Amtrak faces many of the same problems as urban transit: low gas prices, crumbling infrastructure, late trains, and declining service (Amtrak provided about 0.4 percent fewer seat-miles in 2017 than in 2016). Yet even as transit ridership is dropping, Amtrak ridership grew by 1.5 percent in F.Y. 2017. Moreover, ridership is growing in all three of Amtrak’s divisions: the Northeast Corridor, state-supported day trains, and long-distance trains.
Amtrak’s 2017 ridership growth was about twice the nation’s population growth, indicating per capita ridership is also growing. A lot of the new riders must have taken short trips, however, as passenger miles only grew by about a third of a percent.
Still, it is easy to overestimate the significance of Amtrak’s growth. Usage of many forms of transportation are growing. Domestic airline travel, for example, carries a hundred times as many passenger miles as Amtrak and is growing by 4 to 5 percent per year. Automobiles carry Americans 500 to 600 times as many passenger miles a Amtrak, and rural driving (the kind that competes with Amtrak) grew by 1.7 percent so far in 2017.
A former North Dakota state senator named John Andrist is one who overestimates the importance of passenger trains. He argues that freight trains are just a “big nuisance” while railroads in Europe are “vital . . . because they are people movers.” He has it backwards: it is here in the United States where railroads are vital, moving close to 40 percent of our freight, saving energy, and minimizing subsidies from taxpayers.
In order to move about 5 percent of passengers (compared with one-tenth of a percent in the United States), European railroads only move about 16 percent of freight. That puts a lot more trucks on the roads without taking all that many cars off the roads.
It’s easy to imagine a politician from New Jersey making the mistake of thinking that trains are still a vital form of passenger transportation. But North Dakota? Amtrak serves the state with one train a day each way that reach the state’s biggest cities in the middle of the night and don’t even go through the state capital.
An average of about 10 people a day get on or off each train at each of the seven stations in North Dakota, which is hardly vital. Amtrak isn’t even vital in the Northeast Corridor, where it carries only about 6 percent of the intercity travel between the cities it serves in that corridor.
The problem is that politicians such as Andrist, and the leaders of European countries, care more about what is visible than what is truly economically important. Passenger trains are more visible than freight, so government-owned railroads end up being devoted to passengers while private railroads are more likely to emphasize freight.
The Antiplanner’s hero, James J. Hill, is reputed to have said, “The passenger train is like a male teat: neither useful nor ornamental.” In fact, there’s no evidence he actually said that (the earliest reference I can find is to a 1951 humor book). But he did say that passenger train riders are “but a small, and the more fortunate class of the community” while almost everyone benefits from freight trains, so those who, like Andrist, would put passenger above freight do an injustice to the nation as a whole.