Amtrak’s Endless Ridership-vs-Coverage Problem

Amtrak is about to see more Federal funding than it’s had in decades, and is finally in the position to talk about major growth. But their “Amtrak Connects US” vision document is worth reading to notice two things: They continue to face a conflict between ridership goals and coverage goals, and they don’t feel that it’s safe to talk about that openly.

To review:

  • Ridership goals are served by concentrating good service where there are lots of people to benefit from it.
  • Coverage goals are served by spreading service out so that you can say everyone got some, regardless of whether people ride.

Ever since I did the first scholarly paper on this in 2008, I’ve been helping transit agencies face this problem honestly and make clear decisions about it.  Pretending that you are doing both just produces confusion and unhappiness, because these goals are mathematically opposite. They tell network designers to do opposite things. Rhetoric can paper over the problem but won’t resolve it.

For years, Congress has berated Amtrak for not being profitable (which would require ridership) while demanding that it run service to every corner of the country (coverage).  The high-ridership thing for Amtrak to do, as the report makes clear, is to focus on improved frequency and travel time for trips of under 500 miles, a distance where rail service between city centers can effectively compete with flying between airports, and this in fact is what the plan recommends. But that means the improvements won’t be everywhere.

Yet when it comes to highest-level summary, the report seems pressured to de-emphasize its own recommendations. Here are the seven bullet points that form “Amtrak’s 15 Year Vision” (p9). I’ve labeled each with whether it refers to ridership or coverage.

  • Add service to 160 new communities, large and small, while retaining the existing Amtrak network serving over 525 locations. [Coverage]
  • Provide intercity passenger rail service to the 50 largest metropolitan areas (by population).  [Ridership]
  • Serve 47 of the 48 contiguous states, expanding corridor passenger rail service in 20 states and bringing new corridor passenger rail service to 16 states.  [Coverage]
  • Add 39 new routes, and enhance 25 routes.  [Coverage]
  • Introduce new stations in over half of U.S. states.  [Coverage]
  • Expand or improve rail service for 20 million more riders annually—which would double the amount that the state-supported routes carried in fiscal year (FY) 2019.  [Ridership]
  • Provide $800 million in total Amtrak revenue growth versus FY 2019. [Ridership]

While ridership is the focus of the actual policy, four of these seven points emphasize coverage instead.  Three of the them count states, which has nothing to do with ridership or population but does matter when counting votes in the Senate, the US’s ultimate enforcer of coverage-oriented thinking.  Amtrak takes pride in serving 46 of the 48 contiguous states, though most rural states are served only by “land cruises,” trains that take 2-3 days to cross distances of over 1000 miles.  These provide useful access to some rural towns but are much too slow for travel between major cities, and their schedules — once a day at best — are almost guaranteed not to be going when you need them.  Amtrak recognizes that these trains are not a growth market.  The future lies in the shorter more frequent links under 500 miles, but the obsession with state-counting in these high level bullet points shows how Amtrak must dodge the obvious in its rhetoric.

Even more striking, Amtrak does not seem to feel it has permission to draw a map that would show what they’re actually doing.  Here’s a bit of the mapping that comes with the document:

Sample of mapping from Amtrak’s report.


Colors are used here to show where some service is being added, but this map tells you nothing about the actual levels of service on each line. It’s misleading about the pattern of existing service — where frequency is massively concentrated in the Boston-Washington “Northeast Corridor” — and also about the degree to which different corridors are proposed to be improved.  In short, it’s a coverage map, designed to emphasize how many places are affected rather than what the benefit is. Meanwhile, a quick internet search turns up a map of 2015 Amtrak frequencies that gives you some sense of how unevenly service is actually distributed:


Frequency based map of Amtrak in 2015.

Amtrak wouldn’t draw its own map in this style, so somebody else did a put it on the internet.  (This, by the way, is how the idea of showing frequency on local transit maps caught on in the US in the 2000s and 2010s: With encouragement and advice from this blog, impatient advocates drew the maps when the transit authority wouldn’t and this helped give the transit authorities the courage to do it themselves.  Today, at least in the US, most major agencies show some indication of frequency in their mapping.)  Sure enough, Yonah Freemark has already drawn a frequency based map of the Amtrak plan!

Yonah Freemark’s frequency map of the Amtrak plan.

But you won’t find this map in Amtrak’s report, and I can imagine the internal conversation over why.  “It will make it look like we hate North Dakota!” Yes, indeed, in the US there are many states with two senators and very few people. Amtrak is planning for ridership, so it doesn’t propose to improve service there.  Ignoring North Dakota is an inevitable consequence of a decision that ridership is the goal.

So we get a report that lays out a ridership-driven plan — higher frequencies where there are lots of people — but doesn’t dare say that at the highest level of the document: the bullet points and map that everyone will look at even if they don’t read the text.

I’m not criticizing Amtrak here! This is probably exactly the appropriate framing for their political situation. But you should read this document to practice reading for ridership-coverage tension, to help you recognize when this contradiction is hiding inside your own transit authority’s thinking or rhetoric.

70 Responses to Amtrak’s Endless Ridership-vs-Coverage Problem

  1. Morgan Wick July 23, 2023 at 3:12 pm #

    Problem is, the situation is a lot more intractable than within urban areas. Many people in rural areas are utterly ignorant of just how much the population of the United States has become concentrated in urban areas, which is why we get unironic “land area” maps intended to convince people that “real Americans” support the Republican Party, and resulting in the misconception that whenever resources allocated on the basis of population – like, say, train service – move from rural areas to urban ones, it’s because the people in charge “hate real Americans”. On top of that, they’re also often actively hostile towards urban areas, partly out of an understandable clash between the two areas’ cultural values and political positions, but sometimes seeming to go beyond that to the idea of wanting to “own the libs” by doing the opposite of whatever they want, even if they don’t benefit or even harm themselves by doing so.

    Couple that with a political system without the ability to call snap elections or any other structural incentive to compromise and give people you don’t directly represent what they want, and the cultural phenomenon of political polarization actively disincentivizing politicians from giving anything to the “other side”, plus the rural bias of the Senate, and you have an environment where Amtrak has no way to sell a ridership-focused plan to their bosses, because the people they need to convince are fundamentally opposed to the idea that services – of any kind – should be concentrated where the people are. Urban areas can create some sense of a “we’re all in this together” mentality, but that’s utterly absent on the scale of the United States as a whole, especially in rural areas.

    • Pistol Pete July 24, 2023 at 1:40 pm #

      LOL! You are clueless! Your trying to make this a political issue and have no understanding of the complexity of the infrastructure of the existing train lines. The neglect of the systems that occurred from the 1950’s to the late 70’s. Do some homework!

      • Tom Terrific August 1, 2023 at 2:41 am #

        What is so complex? Mainline railroading is MUCH more technologically sophisticated than it was in the 1970’s. There are thousands of miles of two-main-track lines. Passenger trains can switch between the two tracks for as short a distance as one “block” to get around a freightm without losing more than three or four minutes because they’re so short they’re in “the plant” of the cross-over for two minutes. Then it’s quickly back to track speed.

