The Future Of Amtrak And The Long Distance Trains

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jis

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Neorden has mentioned several times that Eastern LD trains are more likely to perform better financially than the western ones for various reasons. One of the reasons is illustrated in this interesting map I found at the FRA site. It is a map of ZIP codes. There is one cross per each zip code located roughly in the center of the territory covered by the ZIP code. It is automatically produced from the FRA GIS system. If one assumes that the ZIP codes are set up in a way that each ZIP code roughly serves the same number of addresses with some reasonable error interval then this map is a very good indication of population density. Take a look at it and see what you think.

FRA%20GIS%20ZIP%20Code.PNG
 

neroden

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Nice picture. If you search for "US population density map" in Google images, you'll find a striking number of similar maps. The ZIP code map gives a particularly clear picture of the gradients though.

I kind of like this population density map:

http://ecpmlangues.u-strasbg.fr/civilization/geography/US-census-maps-demographics.html

This one's very recent:

http://dilemmaxdotnet.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/u-s-population-density-map.jpg

Whichever map you look at, there's a very clear north-south line running San Antonio - DFW - OKC - Wichita - Lincoln which marks the west end of substantial population and the beginning of the prairies, with only the occasional spot of density between there and the west coast.

This sort of map also makes it clear that service to Allentown PA, or indeed Ithaca NY, has a lot more potential than the entire state of Wyoming. And it makes it clear why Wichita and Amarillo is a better route than the Raton Pass route. And it makes it clear why Ohio could support a hell of a lot of passenger rail. And why New Orleans-Mobile is better than Mobile-Jacksonville. And so on...
 

neroden

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Since for the first time in Amtrak history the schedules are enforceable, I see STB complaints against NS in NS's future...
 
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Since for the first time in Amtrak history the schedules are enforceable, I see STB complaints against NS in NS's future...
Basically, NS has scammed Amtrak and the STB so far. I have not heard of any warnings from the STB to NS about the Crescent and Amtrak doesn't seem any louder than a mouse. They should be going public and saying they half destroyed the Crescent with the attempt to arrange its schedule to get NS to comply with the regulations and NS is deliberately trying to finish it off. They won't do that because like most victims of scams, they are too embarrassed to admit their own failure.

The only solution unless NS is forcibly stopped in its tracks is to break up the Crescent into two trains, a sleeper/coach train Atlanta to NYP leaving before dinner. returning at about the same time and a coach-only daytime train between Atlanta and NOL, possibly making this train the extension from NOL to Biloxi. Both should use a new Atlanta station and the STB should make that happen using the fines from NS.
 

TheCrescent

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Aside from lack of equipment....

Sigh. In my dreams, there's a train with that kind of schedule.

You're completely right.

Perhaps add a bunch of Viewliner compartments into an Amfleet or Horizon car that's facing retirement (don't laugh; Amtrak did that before).

Federal law already allows third parties to bid on operating long-distance services, so I just hope that someone would find a way to make such a train work. I'd think that Norfolk Southern would prefer to operate the Crescent (at the government's expense) and be able to avoid clashes with Amtrak and the STB, but who knows.
 

TheCrescent

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Raising an ancient thread from the dead:

Federal law allows long-distance trains to be bid on, and operated by, third parties, for a subsidy:



In practice, I'd think that only a Class I freight railroad would be a viable candidate for doing so.

Question: Why wouldn't a Class I not jump at the chance to get rid of Amtrak, particularly now that Amtrak and the STB can go after the Class I for delays, and since the Class I would be paid a subsidy for running a long-distance train?

Before Amtrak was created, the Federal government considered just subsidizing Class Is directly to run passenger trains, so this is what US passenger rail could have been (but for Congress deciding that Amtrak was preferable to having Class Is receive a subsidy).
 

joelkfla

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Question: Why wouldn't a Class I not jump at the chance to get rid of Amtrak, particularly now that Amtrak and the STB can go after the Class I for delays, and since the Class I would be paid a subsidy for running a long-distance train?
Is this talking about just providing a train crew, or is it building a whole new system, with rolling stock, station maintenance, OBS, reservations, ticketing, etc.?

