Cost of taking trains vs cost of taking other modes in the U.S.

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From CNBC:

Taking a train in the U.S. is often more expensive than flying and more expensive than intercity train systems in other developed countries, which often have even faster trains and better service. But Amtrak, the federally funded company that runs many of America's passenger trains, has never made money. In fact, the company has a $42 billion repair backlog and in 2021 wasn't even able to cover half of its expenses from ticket revenue. That business comes mostly from the populous Northeast Corridor, where tickets are quite pricey. Ridership is slowly recovering from an all-time low due to the pandemic, and now Amtrak wants to expand service in a major 15-year plan, with $66 billion in funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

 
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Does anyone know (or can venture an educated guess) on how much $$$ Amtrak lost last summer due to all the refunds it had to make to passengers whose reservations it couldn’t honor due to a lack of roadworthy equipment? In many cases, those passengers who rescheduled their reservations were also given credit vouchers good for future travel. (Ours was for $300.00) These credit vouchers should be considered as lost revenue, too.
 

cirdan

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Do you have any statistics to back up the assertion that train travel in the US is more expensive than in other countries?

Comparing to developing countries is not fair in this context. You would have to compare to countries with overall comparable living and wealth standards.

Without having studied this in detail, my gut feeling is that driving is much cheaper and more attractive in the US than in comparable countries due to the (relatively) low cost of gas and low costs and ready availability of parking spaces combined with the relatively high capacity of the road system. This means any alternative (including rail) has to be priced at a relatively low point to be able to even begin to be competitive. In many European countries where driving is both more costly and less attractive, the train market can bear a higher price, which may facilitate better cost recovery. Similarly, airlines in the US are more competitive than in Europe and press down the price point for train tickets.
 
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TheCrescent

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Do you have any statistics to back up the assertion that train travel in the US is more expensive than in other countries?

Comparing to developing countries is not fair in this context. You would have to compare to countries with overall comparable living and wealth standards.
Compare fares on Thalys between Paris and Brussels, which is equivalent in distance to the Acela between NY and DC. Thalys is far cheaper.

Also, compare fares on European night trains: far cheaper for rooms than Amtrak.

That isn’t a full picture but it is two examples of comparable services being much cheaper elsewhere.
 
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The key phrase is "has never made money". Our system was predicated on it being self supporting, something that no other passenger rail system in the world is expected to do. It was done that way in order to sell the idea of Amtrak to a skeptical government back in the day when public funding of transit was in its infancy. But we have been stuck with this concept that Amtrak must break even, something that is not required of the interstate highways or air traffic control system.
 

TheCrescent

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The key phrase is "has never made money". Our system was predicated on it being self supporting, something that no other passenger rail system in the world is expected to do. It was done that way in order to sell the idea of Amtrak to a skeptical government back in the day when public funding of transit was in its infancy. But we have been stuck with this concept that Amtrak must break even, something that is not required of the interstate highways or air traffic control system.
Amtrak’s model of short trains, limited supply of seats/rooms and high prices isn’t the only way to approach breaking even or making a profit.

Railroads have such high overhead costs that another way to approach breaking even or making a profit is to offer lots of long trains, with large numbers of seats and rooms, at lower prices. That’s similar to what freight railroads do (with long trains and prices lower than what trucks charge).

Since Amtrak is a taxpayer-subsidized public service (in some respects), I think that making rail travel accessible to as many people as possible might need to be one of its goals, meaning that the model of offering lots of long trains may be more consistent with a mission of public service.
 
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While not specifically Amtrak I thought that rail fares in the UK (speaking mainly of mass transit and local rail in the Capital Region) were high compared to the equivalents in the US. Even within Europe there is a huge range of fares with the common opinion being it's cheaper in the south and more expensive in the north. But then there are the open access carriers on rail and the low-cost airlines (RyanAir etc). It would be nice to actually have a table or spreadsheet to compare fares to see if it's just a few random routes and an overall pattern.
 

slasher-fun

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Compare fares on Thalys between Paris and Brussels, which is equivalent in distance to the Acela between NY and DC. Thalys is far cheaper.
And by European standards, Thalys is very expensive...

As of 2019, average long-distance fares were 0.11€/km for DB (Germany), and 0.115€/km for SNCF, but those are average: short trips have a higher cost per km, whereas longer trips have a much lower cost (especially with DB).

Same goes for Amtrak: on Feb 14 (random):
- Chicago - Seattle costs $150 for 2206 miles
- Chicago - NYC costs $90 for either 906 or 1148 miles depending on the route
- Chicago - Detroit costs $40 for 304 miles

The main issue for Amtrak is that they run a huge number of very long-distance routes, on which they have to keep prices affordable in order to make prices still attractive. They'd make much more money if they were also able to operate a high number of regional routes, and at a much higher speed: a single train a day between San Antonio and Houston, scheduled 4:45 hrs for just 210 miles, or between San Antonio and Austin, scheduled 2:23 hrs for 82 miles, won't really attact many passengers... even when SAS-Austin only costs between $8 and $15 maximum!
 
