The future of Amtrak and the long distance trains

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rs9

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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.

I'm not sure this is completely true, that Amtrak should have a similar decrease in fuel cost per passenger.

For starters, Amtrak says they decreased fuel totals by 11.3 percent from 2010-2019.

Airlines have achieved fuel savings in ways probably not available to Amtrak:

- reducing the weight of seats and adding seats per plane.
- incentiving passengers to pack less
- purchasing more fuel efficient aircraft as they come available.

Given that the comfort of train travel vs plane travel or driving seems to be a product differentiator for Amtrak, not sure they can do much about seats.

Amtrak could reduce baggage allowances, but again not sure that works for the target market

Finally, as far as I understand, due to poor track across the country, passenger trains generally need to be heavy steel to improve chances in a crash or derailment. Even beyond that, Amtrak can't procure new locomotives or rolling stock whenever they want, since they don't control their own purse strings.

If the American taxpayer didn't keep bailing out airlines, they could not afford to renew their fleets as frequently as they do.
 

MARC Rider

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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.
The Amtrak locomotives are pushing 30 years old. There have been a lot of improvements in diesel engine technology since then. We should be seeing some decreases in fuel costs once the Chargers are fully deployed. Also, it's possible that fuel costs are a smaller fraction of the total cost of running trains as opposed to the cost of running planes.
 

bms

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If the American taxpayer didn't keep bailing out airlines, they could not afford to renew their fleets as frequently as they do.

Right. If the airline industry wasn't subsidized, it would be the same way it was in the Mad Men era, a few flights for the very rich. There's no limit to what the Federal govt will spend for cars or planes, but God forbid a person, who isn't affluent enough to own a car, might be able to travel to another city.
 

Green Maned Lion

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Well, reading what I wrote 8 years ago was certainly interesting, as was this ancient topic being dragged up. All I can say about the intervening years is whoo-boy. I am not saying that politically, but categorically.

I dropped out of advocacy after a sincere effort with someone else to take over a NJ rail advocacy organization, and failing miserably, despite the fact that the person I was running against for vice-chair was- well I won’t speak ill of the dead. But it did deeply confirm a major point I had felt at the time I wrote this, still feel, which is that people tend to favor their self interest over their own self interest.

I found it truly fascinating at the time, because the organization contained more anti-transit, anti-infrastructure, anti-capital spending on anything, and especially anti-commuter than I could imagine. Still does. Replace the disaster that is Port Authority Bus Terminal? God forbid they spend the money. Build more track capacity at Penn Station? God forbid they spend the money, because they should use that money to run more trains to a place they won’t fit. Any excuse to justify this position (ex. somewhat temporary Covid issues- Look, we don’t need to replace the antediluvian portal bridge!) is seized, regardless of sense.

No, I’m not making fun of conservatives, or honestly anti-transit organizations like the Heritage Foundation. I’m talking about a pro-transit organization that actively says it represents the interests of people looking for mobility and current riders. I don’t mean this as a criticism of conservatives; in the past 8 years a lot has happened, and I have actually become considerably more conservative in my viewpoints, although I suspect if we were to balance it out I’m still left of center. My criticism is rather to point out people who fight for things favor what they want right now (ex. more mid-day transit service) over what would serve their interests in the long run (the infrastructure to run more trains to more places ten or fifteen years from now), even though winning that fight would likely cripple what they are fighting for (transit equipment aging into low availablilty and reliability).

The future of transit and Amtrak‘s long distance network depends primarily on people coming together, reaching compromises, and recognizing that less-than-ideal solutions work better than no solution at all, and that the long term matters just as much as the short term. That is to say, its got a snowballs chance in heck. It is possible my point can be extrapolated more broadly.

Because what I see here, as everywhere else, is a lot of people starkly talking in terms of one side, and a diametric opposite side, as if there were two worlds, and the parties were confusing them for the same one. Which is funny, because when I talk to people who are interested in a reasoned discussion, I find that when you actually talk about what you want in a reasonable manner, disparate parties are far closer together in ideation than they ever imagined.

