Increase in Amtrak passengers signals strong rail future

Posted Tuesday, Mar. 05, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Amtrak, the nation's federally supported passenger rail service, has long been a whipping boy on Capitol Hill -- often accused of being a "bloated bureaucracy" with little ridership, poor service and wasteful spending.

Although American passenger rail still faces political and financial challenges, it is "on the track to success," said a study released Friday by the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

The Brookings report, "A New Alignment: Strengthening America's Commitment to Passenger Rail," said that Amtrak ridership was up 55 percent last year over 1997, and Dallas/Fort Worth/Arlington had the second-highest percentage increase in the country, a 483 percent rise in that 15-year period. (

Last year, Dallas-Fort Worth had 201,996 Amtrak riders, compared with 34,661 in 1997, Brookings reported. The Heartland Flyer, which runs between Fort Worth and Oklahoma City, accounted for 87,873 of those riders.

The Texas Eagle, a 1,300-mile route from Chicago through Fort Worth to San Antonio, had 337,973 passengers last year, a 256 percent increase from the 95,000 in 1997.

Of course, that amounted to a small fraction of the 31 million total annual Amtrak riders, which is an all-time high and growing.

Most of the growth has been on short-distance corridors (routes shorter than 400 miles), and mainly in large metro areas in the Northeast and West.

Brookings attributed Amtrak's improved performance in part to its partnership with 15 states that have paid at least a portion of the operating expenses for 21 routes. Texas and Oklahoma, for example, each pay $8.7 million for the Heartland Flyer.

The Obama administration's commitment to passenger rail is likely to continue. The 2008 legislation that governs Amtrak is up for reauthorization this year.

Among other recommendations, the study suggested better collaboration on long-distance routes; a dedicated federal funding source for passenger rail, coupled with more flexibility for states; and improved state-private partnerships that could add privately financed routes beyond Amtrak.

Lawmakers as well as stakeholders must weigh what continues to make sense. The Heartland Flyer lost $43 per rider in 2012, according to the report. But for almost 88,000 riders, it was a crucial transportation option.

As the study recognizes, passenger rail "is a vital component of the country's national transportation network," and the increases in ridership demonstrate that it has a continuing role in our economic future.

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