September 24, 2012

WASHINGTON (Oct. 10)—Amtrak announced it carried a record 31.2 million passengers in its Fiscal Year 2012 (ending September 30) and said it was the ninth time in the last ten years that the carrier had exceeded its ridership totals from the year before.

Amtrak said ridership nationwide was up 3.5 per cent, amounting to a million more passengers in 2012 versus the 2011 count of just over 30 million.

Only once in the last decade—in the depth of the recession in 2009—has Amtrak ridership slipped slightly before resuming its decade-long climb.

“People are riding Amtrak trains in record numbers across the country because there is an undeniable demand for travel by rail,” said Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman. “Ridership will continue to grow because of key investments made by Amtrak and our federal and state partners to improve on-time performance, reliability, capacity and train speeds.”

And while ridership was rising 3.5 per cent, revenues rose by about twice that rate, largely because Amtrak’s computerized yield-management system increases ticket prices as trains fill up and last-minute travelers clamor for space just prior to departure.

Although ridership was up on all parts of Amtrak’s nationwide system, some routes and services grew at a steeper rate than others.

In the Northeast Corridor, for example, Amtrak’s premier service, the high-speed, extra-fare Acela trains, increased their ridership by only a half of one percent and their revenues by 3.3 per cent, while ridership on the slower Northeast Regional service grew 6.6 per cent and revenues grew 9.1 per cent.

Among the state-supported corridor trains, ridership growth tended to be stronger. On the Chicago-Springfield-St. Louis Lincoln Service trains ridership was up 8.7 per cent, while revenues were up 8.9 per cent. The Chicago-Quincy and Chicago-Carbondale trains were each up 3.9 per cent.

“Those are absolutely amazing numbers for the St. Louis trains,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Robert W. Guy. “There were several lengthy periods during the 2012 Fiscal Year when portions of the Chicago-St. Louis route had to be closed and passengers had to be bused around the gaps so Union Pacific forces could upgrade the line for 110-mph service.”

But the passengers just keep coming, Guy said.

“Apparently, they understood the reasons for the disruptions and resumed traveling by train as soon as the line was re-opened,” he said. “Since then, the numbers have kept growing.”

Amtrak said its 15 long-distance overnight trains, including the eight frequencies that originate in Chicago, also displayed vigorous growth in ridership and revenues, with the Chicago-San Antonio Texas Eagle and the Chicago-Seattle Empire Builder leading the pack with double-digit gains.

Amtrak said the Eagle carried 12.8 per cent more passengers in 2012 than in 2011, while the Builder’s numbers grew by 15.8 per cent. Revenue growth for the Eagle was up 7.5 per cent, while the Builder’s ticket receipts were up 24 per cent.

Despite the system’s growing popularity and financial success, however, Republican presidential Candidate Mitt Romney continued to denounce Amtrak and promised that if elected he would eliminate its annual federal subsidies and would seek private-sector investors to take it over.

“It is long past time for the federal government to get out of the way and allow private ventures to provide passenger service,” says the railroad plank in the Republican Party’s 2012 platform. Romney himself told Fortune magazine that he believed privatizing the system would enable it to operate without subsidies. “I’m for privatization, and if we can end them [subsidies], we can,” he said.

Guy said Romney’s remarks, as well as the language in the GOP platform, make it imperative that rail employees and their family members vote to re-elect President Obama in the presidential election Nov. 6.

“Gov. Romney’s assault against Amtrak is unfair,” Guy said. “He made it sound as if passenger trains are the only form of transportation in this country that gets subsidized.

“The fact is that the federal government’s highway and civil-aviation programs get much bigger subsidies than Amtrak and commuter rail combined,” Guy said. “Studies have shown repeatedly that only about half of highway costs are funded out of motor-fuel taxes and other user fees. The balance is subsidized out of income, sales and property taxes.

“But Gov. Romney is not calling for privatization of the nation’s money-losing highways or airports,” Guy said. “Only passenger trains are in his crosshairs. It’s a bum rap.”

Guy said if Gov. Romney were elected and were to succeed in cutting Amtrak’s budget, “thousands of railroad workers could lose their jobs, which would in turn devastate the Railroad Retirement system, affecting not only our passenger members but our freight members as well.

“In a year when another million Americans decided to ride Amtrak that’s just bad policy,” he said. “Passenger rail has become a success in this country. Killing it is not a valid policy option. Growing it is the only way to go.”