Greater Greater Washington

Amtrak shouldn't axe the national network

The Brookings Institution released a report earlier this month on our national passenger rail system, Amtrak. Many news and blog articles about the study took the report to mean that if Amtrak were to get rid of its long-distance trains, the company could provide rail service without taxpayer subsidy.


Photo by Matt Johnson.

That's not actually true, nor is Brookings suggesting getting rid of long-distance trains. The crux of the Brookings report, something that has not been picked up by much of the media, is not that Amtrak should drop the long-distance trains; rather, Brookings wants the states to pick up the tab to operate them. That's not the right policy.

Amtrak operates trains across the United States. In addition to busy urban corridors like the one between Washington and Boston, the railroad also serves growing numbers of riders on corridors like Charlotte-Raleigh and Chicago-Milwaukee. Ridership has increased by over 55% since 1997, outpacing population growth, economic growth, and growth in all other travel modes.

Without long-distance trains, Amtrak is profitable? Not really

The report crunches the numbers on how many riders each route carries, how much it costs to run the trains, and how much revenue they generate. A number of people read the numbers to conclude that if Amtrak cut its 15 longest routes, Amtrak would operate in the black.

But this depends on how you define "in the black" or "operating profit." Cutting those trains would eliminate the need for a federal subsidy, but the states also contribute money for short-distance trains, and Brookings counts that as "revenue," not "subsidy."

The Adirondack, for example, runs between New York City and Montreal, via Albany. The report says that this train has a positive balance of $1.3 million. Amtrak makes a profit on it!

Not really. It costs $13.3 million to operate, and the train earns $7.0 million in revenue. That equals a loss of $6.3 million, but New York state pays Amtrak $7.6 million a year to operate the train. Add that in, and the "balance" ends up being a positive $1.3 million.

All told, the states fund Amtrak to the tune of $190.5 million a year. Counting that but no federal payment, Amtrak would have ended up with a surplus $30.9 million without the long-haul trains.

Even this doesn't mean the short-distance trains can be profitable. The report doesn't include the major cost of capital maintenance on the Amtrak-owned Northeast Corridor, which passenger revenues will never be sufficient to cover. Projects like the Gateway Tunnel, which will add capacity into Penn Station and new rolling stock to replace aging cars are also capital costs that can't be covered by the operating profit alone.


Amtrak's Adirondack in Westport, NY. Photo by The West End on Flickr.

Coverage or ridership?

One of the biggest problems with Amtrak from a political perspective is that people don't agree about the goal of the railroad. Is Amtrak supposed to make a profit, as conservatives tend to insist? Or is Amtrak supposed to provide a transportation service to much of the nation, as liberals tend to claim?

The Brookings report makes it clear that there really are two Amtraks.

One of the Amtraks is efficiently providing frequent short-haul service within or between metropolitan regions, such as on the Washington-Boston Northeast Corridor, Los Angeles-San Diego Surfliner, and Chicago-St. Louis Lincoln Service. A few services like these can run operating profits, but most still don't even if they're successful.

The other Amtrak provides basic service to other parts of the country. This service was never meant to make money. It was meant to include more states in the system and provide another (or in some cases the only inter-city) transportation alternative to rural communities.

Lawmakers did intend for the company to be profitable, despite evidence that it would not be, but that was changed in 1978 when it became clear that was unlikely to happen.

In this respect, Amtrak is like many transit systems. When Congress created Metro, they assumed it would run self-sufficiently without government support, too, but that didn't happen either. No transportation system, not roads, rails, or aviation, actually makes a profit when you incorporate all of the infrastructure.

Amtrak is a basic system plus extra short-distance services

The way Amtrak was set up is an important part of understanding the current situation.

In 1971, as Amtrak was coming together, a basic system was drawn on a map. This base would provide some minimum level of service across the nation, and be funded initially through federal subsidies and ticket revenue.

The Pacific Surfliner is a good example of a state partnership that grew out of the base system. In 1971, there were 3 roundtrips between Los Angeles and San Diego. These 3 roundtrips were part of the Amtrak basic system.

By 1976, California wanted more service, so it paid to add a 4th roundtrip. This train was specifically a California-subsidized train, while the other 3 were Amtrak-subsidized trains. Over the next 2 decades, California continued to add trains to the corridor, and Amtrak added 2 more to the basic system.

In 1995, California and Amtrak agreed to end having some individual trains be part of the basic system and others state-subsidized. Instead, California and Amtrak would split the cost of the San Diego-LA service proportionally. At the time, California covered 64% and Amtrak covered 26% 36%. It's now 70%/30%.

This seems like the best approach. Amtrak, in consultation with the US Department of Transportation and the states, and input from stakeholders, including organizations representing passengers, should determine what the basic federal system should look like. If the states want additional service beyond that amount, they can pay for it, perhaps with federal assistance in the form of competitive, merit-based grants.

Several successful services have grown out of arrangements like that, including the Surfliner, the Charlotte-Raleigh Piedmont Service, and the Cascades between Eugene, Oregon and Vancouver, British Columbia.

Congress is shifting costs to the states

However, the funding environment is changing.

Under Section 5 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement (PRIIA) Act of 2008, starting in October, California will have to cover 100% of the cost operating deficit of running the LA-San Diego service. That's because all Amtrak routes less than 750 miles in length must become state-supported or be terminated.

The Brookings report supports shifting almost all costs deficits to the states for long-distance Amtrak trains as well.

That's the wrong approach, and would likely mean the end of most of the long-distance trains.

It is difficult to expect all the states served by each of the long-distance trains to support their own routes consistently, much less to agree on schedules, service amenities, and cost allocations. Many states are already facing a huge challenge in coming up with the funding to keep existing short-distance service running under the PRIIA mandate.

Just as governors in Ohio and Wisconsin blocked high-speed rail funding, some states will refuse to pay. Many have no history of supporting train travel at all in the modern era, and have conservative or divided legislatures. Long-distance routes would either have to stop at the state line or run through without stopping within it, neither of which makes for a useful transportation service.

Other states have no history of supporting Amtrak routes financially, and conservative or divided legislatures would make it unlikely that those states would step up to the plate to fund what has so far been a federal commitment.

Right now, several states are having the discussion about whether to keep their short-haul trains. While New York, California and several other states have budgeted the required funds to keep their short-distance trains running in fiscal 2014 (starting October 1, 2013), Pennsylvania could cut its Pittsburgh-Philadelphia/New York train and Indiana could lose the Indianapolis-Chicago Hoosier State unless their citizens convince state lawmakers to appropriate the needed funds

We need a national network

It's important to keep Amtrak's long-distance trains, even though they're not profitable. A recent white paper from the National Association of Railroad Passengers elaborates on many points.

One major reason is that the long-distance trains and shorter ones fit together into a system. They're not completely isolated.

The Southwest Chief might run over 2200 miles across the nation. But many riders are not going all the way from Los Angeles to Chicago. Some are only going between Los Angeles and Flagstaff. Others ride between Albuquerque and Trinidad. And Kansas City to Chicago is a very popular pair of stations on the route.

Brookings seems to think that 400 miles is where passenger rail stops being competitive. And that may be the case. But just because the train goes more than 400 miles doesn't mean that the passenger has to.


From the whitepaper by the National Association of Railroad Passengers and the Midwest High-Speed Rail Association.

For example, the report lists the Bay Area to Sacramento Capitol Corridor as one of the examples of a good corridor. The same corridor is also covered by the Coast Starlight, which continues north of Sacramento and south of the Bay Area.

Further north, the Coast Starlight overlaps with another success story from the report: the Cascades, which runs between Eugene, OR and Vancouver, BC. It provides an additional frequency on both corridors, and connects them with each other and points in between.

Having long-distance trains also creates a market and proves the demand for short-haul trains. One of the 3 profitable routes in the system, informally dubbed the "Lynchburger," only exists because of the longer New Orleans-New York Crescent. People wanting to take that train between Lynchburg and Charlottesville and Washington were having trouble getting a ticket because the Crescent would sell out frequently.

As a result, Virginia decided to pay for a new train to run between Lynchburg and New York/Massachusetts. It's proven to be so popular that it actually covers its costs with ticket sales. And Governor McDonnell has proposed funds to extend the train to Roanoke.

But the Lynchburger probably wouldn't exist if the Crescent hadn't demonstrated the demand. It's also very difficult (though not impossible) to get the host railroads to agree to passenger trains where they don't already run.

There are many other reasons as well. Having a national network also makes possible many operating efficiencies, such as the ability to move equipment to other parts of the system to meet demand, which would otherwise be lost.

Besides, ridership on state-supported short-distance routes has only grown so much because state investment has translated into increased capacity. If a similar investment were made in long-distance trainsmeaning additional frequencies or longer trainstheir ridership would soar as well.

Report is useful for its data, but reaches the wrong conclusions

The Brookings report provides a wealth of insight into Amtrak's operating costs and revenues. But the report is misguided in its suggestion to turn the primary responsibility for the basic national system over to the states.

Passenger rail is an essential component of our transportation network. The 55% increase in ridership since 1997 is an indication that more federal and state investment is needed, not less.

Improving service on the long-distance trains will lead to ridership increases just as improvements to the short-haul trains did. Now is not the time for the federal government to waver in its commitment to passenger rail.

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Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master's in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Greenbelt. Hes a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Planning Department. His views are his own and do not represent the opinion of his employer. 
Malcolm Kenton lives in the DC neighborhood of Bloomingdale. Hailing from Greensboro, NC and a graduate of Guilford College, he is a passionate advocate for world-class passenger rail and other forms of sustainable transportation, and for incorporating nature and low-impact design into the urban fabric. The views he expresses on GGW are his own. 

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I remember when this came out and a lot of people came to the same conclusions about keeping the short routes and what not but what it suggested to me was that passenger rail was a good investment. If you keep investing (or subsidizing) amtrak then you get more people riding it. So instead of cutting the low performing ones you could do things to improve it and see a net increase in ridership.

Meanwhile, it'll always be weird where the infrastructure itself is privately owned (outside the NEC, and unlike roads and airways) but the mode of transportation is the publicly owned one.

by drumz on Mar 15, 2013 10:11 am • linkreport

Honestly, the biggest problem with Amtrak is that train service in the US works like it did 30 years ago. Trains look like they're from the sixties, and checking in works like airline service decades ago.

While the rest of the world is building fast trains, the US is not even willing to maintain it's regular speed rail network.

Considering how much progress trains have caused in this country, it is rather remarkable that it's Japan, France and China leading the fast train industry, and not the US.

by Jasper on Mar 15, 2013 10:15 am • linkreport

I'm not sure that "the NEC still needs subsidies" really makes a case that long haul trains are equivalent to the NEC (and similar). The strength of the NEC is not only its better operating revenue to expense ratio - its also that its a huge generator of positive externalities - in particular if you lost the NEC you'd shift lots of travelers to overcrowded northeastern highways and airports, with significant capital costs as a result. Not to mention the impact on commuter rail systems that share the NEC.

The longer haul trains are not only worse looking financially, but mostly serve areas where highways/airports have capacity.

That leaves operational economies (shifting equipment around - really?) and keeping the stake in the ground for future more frequent short haul trains. Thats worth something, sure. Is it worth the constant danger to Amtrak's very existence with each budget cycle? I am skeptical.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 15, 2013 10:18 am • linkreport

If there was ever a subject for which you could justly blame the automotive industry, this is it. Freight rail is what used to subsidize passenger routes, but we have the trucking industry to blame for much of that going away.

by Ron on Mar 15, 2013 10:23 am • linkreport

I'm not sure I disagree with shifting towards more state subsidy. I think we should do the same thing with a lot of highway infrastructure. It's a more rational way to distribute resources. I took a train from New York to Montreal, it was absurdly cheap at $100 roundtrip or so. I have yet to get a satisfactory explanation for why these lower ridership routes can't be served by bus. Obviously Amtrak is growing and routes showing promise could be subsidized longer, but some stagnated or even lost ridership over the last decade and it seems irrational to keep running empty trains.

On the otherhand, they could try to increase service to make it more promising since the one a days clearly are not attracting people in some areas. I guess they need to go one way or the other as the current plan is not working.

by Alan B. on Mar 15, 2013 10:24 am • linkreport

Also, funny that the Interstate system is never subjected to these criteria. What about the subsidy to I-95? And I-15?

by Jasper on Mar 15, 2013 10:34 am • linkreport

I definitely agree with Drumz, but some of those long-distance routes operate at a massive loss.

What can we do to improve those? I love trains, but once-daily rail service is expensive, and basically useless to people like me. (Worse still, a lot of those once-daily trains arrive at completely insane hours)

I don't really disagree with the state subsidies, but we probably shouldn't lean on them too heavily. However, they are producing results. Virginia's opening new routes that lots of people actually want to ride, and Vermont's steadfast commitment to Amtrak service in its state is finally starting to pay off, as infrastructure improvements are driving up ridership on those services.

by andrew on Mar 15, 2013 10:44 am • linkreport

The whole idea that we need a national network is a rather odd prioritization of coverage over frequency.

Sure, let's have some coverage, but at what cost?

Consider: https://twitter.com/ReasonRail/status/311917610046484483

If [long distance] trains are about geographic equality and rural transportation, why sleepers, which are almost entirely for large urban to large urban?

I would expect groups like NARP to counter that the trains are full and the sleepers make a profit - but the overall trains still operate at a loss, and the best-performing LD trains do not have sleepers! Each element of the LD trains is an opportunity to lose money, whether that's on the sleepers or diner cars.

But, without a doubt, there is a market for these services. So, why not price what the market can bear? Consider the comparison to Canada:

http://reasonrail.blogspot.com/2013/03/long-distance-trains-and-direct-costs.html?showComment=1363131939553#c7456897632718108079

It's worth looking at the price difference with VIA Rail. The Canadian, from Vancouver to Toronto, is 2,775 miles, making it a fair match for the Southwest Chief or Empire Builder. The economy coach fare for a whimsically chosen departure of July 2nd is $552 pre-tax, $0.199 per passenger mile. With an upper berth that rises to $1,364.00 ($0.492), and a cabin for 2, which might substitute for Amtrak's bedroom, is $3,086.00 ($1.112). Admittedly Canadian dollars, but they're pretty much at parity lately. On the same day, a train from Los Angeles to Chicago costs a maximum of $1434 for a single person traveling in a family bedroom (no rooms sold out yet on this trip) at a price of only $0.633 (dropping to $1051/0.464 with a two person bedroom at single occupancy). The price differential is even larger if you include the taxes which must be paid on Canadian rail fare.

Why is the market price for the same kind of service 3x higher in the Canadian case?

The real opportunities for ridership growth is in the corridor kinds of services.

by Alex B. on Mar 15, 2013 10:55 am • linkreport

what does this have to do with DC?

if you've ever ridden the coast starlight and the cascades, it quickly becomes very clear that although the two services run on the same tracks, they serve very different markets. Which is to say, they're not replacements. The cascades generally runs close to on-time and is highly used by business travelers, while the coast starlight is largely a leisure service - and though some commuters use it (as in the Willamette valley south of Portland) the idea of relying on it is folly due to the consistent, massive delays that inevitably accrue from running the line for such a long distance. A lot of those long distance services are just wasted resources that are still running so that states like Montana will support federal subsidies for Amtrak. So in short, I don't see the loss of services like the Coast Starlight as a real loss to passenger mobility or freedom. At best, they're a necessary evil to support the level of investment that meaningful passenger rail needs in priority corridors. Get rid of them? Maybe so! But ideally, Amtrak can mine its passenger data to figure out where the services really are providing an important coverage agenda, and run them there (e.g., if Chicago-KC is a profitable segment, run it, but don't tack on the KC-Albuquerque segment if ridership doesn't support it).

Rail is great - but it has geographical limits as currently implemented: over long distances, it is far slower than airplane travel, and no HSR investment will address that for the foreseeable future. We do need to recognize that fact and focus investment on routes that actually improve mobility and are competitive with other travel modes.

by reader on Mar 15, 2013 10:55 am • linkreport

The fact that the Brookings report counted state subsidies as revenue to Amtrak, and that most media attention to the report overlooked this point, is absolutely huge.

I'd say that there really are three Amtraks: the NEC, the other short-distance corridors, and the long-distance routes. I also recall that if you look on a total subsidy (federal and state) per passenger mile basis, that the long-distance routes compare favorably to the non-NEC short distance routes.

One other way the long-distance trains are constrained is that their consists have remained the same for decades. While many of the short-distance corridors, like the example here of the Pacific Surfliners, have been able to add extra trips over the year to accommodate ridership growth, the long-distance trains have been fixed at one train per day and the length of that single train hasn't, in most cases, changed at all since the route was introduced. Many of the trains sell out during peak demand times, indicating that there would be room for growth if there was the rolling stock to handle it.

