Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Downeaster ‘ridership:’ Betke asks for the facts, just the facts, ma’am.

Before we get to the subject at hand, we want to give credit where credit is due.  We understand NNEPRA, in keeping with prevailing modern-day employment law, is especially careful to make sure that applicants for open positions are considered without regard to gender and any number of other personal attributes.  As proof, we offer these candid shots taken at recent interviews to fill a ridership accounting position:


For those who aren’t quite sure how they self-identify, there’s another test that can be taken.


Which brings us to the subject of our post.

George Betke, Jr, who appeared here as a ‘guest columnist’ in June to rave reviews, has a commentary appearing today on the pages of the Times Record, or as we call it, The Ostrich.  George has an analytical mind, and a professional background in transportation, which makes his observations far more credible than those of, for example, the Bobbsey Twins, Emily and Jeff.  More on that soon.

With George’s permission, here is that column, as submitted to the editors:


The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority last week reported a 4.6% gain in ridership on Amtrak’s “Downeaster” for fiscal year 2014, ended June 30. In light of prior comments that patronage was suffering from delays caused by remedial track maintenance, this surprising declaration prompted a review of past data that raises serious questions as to how many travelers really do use the train. Views may differ on how success of the service should be judged, but statistical discrepancies shouldn’t cloud the single metric continually emphasized by the Authority – ridership.

Until its recent updating, NNEPRA’s website home page had proclaimed that the train carried a record 556,347 passengers in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2013. Monthly ridership history presented elsewhere on that site told a different story, totaling only 497,483 for the same period, a difference of 58,864. Which was it?

NNEPRA now heralds 536,524 passengers for fiscal 2014, an apparent 3.6% decline from the 556,347 previously reported for fiscal 2013. It nonetheless claims a 4.6% year-to-year gain from another figure for fiscal 2013, 512,775. That count must not have been a record, however, since it refers to a comparable fiscal 2012 total of 528,292. Which was it?

On the other hand, the latest monthly ridership history through June adds to 518,577 versus 497,483 for fiscal 2013, up 4.2%. Depending on the chosen prior-year point of reference, there could also have been a 3.6% decline or an increase of 7.8%. Which was it?

Historical traffic data now summarized on the site (536,524 for fiscal 2014; 556,347 for fiscal 2013; and 528,292 for fiscal 2012) suggest that little sustainable growth is directly attributable to the 28-mile extension from Portland to Brunswick in November 2012, which presumably contributed to the fiscal 2013 increase. By the Authority’s own statistics, therefore, ridership for the latest period actually is down from last year (indicating the delays did have an effect) and only 1.6% above the pre-Brunswick total two years ago. Which is it?

The “Downeaster” also offers a wide array of choices targeting different categories of travelers. One unexplained question is how passengers are recorded. Amtrak’s numbers are derived from ticket-sales information rather than actual on-board body count, and NNEPRA’s practice is unclear. Since one-way and round-trips are identically priced, what happens when a round trip is purchased but used in only one direction? Are trips recorded on the date of purchase or at the time of presentation? Is some assumption made as to the number of trips actually taken by the typical monthly passholder? Is an infant under age two and riding free counted at all? Could any of those factors account for the website’s statistical inconsistency?

NNEPRA clearly has some explaining to do to its perplexed observers. Whatever methodology is used should be clarified and consistently reported to be credible.

[The author is President of Transport Economics, Inc., a Newcastle consultancy.]


     Tickets, please.     


1 comment:

  1. Great Blog... the first part made me laugh out loud! /

    Thanks P.C.