How popular is Amtrak?
It depends who you ask and how.
Before the pandemic, the passenger railroad was turning in record ridership and revenue, along with setting records for growth on the Northeast Corridor and lines with state fiscal support.
So, among people who ride trains, Amtrak is popular and their numbers have been growing. This trend is likely to continue once more people are traveling again.
Public-opinion polls offer a more nuanced view.
A national poll this past year showed 75% of respondents saying we should be shifting more passengers and freight to railroads in order to mitigate climate change. Sixty-five percent viewed passenger rail favorably, up from before the pandemic.
Yet only 46% said we should be investing more in passenger rail.
Political support is similarly ambiguous. In general, Democrats support it and Republicans don’t — the late Sen. John McCain was a noted nemesis of Amtrak’s subsidy. Yet many Republicans in rural districts back the railroad because it is a primary passenger connection there. And Democratic Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton weren’t Amtrak’s friends.
Thus, year after year, Amtrak gets its federal backing. This fiscal year’s $2 billion subsidy represents 0.045% of the unified federal budget.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of Amtrak’s creation on May 1, President Joe Biden — our most famous Amtrak rider — is proposing an $80 billion infusion in railroads. The results could be transformational for Amtrak, which has appeared on life support for much of its existence.
The extra funding would allow for as many as 30 additional routes, including returning passenger trains to Las Vegas, Phoenix and Nashville, Tennessee, as well as connecting Cleveland with Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio. It would fund improvements on the higher-speed Northeast Corridor.
Other forms of transportation aren’t shortchanged. Biden’s infrastructure plan would spend $174 billion for electric vehicles, $115 billion for highways and bridges, $85 billion for transit and $25 billion for airports.
The total $2 trillion package would include clean drinking water, low-income housing, boosts to manufacturing, worker training and research, and funding for caretaking of the elderly and disabled.
Nobody can accuse the president of lacking ambition.
Beyond not “paying its own way,” Amtrak’s critics say the United States isn’t laid out for passenger trains the way densely populated and small countries are, such as Europe and Japan.
Yet the population of the United States has grown by 126 million since Amtrak’s creation, most of it in urban centers.
Amtrak has been key to increasing regional rail service, with the Amtrak Cascades in the Northwest; the Capitol Corridor between San Jose and Sacramento in California; the San Joaquins, linking cities in California’s San Joaquin Valley; Metrolink and (formerly) the Coaster in Southern California; ramped up service between Chicago and Milwaukee and Detroit, and between St. Louis and Kansas City, among other routes.
In all these cases, the number of trains has increased over the years, providing ever more convenient service. Not surprisingly, patronage has risen.
Even deep-red Oklahoma sees the daily Heartland Flyer between Fort Worth and Oklahoma City. State funding partnerships have made all these successful expansions possible.
As for long-distance trains such as the Seattle-Portland to Chicago Empire Builder, some make money, others don’t. But they are essential to maintaining the national network that was required when Amtrak was created.
I could regale you with stories of the rails, including riding from Seattle to Washington, D.C., and back, where the vacation starts the moment you take your seat, a bag of books unread because the scenery was so compelling.
I don’t know if this will change the minds of the most Amtrak-skeptic. Americans don’t change their minds often anymore.
Fifty years ago today, passenger trains were operated by private railroads (in most cases today, Amtrak relies on their tracks, often hurting on-time performance). But the post-World War II optimism of new, diesel-drawn, luxurious “streamliner” trains ran up against the jet and Interstate Highway System.
In 1960, America had about 2,000 intercity passenger trains. By the end of the decade, it was 500. The “train-offs” were further hastened when the Postal Service canceled most mail contracts with the railroads in 1967-68.
Amtrak was cobbled together as a quasi-public corporation to save trains from extinction. Some 26 railroads were invited to join and offload their passenger business. Still, the losses were staggering when Amtrak took over on May 1. Some 256 trains that ran on April 30 were never resurrected the next day. Hundreds of communities were cut off.
Among the casualties here were the Great Northern Railway’s Western Star and the Northern Pacific’s crack Mainstreeter and North Coast Limited between Chicago and Seattle.
Besides the Empire Builder, Amtrak operated a second Puget Sound-bound passenger train from Chicago, the North Coast Hiawatha, until 1979. The latter train served the population centers of Montana and was combined with the Builder at Spokane.
In the following years, annual budget fights killed the National Limited and the Desert Wind, among other trains. One of Amtrak’s key problems is the lack of a locked-in annual subsidy commensurate with a robust national network.
It’s an interesting counterfactual to imagine if the federal government had simply paid subsidies to the private railroads to maintain their passenger trains as a public good — every other form of transportation is subsidized. But that’s not what happened.
Now, if Biden gets what he wants, the challenge will be to protect this new investment in 2022 and beyond. A Republican Congress would likely pare it back (President Donald Trump wanted to nearly defund Amtrak).
Republican Senators just announced a $568 billion alternative infrastructure plan, with only $20 billion for Amtrak. That’s hardly transformative and might be abandoned if the GOP regained power.
None of this even gets us to high-speed rail. Regular readers of this column know America is the only advanced urbanized nation on earth without it. But a better Amtrak is a start — even countries with HSR use conventional trains as connections.
We’re so far behind, and so many don’t even realize it. Here’s a teaching moment for “Amtrak Joe.”