        Mainlines are completely controlled by national dispatching centers. The train crews just have to obey the signals.

        There are dozens of downgraded or abandoned rights of way east of the Mississippi that used to haul “varnish”. No, it’s not cheap to rehabilitate them but it’s an order of magnitude less than adding a pair of lanes to a freeway.

    • Henry Miller July 27, 2023 at 9:55 am #

      Not really Amtrak related, but I think it is important that urbanists speak the language of rural people better. Don’t look down on them, they are not stupid, they are a minority that has concerns and needs that are different.

      One thing that concerns many rural people is suburban sprawl. Every time the city/suburbs grows their borders it is on the back of one more farm lost. It is also on the backs of farmers who suddenly find the operations they have done for years is offensive (tractors slow traffic, and manure stinks). So we need to point out that if we build great transit in the city, then parking lots can be turned into apartments – every parking lots turned into an apartment represents an entire field saved from urban sprawl.

    • RossB August 4, 2023 at 5:47 pm #

      I completely agree, Morgan. But let’s not forget the key element of this excellent essay: rural service is being subsidized. If this was a private system — the type that many rural states claim they support — service to these rural areas would be ridiculously expensive, if it existed at all. This, to me, is the big intellectual disconnect. If you want a cost effective transit system, you are going to abandon a lot of coverage. In this case it is even more stark: If you want Amtrak to be close to profitable, you are going to have to charge a lot more for rural service, or abandon it altogether. A huge part of the country just doesn’t want to hear that, and the plan reflects this willful ignorance.

      We have gone back to the days prior to the Great Depression. The rural states are more libertarian than ever. Nothing fundamentally wrong with that, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t ask the federal government to step in and help out struggling rural communities and then turn around and say you want a smaller government. For the folks in rural areas who ignorantly push for an end to federal subsidies: careful what you wish for.

  2. Brian S. July 23, 2023 at 8:21 pm #

    I’m all for ignoring North Dakota, but I will say one thing, though perhaps I’m missing some context:

    The long-distance route through ND and Montana beyond Fargo goes largely through towns even tinier than the ones they’d serve if they went through the southern part of each state, especially in Montana.

    Though the growth in population in and around the Bakken oil field in NW ND may have stunted this difference somewhat within ND.

    • Jarrett July 23, 2023 at 8:31 pm #

      Long ago there was a train called the North Coast Hiawatha that did the southern route through southern Montana and South Dakota. I rode it as a boy.

    • TW July 24, 2023 at 6:06 am #

      The context is that the more northerly Empire Builder was kept while the more southerly North Coast Hiawatha was cut, despite the latter serving much larger settlements, because the communities served by the Empire Builder had much worse road links than the ones served by the North Coast Hiawatha.

      • Mike July 24, 2023 at 4:07 pm #

        And air service to billings, butte & missoula

    • Alexander July 24, 2023 at 9:09 am #

      My understanding is that the Empire Builder is one of the better-performing long-distance trains, actually. The remoteness of the communities it serves (particularly in winter) may be a part of this, but a lot of that comes from the fact that it has one of the few major destinations (Glacier National Park) between major cities. I’m not sure that a southern route would work as well, considering that there are other options there and no unique draw comparable to Glacier.

      • TW July 25, 2023 at 12:26 pm #

        Part of that is that it’s currently the only Chicago-Twin Cities and Seattle/Portland-Spokane service. Ridership drops off a bit between the Twin Cities and Spokane but even there ridership is still higher than a lot of other sections. Still, Empire Builder ridership will probably drop a bit when Amtrak starts running a second Chicago-Twin Cities train this year.

      • SW Rail Guy July 28, 2023 at 4:34 pm #

        This is the interesting fact about Amtrak. Its market penetration in small towns blows away the corridors. There are stations in the system boarding 10,000 riders a year in counties of 30,000 people. Rural areas account for a lot of Amtrak ridership in the long distance system.

  3. Rebecca Ward-Williams July 24, 2023 at 5:03 am #

    It would be nice if somebody would actually would cover the story about the almost 60 people that had to ride in a 97° train for over 12 hours.

    @[email protected]

  4. Bill Hutchison July 24, 2023 at 5:27 am #

    Jarrett Walker may be a transit expert, but he misses the political calculus which makes a national system possible in the first place. Why should a Congressman in Montana support the Northeast Corridor when his or her district has no service? Promoting a corridor vs. long distance mindset creates division which diminishes support when we need unity to build a system which will serve all of us.

    One other thing: long distance trains are NOT “land cruises”. They are a critical means of mobility for places and people who may be 200 miles from an Interstate or any scheduled air service. These people pay taxes to support passenger service and are no less deserving than those who live elsewhere. Speaking for myself, I frequently ride these trains because I don’t want to drive long distances and don’t like the cattle car atmosphere of the airline “experience.”

    Furthermore, European overnight trains are currently undergoing a renaissance and we would do well to emulate that here. Daytime corridor services should be augmented with an overlay of overnight services which would leave in the evening and get the passenger to their destination the next morning. This is where we should be going in areas such as the Great Lakes – East Coast regions.

    • Dilan Esper July 24, 2023 at 11:29 am #

      The problem with calling the long distance trains “critical means of mobility” is they only work if a town is lucky enough to have railroad tracks running through it that are still serviced by one of the remaining legacy train routes. That means the vast, vast majority of rural communities don’t have this form of mobility but still survive with bus and air links (the latter subsidized through Essential Air Service). So it’s closer to a lottery ticket than a critical means of mobility.

      And all those small communities who don’t have rail links pay taxes too. There’s no principled reason why Deming, New Mexico should get a federally subsidized transportation link while Alturas, California is on its own but has to help pay for the one in Deming.

      You give the game away when you then say you frequently ride these trains because you dislike airlines. It’s fine to dislike airlines, but those taxpayers in Alturas (and in Deming) shouldn’t pay anything to subsidize what is essentially your desire to travel slower but in more comfort. That’s just as aesthetic preference of yours.

      In Canada and Australia they have long distance trains too- and the fares reflect the fact that the people on those trains are essentially people who enjoy being on trains. They charge a lot more than Amtrak does for long distance routes.

      Now I will concede- given we have these routes anyway, we might as well keep them, and I have no problem subsidizing coach service to Deming and the other small towns served by Amtrak. Indeed, we should probably subsidize bus service to all the towns that don’t have Amtrak or Essential Air Service as well.

      But we shouldn’t subsidize sleepers or diners one bit. Those have nothing to do with critical means of mobility for people in small towns- they have to do with people who like taking trains. We should make those people pay the full cost of what is being provided to them, or perhaps even above cost, so that we can subsidize more critical transportation to small towns. And in my experience, a lot of long distance rail advocates hide behind small towns they never visit when what they really want is for the American taxpayer to subsidize what for them is absolutely a “land cruise”.

