U.S., Three Steps To Fix American Passenger Trains Now While The $80 Billion Plan Is Debated

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation, April 5, 2021

As we further examine Amtrak’s letter to Santa Claus as outlined in last week’s infrastructure proposal from The White House, there is much to be discussed. We see lots of lines on a map to provide some new regional mobility, but not many lines that promote inter-regional mobility nor connecting distant parts of the country with each other. It seems clear Amtrak has no multi-decade interest in long distance/inter-regional trains.

While this debate goes on in the halls of Congress and via social media online, Andrew Selden offers highly relevant instruction on what can be accomplished on a far sooner basis than multi-decades projects.

First, Mr. Selden instructs to add more capacity to current train consists. In more than one instance long distance/inter-regional trains operate at near-sold out capacity. We know that a 65% load factor, because of intermediate station on/offs, is a train at capacity. While some short segments may be available for sale, longer-distance segments which provide higher revenue and greater transportation output are often blocked because of no available space for sale. Adding more cars/capacity solves this problem in conjunction with a well-programmed yield management system which is directly monitored by human beings versus computer algorithms.

Second, extend current routes to logical endpoints. As this has been discussed before at length, consider easy fixes such as extending the California Zephyr south from the Bay area to Los Angeles, offering new overnight service on California’s coast line. In another part of the country, extend the Silver Meteor from New York City to Montreal, making it an international train and tremendously adding to equipment utilization which directly grows revenues. There are dozens of other similar opportunities around the country.

Third, add more frequencies to existing routes. While new route development is important to be able to generate more city pairs which generate more travel opportunities which generate more revenues, first adding greater travel opportunities on existing routes is a quick way to greater mobility. Running a single train on a route is an approach which says “ride this train or else” and invites potential passengers to seek other, more convenient ways to travel. Is one train better than no train? Yes. But it is only barely an improvement over no service.

On a similar subject to increasing revenues it is important for passenger trains to offer a wider variety of food service, onboard amenities, coach seating and private accommodations.

Consider this: If the hospitality industry followed Amtrak’s model there would only be two types of hotels in the country, a no-frills budget hotel and a medium-frills hotel with basic services but few amenities beyond hot water and clean towels.

If you see a dozen travelers from anywhere you are looking at a dozen people with individual needs. None of us can predict what medical conditions someone may have which has a special need when traveling and none of us can say what someone else’s personal preferences may be around strangers.

The airlines have created a legacy of cramming people together in uncomfortable situations and demanding conformity. Unless transoceanic travel in involved, most airline passengers only endure the extreme unpleasant conditions found on planes for a few hours. Not so on trains, as often trips involve an overnight journey.

It makes great sense to offer – for a price – as wide a variety of services as possible to attract and make comfortable the greatest number of passengers. As we have explored in this space recently passenger trains of the past have often met this challenge and done so with distinction. When passenger trains lost that ability a half a century ago, passenger trains lost their souls.

The same goes for food service. Rigid dining hours, small and rigid menus riddled with “fad foods” which don’t meet the needs of the greatest number of travelers and restrictions for coach passengers to even purchase a full and healthy meal are recipes for discontent and unhappiness among passengers.

We know there are those who eat to survive, but the much larger share of the population eats to not only survive but also as a pleasurable part of life. A good meal in good company is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Those who choose to eat only to survive and think it is fine to bring their own food onboard don’t get a vote regarding onboard food services. Good food service enhances revenues and makes for more contented – and returning – passengers.

It’s not about any one single thing; it’s about a complete package of travel experiences which appeals to the greatest numbers of travelers who are willing to pay for a pleasant trip.

If you don’t think that’s true, ask anyone who is a success in the worldwide $37+ billion cruise industry. They figured this out a long time ago and are cruising all the way to the bank.

As we embark on a new era of passenger train service keep this in mind: When there has been a sole-source provider for half of a century, there is a misbegotten belief that the sole-source way is the only way to do things. Question everything, and don’t hesitate to wonder, “what about, if …”.

Do not let anyone tell you differently about non-commuter passenger trains: Ridership doesn’t count. It’s only a measure of transactions. What really counts is load factor – as is used universally by every other type of common carrier – and transportation output, the two real measurements of success.

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