Amtrak said Monday its ridership dropped by more than a million passengers in the past year, still the second-highest year in the railroad's history.
Figures released by the nation's intercity rail operator, the only major passenger train system, show Amtrak carried 27.2 million passengers during the 12 months that ended Sept. 30. Amtrak's record was 28.7 million passengers during the previous year, a period that coincided with record high gasoline prices.
Still, 2009 ridership was 5.1 percent higher than two years ago.
Unlike countries Europe and almost most every other region in the world, travel on passenger trains in the United States has been relatively small during the last half-century compared to highway and airplane travel.
The main cause of railways' decline was a Cold War decision by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s to major system of superhighways linking the nation's cities primarily as a means of evacuating population areas in the event of nuclear war.
Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman blamed the 2009 decline in ridership on the weakened economy, although travel was up on some short-distance routes and on the railroad's 15 long-distance trains.
"In a difficult year for the economy, particularly in the travel industry, Amtrak ridership has remained strong albeit with some regional variation," Boardman said in a statement. "In particular, reduced business travel along the Northeast corridor prevented us from reaching the ridership we achieved last year."
The number of passengers Amtrak carried increased steadily from 2002 to 2007 before the sharp spike last year. This year's ridership appears to be a resumption of the previous growth trend, Boardman said.
Amtrak said ticket revenue for the past year was $1.6 billion, down 7.8 percent from last year but up 5.3 percent from two years ago.