I can certainly see why they wouldn't want to go thru the pain of recreating an entire passenger service operation, especially if there's the possibility that the franchise could be pulled back if the FRA or STB are not happy with their performance.
 
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.... Federal law already allows third parties to bid on operating long-distance services, so I just hope that someone would find a way to make such a train work. I'd think that Norfolk Southern would prefer to operate the Crescent (at the government's expense) and be able to avoid clashes with Amtrak and the STB, but who knows.

Um, I think jis's ha-ha emoticon refers to the fact that the only reason Amtrak exists is because US freight railroads emphatically did NOT want to run passenger trains. If you have any evidence that that's changed, it's a well-hidden secret.
 

TheCrescent

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Um, I think jis's ha-ha emoticon refers to the fact that the only reason Amtrak exists is because US freight railroads emphatically did NOT want to run passenger trains. If you have any evidence that that's changed, it's a well-hidden secret.

It's changed in Florida, where Florida East Coast Railway (which did everything it could to get rid of its passenger trains in the 1960s) is now an organizer of Brightline. It also changed in Indiana, where Iowa Pacific operated the Hoosier State (and apparently screwed everything up, including the reimbursement amounts in its operating contract).

Class Is didn't want to run passenger trains because they lost so much money. Under the Federal program, whoever operates a long-distance train gets paid to do so. Since the financial losses of passenger trains wouldn't exist, I just don't see why a Class I would avoid getting involved.

As someone who works in the private sector, if the choice is (1) run my business myself and get a government check to cover costs of part of it or (2) let a separate government agency come on my property and possibly sue me if I don't do what it wants (as Amtrak can do), I'd certainly choose (1). I'd think that Class Is would think the same way.
 

neroden

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As someone who works in the private sector, if the choice is (1) run my business myself and get a government check to cover costs of part of it or (2) let a separate government agency come on my property and possibly sue me if I don't do what it wants (as Amtrak can do), I'd certainly choose (1). I'd think that Class Is would think the same way.

You'd be wrong. The Class Is are mostly run by idiots.

BNSF might be willing to, since it does voluntarily operate several commuter rail services. CP has been reasonably friendly to passenger service in recent years but still doesn't want to operate it itself.

The others (UP, CN, CSX, NS, KCS) have been actively hostile to passenger service for irrational reasons having absolutely nothing to do with any business logic. They're quite able to shoot themselves in the foot.
 

TheCrescent

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You'd be wrong. The Class Is are mostly run by idiots.

BNSF might be willing to, since it does voluntarily operate several commuter rail services. CP has been reasonably friendly to passenger service in recent years but still doesn't want to operate it itself.

The others (UP, CN, CSX, NS, KCS) have been actively hostile to passenger service for irrational reasons having absolutely nothing to do with any business logic. They're quite able to shoot themselves in the foot.

Thanks. That may well be the case. I did have some indirect exposure to NS in the passenger rail field a few years ago and NS did seem to show zero interest in anything passenger-related (although the project wouldn't have been profitable or even break-even for NS).
 

jis

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Moderator's Note: A number of posts above have been moved here from the Crescent schedule change thread at:

 

jis

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It's changed in Florida, where Florida East Coast Railway (which did everything it could to get rid of its passenger trains in the 1960s) is now an organizer of Brightline. It also changed in Indiana, where Iowa Pacific operated the Hoosier State (and apparently screwed everything up, including the reimbursement amounts in its operating contract).
Actually FECR had little to do with All Aboard Florida, which morphed into Brightline. It was FECR's owner Fortress Group that started the AAF project. It was run by the FECI subsidiary of Fortress and not by the FECR subsidiary. So FECR really did not have much to do directly with AAF/Brightline. Then Fortress sold FECR to Grupo Mexico and sold itself to Softbank.

As some half jokingly say - Brightline is a small railroad attached to a large real estate company.

