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Short-distance Amtrak routes surge

Demand in cities like Boston is boosting demand for Amtrak serivce. An Acela train arrived at Back Bay Station Thursday.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Demand in cities like Boston is boosting demand for Amtrak serivce. An Acela train arrived at Back Bay Station Thursday.

To some, train travel may conjure images of sleeper cars, cross-country destinations, journeys through hundreds of miles of countryside.

But these days, most train trips are much shorter; think commuter rail plus.

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Short-distance Amtrak routes have surged in popularity, according to a Brookings Insti­tution report, a trend reflected in the Boston region, where ridership on Amtrak trips under 400 miles has more than doubled since 1997, putting Boston among the top six metropolitan areas for Amtrak short-distance travel.

Meanwhile, travel on long-distance routes is becoming a smaller part of Amtrak’s ridership, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in losses for the company, the report said.

The authors of the report are calling the rise in short-
distance travel part of a renaissance for the train company that is partially publicly funded and often depicted as an undue burden on taxpayers — and a reason to increase state funding to bolster Amtrak routes.

The report by the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization, is the first that compares varying lengths of Amtrak train travel nationwide.

Around the country, Amtrak ridership grew by 55 percent between 1997 and 2012. The ridership surge was fueled by short-distance routes, which were responsible for 82.9 percent of all ridership in 2012.

Increasingly, riders are treating Amtrak like an expanded commuter rail system, said Adie Tomer, associate fellow at the Brookings Institution and one of the authors of the report.

“If you’re close to another big metropolitan market and the train runs frequently, people are going to take it,” Tomer said. “When distances extend past about 400 miles, any individual is going to think long and hard about taking a flight, for time considerations alone.”

Tomer attributed the ­increase in local travel in part to government funding that has helped stabilize Amtrak.

The study urges states to be given the flexibility to use federal highway dollars to help fund Amtrak infrastructure.

Steve Kulm, a spokesman for Amtrak, said the Brookings study confirmed the company’s take that the railroad company is vital to thriving metropolitan regions.

“We appreciate their suggestion to allow states the flexibility to use their federal surface transportation dollars for rail investments,” Kulm said.

In the past, state Transportation Secretary Richard A. Davey has said he envisions a future when Amtrak high-speed rail plays a greater role in Massachusetts transit. But MassDOT spokeswoman Cyndi Roy said Thursday that, for the time ­being, in-state service is a higher priority for state dollars.

“There are cities within our own Commonwealth — Fall River, New Bedford, Springfield, and Pittsfield — that lack the kind of passenger rail service that could help unlock economic development in currently underserved areas,” Roy said. “These are the investments people are asking for and the ones that provide the greatest economic benefit for Massachusetts.”

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com.
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