      • Bill Hutchison August 1, 2023 at 8:04 am #

        Hi Dilan…

        I might dislike the airline “experience” these days, but I still fly. Airlines have their place and so do long distance trains. Speaking of airlines, most of us know they have been retreating from smaller cities and towns for the past two or three decades as they concentrated on bigger markets. Even some larger cities have been dehubbed, including Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati and St. Louis. The latter still looks like a ghost town altho Southwest has expanded.

        I am also trying to reduce driving on long trips as I get older and traffic just keeps getting worse. My train trips are not joy rides. I use the train to go to meetings and visit relatives or friends, tho I plead guilty to trips for pleasure as well.

        The point is that we are in the midst of a mobility crisis and rural areas and smaller cities are taking the brunt of it. We need rail service to fill the gap. Will it go everywhere? No. Ever hear of buses? These could be coordinated with rail service to create a multimodal transportation system.

        Yes, some people ride trains just for the experience and I have too. So what? Roads and airlines are subsidized too.

    • darryl e. July 25, 2023 at 9:27 am #

      One other thing: long distance trains are NOT “land cruises”. They are a critical means of mobility for places and people who may be 200 miles from an Interstate or any scheduled air service.

      I mean they’re obviously both! There’s no good reason to pretend this is an “either/or” question. I question whether serving those communities, many of whom see single-digit riders per day, would be a priority for the federal government without the cross-subsidy and political demand for the land cruise crowd.

    • Sasha July 26, 2023 at 11:33 am #

      I’m assuming you’re using Montana as a random example in this post, but it’s a bit specious as all Congressional reps from Montana have Amtrak service in their districts. We only have two congressional districts, and the Empire Builder spans them both!! I think there is a valid point in there (and my apologies for nitpicking your thoughtful response) about _who_ the Empire Builder serves within the state, which is certainly not the majority of the population.

      I wholly agree with you about the overnight train option, and would love to see more ridership growth experiments like that from Amtrak. I’m sure there are tons of climate-conscious and rich techies that would ride an overnight “nerd bird” equivalent between San Francisco and Seattle, or even SF and LA. The best Amtrak experiences I’ve had have taken that shape, but only thru an accident of long-distance train timetables & not by design.

      • Tom Terrific August 7, 2023 at 3:29 am #

        Sasha, there can no “nerd-bird” overnight train to Seattle, because the Coast Starlight already leaves Oakland in the evening. That slot is taken. The problem is that in the morning the train is between Klamath Falls and Chemult, OR, not particularly “nerdy” destinations. The train gets to Seattle in the early evening.

        It’s not that much better to LA. Yes, the trip takes only eleven hours. The problem there is that the nerdy parts of LA are nowhere near Union Station.

    • Henry Miller August 3, 2023 at 11:21 am #

      A congressman from any western state should support the NEC because if Amtrak cannot run good service there when everything is in place for it to be “easy” they have no hope. Build a team / that can create quality frequent high speed rail from DC to Boston, then use the experience to build service west to Chicago, and south to Florida, and keep building the network – there are lots of potentially great city pairs to route a network on if someone figures out how to build it at low cost. And once that network is good in the midwest, they have experience to start moving west, using all the tricks to keep costs low (which is needed to even think about hitting western states) that they should have learned out east where there is money to waste on trying things that seem good but don’t work.

      Problem is you need to have the vision to see that leadership now will help you in 20-30 years – and the ability to convince the voters that the vision is worth waiting 30 years on.

    • RossB August 4, 2023 at 6:08 pm #

      “Why should a Congressman in Montana support the Northeast Corridor when his or her district has no service?”

      I think that misses the point. Imagine this line of questioning, for an average voter in Montana:

      “Should the United States subsidize rail travel?”

      I suppose, a little bit. Along with other things.

      “Should they focus their efforts where it can benefit the most people, and cost the government the least amount of money?”

      Oh yes, definitely.

      “OK then, we are going to put a lot of money into the NE corridor. It will pay for itself in twenty years.”

      That is basically what is happening here. It really doesn’t cost much to subsidize the Northeast corridor. If this was like most countries, they would have much faster trains, and money from operating it would actually subsidize other service. But a lot of people can’t wrap their head around the idea that the high-density urban areas are subsidizing the rural areas. Not a little bit, but a lot. The Northeast corridor could probably survive as a private system. The rest of the country? No way.

      There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this. The problem is that rural and suburban areas just assume that it is the opposite. Many still have this idea that the urban areas are hell-holes, full of welfare queens and junkies. Yet when you do the math, study after study shows that urban areas subsidize suburban and rural areas. Not just when it comes to trains, but basically everything. So to answer your question, someone in Montana should support a tiny subsidy to the Northeast Corridor to make up for the massive subsidy to their own state.

      • Dave August 9, 2023 at 10:42 am #

        This. If the NEC had amazing service, to the point where most people chose to ride trains instead of fly between DC-Philly-NYC-Boston, it would provide Amtrak with enough profits to subsidize a lot more service in Montana and elsewhere. But the NEC is starved for funds so the service there is barebones (for the demand), expensive and slow (compared to flying), and unreliable (due to shtty infrastructure). So the NEC doesn’t generate enough revenue to subsidize as much of the rest of the country as it could.

  5. Ed July 24, 2023 at 5:29 am #

    Jarrett: The “land cruise” comment about the long distance trains, it calls into question much of what you say. People who use the “land cruise” label, don’t really understand the long distance trains. I’ve ridden them enough to know that most people aren’t using them as land cruises. Some yes, but most no. They use them for a variety of reasons. Not everyone wants to drive or fly everywhere all the time. They connect small communities with few or no transportation options with each other and with larger cities. Some people can’t drive or don’t want to drive or fly. Older people like them because they are an easier way for them to travel.

    These trains also sell out most of the year, and they are financially stronger than Amtrak will admit to. During the pandemic they were bringing in 65% of Amtrak’s revenue. And, you should read this report: “Amtrak’s Route Accounting: Fatally Flawed, Misleading, and Wrong”: This report is based on Amtrak’s own route accounting data which someone at Amtrak provided to the Rail Passengers Association. I know the guy who wrote it and have had many conversations with him about it. Long story short, Amtrak exaggerates the losses on the LD network and obscures losses on the Northeast Corridor. This is nothing new. It has been going on since the 1970s, and others have exposed it as well.

    It’s also worth noting that, at the time Amtrak was formed (in 1971), some railroads were reluctant to give up their long distance trains. For example, the Denver Rio Grande & Western continued its passenger service until 1983. The Santa Fe initially didn’t want to turn over their operations to Amtrak because they were still earning a profit on their long distance trains. The Southern continued operating passenger trains until 1976. These (and a few other railroads) would not have hung onto their trains if they were a financial drag. Amtrak today runs these trains with fewer crew members and with discounted access to host railroads.

    Long distance trains are an efficient way to tie lots of cities and towns together. And many of the towns currently served by them have been losing air and bus service that will not come back.

    As for Amtrak saying these trains aren’t a “growth market” it’s because Amtrak has been misleading the country for so long with its route accounting shenanigans that it really doesn’t understand their potential. The only way to grow the market is to add service. If anything, the long distance network is below its economies of scale. It needs more trains.

