Could Railroads return to passenger service?

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Larry H.

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I am starting a new thread since it occurred to me in my topic on the National status of the rail system that perhaps something else might work?

I still have the ad that the Illinois Central Published announcing the "End of the Panama Limited" It shows a conductor waving goodbye from the open door of one of the cars. Nearly a tear jerker of an ad for sure. It mentions how "sad" they are to see this grand train come to an end due to lack of passenger support. ( that may or may not have been the case in reality?). What I think was mentioned however was odd, it said that although the time had come to end this famous train, that perhaps a day might again come when the traveling public would support it once again and it might return?

Sounded good any way!

So since we seem to agree that Amtrak is not doing the worlds best job at providing anything remotely like the service the old mainline companies once provided that perhaps there is a way to incentivize the railroads to provide those routes we all wish were back? It would have a couple benefits hopefully. One that comes to mind is that again you could get on a train and not feel like you just got off it! That in it self would be a big plus to me. It might not mean a thing to the newer supporters of all things amtrak, but again people have proven they will choose a trip based on the surroundings offered, if given a choice.

Could it be that railroads could provide the new equipment that reflected their personal taste and selection and be given a tax write off for doing so. Then could the actual cost reflected in operating the trains be subsidized beyond what the revenue brings in? It wouldn't seem it could be any worse than what is happening now and might mean a lot better service and route structure. The minimum system would have to be no less than what amtrak currently runs and guidelines for on time performance would have to be maintained.

I think I have read here on occasion that some railroads have mentioned they weren't totally opposed to considering passenger service again? Maybe something like this could spark renewed interest. As long as they can cover the bottom line and promote their companies, which is why many operated the "flagship" trains they did, it might be a win win situation..

Pipe dream"
 

dlagrua

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From what I have read passenger service was never very profitable for the railroads, even back in the day. Amtrak does make money on some routes like the NE Corridor (where they own most of the travel business), the Auto Train, Capitol Limited, Lake Shore Limited, Crescent but stilll other routes are money losers to this day. I would guess that a commercial railroad would jump at the opportunity to take over the profitable routes but there are too many money losers in the Amtrak system to attract a buyer. With time and if the trend to train travel increases, perhaps there will be an opportunity, but don't count on it. While we have ridden on many busy trains, there are also some that are very lightly used.
 

Larry H.

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From what I have read passenger service was never very profitable for the railroads, even back in the day. Amtrak does make money on some routes like the NE Corridor (where they own most of the travel business), the Auto Train, Capitol Limited, Lake Shore Limited, Crescent but stilll other routes are money losers to this day. I would guess that a commercial railroad would jump at the opportunity to take over the profitable routes but there are too many money losers in the Amtrak system to attract a buyer. With time and if the trend to train travel increases, perhaps there will be an opportunity, but don't count on it. While we have ridden on many busy trains, there are also some that are very lightly used.
My real question is can the operation of the trains, winners and losers perhaps be transfered to some freight companies who might be willing to operate them if the loss incurred would be made up by the government, and if they provided a service which proved popular then they also would make a profit. Maybe even some kind of motivation could be created that the railroad for their trouble might be guaranteed a certain percent as a incentive to try even on the loser routes. At least maybe their would again be some passenger agents who really want to improve and create an attractive environment that is missing in todays cookie cutter, no frills atmosphere.
 

Hytec

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Passenger trains were subsidized by the US Post Office with contracts to carry all long distance mail. Also to run Rail Post Office (RPO) cars on the head end of passenger trains, where mail was picked up and delivered at rural locations on the fly. The demise of passenger rail began as regional and national airlines started becoming successful after WWII, and then by the start of Interstate construction beginning in 1957, and finally by the cancellation of the Post Office contracts in 1967. It took only 4 years for most the rail company executives to convince Congress to take passenger traffic off their books by creating Amtrak. Only Southern and Rio Grande understood that passenger service was one of the best marketing tools by showing shippers first class service, on time performance, and a can-do attitude. First Rio Grande, then Southern dropped passenger service because they could not get cooperation from other rail companies to allow trackage rights for run-through service, so all passenger service ended in 1978.

