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Amtrak Ridership Surging but Still Lags Behind Pre-COVID-19 Figures

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It’s no secret the COVID-19 pandemic derailed most forms of travel. But while airlines have mostly bounced back, Amtrak ridership hasn’t yet fully recovered.

The latest LendingTree study analyzed Amtrak data to show how ridership has changed nationally and by state since the 2019 fiscal year. Although Amtrak is playing catch-up, a ridership surge in certain areas — especially in Northeast states — signals recovery may be on the right track.

We looked at possible reasons why Amtrak is lagging behind air travel and which states are seeing a ridership surge. Later, we’ll provide tips for scoring affordable Amtrak tickets.

  • Amtrak ridership is below what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s rebounding strongly. Ridership in the 2023 fiscal year was 10.9% lower than during the 2019 fiscal year — the last before the pandemic. (Note: Amtrak’s fiscal years run from October of the prior year through September of the listed fiscal year.) But there’s been a rebound, as ridership increased by 24.5% between the 2022 and 2023 fiscal years.
  • Amid an Amtrak ticket price bump, train travel still lags behind air travel. While Amtrak ridership is down, the number of people who passed through Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints was up 4.2% in November 2023 compared to November 2019. This comes as average Amtrak fares rose 7.1% year over year in 2022 — the largest jump since 2006 — to $77.25.
  • Northeasterners were most likely to resume train travel after the pandemic’s early days. Between the 2021 and 2022 fiscal years (the latest available at the time of research by state), Amtrak ridership in Vermont rose by 348.0% — the highest by a wide margin. Following that, ridership in New Hampshire (121.6%), Maine (112.1%) and the South’s District of Columbia (106.5%) more than doubled.
  • Western states showed the lowest growth between the 2021 and 2022 fiscal years. Montana was at the bottom, though ridership grew by 20.7% — lower than Utah (21.6%) and Idaho (26.2%). In all, ridership increased by less than 30.0% in six states.
  • Ridership has surpassed pre-COVID-19 figures in just two states. In Virginia and Maine, Amtrak ridership grew by 2.3% and 1.9%, respectively, between the 2019 and 2022 fiscal years. Meanwhile, ridership fell the most in New Hampshire (68.8%) and Mississippi (53.0%) — the only two where ridership fell by more than 50.0% in the same period.

3 key things to know about Amtrak ridership data

Amtrak’s reporting uses fiscal years, so the periods discussed are October through September. The five fiscal year periods in our study include:

  • 2019 (October 2018 through September 2019)
  • 2020 (October 2019 through September 2020)
  • 2021 (October 2020 through September 2021)
  • 2022 (October 2021 through September 2022)
  • 2023 (October 2022 through September 2023)

Ridership, as explained in the footnotes on Amtrak’s monthly reports, includes:

  • Northeast Corridor (NEC) routes: The Northeast Corridor main line runs through eight states, from Washington, D.C., to Boston. The NEC daily supports more than 40,000 trips on Amtrak’s intercity services.
  • State-supported routes: The State-Amtrak Intercity Passenger Rail Committee (SAIPRC) is a multiagency body whose members include state agencies, Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration. State-supported services include Amtrak routes 750 miles or less and outside the Northeast Corridor. These services are responsible for carrying about half of Amtrak riders nationwide.
  • Long-distance routes: Amtrak’s Long Distance Service Line operates 15 long-distance routes ranging from 764 to 2,438 miles. It provides once-daily service to 39 states and the District of Columbia, offering connections with other long-distance, state-supported and NEC short-distance routes.

Lastly, the national ridership data counts trips, according to an Amtrak senior public relations manager. Each trip is one boarding and one alighting (or deboarding). The state data counts boardings and alightings separately, so it’ll show higher tallies than national ridership.

Before the pandemic, Amtrak ridership was booming, reaching 32.0 million in fiscal year 2019 (October 2018 through September 2019).

But when everything shut down and people were limiting their travel and trying to avoid enclosed spaces (like an Amtrak train car), ridership plummeted to 16.8 million for fiscal year 2020 — which included the last quarter of 2019 before the pandemic emerged. The next fiscal year (2021), which featured pandemic surges throughout, saw the lowest ridership at 12.2 million.

Fiscal year 2022 saw an uptick to 22.9 million, and fiscal year 2023 reached 28.5 million. Though this figure is still below pre-pandemic performance and overall ridership is down 10.9% from before COVID-19 emerged, there are signs things are rebounding.

Amtrak ridership by fiscal year

Fiscal yearTotal riders
FY 201932.0 million
FY 202016.8 million
FY 202112.2 million
FY 202222.9 million
FY 202328.5 million

Source: LendingTree analysis of Amtrak performance reports. Note: Amtrak fiscal years are from the prior October through September of the listed year.

“It shouldn’t be surprising that Amtrak ridership fell off so much in the pandemic,” says Matt Schulz, LendingTree chief credit analyst. “That it’s still below pre-pandemic levels is noteworthy, especially considering how people have returned in droves to air travel.” However, the past year’s growth was significant, and it looks like Amtrak is on pace to exceed pre-pandemic levels in 2024, he adds.