    • Gilbert B Norman July 24, 2023 at 9:01 am #

      Ed, I note with interest your comments regarding why several railroads gave considerable thought to staying out of Amtrak and how others actually did just that.

      First, it should be noted that I was employed by a Class I on A-Day in a non-Agreement exempt position. High up? hardly! But nevertheless “I was there”.

      Let’s address the Santa Fe. Their “on the fence” was hardly about “Corporate pride”, but rather about accessing Chicago Union Station. Under a 1919 Agreement regarding a Tenant accessing the property, such could be stuck with their share of the debt service and any other costs associated with the facility. This simply was unacceptable, however Amtrak included in their 1971 Agreement with the roads to cover any such costs, so ATSF signed up.

      The Seaboard Coast was another road “on the fence”. They were actually “making book” on their Silver and Champion trains. But they realized that could quickly change should the RF&P, who had signed up, decided to break the connection at Richmond requiring an 0 dark 30 routing of passengers. Given that possibility, SCL signed up.

      • david vartanoff July 25, 2023 at 11:49 am #

        The likelihood that RF&P would do sabotage to 33% stockholder SCL is not realistic.

    • Bill Hutchison July 24, 2023 at 10:25 am #

      “The only way to grow the market is to add service. If anything, the long distance network is below its economies of scale. It needs more trains.”

      So true. Let’s take the route of Amtrak’s New York-Cleveland-Chicago Lake Shore limited as an example of what things are like today and what should happen.

      Cleveland, the largest city between endpoints only has “service” in the dead of night. Ditto for Erie PA, Elyria OH, Sandusky OH and Toledo OH.

      Only the Lake Shore Limited runs the length of the route and just once per day. This is hardly convenient for riders. New York’s Empire Corridor only gets us as far west as Buffalo.

      Amtrak, in its wisdom, has reduced on-board amenities and cut the number of cars on its trains as a part of an endless cost cutting campaign. This is not not a strategy to grow the business.

      The weirdest part of this is that Amtrak schedules the Lakes Shore Limited and the Capitol Limited to follow each other between Cleveland and Chicago in cover of darkness. Logically, one would think that one of these trains would operate during daylight hours west of Cleveland, but Amtrak values late connecting passengers at Chicago over serving en route cities.

      Amtrak’s ConnectUS concept would not address these problems, though it calls for a New York-Buffalo-Cleveland train and trains from Cleveland to Detroit, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

      The Lake Shore route is really three corridors end to end (New York-Buffalo, Buffalo-Cleveland and Cleveland-Chicago) with a substantial amount of travel which spans two or more of these corridor segments, such as that New York-Cleveland train or the New York-Chicago Lake Shore itself. We need one seat rides at convenient times, day and night, at competitive speeds.

      Ideally we need corridor services and an overlay of overnight services from New York to Buffalo, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Chicago. This entire region has poor air, bus and rail service and that is holding it back. There is no direct air service from Albany NY to Cleveland for example. Erie PA is down to one flight to Charlotte. Bus service is a shadow of its former self and after nearly 50 years since its 1975 inception, the Lake Shore STILL is the only train between New York-Buffalo-Cleveland-Chicago.

      Are today’s abysmal service levels the best we can do??? Certainly not. I think we need to stop talking about “land cruise” trains and instead act to build a truly national rail based multimodal transportation system to promote mobility for all and address many issues facing us, such as global warming and others.

      • Ed July 24, 2023 at 11:35 am #

        Gilbert: Thanks for clarifying about the Santa Fe. Even without that example, some long distance trains were still doing ok financially at the time Amtrak took over as we’ve both pointed out. My point here is that, combined with Amtrak’s route accounting shenanigans, any argument about the financial performance of the LD trains, other than they do lose some money as do state supported routes and the NEC, is suspect. It also distracts from the conversation we need to have in this country about transportation. We need all three modes, and trains can do a very good job of serving both urban and rural areas.

        When the federal government nationalized several NE railroads and set out to create a profitable freight railroad out of the mess–and as you know, that was Conrail–they knew Conrail would never be profitable with the NEC on its books. So, they gave it to Amtrak in 1975. Interestingly, Amtrak’s annual subsidy nearly quadrupled over the next 3 years. Everyone needs to recognize that highways, aviation, and passenger rail all lose money when all costs are considered. Too many people give a pass to highways and aviation, then pick on Amtrak for losing money. It’s a double-standard that has to end.

        Thanks to Jarrett for letting us have this conversation.

      • asdf2 July 24, 2023 at 6:47 pm #

        I recently completed a trip featuring Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and ended up renting a car largely due to our dysfunctional train system.

        The Cleveland portion of the trip was actually in the town of Kent, about 45 minutes by car southeast of Cleveland. The railroad tracks that the Amtrak takes between Cleveland and Pittsburgh go right by the town of Kent. Kent is also a college town, which, in a well-run train system, would be a huge ridership generator as students travel back and forth between home and campus during school breaks.

        Unfortunately, Amtrak, as it stands today, is not designed to be attractive to Kent State students in the slightest. The train passes through the town of Kent with no station, so to board the train, you must either backtrack in a car or bus all the way to downtown Cleveland, in the opposite direction, or travel 30 miles in a car to the rural town of Alliance, OH, which does have a station. Of course, for someone that doesn’t have a car, traveling to either downtown Cleveland or Alliance would require either multiple hours of busing or a long and very expensive Uber ride, just to get to the train station. And, then, when you look at the actual train schedule, it gets worse. The train to Pittsburgh runs one a day and in both directions, the train departs at midnight and arrives at 3 AM. (You can stay on the train past Pittsburgh to Washington D.C., which is served at a more reasonable hour).

        A functional national rail system would run trains from Cleveland to Pittsburgh run every 4 hours during the day, while having a station in Kent where trains would stop at along the way. Worst-case, an $8 Uber ride to a local train station that takes 5 minutes and I’m there, 2.5 hours later, in Pittsburgh. Best case, there’s a shuttle bus to the local train station and I don’t even need the Uber ride. I’m not even asking for high speed track, just a basic train service that goes where I want to go with a reasonable schedule. Unfortunately, our actual rail system is nowhere near there, and the proposed Amtrak improvements look like they’re going to do little or nothing to change that.

        And don’t even get me started one what the train service is like over in Houston. Service doesn’t even run daily, but 3 times per week. Only one station to service a huge, sprawling city where simply driving from home to the train station in a car can easily take over an hour. And, Houston doesn’t even have a direct train to Dallas – to get to Dallas on a train, you have to first ride 6 hours to San Antonio, then change to another train that takes another 6+ hours to get to Dallas. Such a system is downright pathetic, there are simply no other words to describe it.

        • Alan Kandel July 26, 2023 at 6:28 am #

          Exactly the reason the Texas Central high-speed-rail-proposal option exists: To connect Dallas and Houston with service to College Station in between. Would be competitive with flying if built.

