U.S., Someone Died and Made You King of the Passenger Trains, Part Three

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; February 24, 2021

Someone died and made you king of passenger trains. You previously decided who is going to help you run your passenger train company and you have figured out where your trains are going to go, with the help of the matrix theory, which required no math. Now, it’s time to figure out frequency of operations.

How many trains on any given route?

First, immediately eliminate the single most expensive way to operate a long distance/inter-regional train, which is tri-weekly or less service.

It’s ironic bean counters always come back to this option because they are only looking at train miles, car/day miles for maintenance, and onboard services and train and engine crews. The bean counters think when these costs – which they label avoidable costs – are eliminated, then lots of money is saved.

These are probably the same bean counters who believe in both the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus (We are presuming no one under the age of 10 is reading this space; if you are under the age of 10 and reading this space, please ignore this paragraph. We’re just kidding. There really is a Santa Claus and Easter Bunny.).

Several major issues cause expenses to be high on tri-weekly trains, and they can’t be ignored.

Stations on single frequency routes which only serve tri-weekly trains are horribly inefficient. The landlord of the station doesn’t care how often a train calls at the station, the monthly rent and/or upkeep and maintenance is the same. Only two passengers a week? Pay me. Two hundred passengers a week? Pay me. It doesn’t matter.

The same is true for reservations centers, be they properly staffed with live customer service representatives or some sort of electronic being which most likely can’t answer your questions. Keeping a reservations center/res system open and operating costs the same, no matter what the train frequency is, daily or tri-weekly.

Headquarters personnel, be they executives, managers, clerks, assistants or janitors, they all work at least a 40 hour week. The paperwork to keep a tri-weekly train running versus a daily train isn’t that much different; the paper stacks are just higher or lower.

Don’t forget the rolling stock of locomotives and passenger cars. Railroad equipment is built to be in use 24 hours a day for long periods of time, generating revenue when it is properly maintained to the manufacturer’s specifications. Most equipment ideally has an eight to 10 hour terminal turn-around time to be properly cleaned and restocked. Equipment which sits unused for longer periods of time than that is simply costing money because it is not generating income.

Host railroads are not thrilled with less than daily trains. Railroads are organizations which are creatures of habit. Any given dispatcher at any given railroad on any given division or subdivision likes to know on their shift they have “X” amount of trains to deal with, be they freight or passenger. They have a strategy to build and maintain to keep their railroad fluid. On the few days of the week when a tri-weekly train operates, that requires a completely separate strategy to run their piece of railroad. Familiar and normal is good; something extra thrown into the mix only causes grief and heartburn.

By now, you’ve gotten the picture covering a few of the areas why tri-weekly service is not good; it’s expensive.

Your next choice is daily service. Many of the same elements are in play with daily service as with tri-weekly service. Lots of expensive infrastructure has to be maintained for just a single train a day in each direction, but, it is an improvement over tri-weekly.

Let’s be bold. Let’s presume you as the new king are operating your passenger railroad in such a fashion as you want the highest number of passengers filling up your trains and generating load factors to write home about. You come up with a bold plan: You will not only schedule trains for as many convenient times as possible for passengers, but you will also schedule at least two to three frequencies a day on each route, making it desirable for passengers to ride your trains.

Much to the astonishment of many in the passenger rail business, passengers choose to travel when it is convenient for them, not when it is convenient for the railroad. Airlines figured this out decades ago, and have never forgotten the concept. Even cruise lines schedule cruises as convenient as possible for passengers. So many planners forget the single largest factor most travelers cite when they choose to travel by their own private vehicle: They travel on their own schedule, at their own speed, and stop when it is convenient. Somehow, this concept has eluded many passenger train planners for the last half century.

The ideal staggering of daily frequencies is an average of six to eight hours apart. An early morning terminal departure before 9 a.m., a second departure late in the afternoon, and then an overnight departure. Some routes may be popular enough to support four to six departures a day. Usually with three daily departures, for routes which run more than 24 hours of travel time, at least two of the frequencies for any given intermediate station will call at marketable times.

Inevitably the old excuse of the railroads not allowing that many passenger trains on their tracks comes up. The correct answer is always the same: fairly compensate the host railroad for use of its tracks and dispatching and they will happily provide passenger train slots.

Now that you are the new king of passenger trains you understand all of the old formulas don’t work, and you are an astute businessperson who is ready to sit down with your host railroads and come to an agreement where everyone leaves the negotiating table happy. There shouldn’t be winners and losers, only both parties content each is ending up with a fair deal.

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