Amtrak California Continues Posting Ridership Gains

Sep 19th, 2012 | Posted by

It’s one of the oldest stories on this blog – Amtrak California continues to add riders and set new records, showing strong growth. And that’s not a sudden shift, but a long-term trend showing clear demand for intercity passenger rail.

Amtrak CA 2002 Cr RS 4-10-11

The most recent numbers are from August 2012, courtesy of the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority:

Capitol Corridor August 2012
– Ridership: 146,232 riders; -5% vs. August 2011; +3 vs. prior YTD
– Revenue: $2,371,167; +3% vs. August 2011; 9% vs. prior YTD
– On-Time Performance: 92%, YTD OTP of 94%
– System Operating Ratio: 50% Fiscal YTD, 51% Calendar YTD

Pacific Surfliners August 2012:
– Ridership: 263,264 passengers; -5% vs. August 2011, and -6% below prior YTD – Ticket Revenue: -4% vs. August 2011 and +6% vs. prior YTD
– On-time performance for August 2012: 67% (YTD FY 2012 on-time performance: 75%)

San Joaquin August 2012:
– Ridership: 102,385 passengers +4% vs. August 2011, and +7% vs. prior YTD – Ticket Revenue only: +5% vs. August 2011, and +9% vs. prior YTD
– On-time performance for August 2012: 84% (YTD FY 2012 on-time performance: 88%)

So while monthly ridership sometimes fluctuates, overall the trends are upward. The Pacific Surfliner had significant track work done in August, which explains their dip in ridership.

A recent article in the North County Times (from San Diego County) implied these gains were new and the result of recent gas price increases.

But the facts tell a different story. For example, the 2011 Annual Performance Report for the Capitol Corridor (which can be downloaded here) shows that ridership has been steadily growing since the late 1990s, with a big jump starting in 2006. New records were set in 2008 during the gas price spike, and the Great Recession meant that 2009 and 2010 were lower than the 2008 numbers. But both those years were higher than every other year prior to 2008, suggesting that most of the ridership growth was retained. And 2011 set a new record. Here’s the numbers, going back to 2005:

2005-06: 1.27 million riders
2006-07: 1.45 million riders
2007-08: 1.69 million riders
2008-09: 1.60 million riders
2009-10: 1.58 million riders
2010-11: 1.71 million riders

Passenger rail ridership growth is clearly a long-term trend. We know that gas prices aren’t coming down anytime soon. And in a digital world, time spent seated at a train with WiFi and an electrical outlet at your set is time much better spent than sitting helplessly behind a wheel.

Amtrak California ridership proves that if you build it, they will ride.

  1. Paul Druce
    Sep 19th, 2012 at 08:46

    Only Robert can post something showing ridership declines for two out of three Amtrak CA routes, with an overall net ridership decline, and claim that Amtrak CA “continues posting ridership gains.” That’s also two straight months of revenue decline for Surfliner and a remarkably poor OTP performance; I wonder what happened in August to kill it that badly.

    James M. in Irvine Reply:

    The Surfliner has been losing traffic to the less-expensive Metrolink. I believe the Metrolink transfer to the Coaster at Oceanside has improved, so people are choosing the slightly slower and less expensive alternative, Metrolink and Coaster over the more expensive Amtrak, even though it is a 1 seat ride with eating ammenities.


    Paul Druce Reply:

    It certainly doesn’t help the Surfliners that they are chronically late and the Express worse than most while Metrolink manages a mid 90s OTP with half as much allowance.

    Nathanael Reply:

    IIRC Coaster’s OTP has been pretty poor, however. I think the same issues are affecting Coaster and Surfliner.

    I think it’s price-sensitivity.

    Paul Druce Reply:

    Coaster has consistently been in the 90+% range.

    thatbruce Reply:

    This sounds like the dispatching handoff between NCTD (Coaster) and SCRRA (Metrolink) is the failure point. Are there links showing where on its route the Surfliner is losing time?

    Paul Druce Reply:

    Coaster’s dispatching is fairly recent, they used to be done by Metrolink as well. You’d have to scummage through Amtrak Status Maps in order to see where.

    thatbruce Reply:

    @Paul Druce:

    Thanks, I’ll have to poke around in that site to get all the historic status information that I want, and find a similar historic site for Metrolink and Coaster to see if there’s a bias.

    I get the feeling on my initial look through that Surfliners northbound see a delay at the bridge work they’re doing just north of Oceanside, and southbound before Fullerton.