The interesting thing about Brightline is that Fortress Group is indulging in this activity because they believe that this will significantly enhance the ROI of their assets. Meanwhile Grupo Mexico is said to be happy with FECR and its captive market,

Operationally the Florida Dispatching Company does the care, feeding of the tracks and dispatching of all FECR and Brightline trains in Florida. It is jointly owned by FECR and Brightline. FECR and Brightline themselves act mostly as what the Brits would call TOCs (Train Operating Companies) and they own or lease the necessary rail rolling stock and power. Soon a third TOC will be added to the mix and that will be SFRTA (TriRail) though they will not have any ownership or control over the Florida Dispatching Company.

The Hoosier State thing involved Iowa Pacific providing the rolling stock. on board service and OBS crew. The train continued to be an Amtrak train operationally, run by Amtrak T&E crew.
Class Is didn't want to run passenger trains because they lost so much money. Under the Federal program, whoever operates a long-distance train gets paid to do so. Since the financial losses of passenger trains wouldn't exist, I just don't see why a Class I would avoid getting involved.
This facility was incorporated in PRIIA 2008. The fact that in 12 years there have been no takers so far has to be saying something.
 
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Federal law already allows third parties to bid on operating long-distance services, so I just hope that someone would find a way to make such a train work.
Why?

I can just see Federal subsidies going to class 1 railroads to operate a passenger train that will provide service just as bad as Amtrak's. To make the class 1s interested at all, the subsidy would have to be a lot larger than what Amtrak is now paying them to use their tracks. I could see a lot of potential for waste, fraud, and abuse, and all kinds of corruption scandals regarding issuing and reimbursement of subsidies. At least Amtrak is owned by the government and more or less under its thumb.

Unfortunately, it seems in our political culture, a lot of people think everything is better when it's run by private business. That's not always true.

I think that once the Covid business settles down, and the new Amtrak board is in place, service on the long-distance trains will improve. There will still be the problem of class 1 railroads keeping their routes open during winter and tropical storms, but then, all transportation is affected by weather like that.
 

TheCrescent

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Why?

I can just see Federal subsidies going to class 1 railroads to operate a passenger train that will provide service just as bad as Amtrak's. To make the class 1s interested at all, the subsidy would have to be a lot larger than what Amtrak is now paying them to use their tracks. I could see a lot of potential for waste, fraud, and abuse, and all kinds of corruption scandals regarding issuing and reimbursement of subsidies. At least Amtrak is owned by the government and more or less under its thumb.

Unfortunately, it seems in our political culture, a lot of people think everything is better when it's run by private business. That's not always true.

You are right that things aren't necessarily better when run by private businesses. However, having Class Is run long-distance (or any) passenger trains, for a subsidy, could offer a few advantages:

1. First, Class Is have plenty of capital available. If that capital generates a favorable rate of return, they'll spend the money. Amtrak is chronically cash-strapped, and as a result, its customer-facing assets have lagged what airlines and other private companies have offered for years. For example, look at how long it took Amtrak to get e-ticketing, and even now, I'm unaware of any ability to order meals online before departure. There are efficiencies that could be achieved with capital investments, and Class Is could do that more easily than Amtrak could. They could likely order new equipment faster than Amtrak could, too, for one example.

2. Second, Class Is already have infrastructure in place to run trains; the marginal costs for a Class I of running a passenger train, in some cases for some things, might not as high as Amtrak has to pay. For example, a report years ago suggested switching a Crescent coach at Atlanta and deploying it to maximize ridership, but Amtrak hasn't done that in part because it would have to negotiate switching with a Class I, and pay the Class I. If the Class I ran the Crescent, it's not difficult for it to switch a coach at Atlanta. Same for things such as fueling and perhaps insurance; a Class I could handle that for likely less marginal cost than Amtrak does, for a route with a train a day in each direction. For example, my home station has a small Amtrak waiting room inside a Norfolk Southern building; how hard would it be for NS to just turn on the lights in that waiting room? Likely it'd be less expensive for NS to do it.