One thing I have not lost in 8 years is my capacity for extreme brevity.
 

toddinde

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The best expansion idea for the Crescent is to send it west from New Orleans to Houston and San Antonio. I would be an overnight train between Houston and New Orleans and a day train between San Antonio and Houston. I would only take one more set of equipment to do that and the train already has viewliner sleepers on it. It would give San Antonio and Houston a direct train to Atlanta, the east coast, Washington, DC, Philladelphia and New York with connections to Boston. It would be more direct than the Eagle. And it would be a huge boost to ridership on the train west of Atlanta and Birmingham.
It doesn’t have to be either/or. Both are good ideas. Let’s get the Sunset Limited daily. That’s already proven to be a ridiculously hard lift when it shouldn’t be.
 

toddinde

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That would see the Crescent leaving the largest city it serves, NY, at 2:00 AM. Not a good idea.
New York and Washington to Atlanta and Birmingham overnight is the Crescent’s sweet spot. I work, and I would personally prefer to travel overnight, then spend a whole day on the train. Amtrak doesn’t have a good schedule anymore, and doesn’t do marketing, but the Crescent should be packed to the gills. In any event, the Crescent-Star will be very successful.
 

John from RI

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As far as the costs of Amtrak are concerned, when the Interstate Highways are tolled I will be willing to discuss that issue. Federal Motor Fuels Tax is imposed on all drivers, not just those who use the Interstate Highways. If anything is unfair that is unfair. And that tax doesn't even cover the actual costs of the Interstate Highways. A fair amount of costs still come from general revenues. And policing of Interstate Highways, which is a major cost, is done by states. Most of the costs of policing are paid from state sales taxes.

So our Interstate Highways represent a massive subsidy to those who use them. They could be easily tolled and pay for themselves.

** ****

Are a segment of Amtrak riders an aging group? While many Amtrak riders are older Americans I suspect that we age into the group just as we ultimately age out of it. When it comes to transportation many older Americans cannot use planes or buses because the spaces are too tight and too difficult. And long drives become more difficult with age too. So are we simply to deny people who, because of age or other factors, have impaired mobope not.

********

Amtrak is really an intercity rail system. Long routes connect many small places, some so small they have no other public transit. The nature of rail transit makes this possible. However, if we are going to run long distance trains we do need sleeping cars and dining cars.

********

This is my personal response to a few of the important issues you raise.
 

jis

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Maybe they are using one set of cars? We were set to leave New Orleans around 9 am. We finally left at 1 pm because we had to wait for the train returning from L.A., which was 3 hours late.
AFAIK the three times a week service of the Sunset Limited uses three consists.But of course, still consists coming in from LAX have to turn at NOL into Sunset going out to LAX. There can be a delay in turning a consist because of late incoming or for other mechanical issues that need resolving before the consist can be released for service.
 

toddinde

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As far as the costs of Amtrak are concerned, when the Interstate Highways are tolled I will be willing to discuss that issue. Federal Motor Fuels Tax is imposed on all drivers, not just those who use the Interstate Highways. If anything is unfair that is unfair. And that tax doesn't even cover the actual costs of the Interstate Highways. A fair amount of costs still come from general revenues. And policing of Interstate Highways, which is a major cost, is done by states. Most of the costs of policing are paid from state sales taxes.

So our Interstate Highways represent a massive subsidy to those who use them. They could be easily tolled and pay for themselves.

** ****

Are a segment of Amtrak riders an aging group? While many Amtrak riders are older Americans I suspect that we age into the group just as we ultimately age out of it. When it comes to transportation many older Americans cannot use planes or buses because the spaces are too tight and too difficult. And long drives become more difficult with age too. So are we simply to deny people who, because of age or other factors, have impaired mobope not.

********

Amtrak is really an intercity rail system. Long routes connect many small places, some so small they have no other public transit. The nature of rail transit makes this possible. However, if we are going to run long distance trains we do need sleeping cars and dining cars.

********

This is my personal response to a few of the important issues you raise.
I want to thank you for your wise and cogent post. The automobile has huge costs that are subsidized by tax dollars. Think of all the people locked up for auto related crimes; driving after revocation, multiple DUIs, etc. The people that are homeless because they need a car to get to work, but because of the costs of a car, they can’t afford a place to live. All the roads and city streets that connect to highways paid out of general fund tax dollars. A large freeway interchange costs a billion dollars. It’s ridiculous. And then states complain about $2-3 million a year. Rail more than pays for its subsidy with economic benefits. Rail is very cost effective.
 

