What The New York Times’ Ron Nixon Doesn’t Understand About Northeast Corridor Travel

In today’s New York Times, reporter Ron Nixon has a remarkably misleading article on travel in the Northeast corridor (NEC). Three major distortions stick out:

  1. Nixon regurgitates the Amtrak propaganda that claims 75 percent of travelers take the train between New York and Washington, with 54 percent of travelers between Boston and New York taking the train;
  2. Nixon uncritically repeats the myth that Amtrak suffers from far fewer delays than airline service; and
  3. Nixon fails to bat an eye at Amtrak’s ridiculous 2040 ridership projections.

On the first point, it is important to note — at which Nixon fails — that the 75-percent figure refers to air and rail only. On the Northeast Interstate 95 corridor, bus travel accounts for more person trips than Amtrak while driving still accounts for about 80 percent of total passenger travel, according to this Amtrak report. And if Amtrak subsidies were reduced throughout the entire system (meaning NEC Amtrak fares would rise dramatically), rail’s mode share would be greatly reduced. Air, bus, and private automobile trips are minimally subsidized.

On the second, Amtrak likes to boast about its on-time performance relative to airlines. Unfortunately, Amtrak’s on-time performance is not significantly better than those of airlines. In the NEC, the high-speed Acela line from Boston to Washington, D.C., reported on-time performance of 90 percent during the last 12 months and 85.5 percent for July 2012. The regular low-speed Northeast Regional achieved on-time performance of 87.1 percent during the last 12 months and 81.5 percent during July 2012.

While not a perfect comparison, here are some sample NEC airport on-time rates for June 2012:

BOS — 76 percent
BWI – 80.6 percent
DCA — 79.1 percent
EWR — 68.5 percent
IAD — 75.3 percent
JFK — 78.2 percent
LGA — 75.9 percent
Average NEC airport on-time performance for June 2012: 76.3 percent

For the most recent month data are available, NEC Regional offers a 6.8-percent improved on-time rate over air, while Acela offers a 12-percent improvement. Especially when compared with the regular Northeast Regional train, the difference is hardly as dramatic as Nixon seems to imply.

But looking further, it is true that a large number of “chronically delayed” flights occur in the Northeast corridor. However, according to the most recent “Air Travel Consumer Report” from the Department of Transportation, this phenomenon is largely driven by two air carriers over the past two months: ExpressJet (operating as United Express) and Southwest. Word of advice: take Delta, American, JetBlue, or US Airways instead.

It is also worth noting that extreme weather, cited by Nixon as a factor, only delays 0.5 percent of flights. In contrast, the FAA’s poorly operated National Airspace System delays 4.82 percent of total flights.

Nixon also mentions TSA-caused delays and indignities. While Amtrak is presumably gaining some ridership due to TSA’s War on Flyers, the biggest gains most likely go to road travel. This TSA-driven air-to-road substitution effect is so strong that several hundred additional road fatalities per year appear to be due to TSA policy. But make no mistake: if an Amtrak train or station suffers a terrorist attack — probably even if one is foiled — you can be sure TSA will immediately require train riders to stand in line and remove their shoes in order to be molested by government agents and strip-search machines, just like air passengers.

So, while dancing around this issue, Nixon fails to state the obvious: air travel’s relatively worse on-time performance and passenger dissatisfaction is a product of government mismanagement. This is the only reason why Amtrak is “winning” for the moment.

Finally, Nixon parrots Amtrak’s claim that “given the trends . . . traffic in the corridor could reach 43.5 million passengers, almost four times the level today” by 2040. Basically, Amtrak’s projection relies on perpetual subsidies for regional low-speed and high-speed rail. If those subsidies disappear, as a recent report by a number of Indiana University graduate students suggests, intercity passenger rail’s mode-share would probably fall to essentially zero. For trips less than 500 miles, increasingly fuel-efficient automobiles (most likely driverless cars) will gain the most riders from regional air travel. Trains without subsidies? Nada.

But seriously, the likelihood of Amtrak proving profitable once its trains’ training wheels come off seems low, given that the Amtrak somehow managed to lose $834 million on food and beverage services during the past decade… to entirely captive consumers on moving trains!

As of this posting, the Times had already posted two corrections to the bottom of Nixon’s article. Here’s to hoping they greatly expand this section.