Passengers switch to taking Amtrak trains over flights

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Amtrak trains will travel through Washington, DC, on September 15, 2022.

Stephanie Reynolds | AFP| Getty Images

As domestic travel recovers from the pandemic downturn and prices rise, some travelers are choosing trains over planes.

For many, the trade-offs are simple: trains are often cheaper, provide more legroom and are better for the environment than air travel. Those benefits and others are driving riders to Amtrak, the government-backed US rail service, as it tries to revive pre-Covid ridership and smooth operations.

Since emerging from the pandemic, airline ticket prices have risen sharply as travel demand has risen. In addition, uncertainty in the airline industry has increased in part due to high-profile incidents, such as the one that dominated the headlines earlier this year when section of an Alaska Airlines plane off mid-flight, which led to the discovery of loose hardware. on Boeing 737 Max 9 planes in several airlines’ fleets.

Although train journeys often take longer than flight times, the total travel time usually comes out when including traffic to get to the airport, the time spent in security lines and boarding wait times, according to Clint Henderson, managing editor at travel site The Points. Boy.

“We’ve done speed tests and measured the time it takes to go between cities like New York and DC on the train versus the plane, and even though the flight is very short, it usually takes about the same amount of time,” he said.

Trains don’t seem to be going away, but Henderson said he’s seen a broader increase across the travel industry in the number of people choosing to take Amtrak trains over flights, to especially in the North East Corridor, where there will be no flights between two nearby cities. t always makes sense.

One of those travelers is Leonor Grave, who lives in New York City and often commutes home to Washington, DC, on Amtrak trains rather than flying. Grave said she especially likes the fact that train stations are usually in the middle of cities, as opposed to airports, which are often on the outskirts of cities.

“If trains were faster and reached more destinations, I don’t think I would ever fly at home,” Grave said. “It’s a touchless way of traveling… and it’s much more pleasant for me on the train – you can get up, walk around, stretch your legs, you can go to the dining car. You feel much more grounded.”

Grave said she was even able to take her bike on the train and arrive at Penn Station in New York just 20 minutes before the train left, instead of arriving at the airport two hours early. While she has had some delays on Amtrak trains, especially post-pandemic, she said they have been minimal compared to the flight delays and cancellations that have recently disrupted the air travel industry.

“I’m not glamorizing Amtrak as a corporation — there’s a lot they could do to improve their service,” Grave said. “While Amtrak isn’t perfect, I think it’s the best option we have. The more rail becomes competitive with flying and the more people take the train, the more we can improve these train routes and different places to connect across the rail. It’s an exciting future for train travel.”

Reasons for railway

American trains are still nowhere near the high-speed rail networks of Europe or Japan, for example. (Although Amtrak’s Acela trains can reach 150 miles per hour in sections of their route.)

Nevertheless, the choice is increasingly attractive to some travelers as is the movement of travel.

Twenty-two-year-old Chiara Dorsi booked a 19-hour Amtrak trip from Chicago to New Orleans this month rather than jump on a plane. The rail ticket saves her the trouble of dealing with baggage limits and going through security. It also saved her nearly $400, and allows her to work on the trip.

“The price was just astronomical,” she said. “And I work remotely and Amtrak has Wi-Fi, so the time I’m spending on the train worn because I can do my work from anywhere.”

Dorsi also said she tends to go to trains for their environmental benefits.

According to the International Air Transport Association, air travel accounts for about 2% of the world’s global carbon emissions. That travel impact is significantly lower when train travel is substituted, according to Aaron McCall, the federal advocacy coordinator at California Environmental Voters.

When there is general travel, the emissions are expected to be reduced, McCall said.

“We are seeing a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in general, and the reason we are seeing that reduction is directly linked to investment in green technology and public transport,” he said.

McCall said he’s seen even more people taking Amtrak trains recently in California, where public transit lags far behind the East Coast’s strong networks.

Riding returns, with a delay

Amtrak reported total ridership of more than 28 million in 2023, an increase of 24% from the previous year – but still significantly down from the pre-pandemic total of more than 32 million passengers in 2019.

It saw a notable rebound in ridership and revenue on the Northeast Corridor — spanning Washington, D.C., to Boston — with an increase of more than 22% year over year, according to a report in the t – November

But on-time train performance has declined significantly since the pandemic, according to a 2022 report from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. In 2019, Amtrak’s operations had an overall on-time performance of 75%, on a weighted basis, according to BTS. In 2020 and 2021, as ridership was tested, on-time performance improved to 80% and 78%, respectively.

As of 2022, the most recent data included in the report, total delays rose again and on-time performance fell to 74%, according to the report. Much of that disruption was due to issues with host railroads, rather than the fault of Amtrak, but the company said it remains committed to finding ways to reduce disruptions.

“Across Amtrak’s national network, we work around the clock to ensure reliable service and safety in severe weather,” Amtrak told CNBC. “We have our own team that monitors the weather and assesses the condition of the rail and related infrastructure in real time.”

Amtrak has also been building its routes longer, boosted by new funding from the White House to upgrade trains and build more infrastructure between cities. In an effort to double ridership by 2040, the company is investing more than $5 million in a program aimed at upgrading train stations, tunnels and bridges.

These upgrades will be the major “gamechanger” in reinventing train travel, according to Henderson of The Points Guy – even if the timeline looks long.

“They’re strengthening the track beds in some places, rebuilding bridges, and those trains will be able to run faster,” Henderson said. be exciting … I’m just urging people to be patient because it’s going to take a while for these things to come to fruition.”

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