U.S., A Primer For How To Plan Passenger Train Expansions

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; March 29, 2021

Thanks to all who so far have responded with suggestions to improve Amtrak’s equipment utilization and scheduling. Many good ideas have been advanced. Please, don’t stop now; keep going. We will share here many of your ideas soon.

Here are some things to consider when planning passenger train route improvements:

• Don’t allow traditional barriers to fog your thinking. East coast Florida trains have “always” originated in New York City, with the exception for a short time Amtrak extended one to Boston. It’s time to revisit that concept of Boston as the northern terminus.

Amtrak dispelled the notion that New York City is the center of the Northeast Corridor universe by running trains from Washington, D.C. all the way to Boston. In the previous world, if you wanted to travel to Boston from Washington the conventional way was the Pennsylvania Railroad to New York and the New Haven from New York to Boston. Now, it’s one-seat service.

Even with equipment rotation between the Florida trains and the Lake Shore Limited and Crescent, trainsets sit in New York’s Sunnyside yard sometimes for a full day.

This provides an opportunity for the Silver Meteor, Silver Star and Crescent to all have their northern terminus extended from New York to Boston to provide one-seat service or, even more aggressively, extend either Florida train to Montreal since the southern terminus is Miami and the primary maintenance base of Hialeah yard.

• Embrace odd-shaped routes. Many planners always think a route has to be a straight line.

There is nothing wrong with “L” shaped routes or other odd configurations. North Carolina’s state-subsidized Carolinian originates in Charlotte, travels north, then travels southeast to Raleigh and Selma, then travels north again to New York Penn station. This route embraces a good combination of major North Carolina cities and smaller intermediate markets before joining the CSX “I-95″ line for more northbound North Carolina stops before continuing on to the NEC and New York City.

The important factor is to efficiently connect markets passengers want as an origination/destination point to promote ridership and revenue. If that’s not in a straight line, that’s okay.

• Don’t be afraid to split/join trains enroute to serve two separate terminals. At one time this was a practiced art form; today, Amtrak does this in only four instances: The Sunset Limited and Texas Eagle in San Antonio, the Eagle dropping the Chicago – St. Louis coach, the Empire Builder split/join in Spokane for the Builder to proceed to separate terminals in Seattle and Portland and the Albany split/join for the New York City and Boston sections of the Lake Shore Limited. What used to be accomplished in a few minutes now has multiples of 10 minute segments devoted to the process.

As always, it’s a combination question of how much revenue can be gained by an extra expense such as this and how much will this contribute to good equipment utilization?

In earlier Amtrak days this was common, such as the City of New Orleans/ River Cities, the California Zephyr/Desert Wind/Pioneer, Silver Meteor and Silver Star splits in Florida, the through-car to Florida on the Capitol Limited, the Crescent dropping/adding cars in Atlanta, the Crescent/Gulf Breeze and others.

• Create run-through trains, such as a Hiawatha train from Milwaukee running beyond Chicago to Memphis. Perhaps a Cascades service train eastward to Spokane? Or some combination of Illinois and Michigan trains to combine to form a new, much needed second train to Grand Rapids?

• Because a state subsidizes a train for part of its route doesn’t mean the train is not a good candidate for expansion or combination with another state-subsidized train. The Carolinian and the Virginia trains are all only subsidized northward into Washington Union Station. Beyond that, they are considered NEC trains with no need for subsidy. Wisconsin and Illinois already jointly subsidize the Hiawatha service. Michigan subsidizes the Blue Water, Pere Marquette and Wolverine services, both the Blue Water and Wolverines also make stops in Indiana. Washington State and Oregon co-sponsor the Cascades Service.These are templates for other states working together.

• Much to the surprise of some, passenger trains run efficiently both night and day. While daytime corridor trains may serve a good purpose, the most efficient use of passenger train equipment is on long distance/inter-regional trains which operate both day and overnight.

For those who insist corridors are the future, simply allow yourself to understand that most long distance train routes are actually a series of corridors strung together serviced by one set of equipment, providing one-seat service for passengers choosing to beyond a set of short-distance city-pairs.

Often, it’s difficult times – such as pandemic times – which offer the starkest demonstration of reality. Amtrak has recently posted the full Fiscal Year 2020 annual report on its website. When people had to travel, we see which trains had the greatest transportation output and utility for the traveling public.

