Amtrak Acela
Even with its high-speed Acela rail system, Amtrak's network does not stack up against trains worldwide. Reuters

If you think Americans don’t take trains, think again. According to Amtrak, ridership is up a whopping 49 percent since 2000.

Amtrak president and CEO Joe Boardman boasted Wednesday that more travelers used “America’s Railroad” over fiscal year 2012 than ever before in the line’s 41-year history.

“People are riding Amtrak trains in record numbers across the country because there is an undeniable demand to travel by rail,” he claimed. Some 31.2 million passengers hit the rails this past year, up 3.5 percent over 2011. Ticket revenues, meanwhile, jumped 6.8 percent, to a record $2.02 billion.

Washington-based Amtrak has a stronghold in the Northeast, from the nation’s capital up through Boston, and it said ridership in the region is up 4.8 percent, to a record 11.4 million.

Amtrak believes high gasoline prices, dissatisfaction with congested highways and air travel, and new features like WiFi and eTicketing have helped train travel become more popular.

Boardman foresees continued growth in ridership “because of key investments made by Amtrak and our federal and state partners.” Investments include improvements in on-time performance, reliability, capacity and train speeds. Amtrak will also extend its Downeaster service to Freeport and Brunswick, Maine, beginning Nov. 1, and it will extend its Virginia Northeast Regional service to Norfolk, Va., starting Dec. 12.

Ridership has increased every year but one over the past decade, though that hasn’t stopped Republicans from stepping up their efforts to end federal subsidies to the national rail operator.

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has 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 forty 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 last month.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has pledged if elected to end all U.S. taxpayer support for the railroad, which totaled roughly $1.4 billion for fiscal year 2012. The GOP platform that was laid out at the Republican National Convention calls for “the federal government to get out of the way and allow private ventures to provide passenger service to the northeast corridor.” The GOP said the same holds true with regard to high-speed and intercity rail across the country.

Critics have often complained that Amtrak trains are slow and inefficient compared with those in Europe and Asia and are a waste of taxpayer dollars. Rep. Mica has said taxpayers have provided subsidies of $50.97 per Amtrak ticket sold over the past five years. Amtrak, meanwhile, says it covers 85 percent of its operating costs through ticket revenues with taxpayers covering its capital and debt costs.