3. Third, as a very frequent traveler for decades (at least 50,000 miles per year on one airline alone for about 20 years), I've seen airlines change and grow significantly more efficient in their operations, and significantly more tech-focused, which has helped profits and in some cases, the customer experience (yes, I know this is subjective, and regular coach passengers may not like the customer experience overall). I haven't seen Amtrak evolve as much. If anything, Amtrak generally follows airlines in terms of new things (how long did it take Amtrak to develop a loyalty program, for example). Private businesses in general will emphasize efficiency and whatever it takes to improve profits more than a public agency will (and I have been involved in a public transit agency, and it certainly did a good job and tried, but it has different stakeholders than a private corporation).

Look at Brightline for an example of what a privately-owned railroad is. That's the gold standard in railroading. Certainly not every privately-owned railroad is as great as Brightline, but having deep financial resources, and private-sector forces that push for maximum efficiency in capital uses, are perhaps one reason why it is such a great railroad.
 
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Look at Brightline for an example of what a privately-owned railroad is. That's the gold standard in railroading. Certainly not every privately-owned railroad is as great as Brightline, but having deep financial resources, and private-sector forces that push for maximum efficiency in capital uses, are perhaps one reason why it is such a great railroad.

Brightline isn't even running its core Miami -Orlando service yet, so we have no idea about whether it's going to be a "gold standard" either as regards to profitability or quality of service. I still say it's even money that after the owners of Brightline make their bundle on the real estate development alongside the tracks they'll try to dump the actual train service on to Amtrak or the State of Florida. Brightline is a real-estate development company that is offering train service as an amenity to increase the prices for the real estate they sell, it's not really a railroad company. And what is "maximum efficiency in capital uses," anyway?
 

TheCrescent

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Brightline isn't even running its core Miami -Orlando service yet, so we have no idea about whether it's going to be a "gold standard" either as regards to profitability or quality of service. I still say it's even money that after the owners of Brightline make their bundle on the real estate development alongside the tracks they'll try to dump the actual train service on to Amtrak or the State of Florida. Brightline is a real-estate development company that is offering train service as an amenity to increase the prices for the real estate they sell, it's not really a railroad company. And what is "maximum efficiency in capital uses," anyway?

I was very impressed when I took Brightline; the stations were sleek, employees were very nice, lounges we’re luxurious and train cars were very nice. It was certainly a great customer experience.

Maximim efficiency with respect to how capital is used means that a dollar spent has the biggest rate of return possible.

Since deregulation, the amount of money that a Class I railroad uses to transport one ton of freight one mile has fallen significantly. Same for private airlines: the amount they have to spend a transport a person one mile has fallen significantly. They have become much more efficient and what they charge has also fallen. So we’re getting more transportation from them, at a lower cost.

Amtrak has not seen similar gains in efficiency; the amount that it has to spend to carry a passenger one mile hasn’t fallen like it has for Class Is and airlines. This means that Amtrak isn’t generating as much transportation per dollar as Class Is and airlines do. There may be a lot of reasons for this, but this difference suggests that if a private company ran passenger trains, one might see efficiency gains- being able to transport one person one mile at an increasingly low cost. If passenger rail in the US hauled significantly more passengers for the same amount spent, I think that would be a good thing.
 
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Maximim efficiency with respect to how capital is used means that a dollar spent has the biggest rate of return possible.

From the "point of view of the investor, "rate of return" has to do maximizing the amount of money that is skimmed off by the investor. "Maximizing efficiency" will do whatever it takes to achieve that goal. One way to do that is to cut costs to the bone, produce a lousy product and sell it at high cost. Some believe that "the market" will somehow magically prevent this, through competition, but if there are a limited number of producers, and they are all following the same cost-cutting, lousy product business model, then there's really no useful competition, is there?

On the other hand, a government subsidizing passenger rail might view "maximum efficiency" as the maximizing the number of cars taken off the road, i.e., maximizing passenger miles. This is going to cost real money, not just improvements in on-board service, but improvements in infrastructure and rolling stock, and increased staffing costs that no profit-seeking private enterprise would want to accept. Even if the investor-owned railroad took the subsidies, running passenger trains isn't a good fit for the rest of their business model, and they'd probably try to skim off as much of the subsidy as they could into other parts of the company.