A long distance train like the Empire Builder serves 1000 city pairs. There's no other transportation option that can do that.

by thm on Mar 15, 2013 11:06 am • linkreport

Another problem with the Brookings report and many other reports is that they only look at ridership, and not passenger miles. Ridership is meaningless unless you know how far they travel. Therefore a rider travelling from Baltimore to Philadelphia is counted the same as a rider going from Chicago to El Paso. Also I don't remember the number, but something like 40% of the short-distance riders in Chicago are connecting from long-distance trains. That's lots of revenue lost for the SD trains if the LD went away.

by saxman on Mar 15, 2013 11:13 am • linkreport

Getting rid of long distance trains would be serious short term thinking. With development patterns rapidly changing back infavor of sense clusters, the practicallity and environmental benefits of high speed train service just can't be undersetimated.

by Thayer-D on Mar 15, 2013 11:13 am • linkreport

I don't see a single compelling argument in this article which supports keeping long distance Amtrak service, especially for less urban areas. As AWalker pointed out most of these areas are served by highways with excess capacity, where drivers don't have to worry about backups like we do on I95.

No one in Albuquerque (where I grew up) talks or thinks about taking Amtrak because it's too expensive compared to packing up the car or truck, your kid(s) and going somewhere where you're most likely going to need a car transportation anyways.

There's limits to rail. It's better to protect what's viable (i.e. Northeast Corridor, a few other areas) and jettison the low hanging fruit.

by Fitz on Mar 15, 2013 11:16 am • linkreport

My understanding is that one of the problems with the long-distance trains is that they're often massively, spectacularly late, like hours late. A lot of people use the Capitol Corridor as a commuter train between the East and South Bay, and it would be great if the daily Coast Starlight could be thought of as adding another train to that service, but how can you count on it to get to work?

by jfruh on Mar 15, 2013 11:23 am • linkreport

I'm not following your argument at all. Are you saying that we should keep all of these long-distance routes because they demonstrate that a few people will ride trains on them, so that maybe in the future people will think that we need more trains?

I don't think there's a compelling argument for cross-country routes, and you don't seem to attempt one. But if states think there's good enough reason to fund these routes, then by all means they should be allowed to, ideally even partially subsidized by the federal government.

But why should we just continue to prop up routes with very little demand?

I guess you kind of attempt to address this, eventually...

There are many other reasons as well. Having a national network also makes possible many operating efficiencies, such as the ability to move equipment to other parts of the system to meet demand, which would otherwise be lost.
Are you sure that these routes are actually being used to move around equipment? Keep in mind that Amtrak doesn't own any of the tracks used by the long-distance routes. The tracks will still be there, in the same condition, whether Amtrak operates unprofitable routes or not.
Besides, ridership on state-supported short-distance routes has only grown so much because state investment has translated into increased capacity. If a similar investment were made in long-distance trains—meaning additional frequencies or longer trains—their ridership would soar as well.
What basis do you have for this claim? I would argue that investment so far has been targeted to some of the routes that would respond the most to it, like the short- and medium-distance routes covering lots of closely spaced cities in CA, VA, and NC. Why would you expect this to be true of long-distance routes through unpopulated rural areas?

by Gray on Mar 15, 2013 11:37 am • linkreport

It's not clear to me whether the money that Amtrak recoops from cutting the long-distance services will be redirected towards passenger rail; if the federal subsidy that we're currently using to cover Amtrak's operating losses in Arizona was pried from the cold, dead hands of a deferred Interstate Highway in Arizona, then I'd rather maintain the status quo.

I don't think we should just ask the states to pay more of Amtrak's operating costs; I think we should offer meaningful, direct federal capital investment in shorter passenger rail in exchange for a shift in *existing* federal subsidies away from other money-losing modes of transportation (i.e. freeways). That way, the states are still paying more--ostensibly to cover the operating expenses of the long distance passenger services--but there's less chance they'll just say "Well, I didn't want rail anyway. Screw you, I'm going home... with your money." They're already getting our money! We should make sure they're using it for something we actually want.

by Steven Harrell on Mar 15, 2013 11:37 am • linkreport

This Brookings report really grinds my gears because it's just more of the same unthinking from them. They separate out state funding from federal funding and just ignore the fact that they're just two sides of the same coin. The observation that routes where states put money behind improved Amtrak service is not revolutionary - we already knew that. But good for them for pointing that out. It's idiotic, though, to take that and then extend it to say that things would be so much better if only Amtrak were just divested to the states.

What they should argue for is that more states should follow the model set by states that have successful Amtrak service - put more state money into Amtrak! But they really fail to make that point and instead make the case of divestment which will obviously lead to just killing the long-distance routes.

There is a case to be made as to whether Amtrak is charging enough for long-distance train service. Could they make more money on those routes if they charged more for certain tickets? How much say does Congress have in how much they can charge?

by MLD on Mar 15, 2013 11:56 am • linkreport

Passenger train works well in Western Europe because of its general population density and geographic "smallness". But you could fit all of Western Europe from Sweden to Morocco and from Naples to Ireland within the continental US.

Amtrak service makes all the sense in the world in the NEC and probably a few other places in the US, and it would be far easier to garner support to bolster service in those areas if we simply gave up what someone else mentioned as the "low hanging fruit". I can't for the life of me understand why someone would think it is a good idea to continue to subsidize a service that so few people use that the subsidy per ticket is ~$300 bucks.

by Pink on Mar 15, 2013 11:56 am • linkreport

@Gray: Why would you expect this to be true of long-distance routes through unpopulated rural areas?

Routes through unpopulated rural areas like DC-Pittsburgh-Cleveland-Chicago, you mean? Or New York-DC-Charlottesville-Greensboro-Charlotte-Atlanta-Birmingham-New Orleans? Or Chicago-Memphis-Jackson-New Orleans?

And it's not reasonable to expect that ridership would go up if there were more than one train per day, arriving in the middle of the night?

by Miriam on Mar 15, 2013 12:04 pm • linkreport

Passenger train works well in Western Europe because of its general population density and geographic "smallness". But you could fit all of Western Europe from Sweden to Morocco and from Naples to Ireland within the continental US.

Passenger rail works better in Europe because they had high gas prices and didn't pump tons of money into overbuilding roads. This meant development and population concentrations emphasized closeness and connections to rail.

There is nothing intrinsic about US geography that makes passenger rail impossible. After all, it used to be highly successful.

by MLD on Mar 15, 2013 12:09 pm • linkreport

@Miriam:
Routes through unpopulated rural areas like DC-Pittsburgh-Cleveland-Chicago, you mean? Or New York-DC-Charlottesville-Greensboro-Charlotte-Atlanta-Birmingham-New Orleans? Or Chicago-Memphis-Jackson-New Orleans?
Okay, explain: what population centers do you think there are in the 500+ miles between Chicago and Memphis? How much untapped demand for rail service is there to avoid the three hour drive between Memphis and Jackson?

The same applies to your second example. There is plenty of demand for parts of that route, and those parts have seen increased investment (expansion in VA and gradual increase in service on the Charlotte-Raleigh corridor). These efforts have been quite successful.

Moreover, I believe there could be huge payoffs to investing in, Charlotte and Atlanta, which could make stops in Spartanburg, Greenville, and Clemson. But simply increasing the frequency of the long-distance (and almost never on-time, for operational reasons beyond underinvestment) trains between NYC and New Orleans is not going to pay off anywhere near as much.

And that's even ignoring those long distance routes through heavily populated areas like the Empire Builder through ND and MT. I'm sure it's a pretty train, and I'd love to ride it sometime soon, but even if it ran hourly it could never hope to make a profit in those rural sections.

by Gray on Mar 15, 2013 12:15 pm • linkreport

@MLD - the US *is* vastly geographically larger than Europe. Another hugely important difference between the two: our freight rail system pretty much kicks butt as compared to the European system. However, we don't have the same network of rails dedicated to passenger rail that Europe does.

It would cost trillions of dollars to build a nationwide network of high-speed rail. In other words, it will NEVER happen. The best the US can hope for is "higher-speed" rail, other than maybe a couple of select corridors.

This article raises some very good points. For example, I frequently travel between Richmond and DC. There are about 12 trains a day that make this trip: 8 that are Northeast Regional trains, and 4 that are long distance trains (Palmetto or Silver Meteor). If, say, South Carolina refused to pony up to cover the cost of the Palmetto and that train ended up being eliminated, that would really hurt Richmond. (And Richmond-DC is a pretty popular pairing that is ripe to have a decent chunk of that travel demand be met by rail.)

by Marc on Mar 15, 2013 12:18 pm • linkreport

@Gray: But simply increasing the frequency of the long-distance (and almost never on-time, for operational reasons beyond underinvestment) trains between NYC and New Orleans is not going to pay off anywhere near as much.

Is that what we were discussing? I thought that we were discussing the idea that increasing investment in long-distance trains would increase ridership. You were saying that it wouldn't.

by Miriam on Mar 15, 2013 12:25 pm • linkreport

@ MLD

"There is nothing intrinsic about US geography that makes passenger rail impossible. After all, it used to be highly successful".

Highly succesful in SELECT areas. No amount of harranging will make high speed passenger rail remotely used or succesful in the midwest, 1,000 miles of which you have to traverse to get to any place with the population centers to connect that would make rail worthwhile.

by Pink on Mar 15, 2013 12:26 pm • linkreport

@MLD: when comparing the successes and failures of passenger rail systems, if you want to tease out the effects gasoline cost, road construction subsidies, geography, and population density, compare the US to Canada. Canada has higher gas prices and fewer roads, but a very weak rail system. Also in the US, there are large areas with high population density (NE corridor) that have good rail, even though the gas prices are just as low as in the underpopulated areas.

Geography and population density rule.

by goldfish on Mar 15, 2013 12:27 pm • linkreport

@Marc:
There are about 12 trains a day that make this trip: 8 that are Northeast Regional trains, and 4 that are long distance trains (Palmetto or Silver Meteor). If, say, South Carolina refused to pony up to cover the cost of the Palmetto and that train ended up being eliminated, that would really hurt Richmond. (And Richmond-DC is a pretty popular pairing that is ripe to have a decent chunk of that travel demand be met by rail.)
Seems like the obvious, rational response to this would be to switch the route to ending in Richmond, or perhaps make it into a medium-distance rout to NC--routes that could be profitable or at least a lot closer to break-even. Why is maintaining long routes seen as necessary to maintain or increase short-route service?

by Gray on Mar 15, 2013 12:28 pm • linkreport

Routes through unpopulated rural areas like DC-Pittsburgh-Cleveland-Chicago, you mean?

DC-Pitt has the mountains, which means slower service, and few pop centers in between.

Cleveland-Chicago is a good bet for a chicago focused midwest system. I can see justification for fed $ to match state money to get it going.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 15, 2013 12:35 pm • linkreport

@Miriam:
Is that what we were discussing? I thought that we were discussing the idea that increasing investment in long-distance trains would increase ridership. You were saying that it wouldn't.
No, that's not what I was saying. Re-read my earlier comment if you'd like, but my point was this: Investments in certain routes have paid off quite well. We could identify more short- or medium-distance routes that could also see their ridership increase significantly with additional investment. But investing in those long-haul routes through unpopulated areas--while it may increase ridership a bit--is not going to yield anything close to the same return.

Take your example of the Chicago - Memphis - NOLA route. We could probably see a decent return to investing heavily in increasing service between Chicago and Urbana-Champaign (under 150 miles), but if we put that money instead into the whole route between Chicago and Memphis we would see two things: (1) less increase in frequency between Chicago and U-C, a high-demand route, and (2) subsequently less increase in ridership for the same investment, because there just isn't as much demand along the Champaign-Memphis portion of the route.

Do you disagree with that?

by Gray on Mar 15, 2013 12:36 pm • linkreport

There is nothing intrinsic about US geography that makes passenger rail impossible. After all, it used to be highly successful.

You mean, before airplanes?

But you could fit all of Western Europe from Sweden to Morocco and from Naples to Ireland within the continental US.

Drop off Sweden and you could fit it in (well, more or less) east of the Mississippi.

by ah on Mar 15, 2013 12:39 pm • linkreport

This is a well written article, but I don't see how the conclusions follow.

If there's a desire to subsidize travel for rural communities, why not use the funding to augment support for the rural air program?

If there's a belief that certain interstate short-haul routes might be profitable, why should we consider continuing significant federal subsidies to a national network just to identify those few routes?

And how many of those interstate short-haul routes involve so many states that negotiation between them as to how to allocate the costs of any subsidy between them?

by ah on Mar 15, 2013 12:42 pm • linkreport

Good lord, I didn't say that the US was going to have Europe's rail system overnight. There are plenty of population centers in the East outside of the NEC that could be connected by improved rail service. Not to mention the fact that our land use patterns would look much different had gas prices been higher for the past 60 years. Canada is both a good and poor example - the land use in their population centers is better than ours (though they are having issues with increasing suburbanization); as a result their urban transit use is much higher. However, Canada is a poor comparison in terms of how their population centers are arranged - it is nothing like the US.

No amount of harranging will make high speed passenger rail remotely used or succesful in the midwest, 1,000 miles of which you have to traverse to get to any place with the population centers to connect that would make rail worthwhile.

This is likely correct. Luckily these places aren't where most of the people in the US live. People seem to just jump to this expanse of empty space as an excuse for why the US doesn't succeed at rail, and ignore the big chunk of the country that has distributed population centers AND once supported passenger rail!

You mean, before airplanes?
Air travel takes a chunk out of long-distance travel but of course the airlines aren't profitable, bleed money, and are heavily subsidized just like our train service!

Geography and population density rule.
Population density is partially the result of 60 years of bad policy. And geography isn't the be-all and end-all unless you think I mean that St Louis to San Francisco is better served by rail than air (I don't and it isn't).

by MLD on Mar 15, 2013 12:47 pm • linkreport

@MLD:
There is a case to be made as to whether Amtrak is charging enough for long-distance train service. Could they make more money on those routes if they charged more for certain tickets?
Probably not, but mainly because these routes would never be run by an organization seeking only to make a profit. They are purely charitable operations that are maintained because without them, legislative support for all of the parts of Amtrak that actually do quite well (which, as the Brookings report points out, could entail more routes that it currently does) would probably go away.

by Gray on Mar 15, 2013 12:52 pm • linkreport


Air travel takes a chunk out of long-distance travel but of course the airlines aren't profitable, bleed money, and are heavily subsidized just like our train service!

Air travel is also much quicker, especially for long distances, and unlike rail isn't restricted to to discrete routes of travel.

by Fitz on Mar 15, 2013 1:04 pm • linkreport

@Gray: investing in those long-haul routes through unpopulated areas--while it may increase ridership a bit--is not going to yield anything close to the same return.

Investing in long-distance routes through unpopulated areas (really? unpopulated? nobody lives there?) MAY increase ridership?

And nobody would want to take a train between Chicago and Memphis?

Actually, I find this particular discussion characteristic of many commenters on GGW who think long-distance trains should be gotten rid of, based on the arguments that

1. Nobody they know lives in those places where the trains stop.
2. They'd never take a train that far; they'd fly.

by Miriam on Mar 15, 2013 1:10 pm • linkreport

@Gray: They are purely charitable operations

"Charitable"? Access to the publicly-funded transportation is charity? How generous.

by Miriam on Mar 15, 2013 1:21 pm • linkreport

@Miriam:

I guess you're right that I exaggerated by stating that the area is completely unpopulated. You got me! There are some people reasonably close to many of the stops along that route! I'm not seeing how that's particularly relevant, though, since my point there was that there are some stations with untapped demand, and those stations to not lie between the IL line and Memphis.

It's not at all a given that ridership would increase at every station if we increased service. For example: do you think that there's lots of untapped demand for train service in Thurmond, WV (boardings in 2012 according to wikipedia: 264), or Sanderson, TX (255 boardings)?

But that wasn't my point, though I'm beginning to suspect that you're determined to look past my main point. I'll try stating it in a different way: the return to a given investment on short- and medium-range routes through population centers is much, much greater than the return to an investment in increased service along long haul routes. I say this not because I hate rural areas or don't know these towns. I say this because it's objectively true.

by Gray on Mar 15, 2013 1:21 pm • linkreport

Miriam

the question is not if the place is without population, or if adding a second daily train would increase ridership at all. Its if the place has the population and ridership potential (in an era that has air service, cheap and efficient intercity bus service, etc) to make that second train a day (and other investments) justified.

A. I would submit - that for many routes its not - while this is mostly going to be west of the mississippi routes across the plains and rockies that MLD referred to above, Im not sure it does not also apply to some of the other interregional routes as well.
B. Even if they WOULD justify such investment, and so as monarch one of us might want to divert funding from other modes to it, that may not be politically feasible. We livein a constrained (whether thats justified by macroeconomics or not) environment where money taken from highways is going towards deficit reduction, not toward rail. In that environment one must ask if investing in expanded service Chicago to New orleans, or DC-Pitt, is a better investment than say DC-Richmond-Charlotte, or Keystone, or Chicago-St.Louis.