John from RI

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From the PIPs:

Crescent:

Age of Adult Passengers (children not included)

18-34 8%

35-54 23%

55+ 69%

Average Age 58

Employment

Employed 49%

Retired 41%

Lake Shore Limited

Age of Adult Passengers

(children not included)

18-34 11%

35-54 34%

55+ 55%

Average Age 54

Employment

Employed 53%

Retired 32%

Silver Star:

Age of Adult Passengers(children not included)

18-34 6%

35-54 26%

55+ 68%

Average Age 57

Employment

Employed 47%

Retired 41%

Silver Meteor:

Age of Adult Passengers(children not included)

18-34 6%

35-54 25%

55+ 69%

Average Age 58

Employment

Employed 43%

Retired 43%

Palmetto

Age of Adult Passengers (children not included)

18-34 9%

35-54 29%

55+ 62%

Average Age 56

Employment

Employed 50%

Retired 38%

Haven't seen any for the other long distance trains, but the corridor trains are available here, though you'll need to scroll aways down. It's immediately obvious that the long distance trains are significantly grayer than the corridors. Heck, look at the Empire Service, Route A. You claim the Lake Shore Limited "seems to retain a thriving younger clientele," with 11% of passengers being 18-35, while the corridor it runs over is 28% and the US census has 35% of the population in that range. 55% is 55 or older when only a third of the populace is and only 39% of the Empire Service.

Now, Chicago-Carbondale? 51% of that train is 18-34. That's a thriving younger clientele.
Thanks for your work in bringing data to the discussion. I would add a few points to what you say.
1. On relatively short inter-city trips Amtrak will attract younger people because there are fewer competing options and because the time is more comparable to flying. For domestic flights people need to arrive at the airport at least 2 hours early to assure they will get through the TSA lines in time for their flights. When you factor that in Amtrak's intercity times are very competitive. And on Amtrak that extra time is spent sitting on the train rather than standing in line hauling luggage.
2. While relatively few younger people ride Amtrak long distance the service is important to low-income people with a lot of luggage. Examples are students and members of the military service. When I take the train I see both groups waiting at the station.
3. For people who travel as part of their jobs time is money. Employers are unwilling to pay for the extra travel time on Amtrak when flying is faster.
4. For older people mobility impairments are a real issue. Even people who don't even need a cane still find the cramped seats and aisles on planes difficult at best. Shall we expect older people to all become recluses?
 

rs9

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3. For people who travel as part of their jobs time is money. Employers are unwilling to pay for the extra travel time on Amtrak when flying is faster.

With reliable wifi, #3 could change. While I'm shifting my plane travel to Amtrak for environmental reasons, it's much more realistic for me to do this than in the pre-pandemic era. With remote work a reality for many now, a full day of train travel while working is completely feasible. Of course, I will have to creatively budget my wifi time near the cities/towns we pass through (on the LSL).

If Amtrak would use a satellite provider for wifi, I think you would find younger people might even embrace working for a day on a train as a welcome change-of-pace. On a couple trips I've managed to fit in during the pandemic, people my age are traveling for a full week to a location but working for a few days to manage their vacation time.
 

jis

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I'm not sure this is completely true, that Amtrak should have a similar decrease in fuel cost per passenger.
Indeed! The quickest way for Amtrak to decrease fuel cost per ASM as well as passenger mile, would be to get rid of Sleepers and non-revenue cars. :D But of course we would not want that. As usual it is a balanced scorecard situation. reducing fuel cost per ASM is but one of several mutually conflicting goals and a reasonable balance has to be struck among them.
 
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There is one simple reason why I do not believe the conspiracy theories saying that Amtrak is trying to eliminate long distance trains: politics.

Why on earth would Amtrak, a federally funded organization, want to lose the support of the all of the members of congress from the states that would lose service if long distance trains were eliminated? I get that Amtrak may not want to expand service, but surely they realize the political ramifications of eliminating it.
 

MARC Rider

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People traveling long distances on long-distance trains is clearly a niche market. Certainly for business travel, where time is money. Certain overnight city pairs might work for the small percentage of business travelers (like me) who like or prefer riding trains (on our own time). The other source of ridership for overnight and longer journeys are people who can't fly or drive for medical reasons, people who are afraid of flying, and leisure travelers who like or prefer riding trains. That's certainly a large enough market to maintain a network of long-distance trains (especially when added to the people who ride the long distance trains for shorter distances), but the mode will never be a major part of America's transportation mix, unless something happens that renders commercial aviation unviable, and most people will just have to suck it up and take 4 days if they want to cross the country.
 

jis

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One of Amtrak's wrongdoings relative to LD trains is erroneously claiming that they are still under the restriction placed on them by Congress at one time preventing them from adding any LD trains without getting Congress's permission. Unfortunately Congress is collectively dumb enough not to have added a simple sentence stating that Amtrak is no longer under that restriction.

