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Michigan's Amtrak routes: ridership up 14%, funding down 100%

24. February 2005 • Murph
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amtrak signThe Detroit News discusses this impact of President Bush’s proposed cuts to Amtrak funding, noting that (along with the rest of the Amtrak system), Michigan’s routes would cease to exist.

At several points in the article, the News implicitly contradicts the idea that Amtrak should be treated as merely a business whose only value is in making money.

The article starts with an anecdote on the role of Amtrak in providing mobility to citizens who cannot drive,

For Romanek, 74, of Westland, trips to see her kids in Chicago will end. “That’d put a real dent in my life, I think,” she said. “At my age, I’m not going to be driving by myself.”

It next mentions a ridership group of particular interest to Ann Arbor – college students in this town, East Lansing, and Kalamazoo. Students seeking to travel to Chicago or between cities served by Amtrak within Michigan would lose that option, and, in the News’ words, be left “looking for a new way to get around.” Undoubtedly, cutting the non-car options available for students to travel to and from Ann Arbor would encourage more of them to use cars to get to town, even if they only used those vehicles at the beginning and end of semesters and left them parked in between – and, of course, a student who owns a car and has it on campus can be expected to use it for local trips during the semester, even when using a car for those trips is not necessary.

Finally, the article notes an economic development incentive for passenger rail,

half [of Amtrak riders] said that if it were not for the train, they would not make the trip they were currently on. “It takes away a travel option, and more choices make cities better places to work, live and invest,” said John DeLora, executive director of the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers

Only at the end of the article, after touching on the impact of losing Amtrak such as decreased mobility for the transit-dependent, increased ownership and use of personal cars (leading to increased traffic and parking congestion), and on Michigan’s cities in general, does the News mention the argument in favor of cutting Amtrak funding – that Amtrak should be “run like a business” and should be forced to run at a profit. Though the article does not make the final connection, it is clear that its writers consider Amtrak to have positive externalities – benefits even for non-riders – providing an economic argument in favor of public funding.

[ Image via Flickr user fallsroad ]



  1. Being a policy wonk is so much fun…
       —Murph    Feb. 24 '05 - 10:55AM    #
  2. [Nothing new here, but I feel the need to rant]

    I’ve only recently begun to use Amtrak over plane travel and while it pales in comparison to rail service in Canada and Europe, it’s still better than a lot of people realize. The AA-Chicago route, if you don’t travel on weekend days, is cheaper than gas. The biggest drawback to train vs. plane is the total travel time is longer, and train is rarely cheaper. But it is so much less stressful, I think it’s worth it if you can take the time. Walk or take the city bus to the AA train station, no security checkpoints, no need to arrive 90 minutes ahead of schedule, rarely crowded. The trains themselves have plenty of leg room, power outlets in many cars for your laptop, a diner car if you need a change of scenery. I can even read on trains (I can’t in a car—too much motion and I can’t on planes—too cramped). The view tends to be better from the train than from a car (no ads/other cars). The train often drops you off downtown at your destination rather than the outskirts, often negating the need to pay extra to get to/from the airport. No airport parking fees or transit fees, no need to park your car once you arrive in a desitnation city (great if you’re not going to an auto-centric city). Anyway… train travel is under-rated, even in this large, sprawling nation.
       —Scott    Feb. 24 '05 - 11:13AM    #
  3. No kiddin’. From A2, consider half an hour to drive to DTW, (half an hour for the person you annoyed into driving you to get home), an hour or so through of sitting at the airport, another while sitting on the plane, then the 1:05 of air time, then a while sitting on the other end, then waiting around for luggage, then taking the train an hour in from O’Hare to Chicago proper – Amtrak is much faster, if you’re considering all of the time involved.

    We’re going to Chicago this weekend and driving – but only because there are four of us, so carpooling is cheaper. 1 or 2, and we’d be Amtraking it, no question.
       —Murph    Feb. 24 '05 - 11:18AM    #
  4. chicago is also home to one of the last great train stations in america, the others being d.c.’s union station and nyc’s grand central…atlanta turned theirs into a mall, and well, yall know about detroits…

    urrgghhh…

    all aboard,
    ari p.
       —Ari P.    Feb. 24 '05 - 12:08PM    #
  5. St. Louis turned theirs into a mall too. But the mall looks gorgeous!
    (heh.)
    Maybe I’ll give Amtrack another try…
       —js    Feb. 24 '05 - 01:26PM    #
  6. As a general note, I don’t think Amtrak is going to go down anytime soon. There are enough towns in Montana and North Dakota (and probably other states that I’m not so familiar with) that are wholly dependant on Amtrak that the Senators from those states will never, ever agree to let it die. There are regions of western states where, especially in winter, Amtrak is how you get to the hospital, and how you get your mail.

