Intercity Air, Rail and Bus Ridership History Compared (US)

Table & Chart: US Intercity Air, Rail & Bus Ridership History

1. Airline Ridership is 10 Times that of Non-War Rail Ridership

In 1998, airline ridership reached 1,714 passenger miles per capita in the United States, more than 10 times that of rail during the 1930s and 1950s, and 4.5 times the 1920 intercity rail peak.

This enabled combined common carrier ridership to reach 1,838 passenger miles per capita by 1998, more than four times the 1950 level, when rail was still the most patronized mode (Table and Chart below).

Airlines have created new transportation demand to a much greater extent than they have taken market share from passenger rail (see Table). Since 1955, just before the introduction of commercial jets, airline usage has increased 1,594 annual miles per capita. This is approximately 13 times the, passenger rail loss of 122 annual miles per capita.

2. Intercity Rail Ridership Was Never Large by Today's Standards

While rail was the principal means of intercity transportation before the automobile and airplane, it never achieved per capita usage remotely approaching that of today's airline industry.

Intercity rail ridership hit its non-war peak in 1920 at an estimated 383 per capita annual miles. Overall commuter and intercity rail ridership had been rising since the late 19th century.

After 1920, as the nation became more prosperous and more cars were purchased, intercity rail ridership dropped, down nearly 40 percent by 1930. During World War II, rail ridership increased because automobiles were largely unavailable for intercity travel due to gasoline and rubber rationing. The unprecedented (and quickly lost) ridership gains during the war amounted to an increase of 286 percent in passenger miles from 1940 to 1945. Much of this increase was accomplished through load factor improvements, with passenger car miles increasing 77 percent and train miles increasing only 22 percent. Load factors measured by train miles increased 214 percent while car mile load factors increased 117 percent.

After the War, rail ridership quickly dropped to prewar levels, and fell to approximately 20 miles annually per capita in 1975, where it has remained

3. Intercity Buses Carry 5 Times the Intercity Rail Ridership

Since 1960, intercity buses have carried more passenger miles than intercity rail, and now carry five times as much ridership. This suggests that the principal common carrier alternative to airlines is buses, not intercity rail.

4. Automobile: The Principal Alternative to Short Distance Air

In the five short distance air travel markets (225 miles or less) that could justify four or more daily trains if all air passengers could be captured, automobiles have nearly six times the market as airlines.

27 September 2001

(c) 2001 --- Wendell Cox Consultancy --- Permission granted to use with attribution.
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