A new study finds that people in major metropolitan areas are using passenger rail much more than they were 15 years ago, and it comes as state lawmakers are considering a bill that would revive rail service from Atlanta to Macon.
The Brookings Institution—a Washington think tank—looked at trends in Amtrak ridership between major cities, comparing figures from 1997 and 2012. In the Chicago metro area, the number of people taking the train shot up 64 percent, while the same figure soared 211 percent in the Boston area.
The Atlanta region saw the number of trips go up just 29 percent, but that's still a lot, said study co-author Robert Puentes, considering Atlanta "only has one station in the entire metropolitan area, and it's an enormous metropolitan area."
Meanwhile, proponents of a bill that would bring back passenger service from Macon to Atlanta with stops in-between are struggling to find support at the state capitol. Many lawmakers and transportation officials say they like the idea, but are concerned about cost.
These nationwide ridership figures indicate the market for inter-city rail is there, Puentes said, and states that are open to private funding of rail corridors may be able to attract investors.
"What we found in this study was that where passenger rail is the most competitive, and does seem to be performing quite well is, on short-distance corridors," Puentes said. "Right around 400 miles seems to be the sweet spot ... too long to drive, too short to fly."
At fewer than a hundred miles, the proposed Macon-to-Atlanta corridor is well shy of that benchmark. Still, Puentes said, there are examples of successful rail corridors around the same length, such as Chicago to Milwaukee.