    Looking at the Amtrak route map , I expect that cuts to Amtrak will have strong opposition from, well, basically all of the heartland “red states” except maybe Wyoming and SoDak, for basically that reason. Add on the Senators from the states that use the Northwest Corridor, and the states that use the winter Auto Train (from VA to FL), and the whole “oooh, let’s cut Amtrak!” thing is purely political bluster. All of those states are ganging up to protect the whole system. Any line left behind will lose a few states’ worth of Senatorial support for the other lines.

    The only places where this isn’t quite true is states that have a few lines, like Michigan. The Chicago/Kalamazoo/A2/Dearborn/Detroit line is safe; it’ll come under that mutual protection umbrella, but the other lines – to Grand Rapids and Lansing/Port Huron – are potential fodder. Expect Bush’s second offer to cut just those “underperforming” lines in states that have more than one line, so that he can still appear to be a tough reformer by forcing Amtrak to “get leaner”, while still allowing the red states to keep their lines. Of course, considering that a transportation system like Amtrak is exponentially more useful as the network grows, cutting those lines hurts all of the other lines within Michigan and, more importantly, out of Chicago. (something like 2/3 of Amtrak’s system by track mileage.)
       —Murph    Feb. 25 '05 - 10:25AM    #
  7. But Murph, what about the free market? Amtrak should support itself without government caretaking… like airlines and highways do!
       —Brandon    Feb. 25 '05 - 03:48PM    #
  8. Actually, the airways are supported by $14 billion (2002) to maintain the air traffic control network, and additional funds for building airports (like Dulles airport). The interstate highway system (setup with federal money) received $32 billion in 2002. In contrast, amtrak only received $521 millino in 2002.

    If you throw in the tax breaks that go to the oil industry, then the amount of money that goes into automobile and airplane transportation is even higher. If we are going to talk about free market, lets at least be even handed.
       —Nick    Mar. 1 '05 - 08:50PM    #
  9. Nick,

    You clearly don’t know Brandon… =)

    Queue Simpson’s tape:

    Homer: (in sarcastic voice) Oh, by the way, I was being saracastic.
       —Scott    Mar. 1 '05 - 09:15PM    #
  10. And by the way, really, I’m taking Amtrak to Austin, TX—depart in the AM on March 9th. Will let y’all know how it goes…
       —Scott    Mar. 1 '05 - 09:16PM    #
  11. We traveled to Denver this past fall on Amtrak and it was definitely the way to go. We went business class to Chicago (spend the extra $9 since they give you a $4.50 voucher for any purchase on the train, a free paper, and the seats are huge) and then rented a “roomette” to go on to Denver (be aware that the rooms/berths are tiny and haven’t been updated in years). Anyone in a room is considered a first-class passenger so you can store your baggage and hang out in the Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago, all your meals in the dining car are free (the food is quite good), and you get a lot of little perks (escorts to the train, bed turn-down, free water/juice/coffee, free paper in the morning, wake-up calls at your stop, and so on). You can also take in your own food and alcohol (as long as you drink in your room). Travel time is longer than flying and about the same as driving if you drove non-stop, but it feels like part of your vacation. For example, if you are going to Denver, you leave Ann Arbor at 8:30 am and arrive rested, fed, and showered in Denver at 8:00 am the next morning. Then on the way back, you can store your luggage at Union Station in Denver and sit in the brewpub across the street until your train comes. Once you get on the train, they serve you your free dinner and you unwind/sleep/relax/sightsee/eat until you return to Chicago late the next afternoon. In Chicago, if you travel business class back to Ann Arbor, you don’t even have to wait in line. It is all very civilized and not much more expensive than flying or driving. The biggest problem is that delays can be significant (derailments or accidents can cause several hundred miles of detour or hours of bus rides) so it is not the best option if you absolutely have to be somewhere at a particular time.
       —Julie    Mar. 3 '05 - 11:44AM    #