For Business Travelers, Is High Speed Rail Service in the Future?

Amtrak announced last week that 2011 was another banner year for train travel in the United States. The railroad served more than 30 million passengers in its fiscal year ending September 30, up 5 percent from 2010. Ticket prices were up 8 percent from the prior year.

The latest announcement reflects a significant shift toward train travel in the past decade. In eight of the past nine years, Amtrak has posted record ridership, boosting total passengers from 21 million in 2001 to north of 30 million today. While Amtrak continues to court business travelers with services like high-speed Internet access on all high-speed Acela trains as well as in select train stations, particularly along the Northeast Corridor (Boston to New York to Washington, DC), there are other factors that are driving business travelers to ride the rails.

It must certainly be acknowledged that the events of 9/11 were the initial catalyst for the shift. Particularly along the Northeast Corridor, fear motivated many to opt for rail service as opposed to air, but that quickly turned to convenience as stricter airline/government security measures and long lines often made commuter flights in the region an untenable choice. More recently, the price of gasoline has likely inspired the move to train travel. According to the Daily Fuel Gauge Report, average gasoline prices today in states along the Northeast Corridor range from $3.36 per gallon to $3.73 per gallon. In addition, a handful of companies have encouraged train travel among their employees to help achieve carbon reduction initiatives.

That said, Amtrak has pushed for improvements beyond Wi-Fi to better serve its customers. The railroad currently has a 30-year, $117 billion plan to overhaul the Northeast Corridor line, introducing true high-speed trains (and rails to support them) that would reduce travel times:

Proposed High-Speed Rail Super Express
2:42 hr
1:36 hr
Boston to NYC
3:31 hr
1:23 hr
DC to Boston
6:33 hr
3:23 hr

Funding for such a massive project, however, does not come easily—particularly in the United States where modern train travel has never achieved adoption rates remotely close to other regions, such as Europe and more recently Japan and soon, China. For the U.S. it is perhaps a chicken-or-egg issue: without competitive rail service, ridership is depressed. Funders want to see robust ridership before investing—and that includes the Republican Congress, which has been greatly critical of Amtrak and which sharply cut its subsidies this summer. They have a point: Along with its record ridership, Amtrak also racked up a record deficit of $560 million in 2011, roughly losing $54 per passenger according to the House Transportation Committee.

While some governments are willing to shore up operating costs for rail service, the U.S. has not shown a great appetite for it—not even for the busiest routes. For now, particularly for travelers outside the Northeast Corridor, future plans for rail travel leave them, literally, up in the air.  

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