Its certainly not the case that everyone skeptical about the long haul trains is either anti-rail, or unsympathetic to the need for some access to smaller places.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 15, 2013 1:22 pm • linkreport

@Miriam:
"Charitable"? Access to the publicly-funded transportation is charity? How generous.
What's your suggested term for a line of business that is operated at an intentional loss? By all means, I'd be glad to use your preferred terminology.

by Gray on Mar 15, 2013 1:22 pm • linkreport

arguably long haul services that are mostly used by tourists, who are more concerned with the experience than with time and reliability to get to a destination, is more like what we provide with the National Park Service. Which I would not call a charity, but its very confusing to mix the funding of this preservation of an historical experience for recreational use with NEC and other corridors whose main function is transportation.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 15, 2013 1:27 pm • linkreport

@Gray: What's your suggested term for a line of business that is operated at an intentional loss?

I'd call it the transportation infrastructure. But for your purposes, maybe "subsidy" is a better word.

by Miriam on Mar 15, 2013 1:31 pm • linkreport

@AWitC: In that environment one must ask if investing in expanded service Chicago to New orleans, or DC-Pitt, is a better investment than say DC-Richmond-Charlotte, or Keystone, or Chicago-St.Louis.

As with all public investments, the answer to that question depends on what you're trying to accomplish.

by Miriam on Mar 15, 2013 1:33 pm • linkreport

The other problem with relying on rail is the last mile. If there isn't decent public transit to get around once you get there, how many people are going to take long distance rail. Yes people rent cars at airports but air over rail in most cases comes down to travel time otherwise most people would just drive it. Short rail trips between center cities are competitive because you don't have to travel to and from regional airports but when you add in the long distance aspect it becomes a poor choice to the vast majority of the market.

And again the service could virtually be replaced by long haul buses for less money to ensure that service is never cut off to rural areas.

by Alan B. on Mar 15, 2013 1:38 pm • linkreport

"As with all public investments, the answer to that question depends on what you're trying to accomplish"

thats true. My goals for Amtrak would include modal shift to reduce GHGs, modal shift to economize on congested infrastructure, and economic development, both in general and more specifically in WUPs.

I realize that may lead to a different set of priorities than using Amtrak to provide additional for hire options to a range of locations.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 15, 2013 1:43 pm • linkreport

@Miriam:
I'd call it the transportation infrastructure. But for your purposes, maybe "subsidy" is a better word.
It's not really infrastructure, since what you seem to be arguing for is not the building of new rails, but the extension of service along existing infrastructure to serve areas with low demand. Yes, that would require subsidies, and it already does, but the issue is not that it requires subsidies, but that it is a particularly bad return for the public investment required.

I remain confused about what upsets you so much about this. Is it some feeling that I look down on people who don't live in cities? Some very strong feeling that we need to invest heavily precisely in the infrastructure that the fewest people will use?

by Gray on Mar 15, 2013 1:47 pm • linkreport

@Gray: Look, Malcolm Kenton wrote a nice white paper for NARP called "Long Distance Trains: A Foundation for National Mobility"! You can read it here: http://narprail.org/resources/white-papers/2083-longdistancepaper

by Miriam on Mar 15, 2013 1:55 pm • linkreport

@Miriam: Okay. He seems to be arguing that we should increase long distance service because it serves markets that are not served by air travel. Is that your point as well?

by Gray on Mar 15, 2013 1:58 pm • linkreport

Also, let's not pretend NARP doesn't have an agenda or a viewpoint here, or that they are the sole voice and viewpoint of rail advocacy in the room.

by Alex B. on Mar 15, 2013 2:01 pm • linkreport

People question the value of the long distance routes not because of some bias, but out of an analysis of opportunity costs. Yes, as Malcolm writes in that white paper, they could benefit from more frequency. But we have limited resources, where could they go?

Consider a hypothetical. Let's say there's a proposal to allocate resources to add one more train per day, per direction to a extra-long distance route that covers 2,500 miles. We could add those resources (operating cost, rolling stock, etc.) to that long-distance route and double the frequency (up to a whopping two trains per day)...

OR, we could use those same dollars and the same number of trainsets and apply it to a shorter corridor, running back and forth. Put it on a 500 mile long corridor, and you get an extra five round trips per day.

Put it on a 250 mile corridor, and you've gained 10 extra round trips per day.

So, 2x the frequency, or 6x the frequency?

I know which one I think is more likely to deliver better bang for your buck. Then, alignging those resources to the right kind of corridors where the anchors are good and ridership potential is high, and we're moving in the right direction.

Consider this point:

http://pedestrianobservations.wordpress.com/2011/05/17/overperforming-rail-lines/

There are a lot of things in there that are just insane, but the point about financial performance improving with service levels is true. Too bad the implication is that those extra frequencies belong on long-distance rather than medium-distance trains. With the same equipment as just one extra long-distance run, Amtrak could run 4-5 times daily frequencies on an important corridor run.

by Alex B. on Mar 15, 2013 2:31 pm • linkreport

@Gray: What's your suggested term for a line of business that is operated at an intentional loss?

I have one term that meets that definition: the Interstate Highway System. That system costs much more to maintain than even gas taxes pay for -- witness the amount of general fund tax dollars that has had to be transferred to the Highway Trust Fund in the past 6 years just to keep it solvent, not to mention all the state funds (some of which are general funds) that go into Interstate maintenance.

Make any argument for why the federal government should provide--at a taxpayer-subsidized loss--a national network of 4-lane highways, including highways in sparsely-populated areas, and I'll bet I can apply the same argument to the national passenger train system.

We need a mix of travel choices available to the broadest possible portion of the population to maintain freedom of mobility for people of all physical and socioeconomic conditions. We can't rely on highways and air travel alone -- many people cannot, will not, or cannot afford to drive or fly. All modes must work in concert with one another as part of a mobility network.

Also, @Miriam: For the record, I did not write the white paper. The primary author is Rick Harnish at the Midwest High-Speed Rail Association, with assistance from NARP staff.

by Malcolm K. on Mar 15, 2013 2:32 pm • linkreport

Maybe all people can't afford to drive or fly, but for the cost of taking a family across the country via amtrak you could buy a cheap car and sell it when you're done. It's really that expensive. Your best bet for cheap travel is going to be the bus.

by Mike on Mar 15, 2013 2:49 pm • linkreport

"Make any argument for why the federal government should provide--at a taxpayer-subsidized loss--a national network of 4-lane highways, including highways in sparsely-populated areas, and I'll bet I can apply the same argument to the national passenger train system.
"

No, you can't.

Remove the highways, and this country grinds to a stop. I'm sorry -- the highways are used by more than just individuals. It not just the trucking industry -- it is every industry.

Sure, moving passengers isn't a great business. Ask the airlines. But don't compare apples to oranges. The IHS is much bigger than passengers.

by charlie on Mar 15, 2013 2:51 pm • linkreport

Amtrak carrying mail and freight on the longer hauls would diversify its income stream.

Rail is THE most energy-efficient way of transporting people and freight - except for barge.

by Capt. Hilts on Mar 15, 2013 2:53 pm • linkreport

"Amtrak carrying mail and freight on the longer hauls would diversify its income stream. "

er you do realize that on the lines under discussion there are already freight trains run by the private railroads?

And Amtrak has had contracts with USPS, and may still.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 15, 2013 2:59 pm • linkreport

I don't disagree with the premise that long distance routes should be subjected to the same scrutiny as state-supported corridors. Some trains (Empire Builder, California Zephyr, Southwest Chief, Sunset Limited) pass through such vast and unpopulated areas that it really is a matter of geographic equity.

But there are other long distance routes where Amtrak could make simple changes to boost ridership. On the DC-Pittsburgh-Cleveland-Chicago Capitol Limited, for example, an afternoon departure means the train burns daylight on the virtually empty DC-Pittsburgh segment while traveling between Pittsburgh and Cleveland in the middle of the night. A simple scheduling tweak could make the route a competitive alternative to flying between the two cities (same goes for the Cleveland-Chicago portion). Similar changes could be made to improve service along the Lakeshore Limited (Chicago-Cleveland-Buffalo) or the Crescent (Charlotte-Atlanta).

Scrutinizing long distance routes doesn't mean we have to cut them, but let's acknowledge their underperformance and see what we can do about it.

by Ty on Mar 15, 2013 3:09 pm • linkreport

@Miriam and @Malcolm K.: As I have kept saying, you're arguing on different terms than I and apparently everyone else here.

Many people other than you would probably call me anti-roads. I have tons of Amtrak Guest Rewards miles. Heck, I even commuted via Amtrak back and forth between Durham and Greensboro when I lived in NC a couple of years ago.

Like Alex B. says above, I don't think that railroads are inherently a waste of money, or that any transportation infrastructure "makes money." What I do think is that long-haul routes tend to lose lots of money, and would not benefit from further investment as much as better targeted routes. Sure, we could have some decent improvements to long routes if we spent money on them that we're otherwise wasting on roads we shouldn't be building. But the whole point of the Brookings study is that there are particular routes that could be much better returns on investments, but they're dragged down by the legacy routes that are a very poor return.

If you want to keep spending money on these routes because they keep Amtrak politically viable or provide some other benefit, make that argument. But why not be open to arguments in favor of targeting investment on the routes that could benefit the most from it?

by Gray on Mar 15, 2013 3:15 pm • linkreport

Basically what it comes down to is, look at a population density map of the US and explain how it makes sense to apply the same service standards to the entire country. In some places train is a great mode, in others cars, buses, and planes will predominate. There is nothing wrong with the middle of the country that somehow means they should be treated seperately, but rationally you can't say that that area will ever generate enough demand in the short term to justify the service there. If you look on the Brookings map , El Paso had 12,000 boardings/alighting in 2012 and DC had just under 6 million. Both have just about the same population but DC is part of a dense corridor where rail makes sense.

by Alan B. on Mar 15, 2013 3:28 pm • linkreport

@Gray: "What would be the best ways for Amtrak to invest to increase ridership?" is a different question from "Should Amtrak get rid of the long-distance trains?"

by Miriam on Mar 15, 2013 3:51 pm • linkreport

@Miriam: Well, you were arguing earlier that we should in fact invest additional money in long-distance trains, so I was responding to that.

But these aren't completely separate questions. If we took the money we currently spend on the least-utilized long-distance trains and instead put that towards high-demand routes, we would achieve a much better outcome. I don't see much of an argument in this piece to the contrary, and the one to which you linked also avoids incorporating much evidence, but seems to argue that the long-distance routes are important at any cost because they provide mobility. I don't find that argument particularly convincing either.

In all cases, as multiple people have pointed out, we are operating under budget constraints. Maintaing long-distance service is not free, and the Brookings report underscored just how expensive it is. You haven't provided much of an argument for why it's worth such great cost, especially since we have clearly identified train routes that could benefit hugely from the money spent on the long-distance routes.

by Gray on Mar 15, 2013 4:07 pm • linkreport

@ Pink:Western Europe from Sweden to Morocco and from Naples to Ireland within the continental US.

Yeah, I could easily fit half of Europe in the US.

Europe, as a continent, spans from Malta to Svalbard, and from Ireland to the Ural mountains, including have of Kazakhstan.

Europe, in the smaller sense of the EU, spans from Malta to northern Finland and from Portugal to the Black Sea.

I could go more extreme by including the Canary Islands, Cyprus (in Asia), the Azores, and French Guiana (in South-America), but as there is no TGV from Paris to Cayenne yet, I won't. ESA does launch its rockets there though.

Also, yes, Spain has two enclaves on the Moroccan coast, but those are not considered to be in Africa.

by Jasper on Mar 15, 2013 4:12 pm • linkreport

@Gray: OK, so you don't want to get rid of all of the long-distance trains. You just want to get rid of some of them.

by Miriam on Mar 15, 2013 4:16 pm • linkreport

The only thing Amtrak needs to do
to break even is to run on time.

by Steve on Mar 15, 2013 7:33 pm • linkreport

They should keep a lot of these Amtrak routes and try to work out the money side of them in that they are good having around in a disaster that might shut down the airlines for a few weeks. Such as during 9/11 they closed all the airlines for a few days and people where trapped in towns and cities and did have to use Amtrak to get home in that they didn't have a car or a plane. Another thing that could happen would be like the indent where that volcano blew in Iceland dumping ash into the sky which made them shut down the airlines for a week or two to where the only way out was by ship out of England to the US. Amtrak would be good to have around in case one of our many local volcanoes go up in the Northwest. Besides ridership is growing on large sections of the Amtrak routes so it's not as bad with dealing with a system where ridership is falling across the board.

by Ocean Railroader on Mar 15, 2013 7:51 pm • linkreport

"What would be the best ways for Amtrak to invest to increase ridership?" is a different question from "Should Amtrak get rid of the long-distance trains?"

The former is the more relevant question. The latter is just a consequence. But, the former isn't even the right question. The correct question should be "how should Amtrak use its limited subsidy to maximize fulfillment of its goals".

This is similar to asking how Metro should use its subsidy to provide service. Should it prioritize increasing capacity in the core or prioritize extending service to the exurbs? I'd say Metro is better served improving service to the core and similarly, Amtrak would better work toward its goals by improving service to high density areas rather than trying to extend its reach to the entire country.

by Falls Church on Mar 15, 2013 9:14 pm • linkreport

The population density thing is a canard. Obviously we're not going to build frequent or high-speed train service through the middle of Wyoming. When when you look at the areas actually under discussion in the east and midwest (great lakes midwest, not great plains midwest) or on the west coast, they compare just fine to Europe.

Here's a list of the top 22 political units (US states or EU countries) by population density. 22 so that we get to Virginia:

Netherlands
New Jersey
Rhode Island
Massachusetts
Connecticut
UK
Maryland
Delaware
Germany
Italy
Switzerland
New York
Florida
Denmark
Portugal
France
Pennsylvania
Ohio
California
Spain
Illinois
Virginia

Yes, Europe has a lot of people in those top end countries (Germany, UK, Italy), but then Ohio is denser than Spain and Florida is denser than France. So let's stop talking about density as a general problem.

by Jackson on Mar 15, 2013 9:39 pm • linkreport

Also, the scale of Europe is not all that different from the scale of the US where rail makes sense:

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_PGvSoaafXiI/TA6vyt-0N4I/AAAAAAAAIPc/tRSB7wtSCFo/s1600/map-us-europe-compare-east.bmp

Basically, Europe is roughly equivalent to the US east of the Mississippi.

As it relates to Amtrak, they have long distance routes, and then they have routes that are essentially transcontinental. And those are the ones in question.

If coverage is a goal, either due to law or due to a desire to maintain political cover, so be it. But there are plenty of geographies in the US where higher quality rail makes sense, and it's not going to happen by beefing up the frequency of the Empire Builder.

by Alex B. on Mar 15, 2013 10:29 pm • linkreport

What are the ridership numbers of Wyoming, Idaho, the Dakotas, Minnesota, Colorado, Utah, Nebraska, Montana for Airports/Airlines, Greyhound, Amtrak, Any Bus Similar to Greyhound.

If you are in the middle of nowhere you chose to be there and should live with being in isolation. If it is not worth the money to have rail service there so be it, the same thing goes for Greyhound or the Airlines.

You don't see many Airlines going to Mississippi or Montana so why should Amtrak.

by kk on Mar 16, 2013 2:46 am • linkreport

Two comments:

1. The State subsidies and the Federal subsidy are two different things. The States are buying a service (which is why they're booked as revenue) more or less at cost: North Carolina pays Amtrak to run a daily train between Charlotte and New York and another two between Charlotte and Raleigh, Virginia pays Amtrak to extend half a dozen Northeast Regionals into Virginia. The Federal government notes that Amtrak is running a loss and tosses some money into the pot, as much as it feels like, to keep it going. If the long distance trains are public services, Brookings would like some elected authority to stand up, say so, and volunteer to pay for them. As it is, Amtrak pays for them, partly out of its profits from the NEC, partly from the few bucks that Congress throws its way.

2. Brookings got its numbers badly wrong. It worked from "fully allocated costs". Amtrak has a lot of fixed costs, which it incurs regardless of whether any individual train runs or not and which, for accounting purposes, it allocates to the various routes according to some arcane formula. But, if the route were to be cancelled, the fixed costs wouldn't go away. The $600M that are allocated to the long distance trains are mostly fixed costs. If all of them were cancelled, Amtrak wouldn't save the entire $600M, or even most of it.

The difference between revenue and short term avoidable costs for all the long distance trains combined is about $160M. If all of them were cancelled, there are some fixed costs which could reasonably quickly go away. If no trains call at New Orleans, for example, Amtrak could close the yard there. On the other hand, the long distance trains do feed some passengers into the NEC, so if they were cancelled, that revenue would also be lost. Amtrak doesn't publicly report to this level of detail, but a reasonable guess is that canceling all the long distance routes would probably save somewhere between $175M and $200M.

But the long distance trains are not all the same. The six western trains -- Eagle, Sunset, Starlight, Empire Builder, Zephyr and Chief -- between them lose $140M of the $160M. While just canceling them would save fewer fixed costs, there'd also be less impact on the NEC since the eastern trains feed the NEC. So it's likely that just canceling the western trains would have 80%-90% of the fiscal impact that canceling all the long distance trains would have. So, yes, Miriam@4:16PM, we aren't talking about getting rid of all the long distance trains, just some of them.

