Brookings Institution report documents growth of Amtrak vs. air travel in key markets

By Chris Spahr

A March 2013 report by the Brookings Institution discusses the renaissance of American passenger rail and shows that ridership on Amtrak is at record levels and continuing to grow. Additionally, the report notes that Amtrak’s passenger growth was more than double that of domestic aviation (20 percent) since 1997.

A March 13 presentation given by Federal Railroad Administration Administrator Joseph Szabo emphasized the gains in market share by Amtrak compared to those of the airline industry. The graphic used by Szabo to show these gains also appeared in an article published in Better Institutions and reposted by Planetizen. 

comparison of Amtrak and rail market share in selected cities

The value of these charts lies in their ability to show that the rail market is a large piece of the pie. By choosing city-pairs that range from 95 miles (Chicago-Milwaukee) to 300 miles (Chicago-St. Louis), it demonstrates that rail is most competitive in corridors under 400 miles. While Szabo cited the Brookings report’s findings that Amtrak ridership has grown by 55 percent since 1997, his graphic does not show how the market share has changed in the chosen city-pairs over this time period.

The following chart compares the Amtrak data provided by Szabo with data from a 2002 Government Accountability Office report. This graphic shows the market share change between 2001 and 2012 for selected city-pairs for which data could be found. The data supports the Brookings Institution claims that partnerships where Amtrak, the federal government, and states share responsibility for the network’s successes and failures are supporting a growth in market share that competes well with airlines in the shorter distance corridors.

However, Robert Poole from the Reason Foundation feels the Brookings Institution report is flawed. In a March 15 post on the Out of Control Policy Blog, Baruch Faigenbaum reports on the complaints raised by Poole and claims, “Amtrak in its current form has proved to be a costly failure”.  But drastically changing the form of Amtrak did not make the list of the Northeast Corridor preliminary alternatives in the newly released NEC Futures Rail Investment Plan for the Northeast Corridor. This plan shows that the FRA is considering significant investments in meeting the rail market growth in the country’s most important travel corridor. However, until there is increased federal rail funding, much of these larger investments will not make it past the planning level.

Chris Spahr is a Graduate Assistant with SSTI.