Looking at the annual report basic figures and combining them with FY 21 Year To Date figures we learn:

Revenue Passenger Miles

Northeast Corridor Trains: 123.2 million revenue passenger miles

Regional/State Subsidized Trains: 160 million revenue passenger miles

Long Distance/Inter-Regional Trains: 265.3 million revenue passenger miles

Load Factors

Northeast Corridor Trains: 20%

Regional/State Subsidized Trains: 16%

Long Distance/Inter-Regional Trains: 33%

• Night trains/sleeper trains are making a comeback all over the civilized world. Think of routes between major cities that take from six to 10 hours to run. Those are prime night train routes.

• People have to eat, and are willing to pay for acceptable food on a train. Plan for diners, grill cars and lounge cars. They all generate revenue. Also, don’t be afraid to schedule a baggage car. The airlines have taught/forced passengers to pay for checking baggage. While trains have the opportunity to shine over restrictive airline baggage policies, there is revenue to be made in this area.

• Don’t be a Stalinist and believe every traveler is equal and should have equal accommodations in a coach because that is what is best for the largest group of travelers. Plan for business class service (more than a newspaper, pillow and free bottle of water), the reintroduction of parlor cars – the original kind, not the Coast Starlight version – and sleeping cars. One thing the pandemic has proven is travelers seek private accommodations and a passenger train is the only form of land transportation which can offer this valuable service. It has been proven for decades passengers are willing to pay for two things: privacy and plumbing. Passengers like a room with a door and they prefer their private room come with sinks and toilets and showers when feasible. (Because there is always an argument about toilets in roomettes, the easy answer is to have two types of roomettes in each sleeping car: one with toilets and one without. Allow passengers to choose which they prefer.)

• Do not let an international border hinder your planning. For decades the International was a successful joint operation between Amtrak and VIA Rail Canada between Chicago and Toronto. The Maple Leaf carries on this tradition as does service between Seattle and Vancouver. New deals are in place between the United States and Canada to more easily restart Montrealer service. More will come.

• History is one of our greatest teachers. Examining historic routes is always a good starting point; the question is, has this route been devalued because of change in population and residents migrating out of the area, or is there still an unfilled need for common carrier transportation?

The next step is to examine current travel patterns, such as how busy interstate highways are, and what areas are being served by airlines?

For those with time to spare, it’s interesting to examine an overlay of the current national interstate highway system map over historic mainline passenger train routes. How much did the interstate highway planners depend on maps in The Official Guide of the Railways when they started drawing lines on blank paper?

The same is true for the airlines as they developed legacy carrier routes. While many of the routes were driven by early air mail contracts a century ago, the planning was also driven by passenger train routes and the cities and towns serviced by the railroads.

It’s all about travel patterns and demand. “Build it and they will come” is not necessarily a watchword for common carriers. While it worked for Florida’s two pioneering Henrys, Henry M. Flagler and Henry B. Plant who each turned wild country on Florida’s two coasts into what would become modern Florida with their railroads, it’s a different world now. Population first, then meet the demand of the population.

• One of the useful things government does is gather and publish statistics. The federal government’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics publishes mountains of professionally gathered data about all forms of transportation and travel patterns.

On a state or local level, some departments of transportation publish good data about city-pair travel on local interstate, intrastate and state roads. City-pair information is the gold standard for deciding on demand levels for transportation.

Become a statistics nerd and mine the data. It’s time well spent for passenger train planners.

• Don’t let equipment shortages curtail your long-term planning. Just as new routes are not created overnight, while it takes time for new equipment to come online, there has to be a plan in place to deploy new equipment.

Also, do not believe the only way to acquire new equipment is a cash purchase, financed from taxpayers. Historically there have been all sorts of ways of acquiring the use of new equipment including leasing and the creation of equipment pools.

• Finally, look at how many people – total travelers – use airlines, bus lines, and private vehicle transportation. It’s an astronomical number. For modern passenger trains to be successful, maybe as much as one to two percent of the total travelers is needed to convert to rail. Any competent marketer would see this as an easy challenge and would be mystified why Amtrak is America’s Best Kept Secret.

Here’s a comparison many can understand: For many statistical years, according to the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Amtrak’s transportation output often runs neck-and-neck with that of motorcycles. The next time you see a motorcycle zoom down the road, you are looking at a similar statistic to a passenger train rider.

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