Image: An Acela train sits on the platform at New York's Penn Station
JESSICA RINALDI  /  Reuters
An Acela train sits on the platform at New York's Penn Station on May 9, 2011. Amtrak transported 2.7 million passengers last month, a 9.9 increase over April 2010.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/20/2011 1:56:01 PM ET 2011-05-20T17:56:01

With gas prices hovering around $4 a gallon and this summer shaping up to be the most expensive ever for air travel, some vacationers may be turning to another method of transportation: train travel.

Amtrak has seen 18 consecutive months of ridership growth and is on track to set a new annual record. The passenger rail company reported 2.7 million passengers last month, a 9.9 percent increase over April 2010.

“Gas prices are probably one of the main reasons why train travel continues to go up,” said Amtrak spokesman Clifford Cole. “That plus the fact that people just like the hassle-free way of traveling by train.”

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Amtrak, which this month celebrated its 40th anniversary of providing rail service in the U.S., has set annual ridership records in seven of the last eight years. In 2010, Amtrak carried more than 28.7 million passengers compared to 20.9 million passengers in 2000 — a 36 percent increase.

“Over the past 10 years, train travel has seen a gradual progression,” said Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance.

“It’s not just recent gains,” said Leocha. “Especially between Boston and D.C., there has been steady progress.”

The Northeast Regional — Boston to D.C. — saw an all-time high of 692,376 passengers in April, a 13.3 percent increase compared to April 2010.

But it's not just business travel on commuter routes fueling the increase in ridership. Amtrak’s Silver Star, which runs from New York City to Miami, was up 16.6 percent in April 2011 over the same month last year — the largest percentage increase in a long-distance route.

Trains vs. planes
In addition to high gas prices, the average round-trip domestic airfare is expected to top $375 this summer, which could prompt some travelers to opt for train travel over flying.

But the number of rail passengers still lags far behind the number of air travelers. The Air Transport Association on Monday said it expects 206 million passengers will travel on U.S. airlines this summer — roughly seven times the total number of train passengers for all of 2010.

“Trains take extra time between delays and connections on top of the actual trip duration," said Ed Crowell, a businessman who travels frequently by train between Houston and Dallas.

"Some folks say the facilities for private rooms aren’t even worth the high cost," said Crowell, who prefers to fly when traveling outside of Texas. 

Jim Sallee, a University of Chicago assistant professor of public economics, said that air travel right now is unpleasant for reasons other than cost.

“The nature of air travel in recent years has changed,” he said, adding that inconveniences like long security lines and having to pay for a bag of peanuts on the plane have made flying more of a hassle.

“The advantage of air travel is speed,” he said.

Investment in rail
On May 9, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded Amtrak $450 million to upgrade its rail infrastructure to support faster and high-speed rail service and to improve service between New York and Washington. In recent years, Amtrak has also received funding to expand its fleet and provide new onboard amenities such as Wi-fi on business-class trains.

Speeding up trains significantly through the Northeast could prove difficult, however, because the region is so congested, with different railroads often sharing the same tracks and stations. Some even doubt it can be done, period.

Matthew Konopka, a 30-year-old economist from Washington, travels to Boston a few times each month. Traveling by plane takes him about 3 1/2 hours, he recently told the Associated Press, including check-in time and getting through security. Amtrak's fast Acela trains take about seven hours.

"It's too much of a waste of time," Konopka said of the trains. "I would be doubtful that they'd ever be able to get it fast enough."

While some rail travelers lament the extra time it takes to get anywhere via train, others say they enjoy better service, less wait time and extra legroom they get on trains.

“You can sit and relax and watch the scenery go by,” said Jim Loomis, author of “All Aboard! The Complete North American Train Travel Guide.” “Most of the time you don’t even get to see the scenery while you are driving."

Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.

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