Despite numerous challenges, including delays, derailments and 'dinero' (or a lack thereof), Amtrak is enjoying its fifth-straight year of record ridership across the country. The usual suspects are driving people (pun intended) to take the train: high gas prices, traffic, and dour TSA employees. But, according to the AP, another factor seems to be "the investment by Illinois and 13 other states in short-distance corridors Amtrak wouldn't otherwise offer, essentially paying for a service where they see a need." The result has been a consistent rise in ridership, with numbers climbing to 24.3 million passengers last year.
While trains may be the green way to travel, Amtrak has still been unable to green its bottom line, relying on government help to stay afloat as it struggles with more than $3.3 billion in debt. One problem is that Amtrak gets enough funding to survive, but not to flourish. As Sen. Trent Lott, a supporter of the bipartisan Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, points out, "We can't keep asking Amtrak to operate like a business while we string the company along year to year." The bill would "authorize $3.3 billion for operating expenses and $4.9 billion for capital improvements over the life of the bill, from 2008 to 2012."Until now, the ticket to increased ridership has been increased frequency of trains, something that added funds can provide. For instance, eight trains have been added to the Capitol Corridor service between Sacramento and the Bay Area, helping to triple ridership on that route compared to eight years ago. The caveat, however, is that "with no federal funding to call upon, the Capitol Corridor-the nation's third-busiest rail line in the Amtrak system-runs solely with state and local funds."
So with increased ridership, a bill in Congress that would provide funding, and rising interest in efficiency, it seems that for Amtrak there indeed is green at the end of the tunnel. Rick Harnish, of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, couldn't agree more. He argues that
the era of cheap oil is over, and we have to find ways to take costs out of the system. There should be a lot more trains running, and they should be faster. If ridership is growing this strongly with the kind of delays they get, just think what kind of response they'd get if they ran on time.
Oh, and imagine if the trains were not only faster and more reliable, but also truly green: that is, profitable, and even more efficient.
See Also: ::How Carbon Neutral Are British Trains?, ::Allison Rogers On Taking A Train From DC To Rhode Island, ::Japan: Producing Electricity From Train Station Ticket Gates, and ::Dual Mode Trains in Japan.