A semi-national network -- the West Coast plus east of the Mississippi -- makes a good deal of sense. The OP talks about the ability to move equipment between different parts of the country as a plus for a national network. But the West Coast State support corridors use largely State owned rolling stock, which isn't going to be moved out of state. With the recent delivery from Talgo to Oregon, I think it's now the case that all the Cascades rolling stock is State owned. When the new bilevels bought with HSIPR money are delivered to California, that may well be the case for California, too. The West Coast operations are largely independent of the rest of the country.

by jim on Mar 16, 2013 9:39 am • linkreport

It was meant to include more states in the system and provide another (or in some cases the only inter-city) transportation alternative to rural communities.

I believe in Amtrak. I really do, but you haven't convinced me that these are goals worth pursuing. Should we add trains to Hawaii just to include it in the system?

I think the system will always need a subsidy and that that is fine - subsidizing transportation is a public good. But I disagree that the current system best deploys that subsidy. I think there are some services that are kept to keep Congress happy.

Having long-distance trains also creates a market and proves the demand for short-haul trains

But is is worth the price? Can we afford to create markets this way?

Having a national network also makes possible many operating efficiencies, such as the ability to move equipment to other parts of the system to meet demand, which would otherwise be lost.

No it wouldn't. We run special trains all the time. Even if the system broke up into 4-5 discontinous pieces, we could still move equipment betwween them.

If a similar investment were made in long-distance trains—meaning additional frequencies or longer trains—their ridership would soar as well.

I agree. So if you think more money is coming, than long-distance trains make more sense. If you don't, do they still? I don't really think so.

And I don't think more money is coming.

by David C on Mar 16, 2013 12:51 pm • linkreport

@ Alex B:Basically, Europe is roughly equivalent to the US east of the Mississippi.

Except that on that little map of yours, EU members Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Greece, Malta and Cyprus are missing. Five of those are actually countries with the €. At least is getting ready to join the €.

Not to mention the non-EU European countries Croatia, Bosnia, Yugoslavia/Serbia/Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Moldova, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and not to forget a bit a Turkey.

So, yeah, half of Europe easily fits in part of the US. New England also easily fits in Western Europe.

I am not contending here that Europe, or the EU, is bigger than the US. It is not. But please keep your geography straight.

Finally, train connections eastbound are pretty good. Here's the blog from a dude who took a train trip from Vienna (Austria) to Pyonyang (yes, North-Korea).

http://vienna-pyongyang.blogspot.com/

I challenge anyone to find a blog from someone taking the train from St Louis or Denver to Santiago or Montevideo.

by Jasper on Mar 16, 2013 2:25 pm • linkreport

"I think there are some services that are kept to keep Congress happy."

Well, David C., what you "think" doesn't necessarily jive with the facts. Therefore, I challenge you to name just ONE existing Amtrak route (presumably one of those bad ol' long distance ones) that remains on the map for no reason other than to keep some elected official(s) "happy."

Thanks in advance.

Garl B. Latham

by gblatham on Mar 16, 2013 2:44 pm • linkreport

Cutting the Pennsylvanian is a bad idea because it cut off Central PA from connections to points west of Pittsburgh.

by Rain17 on Mar 16, 2013 2:50 pm • linkreport

"Remove the highways, and this country grinds to a stop."

Sorry, charlie. That doesn't justify ANY public money being used to prop up an energy inefficient and environmentally damaging mode of transport.

After all, our private railroad industry does far more than its share of work WITHOUT public funds - and, without our trains, these United States would also "grind to a stop."

Remove ALL taxpayer support from EVERY mode and the railroads will be the last man standing (as it were).

Garl B. Latham

by gblatham on Mar 16, 2013 3:02 pm • linkreport

Cutting the national network is a bad idea because, in some of those small towns, Amtrak is the only transportation that passes through; and the closest airport is often pretty far away. Greyhound had also been cutting service in these areas.

Due to the oil boom in North Dakota the Empire Builder is pretty popular. MT and ND both like that train. The SW Chief is also popular. Both services run on BNSF tracks and are more on time than the trains that run on UP tracks.

by Rain17 on Mar 16, 2013 3:14 pm • linkreport

The other point is that Amtrak has always been set up for failure. Every year it has to do more with less and when it inevitably falls short of that, the politicians, usually Republicans, blame it for failing. It is very much a self-fulfilling prophecy.

by Rain17 on Mar 16, 2013 3:18 pm • linkreport

"The longer haul trains are not only worse looking financially, but mostly serve areas where highways/airports have capacity."

Walker...

Many of the communities served by long haul trains are not located near commercial airfields; therefore, based upon your approach to domestic transportation planning, residents in those locales would be doomed to a lifetime of driving a personal motor vehicle, riding an intercity bus (where such service is still available) or staying at home.

National network trains offer a reasonable, marketable alternative to autocentrism.

Why must the U.S. continue to exclusively support its "drive-or-fly" society at all costs?!

Garl B. Latham

by gblatham on Mar 16, 2013 3:19 pm • linkreport

The other underappreciated thing that the US doesn't have, that it would need to have decent inter-city rail is good intra-city public transit. It doesn't make sense to take the train to a city you could drive to, if you have to spend more money and time to rent a car to get around the city. Cities like Memphis or Kansas City just don't have a comprehensive enough public transit system to make it worthwhile to come to those cities without a car. It's no coincidence that all the cities with the most patronized inter-city services: The Northeast, Chicago, the West Coast, have well built public transit networks that are designed for more than just the commuting crowd.

by arlucbo on Mar 16, 2013 3:24 pm • linkreport

"residents in those locales would be doomed to a lifetime of driving a personal motor vehicle, riding an intercity bus (where such service is still available) or staying at home."

I don't see why needing to take a bus is being "doomed". Even with the current Amtrak network, bus provides the only for hire mode to lots of locations. Where it does not exist it can probably be subsidized at lower expense. And if places like North Dakota really value rail, North Dakota could chip in on the subsidy.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 16, 2013 3:24 pm • linkreport

"It's better to protect what's viable (i.e. Northeast Corridor, a few other areas) and jettison the low hanging fruit."

Fitz,

As with any industry or service, there will always be "low hanging fruit."

If we killed off every one of our national network trains, you'd be complaining that the "few other areas" were dragging down the viability of Amtrak's N.E.C.!

No thanks. I have no desire to live in such a sad little world - and I'll continue fighting for a comprehensive, continent-wide system of passenger train services.

Garl B. Latham

by gblatham on Mar 16, 2013 3:32 pm • linkreport

"I don't see why needing to take a bus is being 'doomed'."

...says the man who, apparently, has never taken a long distance bus trip in his life.

"Where [commercial bus transportation] does not exist it can probably be subsidized at lower expense."

Now we're getting to the heart of the matter! Obviously, subsidy for those who drive and fly is justifiable. Subsidy for anyone else must be cut to the bare bones.

"And if places like North Dakota really value rail, North Dakota could chip in on the subsidy."

North Dakota already contributes toward capital expenditures. Furthermore, federal taxes received from North Dakotan's underwrite operation of the much-vaunted Northeast Corridor. Honestly, what more do we expect?!

Garl B. Latham

by gblatham on Mar 16, 2013 4:02 pm • linkreport

@gblatham:
Furthermore, federal taxes received from North Dakotan's underwrite operation of the much-vaunted Northeast Corridor.
I guess you didn't read the actual referenced report.

Then again, you seem to have made up your mind that long-distance rail routes are worth maintaining at any cost. Or is there any limit to what we should pour into them?

by Gray on Mar 16, 2013 4:42 pm • linkreport

@Rain17:
Cutting the national network is a bad idea because, in some of those small towns, Amtrak is the only transportation that passes through; and the closest airport is often pretty far away. Greyhound had also been cutting service in these areas.
I'm not seeing how this follows. If there's no demand for a nearby airport or regular bus service, why should we be propping up rail service to these towns?
Due to the oil boom in North Dakota the Empire Builder is pretty popular. . . . The SW Chief is also popular.
Okay, so you named two routes that lost over $120 million combined, just on an operating basis, in 2011. And those are the routes you consider popular? Of course, if they're really popular, the states could always cover some of those losses or subsidize service increases. Given that the states don't, I tend to doubt their true popularity.

by Gray on Mar 16, 2013 4:54 pm • linkreport

Why would Iowans want to pay for a service that doesn't stop remotely near a single population center in their state? Currently it takes over six hours to reach Chicago from Osceola which is over a hour drive south of Des Moines.

Most of where Amtrak runs outside of the West Coast and NE Cooridor have station locations that rarely make sense and travel times that can't compete with driving.

by discount sushi on Mar 16, 2013 9:41 pm • linkreport

Therefore, I challenge you to name just ONE existing Amtrak route (presumably one of those bad ol' long distance ones) that remains on the map for no reason other than to keep some elected official(s) "happy."

Alex, I'll take the Sunset limited for $200.

Cutting the national network is a bad idea because, in some of those small towns, Amtrak is the only transportation that passes through

But that could be fixed right? I mean we could run a bus line. Perhaps at a lower subsidy.

Says the man who, apparently, has never taken a long distance bus trip in his life.

Well, I have. Many times. Here and abroad, including multi-day bus rides in Africa. So, why is riding the bus equal to being doomed?

by David C on Mar 16, 2013 10:48 pm • linkreport

I've taken intercity buses, but I suppose none longer than 300 miles. Of course you can also take a bus TO a regional airport. Or to a connecting rail station.

Again, I'm not saying have rail to Helena or Grand Forks is not a good thing - its just a question of whether its worth it, compared to other things Amtrak could spend it on.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 17, 2013 3:07 pm • linkreport

@Gray: Western long haul trains frequently sell out, especially the sleepers, regardless of their operating loss. People in the towns served frequently have no air or bus service and can be as much as 200 miles from the nearest Interstate. Also, not everyone can drive or wants to.

BTW, the NEC also loses money once capital costs are factored in and state supported routes would lose money if not supported by them. One other thing: There are only 15 long distance trains out of the 300+ Amtrak operates, yet they account for 43% of Amtrak's daily train miles (a passenger mile is one passenger carried one mile).

People who think these trains should be discontinued in order to focus on corridors are missing key considerations: a)That if these trains come off, the NEC and state supported corridors will lose connecting revenue. The NEC alone has a million connecting passengers a year from long distance trains. b) Amtrak's fixed costs would have to be apportioned among the trains that are left, increasing costs of operating them.

Finally, if the long distance trains are killed, why would a congressman in, say, Montana vote to support the Northeast corridor? Destroying this service will destroy the national will to have any sort of rail service. You won't have one without the other.

Side note: some think only trains are subsidized. Not true. Highways? Since 2008 we have spent $53 billion in non-user funds on roads, in addition to gas taxes, etc...oops.

by Eastsidewillie on Mar 17, 2013 6:37 pm • linkreport

Western long haul trains frequently sell out, especially the sleepers, regardless of their operating loss.

If they sell out, but still lose money, why not jack up the price to what the market will bear? As noted in a comment above, similar sleeper prices for Canadian transcontinental trains are substantially more expensive than Amtrak - to the tune of 3x the price.

One other thing: There are only 15 long distance trains out of the 300+ Amtrak operates, yet they account for 43% of Amtrak's daily train miles (a passenger mile is one passenger carried one mile).

Why is train miles a relevant metric? All those train miles, but not nearly the volume of passengers. Seems to only enhance the point about the inefficiency of these routes, does it not?

by Alex B. on Mar 17, 2013 6:47 pm • linkreport

@Alex B: Interesting that you pick at the cost of operating a handful of trains but completely miss the fact that all forms of transportation are subsidized (see my comments about highways).

In regard to your first question: Amtrak already does this and tries to strike a balance between maximizing revenue without driving passengers away. The Canadian is a fine train, but it caters to the high-end tourist market instead of serving small communities as our trains do. Costs of providing service has to be balanced against social needs of people in remote areas.

BTW, before people complain about service to small towns, remember the village of Pittsburgh just lost affordable air service to Philadelphia and New York. A ticket can now cost $650-$870. Now do you understand why we need affordable trains?

Passenger miles is a relevant metric because it shows that despite their small numbers, long distance trains carry many passengers. Think of it this way: If one long distance route of 2,000 miles was folded up into a 200 mile corridor, the latter would have to have ten round trips to carry the same number of TM's.

by Eastsidewillie on Mar 17, 2013 7:04 pm • linkreport

I forgot to add that while long distance trains might carry a smaller percentage of Amtrak's passengers vs. corridors, they travel farther. I believe the average long distance trip is about 800 miles.

by Eastsidewillie on Mar 17, 2013 7:24 pm • linkreport

It is gratifying to see that there is growing interest in improving rail passenger service despite the many problems we face in this country at this time. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and President obama deserve credit for consistently supporting these improvements.

If passengers are provided with reliable service and comfortable, attractive passenger cars, there is no doubt that ridership will increase (perhaps at a surprisingly high rate) as the transit time between cities decreases. In other words, as a given trip gets shorter in time, more people will ride the train to get there.

The phenomenon of ridership increases resulting from reducing transit time between cities was described in a 1985 article by Lou Rossi published in the French railway industry journal, "Revue Generale des Chemins de Fer". This is exactly what happened on the Empire Corridor between Albany and New York City 25+ years ago.

This article can be viewed by using this link:

http://www.scribd.com/doc/63811294/HSR-Improvements-Empire-Corridor-1985-Louis-Rossi

In 1985, when this article was written, New York was leading the nation in passenger rail transportation improvements. Unfortunately, state policy changed in 1986 and these efforts, along with their many achievements, were set aside. New York now lags behind many other states in passenger rail improvements.

Progress in rail passenger service can be made as long as the states have competent rail staff in their transportation departments, and as long as "crony capitalism" doesn't eat up a significant portion of the funding.

by Tim Truscott on Mar 17, 2013 7:35 pm • linkreport

If one long distance route of 2,000 miles was folded up into a 200 mile corridor, the latter would have to have ten round trips to carry the same number of TM's.

But if it were folded into five 400 mile routes (providing a second daily) it would only need to carry the same number of passengers on all of those. And it would be cheaper to run.

That if these trains come off, the NEC and state supported corridors will lose connecting revenue.

But if those trains are replaced by others it will gain some. You have identified a potential cost, but there are also benefits.

Amtrak's fixed costs would have to be apportioned among the trains that are left

Right, but fixed costs should come down. And we'd be using the savings to add trains, so the denominator should remain roughly the same.

f the long distance trains are killed, why would a congressman in, say, Montana vote to support the Northeast corridor?

I think this is correct. But that is a rather unfortunate reason to support them. It's a sad selling point.

People in the towns served frequently have no air or bus service and can be as much as 200 miles from the nearest Interstate.

True. But there are thousands of such towns, why are these handful among the chosen few. Why does Sanderson, TX deserve an Amtrak station, but Las Vegas or Columbus, OH do not?

by David C on Mar 17, 2013 10:23 pm • linkreport

David C:

"But if it were folded into five 400 mile routes (providing a second daily) it would only need to carry the same number of passengers on all of those. And it would be cheaper to run."

Meanwhile people on the existing long haul route would lose service? I think the better approach is to recognize that different areas of the country have differing needs and that we should not rob Peter to pay Paul. This country is big enough for us not to squabble over who gets what.

BTW, we do not KNOW if a series of corridors would really be cheaper to run. I do recall that there was a study of breaking an LDT route up into a series of corridors and it found that costs actually rose because of poorer equipment utilization and loss of thru revenue.

"But if those trains are replaced by others it will gain some. You have identified a potential cost, but there are also benefits."

Yes, but again, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. There is NO guarantee that if LDT's were lost that anything would replace them. We went through this scenario in 1979 when several long distance trains were cut and nothing has replaced them. Columbus and Dayton are still without service, among others.

"Right, but fixed costs should come down. And we'd be using the savings to add trains, so the denominator should remain roughly the same."

The fixed costs won't change if long distance train come off and are replaced by corridor trains. They'll simply be spread among the trains that are left, as I said before.

"I think this is correct. But that is a rather unfortunate reason to support them. It's a sad selling point."

It IS unfortunate that we don't have the consensus to demand a truly national rail passenger system, which is really what is needed. Aside from that, what is truly unfortunate is the attitude of people such as yourself who are all too willing to take away a service people need and use.

"True. But there are thousands of such towns, why are these handful among the chosen few. Why does Sanderson, TX deserve an Amtrak station, but Las Vegas or Columbus, OH do not?"

Yes, and that's a shame. It's just the luck of the draw in the form of what services were left by the time Amtrak began to operate in 1971 and the inconsistent policies adopted by Congress and successive administrations. If we had a REAL policy that created a national system, we'd have modern train service everywhere, not just on a handful of routes and corridors.