    NorCalRailFan Reply:

    Two things Paul. Number 1, Metrolink controls the dispatching on its tracks. So, if a train is running just even a min behind, which train is going to be inconvenienced? Second, Metrolink’s standard for OTP is set by the FTA, while Amtrak’s is governed in part under FRA rules. So right there trying to compare OTP for a commuter train versus an intercity, medium-haul train is apples to oranges.

    If someone other than Metrolink was doing the dispatching (and hopefully not the freight’s, though the BNSF does an outstanding job dispatching the San Joaquin with a 90% OTP), then I believe the Surfliners OTP would be a lot better. YMMV.

    Paul Druce Reply:

    Two things Paul. Number 1, Metrolink controls the dispatching on its tracks. So, if a train is running just even a min behind, which train is going to be inconvenienced?

    It’s not a dispatching issue, though apologists like to claim it at times. Even when there are hardly any Metrolink trains on the weekends, Amtrak still is not capable of keeping to its schedule. And if a train is running late and out of slot, of course its going to be kept behind, by anybody, because the alternative is gumming up the entire network and inconveniencing rather a lot more people. The problem is “Why is Amtrak late to begin with?” not “Why is Amtrak further delayed?”

    Second, Metrolink’s standard for OTP is set by the FTA, while Amtrak’s is governed in part under FRA rules. So right there trying to compare OTP for a commuter train versus an intercity, medium-haul train is apples to oranges.

    You’re right that it’s apples to oranges, because Metrolink and Coaster have a more difficult and stringent requirement. Their OTP is calculated according to whether it arrives at its terminus within five minutes of the scheduled time. Amtrak’s is within ten minutes, except for the trains that start or originate in SLO which are 20 minutes. When adjusting for that, Amtrak, quite obviously, winds up even worse.

    NorCalRailFan Reply:

    The top ten reasons for Surfliner delays in August:
    Host PTI 6528 23.4%
    Host CTI 4360 15.6%
    Amtrak HLD 3015 10.8%
    Host DSR 2816 10.1%
    Host DCS 1828 6.5%
    No Resp NOD 1561 5.6%
    Host RTE 1243 4.5%
    Amtrak ITI 1070 3.8%
    Amtrak ENG 925 3.3%
    Amtrak ADA 850 3.0%

    You get down to 9th on the list to find issues due to engine or equipment failure. 925 minutes out of the month at 3.3%. The top two are due to dispatching because of UPRR, SCRRA or NCTD (almost 40%, so you tell me its not dispatching). The third one on the list can be various factors why Amtrak crews request a hold.

    Paul Druce Reply:

    Couple issues: One is the most obvious, PTI is Amtrak running into their own trains, and that’s the #1 reason. Second is that these are the reported reasons by the conductors on the train, it’s not the root cause of delays, only what they see, and that’s not necessarily terribly accurate. Furthermore, if you are late five minutes to a meet, and so are put into a siding for fifteen minutes, and incur further delays because of your tardiness and the fact that there are many other trains on the route, while these will be reported as dispatch and P/C/FTI delays, the actual cause is whatever caused you to be five minutes late in the first place.

    StevieB Reply:

    The Amtrak CA ridership gains are not as impressive as CA Commuter rail ridership gains compiled through June by the American Public Transportation Association. Southern California RRA gained 7.33%, San Diego’s North County Transit District gained 10.47%, and Caltrain gained 14.05%. These Commuter rail ridership gains indicate increased utilization of rail statewide.

    joe Reply:

    …and increased ridership correlates with highest per gallon (US) gasoline prices in absolute and inflation adjusted dollars going back 80 years.

    Studies show asymmetrical responses to price increases. Gasoline price increases shift commuters to rail. Price decreases do not draw back equal numbers of commuters. Hopefully fares can be kept stable.

    Nathanael Reply:

    This is a relatively new phenomenon; price decreases did send people to cars during the 1980s, and arguably during the initial rise of gasoline cars.

    I think people perceive it differently now; they know cheap gas is never coming back and that decreases are only temporary. In the 1980s far more people still believed that oil would be cheap for decades!

    Aerofleet Reply:

    It is intersting that comaprison between Caltrain and Metrolink. Caltrain has just 10% higher weekday ridership but monthly ridership is 30% higher than Metrolink.

  2. Reedman
    Sep 19th, 2012 at 09:41

    What is the trend line of the “subsidy per passenger” metric?

    J Baloun Reply:


    Nathanael Reply:

    Lower subsidy per passenger, across every single line in the country.