As Schulz notes, air travel has bounced back more quickly than Amtrak ridership. The number of people who passed through TSA checkpoints was up 4.2% in November 2023 compared to November 2019. Though there could be various contributing factors, Amtrak’s rising prices — and travel inflation in general — could be partly to blame. From 2021 to 2022 (note: fares aren’t tracked by fiscal years), the average ticket price went from $72.12 to $77.25 — a 7.1% increase and the largest jump since 2006.

However, Schulz says there’s probably more to the story. “Rising fares likely played a role in slowing post-pandemic growth, but so did the suspension of various routes during the pandemic,” he says — some of which took years to resume. Amtrak says it restored services on all routes in fiscal year 2023, which could explain the improving numbers.

Hiring shortages may have also created challenges in those post-pandemic days, adds Schulz, as they did with other forms of travel. In fact, there were reports of Amtrak worker shortages in late 2021 and 2022.

Average Amtrak fares by year

YearAverage rail fare (inflation-adjusted)% change
2000$52.1511.3%
2001$54.234.0%
2002$59.078.9%
2003$53.90-8.8%
2004$53.29-1.1%
2005$51.57-3.2%
2006$56.429.4%
2007$58.774.2%
2008$60.392.7%
2009$58.88-2.5%
2010$60.703.1%
2011$62.673.2%
2012$64.663.2%
2013$68.225.5%
2014$70.783.8%
2015$70.770.0%
2016$68.30-3.5%
2017$68.710.6%
2018$69.591.3%
2019$71.472.7%
2020$73.753.2%
2021$72.12-2.2%
2022$77.257.1%

Source: LendingTree analysis of Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) data.

Northeasterners headed back to the rails after the pandemic’s peak a bit faster than other segments of the country.

Ridership in Vermont saw the biggest increase between the 2021 and 2022 fiscal years — 348.0%. Other surges in ridership took place in New Hampshire (121.6%) and Maine (112.1%). The District of Columbia in the South rounded out the top four increases in ridership (106.5%), but it’s worth noting that D.C. is the end point of the NEC main line.

In July 2022, Amtrak’s Ethan Allen Express train expanded service at the Burlington, Ferrisburgh-Vergennes and Middlebury stations in Vermont. Of the 14 stations in Vermont, ridership increases between the 2021 and 2022 fiscal years ranged from 233.8% (Windsor) to 406.4% (Castleton).

Meanwhile, New Hampshire’s four Amtrak stations saw ridership jumps of no less than 111.1% between the 2021 and 2022 fiscal years. (Its biggest increase — 320.7% — was at the Claremont station, which had the lowest ridership numbers in both fiscal years.) And ridership increases in Maine — which has six stations — were carried by the Portland station, which saw a 111.8% jump from 68,841 riders in fiscal year 2021 to 145,776 in fiscal year 2022.

At the other end of the spectrum, ridership in six states grew by less than 30.0%. The bottom three were Montana, Utah and Idaho (all Mountain West states). Leaders in Idaho — which has one station — and Utah — which has four — have been fighting for federal funding to expand rail service in their states. The other three states with sub-30.0% growth were Kentucky, Mississippi and South Carolina in the South.

Where Amtrak ridership grew the most, 2021 to 2022 fiscal years

RankStateTotal riders, FY 2021Total riders, FY 2022% change
1Vermont19,09885,558348.0%
2New Hampshire60,937135,048121.6%
3Maine161,354342,178112.1%
4District of Columbia1,758,4093,631,677106.5%
5New Jersey596,7961,173,86896.7%
6Pennsylvania2,129,1894,182,21696.4%
7Delaware236,807456,00192.6%
8Massachusetts1,395,2032,679,58192.1%
9Michigan330,114633,23191.8%
10Wisconsin288,969548,97090.0%
11Oregon288,356546,93889.7%
12Maryland831,0491,575,98689.6%
13New York5,220,7219,888,37989.4%
14Washington377,167711,74988.7%
15Connecticut788,6211,465,39585.8%
16Rhode Island409,756756,77684.7%
17California3,526,8046,414,83181.9%
18Missouri297,449530,66478.4%
19Illinois1,942,9983,389,21874.4%
20Virginia908,0751,578,32673.8%
21North Carolina499,159863,00672.9%
22Kansas19,30632,98670.9%
23Indiana46,22173,99660.1%
24Arkansas15,38324,48259.1%
25Colorado114,529180,09557.2%
26Texas196,300306,30056.0%
27Tennessee27,12441,35652.5%
28Ohio82,062124,96452.3%
29Nevada36,29555,03751.6%
30Arizona47,07570,85150.5%
31New Mexico46,48667,87546.0%
32Nebraska22,20831,97744.0%
33Georgia75,988108,95843.4%
34West Virginia23,73333,88742.8%
35Oklahoma43,63361,90841.9%
36Alabama20,60329,08641.2%
37Louisiana83,842117,44640.1%
38Florida569,165796,60140.0%
39Iowa24,54333,72537.4%
40North Dakota44,95060,70935.1%
41Minnesota65,82788,61734.6%
42South Carolina90,468117,19029.5%
43Mississippi45,22557,60727.4%
44Kentucky4,8466,12026.3%
45Idaho3,5944,53726.2%
46Utah28,04634,10921.6%
47Montana67,06680,97020.7%

Source: LendingTree analysis of Amtrak state fact sheets data. Note: Amtrak doesn’t operate in Alaska, Hawaii, South Dakota or Wyoming.

