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How Well Does Amtrak Serve U.S. Cities?

Amtrak's America:
A look at how well Amtrak serves America's cities
By Doug Ohlemeier

Amtrak cities served Tables detail cities that Amtrak passenger trains serve. This information graphically shows how many U.S. cities of significant population do not have passenger train service.

The following article, originally published in 2000, examines Amtrak's strengths and weaknesses in terms of serving the U.S. metropolitan areas. The article attempts to answer how well the National Railroad Passenger Corporation serves the country's major cities or travel markets and which population areas receive service compared to other regions. Also examined is the frequency of service as well as favorable hours of train arrival and departure.


How well does Amtrak, the nation’s intercity rail passenger network, serve American cities? How is Amtrak’s service spread throughout the population areas?  The author attempted to answer these and other questions in a numerical analysis of Amtrak.

The author analyzed data from the Census Bureau’s 273 Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs). Determining population regions this way would be far easier and more fair than adding the population of all cities and towns served by Amtrak trains. State population was also analyzed. This information was placed in a spreadsheet.

At no. 261, Lawrence, Kansas, (population 91,000) is the smallest MSA served by Amtrak.  Enid, Oklahoma, at 56,6999 pop., is the smallest U.S. MSA, at no. 273. Cumberland MD-WV, Grand Forks, ND., Danville, VA., Hattisburg, MS, Grand Junction, CO, Anniston, AL, Flagstaff, AZ, LaCrosse, WI, Texarkana, TX-AR, Florence, SC, Yuma, AZ, Altoona, PA, Pittsfield, MA, Bloomington-Normal, IL, and Rocky Mount, NC, in that order, increase from smaller to larger MSAs in the 258 to 200 MSA rankings served by Amtrak.

But numbers only tell part of the story. For example, a number of cities are served by Amtrak trains in the overnight hours, between 12:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. Which travel markets and regions receive such service? And what areas have as their primary Amtrak train less than four times a week service?


Regional Classification

Though any classification of regions will be controversial, the author divided the country into four regions: Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, Southwest and Northwest. Northeast includes states north and east of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and the District of Columbia. Southeast includes states south of the Ohio River plus Arkansas and Louisiana. The Midwest is bordered by Ohio on the east, and Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri on the west. The Southwest includes  Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas west to California. Northwest states include Nebraska and the Dakotas west.

For population, the leading regions are the Southwest, Southeast and Northeast, which have similar percentages. The Southwest heads the country with 25.8 percent or 63.7 million people (28.9 percent or 61.6 mill. MSA). Second is the Southeast, which has 23.9 percent of the population with 59.2 mill. (20.8 percent or 44.3 mill. MSA).  Only third place is the Northeast, which is often viewed as the most populous part of the country. Just more than one fifth (23 percent or 56.8 million) of the population resides there. For MSA population, it’s 25.4 percent or 54 mill.

The Midwest, at 21.9 percent or 54.2 mill. (20.3 percent or 43.1 mill. MSA) is fourth with the Northwest, at 5 percent, with 12.8 mill.

California comprises the biggest part of the Southwest. The state’s 29.7 mill. account for nearly half (46.6 percent) of the Southwest population and 11.9 percent of the U.S.  Put another way, California has 87 percent of the Southwest population.

New York constitutes 31.5 percent of the Northeast region, Texas, 26.5 percent of the Southwest, Florida, 21.7 percent of the Southeast, and Illinois, 21 percent of the Midwest. Each of these states could be considered its own region in terms of rail passenger service.  The population breakdown is necessary to determine how well Amtrak train service is balanced throughout the country.

Direct v. Indirect Service

This study focuses on metropolitan areas or travel markets versus cities. Reasoning that a traveler will spend up to an hour driving from one end of a metropolitan area to an airport (i.e. Kansas City International Airport is a 30 to 45 minutes north of the popular city Plaza area), then cities located adjacent to cities served by Amtrak should be considered “served” as well. Thus, cities within 40 miles or an easy half-hour’s interstate or freeway drive of Amtrak stops are considered served.

Using this definition of service, Sharon, PA (MSA 229, population 122,000) is considered indirectly served since it is but 16 miles from downtown Youngstown, OH, although Sharon is in a separate MSA than Youngstown-Warren (no. 69, population 595,000). If combined, the two MSAs would be nearly as large as Syracuse, NY., or Tulsa, OK. Yet the sizeable Youngstown- Sharon metropolitan areas only receive Amtrak trains at 1:05 a.m. and 6:03 a.m.

