Pent-up demand to travel, along with the spread of vaccines, should help Amtrak regain lost ridership by 2023 or 2024, and even grow, Amtrak President Stephen Gardner predicted Tuesday.
He visited Seattle’s King Street Station, then Everett Station, to celebrate the return of daily trips this week on Amtrak’s two most popular long-distance lines — the Coast Starlight to Los Angeles, and the Empire Builder to Everett, Spokane and Chicago.
Each route had been slashed to three trips a week, like others nationally, after the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in March 2020. “We lost 97% of our business in the course of a month,” Gardner said. Rides have rebounded to about 42% of normal on the long routes, he said.
Gardner said he’s optimistic about young adults, who are driving less than older generations. If train times are competitive — by improving frequency and higher priority sharing of freight tracks — they’ll see rail as “productive” time to go online, look out the window, eat or walk around, he argued.
Amtrak is using a $1.7 billion stimulus fund to recall 1,200 workers back from furlough.
Empire Builder and Coast Starlight are the first of 12 routes to be fully restored by June 7, said Larry Chestler, vice president for long-distance service.
However, trains are still lagging highway and air travel in Washington state, where the state-funded Amtrak Cascades, normally serving 800,000 annual passengers, is still only at 20% of pre-pandemic ridership. Cascades now offers three daily round trips to Portland, working toward a goal of six. Cascades north of Seattle remains closed because of Canadian border restrictions to combat COVID-19.
Empire Builder customer Margaret Collins, waiting with bags in the pews of King Street Station, said this was her first train ride in a couple years, to see family in Chicago. With the pandemic raging, “there wasn’t any reason to travel,” she said.
“I’m a fan of trains,” Collins said. “It’s more economical than flying, more economical than driving, and I don’t have to pay attention to the road.”
She suggested, “If they want the railroad to get customers back, they should give everybody a ticket.”
Several cities, including Las Vegas, Nashville and Columbus, might gain new train lines if Congress passes the American Jobs Plan, in which President Joe Biden proposes $80 billion for Amtrak.
U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, said trains emit less than one-third as much greenhouse gases per rider as driving and flying. He could rattle off a half-dozen crossings in Marysville and points north that could benefit from federal money for grade-separation.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has co-sponsored the Railroad Crossing Elimination Act, which seeks $2.5 billion to improve hazardous sites, like the convergence of ferries, trains, beachgoers and car traffic in downtown Edmonds.
Amtrak recently marked its 50th anniversary.
“There is no future in this country, addressing climate change, that doesn’t involve more passenger rail and freight rail too,” Gardner said.