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Passenger Rail is Quietly Growing

Head-on view of Amtrak Acela train
Passenger rail has been the fastest-growing method of transportation in the United States for the past 10 years, with Amtrak servicing a record 31.2 million passengers, mostly in large cities, in 2012. Wikimedia Commons/ Michael Kurras

A new report by the Brookings Institution notes that passenger rail is on the verge of a renaissance after Amtrak capped 10 years of steady growth in 2012 by setting a passenger record of 31.2 million.

April 16, 2013—Passenger rail has quietly been the fastest-growing transportation mode in the United States for the past 10 years, with Amtrak servicing a record 31.2 million passengers in 2012. Ridership has grown 55 percent since 1997, driven largely by shorter local routes connecting large metropolitan areas.

This impressive growth in a tense political environment with uncertain commitments to funding indicates that passenger rail is actually poised for a renaissance in the United States, according to a new report by the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.

The report, A New Alignment: Strengthening America’s Commitment to Passenger Rail, analyzes the factors behind Amtrak’s growth and makes recommendations to “continue the reinvention.” The report was authored by Robert Puentes, a senior fellow; Adie Tomer, a senior research associate; and Joseph Kane, a policy/research assistant.

The rail renaissance is highly concentrated, with 90 percent of Amtrak’s ridership focused in the largest 100 metropolitan areas in the country. Just 10 of those metropolitan areas contribute 63.2 percent of riders. The two largest areas for ridership are New York City and Washington, D.C., which are responsible for 26.7 percent of Amtrak riders.

Although Amtrak continues to operate at a financial loss, the report reveals a sharp financial divide in the system in which shorter routes servicing metropolitan regions are profitable. Amtrak operates 26 routes of less than 400 total miles. Those routes generated $46.6 million in revenue in FY 2011, compared to the $597 million loss for the 15 routes of greater than 750 miles, many of which pass through rural areas and service smaller cities and towns.

Brookings developed the report as provisions of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA) of 2008 are set to expire this year. The report cites PRIIA as a key development in Amtrak’s recent success, establishing performance metrics and goals. PRIIA also created a new relationship between the federal and state governments, requiring states to develop rail plans and share some funding responsibilities for shorter routes.

“Unexpectedly, it was the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009—and the $8 billion it provided to jump-start the federal High Speed Rail program—that altered the political landscape,” the authors write. “By making major capital funding available, the federal government unleashed a wave of interest across the country.”

The report contains three recommendations for creating an environment in which passenger rail can continue to grow. The authors recommend that a reauthorization of the PRIIA include measures to address the financial dichotomy between long-distance routes and shorter routes. One possible remedy suggested is a requirement for states to support long-distance routes that pass through their borders, as well as the shorter, metropolitan routes. “As seen in the short-distance routes that already enjoy state support, such a partnership results in a better sharing of risks and rewards,” the authors write. “When states contribute to Amtrak operations, they have a vested interest in service quality.”

Another option presented to offset losses in long distance routes would be to replace them with a series of shorter corridor routes with connections to metropolitan areas or replacing some links with bus service.

The report also recommends that the federal government create a dedicated funding source for intermetropolitan passenger rail, removing the 15 percent of Amtrak’s budget provided by federal sources from frequent, politicized battles. State governments, likewise, should also create dedicated funding mechanisms. This would give Amtrak greater financial certainty for long-term planning.

Finally, the report recommends the completion of a national rail plan, identified by the Government Accountability Office as a key element in determining the future of passenger rail. A national rail plan would clarify goals, assign roles to stakeholders, and identify expected outcomes.

“In comparison, peer nations like France, Japan, and Germany all have explicitly adopted national rail plans to prioritize investment, establish funding streams and financial responsibilities, and evaluate progress toward goals,” the authors write. “While a draft national rail plan was released in October 2009, the lack of a finalized plan continues to present uncertainties to stakeholders.”

The authors note that “2013 has the potential to be a pivotal year for American passenger rail. PRIIA expires in September and while Congress has pledged to make reauthorization of the law a priority, certain thorny issues like the future of long-distance corridors still remain.”

“The upcoming reauthorization and finalization of a national rail plan on the federal level, coupled with increased attention on the role of passenger rail in states, make this the right time to focus on the future of Amtrak, despite the fiscally constrained times,” the report concludes.



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