Travelers increasingly turn to taking Amtrak trains over flights

Amtrak trains pass through Washington, DC on September 15, 2022.

Stefani Reynolds | AFP | Getty Images

As domestic travel rebounds from pandemic lows and prices soar, some travelers are opting for trains instead of planes.

For many, the tradeoffs are simple: trains are often cheaper, offer more legroom, and are better for the environment than air travel. These and other benefits are driving riders toward Amtrak, the government-backed U.S. rail service, as it attempts to revive pre-Covid ridership and streamline operations.

Since emerging from the pandemic, airline ticket prices have skyrocketed as demand for travel has increased. Additionally, uncertainty in the airline industry has increased in part because of high-profile incidents, such as the one that made headlines earlier this year when part of an Alaskan plane Airlines exploded in mid-flight, leading to the discovery of loose hardware. on Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft in the fleets of several airlines.

Although rail routes often take longer than flights, the total travel time usually balances out when taking into account traffic to get to the airport, time spent in security lines, and wait times upon boarding, according to Clint Henderson, editor-in-chief of travel site The Points. Guys.

“We've done speed tests and measured how long it takes to go between cities like New York and DC by train rather than by plane, and while the flight is very short, it usually takes about the same time,” he said.

Trains will likely never make flights obsolete, but Henderson said he has seen a broader increase in the travel industry in the number of people choosing to take Amtrak trains over flights, particularly in the Northeast Corridor, where flights between two close cities are not. This doesn't always make sense.

One of those passengers is Leonor Grave, who lives in New York and often returns home to Washington, D.C., on Amtrak trains rather than flying. Grave said she particularly likes the fact that train stations are typically in city centers, unlike airports, which are often on the outskirts of cities.

“If trains were faster and reached more destinations, I don’t think I would ever take a domestic flight,” Grave said. “It’s such a seamless way to travel… and I find it much more pleasant 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 bring her bike on the train and arrive at New York's Penn Station just 20 minutes before the train left, instead of having to arrive at an airport two hours earlier than expected. Although she has experienced some delays on Amtrak trains, particularly after the pandemic, she said they were negligible compared to the flight delays and cancellations that have recently hit the airline industry.

“I'm not glorifying Amtrak as a company. They could do a lot to improve their services,” Grave said. “Even though Amtrak is not perfect, I think it's the best option we have. The more rail becomes competitive with air and the more people take the train, the more we can develop these rail routes and connecting different places across the world. rest of the country. This is an exciting future for train travel.

Reasons for rail

American trains are still far from the high-speed rail networks of Europe or Japan, for example. (Although Amtrak's Acela trains can reach 150 miles per hour on some sections of their route.)

Nonetheless, this option is becoming increasingly attractive to some travelers as travel dynamics evolve.

Chiara Dorsi, 22, booked a 19-hour Amtrak ride from Chicago to New Orleans this month rather than fly. The train ticket saves him from having to manage baggage limits and go through security checks. It also saved him almost $400 and allowed him to work while commuting.

“The price was astronomically different,” she said. “And I work remotely and Amtrak has Wi-Fi, so the time I waste on the train isn't actually wasted because I can do my job from anywhere.”

Dorsi also said she tends to gravitate toward trains because of their environmental benefits.

According to International Air Transport Association, air transport accounts for around 2% of global carbon emissions. This impact on travel is significantly less when replaced by train travel, according to Aaron McCall, federal advocacy coordinator at California Environmental Voters.

Anytime there is community travel, emissions are bound to be reduced, McCall said.

“We are seeing a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions across the board, and the reason we are seeing this decrease is directly related to investments in green technology and public transportation,” he said.

McCall said he's recently seen more people taking Amtrak trains in California, where public transportation lags significantly behind the robust networks on the East Coast.

Attendance returns, with delays

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

It has seen a particular rebound in ridership and revenue along the Northeast corridor — stretching from Washington, D.C. to Boston — with a more than 22% year-over-year increase, according to a report. November report.

But train punctuality has taken a hit since the pandemic, according to a 2022 report from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. In 2019, Amtrak operations recorded 75% overall on-time performance, on a weighted basis, according to the BTS. In 2020 and 2021, while ridership collapsed, this punctuality improved to reach 80% and 78% respectively.

In 2022, according to the latest data included in the report, total delays increased again and on-time performance dropped to 74%, according to the report. Much of those disruptions were the result of problems with host railroads, rather than Amtrak's fault, but the company said it remained committed to finding ways to reduce disruptions.

“Across the Amtrak National Network, we are working around the clock to ensure reliable service and safety during severe weather,” Amtrak told CNBC. “We have our own team that monitors weather conditions and assesses the condition of the railway and associated infrastructure in real time.”

Amtrak has also expanded its longer routes, supported by new financing from the White House to modernize trains and build more infrastructure between cities. With a goal of doubling ridership by 2040, the company is investing more than $5 million in a program to improve stations, tunnels and bridges.

These improvements will be a game-changer in the train travel revolution, according to The Points Guy's Henderson – even if the timeline seems long.

“They're strengthening the tracks in some places, rebuilding bridges, and those trains will be able to run faster,” Henderson said. “Once these things start rolling out, it's going to be exciting…I just urge people to be patient because it's going to take a while before these things fully become a reality.”

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