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Amtrak announces record annual ridership despite Sandy devastation

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With its 10th ridership record in 11 years, Amtrak has focused on electronic ticketing, Wi-Fi adoption and social media to increase appeal to new demographics.
With its 10th ridership record in 11 years, Amtrak has focused on electronic ticketing, Wi-Fi adoption and social media to increase appeal to new demographics. - (AARON HOUSTON / NJBIZ)

Amtrak set a new overall ridership record in fiscal year 2013, while effectively maintaining passenger levels on its Northeast Corridor service despite the disruption caused by Hurricane Sandy last fall, the national rail company said today.

The operator carried 31.6 million passengers in the year ending in September, Amtrak said in an announcement. More than one-third of those passengers came from its Northeast Corridor services, totaling 11.4 million and marking the second strongest year ever for the region.

With its 10th ridership record in 11 years, Amtrak's usage is growing despite the tepid pace of the national economic recovery. Tony Coscia, chairman of the agency's board of directors, pointed to the rising demand for inter-city rail across new demographics.

To tap into that demand, especially among younger riders, Amtrak has focused on electronic ticketing, developed its Wi-Fi system and relied more on social media to speak to customers, Coscia said. The company has taken those steps over the last two years, while ensuring robust service schedules between major metropolitan areas.

"All of these things, we think, have expanded our customer base to meet a growing market demand among categories of passengers that, historically, Amtrak has not been able to reach," Coscia said. "So, notwithstanding the fact that there's been some level of sluggishness in the economy, we've seen our best years ever."

Acela Express, Amtrak's high-speed service between Boston and Washington, D.C., carried about 3.3 million passengers in fiscal 2013, down 1.5 percent from the year before, the operator said in a news release. The Northeast Regional Service, which offers more stops, ticked up 0.4 percent to just over 8 million riders.

Usage was steady for the period despite the devastation of Sandy last October and two other incidents on Connecticut's Metro-North service.

Coscia, a partner with law firm Windels, Marx, Lane & Mittendorf, in New Brunswick, said Amtrak has expanded ridership while aggressively managing its balance sheet. He said "an indication of real progress at the company" was the decrease in its annual operating subsidy from the federal government, down to about $370 million last year from $450 million in recent years.

That number doesn't include funding for capital projects, but Coscia said improving the operation of the railroad will "create a level of confidence" among those who invest in Amtrak, including federal and state governments and the private sector. Such confidence goes a long way in supporting projects such as the Gateway tunnel, the Amtrak-led effort to build new rail tunnels under the Hudson River.

"(W)e think that the stronger an operating entity that Amtrak becomes … the better they'll feel about considering investments in the railroad," he said.

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Joshua Burd

Joshua Burd

Josh Burd covers real estate, economic development and sports and entertainment. Before joining NJBIZ in 2011, he spent four years as a metro reporter in Central Jersey. His email is joshb@njbiz.com and he is @JoshBurdNJ on Twitter.

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