March 2013 was the single best month for ridership in Amtrak's history, the U.S. national carrier said Tuesday.
Despite setbacks from Superstorm Sandy and an unrelenting string of winter storms across the system’s moneymaking Northeast Corridor, Amtrak reported an increase in passengers for the first half of fiscal year 2013 (October 2012 to March 2013). While March was the best month ever for the rail service, October, December and January also set individual monthly records.
In total, Amtrak ridership grew 0.9 percent across the first six months of fiscal 2013, compared to the same period the previous year.
Ridership in the Northeast Corridor was down 1.2 percent over the six-month period due to Superstorm Sandy, but rides on state-supported and other shorter-distance routes were up 2.7 percent, while long-distance ridership grew 0.5 percent. Indeed, 26 of the 45 routes nationwide posted passenger increases, leading Amtrak to believe 2013 numbers will surpass last year’s record of 31.2 million passengers.
Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman used the announcement as a plea for more federal assistance.
“The continued ridership growth on routes across the country reinforces the need for dedicated, multi-year federal operating and capital funding to support existing intercity passenger rail services and the development of new ones,” he said.
Amtrak boasts more than 300 daily trains that connect 46 states, the District of Columbia and three Canadian provinces. Expanding or updating rail service, however, has been a difficult proposition in recessionary times because it requires years of planning and regulation.
Republicans stepped up their efforts last year to end federal subsidies to Amtrak. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, held multiple hearings criticizing the railroad and accusing it of “Soviet-style” inefficiency.
“Taxpayers have been footing the bill for Amtrak’s gravy train for over 40 years, and all they’ve gotten in return for their $40 billion investment is an inefficient, costly, Soviet-style passenger rail system,” he said at a hearing in September. Former presidential nominee Mitt Romney, too, said that, if elected, he would end all U.S. taxpayer support for the railroad, which totaled roughly $1.4 billion for fiscal year 2012.
Amtrak -- whose popular one-way services from New York to Washington and Boston average between $50 and $80 -- countered that it covers 85 percent of its operating costs through ticket revenues, with taxpayers covering its capital and debt costs, but Republicans would like the federal government to simply “get out of the way” and allow private ventures to provide passenger services.
Politics aside, Amtrak faces stiff competition from the booming inter-city bus services. The industry grew by 7.5 percent in 2012, with discount operators like BoltBus and Megabus recording a 31 percent increase in departures, according to a study from DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development.
By contrast, trains saw a growth of 3 percent, airlines 0.4 percent and auto travel 0.6 percent.