We are in the middle of a national transportation crisis...roads are crumbling and we are dipping into general funds to pay for them, airlines are retreating from smaller and mid sized cities, bus service is a shadow of its former self and passenger trains are operating on a less than skeletal "system."

by Eastsidewillie on Mar 18, 2013 8:04 am • linkreport

I think one strong argument to maintain long distance lines is that remote areas have always been unprofitable, but as a network and as a country we need to connect to them, akin to the rural electrification, which provided electricity and telephone service to remote and unprofitable areas, and later the rural telecommunications cooperative for broadband. Also, roads themselves to remote places are heavily subsidized -- it is a federal responsibility to provide connectivity to everyone.

by goldfish on Mar 18, 2013 8:12 am • linkreport

Meanwhile people on the existing long haul route would lose service?

Yes.

This country is big enough for us not to squabble over who gets what.

I don't think that's actually true (isn't that what every election ever has been about?), but nonetheless that isn't what we're talking about. Or at least it's not what I'm talking about. If you're arguing that we should spend more money on passenger rail than we are now, that is one thing. I'm arguing that we should spend the current alotment of passenger rail money in the way that gives the most benefit per dollar AND that I don't think we are currently doing that or are even close to doing that. There are not enough dollars right now to provide maximum service to everyone, so spending a dollar inherently means you're robbing Peter to pay Paul.

BTW, we do not KNOW if a series of corridors would really be cheaper to run....poorer equipment utilization and loss of thru revenue

I'm talking about, for example, instead of running a few train between New Orleans and LA, running more trains between New Orleans and San Antonio. THat would be cheaper to run. Your second point is that it might bring in less revenue. It might. We should find out.

There is NO guarantee that if LDT's were lost that anything would replace them.

So?

The fixed costs won't change if long distance train come off and are replaced by corridor trains.

We'd be operatiing fewer stations and on less rail. How would that not bring costs down?

what is truly unfortunate is the attitude of people such as yourself who are all too willing to take away a service people need and use.

But isn't that what you're doing? By choosing one service - LDT - over another - daily service between large cities - you're talking service away from people who need it and would use it. Whatever we choose, there will be winners and losers. My point is we should have the maximum number of winners and the minimum number of losers.

It's just the luck of the draw

Well, luck of the draw is an awful way to run a railroad. We shouldn't let luck decide winners and losers. We should let cold, hard numbers do it for us.

We are in the middle of a national transportation crisis.

This is probably an overstatement of the problem, but nonetheless it is all the more reason to use our transportation dollars to serve the most people at the lowest cost.

by David C on Mar 18, 2013 8:46 am • linkreport

it is a federal responsibility to provide connectivity to everyone.

I would agree. And this is an argument for increased funding. But we didn't take electricity from Phoenix to give it to rural areas. We just spent more on electrification.

Do we need more funding? Almost surely yes. But until we get it, Amtrak needs to be more rational, and (ironically) that should help them get more money and create a more national system.

by David C on Mar 18, 2013 8:48 am • linkreport

And this is an argument for increased funding. But we didn't take electricity from Phoenix to give it to rural areas. We just spent more on electrification.

You are saying the long distance lines should be cut.

I did not say anything about increasing funding for Amtrak, and I do not expected revenues to change very much. The argument I provided (which I do not find fully convincing, btw) was to not maintain, not increase, the current national network. Given level funding and revenues, which I think is an implicit assumption in this thread, you have distorted and exaggerated what I wrote, claiming it was advocating increased funding. That is not true.

by goldfish on Mar 18, 2013 9:02 am • linkreport

goldfish, I think you misunderstood me. Perhaps I was unclear. I was not saying that YOU were arguing for more funding. I was saying that your point about subsidizing rural life is A valid point for arguing for more money. It is not a valid point for the status quo. I was disagreeing with you, but I was not trying to put words in your mouth.

You are saying the long distance lines should be cut.

Without more funding, I think this should at least be studied pretty throughly. And I think considerations that are political, sentimental or based on equity between regions or types of cities should be ignored.

by David C on Mar 18, 2013 9:11 am • linkreport

@David C: Well, luck of the draw is an awful way to run a railroad. We shouldn't let luck decide winners and losers. We should let cold, hard numbers do it for us.

But nothing actually works like this in reality.

Or, as my poli sci professor said, "If something isn't politically feasible, it's not a policy; it's just an idea."

by Miriam on Mar 18, 2013 9:13 am • linkreport

Fine, if someone wants to say that we should keep long distance trains, not because of the service they'll provide but to maintain political support for Amtrak, then I can at least understand that. The problem is no one wants to admit that, and so they say other things which are untrue. And I'm going to argue with those untrue things.

And I'll add that I believe that eventually things actually do work that way. At some point, constant bombardment with facts changes policy.

The arc of history bends towards facts.

by David C on Mar 18, 2013 9:41 am • linkreport

David C: The Interstate Highway system was built in sparsely populated areas, with little economic benefit at the time. We also built the Tennessee Valley Authority to provide electricity to an area that private utilities would not (not to mention flood control). We instituted rural electrification programs. We also have mail service to every corner of the nation. Amtrak's long distance service is more of the same. All of these might have "lost" money, but they played a part in making this nation whole instead of balkanized regions that have little to do with each other. The need for a "cold hard' examination of the fact has to balanced with the need to take into account that we are ONE nation, not a collection of unrelated states.

by Eastsidewillie on Mar 18, 2013 12:16 pm • linkreport

The Interstate Highway system was built in sparsely populated areas, with little economic benefit at the time.

True, but we didn't skip over Nashville in favor of Deming, NM. And the goal was not to connect those sparsely populated areas. They were just on the way.

I'm all for Amtrak, but you haven't convinced me that we're utilizing our current Amtrak funding in the best possible way.

I think we backed into the system we have and that this is a path dependency issue at this point. If we were starting from scratch, there is no way we'd have these cross country lines. What we'd have is two system - one east of the rockies and one to the west. And that's probably what we should have.

by David C on Mar 18, 2013 12:33 pm • linkreport

This isn't the 1950s or 1930's in terms of willing to spend lots of money - today you will not see spending to expand highways to that extent.

As for the postal system we provide mail service to every household in the country (BTW thats another subsidy to rural areas) Clearly we won't be providing passenger rail to every single town.

And once again, not having passenger rail does not mean a given place is isolated or balkanized. First those areas will have freight rail, as well as other freight modes. Fact is even in the NEC lots and lots of people use passenger modes other than rail - people drive, take buses, and fly. It makes sense in the northeast BECAUSE its difficult to expand capacity on those other modes. What percent of long distance travelers in N Dakota take Amtrak?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 18, 2013 12:37 pm • linkreport

AWalkerInTheCity and David C: I see. So what you are saying is that those unfortunates who live outside the Northeast and a few other places are not as worthy? They're just SOL because that's where they live? I wonder how you'd feel if you lived in these areas? Seems pretty heartless to me.

The national rail passenger system should serve as many people as possible and should approximate the Interstate Highway System in size. A fragmented series of corridor-only shards will not meet the needs of the country. Yes, that will cost billions. But in the meantime, keep in mind that we have spent $3 trillion on highways over the last 80 years and currently users only account for about 51% of what we spend on roads. We also spent the equivalent of a trillion dollars on aviation before the first user fees were imposed in 1971.

So be it.

by Eastsidewillie on Mar 18, 2013 2:42 pm • linkreport

In a world where resources to go to passenger rail are limitless I think there's no reason to oppose long distance rail service.

Since that's is definitely not the case I don't think its heartless to consider the issue of consolidating routes to see if that would move a greater amount of people.

by drumz on Mar 18, 2013 2:47 pm • linkreport

drumz: I rode the Silver Star from New York to Tampa. I rode coach because the sleepers were sold out, a common occurrence. These trains are full. The problem is a lack of equipment to meet demand. Consolidating services would not help that situation.

by Eastsidewillie on Mar 18, 2013 3:05 pm • linkreport

I don't think anyone on this website is against greater investment in Amtrak. Personally, I'd put in billions.

What they're questioning is the fact that in today's budget climate that these routes are unassailable and other options can't be considered.

by drumz on Mar 18, 2013 3:14 pm • linkreport

So what you are saying is that those unfortunates who live outside the Northeast and a few other places are not as worthy?

No. It has nothing to do with worthiness. It has to do with proper resource allocation and cost-to-benefit ratios.

They're just SOL because that's where they live?

Not really. Not anymore than the millions of Americans who have no Amtrak service now.

I wonder how you'd feel if you lived in these areas?

"I'm so glad the government makes the best possible use of my tax dollars instead of playing political games with them."

Yes, that will cost billions.

Like I said, I would love to see more money for passenger rail. But I'm talking about what to do with what we have.

But in the meantime, keep in mind that we have spent $3 trillion on highways over the last 80 years

True, but we gave millions of acres away to the railroads and have subsidized them for over 200 years now. I would love to see a total comparison.

These trains are full.

No. They aren't.

by David C on Mar 18, 2013 3:20 pm • linkreport

"So what you are saying is that those unfortunates who live outside the Northeast and a few other places are not as worthy?"

Its not about worthiness, but about cost benefit.

"They're just SOL because that's where they live?"

If you live in the northeast you can't have uncrowded highways. If you live in a city with no inland waterway you can't have a ferry. If you live in a place thats not suitable for passenger rail (due to lack of density) spending money on passenger rail for you is wasteful.

"I wonder how you'd feel if you lived in these areas?"

I lived in an intermediate place once (in the southeast). Hardly anyone used pass rail regularly. The money could have been better spent on other parts of the system.

" Seems pretty heartless to me. "

We are talking making you take a bus to the airport - not making children go without health insurance.

"The national rail passenger system should serve as many people as possible and should approximate the Interstate Highway System in size."

Im still not convinced thats the case.

" A fragmented series of corridor-only shards will not meet the needs of the country."

Covering east of the Miss, and the wet coast, is hardly shards.

"Yes, that will cost billions. But in the meantime, keep in mind that we have spent $3 trillion on highways over the last 80 years and currently users only account for about 51% of what we spend on roads. We also spent the equivalent of a trillion dollars on aviation before the first user fees were imposed in 1971."

Thats nice, but it doesnt actually provide funds to Amtrak.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 18, 2013 3:25 pm • linkreport

David C: "True, but we gave millions of acres away to the railroads and have subsidized them for over 200 years now. I would love to see a total comparison."

Whoa there. We gave "millions of acres" to those who invested in railroads in order to settle what was an undeveloped wilderness. Land grant mileage amounted to maybe 5% of the then 250,000 mile rail network. All the rest was privately funded. In exchange ALL railroads were required to carry military personnel and the US mail at greatly reduced rates. By the time this was changed in 1946, the railroads lost $146 million in revenue.

Land grants might have been a sweet deal for some railroads, but over time the industry paid a pretty penny. This is an urban legend that needs to be firmly laid to rest.

by Eastsidewillie on Mar 18, 2013 5:05 pm • linkreport

"Personally, I'd put in billions."

@drumz, now if you could get a few other rich folks to be as generous... (although I'm sure Amtrak would take your billions without reservation)! :)

My only comment is that I use Amtrak in various mode: commuter (to get home from BWI when MARC is not running); regional (NYC); and long-haul (to bring my mom up from SC, where she's 15 minutes from a train station and 2 hours from ATL).

by rogerwilco on Mar 18, 2013 5:47 pm • linkreport

David C: I just saw this:

These trains are full.

"No. They aren't."

YES THEY ARE. I saw that with my own eyes. [Deleted for violating the comment policy.]

I personally have been on several long distance trains in the past two years and they always been heavily used. How many have you ridden? Want hard numbers? Last year Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited carried 403,700 passengers, an all-time high and 4.3% increase over the previous year.

Do you think I'd be for these trains if nobody rode them? I would not.

by Eastsidewillie on Mar 18, 2013 5:52 pm • linkreport

"I guess you didn't read the actual referenced report."

I did indeed. So, what did I say that was incorrect, Gray?

"Then again, you seem to have made up your mind that long-distance rail routes are worth maintaining at any cost."

"At any cost"? I only wish all our federal government's activities were as efficient and viable as Amtrak's national network!

Garl

by gblatham on Mar 18, 2013 5:59 pm • linkreport

"Alex, I'll take the Sunset limited for $200."

Oh, David C., aren't we droll. [That still doesn't answer the question, by the way...unless you'd care to get specific. If so, you need start your search back in Richard Nixon's day, since the Sunset Limited was part of the U.S. D.O.T.'s initial Railpax route structure.]

"...why is riding the bus equal to being doomed?"

When in direct comparison to the various conveniences and amenities commonplace aboard conventional intercity passenger trains, riding a standard motor coach represents a profound reduction in the level of service. If you disagree, then I'll offer my congratulations in advance: over 38 1/2 years (to date) in the transportation industry, I've only met two men who claimed to prefer bus travel over train travel.

May I now count you as number three, or do you wish to revise your comment?

Garl

by gblatham on Mar 18, 2013 6:24 pm • linkreport

"Why does Sanderson, TX deserve an Amtrak station, but Las Vegas or Columbus, OH do not?"

David C., do you honestly believe that question is fair?

According to your way of thinking, why should ANY city, town or hamlet "deserve an Amtrak station"?!

Once service to Sanderson, Texas had been killed, why would you support creating new routes to call upon Las Vegas, Nevada* and Columbus, Ohio? Why not simply propose cutting Amtrak's budget even more and "starve the beast"?

Sorry; I've been around the block FAR too many times!

Garl

P.S. *Las Vegas, New Mexico is already part of Amtrak's system.

GBL

by gblatham on Mar 18, 2013 6:50 pm • linkreport

This is an urban legend that needs to be firmly laid to rest.

Like I said, I'd love to see an independent analysis.

I saw that with my own eyes ...

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.] The load factor on Amtrak trains is between 60-70%.

That still doesn't answer the question...

You asked me to "name just ONE existing Amtrak route (presumably one of those bad ol' long distance ones) that remains on the map for no reason other than to keep some elected official(s) "happy." I did. I named the sunset limited.

I've only met two men who claimed to prefer bus travel over train travel.

You should ride the chinatown bus sometime. It's filled with people who chose the bus over the train. Besides, being less preferable hardly equals doom. The train is nicer than the bus, but usually more expensive too.

do you honestly believe that question is fair?

Absolutely

why should ANY city, town or hamlet "deserve an Amtrak station"

Because it maximizes the benefit per dollar spent.

why would you support creating new routes to call upon Las Vegas, Nevada* and Columbus, Ohio?

Because those cities will generate more passenger miles per dollar spent.

Why not simply propose cutting Amtrak's budget even more and "starve the beast"?

Because I don't want to do that.

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by David C on Mar 18, 2013 10:50 pm • linkreport

"I named the sunset limited."

That's Sunset Limited...and it's still an incorrect answer. In fact, there ARE no trains that fit your description.

"You should ride the chinatown bus sometime. It's filled with people who chose the bus over the train."

INTERCITY services, David C. We're not discussing local transit.

"...being less preferable hardly equals doom."

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.]

GBL

by gblatham on Mar 19, 2013 12:39 am • linkreport

"INTERCITY services, David C. We're not discussing local transit."

chinatown buses are buses that run chinatown DC to Chinatown NYC. They have developed a new niche in intercity bus service - they don't use the Port Authority bus terminal, are inexpensive, and get lots of students - the kinds of folks who used to ride the NEC trains, before the NEC train fares went up - as NEC got more business travelers, and has come closer to profitability.

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 19, 2013 9:11 am • linkreport

AWalkerInTheCity: You are right about the Chinatown buses. They do fill a niche that Amtrak does not. There seems to be room for all in the busy NEC market. GF's son frequently uses it to get to New York.

I believe there are Chinatown buses in other parts of the country and their selling point is price. I've never ridden them, tho I've been on the Hound a number of times.

The real problem is that there is not enough public transportation of all sorts in most areas of the country. We desperately need more, be it bus, train (of all sorts), and local transit, especially as airlines retreat.

by Eastsidewillie on Mar 19, 2013 9:27 am • linkreport

On the one hand we have a political and practical need to keep some semblance of a national network with long distance lines, and on the other hand we have the limitations of cost. This debate is outside of funding and passenger revenues, btw: if there was 10x more money it will always be unprofitable to have long distance lines, and similarly if there was 1/2 as much money the political need to keep a national network will continue to demand that some longer, unprofitable runs be maintained.

There is no resolution between these extremes.

So can anybody think of a way to balance these conflicting demands? Otherwise you guys will go round and round forever.

by goldfish on Mar 19, 2013 9:47 am • linkreport

The real problem is that there is not enough public transportation of all sorts in most areas of the country.

I agree. My hometown has a small airport that has regular fligths to the major city 100 miles away. Tickets are expensive and once everything is considered, takes as long as driving. The counties in the area pay an airline to run these flights. A few years ago Delta decided it still wasn't worth it so they were trying to get Continental to do it. Some entrepreneurs said they would run shuttle buses from the downtowns of the three biggest towns to the major city's airport and downtown, and that they would run twice as many shuttles as the airline would run. And they would do it for less.

But the counties passed and instead hired Continental. Mostly for reasons of prestige. "A major business center needs an airport." So part of the problem is misapplication of resources.

by David C on Mar 19, 2013 9:49 am • linkreport

In fact, there ARE no trains that fit your description.