The only way national passenger rail service will return as it is in Europe and Asia is for the majority of the American people to believe and convince the Administration and Congress that it is a Public Service and should be subsidized accordingly, as are the airlines, roadways, city busses, light rail, bike paths, etc., etc., ad nauseum! No passenger rail service, anywhere in the world, makes a profit...it all must be subsidized by the respective governments. For passenger service to be profitable on its own merit, the fares would be so high that no one could afford to ride.

Soap Box - Off
 
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AlanB

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From what I have read passenger service was never very profitable for the railroads, even back in the day. Amtrak does make money on some routes like the NE Corridor (where they own most of the travel business), the Auto Train, Capitol Limited, Lake Shore Limited, Crescent but stilll other routes are money losers to this day. I would guess that a commercial railroad would jump at the opportunity to take over the profitable routes but there are too many money losers in the Amtrak system to attract a buyer. With time and if the trend to train travel increases, perhaps there will be an opportunity, but don't count on it. While we have ridden on many busy trains, there are also some that are very lightly used.
The only route that makes a "profit" if you accept that profit is against operating expenses only, is the NEC. Throw in the capital costs however and the NEC is still a money loser, a major loser for that matter.

The Auto Train is the best performing route, only missing covering its operating expenses by $6.6 Million last fiscal year, but it still lost money. The LSL however is one of the worst performing routes, as is the Crescent, both losing more than $30M last year. The Capitol Limited is kind of middle of the road at $17.7M lost against operating expenses.
 
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The Auto Train is the best performing route, only missing covering its operating expenses by $6.6 Million last fiscal year, but it still lost money. The LSL however is one of the worst performing routes, as is the Crescent, both losing more than $30M last year. The Capitol Limited is kind of middle of the road at $17.7M lost against operating expenses.
I wonder how much would be lost if the Crescent only ran from ATL-NYP? Fares south of ATL are dirt cheap so I would assume much of the losses come from that part of the route. I mean I can buy a roomette from ATL-NOL cheaper than buying the six meals that come with it.
 

jis

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The Auto Train is the best performing route, only missing covering its operating expenses by $6.6 Million last fiscal year, but it still lost money. The LSL however is one of the worst performing routes, as is the Crescent, both losing more than $30M last year. The Capitol Limited is kind of middle of the road at $17.7M lost against operating expenses.
Of course one of the ongoing problems that has been argued endlessly is Amtrak's method of cost allocation to trains for the purposes of computing these numbers. I have never been able to convince myself that they actually have a viable computation of these numbers so I tend to take all of them with a pinch of salt as many others do too.

But then again, given that this is all we have in the way of disclosures, what else can you do? But one must keep in mind that an outfit that has shown relative lack of interest in running LD trains would tend to find a cost allocation algorithm that would show them to be worse losers than they probably are too. In short I don't know for sure, but I don't fully trust the Amtrak provided numbers yet. However, I am open minded and am willing and eager to be convinced that they are indeed credible.
 

Hytec

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But one must keep in mind that an outfit that has shown relative lack of interest in running LD trains would tend to find a cost allocation algorithm that would show them to be worse losers than they probably are too.
This also is what the rail companies did to convince Congress to allow them to discontinue passenger service. They assigned an unfair percentage of rail, bridge, and structure construction and maintenance costs onto the already money-losing annual cost of passenger service to support the argument that their companies would be bankrupted and forced to cease operations if Congress did not do something, and quickly. Thus we have Amtrak, which, by the way, was decreed to make a profit within (I believe) five years.
 
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Larry H.

