Friday, March 11, 2011

If Amtrak began with one passenger, and then had two, would that be a 100% increase?

Progressive Railroading posts an article about Amtrak reaching the largest number of riders ever, following 16 straight months of growth.  They claim 2.9 million monthly riders on their system.  That comes to nearly 35 million annual passengers for Amtrak, a rail system that covers the United States with 21,000 miles of track.  Also, the numbers in this chart, below, don't agree with the numbers offered by the Progressive Railroading article. However, the chart goes only to 2002.  Did Amtrak rail-riding populations increase in ten years from an annual 23.5 million (2001) to 35 million in 2011?

The CHSRA is projecting 39 million annual passengers on its high-speed train from San Francisco to Los Angeles.  That's 4 million more for this 400 mile trip than all of Amtrak passenger service combined, including the Acela fast train between Washington D.C. and Boston.  What's wrong with this picture?

The article delves into the ridership percent increases in great detail, section by section, but fails to provide comparative numbers associated with that growth.  Therefore, they don't answer the most basic question of all, percent of what?

Here's a chart that is highly informative and comes from the Congressional Budget Office and the Association of American Railroads. And, they base their research data on passenger-miles, not passengers. They say that, "In 1971, the year Amtrak began service, the number of intercity rail passenger-miles traveled was down to a mere 4.4 billion. Since then, it has fluctuated within the range of about 4.2 billion to 6.4 billion passenger-miles per year." 
In other words, relatively constantly over time, more passengers, fewer miles.

What lessons can we learn?

1. Lying is a popular indoor sport, and not limited to public relations organizations.  There are many ways to lie, and one of them is with statistics and another is by the sin of omission.  It's what they don't tell you that conceals the truth.

2. Like many, if not all government organizations, Amtrak (a deficit, subsidized operation) devotes a huge amount of resources to self-promotion.  They eagerly tell us about their achievements, but provide no context.  What they don't tell us is what the passenger rail numbers were forty years ago and what they are now. Are there record numbers of people traveling far fewer miles? Isn't that important?

3. Ridership numbers are inherently incomplete information.  It's a poor metric.  The CHSRA uses it all the time.  A more reliable unit of measure would be passenger-miles; i.e., one passenger traveling one mile. That permits legitimate and reliable comparisons with other modalities, such as buses, planes and cars.  It also permits accurate analysis for units of GHG output. I assume that neither Amtrak nor the CHSRA want us to know such data.

4. The US has always had great freight rail service.  It still does today.  It is relatively easy to measure productivity, load cost and weight, fuel consumption per ton, cost/effectiveness (for which profitability is always a good measure), etc.  The US has the best freight rail system in the world.  Passenger rail, not so much. The freight carriers, who are not government owned and operated, used to carry passengers more or less like loss leaders.  The passenger side of the business was, except for a few exceptions, not profitable. They were happy to relinquish this part of their business to Congress, which created Amtrak.

5. Passenger rail was in decline as aviation took off, so to speak.  Also, the now highly touted Interstate Highway System which all politicians use as the prototype of what they wish high-speed rail to be, became another rival for passenger rail. Cars also contributed to the passenger rail decline.  No wonder  railroad lovers think cars are bad.

6. Now that we "hate" cars and "love" high-speed rail, shouldn't we also stop loving the Interstate Highway System? Wasn't it responsible for America's love affair with cars and its decline of passenger rail?

7. This article is full of Amtrak performance braggadocio, but told only as half-truths.  And that's what we've also been getting from the high-speed rail promoters and their supporting politicians as well.
It's become really hard to know what the truth is about passenger railroading and high-speed rail. 


Amtrak reaches 16-straight months of ridership growth

Amtrak's ridership rose 7.6 percent to 2.9 million riders last month, marking the national intercity passenger railroad’s best February on record.

The increase also marked 16 consecutive months of ridership growth, spanning from November 2009 to February 2011. Ridership averaged a 6 percent growth rate in the period.

Amtrak attributed the ridership growth to a "moderately improved" economy, higher gasoline prices, more effective marketing campaigns and the addition of Wi-Fi on high-speed Acela Express trains.

"We anticipate demand for rail travel will increase with the rise of gasoline prices," said Amtrak President and Chief Executive Officer Joe Boardman in a prepared statement.

February ridership highlights include:

• In the East, Acela Express ridership increased 9.7 percent in the Boston-New York City-Washington, D.C. corridor; 9.3 percent on the Adirondack from New York City to Montreal; 101.8 percent on the Piedmont service from Charlotte to Raleigh, N.C.; 28 percent on the Washington, D.C.-Lynchburg service; and 16.8 percent on the Washington-Newport News.

• In the Midwest, the Chicago hub's steep ridership gains were led by the Blue Water’s Chicago-to-Huron service at 26.4 percent. Also, ridership on the Chicago-Pontiac Wolverine service rose 18 percent; Chicago-Carbondale route grew 16 percent; and Chicago-St. Louis corridor increased 8 percent. In addition, the Missouri River Runner service from Kansas City to St. Louis, Mo., rose 14.6 percent, and the Heartland Flyer service from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth, Texas, rose 8.8 percent

• In the West, California's ridership gains included the Capitol Corridor service from San Jose to Auburn at 8.4 percent, and the Pacific Surfliner service from San Luis Obispo to San Diego at 6.1 percent.

• Among long-distance trains, the Cardinal (New York City to Chicago) had the largest increase at 17.1 percent; followed by Palmetto (New York to Savannah, Ga.) at 16.6 percent; the Sunset Limited (New Orleans to Los Angeles) at 12.6 percent; the City of New Orleans (Chicago to New Orleans) at 10.9 percent; and the Lake Shore Limited (New York to Chicago) at 10.6 percent.