We'll just have to agree to disagree.

by David C on Mar 19, 2013 9:52 am • linkreport

@ David C -- a long distance route maintained to keep a politician happy? That would be the Cardinal: Chicago to NEC through WV, recommended for elimination but maintained because W VA Sen Bobby Byrd held the purse strings at the time. Still in operation, still a dumb idea.

by Amtrak Critic on Mar 19, 2013 10:19 am • linkreport

I took a bus from Sofia Bulgaria to Istanbul once. I took several all over Argentina. They were all over like 12 hours, sometimes overnight, and it was fine. We are not talking about putting city buses on long haul routes here. I like trains, but running them through such sparsely populated areas, even between big cities is nuts.

by Alan B. on Mar 19, 2013 10:39 am • linkreport

David C and Amtrak Critic: Yep, over the years we've had some really political trains and west Virginia seemed to have more than its share. My fave was the Shenandoah, which traversed the old B&O main between Washington DC and Cincinnati. Before that, we had the Potomac Turbo between Washington DC and Parkersburg WV. Both were put on at the behest of powerful Congressman Harley Staggers and the turbo soon earned moniker "Harley's Hornet." It was a huge misallocation of scarce resources and a terrible place for the high speed turbo, which ended up slogging over a 30 mph mountain railroad.

However, there is another side to this story. Staggers also got Amtrak a billion dollars which enabled it to modernize in a way that would not have been possible otherwise. I didn't like "Harley's Hornet," but if that's what it took to modernize the rest of the system I could make my peace with it.

BTW, The Shenandoah, successor to the Potomac Turbo, came off in 1981. Today the only portion of the route that has service is the Cumberland MD-Washington DC segment of the Capitol Limited.

by Eastsidewillie on Mar 19, 2013 12:58 pm • linkreport

I've heard varying themes on the argument "Passenger rail is going to have to live with very limited funding, so we should cut some long-distance service in order to provide more corridor service." That is a defeatist argument. Why resign ourselves to living with less funding than we need, especially when (A) deficit spending really isn't a bad thing and (B) there are so many other truly wasteful ways our taxpayer money is spent, such as fossil fuel subsidies.

Let's not waste time talking about how to make the best of a bad situation, but rather work together to change the bad situation into a better one. If even train advocates convince themselves that we'll have to live with very limited funding, then we've done ourselves a disservice. It's the same thing with the fight for DC statehood: it'll never happen as long as we keep convincing ourselves it'll never happen. Instead, let's convince ourselves that it will happen if we all work together to make it happen!

by Malcolm K. on Mar 19, 2013 2:34 pm • linkreport

Let's not waste time talking about how to make the best of a bad situation, but rather work together to change the bad situation into a better one.

We can speak in platitudes, too. Won't solve the problem, however.

I've heard varying themes on the argument "Passenger rail is going to have to live with very limited funding, so we should cut some long-distance service in order to provide more corridor service." That is a defeatist argument.

Maybe so, but you're ignoring the logic behind it.

If people are arguing that limited resources would be better spent on corridor services, that logic cuts both ways. People can make corridor services a priority over long-distance services in the face of spending cuts, or they can make corridor services a greater priority than long-distance services should funding expand.

by Alex B. on Mar 19, 2013 2:43 pm • linkreport

@David C: "You asked me to "name just ONE existing Amtrak route (presumably one of those bad ol' long distance ones) that remains on the map for no reason other than to keep some elected official(s) "happy." I did. I named the sunset limited."

Really? the "Red" states of Arizona, Texas, and Louisiana, and New Mexico? If anything, this is why the service is constrained to a hopeless tri-weekly operation.

by DaleH on Mar 19, 2013 6:35 pm • linkreport

How is New Mexico a red state?

Kay Baily Hutchinson supported Amtrak and Mary Landrieu still does.

by David C on Mar 19, 2013 8:37 pm • linkreport

Re: Sunset Limited: Amtrak wanted to make this a daily train, but Union Pacific wanted $750 million. It will remain tri-weekly for the foreseeable future.

by Eastsidewillie on Mar 19, 2013 10:45 pm • linkreport

This is the problem with capitalism. If there's not a profit, it's deemed unworthy of the effort. Well, if that were always the case, we wouldn't have most of the things we have now, like a national electric grid, an Interstate Highway System, sewer systems, fresh drinking water, etc.

Transportation should be one of those things that we ALL pay for to benefit the good of the populace as a whole. It should be viewed more as a public utility than a private business. This is why you see very successful public transportation systems everywhere else in the world but here. Profit should never be in the discussion. It's really embarrassing to think that, as the richest country in the world, we can't even get a real public transportation system going without someone feeling they're entitled to obscene profits. Meanwhile, the whole country suffers for it.

Why does everything have to be about a small group of people being obscenely wealthy? Why can't the real benefit and profit be to the general public? Why must the rest of us live at a lower standard of living just because a few very rich people want to get even richer. There's something very wrong about the wants of the few outweighing the needs of the many. Why does this country have to be "We the Few Very Rich" instead of "We the People"?

There's also a fundamental problem with states taking over parts of a national system. First of all, this is a thinly veiled attempt at breaking a public service up so that it can be locally monopolized and shut down, or completely changed, again, in order than a few people can control it and personally profit instead of allowing the general public to benefit.

Historically, states generally can't provide the level of maintenance or coordination and consistency that can be provided at an federal level. Think about the Interstate Highway System. We wouldn't have that if it were left to the individual states to get it going. That had to be an effort at the federal level. You get very abrupt breaks at state borders and the amount of complexity and coordination becomes such that the operating expenses and the expense of just coordinating becomes overwhelming. States should be able to contribute as they can but, it should be managed at a federal level and not at state level.

We need to stop listening to people that believe that they always entitled to profits first and that benefit to the general populace should be stopped at all cost if a few people don't become obscenely wealthy. Public transportation should be a national goal, not the scheme of a few people planning to bilk taxpayers. The time of private monopoly over public good has to come to an end. We could have a great national public transportation system that seamlessly links to smaller, private or state systems as needed. That is, if profit-mongers would just get out of the way and let the country meet our potential.

by Victor in PA on Mar 23, 2013 12:20 pm • linkreport

Thank you, Victor!

After almost 39 years in the railroad business, I'm afraid I've developed a fairly powerful, occasionally overriding and ultimately unhealthy cynicism. I say that to my shame.

Your comments were a breath of fresh air.

Although the "time of private monopoly over public good" hasn't literally "come to an end" - yet, one might hope that a few of the most recent examples of outrageous excess will cause the pendulum to begin swinging in the other direction!

You're absolutely correct: transportation should be planned, established and operated as a public utility, for the good of the whole, and the efforts must be coordinated on a national level.

Best wishes,
Garl B. Latham

by gblatham on Mar 23, 2013 12:50 pm • linkreport

Re: "Chinatown buses"

I should have known. The phrase "Chinatown Bus" (or "chinatown bus") was actually being used by David C. as a generic term for the proverbial "curbside bus" industry. In my part of the world, most of these operators are known by the appellation "Megabus."

Fung Wah Bus, first of the modern-day curbside operators (and, interestingly enough, a major player in the New York City / Washington, D.C. market), was shut down less than one month ago by federal regulators for myriad, longstanding safety violations.

For those on a tight budget who travel along established, high-density routes (such as the Northeast Corridor), it may be tempting to seek a "low frills" carrier that, in an attempt to reduce overhead, eschews even the most rudimentary depot facilities. Many others wouldn't even consider curbside buses an option.

The curbside owner/operators have discovered a limited niche market. Simply put, as long as our federal government continues to provide the basic infrastructure necessary for their survival (and they can stay one step ahead of folks at the N.T.S.B.), these "chinatown buses" will remain players in places like the N.E.C., where there's more than enough business for everyone.

Of course, no one here has questioned continued service - not even of the rail-based sort - along the N.E.C. It's out in the hinterlands where long distance, national network routes offer one of their many unique advantages.

Ultimately, discussion of "chinatown buses" and their ilk is beyond the scope of the original article in question and, therefore, not germane to this debate.

Garl B. Latham

by gblatham on Mar 23, 2013 1:48 pm • linkreport

Earlier, David C. commented on the load factor of Amtrak services.

The link he provided indicated Amtrak's system-wide load factors - skewed in part because of high-frequency, unreserved corridors...especially the N.E.C.

Generally speaking, long haul trains maintain a far greater occupancy rate.

Garl

by gblatham on Mar 23, 2013 2:01 pm • linkreport

Ultimately, discussion of "chinatown buses" and their ilk is beyond the scope of the original article in question and, therefore, not germane to this debate.

There germane because you equated "buses" to doom. And because you said no one prefers the bus to rail. Some people obviously do. If you would like to recant and agree that riding the bus actually isn't all that bad and that it has some advantages over rail than the Chinatown buses will no longer be relevant.

by David C on Mar 23, 2013 2:03 pm • linkreport

The load factor for the Sunset limited (According to the Sept 2008 monthly report) was 55% in 2008. Acela/Metroliner was at 62%. Which train do you think is full?

by David C on Mar 23, 2013 2:08 pm • linkreport

Here are the load factors for 2010:

Long distance: 59.7%
State supported corridor: 43.5%
Northeast Corridor (all-incl. Acela): 52.9%

Acela alone (NEC): 62.6%

By this measure, only the Acela bests the average long distance train load factor. All the rest do not, tho some individual trains might.

This whole discussion is silly anyway. "My train is better than your train." Or "My corridor service is more deserving than your train." is an exercise that has us fighting over crumbs instead of working to make the pie bigger.

Victor has it right when he says:

"Transportation should be one of those things that we ALL pay for to benefit the good of the populace as a whole. It should be viewed more as a public utility than a private business. This is why you see very successful public transportation systems everywhere else in the world but here."

The Commerce Clause of the Constitution gives the federal government the responsibility of promoting interstate commerce. We have done that with massive taxpayer supported investment in highways, airports, the air traffic control system, waterways, ports but when it comes to rail it's different. Here, we expect either a devolution of rail service to the states or that such service be completely privately financed and self supporting, even though we lavish huge subsidies on competing modes.

by Eastsidewillie on Mar 23, 2013 2:30 pm • linkreport

David C.:

Actually, my original comments were a bit more involved than that.

The "doomed" remark came from the following paragraph:

"Many of the communities served by long haul trains are not located near commercial airfields; therefore, ...residents in those locales would be doomed to a lifetime of driving a personal motor vehicle, riding an intercity bus (where such service is still available) or staying at home."

In other words, those who are now blessed with the option of riding an intercity passenger train on their journeys would suddenly find themselves at a considerable disadvantage - further explained by this statement:

"When in direct comparison to the various conveniences and amenities commonplace aboard conventional intercity passenger trains, riding a standard motor coach represents a profound reduction in the level of service."

With coach seating on long distance equipment far larger than that found on buses, nicer toilet facilities, the availability of food and beverage service, and ample room to roam about, it's probably travelers in search of financial bargains who tend to choose buses over trains.

Please note, however, that I did say "probably." I had already left some wiggle room:

"...over 38 1/2 years (to date) in the transportation industry, I've...met two men who claimed to prefer bus travel over train travel."

Garl B. Latham

P.S. When comparing various modes of transportation, an understanding of the distances involved is also important. A trip from New York to Washington - touching five states and the District of Columbia - still covers less mileage than a journey one-quarter of the way across Texas.

GBL

by gblatham on Mar 23, 2013 6:27 pm • linkreport

In yet another attempt to name an Amtrak route which survives only to placate an elected official (or two), "Amtrak Critic" mentioned the Cardinal.

As with the Sunset Limited, we'd need to go back to Richard Nixon's day to find our guilty politician(s), since the Cardinal - the direct lineal descendant of the C&O's George Washington and the Penn Central's (nee New York Central's) James Whitcomb Riley - was part of the U.S. D.O.T.'s initial Railpax route structure.

In addition, according to the most recent Amtrak figures, the Cardinal's overall financial results appear much better than one might expect - especially considering the service operates only three days per week, each way.

http://www.amtrak.com/ccurl/401/881/Amtrak-CEO-Boardman-House-T&I-testimony-Mar-05-2013.pdf

[see page 10]

Garl B. Latham

by gblatham on Mar 23, 2013 11:34 pm • linkreport

OK, so we're agreed then that trading rail service for bus service is not equal to being doomed?

As to your other point - that everyone except for a tiny minority of people prefers riding the train to taking a bus - I think that can be shown untrue if one simply looks at the service Greyhound provides. They directly compete with Amtrak on almost every route.

For example, you can take the bus or the train from New Orleans to Los Angeles. If no one preferred the bus, then Greyhound would be running empty buses. I think it's safe to assume that Greyhound doesn't do that - therefore, some people must prefer the bus. They're willing to give up the amenities you care about for faster (45 hour as opposed to 46.5 hour), cheaper ($190 compared to $250) and more frequent (4 buses a day compared to 4 trains a week) service.

it's probably travelers in search of financial bargains who tend to choose buses over trains.

Yes, ONLY those in search of financial bargains. Those few, those sad few. I suppose the train is the preferred mode of travel if money or time are not an issue. Although if money isn't an issue, I think most people would prefer to travel by private jet.

But money and time are issues, so many people prefer the bus to rail.

A trip from New York to Washington - touching five states and the District of Columbia - still covers less mileage than a journey one-quarter of the way across Texas.

Yes I know, but what is the price of eggs in Morocco?

by David C on Mar 24, 2013 8:17 am • linkreport

This whole discussion is silly anyway. "My train is better than your train." Or "My corridor service is more deserving than your train." is an exercise that has us fighting over crumbs instead of working to make the pie bigger.

The way I see it, running the best, most efficient rail service we can is the best argument we can make for a bigger pie. So when I push for making Amtrak, as currently funding, better, I AM working to make the pie bigger. And when people argue that Amtrak is fine as it is and doesn't need to rethink the service that they have or that we can't cut service because some people will be doomed to ride the bus, they're standing in the way of a bigger pie.

by David C on Mar 24, 2013 8:21 am • linkreport

David C: Well, We just are not going to agree and that's fine. I will continue to do as I have, working to support rail passenger services across the country. We need much more in all areas of the country, be it corridor or long distance services. people ride these trains and I am not willing to leave them behind.

BTW, don't get the idea I favor one type of service over another. A recent report identified $33 billion in capital needs for the Northeast Corridor and I support that. The state supported initiatives are exciting as well, especially what's going on in Michigan and Illinois.

However, I think long distance services are worthy of support, especially as airlines retreat from many smaller and mid-size markets. I'm not going to try to convince you; I'm just telling you what I believe.

by Eastsidewillie on Mar 24, 2013 8:52 am • linkreport

don't get the idea I favor one type of service over another.

If you support spending money on one thing (LDT) when it could be spent on another (more frequent, shorter intercity trains) then you support one over the other.

And if you don't support one type of service over another, you should. Not all train service is equal. It's illogical to support all train service no matter what.

by David C on Mar 24, 2013 9:13 am • linkreport

As I said, we do not agree. I did not say I supported all service no matter what. Read what I said earlier: if no one was riding these trains I would not support them. That is not the case.

Furthermore, I believe we will get farther by being inclusive rather than exclusionary. The only way there will ever be support in the rest of the country for the many billions of dollars it will take to make the NEC what it could and should be is for others in the hinterlands to get a piece of the pie.

Excluding those who use these these trains will only breed resentment and that is not where we want to go. I already hear it all the time: "Why does my state have to pay the cost of our service when the NEC states get free ride?" There is already a longstanding resentment toward the NEC because of this. How about a demand that the states in the Northeast pay for their trains, just the same as elsewhere?

Like I said before, I believe we should have a NATIONAL system.

by Eastsidewillie on Mar 24, 2013 1:17 pm • linkreport

The only way there will ever be support in the rest of the country for the many billions of dollars it will take to make the NEC what it could and should be is for others in the hinterlands to get a piece of the pie.

I agree with you on this. The justification is almost entirely political.

And that's the problem. It's ironic that the only thing people think will keep the system politically viable is what puts it most in political peril.

by David C on Mar 24, 2013 1:39 pm • linkreport

David C: Let me ask a rhetorical question: If the NEC is worth doing, should not the states it serves have to pay to support it, just as states outside the NEC already do? Not picking, just curious.

by Eastsidewillie on Mar 24, 2013 1:51 pm • linkreport

That a rhetorical question? So, you don't want me to answer it?

by David C on Mar 24, 2013 9:14 pm • linkreport

No need to be coy, Roy...

by Eastsidewillie on Mar 24, 2013 9:18 pm • linkreport

I really don't know what you want me to do, and I don't want to be the guy who answers a genuine rhetorical question. So do you want my answer or not?

by David C on Mar 24, 2013 9:21 pm • linkreport

I just posed a question out a genuine curiosity. Sure, go ahead. I just want to know what you think.

by Eastsidewillie on Mar 24, 2013 9:37 pm • linkreport

1. I think we should design a national passenger rail system that has benefits that match the cost. That means including all the environmental, connectivity, safety etc... benefits of rail, and it means subsidizing it, almost surely more than we do now.

