From The New York Times:
When Hurricane Sandy swept across railroad beds in the Northeast last year, Amtrak went quiet. Officials at the nation’s railroad scrambled to repair the damage that stretched the length of the huge storm. Amtrak in the region was out for a week. And disruptions continued along the popular Boston to Washington corridor for almost a month.
For all that, Amtrak had one of its best years ever. Amtrak officers boasted this week about carrying 31.6 million passengers this year, up from 31.2 million last year. And ridership increased even in the Northeast Corridor where Sandy did her worst. As a result, the railroad will ask for less federal help. That old story about how Amtrak is a transportation money pit has, once again, been proven false.
Tony Coscia, chairman of the Amtrak board of directors, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that he sees three main reasons why Amtrak is gaining financial strength and more customers. One: The company has worked hard to modernize the business. Did you notice, for example, that rush hour tickets finally cost more than off-peak tickets — which makes good financial sense — and that Amtrak has at least added wifi even if it doesn’t always work?
Two: The company seems to be benefiting from the sorry state of other forms of travel in the U.S. It only takes so many traffic jams or hours in a musty airport lounge before a wise passenger decides that a train makes more sense.
The third reason is perhaps most cheering. Mr. Coscia believes that young urbanites have finally discovered the pleasures of traveling by rail. The average age of passengers is getting younger, he said. And as people move back into cities, they’re learning that it’s convenient to take trains from one urban center to another. Driving is time spent away from the computer, the cell phone, the afternoon nap. Why not let the conductor take over?
This good news should remind Washington how far behind America is when it comes to passenger rails. Unlike France or Spain or China, the U.S. government doesn’t invest enough in rail beds and bridges and all the underpinnings that can allow a train to go at speeds of more than 150 miles per hour. Congress still favors cars and airplanes, but at some point, all those fresh-faced passengers (and voters) will start wondering why their trains are so slow.
Amtrak is working to make its passengers comfortable with wifi and quiet cars, and to make planning rail travel easier with etickets. But it will take real money from Washington to pay for the big, expensive fundamentals that make a fast, modern railroad work.