A crowd of New York-bound train passengers stands on the platform at the Trenton, N.J., train station as a full Amtrak train prepares to depart.
A crowd of New York-bound train passengers stands on the platform at the Trenton, N.J., train station as a full Amtrak train prepares to depart. Mel Evans/AP
More people took an Amtrak train in the last year than ever before, bringing in record ticket sales for the national rail service.
As is always the case, the most popular line is the heavily congested corridor from Boston to Washington, where the train can be faster than a car or airplane, if you calculate the trip from door to door.
Ridership grew despite some robust competition from a new generation of intercity bus companies.
The Acela Express is the jewel in Amtrak's somewhat tarnished crown. It's sleek, fast and deluxe — offering Wi-Fi, work tables with electric plugs and leather reclining seats. It slices through nightmare traffic in a megalopolis — one that includes Boston, New Haven, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington — where one city's suburbs sprawl into another's.
Rod Norman, a banker who frequently travels between New York and Washington, used to prefer flying. But now he finds it too much of a hassle.
"You got to get there, you have to wait for an hour and then frequently, on Fridays, specifically, travel between D.C. and New York is delayed," Norman says.
Amtrak Business On The Rise
By taking the train, he can spend most of the travel time productively, rather than schlepping to and from a flight.
A Working Atmosphere
That ability to get work done is contributing to Amtrak's ridership increase, according to Emmett Fremaux, head of marketing and customer service for Amtrak.
"What's important in growth of ridership is the increasing perception of the relevance of train travel," Fremaux says.
He says the Northeast corridor is not only the nation's busiest and most profitable rail line, it's also a model for how other regions could benefit from an investment in the infrastructure needed to create intercity high-speed rail.
"All that happens because of, you know, state and local urgency, and political will and the ability to move a national agenda," Fremaux says.
Slow Speeds, High Prices
Even on the Northeast corridor, high-speed trains capable of going 165 mph average 80 mph because the system lacks a dedicated track that doesn't have to be shared with other trains or car crossings.
And it's expensive — it costs more than $300 for a round-trip fare between New York and Washington. Now, new bus companies like BoltBus and Megabus are drawing away business with cheap, clean service. The bus services offer Wi-Fi and electric outlets, and pick up passengers away from bus terminals.
Nicholas Klein, a graduate student at Rutgers University, is studying these new bus lines and found younger, more affluent riders are filling the seats.
He says they view bus travel as hip: "So people are much more willing to take a bus because it's seen as different from the old idea of what an intercity bus was. So, it's not Greyhound, it's a new type of service."
Bring On The Competition
Amtrak says it welcomes the competition because the economy will grow when this congested region has the capacity to move more people, more efficiently, and with less energy consumption. Even so, Amtrak is countering the popularity of the buses with a plan to offer Wi-Fi on the cheaper trains of the Northeast corridor, and last week it introduced new food offerings on the Acela.
Emily Wilson, a 25-year-old New Yorker who works in the fashion industry, has tried the new buses. She prefers the train, but has no intention of trying the new menu.
"There's absolutely no way I would ever eat train food," Wilson says. "That's like plane food, that's just, no — that's, that's creepy."
Nevertheless, Wilson enjoys her trip, with her laptop on the tray table and her phone in hand, surfing the Internet and working while on a quick getaway to help her sister pick out a wedding dress.