Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Amtrak: carrying more than passengers

Last week, Tony Pipa spoke at the UC Davis School of Law in a talk titled "Creating Sustainable, Equitable Rural Prosperity in the U.S.: Opportunities and Challenges for Federal Policy." Part of the conversation was about transportation to rural communities. You can read more about rural transportation here and here.

Transportation inequality is stark for those living in rural places in the U.S. "Federal transportation policy and funding programs heavily favor new highway and interchange construction." While this type of investment can make it easier for people to get to rural places and engage in ecotourism, for example, it doesn't encourage spending time in the rural communities themselves. 

Those living in rural communities are more reliant on cars to get around compared to those living in urban places. For instance, in 2019 rural residents drove 33% more miles than urban residents as 1,200 counties in the U.S. do not have access to public transportation. As a result, rural fatalities accounted for 49% of all traffic fatalities nationwide. 

Since airlines and bus companies have been cutting services to small towns for decades, the value of Amtrak in these rural communities cannot be overstated. Amtrak provides numerous benefits to residents and travelers regarding ease of use, safe transport, and economic prosperity. In 2015, Amtrak's long-distance services transported 4.5 million passengers, many of whom lived in places without other reliable transportation options. Over 2.5 million people say they can only travel with Amtrak services. 

From 1972 (Amtrak's first full year of operation) to 2019, passenger numbers went from 16.6 million to 32.5 million, even with route mileage shrinking by 1600 during the same period. Recently, Amtrak trains serving rural Virginia have had a 13% increase in riders between 2013 and 2019. In 2019, Montana mayors were asked what effect losing their Amtrak service, the Empire Builder, would have on their people, and all responded "devastating." 

Previously, Amtrak considered a plan to break up their Southwest Chief Service (which travels from Chicago to Los Angeles over a 40-hour journey). If the plan to break up this service had gone through, 32 universities would have lost train service along with 47 hospitals. Another way of expressing the impact is to note that 130,000 auto trips would have been added— and on roads four times more dangerous than the national average. These roads run alongside rural and small communities with the lowest median income across the entire corridor. 

Amtrak services often benefit rural communities economically. A Rail Passengers Association study reported in 2019 that the Southwest Chief brings in $180 million in direct and indirect activity to Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico.   

In Cut Bank, Montana, population 3,056, all together, residents pay $12,000 via federal income tax for their Amtrak service. That $12,000 investment results in $327,000 in benefits for the town.

This economic prosperity is partly due to the jobs Amtrak brings to rural places. Amtrak directly employs thousands of workers who reside in rural areas, which in turn provides millions of dollars in wages. Amtrak also employs subcontractors in these areas for manufacturing, equipment, and infrastructure work. 

In addition to employment, Amtrak services allow people to visit isolated places like those in Northwestern Montana, which boosts these regions' tourism economy. Even if people are just traveling through small towns on their way from Chicago to Los Angeles, for example, the nature of train service draws people towards new areas where passengers can wander around during long stops, supporting local vendors. 

Rural towns are aware of the benefits train travel has on their small communities and have invested in it. Meridan, Mississippi, population 39,000, invested $7.5 million on a new Amtrak station with another $200 million invested within the 3 blocks surrounding the station in the last 20 years. In Normal, Illinois, a $49.5 million grant created $220 million. However, due to shortages in funding for grants, "the burden frequently falls on towns for infrastructure and station costs."

Providing rural towns with reliable public transportation has ripple effects that benefit people in them, the economic health of the area, and even those living in urban areas who have an opportunity to visit places they might not have ever heard about. While Amtrak service in the U.S. has a long way to go before its positive impact can reach all of America, it currently provides a lifeline to many rural communities. 


J. Todd Bernhardt said...

When I was a kid, my family went on a trip from Salt Lake City to Chicago on an Amtrak sleeper train. I had a fantastic experience, so I formed a positive view of rail travel from an early age. This year I became an Amtrak regular, using it to travel from Davis to Sacramento every day for a semester-long externship in the spring and then using it to travel from Oakland to Davis on the weekends while I worked in the Bay Area this summer. Amtrak was a life-saving for me in the spring. Living in a one-car household makes it hard to manage competing schedules and travel needs for multiple people. I was very glad to take a 20-minute train ride to Sacramento each morning instead of waiting twice as long to make the same trip by bus during morning traffic. My hometown of Boise, ID is currently vying for a potential revival of the old Amtrak route that ran from Portland to Salt Lake and was closed in the 90s. I'm hoping that push for service is successful and that Amtrak will be able to expand in the future.

Isha Sharma said...

This was very interesting, Caitlin! I agree and think it would be incredible for both rural towns and travelers to have Amtrak access to rural areas. It was shocking to read that near half of fatalities from car accidents happen in rural areas, however, with how spatially distanced rural areas are and how many more miles rural residents have to drive, it does make sense. I remember I saw an Amtrak station in Colfax, CA once and I found that surprising. While it is very expensive to expand and maintain infrastructure, it is great that rural towns already see all the great benefits. I know I would be more likely to travel to rural towns along the way to another city.

Chris Datu said...

Thank you for this informative post, Caitlin. I was surprised to learn how Amtrak, in many rural places, serves as the dominant industry. It’s interesting to learn more about the dominant economic drivers behind rural areas considering the fallout of extractive industries rural areas are usually known for. More than that, the sheer value Amtrak provides in so many capacities is astonishing. It’s concerning though that there are still talks about breaking up the service. I wonder how the increasing discussions around sustainable living, and sustainable transportation in particular, can combat this pushback against Amtrak.

Natalie M. said...

Great post, Caitlin! I attended Mr. Pipa's talk and really enjoyed his optimism, especially his belief that federal governmental programs will be successful in boosting rural economies. I watch a lot of Bill Maher, and often he rants about the slowness and inefficiency of federal governmental programs. I found Mr. Pipa's talk optimistic and enjoyed learning more about the specifics of The Inflation Reduction Act. I think the next few decades will be interesting when we witness the rural shift away from coal and natural gas towards clean energy. For now, rural economies are beginning to transition. I enjoyed being able to learn from Mr. Pipa overall. He was an excellent speaker!