Comparing the Travel Times, Environmental Impacts and Costs of Traveling by Bus and Amtrak

Study finds travel times on motorcoaches and Amtrak are similar, but ticket costs and emissions are much lower with bus travel

This analysis prepared, by M.J. Bradley & Associates for Reason Foundation, Taxpayers for Common Sense and the American Bus Association, compares customer costs (fare, travel time) and societal costs (government subsidies, air emissions) associated with 20 specific trips that can currently be taken between select U.S. city pairs on both an Amtrak train and on a scheduled intercity motorcoach bus.

These specific trips were chosen to provide a representative comparison between these travel modes over a range of geographies, both urban and rural, and to include trips taken on the three major types of service operated by Amtrak (Northeast Corridor, including Acela; other short-corridor trains; and long-distance trains). The majority of these trips are between 100 and 200 miles one-way, while one is shorter and several are longer.

The key findings of this analysis are as follows:

  •  In general there are more schedule options by bus than by train. For all but one of the trips there are more scheduled buses each week than trains; for half of the trips there are more than twice as many scheduled buses per week.
  • Total travel time is comparable for these modes; for 10 of the 20 trips total travel time is shorter by train than by bus; for the other 10 trips total travel time is shorter by bus. For half of the trips the difference in travel time between modes is less than one hour.
  • Considering fully allocated costs (capital and operating expenses) motorcoaches average ($/passenger) less than 25% of the cost to provide comparable Amtrak service. The average savings to passengers and taxpayers to provide bus service over train service ranges from $17.03 to $422.39 per passenger.
  • For two of the 20 analyzed trips Amtrak on average generates enough passenger revenue to cover both operating and capital costs (i.e. they are “profitable”). For the remaining 18 trips average passenger revenue does not cover Amtrak’s fully allocated expenses. For the remaining 18 trips the average government (state and federal) subsidies to Amtrak range from $21.93/passenger to $289.56/passenger. By comparison, for the 20 trips analyzed the total indirect capital subsidies (Highway Trust Fund outlays) provided to support surface transportation range from $0.09/passenger to $0.74/passenger. 
  • Excluding the Northeast Corridor, where Amtrak operates electric locomotives, the average impact of scheduled intercity motorcoach service on air quality is lower than the impact of Amtrak service. Average per-passenger emissions of particulate matter and nitrogen oxides are approximately 80% lower for motorcoach trips than for Amtrak trips, and average emissions of volatile organic hydrocarbons are approximately 90% lower.

This Study's Materials