In a recent article in the online magazine Slate, Matthew Yglesias opined on the economic viability of Amtrak. With typical East Coast bias, Yglesias dismissed passenger rail service to any destination outside of the New York to D.C. corridor as stupid and financially ruinous, demanding federal subsidy and beggaring the infrastructure of the East Coast line, where, he says is “where people want to ride intercity trains,” and where “rail is useful and valued.”
He adds, “The Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington metropolitan areas, for example, account for about 44 percent of total boardings and departures in the whole system. What’s more, the Northeast Regional and Acela Express routes that serve those cities (plus Providence, New Haven, Trenton, Wilmington, and a few others) generate enough operating surplus to offset the operating losses at all of Amtrak’s other short routes.”
His argument has some merit—where there are more people, there will be more riders. But I question his argument that the rest of the country doesn’t need passenger trains, and that “(i)nstead we’re stuck in a dynamic where all these trains are running in places where nobody rides them and the local voters and elected officials aren’t supportive and Amtrak ends up stigmatized for its dependence on federal subsidies.”
My friend Cliff Black, who is retired from Amtrak, supplied me with some figures to bolster my feeling that in Winona, and along the Amtrak line that travels between Seattle and Chicago, the Empire Builder passenger count is up. Not only was it up 15.8% in 2012, the second-highest growth area in Amtrak (Charlotte to Raleigh was up 16.2%). Overall, Amtrak ridership is up 49% since 2000.
I love traveling by train, but I haven’t taken the train in a while. I haven’t had a need to be in Chicago since 2006, when my granddaughter was born there. But my friends who have the leisure time to go to Chicago to shop, visit museums, and go to shows much prefer the train to driving. (You can play bridge all the way there!) My daughter Cassidy rides the train from St. Paul to Winona with her son, Harry, and finds it relaxing for her and much more enjoyable for Harry, who doesn’t have to be restrained in a child seat for the two-hour trip. When Harry gets hungry or Cassidy wants a cup of coffee, there is the dining car or the club car. Less spillage!
The only problem is the return trip, which leaves Winona and arrives in St. Paul is at an inconvenient time. However, “Amtrak is conducting an analysis for the Minnesota and Wisconsin Departments of Transportation of potential ridership, revenue, and operating costs for a second daily round-trip between St. Paul-Minneapolis and Chicago, supplementing the existing Empire Builder long-distance train,” according to its website. Wouldn’t that be a boon to business and pleasure travel for those of us in the Winona area?
Passenger trains have the benefit over air travel of being much cheaper and less physically exhausting, especially for shorter trips—say to St. Paul or Chicago. The train station is in the hub of the city or town, eliminating the need for a car or an expensive taxi ride to get where you’re going. There is no need to find a place to park a car, a huge annoyance in a large metropolitan area. (And Winona, too!) For many people, passenger trains enable them to travel to places and do things—school, medical facilities, visit relatives, tourism—which they might find quite difficult otherwise.
In 2012, there were 24,458 riders who either boarded or alighted the train in Winona. If you’ve been on Main Street, stopped for the Amtrak train when college students are leaving or arriving in Winona, you are struck by the number of young people dragging rolling suitcases as they arrive or depart from WSU, and the number of taxis picking up students for other schools. In a community where most destinations are no more than 15 minutes away, we tend to forget that there are many people who must travel distances and for whom Amtrak is a lifeline.
Winona owes a great deal to the railroads for our continued viability, and Amtrak’s Empire Builder line is a valued partner in the railroad industry. Just because we don’t have to be in New York or D.C. for a meeting in three hours doesn’t mean our need for passenger trains is any less valuable than that of our parochial East Coast brethren.
We’ll back our Empire Builder any time—and welcome “high-speed rail,” or a second daily train.