NARP Refutes Columnist Calling Rail Investment “Wasteful”

To the editor of The Washington Post:

In a 1997 Post column [also printed in Newsweek], Robert Samuelson said “the only sensible reform is to shut down Amtrak.” He called Amtrak ridership “stagnant” at 19.7 million.

In Fiscal 2010, ridership was 28.7 million, limited by the size of Amtrak’s fleet. But Samuelson still considers trains “wasteful spending” (Nov. 1 op-ed). He attacks the federal train initiative, ignoring that much of the money is upgrading conventional trains already setting ridership records.

California accounts for 20% of Amtrak’s ridership, which helps explain why California voters approved a 2008 bond issue supporting a true high speed rail network.

Across the country, Amtrak’s Boston-Portland, ME, Downeaster defied predictions to become successful. Ridership in 2010 was 460,474. Stations are focal points for transit-friendly real estate development and local transit. Downeaster, like most Amtrak routes, is important to intermediate markets planes miss or serve poorly.

The future is young people, who flock to the Downeaster at the Durham/University of New Hampshire station.

Federal energy data shows that undercapitalized Amtrak in 2008 was 30% and 21% more fuel efficient per passenger-mile than autos and airplanes, respectively. When a spike in oil prices crushes short-distance aviation and cuts auto use, even more Americans will be thankful their taxes buy trains, not just airports and roads.

—Ross B. Capon, President & CEO,
National Association of Railroad Passengers

Notes to editor

  • Samuelson’s 1997 column referred to above was published October 29 under the headline, “The Parable of Amtrak: It’s a stunning example of why the government can’t abandon the old, the stupid and the failed.”
  • The Amtrak ridership figures are taken from their Oct. 11 release, “Amtrak Sets New Ridership Record.”
  • The energy efficiency data quoted is based on these numbers from tables 2.13 and 2.14 of the latest Transportation Energy Data Book (published annually in May)

British Thermal Units per passénger-mile (one passenger carried one mile)—smaller number = greater energy efficiency

2,398 Amtrak

3,051 certificated air carriers (domestic)

3,437 autos

Note: Light trucks are relative gas-guzzlers at 6,830 and comprise a significant portion of total vehicle miles driven.