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Low Stress and Last-Minute Travel May Have Boosted Amtrak's Ridership

While the recession no doubt affected Amtrak's ridership this year, its ridership in the last three months of 2009 seemed to have pushed passengers to 7.2 million, a new record for the rail operator. While many routes, including the Northeast Corridor's Acela Express and Northeast Regional, seemed to have lost riders from its height of 2008, there were still modest gains from 2009.

The big changes seemed to be in the state-support and short-distance corridors, where new riders seemed to discover Amtrak -- boosting numbers to a two-year high. The Keystone Service, which runs from Harrisburg, Penn. to New York, rose 2 percent from last year (but jumped 87 percent from fiscal year 2008 to 2010); the Lincoln Service which runs from Chicago to St. Louis, rose about 8 percent; and the Washington-Newport News rose 7 percent. Long distance routes Palmetto, Silver Star, Silver Meteor, Sunset Limited and Coast Starlight all posted two-year gains.

While it's obvious that many routes service rural or remote areas where commercial airliners don't fly, several of the destinations are populated areas where passengers had a choice of travel. So why Amtrak?

Several travelers said they chose the train to lower stress during the holidays. They didn't want to drive and didn't want to deal with packed and chaotic airports.

I used Amtrak to travel three hours to my parents and in-laws instead of flying or driving because it was reasonably priced (a little over $100 for myself and my husband) and I could buy the ticket only a few days before I had to travel (Christmas Day.) I was told as I was buying my tickets on Dec. 21 that Dec. 24 had already sold out. My belief is that Amtrak passengers may also have been the last-minute travelers who saw last-minute airline prices and declined to pay them. Travel at that time was also dicey because of Northeastern weather, so that may also have added to the uncertainty and last-minute planning.

As for stress, I certainly felt less than I would have in a car because I could walk around or head to the bathroom without worrying I was lengthening my journey. And compared to airports, train stations are quiet, orderly places -- but maybe that's because I'm used to San Francisco International.