Imagine Cheaper New York-Philly Amtrak Service

amtrak Imagine Cheaper New York Philly Amtrak ServiceI wrote in this week’s Observer about New Yorkers moving to Philadelphia. One of the statistics I dug up that didn’t make it into the story was the amount of daily Amtrak commuters between New York’s Penn Station and Philly’s 30th Street Station. It turns out that annual daily round-trip ridership along the line peaked in 2004 and 2005, and has dropped precipitously ever since.

Amtrak measures its ridership by fiscal years that run from October to October. In fiscal year 2004 (October 2003-October 2004), 375,100 riders total made daily round-trips between the two cities. That was more than in the three previous fiscal years. But, then, in fiscal year 2005, daily ridership peaked at over 377,000.

It’s dropped ever since, with fiscal year 2007, claiming an estimated annual total of 220,800 Philadelphia-to-New York daily commuters. (Note: These are not daily averages, but annual totals.)

There’s a number of reasons for this, I’m sure, like the rise of cheaper airlines such as JetBlue as well as cut-throat bus fares, plus the introduction of so-called "luxury" bus lines. But my guess is it’s because Amtrak raised the fares between Philly and New York significantly in late 2005 and into 2006, just when the drop-off in ridership started.

Here’s The New York Times covering the fare increase in September 2005:

For example, the price of a basic, one-way ticket between Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Station in New York will rise to $56 from $53. But the cost of a monthly pass between those cities, which allows unlimited travel on certain trains, will increase almost 60 percent, to $1,008 from $633. Commuters and their advocates expressed shock at the increases, and some said they would have to find a less expensive alternative.

The cheapest Philly-to-New York ticket that you’ll find now on Amtrak’s Web site is $43 ($86 round-trip). Monthly passes for unlimited rides on some train lines run as high as $1,080 (a daily cost of roughly $36).

An Amtrak spokesman noted correctly that the railroad is not meant to be a commuter rail; it instead connects cities and towns, just like airlines and bus companies. And the fiscal-year amount of non-daily round-trip riders between Philadelphia and New York increased from 2006 to 2007.

Still, you have to wonder: If Amtrak’s fares dropped–and if the speed of long-distance rail travel in the U.S. ever caught up to that of Europe or Japan–would New Yorkers, already moving there in a trickle, flood Philadelphia? A commute from a much cheaper home in Philly to a job in New York would suddenly feel like a commute from Long Island or Connecticut.