What should we advocate for passenger rail and Amtrak?

Discussion in 'Rail Advocacy Forum' started by MARC Rider, Nov 11, 2019.

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  1. Nov 11, 2019 #1

    MARC Rider

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    MARC Rider

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    Here are some of my thoughts on this.

    Passenger rail is an underused transportation mode in the United States, as compared to almost all other developed nations (and many developing nations). This should be reversed for a number of reasons, the main ones being that rail transport has the potential for reducing emissions and being a major strategy to deal with the climate crisis. This is because rail vehicles, properly designed, use less energy than internal combustion powered road vehicles and aircraft, and also because rail systems are a better fit into the kind of dense walkable urban environments that we will have to live in if we are going to be serious about dealing with climate change.

    That said, rail is most competitive with other transportation modes in corridor service (trips under 400-500 miles.) These trips can be close to time competitive even with aircraft when also including the time needed to travel to the airport, checking in to the flight, passing through the security scan, retrieving checked baggage, and traveling from the airport to the final destination. (On average, airports need to be located at some distance from other land uses, whereas a rail corridor can have multiple stops in the same city.) As a matter of policy, rail travel should be encouraged for trips of "corridor" scale and actions should be taken to maximize the market share of rail in those cases.

    This does not mean that long-distance service has no utility was part of a national mobility policy. Long distance service provides "corridor" scale service between rural locations that do not have enough passengers to justify their own corridor service. The service also allows people from rural locations to access large metropolitan areas with a one-seat ride, even if it takes longer than flying. There are also many people who, for medical reasons (including, but not limited to fear of flying), are unable to drive or fly. Finally, there is a significant number of travelers who prefer to travel by train for long distances. This results in a decent market for long-distance train travel, and, indeed, existing Amtrak long-distance trains are well patronized. If the trains were improved with slightly better running times (60 mph average), better on-time performance, and appropriate on-board service, they could significantly increase their appeal, justifying more service frequency and service to more places. Nonetheless, long-distance rail travel will always be a secondary mode of travel, both for people traveling long distances and for people traveling shorter distances to and from smaller rural communities.

    It's thus quite reasonable to focus the primary effort in passenger rail on corridor level services, developing these services to the point that they maximize their market share among transportation modes. Public policy should be to get as many people as possible out of cars and planes and into trains. In this sense, Amtrak's "national" system should be as many corridors as possible in every part of the country where there is sufficient population to sustain ridership. In some parts of the country these corridors will connect with each other (e.g., New York - Albany - Buffalo - Cleveland - Toledo - Chicago) and long distance service is actually part of multiple corridor services. However, it is perfectly reasonable on a policy basis to focus Amtrak's efforts on developing additional corridor service. Whether using Federal or state funds, this will get the biggest bang for the buck in public investment to increase the use of rail transportation and provide national benefits.

    Nevertheless, there is a place for support of long distance service that cannot be fully incorporated into the corridor framework. These trains provide essential mobility services to a significant population in rural states and to people who cannot drive or fly. Furthermore, support for this service helps build a political coalition between legislators in rural states with those in states with large metropolitan areas. Without this coalition, it might prove difficult to get sufficient political support for passenger rail, whether for corridor service or long distance trains.

    In short, most of the benefits of passenger rail are achieved by providing corridor service. However, long-distance service also has significant benefits to the mobility of a significant minority of citizens, and should be supported both for social reasons and to build a larger coalition of supporters for funding of passenger rail.
     
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  2. Nov 11, 2019 #2

    MARC Rider

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    MARC Rider

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    By the way, developing an intercity rail corridor service is more than just Amtrak adding some trains on a route. To be successful, they need to develop transit links (including commuter rail, light rail, rapid transit, etc.) and transit oriented development around the stations to feed passengers into the intercity trains. It might be interesting to see how well the corridor service outside the NEC has been doing this.
     
  3. Nov 11, 2019 #3

    jiml

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    Well said.
     
  4. Nov 11, 2019 #4

    jis

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    Amtrak California has been doing a stellar job of this. Feeder buses play a large integral role with coordinated schedules in California too.

    Chicago is a matter of merely sharing station(s) with METRA which causes it to happen, though with virtually no schedule coordination or joint publicity. But the local service is often frequent enough for it not to matter. Also the Midwest Corridor service on most routes is not dense enough on most routes. Only the Hiawatha Corridor really rises to the level of actually being a regional corridor in terms of frequency of service. The rest have potential of getting there, but have ways to go, with Michigan probaby farthest along followed by Lincoln Service.
     
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  5. Nov 11, 2019 #5

    neroden

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    neroden

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    Well written.

    I try to emphasize that the natural, optimal length of a train route is actually much longer than, even twice as long as, the length of the average trip on that route. This is because you have intermediate stations and most people are going partway. A one-ended corridor is imbalanced in ridership -- you ideally want to run from one megacity to another, even though most passengers are going from a megacity to a smaller city in the middle. By having an anchor on each end, you can fill the train all the way along the route. This is why NY-Chicago is better than NY-Cleveland or Cleveland-Chicago.