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Now I see on Yahoo that Obama is considering Partnering with China to build an operate our high speed trains.. Why can't that same money be given to our railroads and have them operate the lines just as I am proposing. Personally I don't want another Chinese product that takes all our money and makes us vulnerable to their whims.
 

amtrakwolverine

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china,japan,Germany,France etc know what the hell they're doing when it comes to High speed. they got it right. we should learn from them.
 
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dlagrua

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Thanks to Alan for posting the numbers. However, I don't believe that Amtrak is losing as much money as the numbers indicate. Amtrak employs 1000's of people who all pay federal income tax so the US government is getting back say 25% of the salaries that they pay. They also charge you a tax on your tickets. Granted this income tax money goes to a different part of government but its still going back to them. Also what about all the products sold onboard and at railway terminals, anything and everything from Dunkin Donuts to magazines. That tax money goes to the states but its still revenue being generated because of Amtrak, and lets not forget to include the revenue from the Amtrak owned Parking lots like the huge 6 story facility at Philadelphia. I wonder what the real numbers would look like if we considered all of the tax taken back as a result of Amtrak
 
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Chatter163

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So since we seem to agree that Amtrak is not doing the worlds best job at providing anything remotely like the service the old mainline companies once provided...
Do we agree on that? Is there even any fair comparison?
 

Mark

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This is going to sound mean but no, no, no, heck no! The freight RRs, (ALL of them), are not even remotely interested in running passenger operations of any kind, Amtrak or otherwise. Even if Passenger trains made a profit they would not justify the hassle of the additional crews, equipment, (locomotives, cars, plus maintenance), infrastructure, ticketing, marketing, reservations, baggage handling, customer service, food service, commissaries... the list goes on and on. The freights have been out of the passenger business for a long time now, (almost 40 years), and they are happy to be that way. They simply lack the know how nowadays and most certainly the will to operate a system-wide passenger system. Like it or not Amtrak is really the only show in town regarding passenger ops in the US. When one looks at the NEC closely, (for example), and the traffic levels handled there, both freight and passenger, Amtrak employees are really quite good at it. Believe me, champagne corks would be a poppin' round the country at UP, BNSF, CN, CP, CSX and NS if somehow Amtrak ceased to exist tomorrow.

Amtrak was/is able to achieve a lot of things the splintered individual freight systems were not. A centralized reservation system, seamless connections, (well mostly), equipment commonality, (again mostly), consolidated maintenance facilities, consolidated management and operating agreements for the crews and on board service employees. Consolidated training of crews and OBS. Amtrak is a one stop shop for rail travel in the US. I'm not saying it couldn't be done with multiple operators but I can't see that being any more efficient particularly if the government is going to cover the operating losses anyway. What would be the point? Losses are losses no matter who incurs them. Having the freights return to passenger service would be confusing, (Which web site to get to LA? UP? BNSF?), and likely more inefficient by duplicating many of the services that are covered by one RR, Amtrak. From a rail fan stand point sure- this would be fun but from where we are today in the US, not a chance.
 

Green Maned Lion

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Amtrak loses money providing that level of service. They could provide a level of higher service (or somebody else could, say a freight road), but either the loss on it would be monumental for private business or... well, if you think fares are too high now, just wait 'till they get through with it.
 

MikefromCrete

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Freight railroads went to a lot of trouble to get rid of passenger service. They don't want it back.
 

railiner

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This very thing has happened, (sort of), in the UK. They nationalized their railways long before Amtrak did as far as passenger trains, and ran a fairly tight and cohesive operation for many years. Of course, it still lost money. So they then decided to partially 'privatize' the trains, with the government still owning all the tracks. From what I've heard, the results were not all that great, and some are clamoring for the return to BR operation.
 