2. If, after we've done that, a state wants additional service for reasons that they value, but the federal government doesn't, then they should cover the subsidy of that, wherever that service may be.

3. Of course, we don't have that, but along the same lines it makes sense for Amtrak to have "core" services that are interstate, highly popular and lightly subsidized by the federal government; and other service which is intrastate, less popular and subsidized by the state it operates in.

4. Amtrak has no leverage along the NEC. What would Amtrak do if New York refused to pay? Just stop serving New York City?

by David C on Mar 24, 2013 10:08 pm • linkreport

Points 1,2,3 sound reasonable. As to point 4, that's the problem with relying on a state-driven approach to try to deal with interstate services. If a state in the middle drops out, the whole service is severed and made useless.

I really think any interstate services should be a federal responsibility, tho states should be encouraged to participate.

by Eastsidewillie on Mar 24, 2013 10:28 pm • linkreport

"...so we're agreed then that trading rail service for bus service is not equal to being doomed?"

By no means.

"...what is the price of eggs in Morocco?"

In the world of passenger transportation, apart from the literal calculation of time on a clock, there are at least two additional ways of measuring intervals: time efficiency and time perception.

The concept of time efficiency might best be summed up with the term "multi-tasking."

The perception of elapsed time is far more subjective; still, certain rules of thumb come into play. When traveling by intercity bus, a four hour trip duration (or eight hours with a meal stop) is one way of computing maximum acceptable travel time. Four hours can take a traveler across several states in the northeastern U.S.; conversely, seemingly little headway is made out west.

Over the years, I've noticed how one's perception of distance can be tempered by location.

G.B.L.

by gblatham on Mar 25, 2013 11:52 pm • linkreport

By no means do you agree with me, or by no means is it doom?

Over the years, I've noticed how one's perception of distance can be tempered by location.

I still have no idea why you're telling me all of this. What does this have to do with the efficiency of LDT funding?

by David C on Mar 26, 2013 12:07 am • linkreport

"Those few, those sad few. I suppose the train is the preferred mode of travel if money or time are not an issue. Although if money isn't an issue, I think most people would prefer to travel by private jet."

Or by private railroad car.

You know, had you not shown your hand so early in the game by indicating your complete disdain for Amtrak's national network services, I might sound more agreeable when it comes to the use of buses as connecting vehicles (which I've helped plan under contract) or in the local transit world (such as during my tenure at DART).

As it stands, I see absolutely no reason to encourage your stated desire to replace selected passenger trains (which you'd have the luxury of choosing, naturally) with motor coaches.

Garl

by gblatham on Mar 26, 2013 12:08 am • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by gblatham on Mar 26, 2013 12:13 am • linkreport

So if I'd hidden my opinions, you would agree with me more? That makes no sense to me.

I see absolutely no reason to encourage your stated desire to replace selected passenger trains (which you'd have the luxury of choosing, naturally) with motor coaches.

That's not really my stated desire. My desire is to do a full analysis of the best system we can buy, with much heavier emphasis on increasing load factor, passenger miles, trips and utility at the best cost possible, and no emphasis on transit equity or building political support by touching every state.

I suspect we'd end up with multiple, disconnected systems and no cross-country trains when we were done. But that's not my desire. It's a byproduct. Perhaps you have a different suspicion, in which case you wouldn't mind such a review.

Why would I get to choose which trains stay or go? Are you making this personal? This isn't about me (or you) and I'd like to keep it that way if you don't mind.

by David C on Mar 26, 2013 12:17 am • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by David C on Mar 26, 2013 12:20 am • linkreport

"...when people argue that Amtrak is fine as it is and doesn't need to rethink the service that they have or that we can't cut service because some people will be doomed to ride the bus, they're standing in the way of a bigger pie."

Three points, if I may:

First, I do not believe "Amtrak is fine as it is"! Amtrak's system has never grown to an adequate size, much less reached critical mass. One of the company's biggest problems is that you can't get there from here! New routes, additional frequencies and a greater variety of accommodations are all necessary.

Secondly, I'd eagerly welcome an open-minded systemic review of Amtrak - its mission and its destiny. However, EVERYthing must be on the table; no presumptions allowed!

Finally, nothing in the (almost) 42 years of Amtrak's life to date indicates a bigger piece of the pie will necessarily be forthcoming, no matter what decisions are made. Furthermore, without a comprehensive domestic transportation/energy/environmental in place, the U.S. probably doesn't NEED to invest a lot of money in passenger trains - or any other mode of transport!

Wouldn't it be wonderful to decide where we're going and how we'd like to get there PRIOR to making profound, far reaching decisions?!

G.B.L.

by gblatham on Mar 26, 2013 12:51 am • linkreport

"I'm not the one who didn't know what a 'chinatown bus' was, remember?"

Oh, yes; I remember. And, once I realised you were referring to curbside bus operations, all was well.

I'm glad to see we at least stand in agreement regarding a "full analysis" of the intercity passenger train business!

G.B.L.

by gblatham on Mar 26, 2013 1:18 am • linkreport

"If you support spending money on one thing (LDT) when it could be spent on another (more frequent, shorter intercity trains) then you support one over the other."

Well, there is absolutely no reason to believe that any money saved by destroying Amtrak's national network would automatically be redeployed to underwrite corridor expansion. Of course, you've already given us your answer to that:

"So?"

By the way, I've also seen this same argument used in many other ways (e.g., for the money we spend on Amtrak, we could feed the poor/educate a million disadvantaged students/save the whales, etc.).

"And if you don't support one type of service over another, you should. Not all train service is equal. It's illogical to support all train service no matter what."

I universally support the CONCEPT of rail-based passenger and freight service. It is illogical to think our drive-or-fly society is sustainable over the long-term - and I've never seen anyone outline reasonable alternatives which failed to include railway operations of some sort.

For the record, it is also illogical to dismiss any form of railroad passenger service out-of-hand. Back to our "full analysis"?!

G.B.L.

by gblatham on Mar 26, 2013 1:55 am • linkreport

"...your lecture on time perception has not been clearly tied in to the discussion."

A trip between, say, Chicago and Los Angeles will seem to be much farther when riding an intercity bus than when traveling on the railroad.

If modern intercity motor coaches are to be deemed reasonable replacements for long distance passenger trains, time perception enters the picture - especially when considering service marketability.

G.B.L.

by gblatham on Mar 26, 2013 2:10 am • linkreport

Well, there is absolutely no reason to believe that any money saved by destroying Amtrak's national network would automatically be redeployed to underwrite corridor expansion.

But that's what I'm advocating. I'm not advocating cutting Amtrak funding.

you've already given us your answer to that: So?

I was not saying "So?" to the idea of cutting Amtrak funding. I was saying "So?" to the idea that some small cities would no longer have any kind of service at all. Those are very different ideas.

For the record, it is also illogical to dismiss any form of railroad passenger service out-of-hand.

Who did that?

A trip between, say, Chicago and Los Angeles will seem to be much farther when riding an intercity bus than when traveling on the railroad.

I'm not entirely sure that's true, and if that's the point you were making I don't know why you kept talking about how much bigger western states are than eastern ones. Regardless, the point, even when further explained, remains as irrelevant as the price of eggs in Morocco.

by David C on Mar 26, 2013 9:07 am • linkreport

Just a note on what I'd consider "national." First, a recent report has NEC capital needs to bring the corridor to a "state of good repair" plus some improvements at $33 billion. Add equipment and a few other items and we have a figure of $40 billion.

The next thing to consider is population. For every person in the NEC, there is another six nationally. So, if we are going to put the entire country on the same footing as the NEC we'd have $240 billion for the rest of the country, along with another $40 billion for the NEC, for a national total of $280 billion. This could be a 20 year program with annual outlays of $14 billion, which is considerably more than Amtrak gets, but is doable.

What about route structure? The logical place to start is the existing Amtrak system. It isn't perfect, but it's what we have. Next, we add the 100 top city pairs for travel as defined by the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics, federally designated high speed corridors and routes that historically had high volumes. There may be some gaps and these should be closed also.

Here are the 1995 top 100 BTS routes:

1 Los Angeles San Diego 10,466,883
2 Las Vegas Los Angeles 9,120,296
3 New York Philadelphia 8, 476,339
4 New York Washington DC 7,773,377
5 Los Angeles San Francisco 7,049,954
6 Sacramento San Francisco 5,337,613
7 Philadelphia Washington DC 4,678,680
8 Dallas Houston 3,097,228
9 Portland Seattle 2,605,223
10 Norfolk Washington DC 2,590,212

11 Los Angeles Phoenix 2,472,665
12 San Diego San Francisco 2,415,188
13 Dallas San Antonio 2,286,587
14 Las Vegas San Diego 2,213,871
15 Boston New York 2,121,134
16 Albany New York 2,073,199
17 Harrisburg Philadelphia 2,060,693
18 Los Angeles Santa Barbara 2,036,605
19 Austin Houston 2,032,380
20 Lakeland Sarasota 1,940,000

21 Atlanta Nashville 1,893,454
22 Phoenix Tucson 1,811,036
23 Austin Dallas 1,805,389
24 Cleveland Columbus 1,800,126
25 Houston San Antonio 1,744,368
26 Miami New York 1,712,677
27 Reno San Francisco 1,704,123
28 Eugene Portland 1,666,301
29 Los Angeles Sacramento 1,631,660
30 Chicago Detroit 1,614,286

31 Beaumont Houston 1,450,625
32 Detroit Grand Rapids 1,411,112
33 Corpus Christi San Antonio 1,392,317
34 Oklahoma City Tulsa 1,344,266
35 Richmond Washington DC 1,327,046
36 Cincinnati Columbus 1,310,511
37 Hartford New York 1,285,033
38 Los Angeles New York 1,257,041
39 Atlanta Birmingham 1,219,047
40 Pittsburgh Washington DC 1,196,211

41 Chicago Indianapolis 1,176,242
42 Lowell MA New York 1,167,354
43 Bakersfield Los Angeles 1,135,519
44 Philadelphia Scranton 1,123,862
45 Chicago Milwaukee 1,115,713
46 Chicago St. Louis 1,095,190
47 Fresno Los Angeles 1,070,261
48 Miami Orlando 1,035,869
49 Cincinnati Indianapolis 1,029,824
50 New York Scranton 1,007,871

51 Cleveland Detroit 987,179
52 Chicago New York 969,846
53 New York Orlando 952,078
54 Phoenix San Francisco 948,829
55 Los Angeles Seattle 945,033
56 New London CT New York 939,648
57 Kansas City St. Louis 920,066
58 Chicago Minneapolis 892,108
59 Orlando Tampa 877,514
60 Philadelphia Pittsburgh 877,108

61 Buffalo New York 874,494
62 New York Syracuse 874,191
63 Lancaster New York 861,457
64 Atlanta Greenville SC 860,635
65 Boston Washington 860,487
66 New York Norfolk 856,042
67 Charlotte Greenville SC 843,037
68 Chicago Madison WI 819,542
69 Norfolk Richmond 803,806
70 New York Providence 799,417

71 Las Vegas Phoenix 783,146
72 Atlanta New York 778,476
73 Chicago Dallas 765,019
74 New York San Francisco 761,159
75 Harrisburg New York 751,741
76 Denver Los Angeles 741,177
77 Detroit Kalamazoo 739,397
78 Phoenix San Diego 721,485
79 New York Tampa 717,739
80 Cleveland Pittsburgh 716,468

81 Boston Hartford 709,116
82 Charlotte Raleigh 694,774
83 Los Angeles Modesto 694,280
84 New York Pittsburgh 687,103
85 Miami Tampa 686,278
86 Salinas CA San Francisco 677,352
87 Dallas Shreveport 674,406
88 Jacksonville Tampa 672,702
89 Chicago Washington DC 658,947
90 Atlanta Washington DC 650,678

91 Reno Sacramento 644,983
92 Atlanta Charlotte 640,467
93 Cincinnati Cleveland 640,136
94 Charleston SC Columbia SC 630,516
95 Johnson City TN Knoxville TN 622,902

The remainder are short hops better suited to commuter service.

By serving these routes, we run trains where the people are.

Interestingly, the top 100 BTS city pairs include 12 long distance routes. Obviously, air would dominate but all but two are suitable to overnight train service.

26 Miami-New York 1,712,677
29 Los Angeles-Sacramento 1,631,660
38 Los Angeles-New York 1,257,041
52 Chicago-New York 969,846
53 New York-Orlando 952,078
54 Phoenix-San Francisco 948,829
55 Los Angeles-Seattle 945,033
72 Atlanta-New York 778,476
74 New York-San Francisco 761,159
79 New York-Tampa 717,739
89 Chicago-Washington DC 658,947
90 Atlanta-Washington DC 650,678

The amount of money available would allow the construction of several 220 mph high speed lines, a network of 110-125 mph corridor services, 90-110 regional and long distance services as well.

by Eastsidewillie on Mar 26, 2013 3:01 pm • linkreport

So, if we are going to put the entire country on the same footing as the NEC

The rest of the country isn't like the NEC and has different needs, so I'm not sure this is the right way to think about it. We should spend money on a system until the benefit of the last dollar spent no longer exceeds the cost.

The logical place to start is the existing Amtrak system. It isn't perfect, but it's what we have.

I actually think the logical place to start is the list of BTS routes you point out and to ignore the current system. "It's what we have" is just another way of saying "path dependency problem" and one role of government is to break through path dependency problems.

by David C on Mar 26, 2013 9:26 pm • linkreport

David C: Well, I'm not going to debate the fine points. It's just a "fantasy football" scenario, anyway.

by Eastsidewillie on Mar 26, 2013 9:54 pm • linkreport

"But that's what I'm advocating."

I know. It's just that governmental (and most business) budgets don't work that way. Why would you think they do?

"I was saying 'So?' to the idea that some small cities would no longer have any kind of service at all."

And that would "small cities" like Dayton and Columbus, the two specific examples offered by Eastsidewillie in the post which led to your comment?

by gblatham on Mar 27, 2013 4:14 pm • linkreport

"The rest of the country isn't like the NEC and has different needs..."

If that's the case, why should success of the "chinatown bus" industry between New York and Washington lead one to believe that intercity buses are reasonable replacements for existing long-haul trains?

by gblatham on Mar 27, 2013 4:43 pm • linkreport

It doesn't. It leads me to conclude that some people will choose the bus over the train. That was a we're talking about.

by David C on Mar 27, 2013 5:30 pm • linkreport

"...one role of government is to break through path dependency problems."

That's a fascinating statement, especially when applied to the realm of domestic transportation. At LEAST since World War II, the U.S. government has done everything in its power to maintain our "drive-or-fly" society, based to a large extent upon the ol' "America's love affair with the automobile" myth.

It's the over-dependence on motor vehicle technology which has spawned autocentrism, directly leading to many of the social and financial issues with which the U.S. is now plagued. They include suburban sprawl (and other quality-of-life matters), energy use (and abuse), environmental stewardship (or the lack, thereof) and infrastructure degradation.

If we REALLY desire to "break through," we should begin by making rail-based technologies equal players with all other modes!

If we fail to do so - in advance of any serious planning efforts - then worries concerning this alleged "path dependency problem" simply become a convenient excuse for the scrapping of Amtrak's national network.

To quote something you posted earlier:

"I think we backed into the system we have and that this is a path dependency issue at this point. If we were starting from scratch, there is no way we'd have these cross country lines. What we'd have is two system - one east of the rockies [sic] and one to the west. And that's probably what we should have."

by gblatham on Mar 27, 2013 5:42 pm • linkreport

"It doesn't. It leads me to conclude that some people will choose the bus over the train."

Hmmm...

"I mean we could run a bus line. Perhaps at a lower subsidy."

A comment regarding Amtrak's national network services (what most of "the rest of the country" has), posted by you, prior to the first mention of "chinatown buses."

by gblatham on Mar 27, 2013 5:52 pm • linkreport

At your first comment, making mistakes in the past is not justification for continuing to make mistakes today or to make more in the future.

As to your second comment it feels like you're trying very hard to trap me. But those two comments are totally unrelated. the first is about whether or not some people will prefer the bus. You claimed almost no one would, but I think it's Pretty clear that some people do. And I think the Chinatown bus shows that. The second comment is about what we could do. Not about what the government would do. That is a different argument altogether. Do I think the federal government will do any of the things I proposed? Absolutely not. But I maintain the claim that it is the better path. I'm not really sure what you're arguing with me about this point. If I'm wrong about Amtrak's Route map being inefficient, what does it Matter how they're replaced? And if I'm right about it being inefficient, then that means You're defending an inefficient system. So which is it?

by David C on Mar 27, 2013 8:29 pm • linkreport

"...making mistakes in the past is not justification for continuing to make mistakes today or to make more in the future."

Once again, we're in agreement.

"...it feels like you're trying very hard to trap me."

Really? All I'm doing is repeating some of the things you've said.

"You claimed almost no one would [prefer the bus over the train]..."

