Hamburgers Aside, Rail Travel Is Thriving

With a few notable exceptions, intercity rail travel in this U.S. has been marked by an abundance of good news of late, led by Amtrak, the nation's primary passenger-rail carrier between cities.

Amtrak recently announced that the railroad broke their all-time annual ridership record for the ninth time in 10 years in fiscal 2012, carrying 31.2 million passengers, surpassing the previous record, set in 2011, by one million trips. More people rode Amtrak trains in July than during any other month in the company's history. Since 2000, Amtrak ridership has grown by nearly 50%, as people seek out an alternative to highway traffic congestion, and hassles and delays at airports. However, these are not the only milestones that Amtrak has achieved recently.

Aside from record ridership, the average on-time performance of Amtrak trains also reached a new, all-time high. As rail ridership continues to rise across the country, it is now more important than ever to improve the reliability of Amtrak's trains. Amtrak also has been steadily expanding and upgrading the nation's rail infrastructure and services. Last month, Amtrak opened the new Niantic River Bridge in East Lyme, Conn., after three years of work replacing the 105-year-old span. Amtrak also recently announced the long-awaited extension of Northeast Regional service to Norfolk, Va., where service was eliminated way back in 1977. When the service begins in December, riders in Norfolk will have a one-seat ride as far north as Boston.

Lastly, Amtrak's proposed Gateway Project, which calls for the construction of two new rail tunnels under the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey, was given a major boost. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York enthusiastically endorsed the project, making it his top infrastructure priority, ensuring that it has a congressional champion who will work to appropriate the money Amtrak needs to complete this critical project.

At the same time that Amtrak was posting new ridership records, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has been attempting to cast Amtrak in a starkly negative light. The congressional panel held three hearings last month on waste and inefficiency at the railroad, paying particular attention to the price and cost of its hamburgers in one, and has scheduled three more hearings through the end of the year. The hearings did showcase some important issues regarding how Amtrak conducts its business. By its own admission, Amtrak's food and beverage service loses $80 million every year. The committee also pointed out that Amtrak hasn't won a single contract to operate a commuter rail service in 10 years — despite more than half a dozen bids — highlighting an inability to compete with private-sector operators.

Anyone who has ridden Amtrak knows there is room for improvement. The trains can be slow and the prices high. But the railroad has been making changes. Amtrak's new strategic plan reorganizes the agency into separate businesses lines, aimed at creating a more efficient corporate structure. Amtrak also has reduced the amount of operating support that it requests from Congress and now says it covers 85% of its expenses through ticket revenue, a ratio far ahead of the country's other transit systems. There is much more work to be done, but as the ridership numbers attest, Amtrak has been making significant strides.