U.S.: One Size of Passenger Trains Does Not Fit All

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; February 25, 2021

Just about everyone (because there is always someone with a contrary opinion) can agree that one size does not fit all. This seems to be common wisdom. If you’re in the passenger railroad business these days, the wisdom seems to be broadly ignored.

One of the major advantages passenger trains have over all other forms of transportation is the easy ability to add and subtract both passenger cars and motive power. Have a sold out train? Add another car. Have a heavy holiday consist? Add another locomotive so you can maintain the schedule. It’s a pretty simple concept.

The modern thinking seems to be a throwback to the days in 1934 of Edward G. Budd and the Budd Company’s first articulated stainless steel streamliner, the Pioneer Zephyr for the Burlington Railroad. Perhaps this piece of history is one which should be ignored when planning new passenger trains.

Today, Amtrak and VIA Rail Canada are both procuring new trainsets – not train cars, but trainsets – for their next generation of rolling stock.

In the last half century there has been some history of articulated trainsets, including the Turboliners in the 1970s, and more recently, the Talgos used on the Pacific Northwest’s Cascades Service. It’s notable the Turboliners were pulled from service long before their service life was over, largely because their fixed consists limited the ability to meet passenger demand.

When Amtrak introduced the Northeast Corridor’s Acela Service in 2000, these were also fixed consists. Amtrak was so sure they had achieved consist nirvana that the special Acela maintenance facilities were built to hold exactly the size of the consist. No thought about future growth.

Most other NEC trains and many state-subsidized trains fall into the same category; same size consist, no matter the load factor. One has to wonder why; is it because no one wants to actively manage the reservations system and add and subtract equipment as necessary?

Up-and-coming Brightline in Florida seems to be following the same model of fixed consists. Texas Central Partners for their Dallas-Houston high speed train seem to be thinking about that, too.

Here’s one of the biggest drawbacks of fixed consists: When one part of the consist fails, the entire consist fails. If you have a bad-order car at any point in the consist, then the entire consist is sidelined for maintenance. In traditional train consists, when you have a bad-order car, the car is simply replaced.

Looking at today’s long distance/inter-regional trains, one size does not seem to fit all. On the West coast, the Coast Starlight typically has more carrying capacity than the Silver Meteor on the East coast. The Starlight’s route is 1,377 miles long, the Meteor’s route is 1,389 miles. Both start their routes at a major terminal city and end at another major terminal city. Both have multiple large urban areas along the route and a high number of intermediate station stops. But, the Starlight is more than just transportation, it’s a travel destination itself. The Meteor does yeoman work moving passengers, but few take the Meteor for the “travel experience” and scenery. In a typical year, the Starlight carries about 100,000 more passengers than the Meteor.

In the pre-Amtrak world, American passenger trains were right-sized for their seasonal needs. Railroads often ran smaller consists in non-holiday winter months when demand was the lowest. Summer train consists were always longer when family vacationers took to the rails. Amtrak does this today on its long distance/inter-regional trains, but not to the extent the pre-Amtrak railroads did.

In those same days when there were multiple frequencies on most routes, the premium Pullman sleeping car train of the route usually had the longest consist. Some secondary trains, such as Union Pacific’s Domeliner Challenger and Santa Fe’s Hi-Level El Capitan, both all-coach trains, both operating between Chicago and Los Angeles, carried consists equal to their sibling Pullman sleeping car trains, including lounge and full-service dining cars.

Most secondary trains carried smaller consists to meet the passenger demand. Great Northern’s Western Star, the lesser sibling to the Empire Builder had the smaller consist. The was true on the Northern Pacific with the North Coast Limited and the Mainstreeter. The North Coast Limited was the premium train; it was longer.

Local mail and express trains often had more head-end baggage and mail cars than passenger cars.

Delightfully, some post-World War II railroads found a way, courtesy of the Budd Company, to provide adequate service on lightly-patronized, short-distance departures, but still offer a necessary complement of trains: The Budd Rail Diesel Cars. The RDCs were employed by many railroads which needed to fill in under-patronized schedules, but still offer some sort of service. Not only were they used as main line trains, they also operated efficiently in local commuter service.

The RDCs were popular throughout the country and in Canada, too, where VIA Rail Canada continues today to operate the equipment in regularly scheduled service in Ontario between Sudbury and White River Junction.

Today, RDCs, under different manufacturers have been rebranded as Diesel Multiple Units, or DMUs. The concept is the same – no separate locomotive; the cars are self-propelled, and can be configured in short or long consists. The important factor is they provide a choice; some routes need a full, long train, but a fill-in frequency may only need a DMU consist.

We have seen the financial havoc raised by Amtrak’s common consists in the East. It is appropriate to wonder if all of the new consists which will be difficult to be altered as demand warrants will overall generate the same type of poor financial results as the common consists inflicted on the Florida Service and the Crescent and Lake Shore Limited.

Choice is good, customization is good, meeting market demand is the best. Having only a single solution to all problems is a problem itself.

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