U.S., Canada: Exploding the myth trains must be very fast to be attractive to passengers

Since the last days of steam many “experts” have believed all trains must be very fast to attract passengers away from automobile road trips. The Most Beautiful Train in the World, Southern Pacific’s Coast Daylight as seen above in this 1946 photo had a good schedule but also importantly offered convenience with multiple departures, intermediate station stops, full onboard amenities and overall good service, all of the reasons passengers made it successful. Internet photo.

By William Lindley, Guest Commentator; June 16, 2022

Key points:

• Convenience of use is more important than train speed for passengers.

• Arrival and departure times play a major role in choosing train travel.

• Frequency of operation is critical to attract passengers.

• Terminal to terminal is inefficient; intermediate station stops increase utility and ridership

• For train operators, efficient equipment utilization dictates schedules and passenger convenience.

Convenience is more important than speed

There are some people ‒ including those declaring themselves experts on the subject ‒ who believe and preach passengers will not be attracted to passenger trains unless the trains have competitive travel times with private automobiles.

They are not correct. Here is the reality of the subject.

There has been much written about train speeds and how much that affects whether travelers will select a train trip over driving, but less on the real key question of convenience for the traveler.

Private car travel is the ultimate choice for complete convenience, assuming one is willing and able to use an automobile; passengers/drivers come and go at will and do not follow any set schedule. That is the big competition for trains in markets of under 500 miles, not the exact travel time.

Regardless of how fast a train is, if the departure and arrival times are inconvenient, people will not use it. The same is true for a bus, ship, or jet airplane. This is demonstrated in Europe daily with the high utility of overnight sleeper trains. The trains do not travel particularly fast but leave their departing terminal at a desirable hour and arrive the next morning at the arriving terminal again at a desirable time. Between terminals, passengers receive a comfortable night’s sleep in a real bed with suitable amenities.

European Nightjet train, one of several brands operating on the continent. Nightjet publicity photo.

The same holds true for daylight travelers; if a train departs at a desirable hour and arrives at a convenient time, passengers will choose the train over driving. But the train must offer amenities driving a private vehicle cannot, such as the ability to work or relax enroute, have sufficient food service, be clean and comfortable and have station facilities which are desirable, including available parking.

California’s Pacific Surfliner service operated by Amtrak has two daily departures between endpoints of San Diego and San Luis Obispo plus another three daily departures between San Diego and Goleta and six additional departures between San Diego and Los Angeles and various Thruway bus connections. The full route is 350 miles; the train travel time between San Diego and San Luis Obispo is approximately nine hours and the trip between San Diego and Los Angeles is approximately three hours. Highway drive time between San Diego and San Luis Obispo is approximately six hours and San Diego and Los Angeles is approximately two hours and forty minutes. The Pacific Surfliners in pre-pandemic 2019 carried 2,541,127 passengers for an average terminal departure of 316 passengers. Pacific Surfliners have two classes of service, cafe cars and baggage handling at select stations. Wikipedia photo.

The question of longer distance, inter-regional trains is another discussion. Passengers choosing train travel over longer distances which includes trips of more than 15 to 18 hours still are more likely to value the convenience factor over the speed factor. They, too, want to know dependably when they will depart and when they will arrive. If the trip takes longer than the time to drive, but not significantly so, the train will still win because of the amenities outlined above.

Amtrak’s daily Palmetto service at Wilson, North Carolina. The Palmetto has a run of 829 miles from New York Pennsylvania Station to Savannah, Georgia taking approximately 16 hours. From Savannah to Rocky Mount, North Carolina the Palmetto mirrors the route of the Silver Meteor, providing two departures in each direction daily. North of Rocky Mount to Richmond, Virginia the Palmetto and Silver Meteor are joined by the Silver Star and Carolinian for four departures in each direction. North of Richmond, multiple trains are available up to and throughout the Northeast Corridor. Passengers riding on the Palmetto have choices of departures and arrivals, two classes of service, a cafe and baggage car service. In pre-pandemic 2019, each Palmetto terminal departure carried an average of 468 passengers. The Palmetto operates at 79 mph track speed over CSX tracks south of Washington Union Station and typical higher conventional train speeds on the NEC. Wikipedia photo.

