Will Amtrak benefit from telecommuting?


Airlines carried 94 percent more passengers in September 2022 than in September 2019, according to passenger counts released by the Transportation Security Administration. This is up from 91% in August and 88% in September.

According to United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, the industry is thriving because of changes in leisure travel habits as a result of the pandemic. People who work at home at least a few days a week are more likely to take short pleasure trips for long weekends.

“Hybrid work allows every weekend to be a vacation weekend,” says Kirby. Business travel may be on the decline, both due to the looming recession and the rise of online dating, but this is largely offset by an increase in leisure travel. Apparently, he says, “It wasn’t money that forced people to travel” before the pandemic, “it was time.”

This alludes to Marchetti’s constant, the idea that people have a fixed budget for travel time (usually estimated at about an hour per day). If they spend less time commuting, they have more time in their budget for other types of travel.

The main reason air travel in September was 94 percent, instead of more than 100 percent, of pre-pandemic levels, Kirby notes, is airlines’ limited ability to meet demand due to supply chain and labor issues. Air travel will grow a lot, he suggests, as airlines buy more planes and hire more employees, both of which United is doing as quickly as it can.

Meanwhile, Amtrak is unusually late in releasing its monthly performance report for August. In July, Amtrak was carrying 84 percent of pre-pandemic numbers, somewhat below the airline’s record.

If business travel were down and people were taking Amtrak as well as flying for short leisure trips, we might expect to see long-distance train travel (which carries mostly vacation travelers) rise relative to travel on the Boston-Washington corridor (which mostly carries business travelers). But we don’t: In July, Northeast Corridor trains were carrying 87 percent of pre-pandemic numbers, while long-distance trains were carrying just 78 percent. State-backed trains (carrying a mix of business and leisure travelers) fared even worse, at 75 percent.

Commuters who effectively use long weekends for short trips are more likely to fly than take a train. A two-day train trip might be a nice part of a two-week vacation, but people won’t spend most of their four-day weekends on the road because that would exceed their travel budgets. Thus, Amtrak is not likely to benefit as much from the same boom in short-haul travel that the airlines are enjoying.

This piece first appeared on The Antiplanner.

Randal O’Toole, Antiplanner, is a policy analyst with nearly 50 years of experience reviewing transportation and land use plans and the author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future.

Photo: N509FZ via Wikimedia, licensed under CC 4.0

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