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Will Enough Ride High-Speed?

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When and if a high-speed rail line is built, despite all the obstacles “Train to Nowhere” spells out (Cover Story, July 15), there remains the undiscussed question of how many people would actually pay to ride it.

Decades of Amtrak experience suggest the answer: too few. Amtrak's inability to fill trains consistently is one reason it's had to depend on tax-money subsidies to break even throughout its existence. An Amtrak news release noted that its trains carried fewer passengers the first quarter of this year than the first quarter of 2008. This was 5 percent below projections. Amtrak's most popular corridor, Boston-Washington, led the decline.

High ticket prices and falling gasoline prices in a recession are likely to accelerate it. Using Amtrak's own figures, some 70,000 passengers ride 300 trains per day, averaging 233 passengers per train. The more popular Acela trains average 291 passengers. Both averages are short of an approximately 350-passenger trainload. Also factor in people's needs to travel between here and Washington, D.C., when trains on an inflexible schedule may not be running and to get to parts of destination metro areas not served by public transportation, and you have the prospect of shiny, new, reliable high-speed trains whisking their way over brand-new tracks between Richmond and Washington — partly, maybe even mostly, empty.
Bruce Goldman


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