    Right now, the politics for the long-distance routes which don't constitute corridors is actually looking quite secure to me. They have Senators.

    I worry, rather, about the so-called long-distance routes which actually *are* providing corridor service, most notably the Lake Shore Limited (but also the Cardinal, Crescent, Silver Service, and Coast Starlight), but which are not being given the respect they deserve for their corridor functions. There has been a continuous drumbeat of aggressive service downgrades on the Lake Shore Limited which can only be described as a program to drive away passengers from what is naturally an extremely popular train. The same is true to some extent on all the "megacorridor" trains, but the LSL is getting the worst of it. (The Coast Starlight, which is also a "megacorridor" route, seems to be surviving best so far, but I still worry that it has inusfficient political backing.)

    ----

    The "can't-fly / won't-fly" population is estimated to about 10% of the nation's population. This is a large enough market that it should be taken seriously and catered to, and I appreciate this point being made. It is currently not taken seriously by Amtrak planners, despite being a core market for them. Perhaps the biggest thing people in this category want is *access* -- we'd like to be able to get to Columbus Ohio or to Phoenix Arizona. Severing connections is something we fight against; we need SOME way to get from the east to west coast, preferably at reasonable speed.

    The same priorities apply to the "can't-drive / won't-drive" population (which is again about 10% of the population). Most of them, however, fly. There are some people who neither drive nor fly, of course.

    Where these two populations differ is in standards of amenities. Can't-fly/won't-fly people compare Amtrak to driving; the experience must be at least comparable quality to driving, getting hotel rooms, and eating at roadhouses. (This is where Amtrak's "Contemporary Dining" fails miserably; the food is well below Denny's standards.) By contrast, can't-drive/won't-drive people compare Amtrak to flying. (The food available onboard is still worse than the food available in most airports.)

    However, Amtrak competes far better on time with driving (it is often faster, especially if you sleep on a train running overnight) than with flying. So the can't-fly/won't-fly population is a core market for Amtrak and the can't-drive/won't-drive population isn't.
     
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  6. Nov 11, 2019 #6

    neroden

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    neroden

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    The local governments seem to be quite aggressive about developing transit links around intercity rail stations. Off the top of my head, on the Lake Shore Limited, nearly every station has been well-connected to the local bus or rail system, at least if one exists at all. This is the case despite one-a-day, often late service. Exceptions are Cleveland (due to the timing) and South Bend. Even on the three-a-week Sunset Limited, Tucson made a point of connecting its local streetcar and bus service to its intercity rail station. The same is true even at Cardinal stations.

    In other words I wouldn't generally worry about that, it happens in nearly every city without doing much other than running more trains. South Bend might need a bit of a kick in the pants, though.
     
  7. Nov 11, 2019 #7

    Larry H.

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    Larry H.

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    I don't think I agree that long distance is a money drain.. Those in the East use the Florida Trains, the Lake Shore, and the Auto Train. Those are not short routes but carry a fair amount of passengers. If you are going to suggest that other areas don't deserve the same service then you are actually working against the savings in pollution. People need to be able to access all major and minor locations in the western half just as they do in the East. Yet the west is denied upgraded equipment and served with poor equipment. The reason other nations carry hundreds of trains a day in many stations is because they don't live in a country where rail is seen as a antiquated service as we seem to do here. And those governments are willing to spend to support rail services. The idea that decent diners or lounges or other amenities are not money draws, then look at the European and Japanese and other nations to see what they have to offer. It makes our trains look like the slums in comparison.
     
  8. Nov 12, 2019 #8

    Qapla

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    To say the without Gov't money Amtrak cannot survive and should therefore be discontinued is to deny the fact that ALL modes of transportation are helped with Gov't money. The main difference is whether that money is overt or covert.

    Amtrak receives money directly (overt) in the form of budget money assigned to them while those driving their cars are getting the money indirectly (covertly) in the form of the roads they drive on, traffic lights, even RR crossing barricades - the same holds true of many of the facilities the airlines use.

    If people would stop looking at Amtrak as the "only" means of transportation that receives the benefit of Gov't money ... maybe they would be more willing to support it.
     
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  9. Nov 15, 2019 #9

    sttom

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    A few things need to be discussed when it comes to expanding rail in any form in this country:
    1) No form of transit pays for itself, it's all subsidized and explain that rail costs less than highways.
    2) Rail shouldn't be purely a state concern. Highways aren't purely a state concern, why should any other form of transit?
    3) Examining existing long distance lines and see if there should be added trains. There is no reason why the Starlight should be a once per day when it connects four major cities. Examples would be adding the old SP services like the Coast and Shasta Daylights, the Lark and SP Cascade back.
    4) Add budget options for sleeper passengers. Whether it's a slumber coach, open section or couchette, Amtrak needs a budget option. The above overnight trains should focused on budget travel instead of tourists traveling for the experience.
    5) Convince states to put money into rail. Here in California we have SB 1 for highways which has given some scraps to rail, but rail needs its own plan. We need to work on the state level in the meantime and work on the feds over time.
     

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