  3. morris brown
    Sep 19th, 2012 at 11:32

    Here is another report on HSR from Fox News.

    How Richard can continue to say the Feds will pony up the money is really just not believable. Federal funding is finished. Even the Democratic caucus gave up on funding HSR.

    joe Reply:

    Fox viewers are the least informed, less than those who do not follow any news what-so-ever.

    Nathanael Reply:

    You are seriously quoting Faux News? I’m sorry.

    Please do some reading at Media Matters.

    Joe is actually *literally correct*; there was a controlled study which showed that Fox News viewers had *more false “facts” in their heads* than people who *did not follow any news at all*. People following any other news source were at least as well-informed as people who didn’t follow any news, but Fox News actually made people *more ignorant*.

    You can Google the study.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    I’ll second Nathanael’s and Joe’s observations, and I’ll add that I didn’t believe the findings of the study when I first read about it; I thought it was some “liberal spin” thing. Then I took a look at some Fox news stories on Youtube, and at some things I either knew were false or at best incomplete, and I became a believer. The stories I saw were so bad I would consider the whole operation tainted and untrustworthy; if they get anything right at all, it will be because it’s totally uncontroversial (“oh, these kittens are so cute, help this animal shelter”).

    One good thing, Fox’s average news viewer is 65 years old, or at least was in the past year. That’s ancient for a television demographic, and suggests Fox’s viewership is well into the nursing home crowd, and well on the way to the funeral home crowd. That would suggest overall falling viewership in a relatively few years. Wonder how that will pan out?

  4. William
    Sep 19th, 2012 at 14:10

    Again, Capitol Corridor proves that people will ride the trains if the service is reliable and comfortable. The Capitol Corridor is already time-competitive between Martinez and Sacramento. The next steps should work toward projects that remove slow sections and bottlenecks, such as Pinole tunnel, Benicia high bridge, SJ-Oak double track. Ultimately passenger-only tracks is needed next to the freight line so faster and more frequent service can be provided.

    blankslate Reply:

    The Capitol Corridor is already time-competitive between Martinez and Sacramento.

    Also between Oakland and Santa Clara/San Jose, especially during commute hours.

  5. Tom CV
    Sep 19th, 2012 at 14:38
  6. Alon Levy
    Sep 19th, 2012 at 16:19

    See here for what Amtrak thinks “on time” means. About the only thing this has to do with SBB and its 3-minutes-including-missed-connections standard is that both outfits run standard-gauge trains.

    William Reply:

    For bus connections, I think Amtrak California guarantees the connection. Not sure about the national system.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Well, for the usual train connections, like between New Haven-Springfield shuttles and the NEC, I think Amtrak guarantees the connections as well, but I don’t know within which bounds. But its OTP is still based on trains arriving at the terminal on time, rather than at intermediate stations. Swiss OTP is based on how many passengers arrived on time, so if a connection is missed, for example because the first train ran so late it would unduly delay other passengers to hold the connecting trains, it counts.

    Nathanael Reply:

    Given that Amtrak’s been sabotaged on on-time performance by freight railroads for 40 years now — and when it started, it was being sabotaged on every single section of track it ran on — you can understand how a culture of “let’s just try to be half-decent” would develop.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Yeah, but there’s a limit to my sympathy when Amtrak routinely runs off-schedule on its own tracks in Connecticut.

  7. morris brown
    Sep 19th, 2012 at 16:43

    Feds approve HSR segment as expected. SJ Mercury coverage:

    Feds approve California high-speed rail construction

    Joey Reply:

    Didn’t bother looking two comments above yours?

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    why would he bother doing that? He rarely if ever pays attention to what’s going on in the thread.

  8. JJJ
    Sep 19th, 2012 at 19:04

    If youre interested, I have graphs showing ridership from 2008 to may (I need to do another update)

    Includes ridership and revenue. I only go to October 2008 because I cant find the older reports. If anyone has links to them, Id be pleased to include older years in my charts

    Paul Druce Reply:

    LOSSAN agendas going back to 2002, they generally have monthly ridership and revenue reports. Some of the older ones have rather interesting information that I’ve not seen in newer ones, like station pairs and coach vs business. July 15, 2003 has the first monthly info, that of May, though it takes until September to get July’s info). It’s mildly haphazard though, I’m not sure when you get consistent info every single month.

    JJJ Reply:

    Thanks, Ill look them over when I have time and see if I can add to my charts. Would be nice just to get 2007 and what Im missing of 2008 to see ridership before the financial crisis.

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