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In a different thread, I once asked why the size of Amtrak trains couldn’t be adjusted to meet the demand. (This was before the shortage of roadworthy equipment made it difficult if not downright impossible for Amtrak to honor reservations that had already been made and paid for.)

Back when most people still used trains for their long-distance travel, the railroads did adjust train sizes to meet the demand. In some cases, high demand trains such as the 20th Century Limited ran in multiple sections, each section being a complete train that departed and arrived within minutes of the other sections.
Amtrak’s model of short trains, limited supply of seats/rooms and high prices isn’t the only way to approach breaking even or making a profit.

Railroads have such high overhead costs that another way to approach breaking even or making a profit is to offer lots of long trains, with large numbers of seats and rooms, at lower prices. That’s similar to what freight railroads do (with long trains and prices lower than what trucks charge).

Since Amtrak is a taxpayer-subsidized public service (in some respects), I think that making rail travel accessible to as many people as possible might need to be one of its goals, meaning that the model of offering lots of long trains may be more consistent with a mission of public service.
 

fdaley

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I did watch the CNBC piece and, although it unfortunately spent a lot of time discussing the phantom of Amtrak's potential profitability, the experts quoted in the piece did make some good points -- especially that Amtrak is woefully short of equipment to meet the demand for its services. By comparison, the European services discussed in the report had lots more train sets, and much better equipment utilization, which made it possible for them to serve many more people at lower fares. And of course, lower fares means more people choose the train over other modes of transport.

On the subject of profitability, I thought RPA had reported that in its latest Amtrak reauthorization, Congress had changed the language to simply say that Amtrak's mission is to provide passenger rail service to the nation, not to make profits.
 

TheCrescent

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One item to note is that Amtrak’s load factor (the number of seat-miles occupied by passengers, divided by the total number of seat-miles offered by Amtrak) is much lower than airlines’ load factors. If I recall correctly, Amtrak’s load factor, even in the NEC, is only about 50%.

This means that Amtrak could double its current ridership, charge only about half as much per ticket (assuming that the marginal costs of carrying one more passenger are minimal) and have the same revenue.

That won’t happen, but Amtrak could increase revenues by simply filling seats, at any price.
 
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One item to note is that Amtrak’s load factor (the number of seat-miles occupied by passengers, divided by the total number of seat-miles offered by Amtrak) is much lower than airlines’ load factors. If I recall correctly, Amtrak’s load factor, even in the NEC, is only about 50%.

This means that Amtrak could double its current ridership, charge only about half as much per ticket (assuming that the marginal costs of carrying one more passenger are minimal) and have the same revenue.

That won’t happen, but Amtrak could increase revenues by simply filling seats, at any price.
Load factor is a hard thing to compare with planes and trains.

Planes, by their nature, have nearly everybody boarding at one place and disembarking at another. This makes load factor an easy and straightforward metric, whereas with trains like those on the NEC, LF can be quite high on one segment, and low on another, yet the train is still "sold out."

For someone prevented buying a BOS-WAS because of a sold out NYP-PHL segment, they’re just SOL. Of course, with more train sets, and direct trains thrown into the mix, this problem can be alleviated.
 
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I did watch this whole video.
In general, I regard it as some of the “better” reporting on rail travel in the US.

I believe it was @jis that said that the reporting of trains and like things in America tends to be horrendous, due to complete lack of knowledge and understanding. I think he’s spot on.

This video, though I think they fail rhetorically to accurately paint the Amtrak situation, is better than past reporting, and is indicative of a shift in public knowledge about how trains and transit work.
 

City of Miami

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And by European standards, Thalys is very expensive...

As of 2019, average long-distance fares were 0.11€/km for DB (Germany), and 0.115€/km for SNCF, but those are average: short trips have a higher cost per km, whereas longer trips have a much lower cost (especially with DB).

Same goes for Amtrak: on Feb 14 (random):
- Chicago - Seattle costs $150 for 2206 miles
- Chicago - NYC costs $90 for either 906 or 1148 miles depending on the route
- Chicago - Detroit costs $40 for 304 miles

The main issue for Amtrak is that they run a huge number of very long-distance routes, on which they have to keep prices affordable in order to make prices still attractive. They'd make much more money if they were also able to operate a high number of regional routes, and at a much higher speed: a single train a day between San Antonio and Houston, scheduled 4:45 hrs for just 210 miles, or between San Antonio and Austin, scheduled 2:23 hrs for 82 miles, won't really attact many passengers... even when SAS-Austin only costs between $8 and $15 maximum!
Haha I've done sas-aus r/t quite a few times, just to go to a dentist I like or Barton Springs and that was before I had a palm size computer to continually check ETA so it was extra risky!
 