Driving a private vehicle can be tiring, expensive and worrisome. The tradeoff of travel by train versus the various hazards of a long road trip in a car or truck for is not a contest, the train wins. But, again, convenience most likely will be the deciding factor.

Each traveler and trip is equally important

There are many types of trips such as work, shopping and leisure; traveling for each is equally important and we must look at them as a group, not individual travelers. Think of it like counting how many people are on a New York City sidewalk, riders on a subway, or cars on a highway, at various times of day. What are reasons someone chooses to ride, or not ride a train?

Imagine for a moment there is an imaginary “transporter” from classic science fiction that has infinite speed, but which only leaves on a fixed schedule. How often would you use this instant transit, regardless of where you are going, if its only departures were at 5:17 am, 2:17 pm, and 11:37 pm? Or only Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 1:40 am? Think of it like the current Amtrak schedule at Cincinnati.

Horse drawn streetcar; rapid transit in 1877. Wikipedia image.

Now, harken back to the 19th Century and the horse-drawn streetcar with a top speed of perhaps 10 miles an hour. How often would you use this if one came along every three minutes — miss one and the next one is already in sight — if you were only going a mile or two?

Note, too, that the horsecar would usually stop at each intersection, or could be stopped with a wave or a word to the conductor. If you were on the street where it ran, you never had to go far to get on board.

Avoiding the mistake of endpoint mentality

Main line trains generally stop only at stations or designated places several miles apart as accelerating and decelerating a train takes time and energy. The faster your top speed, the longer it takes to get up to or slow down from it at a station. The result is the further apart you will place stations because of this fact. This often leads to the “endpoint mentality.”

Historic Glendale, Arizona Santa Fe station. William Lindley photo.

If you think of a train same as an airplane, you might plan a rail service like this, using Glendale and Tucson, Arizona as an example:

    Leave Glendale 7:00 am

    Arrive Tucson 9:30 am

because you are thinking only of top speed and avoiding station stops.

Surrounding areas influenced by a train; if you have to travel too far for a station you will select another transportation choice

Each station has a “catchment area” — the surrounding area, conceptually a circle but shaped by geography and city design. If you must travel too far to a station, you will likely choose another mode entirely.

As an example, if you are in the metropolitan Phoenix town of Glendale, Arizona and must find your way to the nearest train station which is Maricopa, a quaint but remote clearing in the desert 45 miles away to board a train for Tucson, you might as well just stay in your car and drive the remaining hour or so to Tucson. This distance from Maricopa to Tucson is only an additional 84 miles.

Former Phoenix Union Station. Marc Pearsall photo.
Union Pacific Railroad and METRO trolley at Tempe Depot. Marc Pearsall and John Waide photo.
Tucson Amtrak Station. Wikmapia photo.
Tucson International Airport. Flytucson.com photo.

“First and last mile” rule: A huge part of the convenience factor which makes usage soar

Catchment area also depends on transit connections and the critical “first and last mile” rule: Tucson’s depot today is served by SunTran trolleys, and Glendale is served by Valley Metro bus lines.

Looking at the original two terminals ‒ Glendale and Tucson ‒ but adding intermediate station stops, convenience for users soars.

    Leave Glendale 7:00 am (Valley Metro bus service)

    Leave State Capitol 7:15 am (Connection, Valley Metro west line trolley [being built])

    Leave Phoenix Union Station 7:30 am

    Leave Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport 7:40 am (Connections, Valley Metro trolley, SkyTrain)

    Leave Tempe 7:55 am (Connections, Valley Metro trolley, Tempe Streetcar, ASU main campus)

    Leave Mesa 8:10 am (Connection, Mesa Streetcar [planned])

    Leave Gilbert 8:25 am

    Leave Gateway Airport 8:35 am (Arizona State University East [former Williams Air Force Base])

    Leave Coolidge 9:05 am (bus to Casa Grande National Monument)

    Arrive Orange Grove Road, Tucson 9:30 am

    Arrive Tucson Depot 9:45 am (Connection, SunTran trolley to University of Arizona)

    Arrive Tucson International Airport 10:00 am

We go from a single origin/destination combination of two possible trips in the first case (Glendale to Tucson and return), to 132 possible trips (from each of 12 stations to the other 11; 12 x 11 = 132). Furthermore, we add connections to residential zones, business centers, universities, and airports.