Also, from the point of view of the government providing the subsidies, long-distance trains are not the most efficient use of passenger rail subsidy dollars, as the point of spending taxpayer funds on passenger rail is to take as many cars off the road as possible, preferably in heavily populated areas where taking the cars off the road will reduce all emissions, not just greenhouse gas emissions.

Since deregulation, the amount of money that a Class I railroad uses to transport one ton of freight one mile has fallen significantly.
And with that "efficiency" the product (freight transportation) quality has seriously deteriorated, if one believes some of the threads posted here -- derailments, delayed trains, tracks blocked by falling trees because the class 1s are too cheap to cut the trees, etc. Maybe the Cass 1s are making lots of money, or having their share prices increase, but they're not meeting their potential in providing optimal transportation utility to the nation.

Anyway, if private capital thought they could run passenger trains, they'd be doing it. The only people doing it are a very small number of excursion operators and Brightline, which has a business model that can't be replicated in many places.
 

TheCrescent

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I would be interested in seeing the actual numbers that produced that analysis.

Sure:

The ratio of enplaned passengers per employee rose by 25 percent, and the ratio of RTMs per employee rose by 89 percent over this period. This remarkable increase in output per employee arises, in part, from the use of larger and faster aircraft, changes in flight personnel requirements, changes in work rules and practices, and adoption of various marketing strategies.

Airfares, when adjusted for inflation, have fallen 25 percent since 1991, and, according to Clifford Winston and Steven Morrison of the Brookings Institution, are 22 percent lower than they would have been had regulation continued (Morrison and Winston 2000). Since passenger deregulation in 1978, airline prices have fallen 44.9 percent in real terms according to the Air Transport Association. Robert Crandall and Jerry Ellig (1997) estimated that when figures are adjusted for changes in quality and amenities, passengers save $19.4 billion dollars per year from airline deregulation. These savings have been passed on to 80 percent of passengers accounting for 85 percent of passenger miles. The real benefits of airline deregulation are being felt today as never before, with LCCs increasingly gaining market share.

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The passage of the Act, however, was a gamechanger for the industry. According to the Association of American Railroads, freight rail rates have dropped approximately 44 percent since 1981. In the immediate aftermath of deregulation, it freight rates cost around 8 cents per ton-mile, compared to 4.5 cents in 2019.

Of course, airlines' and freight railroads' private ownership is just one aspect of these changes; the easing of regulation is a major reason, and a publicly-owned company might have shown similar changes.
 
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Airfares, when adjusted for inflation, have fallen 25 percent since 1991,
That's not necessarily a good thing, from a public policy perspective. Aside from the fact that the quality of airline service has deteriorated over those years, the fact is that more people flying is not necessarily a good thing, especially from the perspective of greenhouse gas and criteria pollutant emissions.

Anyway, airlines are also heavily subsidized by the government, mostly indirectly, but they have received direct handouts during various financial crises.
 

TheCrescent

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That's not necessarily a good thing, from a public policy perspective. Aside from the fact that the quality of airline service has deteriorated over those years, the fact is that more people flying is not necessarily a good thing, especially from the perspective of greenhouse gas and criteria pollutant emissions.

Anyway, airlines are also heavily subsidized by the government, mostly indirectly, but they have received direct handouts during various financial crises.

Agreed in that the growth of air travel has some positive and some negative effects. My only point is that airlines are much more efficient than they were in the past, in terms of the amount of transportation provided per dollar of cost, and Amtrak hasn't seen similar growth in efficiency.
 

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Fuel is the biggest cost of flying any kind of aircraft. The amount of fuel used per revenue passenger mile has dropped dramatically. Source is doubtfull but some say fuel per RPM has been halved.
 

TheCrescent

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Fuel is the biggest cost of flying any kind of aircraft. The amount of fuel used per revenue passenger mile has dropped dramatically. Source is doubtfull but some say fuel per RPM has been halved.

Fuel is also a big cost of running trains. Amtrak should have seen a similar decrease in cost per passenger-mile. But it didn’t.
 
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