Unfortunately, this definition would consider Dallas “served” if Amtrak only served Fort Worth (35 miles west), as it did in the early 1970s. The same for Wichita, Kansas, as this MSA of a half a million is 21 miles south of Newton, Kan., which receives Chicago- Los Angeles trains at 3:08 a.m. and 3:47 a.m. Few would consider this “service.” One of rail’s selling points is its ability to provide downtown to downtown service. But this is a starting point. This is why the numbers reflect direct and indirect service.

Basic Numbers                 .                                                                                

Amtrak directly serves 81.8 percent (174,037,416 pop.) of the nation’s 212,744,066 MSA  population. 84.02 percent of the population is indirectly served (178,749,073). The difference between direct and indirect service amounts to 4.7 million people. Prior to the 1979 Carter Amtrak cuts, when Amtrak had many more routes, the number was nearly 88.18 percent, or 189,030,351.

The Northeast has the highest direct service, with 93 percent. The Northwest is second, with 84 percent; Southwest is third with 83.4 percent (89 percent indirectly); 78.2 percent for the Midwest; 68.7 percent of the Southeast MSAs. Differences of two percent or less were omitted for brevity.

Amtrak provides some service, indirectly at least, to every top 30 MSA. Phoenix, MSA no. 15 at 2.8 million, is the lone top 30 market that Amtrak does not serve directly. For this study, Phoenix is considered indirectly served, as both proposed “stops” are more than a half hour’s drive, plus taking Amtrak from Phoenix requires a two hour thruway bus ride to/from Tucson.

Other top 50 markets not served by Amtrak include Columbus OH (no. 31, pop. 1.4 million), Las Vegas (no. 34, pop. 1.2 mill.), Nashville (no. 38, 1.1 mill.), Louisville (no. 48, with 993, 369 pop.) and Dayton-Springfield, OH (no. 49, with 944,934 pop.). Oklahoma City, at no. 45 with 1 mill. pop.) during the late 1990s received state-supported service to Fort Worth.

State Supported Services               

States support 25.6 percent (10,136 miles) of Amtrak’s 39,666 mile system. Long distance trains comprise half (50.4 percent or 19,995 miles). Short distance routes (under 700 miles in length) funded by Amtrak comprise 24 percent or 9,535 miles. Amtrak’s web site lists more than 22,000 route miles. The author of this study added mileage for each train (not necessarily route) listed in recent national and NEC timetables.

n the 12 states supporting Amtrak service, the average percentage of state-supported versus Amtrak-supported services is 57 percent. Oklahoma (109 miles) and Vermont (195 miles) increase the national average as service in these two states are entirely state-supported. Without those two states’ high percentages, the number would be 49 percent.

Only three Northeast states, Pennsylvania, New York and Vermont, have state-supported service. New York’s 381 mile Ethan Allen Express accounts for 11 percent of its Amtrak service, compared to California’s 73 percent  (4,216 train miles). California, the most populous state, has the most state-supported rail miles. Twenty of its 24 trains are state supported.

At 1,469 miles, Pennsylvania is second (66 percent) in terms of state-supported mileage. Illinois’ 849 miles accounts for 66 percent. Other states include Washington, 714 (45 percent), North Carolina, 593 (41 percent), Missouri, 564 (59 percent), Wisconsin, 516 (73 percent), Michigan, eighth, (41 percent), and Oregon, 124 (28 percent).

Regions and Trains

The Northeast’s 10,451 system-funded long and short-distance miles earn the third most populous region the honor of receiving the most Amtrak service. This more than one-third (35.4 percent) of the national system’s 29,530 miles is a higher percentage of Amtrak service than its population size (23 percent).

The Southeast’s 23.9 percent of the population receives 24.1 percent of Amtrak’s system-funded service or 7,119 miles. The Northwest’s 2,371 miles is 8 percent national service for the region’s 5.2 percent population.

The biggest inequities appear to be the Midwest and Southwest, which combined share 47.7 percent of the U.S. population (118 mill. people). The Midwest’s 21.9 percent population receives only 13.3 percent Amtrak service  (with a low 3,916 system miles).
  The Southwest’s 5,673 miles is 19.2 percent of system-funded service for its 25.8 percent population. 27 percent of this mileage is in California.

Amtrak provides proportional system-funded service to only one of the country’s top 10 most populated states. Florida’s 5.2 percent of the country’s population receives 5.9 percent of Amtrak’s route miles.
  But most of the other largest populated states (six of the top 10) proportionally receive less Amtrak service.

