Story first appeared on USA Today -
Amtrak, the beleaguered national rail system, has actually had a 55% increase in passengers over the past 15 years, with the overwhelming majority of that growth coming from short-distance routes between major cities, according to a new study.
Amtrak carries more than 31 million riders a year, which was an all-time high in 2012, and is growing at a faster rate than travel by car, mass transit or airlines, says the report from the Brookings Institution, a liberal-leaning think tank.
However, 90% of Amtrak's ridership growth between 1997 and 2012 was on routes under 400 miles. Contrary to Amtrak's image as a bloated, federally-subsidized program, many short-haul routes are actually supported by the states they serve, said Robert Puentes, a Brookings senior fellow and co-author of the report. Between 2007 and 2011, 15 states paid portions of Amtrak operating expenses totaling almost $850 million, the report says.
"The places we see Amtrak being competitive, running effective and efficient service, are in those places where the state already has some skin in the game," Puentes said. "These are places where Amtrak is treated not as a big federal bureaucracy that's coming in but is actually part and parcel of the transportation plan."
Randal O'Toole, a senior fellow with the libertarian Cato Institute, said, "A subsidy is a subsidy whether it's coming from federal, state or local taxpayers." His Cato study in November found that Amtrak accounts for just 0.1% of the nation's passenger travel but gets more taxpayer dollars than other popular modes of transportation such as buses and airlines. Over the past five years, Amtrak has received an annual taxpayer subsidy of more than $1.4 billion.
"There are a lot of short-distance (Amtrak) routes that lose a lot of money," O'Toole said.
In essence, Amtrak functions as two rail systems, Puentes says.
The short-haul routes generated a positive operating balance of $47 million in 2011, as revenue from the two most popular Northeast Corridor routes between Boston and Washington, D.C., — the Acela and the Regional — were enough to offset the net operating costs of the other 24 short-distance routes.
By contrast, Amtrak's 18 longer distance routes, which carried less than 20% of the system's riders in 2011, posted a $614 million deficit, the report says.
Brookings said its report is the first analysis of passenger rail data that focused on metropolitan areas rather than specific stations or cities. The researchers found that 10 metropolitan areas, concentrated mostly on the coasts along with Chicago, accounted for nearly two-thirds of Amtrak's ridership.