Amtrak trains pass through Washington, DC on September 15, 2022.
Stefani Reynolds | AFP | Getty Images
As domestic travel recovers from the pandemic lows and prices rise, some travelers are opting for trains over planes.
For many, the trade-offs are simple: trains are often cheaper, offer more legroom and are better for the environment than air travel. These and other benefits are driving travelers to Amtrak, the government-backed U.S. rail service, in an effort to revive pre-Covid ridership and smooth operations.
Since emerging from the pandemic, airline ticket prices have skyrocketed as demand for travel soared. Additionally, uncertainty in the aviation industry has increased in part due to high-profile incidents, such as one that made headlines earlier this year when part of an Alaska Airlines plane blew off mid-flight, leading to the discovery of loose hardware. on Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft across multiple airlines' fleets.
Although train routes often take longer than flight times, total travel time is usually evenly distributed when factoring in traffic to get to the airport, time spent in security lines and boarding wait times, according to Clint Henderson, editor-in-chief of travel site The Points. Boy.
“We did speed tests and measured the amount of time it takes to travel between cities like New York and DC by train versus plane, and while the flight is super short, it generally takes about the same amount of time,” he said .
Trains will likely never make flying obsolete, but Henderson said that more broadly in the travel industry, he has seen an increase in the number of people choosing to take Amtrak trains over flights, especially in the Northeast Corridor, where flying between two nearby cities is not possible. It doesn't always make sense.
One of those passengers is Leonor Grave, who lives in New York City and often travels home to Washington, D.C., on Amtrak trains instead of flying. Grave said she especially likes that train stations are typically located 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 fly domestically,” Grave said. “It's such a smooth way to travel… and I just find it a lot more fun on the train – you can get up, walk around, stretch your legs, you can go to the food cart. 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's departure, instead of normally having to arrive at an airport two hours early. While she has experienced some delays on Amtrak trains, especially after the pandemic, she said they are negligible compared to the flight delays and cancellations that have recently plagued the airline industry.
“I'm not glorifying Amtrak as a company; there's a lot they could do to improve service,” Grave said. “Even though Amtrak isn't perfect, I think this is the best option of what we have. The more rail becomes competitive with flying and the more people take the train, the better we can develop these train routes and serve different places in the can connect the world. rest of the country. It's an exciting future for train travel.”
Reasons for the railway
American trains are still nowhere near the high-speed networks of Europe or Japan, for example. (Although Amtrak's Acela trains can reach 150 miles per hour on parts of the route.)
Nevertheless, this option is becoming increasingly attractive to some travelers as the dynamics of travel change.
22-year-old Chiara Dorsi booked a 19-hour Amtrak ride from Chicago to New Orleans this month instead of taking a flight. The train ticket saves her the hassle of dealing with baggage limits and going through security. It also saved her almost $400, allowing her to work during the ride.
“The price was just astronomically different,” she said. “And I work remotely and Amtrak has Wi-Fi, so the time I waste on the train isn't really wasted time because I can do my job from anywhere.”
Dorsi also said she prefers trains for their environmental benefits.
According to the International Air Transport Association, air travel is responsible for roughly 2% of the world's global CO2 emissions. That travel impact is significantly lower if it is replaced by rail travel, said Aaron McCall, the federal advocacy coordinator at California Environmental Voters.
When there is communal travel, emissions will undoubtedly be reduced, McCall said.
“We are seeing a decline in greenhouse gas emissions across the board, and the reason why we are seeing that decline is directly related to investments in green technology and public transportation,” he said.
McCall said he has seen even more people taking Amtrak trains lately in California, where public transportation lags significantly behind the East Coast's robust networks.
The passenger ship returns, with delays
Amtrak reported total ridership of more than 28 million in 2023, up 24% from the previous year – but still significantly lower than a pre-pandemic total of more than 32 million passengers in 2019.
In particular, it saw a rebound in ridership and revenue along the Northeast Corridor — from Washington, D.C. to Boston — up more than 22% year-over-year, according to a November report.
But trains' on-time performance has taken a hit since the pandemic, according to a 2022 report from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. According to the BTS, Amtrak operations achieved an overall on-time performance of 75% in 2019, on a weighted basis. In 2020 and 2021, when passenger numbers fell, on-time performance improved to 80% and 78% respectively.
As of 2022, according to the most recent data in the report, overall delays have risen again and on-time performance has fallen to 74%, the report said. Many of these disruptions were the result of issues with host railroads, and were not Amtrak's fault, but the company said it remains committed to finding ways to reduce the disruptions.
“Across the national Amtrak network, we are working 24 hours a day to ensure reliable service and safety during inclement weather,” Amtrak told CNBC. “We have our own team that monitors weather conditions and assesses the condition of the track and associated infrastructure in real time.”
Amtrak has also been building out its longer routes, supported by new funding from the White House to upgrade trains and build more infrastructure between cities. In an effort to double passenger numbers by 2040, the company is investing more than $5 million in a program aimed at improving train stations, tunnels and bridges.
These upgrades will be the key game changer in revolutionizing train travel, according to The Points Guy's Henderson – even if the timeline seems long.
“They're reinforcing the track beds in some places, rebuilding bridges and these trains will be able to run faster,” Henderson said. “Once these are rolled out, things will be exciting… I urge people to be patient because it will take a while for these things to become full reality.”