In terms of ridership gains by state, just Virginia and Maine have pulled ahead of their pre-COVID-19 numbers, growing 2.3% and 1.9%, respectively, between the 2019 and 2022 fiscal years.

Ridership fell the most in New Hampshire (68.8%) and Mississippi (53.0%) during the same period — the only two states where ridership fell by more than 50.0%. Of the two, New Hampshire is at least on the upswing, seeing the second-highest growth from fiscal year 2021 through fiscal year 2022 (121.6%). Mississippi, however, is recovering more slowly, as it’s among the bottom five states for rising ridership in the last available fiscal year.

Where Amtrak ridership grew the most, 2019 to 2022 fiscal years

RankStateTotal riders, FY 2019Total riders, FY 2022% change
1Virginia1,542,8131,578,3262.3%
2Maine335,682342,1781.9%
3Ohio132,095124,964-5.4%
4North Carolina931,858863,006-7.4%
5Vermont92,91485,558-7.9%
6Florida905,074796,601-12.0%
7Oklahoma70,42261,908-12.1%
8Texas363,873306,300-15.8%
9Arkansas30,41324,482-19.5%
10Connecticut1,829,7701,465,395-19.9%
11Maryland2,031,9751,575,986-22.4%
12Massachusetts3,460,0792,679,581-22.6%
13Georgia141,707108,958-23.1%
14Rhode Island987,321756,776-23.4%
14Missouri692,347530,664-23.4%
16New York13,023,1679,888,379-24.1%
17Michigan843,529633,231-24.9%
18Kentucky8,3676,120-26.9%
19Illinois4,722,8533,389,218-28.2%
20Arizona99,63670,851-28.9%
21Kansas46,48232,986-29.0%
22District of Columbia5,207,2233,631,677-30.3%
23Idaho6,7264,537-32.5%
24Oregon812,067546,938-32.6%
25Minnesota131,97388,617-32.9%
26New Jersey1,752,3691,173,868-33.0%
27Montana121,35080,970-33.3%
27Louisiana176,159117,446-33.3%
29Colorado270,232180,095-33.4%
30West Virginia51,56833,887-34.3%
31Iowa51,49933,725-34.5%
32South Carolina179,063117,190-34.6%
33Nebraska49,67431,977-35.6%
34Tennessee64,40141,356-35.8%
35Delaware717,359456,001-36.4%
36Indiana117,81173,996-37.2%
36Pennsylvania6,659,8214,182,216-37.2%
38Nevada88,96055,037-38.1%
39North Dakota101,11960,709-40.0%
40Utah57,17734,109-40.3%
41New Mexico116,78667,875-41.9%
42Alabama51,17229,086-43.2%
43Wisconsin971,822548,970-43.5%
44California11,455,8406,414,831-44.0%
45Washington1,301,585711,749-45.3%
46Mississippi122,66257,607-53.0%
47New Hampshire432,170135,048-68.8%

Source: LendingTree analysis of Amtrak state fact sheets data. Note: Amtrak doesn’t operate in Alaska, Hawaii, South Dakota or Wyoming.

If you’re ready to hop aboard an Amtrak for your next trip, there are ways to beat the increasing fares.

  • Use credit card rewards to pay for travel. Most of the most popular travel credit cards will allow you to collect or redeem rewards for travel, Schulz says. “Various Capital One, Chase and American Express cards are among those that give you rewards for train travel, but that’s just a sample. It’s worth shopping around to compare what different cards offer before applying.”
  • Look into passenger discounts. Don’t automatically assume you have to settle for paying full price for your tickets. Amtrak offers discounts for seniors, students, kids, military service members, veterans and other groups. However, you may not find out about them if you don’t look for them or ask someone, Schulz says. “With so many Americans living on tight budgets, it’s worth your time.”
  • Book early, and be flexible. Amtrak’s website recommends booking your rides as early as possible, which could be a slightly different strategy than you’re used to if you do airline research. You can book as early as 11 months before your trip. Also, check prices for different days of the week or times as you may be able to find lower fares.
  • Consider an Amtrak credit card. Amtrak has co-branded credit cards. “As with many other travel cards, if you’re a loyal, regular customer of Amtrak, it’s worth considering,” Schulz says. However, if you only ride periodically, he says there are probably other cards that can bring you better value.

LendingTree analyzed Amtrak performance reports and state fact sheets to show how ridership has changed since the 2019 fiscal year. Alaska, Hawaii, South Dakota and Wyoming aren’t included in our report because Amtrak doesn’t operate in those states. For national ridership, Amtrak counts one boarding and one alighting (or deboarding) as a trip. For state ridership, boardings and alightings are counted separately.

Researchers also analyzed Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) data to calculate how average Amtrak rail fares have changed.

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