Yes; but, far more than that, I claimed a bus was a pale substitute for a long distance train and the services it provides. Moreover, bus travel is much harder to sell out west (the area of the U.S. in greatest danger of losing everything) and, if we're really sincere about alternative transportation, marketability must be considered.

"I think the Chinatown bus shows that."

Yes, sir...but we're still discussing the Northeast Corridor. If you're correct and "[t]he rest of the country isn't like the NEC and has different needs," we can't necessarily use what does or does not work along the NEC as our basis for passenger transportation planning outside of the original "Megalopolis"!

"The second comment is about what we could do. Not about what the government would do. That is a different argument altogether."

Perhaps; still, we have a voice. I'd be very disappointed if I thought you didn't vote or communicate with your elected officials. In fact, based upon our discussion to date, I'd be SHOCKED to learn that was the case...and I sincerely mean that as a compliment.

"If I'm wrong about Amtrak's Route map being inefficient, what does it Matter how they're replaced?"

Because the wrong sort of change(s) could easily make matters worse? Because once the national network trains are gone, they'll probably STAY gone - even if we discover later that a gross error has been made? Because if we connect the dots on Eastsidewillie's B.T.S. list, we'll end up with a national network fairly similar to what we have today, only MUCH larger?

"And if I'm right about it being inefficient, then that means You're defending an inefficient system."

But we're approaching this issue from two diametrically opposed perspectives, David C.! I honestly don't mean to over-simplify things; however, you've essentially stated that Amtrak's greatest inefficiencies stem from it being required by politicians to operate, shall we say, "anachronistic" long-haul routes instead of the short- to medium-haul corridors as proposed by many and (supposedly?) preferred by the marketplace.

I claim that Amtrak is inefficient because its current system is anemic beyond hope and that "more trains to more places" should be its mantra!

Furthermore, if our previously discussed "full analysis" was actually completed, we'd find that conventional intercity passenger trains have the capability to perform myriad, vital transportation functions, are time competitive - especially over long distances - with automobile travel, and that the mode is not only marketable but goes a long way toward addressing things like the numerous environmental, energy and lifestyle concerns I've mentioned before.

In fact, presuming groups such as the Sierra Club are correct regarding the computation of various hidden costs (including indirect subsidy) which keeps autocentrism alive, a greatly expanded Amtrak would save a tremendous amount of the taxpayer's money!

To be candid, I don't think either one of us has anything to fear from an unbiased review of U.S. passenger train service!

While I'm at it, I'll tell you something else. If the U.S. D.O.T. completed a comprehensive study of conventional, long distance intercity passenger train service and decided trains of that sort were no longer necessary in today's society, nor would they be in the foreseeable future, I would vehemently disagree...BUT, I'd have far more respect for that approach than what we're doing now, which is occasionally throwing Amrtak a bone just to keep their few long-haul trains on life support while denying them the needed capital to expand consists, add routes and otherwise make contemporary passenger trains real players in the domestic transport market of the 21st century.

Best,
Garl

by gblatham on Mar 28, 2013 12:33 pm • linkreport

Garl and David C: When I did my exercise I did connect the dots with the BTS city pairs, followed by the federally designated HSR corridors and routes that had at least three daily round trips in 1962 (hey it's my exercise)to take into account routes that traditionally had high volumes.

The result was a map that pretty well covered the country, with a few gaps. For example, there were gaps between El Paso and San Antonio, between Pocatello ID and Salt Lake City, between Eugene OR and Sacramento CA. Most were short or mid distance gaps. The only exception was a long gap on the route of Amtrak's Empire Builder from Minot ND to Seattle WA.

Plug in the existing Amtrak system and the gaps are all filled. Again, not perfect, but pretty good overall.

by Eastsidewillie on Mar 28, 2013 1:21 pm • linkreport

All I'm doing is repeating some of the things you've said.

No, you're taking two unrelated comments, out of context, and putting them side by side in the hopes that it will make me look hypocritical.

what we're doing now, which is occasionally throwing Amrtak a bone just to keep their few long-haul trains on life support while denying them the needed capital to expand consists, add routes and otherwise make contemporary passenger trains real players in the domestic transport market of the 21st century

So the premise here is that no more money is coming. And if it isn't then we should quit keeping poorly performing lines on life support. We need vibrant trains, not trains in comas.

Here's my thesis on this:

1. The American people are investing billions of dollars in passenger rail and have been for some time now.

2. Amtrak has an obligation to use that investment as wisely as possible.

3. When Amtrak chooses to invest in lines for to build political support by touching many states and congressional districts - regardless of cost, it doesn't do that. It is then doing what is in Amtrak's interest. And the two are not the same.

4. Ironically, trying to build political support in this way undermines Amtrak politically.

5. This is unfortunately, what Amtrak is doing. It keeps the long distance routes on life support to maintain political support while simultaneously undermining efforts to build a more robust system.

Look, if I'm a US Congressman and Amtrak says "We need more money to expand" and I see that the last marginal ticket they sold was subsidized at something like $330, I'm going to wonder what future passengers will cost me. If Amtrak is being as efficient as possible, doesn't that mean that the next tickets sold will be even more subsidized? So, I'm going to say no.

But if Amtrak quit doing this, and instead tightened up their routes and increased service where it remained and made sense, that should reduce the subsidy of their last marginal ticket (by giving great service in some places instead of crummy service in a lot of places) and give them a better argument for needing more money.

Having said that, Amtrak is probably right that doing that would destroy the political support they need to keep the money they have. That if they did that, their funding would probably go down and they'd be forced to give crummy service to fewer places - which is worse. Or they may be right that the risk of that, at least, is too high to gamble on.

So, we're stuck with the status quo, and that is really unfortunate.

by David C on Mar 28, 2013 1:37 pm • linkreport

"...you're taking two unrelated comments, out of context, and putting them side by side in the hopes that it will make me look hypocritical."

I quoted your comments verbatim. I completely disagree that they were "unrelated" and absolutely deny that I purposefully took them "out of context."

by gblatham on Mar 28, 2013 10:49 pm • linkreport

"...we should quit keeping poorly performing lines on life support."

Yeah; those bad ol' "poorly performing lines."

Unfortunately, ALL Amtrak services continue to exist as beneficiaries of the taxpayer's largesse. So, we'll never get away from "subsidy" (read: "life support").

Of course, the Northeast Corridor - which, by the way, handles far more commutation traffic than intercity trains - will remain an inexorable part of Amtrak's system, directly supported by the company's federal apportionment. [Why that isn't now, never has been, nor ever WILL be the responsibility of en route states, we'll leave to conjecture.] Any operational losses will be absorbed.

Other corridor traffic, operated at the request of individual states, will, according to law, be fully underwritten by the locations served. These payments, as income to Amtrak, are even now used to indicate the "profitability" of specific short- to medium-haul trains and routes.

All that'll be left are those useless, anachronistic, money losing, poorly performing, capital wasting long-haul trains. They'll be singled out for rationalisation (as it were) and with little expectation of successful multi-state compacts being formed to underwrite their operation, they'll finally pass into oblivion along with the paddle wheel steamboat and horse-drawn stagecoach.

The relatively few people who still ride the Limiteds can use an intercity bus (where service still exists) or drive - either to the nearest airfield or on their entire journey...or just stay at home, of course.

Shoot, who cares?!

Amtrak will finally be rid of the stupid things - and with political impunity, to boot! They never wanted that part of the business, anyway. Amtrak, nee Railpax, was originally created in an (unsuccessful) attempt to keep the Penn Central alive - and the long haul trains (what was left of 'em) were maintained as political capital to use as leverage for the sake of the N.E.C.

Nothing more; nothing less.

Washington will still wring its hands over our "dependency" on petroleum products and look concerned when anyone happens to mention environmental pollution; but, there's no need to worry. Our "leaders" figure they'll be dead and gone before the bottom drops out, so it'll pay to continue telling folks what they want to hear.

In this case, "what they want to hear" will include "we can continue driving as much as we want, wherever we want, whenever we want" and "we'll never need a true national network of passenger trains, since we're not Europe," followed in quick succession by "our economy depends on you...to spend money", "don't you understand what the 'American Dream' [tm] really means?" and "no; the air is SUPPOSED to be brown."

And our progeny will curse the day we were born.

Hey; I feel better already!

You know, it's a good thing Amtrak never took their long distance services seriously, 'cause it'd make it that much harder to destroy them.

Garl Boyd Latham

by gblatham on Mar 29, 2013 12:16 am • linkreport

Garl: Do I detect a whiff of sarcasm in your last message??? One thing that does come through is that Amtrak was set up to oversee an orderly phase out of rail passenger service everywhere, not just long distance. That was supposed to take place over a two year period until that nasty Arab oil embargo changed things.

by Eastsidewillie on Mar 29, 2013 8:52 am • linkreport

So, we'll never get away from "subsidy" (read: "life support").

You and I have a different definition of life support. Someone with a pacemaker has help, but can be active. Someone on life support is bedridden and can't do much at all. I think Amtrak should be more like the guy with the pacemaker.

they'll finally pass into oblivion along with the paddle wheel steamboat and horse-drawn stagecoach.

Sounds about right. Or perhaps we should start subsidizing paddle wheel steamboat transportation again?

who cares?!

Not me. And you're not making much of a case to convince me. So the heavily used NEC will remain - that sounds right. And lines that states value enough to pitch in on will stay - sounds good.

Washington will still wring its hands over our "dependency" on petroleum products and look concerned when anyone happens to mention environmental pollution

Ok, here you're losing me. Amtrak is about 25% cleaner than driving on average, but I doubt it's much cleaner than taking the bus.

If you want to make transportation cleaner, than pass laws (carbon tax, fuel efficiency standards, etc...) that make it cleaner. But the argument that we need inefficient cross-country trains because, y'know, the environment is poorly formed here. Is there even a single study that shows that LDT combat global warming or air pollution?

And our progeny will curse the day we were born.

Y'know what, you've change my mind. Getting rid of three or four train lines across the Rockies would begin the long, inexorable spiral to oblivion. Because if people in Tucson can't get a 48 hour long train ride to New Orleans every other day then...wait, how does that work again?

by David C on Mar 29, 2013 8:58 am • linkreport

"...you're not making much of a case to convince me."

I'm not attempting to "convince" you of ANYTHING, David C. You made your feelings (opinions/beliefs/ideologies/dogmas) quite clear at the outset. Whatever I've written has been posted in order to present others with an alternative viewpoint and indicate my support of the original article's basic premise.

"So the heavily used NEC will remain - that sounds right. And lines that states value enough to pitch in on will stay - sounds good."

Yes...just as long as those living in the northeastern U.S. aren't required to support themselves or play by the same rules as everyone else, "that sounds right."

"...the argument that we need inefficient cross-country trains because..."

Just keep repeating the "inefficient" part. Throughout history, that approach has been proven to work and work well.

"Is there even a single study that shows that LDT combat global warming or air pollution?"

I suppose the inference here is that, if I found a "study" which specifically identified "LDT" (not any other type of rail-based passenger transportation, mind you) as being "green," you'd gladly accept the data.

"...wait, how does that work again?"

I wish to goodness that was a serious question.

Good-bye.

Garl

by gblatham on Mar 29, 2013 12:01 pm • linkreport

'Yes...just as long as those living in the northeastern U.S. aren't required to support themselves or play by the same rules as everyone else, "that sounds right."'

The NEC plays by the best rule - concentrate subsidy where the best cost benefit is - NEC saves carbon, conveniences people, and avoids massive investment in highways and airports that would be needed if it were not there - and also provides infrastructure for commuter rail service.

I dont know that LDT will never make sense. But I think having a strong base of medium range corridors will do more for LDT in the long run, than funding every LDT that currently exists.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 29, 2013 12:10 pm • linkreport

You made your feelings (opinions/beliefs/ideologies/dogmas) quite clear at the outset.

It's my opinion, but that can change. I'm capable of being convinced. It's kind of insulting for you to treat me otherwise.

just as long as those living in the northeastern U.S. aren't required to support themselves or play by the same rules as everyone else

Nope. Same rules. We should maximize mobility/trips/passenger miles at the lowest federal subsidy. So we line up each train, and each possible train from most efficient to least efficient and we calculate the cost of running each one. Then we spend our subsidy running the trains at the top and not the bottom (that's oversimplifying it, because of network effects, but you get the idea). It "sounds right" because the NEC will almost surely be at or near the top of that list.

Just keep repeating the "inefficient" part. Throughout history, that approach has been proven to work and work well.

That's a stirring defense of the status quo.

you'd gladly accept the data.

I would. Not blindly, but I would not dismiss it just because I don't expect it.

What I haven't heard from you is an argument that we ARE spending Amtrak money in a way that maximizes passenger miles/mobility/trips etc....; or that we are making the most efficiently uses the taxpayer's investment. Mostly it has been you attacking me as an idealouge or train-hater or East Coast snob etc...That's pretty telling.

by David C on Mar 29, 2013 12:33 pm • linkreport

Just as a bit of background as to how we ended up with the current system, let's go back to 1971, when Amtrak was created. By that time the privately owned and operated system was on the ropes after decades of government sponsored competition. Service was a shadow of its former self and it was tired and worn out. Tracks were worn out, stations were worn out, locomotives were worn out, cars were worn and even the people were worn out.

So the federal government stepped in to save the carcass that they created with their one-sided transportation policies that snatched from the railroads and gave lavishly to other modes. However, the new system operated 219 trains over 23,000 miles of line vs. 547 trains and 53,000 miles previously operated.

The process that established Amtrak was also uncertain and haphazard. Logically, one would have simply preserved what was operating while a systematic evaluation and selective trimming and adjustment took place, but that was not the case. There was congressional haggling, infighting within the Nixon Administration and voices calling for either cessation of all service or more trains.

Anyhow, we ended up with these routes:

Boston-New York
New York-Washington
New York-Buffalo
New York-Pittsburgh-Chicago
New York-Miami
New York-New Orleans
Washington-St. Louis via Pittsburgh
Detroit-Chicago
Chicago-Cincinnati
Chicago-St Louis
Chicago-Miami
Chicago-New Orleans
Chicago-Kansas City-Houston
Chicago-Seattle
Chicago-San Francisco
Chicago-Los Angeles
New Orleans-Los Angeles
Seattle-San Diego
New York-Kansas City
Washington-Chicago
Newport News-Cincinnati

Six weeks after Amtrak started these trains were added:

Minneapolis-Missoula-Seattle
Parkersburg-Washington
New York-Cleveland-Chicago

by Eastsidewillie on Mar 29, 2013 10:10 pm • linkreport

One other thing: Amtrak began business with old equipment and a miniscule capital budget that was described as little more than a "pat on the back. With that it was supposed to innovate and improve what rail service was left. Meanwhile, the nation continued to pour billions into highways and airports. Ironically, the first aviation user fees were not collected until 1971 (the year of Amtrak's birth) after a trillion dollars was spent. The first major equipment orders were not placed until 1975 and those cars are still in use.

Most "corridors" outside the Northeast had only two daily round trips and most long distance routes had only one daily round trip (four were three times a week). Even the NEC was in bad shape. The only bright spot was the Metroliner. Everything else was just as worn out as in the rest of the country.

Amtrak management was just as bad. Execs were brought in from other industries because it was felt that railroaders represented the past. The president of Amtrak was the former head of General Dynamics, who got the job as a favor. It wasn't until railroader Paul Reistrup was hired that things began to turn around.

Since then, Amtrak has lurched from crisis to crisis as one president after another took their shots at it. Carter succeeded in taking off several trains, Reagan wanted to kill Amtrak outright and Bush starved it. The only supportive president was and is, Obama. Congress has had the habit of underfunding Amtrak, while trying to micromanage it.

So here we are. To me, it makes little sense to talk about pulling in the perceived weak spots, when there really hasn't been a fair trial in the first place. Yes, there were some "political" trains, but these are long gone. What's really needed is a truly national commitment to a NATIONAL system.

by Eastsidewillie on Mar 30, 2013 8:29 am • linkreport

Eastsidewillie, I think we're talking past each other here. You're talking about how Congress got us into this mess, how they should fix it and how they could.

But it's a bit like being on the Titanic as it's going down and trying to figure out who to blame and how great it would be if the ship fixed itself. At that point who really cares?

Congress is not going to give Amtrak any more money. They're probably going to give less. It's naive to believe that if we all just pull together and sing kumbaya enough then a rainbow colored unicorn is going to burp sunshine into the eyes of those who are wrong.

So, what I'm talking about is what Amtrak should do right now, in the situation it is (regardless of how they got there) working from the exceedingly safe assumption that Congress is not going to come up with more money.

by David C on Mar 31, 2013 12:38 am • linkreport

Well, just call me Captain Sunshine. Amtrak was only a dream in 1968 when the National Association of Railroad Passengers called for a solution to the apparent end of privately run passenger trains. Same for interstates, airports, canals, etc, etc, etc. Dreams have a way of becoming reality.

My solution is radically different than what you propose and that's just an honest difference.

by Eastsidewillie on Mar 31, 2013 9:35 am • linkreport

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