Anderson

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Amtrak’s model of short trains, limited supply of seats/rooms and high prices isn’t the only way to approach breaking even or making a profit.

Railroads have such high overhead costs that another way to approach breaking even or making a profit is to offer lots of long trains, with large numbers of seats and rooms, at lower prices. That’s similar to what freight railroads do (with long trains and prices lower than what trucks charge).

Since Amtrak is a taxpayer-subsidized public service (in some respects), I think that making rail travel accessible to as many people as possible might need to be one of its goals, meaning that the model of offering lots of long trains may be more consistent with a mission of public service.
I mean, this was (after a fashion) slipped into one of the recent bills (the bipartisan infrastructure bill IIRC).
 

DonNewcomb

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Not just America. A train ticket from Tokyo to Fukuoka or Nagasaki rivals the cost to fly. Trains generally are cost-effective for shorter trips (say 200 miles or less) while planes win out on longer trips. Also, population density is important. Australia and the US are similar in having sparsely populated hinterlands. Their rail transport is also similar. In Australia, only retirees, who get deeply discounted tickets and have time to spare, take the train from the east to west coasts.
 
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r. In Australia, only retirees, who get deeply discounted tickets and have time to spare, take the train from the east to west coasts.
From videos that I have seen it sounds like the Indian Pacific at least is more of a cruise train and not really used by anyone actually wanting to travel for transportation cross country. Whereas in the US our LD trains seem to serve as transportation for many small towns as well as land cruises for us retirees with plenty of time on our hands 🙂
 

Bonser

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Do you have any statistics to back up the assertion that train travel in the US is more expensive than in other countries?

Comparing to developing countries is not fair in this context. You would have to compare to countries with overall comparable living and wealth standards.

Without having studied this in detail, my gut feeling is that driving is much cheaper and more attractive in the US than in comparable countries due to the (relatively) low cost of gas and low costs and ready availability of parking spaces combined with the relatively high capacity of the road system. This means any alternative (including rail) has to be priced at a relatively low point to be able to even begin to be competitive. In many European countries where driving is both more costly and less attractive, the train market can bear a higher price, which may facilitate better cost recovery. Similarly, airlines in the US are more competitive than in Europe and press down the price point for train tickets.
Without checking, VIA Rail I think is pricier than Amtrak. At least it was before the pandemic.
 
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When I was working, I used to use a couple of the overnight long-distance trains for business trips.
Ditto. A few jobs back, the Capitol Ltd. worked very well for an annual multiday meeting in Washington.

Leaving the evening before from downtown Chicago (where my office was, so work-->dinner-->Union Station was easy) got me to DuPont Circle about the same time as the other attendees who awoke at the butt-crack of dawn to fly into BWI. And the last day of the meeting ending early enough for those folks to get to BWI also got me to Washington Union in time. On arriving in Chicago I went to the office with the tail end of the commuter crowd.

As I recall a couple of decades later, my employer reimbursed me the rail fare and I "ate" the sleeper charge. I was young and alone, I took roomettes then. :)
 
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Whereas in the US our LD trains seem to serve as transportation for many small towns as well as land cruises for us retirees with plenty of time on our hands 🙂
We don’t ride the train just for fun. As seniors, we are no long up to driving long distances. And because of the many inconveniences and indignities associated with air travel, we avoid flying unless absolutely necessary. (The last time we flew was in 2002.)

Our big long-distance train trip for the year is always to Ohio to visit family members. (It is difficult for them to come to California so we must go to them.) These trips are contingent upon our being able to secure bedroom accommodations, despite their higher cost. (As seniors we’re no longer up to making a long-distance train trip in coach or a roomette.) Our trip this year had to be postponed when Amtrak didn’t have enough roadworthy equipment to honor the round trip bedroom reservations that we’d made and paid for months earlier.

There are undoubtedly many other seniors (including those who are NOT railfans) who would opt to travel long-distance via Amtrak and in the higher priced bedrooms if these were available.

The secret to success in any business is to identify a need and then fill it. If Amtrak management was serious about reducing operating losses and reducing ticket prices, during peak travel seasons it would arrange to add additional sleepers to its long-distance trains to accommodate the demand for roomettes and bedrooms. Instead, we get excuses why this can’t be done.

Eric & Pat
 

Trollopian

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Leaving the evening before from downtown Chicago (where my office was, so work-->dinner-->Union Station was easy) got me to DuPont Circle about the same time as the other attendees who awoke at the butt-crack of dawn to fly into BWI.

As a non-morning person I am so stealing "the butt-crack of dawn."
 

TheCrescent

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I don’t recall seeing mostly retirees on the Crescent. The schedule works well for southbound trips between the Northeast and SC/Atlanta. Amtrak has detailed demographic data about sleeping car riders and they may skew older but they attract a range of ages.
 
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