Why the Economic Downturn Has Been Good News for Amtrak and the Future of Rail Travel

In a recession, everything slows down. A year after the first signs of trouble appeared, the financial system remains sluggish. Most other sectors of the economy -- from housing construction to auto manufacturing -- are also at a standstill. But at least one thing in the U.S. is speeding up: the nation's passenger trains.

The recent slump has shown that in an economy driven by consumption, grim financial news can come with a kind of green consolation. For example, the recession has contributed to a drop in U.S. CO2 emissions (down 3 percent in 2008) and in the amount of waste sent to landfills (down 10 to 30 percent in some areas). Rising unemployment has led to a decrease in traffic congestion in some major cities.

Add to that list of green benefits the fact that Amtrak trains are zipping along like never before. The reason? As the economy contracts, freight cargo on the nation's rail lines is diminishing, and that makes it easier for passenger trains to get to their destinations.

With the exception of the Washington-Boston corridor and a section of Michigan, Amtrak trains share the railways with the cargo companies. Federal law requires that passenger trains be given priority over freight. But since the freight companies own the rails, cargo trains often receive the right-of-way. As anyone who has ever ridden Amtrak long distance knows, it's not unusual for passengers to wait hours, in the middle of the night or the middle of nowhere, for freight cars to pass.

"If you have everybody on one track, you have a lot of delays," says Vernae Graham, a spokeswoman with Amtrak. "It's one lane of traffic for trains moving in two directions. If you have freight that is backlogged or a disabled train, you have nowhere to go."

Just like on the freeways, a limping economy means less congestion on the rail lines. Freight traffic has dropped about one-fifth since last year as the shipment of coal, metals and corn decreases.

At the same time, Amtrak is showing its best on-time performance in more than 20 years. So far this year, the company is posting close to an 80 percent on-time rate, up from 73 percent in 2008. Some routes have shown spectacular gains.

In 2008, the California Zephyr, which goes from Chicago to San Francisco, arrived in Grand Junction, Colo., on schedule 44 percent of the time; in March this year, it hit its scheduled stop there 92 percent of the time.

The improved service has Amtrak passengers thrilled: "This is the best trip I've ever been on," Sally Lloyd, a retiree from East Lansing, Mich., said as she disembarked from the California Zephyr. "We were an hour early getting into Chicago, and only 20 minutes late here."

Lloyd, who has taken a cross-country Amtrak trip every year for the past decade, said that in the past she has experienced excruciating delays. The worst delay she ever had was nine hours long. "You just sit there until the freight goes by. And it's getting later and later, and you're not getting any further. It's very frustrating."

The improved performance comes at a crucial time for Amtrak. In 2008, the company set an all-time ridership record as high gas prices boosted interest in mass transit. A five-year reauthorization bill that passed Congress in October means that for the first time in decades, Amtrak won't have to seek yearly congressional support, giving the company time to make strategic investments.

The economic stimulus package includes $8.1 billion for Amtrak improvements, and the company now has a strong advocate in the White House -- longtime Amtrak commuter Vice President Joseph Biden.

For Amtrak to capitalize on these advantages, it must, at the very least, get its trains to run on time. According to James McCommons, author of the forthcoming book Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service, people don't necessarily expect the train to be quick, but they do need it to be reliable.

"It's important for people to be able to depend on this service," he said. "It isn't so much speed. It's frequency and dependability. People want to know that there is going to be a train there when they head home at night."

Perhaps rail aficionados -- who favor Amtrak's relaxing atmosphere and communal spirit over the frenzy and isolation of the airport -- have something to teach the engineers of our now-derailed economy.

Speed, in fact, isn't everything. Steadiness is more likely to get us where we need to go.

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