Virginia receives the most system-funded service. Virginia’s 2.4 percent of the population receives 12.1 percent of Amtrak’s service or 3,576 miles.

New York is third. The Empire State’s 3,163 miles of system-funded long and short-distance services account for 10.7 percent for the state’s 7.2 percent population. This does not count the long-hauls originating at New York City (Crescent, Florida trains, etc.)

New Jersey is technically third, since its 2,400 miles don’t serve a large geographic part of the state, and serve only a handful of cities (3.1 percent of population with 8.1 percent service).

Similarly, Maryland, fourth place, has 1.9 percent population with 7.9 percent service. The state’s 2,356 miles are served primarily by through trains.

In terms of route miles, Florida is fourth place in terms of national-funded service, with 1,760 miles. This is 78 percent of the state’s MSAs.

California’s 1,548 system miles, like Florida entirely long distance, make it sixth. The state’s 5,764 total miles (adding state-funded services) make it the top state in terms of total Amtrak passenger miles. But this large state’s population (11.9 percent of the U.S.) accounts for only 5.2 percent of the system funded trains.

Still, Amtrak indirectly serves 100 percent of California’s MSAs (98.3 percent directly). Only two California MSAs, Modesto (no. 94 with 421,818 pop.) and Visalia-Tulare- Porterville (no. 112 with 353,000) do not receive direct service. Riverbank, a San Joaquin stop, is 11 miles from Modesto. Yuba City (no. 138 with 139,000) is considered direct service since it is less than three miles from Marysville, a Coast Starlight stop.  California’s four national system trains directly or indirectly serve every single California MSA, despite the large number of state-supported trains. Unlike New York, Amtrak provides no system-funded short distance trains.

Texas, the third most populous state with 6.8 percent, receives only 5.1 percent (76 percent of the state’s population percentage) of Amtrak service for the state’s 1,525 mile primarily long-distance service .  Illinois, with 4.6 percent of the population, is provided 3.1 percent for its 933 system miles or 68.7 percent of its relative population.

Connecticut and Washington round out the top 10, accounting for larger shares than their state populations, 3.1 and 2.9 percent service for 1.3 and 1.9 percent respective populations.

North Carolina also receives more system service, 2.8 percent, than its 2.6 percent population.

Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan receive around half of system funded service relative to those states’ proportional population. Pennsylvania’s 4.7 percent of the population receives 2.5 percent service (54 percent of its proportional population); Ohio, 48.5 percent of its proportional population for its 4.3 percent; Michigan’s 3.7 percent population and 2 percent service (53.9 percent).

These states actually receive more Amtrak service than their population percentages: Arizona (1.9 percent service for 1.4 percent of population), New Mexico (1.9 percent service for .6 percent pop.), Colorado (1.6 percent service for 1.3 percent pop.), Rhode Island (1.6 percent service for .4 percent pop.), Montana (1.5 percent service for .3 percent pop.), Kansas (1.3 percent service for 1 percent pop.) and North Dakota (1.3 percent service for .2 percent pop.).  Other states with larger service to population ratios include Mississippi, Nevada and Nebraska.  States with similar population-service ratios are South Carolina, Oregon, Louisiana, Iowa, Arkansas and Utah.

The top 10 states account for 54.8 percent of the U.S. population (135 million) and receive 47.9 percent of Amtrak train miles service (14,162 miles).

States without service, in order of population, include Maine, Hawaii, South Dakota, Alaska and Wyoming.

Service Frequency

A sizeable number, 26 percent, of the city markets (or 13 states) have only one daily train (departures in each direction). These 75 of the 273 markets add up to 51.7 million people.  A majority of these one-train-only-a-day cities are in the Southwest (47 percent), Southeast (32 percent) and Midwest (19 percent). Still 74 percent of the MSA population served by Amtrak receives more than one train departure a day.

In reality, only one national system train serves Texas, if you add the four-days-a-week Texas Eagle and the thrice-weekly Sunset Limited. Using this definition, the populous Southwest has only 1.5 trains. Arizona and New Mexico would therefore have slightly more than 1.5 trains with daily and a quad-weekly service.

37 million people in the top 100 MSAs are served by only one Amtrak train departure or less per day. These include Dallas-Fort Worth (MSA no. 9 with 4.7 million), Houston (no. 10 with 4.3 mill.), Atlanta (no. 11 with 3.6 mill.),  Phoenix (no. 15 with 2.8 mill.), Minneapolis (no. 16 with 2.8 mill.), Denver (no. 20 with 2.3 mill.),  Cincinnati (no. 23 with 1.9 mill.), San Antonio (no. 28 with 1.5 mill.),  Indianapolis (no. 29 with 1.5 mill.). These MSAs each have more than a million in population: Salt Lake City, Memphis, Austin and Oklahoma City. The remainder have between 400,000 and 1 million: Birmingham, Tucson, El Paso, Omaha, Albuquerque, Little Rock, Mobile, AL., Jackson, MS., Spokane, WA., Pensacola, FL., and Youngstown, OH.