      • Beth Fredrick July 25, 2023 at 1:11 am #

        I’m sorry to interrupt…. I just have a question…in order to make more routes/destinations , does that entail more desecration to the land and wildlife so we can accommodate more and more and more people???

        • John Charles Wilson July 30, 2023 at 2:13 pm #

          Not if legacy lines are just put to a higher use.

      • Mark July 25, 2023 at 1:44 pm #

        Bill I don’t disagree with your analysis. However, if that is the case Amtrak should not be expected to earn a profit. It should just be accepted that the service is valuable and should be appropriately funded. Often, rural people are the first to complain about Big Government and the budget deficit. They cannot have it both ways.

        • Jim Mathews August 1, 2023 at 9:33 am #

          See my comment below. You’re exactly right, Amtrak should not be expected to make a profit. Amtrak is not legally required to make a profit, and hasn’t been since 1978. I just wish the anti-Amtrak crowd would stop advancing that line of argument…

        • Bill Hutchison August 2, 2023 at 5:56 am #

          Hi Mark…

          Amtrak can be run as either a service to the public or on a for-profit basis. It can’t be both. I prefer the public service model.

          Historically speaking, Amtrak was set up initially as a for profit quasi public corporation as a sop to gain support from conservatives when it was created, but over the years Congress has made it clear that it supports national service over profits, which are elusive anyway.

          As I have said elsewhere, we are in a mobility crisis and we need to fully develop our rail passenger system to address it.

    • SW Rail Guy July 28, 2023 at 4:39 pm #

      Ed, you’re absolutely right. I’ve lived in small and medium size towns most of my adult life. People in urban areas don’t understand the long distance trains. It leads to the land cruise conclusion which is totally off base or the conclusion that there are flights every hour between Chicago and LA, so what’s the point of the train. These people have never seen 30 people standing in 30 below zero weather at 2:00 am waiting to board the Empire Builder in Fargo. But I lived in Fargo, and I can attest. Try flying from Fargo to Milwaukee and the train is pretty darn competitive on price and time.

      • Dave August 9, 2023 at 10:46 am #

        Lol. Wow. 30 people waiting for a train. Come to the east coast, where there are hundreds of people *at every station* waiting for a train in the cold.

        • Henry Miller August 11, 2023 at 8:50 am #

          30 people at 2am waiting. Most of the east cost will have 0 people waiting at 2am. (NYC runs the subway 24×7 so they will have some, but most of the east cost doesn’t run 24×7). More importantly 2am is a really bad time for nearly everyone in the world. Most people are sleeping, so if 30 people in a small town are willing to be up at 2am in a tiny city, how many more would if the train ran more normal hours.

          I’m not convinced the number of people who would ride from Fargo is enough to give them service, but 30 people at 2am is still amazing numbers.

  6. Brian O'Neill July 24, 2023 at 7:34 am #

    Thank you for this. You make a succinct and important point about the tension between increasing ridership and coverage. I would add, though, that there are places where adding trains would get this country closer to both goals. Here in the Amtrak backwater of Pittsburgh, there are but two trains a day for a city that is within 250 miles of nearly 42 million Americans. ( The Capital Limited passes through Pittsburgh around midnight on its way from Washington, D.C. to Chicago, and the return trip arrives in the very early morning. That means that the coverage for the nearby metro area of Cleveland is essentially nil, unless your idea of good coverage is arriving around 2 a.m. The Pennsylvanian, which gets Pittsburghers from Philadelphia to New York, is often sold out for the lone morning trip east. There are NO good rail options to reach any Ohio cities, Buffalo or Detroit, all within that 250-mile radius. If you moved our radius out to 300 miles, we’re near 57.5 million Americans and we’re within 500 miles of 134 million Americans (and millions of more Canadians). There are many reasons for this static situation, from Norfolk Southern owning the rail lines west of Harrisburg to recent Ohio governors flat-out hating passenger trains. But these stats give the lie to the old “we’re not Europe” excuse for the status quo. There are still heavily populated parts of this country with the next to no rail service. That’s the low-hanging fruit.

  7. Dianna July 24, 2023 at 8:22 am #

    South Dakota is my concern. Bring back the North Coast Hiawatha sounds like a plan to me. Beyond that why does this have to be a biased political piece? The thing I feel about this metro versus rural coverage is that many riders choose to ride Amtrak as a vacation itself (like a cruise ship type thing) especially the long distance legs, and that area of ridership is definitely missing out in SD Also the metro areas for ridership have plenty of options with CTA type coverage: bus, subway and so many other types of public transportation Should Amtrak try to compete with that easily accessible full coverage ridership or should they expand to make unavailable destinations available. I vote for expansion

  8. Joyce Pelletier July 24, 2023 at 9:05 am #

    Yonah Freemark’s map indicates service in North Carolina that connects Asheville with the Crescent Line. It would be nice if there was such a connection but there is none and there has been nothing but talk no action on this connection for years. It would be a nice alternative to the horrendous driving experience of interstate 81 from the northeast corridor to Asheville. I doubt a connection will be made in my lifetime.

  9. Steve Yaffe July 24, 2023 at 12:00 pm #

    Jarrett, one issue with Amtrak is that the mode & Amtrak network should include intercity bus. They need to negotiate with Flixbus/Greyhound et al. The buses need to feed Amtrak stations, which will serve to replace closed Greyhound stations.

    • david vartanoff July 25, 2023 at 11:57 am #

      Look at what Caltrans has done in CA. There are multiple bus extensions supplementing trains. As to negotiating w/the dirty dog, they boughtaprohibition of Amtrak CA buses allowing bus only trips.

    • Steve from Maine August 15, 2023 at 10:37 am #

      Negotiate with Flix/Greyhound? Doesn’t seem likely; that service diminishes and gets sold (now German owner) so often I don’t think they even know what buses they run. I believe we have to fund and subsidize a Federal bus system and, when the “EV” boom flops or falls short we’ll probably have to do that in some rapid manner.

  10. Kimberly Abbott July 24, 2023 at 12:28 pm #

    I would do trains if trains were a thing in the South. Amtrak comes through Birmingham twice a day, one north and one south. It is easy cheaper to just fly to a destination (convenient hours but more hassle) rather than attempt Amtrak (expensive, inconvenient it important our unrealistic timing/service yet less hassle).

  11. Curtis Bragg July 25, 2023 at 4:16 am #

    Interesting topic , I work in the rail industry

  12. John Charles Wilson July 25, 2023 at 8:18 am #

    As a Minnesotan who has lived in North Dakota in the past: The Empire Builder is considered a lifeline service by many North Dakotans. The main thing limiting ridership is the time of day the train passes through the state. It goes through Fargo and Grand Forks in the middle of the night in both directions.

    A local train with a North Dakota-centric schedule would have great ridership. Imagine an eastbound train leaving Minot at 7:00 AM Monday through Friday, passing Grand Forks at 10:17, and arriving in Fargo at 11:28. Then a westbound train leaving Fargo at 2:07 PM, passing Grand Forks at 3:28, and arriving in Minot at 7:00. This train could even be extended to Saint Paul, but that’s another story.