zephyr17

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Passenger trains were subsidized by the US Post Office with contracts to carry all long distance mail. Also to run Rail Post Office (RPO) cars on the head end of passenger trains, where mail was picked up and delivered at rural locations on the fly. The demise of passenger rail began as regional and national airlines started becoming successful after WWII, and then by the start of Interstate construction beginning in 1957, and finally by the cancellation of the Post Office contracts in 1967. It took only 4 years for most the rail company executives to convince Congress to take passenger traffic off their books by creating Amtrak. Only Southern and Rio Grande understood that passenger service was one of the best marketing tools by showing shippers first class service, on time performance, and a can-do attitude. First Rio Grande, then Southern dropped passenger service because they could not get cooperation from other rail companies to allow trackage rights for run-through service, so all passenger service ended in 1978.
The only way national passenger rail service will return as it is in Europe and Asia is for the majority of the American people to believe and convince the Administration and Congress that it is a Public Service and should be subsidized accordingly, as are the airlines, roadways, city busses, light rail, bike paths, etc., etc., ad nauseum! No passenger rail service, anywhere in the world, makes a profit...it all must be subsidized by the respective governments. For passenger service to be profitable on its own merit, the fares would be so high that no one could afford to ride.

Soap Box - Off
Umm, you don' t exactly have your facts right.

1 - Amtrak cooperated with Southern and ran the Southern Crescent from Washington (end of Southern rails) to New York. Before Amtrak assumed control of the NEC, it was run as an "Amtrak" train with using Amtrak rights on the then Penn Central. Not a problem with run through.

2 - Scheduling differences through the Rockies as opposed to through Wyoming on the UP made it impossible to have the Rio Grande Zephyr connect on both ends.

3 - As I understand it, the main reason that Rio Grande didn't join was they did not want the scheduling controls in the Amtrak contract to potentially interfere with the business plan they had then of fast, frequent freight service on their single track mountain railroad. A 3 day each way train that they controlled was better for them, as I understand the RGZ was a second-class, though scheduled, train (in the strict operating rules/timetable sense, not the service onboard. It was very well run). I understand that they ultimately negotiated modifications to the contract that gave them more schedule control than the standard Amtrak contract of the time did.

4 - Southern did indeed give up to Amtrak in 1978. Rio Grande, however, ran the Rio Grande Zephyr until 1983, when they finally signed their modified Amtrak contract (we can talk about the Thistle slide and the actual start of Amtrak service another time).
 
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zephyr17

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So since we seem to agree that Amtrak is not doing the worlds best job at providing anything remotely like the service the old mainline companies once provided...
Do we agree on that? Is there even any fair comparison?
Late stage Santa Fe, Union Pacific, Northern Pacific, SCL, were unquestionably better than Amtrak.

Late stage SP, Penn Central were unquestionably worse. No sleepers and an automat for food service (plastic wrapped sandwiches and Dinty Moore stew) for 3 days between LA and New Orleans? Amtrak has never gotten even close to that bottom..
 

jphjaxfl

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My Dad worked for the New York Central Railroad. Even in the 1920s, the passenger trains made only a small profit like 2% and as another poster mentioned that was from carrying mail, mainly the Railway Post Offices. Even the great 20th Century LTD carried an RPO for fast mail delivery from New York to Chicago and vv much like overnight express letters and packages of today. The NYC started downgrading their passengers trains in 1957-58 with the advent of the Boeing 707 Jet aircraft which made air travel more comfortable. By the late 1960s most of the railroads realized they could not keep up the loses of passenger service even for the good PR it developed. The post WWII modern equipment was starting to wear out and they knew it would be cost prohibitive to replace. I truely believe if Amtrak had started in 1961 instead of 1971, we would have a much better passenger rail system today. In 1961, many more Americans still traveled by trains. The trains were much better and over the next 10 years, many railroads did everything they could to chase off passengers. Today's freight railroad executives are not interested in operating regular passenger train service and the railroads no longer have the expertise to do it. The era of great passenger train service in the US is over. The future is corridors up to 500 miles connected by a bare bones, no frills, long distance network. Because Amtrak has no dedicating funding stream, it will always be a political animal begging for funds year after year, doing better in friendly administrations and congresses and worse in unfriendly ones.
 

railiner

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Freight railroads went to a lot of trouble to get rid of passenger service. They don't want it back.
For the most part. however, didn't the UP a few years ago actually campaign for Caltrans to start up a commuter train operation on UP's former WP

Bay area line?