Though only 12.2 percent of cities served receive less than daily trains, tri- to quad- weekly, 73 percent of the less than daily schedules involve destinations in the growing sunbelt region. The Southeast accounts for 17 percent; the Midwest 10 percent. Only one non-daily train, the Cardinal, serves any portion of the Northeast.

Three percent (5.9 million) of the MSA population’s primary train has to be boarded in the wee hours of the morning (Midnight through 6:30 a.m.). The majority of these markets are in the Midwest (32.8 percent) and the Southwest (32.5 percent). Nearly 16 percent of the travel markets either receive trains after Midnight or only three to four times a week. This is concentrated primarily in the Southwest (64 percent), Midwest (16 percent) and Southeast (15 percent).

Percentage of Population Served

The Southeast, Midwest, and Southwest contain most of the 100 MSAs which do not have the rail travel option. The Southeast has 13 million and represents 39 percent of the MSAs without Amtrak service; the Midwest, 8.9 million; the Southwest, 6.6 million; the Northeast, 3.6 million; and the Northwest, 1.4 million. This is 33.8 million people, larger than the state of California, and 16 percent of the U.S. population.

Only 15 Northeast markets are absent service. And not one Northeast top 60 MSA needs service. The other five top 60 MSAs missing service are located outside of the Northeast. Only two Northeast MSAs, Scranton-Wilkes Barre, PA. (No. 65 with 621,386 population) and Allentown- Bethlehem, PA (no. 67 with 613,836) contain more than a half million people.  Five Southeastern MSAs needing service contain more than a half million population. In the Southwest, it’s four.

Other major Northeast MSAs deficient of Amtrak include York, PA (no. 107, with 370,518), Reading, PA (no. 111, with 354,057) and Binghampton, NY (no. 139 at 251,698).

Major Southwest travel markets needing service include Tulsa, OK (no. 58 @ 764,396 pop.), Colorado Springs, CO (no. 80 @ 480,041), Corpus Christi, TX (no. 101 @ 387,100), Brownsville-Harlingen, TX (no. 118 @ 320,801), Odessa-Midland, TX (no. 142 @ 243,389), Lubbock, TX (no. 148 @ 230,672), Fort Collins-Loveland, CO (no. 150 @ 226,021), Amarillo, TX (no. 156 @ 288,165), and Laredo, TX (no. 169 @ 183,219).

Prominent Southeastern missing markets include Knoxville, TN (MSA no. 63 @ 654,181 pop.), Baton Rouge, LA (no. 71 @ 570,165), Sarasota, FL (no. 74 with 538,783), Daytona Beach, FL (no. 82 with 465,925), Melbourne-Titusville-Palm Bay, FL (no. 83 with 460,977),  Johnson City-Kingsport-Bristol TN/VA (no. 84 @ 460,147), Augusta, GA (no. 85 @ 457,228), Chattanooga, TN (no. 88 @ 447,488), Lexington, KY (no. 91 @ 446,699), Fort Myers-Cape Coral, FL (no. 102 with 387,091), Huntsville, AL (no. 116 @ 332,933), Montgomery, AL (no. 119 @ 319,175), Macon, GA (no. 121 @ 316,077), Fort Pierce-Port St. Lucie, FL (no. 128 with 295,646), Fayetteville-Rogers-Springdale, AR (no. 134 @ 266,980), Asheville, NC (no. 154 @ 211,284), Clarkesville-Hopkinsville, TN/KY (no. 162 @ 197,481), Naples, FL (no. 164 with 195,731), Fort Smith, AR (no. 166 @ 192,395), Myrtle Beach, SC (no. 177 @ 169,178), Fort Walton Beach, FL (no. 180 with 167,580), Wheeling, WV (no. 192 @ 154,153), Parkersburg-Marietta WV/OH (no. 193 @ 150,641), and Monroe, LA (no. 197 @ 147,055).

