Amtrak’s on-time problems have been in the news for many months, of course, and it’s mostly all been negative coverage. As a result, I was fully prepared to see sagging ridership numbers in their year-end report. Interestingly, the numbers are actually up slightly overall, but what pushed them barely past last year’s record was the Northeast Corridor. Ridership for the long-distance trains was indeed down. And no wonder: that’s where all the on-time issues have been occurring.
An interesting aspect of the whole ridership issue is the fact that Amtrak continues to take business away from the airlines on the Northeast Corridor (NEC). This chart illustrates what’s happened in the 12-year period between 2000 and 2012. The lines represent rail’s share (in terms of percentage) of the market compared to the airlines. In 2000, for example, Amtrak, share of ridership traveling between New York and Washington was about 37 percent; by 2012 it was about 75 percent.
Turning to the long-distance routes, you get three guesses as to which one had the biggest drop in ridership … and the first two don’t count. Right: The Empire Builder’s ridership for the year ending September 30th was down about 16-percent. And no wonder. When a train arrives eight and ten hours late, and that happens day after day, word gets around. But to me, that number is significant, because it tells me that for most of the people riding the Builder, that train is essential public transportation.
I am glad, however, that Amtrak president, Joe Boardman, is starting to speak out and say publicly what the rest of us have known to be true for a long time: that Amtrak trains are not being given the priority to which they are entitled by law. And the solution to Amtrak’s on-time problem? Boardman nailed that: “The freight railroads simply have to do a better job in moving Amtrak trains over their tracks,” he said.
In the meantime, the National Association of Railroad Passengers will be very visible in the coming months as NARP’s President and CEO Jim Mathews will be speaking out via major news media outlets on this same subject. And it’s a critical time, too, because sometime in the next 90 days, the U.S. Supreme Court will be taking up this very issue and their decision will have a profound effect on Amtrak’s on-time performance. The issue to be decided: Is the law requiring the freight railroads to give Amtrak trains priority constitutional? Can’t get much more basic than that.