5 Years Later: Amtrak Survives Bush, Expands

five year anniversary

In 1869, the transcontinental railroad was complete. In the 50 years following 1870, rail transportation became a mainstay in the U.S., was critical to settling the West and served as a trademark of the industrial revolution. Train use peaked in 1920, when trains carried 1.2 billion passengers.

Then rail faced a series of setbacks, in order: 20% hikes in fares, Henry Ford and the advent of cars, the Great Depression, the diesel engine, trucks and trucking fleets, commercial air, nationalization of trains (including guaranteed net income despite performance), privatization of trains, and strong ridership throughout WWII followed by a massive peacetime decline. Amtrak was created in the 70s, when air travel had emerged as the most popular consumer long distance transportation choice.

Fast forward to 2005:  3p covered a variety of Amtrak angles. Some of Nick’s first posts were even concerned with what seemed like Amtrak’s impending doom under the Bush administration . That year, 3p covered the heavy budget cuts Amtrak sustained under Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta’s (the only Clinton holdover in the Bush administration) approval, its potential bankruptcy and its apparent savior: the business community that protested Amtrak cuts, probably fearing a comprehensive withdrawal of federal support for rail freight.

Now, Amtrak is enjoying a resurgence in popularity thanks to almost as complex a variety of factors as it took to depress it. Since 9/11, airlines have become the problem-child industry. After increasingly common/ridiculous service cuts, restrictive passenger rules and PR nightmares, rail is beginning to reclaim passengers from planes (this author is one of them…). Oil’s volatility has both contributed to the air industries’ losses and  the public push for more rail. California’s high-speed rail passed the summer after record gas prices.

Activists seeking a transportation revolution to address climate change compound the upheaval in the transportation sector. Environmentalists have been fighting for additional public transportation options for decades, and have found increasing national success since approximately 2007. All of this has produced the sixth straight record year of ridership for Amtrak, with approximately 28.5 million riders a year (respectable, though nothing compared to the 1920s numbers).

Now, Amtrak is contending with emerging high speed rail systems, like the one being planned in California and recently adopted for Florida. So far, Amtrak owns the U.S.’s only high speed rail linethe Acelarunning between Boston and Washington DC in a sweet six hours. The Acela is one of Amtrak’s only profitable trains, suggesting consumer demand for increased high-speed rail options.

The ownership structure of the numerous slated-high-speed rail projects in metropolitan areas nationwide is unclear, be it state or federal. Whichever it turns out to be, Obama has been high-speed rail friendly since the beginning of his administration, both because it serves his environmental agenda, as well as because rail development creates domestic manufacturing jobs and profits.

A 2008 Amtrak report identified the absence of high speed rail finance and leadership as stifling its development. With the stimulus package and such a large chunk of that funding state rail projects, perhaps now we will finally see widespread, national adoption of high speed rail. Only the next five years will tell.

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