U.S., Amtrak and others: A primer of best practices for how to plan passenger train expansions

Pennsylvania Railroad’s fast and efficient, all-stainless steel Congressional Service between New York Pennsylvania Station and Washington Union Station under Northeast Corridor catenary and whisked along behind a stylish GG-1 all-electric locomotive in this 1965 promotional photo. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on this platform on March 29, 2021. It has been updated with photographs and illustrations added. – Corridorrail.com Editor

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; August 5, 2022

The striking Boston South Station, first opened in 1899 and renovated in 1985 shown in this contemporary photo. South Station is the northern end of the Northeast Corridor; it serves both Amtrak NEC and Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority commuter trains. To continue further north on the Amtrak Downeaster Service, passengers must transfer to Boston North Station,which serves as the southern end of the Downeaster Service. The service extends north to Maine. The only long distance/inter-regional train providing service to/from South Station is the Boston section of the Lake Shore Limited. Before Amtrak assumed NEC service, Boston South Station was a major destination for New Haven Railroad services. Wikimedia Commons photo.
New Haven Northeast Corridor equipment in Boston South Station in 1965. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The original version of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s New York Pennsylvania Station in 1962. Already looking a bit shabby, a cash-starved Pennsylvania Railroad would allow this ultimate example of passenger station architecture to be sold and torn down to make way for today’s Madison Square Garden and an office building to take it’s place above street level. The demolition and rebuilding ran from 1963 to 1968 with the train station below street level remaining fully functioning. Today, the next-door Moynihan Train Hall in the former Farley Post Office Building has begun to recreate a better train station for New York City than the warren of dark passageways that defined the 1968 version. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Whether you are Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner or an experienced planner for a new, private passenger train developer, here are some of the best practices for successful route planning from both a financial and highest utilization of equipment and assets viewpoint:

• 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.

Amtrak’s Sunnyside Yard in Queens, built by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1910 as the primary coach yard for the just-built New York Pennsylvania Station. Sunnyside Yard is a busy place, servicing all Amtrak trains originating from New York Penn Station. Wikimedia Commons photo.

• 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?

A contemporary photo of the relatively new Moynihan Train Hall of New York Penn Station where the Amtrak Florida Silver Service trains originate as well we the Crescent and Lake Shore Limited among many other regional trains. New York Penn also serves as an intermediate station for Northeast Corridor Acela and Northeast Regional trains which operate from Boston South Station to Washington Union Station. If the Silver Meteor, Silver Star and Crescent all originated in Boston instead of New York Penn then a one-seat ride would be available to thousands of annual passengers living north of New York City and no extra equipment would required. Wikipedia photo.
The pint-size River Cities was a single coach carried on the City of New Orleans from New Orleans to Carbondale, Illinois where it was split off and then ran from Carbondale to St. Louis. At St. Louis it was added to a Kansas City Mule consist to reach its ultimate destination of Kansas City. The River Cities ran from 1984 to 1993. Wikimedia Commons photo.

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.

A contemporary photo of the Michigan-subsidized Pere Marquette Service at its Grand Rapids, Michigan terminal. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The lone surviving passenger platform of Central Station in Memphis, Tennessee, now served daily only by the City of New Orleans. Memphis, a major tourist destination, could easily support a second frequency from the Chicago area, such as the extension of a Hiawatha Service train providing all-daylight service. Wikimedia Commons photo.

• 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.

The historic Southern Pacific Railroad Sunset Route former passenger station in San Antonio, Texas. The station today is an entertainment venue and Amtrak moved to a new, adjacent, smaller station in 1998 where three times a week cars from the Texas Eagle are added/subtracted to/from the Sunset Limited for through-car service to Los Angeles. Wikimedia Commons photo.

For those who unfortunately 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 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 (As originally published in 2021 in the middle of the pandemic) 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%

Las Vegas used to have Amtrak service from 1979 to 1997 courtesy of the Chicago-Los Angeles Desert Wind. Brightline West is currently planning new Las Vegas-Southern California high speed service. Wikimedia Commons photo.

• 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 former 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.

This 1983 photograph of the Maple Leaf Service traveling over the Whirlpool Bridge spanning the Niagara River at Niagara Falls between the United States and Canada. The trip today between New York Penn Station and Toronto Union Station takes about 12.5 hours. Wikimedia Commons photo.

• 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.

This illustration succinctly demonstrates how Henry Plant and Henry Flagler each developed separate parts of the then-wilds of 19th Century and early 20th Century Florida. Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway still exists, but is now owned by a major transportation company in Mexico. Plant’s system became part of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad which today is part of CSX Transportation. Ironically, both the FEC and CSX are headquartered a few miles from each other in Jacksonville, Florida. American Business History illustration.

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.

The Official Guide of the Railways, fist published in 1868 is still a vital tool used today for researchers planning new passenger train routes. This February 1956 Guide, about four inches thick, gives a historic perspective of what service was provided towards the end of the streamliner era and shows traffic patterns and distances. Used as a basis, the information can be updated and plugged into current information. A freight edition of the Guide is still published today. Wikimedia Commons photo.

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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