it money for capital improvements but not operating costs, so it will need to persuade the states to pay for operating costs of any new routes or increased frequencies.

In comparison with Amtrak, airline passenger-miles declined only slightly from 99.7 percent of pre-pandemic levels in April to 99.5 percent in May. The numbers that went into the above chart are a mixture of vehicle-miles for highways, ridership for transit, passengers for airlines, and passenger-miles for Amtrak. This is because passenger-mile data (the best indicator of performance) are not available for all modes at the same time.

However, the Department of Transportation recently released April passenger-miles for the airlines. They indicate that domestic air travelers went 63.4 billion passenger-miles in April 2023 (102.3% of April 2019), while international air travelers went another 57.6 billion (86.6% of April 2019). Amtrak’s 483 million passenger miles in April pales into insignificance, being less than 0.4 percent of total air travel and less than 0.8 percent of domestic air travel. Domestic flying now averages more than 2,000 miles per U.S. resident each year, but Americans ride Amtrak less than 20 miles per year.

This piece first appeared at The Antiplanner.

Randal O'Toole, the Antiplanner, is a policy analyst with nearly 50 years of experience reviewing transportation and land-use plans and the author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future.

Photo: Testing of the Amtrak Acela high-speed train in Colorado Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division..