On-time performance woes sink Amtrak’s 2014 ridership

RELATED TOPICS: PASSENGER | AMTRAK
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EmpireBuilderriders
Station caretaker Debbie Johnson, at left, watches the westbound 'Empire Builder' stop at Stanley, N.D., in June 2013.
Bob Johnston
WASHINGTON – A 10 percent September surge in both Acela Express and Northeast Regional patronage fell short of catapulting overall Amtrak ridership to an 11th record in 12 years during the 2014 fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30. The culprit: Long-distance train tardiness led by the Chicago-Seattle-Portland Empire Builder and Chicago-New York/Boston Lake Shore Limited. Those trains’ counts were off 17 and 11.6 percent, respectively, in September. The Builder carried 536,391 passengers in Fiscal Year 2013, the most of any long-distance train and more than 19 of the 29 state-supported corridors Amtrak separately measures, but it dropped to 450,932 in 2014. Now the Seattle-Los Angeles Coast Starlight, profiled in the July 2014 issue of Trains Magazine, leads the long-distance fleet with 459,450 annual passengers. carried.
Surflinerriders
Passengers board a northbound 'Pacific Surfliner' at Fullerton, Calif., in April 2014.
Brian Schmidt
For the year, Amtrak’s overall ridership fell from 31.56 million in 2013 to 30.92 million in 2014. Because previously-estimated multi-ride ticketholder numbers were replaced by lower scanned ridership data on commuter-heavy routes like California’s Capitol, Pennsylvania’s Keystone, and Maine’s Downeaster corridors as electronic ticketing was implemented systemwide, notching another record means Amtrak would have to had overcome this 589,000 bookkeeping deficit. That didn’t happen because overnight train patronage slid by about 200,000 passengers, notably driven lower by the Builder and a several months-long Ft. Worth-San Antonio, Texas, bus substitution on the Texas Eagle, which was off 8 percent from the previous year.

But a big factor dampening ridership on trips of all distances has to be drooping reliability. Through August, the last month for which Amtrak has publicly released data, fiscal year endpoint on-time performance dropped from 72 to 50 percent for the overnight trains; 82 to 74 percent for state-supported services; and 87 to 77 percent on the Northeast Corridor, including Keystone and Virginia trains. Statistics, however, do not begin to measure the cumulative impact on repeat business when passengers endure the kind of “never again” experiences like the 2:35 a.m. Lake Shore arrival into New York on Oct. 6 or the westbound’s 10 hour, 25 minute-late Chicago arrival Oct. 13.

That kind of adversity contributed to a drop of more than $15 million in long-distance ticket sales, but Amtrak still managed to set another consecutive revenue record in growing last year’s $2.105 million total to $2.189 million in FY 2014, up 4 percent. The gain came primarily from an 8.2 percent jump in sales where Amtrak enjoys substantial pricing power on the Northeast Corridor, which accounts for 54.5 percent of the new systemwide total. Long-distance train revenue stands at 23.3 percent and state supported routes provide 22.2 percent of ticket sales.

Though some regional services may have been weakened by curbside bus operators like Megabus and BoltBus, Amtrak’s ability to proactively raise fares on in-demand trains with limited capacity deserves much of the credit. With gas prices dropping and on-time performance problems continuing, keeping the money flowing at record levels in 2015 will be a challenge.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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