    To complement this train, another train could leave Fargo westbound Monday through Friday at 6:15 AM, pass Grand Forks at 7:36, and arrive in Minot at 11:08. It would leave Minot eastbound at 5:47 PM, pass Grand Forks at 9:04, and arrive in Fargo at 10:15. Again, it could be extended to Saint Paul, but that’s another story.

    Saturdays, it should just run between Fargo and Grand Forks. Leaving Grand Forks eastbound at 8:00 AM, arriving in Fargo at 9:11. Then the westbound train would leave Fargo at 8:39 PM, arriving in Grand Forks at 10:00.

    A complementary train on Saturdays could leave Fargo westbound at 7:15 AM, arriving in Grand Forks at 8:21. It would leave Grand Forks eastbound at 9:00 PM, arriving in Fargo at 10:11.

    There would be no Sunday or holiday service, as I envision this train as being mostly for business, shopping, and medical appointments.

    • asdf2 July 27, 2023 at 6:24 pm #

      Lifeline service to North Dakota is important, but I think it’s the type of thing that is more efficiently provided with a bus than with a train. Compared to trains, buses are cheaper to operate, more flexible to schedule, and more reliable.

      Because Amtrak shares the tracks with freight and most of the route is single-tracked, the train schedules are largely dictated by the freight rail companies that own the tracks and can’t easily be changed. Even if the schedules could be changed, it is impossible to run a 48-hour train from Seattle to Chicago without some communities somewhere along the route getting the short end of the stick and receiving no service except late at night; that is, if you shift the schedule to benefit people in North Dakota, you screw over people in some other part of the route, for example, Seattle or Minneapolis.

      The primary reason for North Dakota to want the train (besides rail nostalgia) is that, for political reasons, the train service is what the federal government is willing to pay for, but a bus service that replaced it would have to be funded by the state of North Dakota, which probably has no money to pay for it, so replacing the train with a bus would be tantamount to ending the lifeline service to North Dakota altogether.

      But, again, from a technical standpoint, the train doesn’t have an advantage over the bus that justifies the big cost premium. It’s only advantage is politics.

      • Johnny July 28, 2023 at 5:55 am #

        In a civilized country, the rail infrastructure would have been nationalized long ago.

      • John Charles Wilson July 28, 2023 at 10:51 am #

        This is why I said a *local* train with a North Dakota-centric schedule, not shift the Empire Builder. You are right, somebody gets the short end of the stick with once-a-day train service over a long distance route.

        North Dakota is actually quite a prosperous state: The four main cities (Fargo, Grand Forks, Minot, and Bismarck) do all right. Rural agriculture is usually quite prosperous, and of course the Bakken oil fields have drawn a lot of development near Williston. The problem in North Dakota is really political. Ironically, 110 years ago, it was one of the most progressive states in the Union.

        You may be right that buses would be a better answer for lifeline service, though. Just the flexibility would make them so.

      • Tom Terrific August 1, 2023 at 3:15 am #

        WhT you say is generally true, but rails in this particypular instance. The BNSF Main goes diagonally between Minot and Fargo. The passenger trains, both the Builder and these proposed State service trains, take a dogleg through Grand Forks. SOME freight uses those tracks on the way to Winnipeg, but most uses the line through Carrington. Duluth traffic takes the NP line.

        Between Minot and Williston the line is two-main-tracks.

        The upshot of all this is that freight delays are not the issue they might appear to be.

  13. david vartanoff July 25, 2023 at 12:37 pm #

    Jarrett, as a long time reader, I was pleased to see you extend the coverage-ridership concept. However, I object to the “land cruise” put down of the LDTs. As anyone who does ride (for instance ) the California Zephyr end to end (I live in Oakland CA but have roots/friends in Chicao) one sees multiple riders using the trains to/from intermediate points. I see the same off/on usage on the Coast Starlight which I use either to/from San Luis Obispo, or to Eugene and Portland.–also intermediate points. For background, I grew up around DC and lived for several years in NYC in pre Amtrak times. I highly appreciate the “Regional” trains–the Acelas are not worth the price.
    It is well reported that Amtrak arranges the books to make the NEC look more profitable than it is while making the LDTs look less remunerative. Further ionternal sabotage of the LDTs can be seen in the long lines of parked single level sleepers, diners, and bi=levels of all configurations. Meanwhile Amtrak follows a cut service, pay execs bonuses model rather than repairing, inspecting cars to meet demand. It is regularly reported that most LDTs are fully sold out for weeks as they are all running truncated consists–too few sleepers, coaches, often no lounge or worse, a lounge but no diner.
    To top off Amtrak mismanagement, they reduced ‘extraboards’ such that a late arriving train forces late departure the next day in order to meet Federal minimum rest hours.
    Paraphrasing W Vanderbilt, a hellua a way to run a railroad.

    • asdf2 July 28, 2023 at 7:08 pm #

      I think the problem is that the long distance trains are so expensive to operate that even when they do sell out, they still lose money. To break even, Amtrak would need to dramatically raise prices to the point where the trains wouldn’t sell out anymore.

      The northeast corridor, on the other hand, actually turns a profit when it sells out, of comes close to it. That’s a big difference.

  14. Big Moe July 25, 2023 at 7:44 pm #

    Re.ember folks that amtrak does not own most of the rails they run on. Add capacity issues and. Rew shortages and PSR railroading and one can see that A.trak can’t afford the levels of ridership or coverage anyone would like. It’s hard to increase train frequency when the single track main is clogged with dead double coal trains awaiting regrets and few sidings long enough to get around them. I was recently going to hop on Amtrak from KC to Chicago only to see that it was 14 hours late. And this on a line that is either 79 mph 2 main tracks or on whi h Amtrak is the only train running each day. If we. An be on time on a “private” line or the incredible southern transcontinental, how can there be any hope for the rest of the country.

  15. Alan Kandel July 26, 2023 at 6:48 am #

    I believe there should be more state-supported services like Amtrak’s “California” trains, which consist of “Capitol Corridor,” “Pacific Surfliner” and “San Joaquin” trains. These supported and supportive services could take up the slack where current long-distance schedules come up short. There could even be multi-state “coordinated” services created, that is, if states agree to be willing participants and partners.

    • asdf2 August 1, 2023 at 10:12 pm #

      “There could even be multi-state “coordinated” services created, that is, if states agree to be willing participants and partners.”

      There already is. Amtrak Cascades is entirely state supported, and funded by a mixture of Oregon and Washington.

  16. Eric July 26, 2023 at 3:52 pm #

    Yes, but where & what types of train lines should they be building with the limited funds?

    • Tom Terrific August 7, 2023 at 3:49 am #

      Most of the Midwest Cluster of Higher Speed service will be on high volume freight lines, often with two main track signaling. The biggest hole is Chicago-Indianapolis and onward to Cincinatti and Louisville. The existing freight links in that Corridor are circuitous and completely miss Indianapolis. The plan is to spiff up the old Monon entry into Indianapolis from the north and use the Pennsylvania route to Louisville and the NYC route to Cincinatti. All three will require rebuilding from the soil surface up.