Sixty times more useful at small cost to endpoint-to-endpoint time

The entire system becomes sixty times more useful at a small cost in endpoint-to-endpoint time. And by serving both sides of each endpoint city, we achieve closer to the enviable “one-seat ride” which so increases ridership (and passenger-miles, which result in revenue).

Convenience also depends on flexibility and critical early morning, midday and late at night service

For another example: A student, a nurse, a paralegal and a machinist each need to be somewhere at a certain time, but if your transportation choice does not allow for late starts, half days, “come home your child is sick,” or an evening of bowling, a movie theater, or bar talk afterward, most folks will find a single way of transportation that doesn’t require intricate planning.

Consider the schedule of such a system. Showing only the terminal stations, we use two trainsets. To start, we have:

    Trainset A.

        Leave Glendale 7:00 am, Arrive Tucson International Airport 10:00 am;

        Depart Tucson International Airport 4:30 pm, Arrive Glendale 7:30 pm.

    Trainset B. (Same schedule in reverse; starting with Tucson International Airport 7:00 am departure)

This brief example gives a poor return on investment; each train operates only six hours and less than 300 miles a day. Worse, as a passenger, you have only one possible path of one departure to each city down the line. From Glendale, for example, you can ride to Tempe in the morning and back in the afternoon, that’s it; there are no earlier or later times available.

Now consider adding a single midday trip with the same equipment.

    Trainset A.

        Leave Glendale 7:00 am, Arrive Tucson International Airport 10:00 am;

        Leave Tucson International Airport 10:30 pm, Arrive Glendale 1:30 pm;

        Leave Glendale 4:30 pm, Arrive Tucson International Airport 7:30 pm.

    Trainset B. (likewise in reverse)

From Glendale you could catch the 7:00 am train in time for an arrival in Tempe before 8am, and then catch either the midday or the evening train home. This 50% increase in train-miles has made the system twice as useful. In short, the Network or Matrix Effect works as much for time as it does for place.

An Arizona Regional Rail proposal from 2000. William Lindley map on behalf of Arizona Rail Passenger Association.

Adding new time slots adds new origin/departure combinations creating greater ridership

Just as adding a single station to a route adds twice as many origin/departure combinations as stations on the route (from each existing station to the new one; and back), each new time slot (up to some limit) adds origin/departure time combinations.

The reason why slow attrition of branch line passenger service in the 1950s led to faster unraveling of the intercity rail network in the 1960s

Conversely, cutting a single primary time slot, or a single station, from a route’s schedule reduces the time or place combinations by twice as many as there are stations or departures remaining. That explains why the slow attrition of branch line passenger service in the 1950s led to faster and faster unraveling of the intercity rail network in the 1960s: each single cut (whether of a train departure or of a station served) had a far larger system-wide impact that might have been obvious.

Three important points

Let us define three things:

• The total perceived travel time is the actual travel time plus half the time elapsed since the previous departure.

• The perceived speed is the distance traveled, divided by the above perceived travel time.

• The perceived convenience is directly related to its perceived speed, weighted against the perceived speeds of the alternatives.

A 1977 photo of Boston Harbor. William Lindley photo.
1977 Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority schedule for the No. 77 trolleybus. Frequent, all-day service maximizes ridership. William Lindley image.

The slower ferry gets passengers to their destination quicker than a train, bus, or car; “top speed” does not matter

Boston’s MBTA offers commuter ferry service from several towns around the Bay to Long Wharf right on Boston’s waterfront, even though most of those towns have rail and bus service.

The ferry, being more direct, gets there quicker despite a much lower top speed. Highways, which go around the Bay and are plagued by backups and slowdowns, are a less-attractive alternative. The “perceived speed” of the ferry is equal to or slightly faster than the “perceived speed” of the train or driving: “top speed” matters not at all.

William Lindley chart.

Looking at the results in a graph

If we graph the number of daily departures beyond which adding more trains does not add significant ridership (i.e., the line of maximum return on market share) we get something like the chart above..

