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Amtrak rolls toward record ridership

Spencer Platt / Getty Images file

People board an Amtrak train at Penn Station earlier this year in New York City.

Trains — they’re not just for retirees and railroad buffs anymore.

Thanks to changes in technology and demographics — not to mention the hassles of air travel — the nation’s railroads are drawing a whole new crowd.

That’s certainly true for Amtrak, which is on track to report its highest ridership in history. On Tuesday, the company announced that it carried almost 27.8 million passengers during the first 11 months of its fiscal year ending in September, up 5.2 percent from the year before.

By comparison, the number of total Amtrak passengers in August was up only 1.2 percent compared to the August 2010 and down 0.4 percent in the popular Northeast Corridor due to flooding and service cancellations. “The weather-related disruptions we’ve had in various markets, including Hurricane Irene, have resulted in cancellations that doubtlessly affected ridership,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.

But extreme weather aside, the longer-term trend has Amtrak officials optimistic that the year-end ridership total will top 30 million passengers for the first time.

“Awareness is the key,” said Will Phillipson, co-founder and CIO of SilverRail Technologies, which is developing a global distribution platform for booking rail travel. “People are cottoning on to trains and saying, ‘Gee, this is so much easier and so much better than flying.’ ”

But there’s more to it than awareness and the frustrations of flying. “The economic recovery and rising fuel prices laid the groundwork,” said Joseph Schwieterman, a professor and transportation expert at DePaul University. “But rail is increasingly part of a lifestyle choice.”

Make that “choices” as people opt in for more technology and opt out of other forms of transportation.

“Rail is very tech-friendly,” said Schwieterman. “People are bringing their DVD player, BlackBerry and two other devices. Younger people in particular want to be digitally connected at all times.”

As a result, “Amtrak is doing very well in corridors that serve universities and urban lifestyles,” he told msnbc.com.

Which, in turn, underscores the other choice, what Schwieterman sees as a cultural shift away from driving. In areas with good transit options, forgoing a car is an increasingly attractive option. For some people, “it’s more about what devices you own and what Twitter feeds you follow,” he said, “rather than the kind of wheels you own.”

Whether those trends will accelerate — and boost rail ridership along the way — depends on many factors, including the price of gas, the relative hassle of air travel and whether Amtrak can expand its free Wi-Fi service, currently available on the high-speed Acela and a handful of other trains, to other routes.

For now, Amtrak officials will say only that they hope to provide more services, including adding Wi-Fi to more routes, but there are no concrete plans to do so.

“As Congress wrestles with budget issues, they’ll be talking about us along with everything else the federal government is involved in funding,” said Magliari. “In the meantime, we’re continuing to operate and pressing on.” 

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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.