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In an economy where many industries are experiencing major losses, America’s passenger rail company, Amtrak, experienced record growth. Ridership jumped by 11 percent in fiscal year 2007-2008, the biggest increase the company has seen in more than 35 years.

 

In a break with a tradition of opposition to Amtrak subsidies, President Bush approved a $13 billion increase in funding over the next five years. Amtrak wants to use the budget increase from for repairs, upgrades, and expansion of services to accommodate these additional riders.

Amtrak Conductor Alice Winston has seen the ebb and flow of ridership during her 18 years with the company. Lately, she's been working the Acela Express train from Washington, DC to Boston. "In the past," she recalls, "when you board a train, you would have plenty of seats. Now, especially on the Acela express-- pretty much, by the time we get to Phili, this train will be sold out." Indeed, after a stop in Philadelphia on one morning's trip, Alice has to search several cars to help a rider find a seat on the crowded train.

Amtrak ridership has been increasing steadily for the past 6 years. More than 26 million people rode Amtrak's trains and commuter rails across the country this year, with much of the growth attributed to the high cost of fuel for cars and planes during the summer. Spokesperson Karina Romero says that about half of Amtrak's overall ridership increases this year were due to the high gas prices. "The other half," she says, "is people maybe looking for alternatives to congestion. They don't want to hassle with flying, they're just looking for an alternative, and increasingly, they're turning to Amtrak."

But Randal O'Toole of the Cato Institute is one of many critics who say that Amtrak has outlived its usefulness, and shouldn't get any more money from the government. He recently published a paper called "Rails Won't Save America", which takes on some of the central points Amtrak supporters use to encourage more investment, including the idea that it helps alleviate road congestion and offers an alternative when gas and plane tickets get too expensive. "Driving has decreased, and Amtrak ridership has increased, but the gain in Amtrak ridership has only been a very very tiny proportion in the decrease in driving," he argues. "Very few people are saying, ‘Oh! Gas prices are going up, so I'm gonna take Amtrak instead of driving.’"

He also doesn't believe that the increases in ridership validate subsidies to Amtrak. "Amtrak is an extremely insignificant kind of transportation in the United States. It carries about point one percent of all travel. So, even if they doubled it, twice nothing is still nothing." He is citing numbers from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), which tabulate intercity travel on Amtrak separately from the commuter rails operated by Amtrak, which shuttle large numbers of people from suburbs into downtown areas in several major cities.

But Amtrak's Romero points out that if you viewed Amtrak like an airline, it would have the 8th largest number of passengers served, carrying 26 million people last year.

Back on the Acela Express, Amtrak's fastest train, Conductor Winston moves quickly through the cars, rapidly punching tickets and labeling seats. She's surrounded almost entirely by business people in suits and ties, busily typing on computers or blackberries. The tickets on the Acela Express train can cost up to $250 one way, so it's not always cheaper than flying. But Winston points out that these travels are mostly business travelers going up and down the East Coast, often on their company's expense accounts. Riding on other trains can cost significantly less than a plane ticket, which led many travelers to flock to Amtrak when fuel surcharges spiked the prices of plane tickets over the summer.

But Randal O'Toole attacks the cost-saving argument in his paper, saying that even if the prices are lower to travel on train, both passengers AND other taxpayers are subsidizing the cheaper prices. The government provides funding to several sectors of America's transportation infrastructure, including highways, airports, bridges, and the rail system. O'Toole used statistics from BTS and other government agencies to compare the overall government subsidies for driving, flying, and taking the train, and found that "the total subsidy to Amtrak per passenger miles is roughly 60 to a hundred times great than the subsidy to driving."

Amtrak spokesperson Karina Romero warns both supporters and critics that even a successful Amtrak needs outside help. "Revenues are very strong right now, but we're not profitable. Rail travel anywhere in the world is more like a public service. So we're going to need funding from the federal government. We'll never be self-sustaining. There's no self-sustaining railroad anywhere in the world, they're all supported."

O'Toole points out that while some Americans may envy the high-speed and far-reaching rail systems in those other parts of the world, they may not want to accept the higher taxes that people pay for it. Take Europe, for example. "The difference between America and Europe is about 6 percent take trains in Europe and virtually none in the United States. So we could spend a trillion dollars on rail transportation, maybe get 6 percent of people out of their cars."

© NPR Intern Edition, Fall 2008