  17. Evan July 27, 2023 at 6:41 am #

    Today, Amtrak uses its preferred statistic, ridership, as a singular passenger rail performance metric. This is deceptive. Ridership may be the most important metric for transit agencies running commuter trains and intra-city buses, but Amtrak is not a transit agency. Federal code shows Amtrak’s purpose as an ‘intercity carrier’ incorporated by Congress in 1970.

    Ridership is only a measure of financial transactions. It reveals nothing about ticket value or performance until paired with Rail Passenger Miles (RPMS). At an undefined distance, RPMS is more statistically important.

    For example, consider two different tickets (riders). One ticket represents a 206-mile trip between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth with Amtrak receiving a $20 payment. A second ticket represents a 2,265 mile trip between Chicago and Los Angeles in coach for $146 (with options for a roomette at $899, bedroom at $1,933, or a family bedroom at $1,866.) These are vastly different trips, but each counts as one rider.

    Many understand contemporary Amtrak executives use ridership for political purposes. Indeed, Amtrak is best described today as a political organization using passenger rail as a façade. Do those who disagree also confess that Amtrak executives who use ‘ridership’ as a singular performance metric are unqualified to fill their positions?

    I believe strongly that Amtrak’s current executive vision is to dismiss its national network responsibilities as expressed in federal code: 49 U.S. Code §24701 – National rail passenger transportation system and 49 U.S.C. §24102 – Definitions for political purposes. Amtrak’s backroom ridership strategy seems to be to paint a deceptive picture that concedes politically disparate geographic regions of the United States exist.

    In fact, Amtrak has learned to maximize government appropriations (federal and state) by creating an environment of political division. The end goal is for the carrier to focus overall funding (state and federal) in regions that are more receptive to passenger rail. This is politically driven. It is not a characteristic of need or purpose.

    Amtrak Connects US recognizes these political facts. It is little more than a political marketing campaign (tool), administered by 720 Strategies LLC to sway public opinion away from relevant data using colloquial, but inaccurate political assumptions. In fact, Amtrak shows intent to violate Congressional will by the mere existence of this program. Has Congress provided marching orders for Amtrak to change its mission statement within 49 U.S.Code §24101. Findings, mission, and goals?

    “Need” and “purpose” in this case are subjective terms that demand debate. Some seem to claim that the transportation “need” and “purpose” of a trip in Montana or North Dakota is less important to that between Washington D.C. and Boston. I claim those who who make this claim do not know their subject. Transportation freedom demands choice – a choice that is just as relevant in rural as in urban environments.

  18. Steph B July 27, 2023 at 4:04 pm #

    Really helpful way to frame local transit issues, not just Amtrak – thank you for this explanation!

  19. Kevin Brown July 28, 2023 at 2:10 pm #

    “Service by population” and “service by area” are complimentary. A national network needs to do both.

  20. Andrew Selden July 29, 2023 at 3:46 pm #

    This whole article and debate flows from a false premise. Intercity is not transit. In intercity, “ridership”–measuring only transaction volume–is next to meaningless. The only measure of output is annual revenue passenger miles (ARPM).
    The few inter-regional routes produce more ARPMs than the entire NEC. Their load factors are higher to much higher, and their market shares in their respective corridors are three to five times higher than the NEC or the regional corridors.
    The NEC is Amtrak’s smallest, least commercially-successful, segment measured by output, load factor and market share.
    It also has a negative rate of return on invested capital since 1975. Acela made that worse, not better, since the annual subsidy cost plus deferred maintenance and purchasing in the NEC have gone up since 2021, not down.
    The “ridership” of Amtrak’s NEC trains is more than half “commuter,” not “intercity,” so if the metrics are restricted to actual intercity rail passenger service, the NEC is a complete disaster by comparison to inter-regional.
    The only financial question that Amtrak’s management should be addressing is where to invest their available capital so that it returns the greatest number of incremental ARPMs PER DOLLAR INVESTED. Hint: That won’t be in the smallest, poorest-performing segments where trains have to compete against cars in cars’ strongest market segment–the short corridors.

    • Patrick August 18, 2023 at 3:33 pm #

      “The NEC is Amtrak’s smallest, least commercially-successful, segment measured by output, load factor and market share.”

      This! Good to have someone say this directly. I think it’s even true for total revenue generated or was before Covid.

  21. Writt Woodson July 30, 2023 at 8:52 am #

    Jarrett Walker’s ridership vs. coverage discussions are valid and constructive. For me the frequency maps reveal another reality. About half of railways that are identified as high frequency are electrified. The Northeast Corridor is often cited as a profitable assembly. Rhetorically, is the NE Corridor profitable because it is electrified?
    The future of passenger rail in the US is dependent of the correct choices in the ridership vs. coverage space, but also in the method of propulsion space. Amtrak’s future is closely tied to the future of partners like MTA, SEPTA, Caltrain and states like Virginia and North Carolina. MBTA and Caltrain are starting new electrification projects. Investment in the new tunnel under the Hudson will pay of massively; the future challenge, after completion, will be the wise deployment of the payoff. The new railway between Richmond and Raleigh will encourage ridership all the way down to Charlotte. The Chicago to Milwaukee route and the New Haven to Springfield, MA routes are screaming for electrification.
    Newly generated Richmond to Raleigh net revenue should be feed into support of an Asheville to Wilmington, NC route. If that kind of formula can be accepted by the Ohio legislature, the future will be bright. Cleveland is, by way of its location, is screaming out to be a major passenger rail hub.

  22. Jim Mathews August 1, 2023 at 8:37 am #

    Amtrak has existed for half a century as a taxpayer-supported entity because its existence and operations serve significant public policy purposes. While I strongly agree that ridership and coverage are different goals with different drivers, there is no reason why the same taxpayer-supported entity that is funded to carry out public policy goals can’t be asked to engage in both ridership growth and coverage growth. That’s why we have an Amtrak.

    In my view, the primary reason the ConnectsUS map looks the way that it does is because it is focused on the Corridor ID Program that emerged from the Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act (which became the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law). Corridor ID sits squarely in the sweet spot Jarrett describes.

    The new long-distance map is taking shape in the Federal Railroad Administration-led Long-Distance Study Workshops (also a result of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law), and yes, its goals are — by legislation — built around coverage. There are places where the Corridor ID Program overlaps with the long-distance work, but the Venn diagram also excludes quite a bit…in recognition that these are two different policy objectives.

    My biggest problem with these kinds of conversations is that they tend to presuppose that Amtrak’s long-distance trains are ONLY land cruises. And therefore a whole series of poor public policy decisions can result from that misunderstanding. Thanks to the network effect, long-distance trains connecting dozens of smaller communities to several large ones can make thousands of origin-destination pair trips possible with a single train. People taking long-distance trains are NOT just retired folks splurging on the (increasingly unaffordable) Sleeper rooms. There are folks who cannot fly or drive, for medical or other reasons. There are places where Amtrak is the only accessible public transportation available. There are tribal lands connected by long-distance service.

