US airline passengers have been deserting the airways for the railways in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks with Amtrak, the federally-backed US railway company, seeing sizeable increases in loads.

Having seen the airline industry receive a $15 billion bail-out by Washington, Amtrak is looking for a $3 billion handout of its own from the government to spend in the next 18 months buying rolling stock, improving tracks and boosting safety and security. The money-losing operation could lose federal subsidies at the end of 2002, requiring a restructuring or liquidation.

Amtrak has seen passenger numbers rise 17% since the attacks and continues to prosper as worried travellers avoid the airlines and congested airports. Crowded Amtrak rail carriages come at the expense of carriers such as Delta Air Lines, which saw its limited shuttle flights between Washington Dulles and New York LaGuardia attracting only 200 passengers on 25 September. Before the attacks, the shuttle averaged 3,000 passengers a day.

Security may become an issue, as the nation's law enforcement agencies consider extending increased airline and airport security to other modes of public transport. Passengers served at ticket counters must now show identification, but travellers using ticket machines and travel agents cannot be monitored.

In Europe, which has an increasingly integrated high-speed train network, railway companies say it is too early to assess whether the attacks have prompted a surge in passengers.

Deutsche Bahn (Germany), SNCF (France) and Nederlands Spoorweg (The Netherlands) all say they have not noticed any great extra demand, but are monitoring the situation closely. Eurostar, which connects Belgium, France and the UK says traffic has been normal although it has heightened security checks. Belgian national rail company SNCB says: "Although it is still early, there has been an increase in passengers since 11 September."

Airlines such as Air France, Lufthansa and Sabena are increasingly turning to high speed rail networks in Europe, where flying very short distances such as Paris-Brussels or Cologne-Frankfurt are less appealing economically. Airlines will often place their codes onto rail services so that passengers arriving from the USA into Paris Charles de Gaulle and with onward connections to Brussels for example, can transfer directly from the airport to the train.

Source: Flight International