On a chilly, windy night, the Silver Meteor train paused to pick up several dozen passengers at the local Amtrak station, where the drab surroundings contrasted with the enthusiasm of riders.
“It’s fun. I love it,” said Martha Gunter, 68, of Sullivan’s Island.
Apparently many others feel the same way, because American passenger rail is enjoying a renaissance, according to a new Brookings Institution report.
Since 1997, people riding the Amtrak system have increased 55 percent nationwide, compared to 20 percent for commercial air travel and 17 percent for driving. Locally, Amtrak travel is up 71 percent.
“These growth trends serve as evidence of changing attitudes toward train travel,” the report says.
The views of Cedric Cooper, 32, a truck driver from Florence, reflected the reported shifting opinion of Amtrak.
The cost of gas for a round trip to Charleston is about the same as the price of the train, which is less hassle than getting on the highway, he said.
“It’s just a smooth ride. It’s clean, it’s better than the bus,” Cooper said.
Passengers at the Amtrak station in North Charleston grew from 49,629 riders in 1997 to more than 84,000 customers in 2012. In comparison, the Greenville-area stations saw a 13 percent drop in passengers, to 18,372. Amtrak travel in Columbia grew by 53 percent to 41,276 riders, according to the report.
“This really speaks to the fact that people are seeing this as a viable mode of transportation,” said Joseph King, an author of the Brookings report.
King said pre-dawn and late-night travel times at the Greenville station may play a role in the loss of passengers there.
At the North Charleston station, Alicia Luck, 24, of Summerville, a passenger catching the Silver Meteor, was bound for Newport News, Va.
“There’s a lot more room. I can get up and walk around. I’d much rather travel the train,” she said.
Last year more than 31 million people used the Amtrak system. Some 80 percent of them were passengers on routes covering less than 400 miles. The shorter routes were responsible for nearly all the riders gained in recent years, the report states.
Although riders are up in most places, the passenger train service overall is far from self-supporting. In 2012 the federal government paid 12 percent of Amtrak’s operating costs, according to Congressional testimony this month by President and CEO Joe Boardman.
Combined, Amtrak’s 26 routes under 400 miles had a positive operating balance of $46.6 million in 2011, thanks in large part to the popularity of two northeastern routes, the Acela and Northeast Regional, which together generated $205 million in the plus column, according to the Brookings report.
“Rail service is increasingly sought out by travelers who are sick of congealing highways and clogged airports,” Boardman said, referring to the success of the two northeastern routes.
The remaining 24 shorter-range routes received $185 million in direct funding from states that represented 31 percent of their revenue, but they still lost $166 million, according to the Brookings report.
The 15 routes of more than 750 miles recorded a combined loss of nearly $60 million. Last year the longer routes carried only 17 percent of Amtrak passengers but they accounted for 43 percent of its route-associated operating costs, the report states.
The Amtrak station in North Charleston serves long-distance routes between New York City, Georgia and Florida that include stops in Yemassee, Kingstree, Florence and Dillon.
Unlike some other states, South Carolina provides no funding for Amtrak operating costs, said Doug Frate, the Department of Transportation chief transit planner.
In comparison, North Carolina subsidizes the Amtrak route between Charlotte and New York City, promotes passenger rail and touts it for economic development, according to Brookings.
The N.C. Department of Transportation contracts with Amtrak for service between Raleigh and Charlotte. South Carolina has no dedicated passenger rail service between its cities, but that could be changing.
“We actually have a Statewide Rail Plan under way as part of our larger Multimodal Transportation Plan to be completed later this year. The Statewide Rail Plan includes a passenger rail component that would address intercity needs and issues,” Frate said in an email.
Meanwhile, such passengers as Gunter are happy to ride Amtrak, in part because of the romance of train travel. She looked forward to the scenery, the service, the food and a “roomette” with a bathroom and bed on her trip to Washington, D.C., to visit her son and a grandchild.
“It’s nostalgic. It’s so much simpler than flying,” she said.