    Amtrak exists, and collects public funds, expressly to provide service to places that need it and where the private sector cannot profitably provide it — where the “demand indicators” aren’t enough to satisfy private shareholders. We don’t confine the National Weather Service to issuing forecasts for the populous East Coast. We don’t insist that the Centers for Disease Control only track illnesses in New York or Philadelphia or Boston. We don’t tell the Air Force not to worry about defending airspace beyond Washington, DC. Amtrak is one of the many ways the U.S. government acts to support the common good, the “general welfare.” I’ve delivered this message repeatedly in House and Senate testimony, and most of Congress agrees.

    Although the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law was expressly drafted to remove even the hint of a “profit” driver for Amtrak operations, Jarrett is correct that Congress blows hot and cold on whether it wants Amtrak to show a profit. That said, the last time there was a LEGAL requirement for Amtrak to try to make a profit was in 1977. The enabling legislation was amended in 1978, and has been the law ever since. That idea got significantly strengthened in the new infrastructure law, and the overriding objective of “service” — Congress essentially did a find-and-replace for the words “profit” or “surplus” and replaced it with “service” — is reflected in the objectives for the entire network, but particularly for the long-distance network.

    That Amtrak has PTSD over talking about “service” instead of breaking even is unsurprising. But Congress said clearly in the 2021 law that Amtrak must run whatever Congress funds them to run, without worrying about whether that route makes some kind of profit.

    In other words, Congress has set the policy goal of “coverage” for Amtrak alongside “ridership.” And has said they’re willing to pay for both. And that’s good because polling shows 78% of Americans want to see that kind of sustained investment, including 61% of Republicans.

    (Full disclosure: I’m President & CEO of the Rail Passengers Association, which advocates for more rail service. We contributed to drafts of what became the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.)

    • Scott Rogers August 2, 2023 at 2:34 pm #

      Jim: I seem to recall that RPA has a map of ridership per departure that demonstrates that the long distance services are well utilized and that generally smaller communities served by trains have higher per-capita ridership than metro areas, is that correct?

  23. Stephanie Stout August 2, 2023 at 1:24 am #

    In order to fulfill its publicly stated role as America’s nationwide passenger rail system, Amtrak must provide geographic coverage of our entire contiguous nation with a basic convenient frequency of service AND provide a much higher frequency of service on its busiest corridors serving the more populated areas. By my reckoning, Amtrak has 13 long-distance routes, and at various times had 8 additional long-distance routes but never served more than 18 of them at a time (in 1979) and never more than 2 trains a day each way on its favored Florida routes, and daily or less elsewhere. Amtrak should be provided the mandate and funding for a basic nationwide network of 40 long-distance routes with 4 trains a day each way PLUS hourly service on 60 to 120 short-to-medium distance (less than 750 miles) corridors. The minimalist approach of the last 50 years is unacceptable for a supposedly advanced nation. Besides, Americans are bored or don’t notice small, inobtrusive operations but are fond of big plans with a nationwide scope.

    A network of short-to-medium distance corridors like the expanded but still feeble Amtrak Connect US plan could form the basis of a nationwide system (at least east of I-35 / Duluth-Laredo) IF the states cooperated and funded it. A number of states in the NE, NW, Midwest, and South have built and presently operate a number of busy multistate corridors, but other state governments are too poor or have Republican governments that oppose funding for passenger rail and transit. The governors of WI, OH, and FL turned down major federal funding for passenger rail in order to sabotage Obama’s “shovel ready” infrastructure program. For this reason, the law must be changed to allow expansion of the long-distance national network and increase the frequency of service on all routes. Funding must include track capacity expansion, signal upgrades, grade crossing separation, and electrification of most routes as well as buying more passenger railcars and motive power. What I propose will be comparable to what the federal government wastes on highways every year and cheaper that the yearly cost of our OIL WARS that gained us nothing.

    In 2012, I attended Jarrett Walker’s lecture to Houston Tomorrow, and I bought his book. His ideas were pretty much what I came up with in the 1970s when I was stationed in Germany and witnessed good transit, good railways, and good urban planning. Whereas I preached to my family, friends, and fellow civic activists, he published his ideas for the world to see. Power to him! A few years ago, Houston Metro revamped our bus system to the high frequency model as much as funding would allow. On the other hand, a local/regional transit system has a different focus, area of operation, and funding scheme than a national passenger rail system.

  24. Scott Rogers August 2, 2023 at 2:31 pm #

    Having read “Human Transit,” I understand the ridership vs. coverage concept and agree that it should be an important part of every city’s evaluation of its reasons for investment in transit.

    However, it doesn’t really apply here, especially in the comparison of corridor vs. long distance service. Coverage service is defined as “spreading service out so that you can say everyone got some, regardless of whether people ride.” There seems to be an implication that Amtrak’s long distance trains are analogous to a low ridership transit coverage-type route. However, the long distance trains are well utilized so the comparison breaks down there. They’re also mischaracterized as “land cruises,” which reveals a lack of understanding of the actual ridership of these trains, and the fact that many of the trips are to and from intermediate points, not end to end. That said, they would indeed benefit from frequency increases, such as two trains per day at opposite times, so that all stations can have trains at more convenient hours. It also seems to be the case that the longer the travel distance, the less frequency matters.

    It is worth noting that Amtrak’s proposed frequencies on corridor-type routes are rather tepid, however. For example, the Amtrak ConnectsUS plan envisions only three daily frequencies on the front range corridor in Colorado. If capital is going to be committed to major infrastructure upgrades in a corridor like that, the population and travel market certainly warrants more frequent trains if it is going to provide a useful service.

  25. Dave August 9, 2023 at 10:59 am #

    Any rail service that just dumps everyone off and flies them to their destination when they get grossly off schedule – as has happened to me twice during cross country Amtrak travels – isn’t a “lifeline” or whatever to rural folks. It’s a land cruise, one that cuts its losses whenever it can no longer deliver what’s promised. I don’t doubt that some people somewhere – like the aforementioned 30(!) people standing on a platform in the middle of the night in Fargo – are using it to do “necessary” travel to other cities… but that certainly isn’t the vast majority of the people on the cross country trips, if Amtrak can just cancel them and put people on planes instead.

  26. Jonathan Hallam August 9, 2023 at 1:07 pm #

    To summarize then, the defensive case for what Jarrett’s calling ‘coverage’ services is that they also have high ridership (measured as revenue passenger miles) despite offering a slow, infrequent service.

    The implication, I think, is that overall service levels are so low that there’s no tension between ridership and coverage goals. Almost anywhere in space or time you chose to add an additional train will result in a highly-utilised service. Which is odd, to say the least, but is believable if much of the low-hanging fruit has not been picked.

  27. scott thompson October 10, 2023 at 8:48 pm #

    when i first moved to reno in 09 amtrak had satellite busses that would do routes into norcal that the zephyr couldn’t serve…not perfect I’m sure but if you had to go that route there was a multi mode option. i think they stopped it. 6hours in reno at a casino 2 blocks away wasn’t bad….340 days of no rain.