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Web www.startsandfits.com
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
America's Thriving Passenger Railroads

The Long Island Rail Road is the busiest passenger railroad in the United States. (Photo by David Wong / RailPictures.net)

The American Public Transportation Association released its 2007 ridership statistics last week. The regional railroad statistics (pdf) show the numbers behind a booming industry. Overall, ridership is up 5.4% year-over-year, and up 11.3% over five years. Two fledgling new passenger railroads have come into being in the Sunbelt in the last five years: Rail Runner Express in Albuquerque and Music City Star in Nashville. A third, FrontRunner in Salt Lake City, is scheduled to begin operations in April.

The nation's busiest passenger railroad, the Long Island Rail Road, recently reported its busiest year since 1949. And its cousin across the Sound, Metro-North, recently reported its busiest year in its 25-year history.

Here is a table summarizing the APTA data and Amtrak monthly data.

RailroadMain Hub'07 Riders5-Year Growth
1. MTA Long Island Rail RoadNew York106,036,0005.85%
2. MTA Metro-North RailroadNew York79,724,7008.89%
3. MetraChicago75,099,6008.28%
4. NJ TransitNew York74,860,30022.31%
5. MBTA Commuter RailBoston38,961,600-3.96%
6. SEPTA Regional RailPhiladelphia33,360,40017.35%
7. AmtrakMultiple26,551,0017.95%
8. CaltrainSan Francisco11,377,20026.70%
9. MetrolinkLos Angeles11,146,80027.55%
10. MARCWashington7,720,30028.07%
11. South Shore LineChicago4,245,90018.30%
12. Virginia Railway ExpressWashington3,504,10014.48%
13. Tri-RailMiami3,502,50033.21%
14. Trinity Railway ExpressDallas2,497,20011.18%
15. SounderSeattle2,156,500220.72%
16. CoasterSan Diego1,615,60024.28%
17. Altamont Commuter ExpressSan Jose755,0002.17%
18. Rail Runner ExpressAlbuquerque500,900N/A
19. Shore Line EastNew Haven483,70040.16%
20. Music City StarNashville142,100N/A

A few observations. First, the numbers show how New York, and more broadly the Northeast, totally dominate regional passenger railroads in the United States. The No. 1 and No. 2 railroads are both run by the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and together they provide 40.6% of all railroad trips in the Lower 48, not counting intercity service provided by Amtrak (which, by the way is reporting its own record ridership). Once you add in NJ Transit, the three railroads serving New York City provide 56.9% of all regional railroad trips per year, a figure that has held steady over the past five years.

The following table breaks down the statistics by region:

RegionShare of regional railroad passengers, 2007
1. Northeast (New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, New Haven)75.3%
2. Midwest (Chicago)17.3%
3. West Coast (San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Diego, San Jose)5.9%
4. Sunbelt (Miami, Dallas, Nashville, Albuquerque)1.5%

Since railroads use a tiny fraction of the fuel per person that automobiles do, I think this data shows that the northeast will be better prepared than any other region to provide mobility to its residents in the event of increased gasoline prices. All of us northeasterners should be grateful for the sound stewardship and continued operation of assets handed down to us by previous generations.

A last thought: It's funny to me that outside New York and Connecticut, nobody wants to call their railroad a railroad. It's as if everyone got together, as all the new services came on line in the 1990s and 2000s, to focus-group their branding. They must have decided that the word "railroad" is considered too old fashioned. Hence, you have a variety of other names, a snappy one-word "brand," or a name that uses the word "express" or the abbreviated, "rail." That said, the two services that do use railroad in their name (and in the case of the nearly 175-year-old LIRR, the even more archaic "rail road"), just happen to be the two busiest services. Maybe there's a lesson in there somewhere.

Albuquerque's Rail Runner Express began operations in 2006. (Photo by Stephen Noyes / RRPictureArchives.net.)

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