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Rail News: Amtrak

Brookings report examines Amtrak strengths, weaknesses; recommends improvements

Amtrak's ridership grew by 55 percent since 1997, faster than any other U.S. travel mode, with the 100 largest metropolitan areas generating nearly 90 percent of Amtrak ridership, according to a new report by the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program.

Ten major metropolitan areas are responsible for about two-thirds of Amtrak's ridership, according to the report, "A New Alignment: Strengthening America's Commitment to Passenger Rail."

"American passenger rail is in the midst of a renaissance," Brookings Institution officials said in a prepared statement. "Ridership on Amtrak, the primary U.S. carrier, is now at record levels and growing fast."

The report is the first analysis to focus on metropolitan area statistics for passenger rail rather than individual stations or cities, officials said. It was prepared to help policymakers and state leaders better understand Amtrak, including where it works well and the areas that are posed to benefit from new and expanded service, they said.

Short-distance corridors, or routes that are less than 400 miles, carry 83 percent of Amtrak passengers and captured nearly all of Amtrak's recent growth. The railroad now carries a total 31 million riders, an all-time high.

Combined, the short-distance corridors generated a positive operating balance in 2011, while corridors longer than 400 miles returned a negative operating balance, officials said.

The 10 largest metro areas by Amtrak ridership from fiscal years 1997 through 2012 were:
• New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, N.Y.-N.J.-Pa.;
• Washington, D.C.-Arlington-Alexandria, D.C.-Va.-Md.,-W.V.;
• Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, Pa.-N.J.-Del.-Md.;
• Chicago-Naperville-Joliet, Ill.-Ind.-Wis.;
• Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, Calif.;
• Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, Mass.-N.H.;
• San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, Calif.;
• Baltimore-Towson, Md.;
• Sacramento-Arden-Arcade-Roseville, Calif.; and
• San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos, Calif.

The report noted that many states now have formalized relationships with Amtrak to upgrade infrastructure, operate routes and redevelop stations.

"The result is a new federalist partnership where Amtrak, the federal government and states share responsibility for the network's successes and failures," the report stated.

To continue that passenger-rail "reinvention," the report recommended that Amtrak, the federal government and states should:
• broker a new agreement between Amtrak and the states to share operating costs and other responsibilities for corridors longer than 750 miles;
• embrace broader flexibility from the federal government and a create a dedicated funding source for future rail investments; and
• complete a national rail plan, promote multistate rail compacts and foster a stronger relationship between public agencies and private capital management.

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 3/4/2013