Other Midwestern cities without service include Wichita, KS (MSA no. 75 @ 530,508 pop.), Des Moines (no. 92 @ 429,717), Saginaw- Bay City-Midland, MI (no. 96 @ 402,949), Canton-Massillion, OH (no. 97 @ 397,511), Madison, WI (no. 98 @ 397,511), Davenport-Moline-Rock Island, IA/IL (109 @ 357, 463), Rockford, IL (no. 110 @ 354,774), Peoria, IL (no. 113 @ 345,954), Appleton-Oshkosh, WI (no. 115 @ 342, 154), Springfield, MO (no. 125 @ 300,980), Evansville-Henderson, IN-KY (no. 129 @ 288,929), Duluth, MN (no. 143 @ 238,134),  Green Bay, WI (no. 152 @ 214,244), Cedar Rapids, IA (no. 171 @ 181,704), Mansfield, OH (no. 173 @ 174,851), Sioux Falls, SD (no. 188 @ 160,670), Lima, OH (no. 190 @ 154,944), Janesville-Beloit, WI (no. 194 @ 150,322), Terre Haute, IN (no. 195 @ 148,468) and Joplin, MO (no. 196 @ 147, 127).

The Northwest has fewer major cities devoid of Amtrak service. The biggest are Boise, ID (MSA no. 103 with 383,843 pop.) and Yakima, WA (no. 151 with 218,318).  Others include Billings, MT (no. 223 @ 125,771),  Bismarck, ND (no. 262 @ 91,044), Great Falls, MT (no. 268 @ 79,134), Cheyenne, WY (no. 269 @ 78,473) and Pocatello, ID (no. 271 @73,850).

Population Density

Population per square mile is another way to view Amtrak service. Nine of the top ten most population dense states are in the Northeast; The other, Ohio, is no. 10. Texas, the third most populous state, is at no. 30.  The only other Southwest or mountain state within the top 30 most people per mile states, Washington, is no. 29.

The Northeast contains the most dense population, with 1,253 people per square mile, versus the Midwest’s 132, the Southeast’s 110, the Southwest’s 49, and the Northwest’s 21. The national average population per square mile is 313.

The country’s 10 most population-dense states, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, New York, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida, in that order, comprise 31 percent of the U.S. population and 34.9 percent of Amtrak national system service

The top 20 most population-dense states, which include Illinois, California, Hawaii, Michigan, Virginia, Indiana, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Tennessee, and South Carolina, contain 63.3 percent of the U.S. population (157 million) and 72.6 percent of Amtrak service.

Seven of the nation’s top 10 most populated states each possess more than four percent of the country’s population. Michigan and New Jersey each have three percent. North Carolina, Southeast, at no. 10, has 2.6 percent. The remaining states all contain under three percent with a vast majority (numbers 31 through 51) under one percent. The District of Columbia (at no. 48 with .02 percent) is ranked by the Census Bureau as a state in terms of population.


On paper, Amtrak seems to serve a significant part of the U.S. population. And this, at first glance, appears to be balanced. The 10 largest states accounting for 54.8 percent of the population receive 47.9 percent of Amtrak train service. 29 of the top 30 MSAs receive service.

The country’s top 10 states containing the most population per mile receive service slightly above their comparable population percentage. (34.9 percent service for 31 percent population). 
The most population-dense states do receive significant service, but some of the major states receive less service than their share of the national population (California, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan).

Of the dozen states supporting short and medium-distance service, the average percentage of state-supported miles to national system miles is 57. But the second largest state, New York, pays only for 11 percent of its short, medium and long-distance service.

A sizeable part of the U.S. (26 percent) is served by only one train a day. A number of key top 50 markets are not served, including Phoenix, AZ, Columbus, OH, Las Vegas, NV,  Nashville, TN, and Louisville, KY. Less than 20 percent of the travel markets either receive trains after Midnight or has only three to four times a week service.

Amtrak provides the most service to the Northeast with 10,451 system miles, which also has the highest direct service (93 percent). This region’s 23 percent of the population receives 35.4 percent of the national funded system miles.

The Midwest, a region with nearly equal the Northeast’s population, is near the bottom, in terms of Amtrak system service, with 3,916 miles. Just a little more than three-fourths of the Midwest’s MSA population receives Amtrak service.

The Southeast’s 7,119 miles is the second largest region in terms of mileage but the smallest region receiving direct service (68.7 percent). The Southwest’s relatively high direct service, 89 percent, is third in terms of national system miles, with 5,673. The Northwest has 2,371 miles, which with 8 percent of the system miles, is a little higher than its relative population percentage (5.2 percent).

The disproportionate share of national system resources provided to one region over other more populous regions demonstrates how Amtrak service is not evenly spread among the four geographic population regions.



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