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

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; February 10, 2021

Someone died and made you the king of passenger trains. You’ve previously decided who is going to help you run your passenger train company, now you have to figure out where your passenger trains are going to go.

You survey a current map of passenger trains and discover most routes highly inefficiently only touch other routes at terminal points.

The problem with that is this provides very little promise of an effect from the matrix theory. The matrix theory (don’t go away, no math is involved here) dictates that when one route connects to another route at points other than an endpoint terminal, then the utility of that route for passengers soars. More people can more easily go to more places.

The pre-Amtrak railroads understood this, and through interline ticketing and agreements, essentially each railroad fed passengers to the other railroads when it benefitted each railroad.

For Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor between Washington, D.C. and New York City, the apparent presumption is passengers in that part of the country only desire to travel in a north/south pattern. The only feeding point from the west (the east doesn’t count, as that’s the Atlantic Ocean) is Philadelphia and the Keystone Service.

No passenger feed from the west at Baltimore, Wilmington, Trenton, or Newark exists. The presumption must be there are no passengers desiring to travel to those cities from anywhere other than north or south of those cities.

The same is true for transcontinental trains such as the Empire Builder, California Zephyr, and Southwest Chief. For the Southwest Chief there is some inter-connectivity at Kansas City, but that’s it. No north/south connectivity exists for these routes. They are truly “stand alone” routes which only have connections/hubs at endpoint terminals. Endpoint terminal connections are good for ongoing travelers, but do nothing to fill trains at intermediate stations and provide a greater utility for passengers.

Trains only traveling in one direction such as east/west, do nothing for travelers wanting to travel north/south. When there are fewer travel choices, there are fewer travelers wishing to purchase tickets.

An easy example of this is a possible north/south connection at Denver on the California Zephyr line and Trinidad or Raton on the Southwest Chief line. This simple connection makes it possible for every California Zephyr passenger from every station to have a connection to make use of every station on the Southwest Chief line without having to travel all the way to an endpoint terminal and come all the way back on the other route.

The matrix theory, which has been in full use by airlines with their hub-and-spoke system for decades, says the more passenger connections are available, the higher the chance a passenger will want to use those connections. If one route crosses another route, then every station on the first route is connected to every station on the crossing route because passengers can change trains at the crossing point.

Computer modeling in recent years has shown that ridership soars when routes are connected properly with other routes going in another direction. That is simply because the number of city pair choices soars. Instead of just the city pairs on the first route, suddenly every city on the first route is also connected to every city on the second route. Where there may have been a dozen choices on just the first route, that can blossom to dozens of choices when the city pair possibilities of two routes are combined. The computer modeling showed that trains with low load factors suddenly become sold-out trains when better planning using the matrix theory takes place.

Passenger railroad management cannot presume passengers only want to go to places management may think they want to go. Passengers have this strange habit of wanting to go to places they want to go to, not just places managers have guessed they may want to go to.

You as king, as you plan your routes, must realize many routes which are not properly connected will generate certain load factors and ridership, but will never reach their full potential until the matrix theory is put to use.

Everything must connect to something, and not just at terminals.

The Interstate Highway System in the United States proves this point nicely. There is a complete system of north/south routes, coast to coast. The is also a complete system of east/west routes, from the Canadian border to the Mexican border. But, more importantly, there are a number of interstate routes that travel northeast/southwest and northwest/southeast. It’s called connectivity and choice.

Connectivity and choice drive sales, which drive load factors, which drive success. Connectivity ends the ongoing problem for many passengers of “you can’t get there from here.”

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