Maps

Visualizing How Poorly Amtrak's Route Network Serves Most of the U.S.

Some cities, you just can't reach.

Like the classic electoral college map filled in each Election Night, train maps don't tell you much about the stuff that counts: people.

For Amtrak, the route map can be particularly unhelpful. Not only are the longest lines the least popular, their train frequency can be one-sixtieth that of the system's busiest lines.

With that in mind, Mike Hicks, a transit blogger in Minneapolis, plotted boardings and alightings on a simple state map. Using numbers from Amtrak's State Fact Sheets and a list of GPS coordinates for Amtrak stations published by Bill Ensinger, Hicks funneled ridership data into circular, geographic containers.

As you might expect, the result drives home the preeminence of the Northeast Corridor route — individual cities are lost in a foam of overlapping bubbles.

But a visual representation calls attention to other rail travel hotspots as well. California and the Pacific Northwest both have substantial (if largely separate) traffic on the rails, as does the Chicago area, with heavily traveled prongs extending east into Michigan, south to St. Louis, and north to Milwaukee.

The three northern cross-country routes are equally (un)crowded, while the Mexican border route (the tri-weekly Sunset Limited) hardly sees much traffic at all.

The general shape of the map is not unlike maps we've seen showing U.S. population density, but there are key differences. Density is one factor in good train routes, but a comparison helps illustrate where there are other problems -- or opportunities -- with train service.

Jim Irwin/Wikimedia Commons

Texas, for example, has three of America's ten largest cities: Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. But the inexplicable lack of a direct rail connection between Houston and Dallas makes the state look, on Hicks' map, emptier than Missouri. In fact, the nation's second-largest state had only 465,000 riders in 2012. Missouri, meanwhile, had 739,000.

Other states suffer from a similar routing problem. Ohio, though crossed by regional routes on its northern and southern borders, has no train at all connecting the state's major cities. It has one-fifth [PDF] the passenger train traffic of neighboring Michigan [PDF].

Looking at this positively, the juxtaposition indicates some areas (Ohio, Texas) ripe for additional rail travel. It also makes it clear why the Obama administration has tried to garner support for a high-speed rail proposal in Florida, whose population density ought to make it the East Coast mirror of the Seattle-Portland line. In the future, the Atlanta-Raleigh corridor could be another potential target.

"Maps like this help show how skeletal the Amtrak network is, and how the railroad now skips past a number of major destinations," says Hicks. Some of these, like Phoenix, are cities that grew after the golden age of passenger rail travel. Others, like Nashville, just got left behind.

And then there are cities like Houston or Cincinnati that have train stations, but are stuck with second-rate service and third-rate connections.

Courtesy Amtrak [PDF].

Via Beyond DC.

Amtrak Ridership Map courtesy of Mike Hicks.

About the Author

  • Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.