And didn't Amtrak have to compete with other company(s) for the operation and management of MBTA's Boston commuter trains?

And perhaps a few other examples around the country.

So perhaps freight railroads don't want to return to total passenger train operation on their own, they do see some potential for profit in operating the service for a public authority.
 

jmbgeg

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Amtrak loses money providing that level of service. They could provide a level of higher service (or somebody else could, say a freight road), but either the loss on it would be monumental for private business or... well, if you think fares are too high now, just wait 'till they get through with it.
You are totally on point GML.
 

domefoamer

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The best answer to this question may be in James McCommon's recent book, "Waiting On a Train." The author rides Amtrak trains all over the country, providing a thorough track-level survey of the current situation for those who ride and operate trains. At his destinations, he meets with executives of major private railroads. Surprisingly, some of them made favorable statements about resuming, or at least accomodating, new passenger service. Officials at CSX, BNSF come off as passenger-friendly, in contrast to the UP, which didn't even spare a low-level flunky to speak with him.

Said CSX, "It is time to take a new approach to infrastructure and decide how we can have both a strong and vibrant passenger system and also a strong freight system. They are both important to the country." The president of the American Association of Railroads said, "The industry is taking an aggressive stance to link its message with that of passenger-rail advocates. Perhaps we haven't been as forthcoming in the past as we could have and should have, but now we are saying: We think the country has to move forward with both frights and passenger-rail service."

This surprising news is folded amid 275 pages of travelogue and dialogue, arranged in chronological order. Therefore, as a former professional journalist, I'd have to accuse McCommons of "burying the lead." Regardless, he's given us a fine evaluation of Amtrak's past and present, with hints of a brighter future. Unfortunately, this book is "special order only" at big book chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble. I ordered mine from Amazon, and I don't know why anyone who frequents this forum wouldn't do the same.
 
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volkris

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Not only would the private companies have to deal with the questionable potential profits and serious hassles of new staffing and equipment, but they'd be getting themselves a whole new level of political exposure that lord knows they don't want to deal with.

As the OP said, even considering taking on passenger service would require subsidies, and what solid business wants to tie its survival to the winds of the political atmosphere? The subsidies would have to be so huge as to not be worth it to the public, or the business would have to be one desperate for the money.
 

jis

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Said CSX, "It is time to take a new approach to infrastructure and decide how we can have both a strong and vibrant passenger system and also a strong freight system. They are both important to the country." The president of the American Association of Railroads said, "The industry is taking an aggressive stance to link its message with that of passenger-rail advocates. Perhaps we haven't been as forthcoming in the past as we could have and should have, but now we are saying: We think the country has to move forward with both frights and passenger-rail service."
All this AFAICT has nothing to do with the sudden desire among freight RRs to run passenger trains, and has everything to do with making the right noises so they can tap into the trough of public funding to fix up their infrastructure in exchange for yielding a bit on someone else being allowed to run passenger trains at some reasonable unit cost to them. The relationship between UP and Amtrak California is almost entirely predicated on that mutual interest.
 

domefoamer

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Maybe so. Some of the execs quoted want an income tax credit for their investments to improve infrastructure. But that's likely to boost capacity and help passenger trains, too. It's a happy case where what's good for the goose is good for the gander.

"Waiting for a Train" isn't organized for fast recovery of relevant quotes, and I didn't annotate it as I read it. But there was a recurring theme that passenger rail may be turning a corner. The generation of RR men who saved their railroads by discontinuing passenger service is retired now, and some of their replacements are taking a fresh look. They see themselves in the transportation business, not simply the RR freight business, and they realize that satisfied passengers can do something for them that tons of coal can't. We vote. Like good businessmen, they're looking at every potential opportunity.
 
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