Frequency of departure does not matter as much for longer trips

As the trip length increases, the number of daily departures, or the frequency of departures, becomes less and less important in the aggregate. This is called a logistic curve, and is often seen in the natural sciences.

1958 New York Central timetable. William Lindley collection; photo.

The New York Central Railroad in 1958 provides a good example

As for a train [1] from Chicago to Cleveland via Cincinnati: As just one example, the New York Central in the July 1958 timetable lists the overnight Train 306, The Midwestern, with a schedule departing Chicago at 5:10 pm, arriving at Cincinnati 11:00 pm and Cleveland at 7:30 am.

The train had a sleeping car from Chicago to Asheville, North Carolina, handled south of Cincinnati by the Southern Railway; a sleeper from Cincinnati to Cleveland; and another sleeping car from Cincinnati to Buffalo, carried in No. 306 to Cleveland and then in No. 50, the Empire State Express, to Buffalo. Coaches were operated from Chicago to Cleveland via Cincinnati. The through-cars left Cleveland at 9:15 am and arrived Buffalo at 12:45 pm.

[1] Actually a car-line handled in two trains but advertised to the public and operated as if it were its own train.

True, you could have chosen No. 358, the Niagara, departing Chicago at 8:50 pm and arriving Buffalo at 9:45 am, cutting six hours off the travel time, and with more convenient departure and arrival times. The New York Central, however, operated this train to serve not just Chicago and Buffalo but Kankakee, Lafayette, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Dayton, Springfield, and Columbus — and all the combinations of those city-pairs added to the Cincinnati–Buffalo train. On all these routes, the New York Central offered three or more daily trains; there were four each way daily between Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Chicago.

1958 New York Central timetable showing train No. 306, the Midwestern. William Lindley collection and photo.

That was then, this is what could be now

Today, just the routing into Chicago from Kankakee north and west of Lafayette, Indiana as an alternative to Dyer — on a rail line that still exists — would open a fair number of city-pair combinations even in the present Amtrak network. If we imagine three daily trains departing Indianapolis for Chicago, the morning train might take the current route through Dyer (with suburban Chicago stops added for METRA and CTA connections); the second train could travel via Kankakee, and the third overnight from Indianapolis to Fort Wayne, Elkhart, South Bend, and transiting the South Shore Line making limited stops and terminating at Millennium Station.

The sum of it all

Altogether, we see that:

• A matrix of arrival and departures is important not just in space but also in time.

• Serving more stations with more schedules results in much more usability, and resultant revenue, than might be obvious.

• Increasing speed, or adding frequencies, has a huge impact at the low end but eventually with diminishing returns.

• Trains, being not airplanes, have tremendous flexibility both in serving intermediate stations and in exchanging cars with each other.

It is true, competition from superhighways and jet aircraft hurt the railroads in the 1950s. At the same time, streetcars were removed from most cities, and bus services declined; little effort was made to connect trains to airports.

Yet it was eliminating service to small towns and cutting secondary trains — and the railroads’ failure to work with each other on a coherent network of what remained — that resulted in entire intercity passenger network falling apart, ever faster, through the 1960s.

Today, it is possible to use the same mathematics in reverse to build connectivity and unleash the latent demand for regional and intercity passenger trains.

Brightline’s higher speed service between its MiamiCentral station and West Palm Beach has attracted over two million passengers since its pre-pandemic inaugural run. Brightline is currently constructing new infrastructure and track to extend service to Orlando International Airport in late 2022 with plans to continue to Tampa via Orlando’s International Drive resort area and Disney Springs. Brightline runs at 79 mph today between Miami and West Palm Beach and when construction is completed to Orlando International Airport will operate at speeds up to 150 mph once it’s on dedicated tracks west of Cocoa Beach. Brightline currently operates 16 round trips a day and will continue that frequency when service is extended. Brightline is also in the process of developing high speed 180 mph service between Las Vegas and Southern California, ultimately terminating at Los Angeles Union Station. Brightline, along with Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor will have the speediest passenger trains in North America until California’s Bullet Train is eventually built. Each of the Brightline services and Amtrak on the NEC have their own unique markets which will and do operate in harmony with conventional speed passenger trains. Brightline publicity photo.
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