Beyond that there is lots of poor management of resources aided and abetted by a pandemic of late, and such, to contend with.
 
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Indeed! The quickest way for Amtrak to decrease fuel cost per ASM as well as passenger mile, would be to get rid of Sleepers and non-revenue cars. :D But of course we would not want that. As usual it is a balanced scorecard situation. reducing fuel cost per ASM is but one of several mutually conflicting goals and a reasonable balance has to be struck among them.
Not necessarily. Reducing to the point of not running at all does get to the point that the cost per passenger is zero because you have no passengers. So-called non-revenue cars do produce revenue by filling the other cars. And adding more revenue cars brings in more money which should reduce the fuel cost per passenger.
Then again, reducing the fuel costs per passenger should not be an objective. Increasing the overall profit, if possible, or at least reducing the total losses is what counts. What's more important, paying X per passenger for fuel vs a higher Y per passenger or bringing in $A per passenger in income vs $(nA) by having more revenue and non-revenue cars with which to pay the higher fuel costs and increase the net?
Using the "non-revenue" concept ad absurdum means replacing non-revenue space like restrooms with more revenue seats - only nobody would take the train.
 

TheCrescent

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Couldn't fuel cost per ASM and passenger-mile be reduced by (1) having more fuel-efficient locomotives and (2) lighter locomotives and rolling stock, too?

That's what airlines did. (Airlines also packed more people into coach--I still think that in the NEC and maybe elsewhere, Amtrak ought to add a commuter coach onto the end of NE Regional trains and sell bargain-priced tickets to attract the bus crowd.
 

MARC Rider

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Not necessarily. Reducing to the point of not running at all does get to the point that the cost per passenger is zero because you have no passengers. So-called non-revenue cars do produce revenue by filling the other cars. And adding more revenue cars brings in more money which should reduce the fuel cost per passenger.
Then again, reducing the fuel costs per passenger should not be an objective. Increasing the overall profit, if possible, or at least reducing the total losses is what counts. What's more important, paying X per passenger for fuel vs a higher Y per passenger or bringing in $A per passenger in income vs $(nA) by having more revenue and non-revenue cars with which to pay the higher fuel costs and increase the net?
Using the "non-revenue" concept ad absurdum means replacing non-revenue space like restrooms with more revenue seats - only nobody would take the train
Jis didn't say "not running at all," he said getting rid of sleepers and non-revenue cars. By the way, this also helps improve fuel economy and reduces greenhouse gas emissions, though, of course, emissions could be really reduced if people just stopped traveling. :) It's also not clear that all of these proposed fancy add-ons will really attract enough additional revenue to cover the increased costs.
 

MARC Rider

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Couldn't fuel cost per ASM and passenger-mile be reduced by (1) having more fuel-efficient locomotives and (2) lighter locomotives and rolling stock, too?
I think one is running up against FRA regulations that require American passenger trains to be built like tanks in order to survive collisions with freight trains. As far as fuel efficient, I believe the Chargers are much more fuel-efficient than the old Genesis locomotives, and the Sprinters are more efficient than the AEM-7s.
 

jis

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Couldn't fuel cost per ASM and passenger-mile be reduced by (1) having more fuel-efficient locomotives and (2) lighter locomotives and rolling stock, too?
Indeed, airlines have used mainly four methods to reduce CASM:

1. Use newer planes that weigh less. This has much more spectacular effect for airplanes since all that weight has to be lifted to a significant altitude before you even start moving in right earnest towards your destination., unlike trains which just has to accelerate them to a much slower speed than planes, on steel rails.

2. Use more efficient engines.

3. Pack more passengers

4. Reduce OBS crew to the minimum allowed by regulations.

But this is just one side of the equation. The other side is RASM. If you wish to run a going business, in general RASM has to be greater than CASM.

1. Because packing too tight will reduce willingness to pay higher fare the desire to pack has to be balanced against whether you are getting enough RASM to cover the wonderful CASM achieved. :) So we see proliferation of Pods instead of cramped seats, sometimes occupying as much as a third of the plane.

The train equivalent of this would be more BC and Sleepers.

2. Lack of service reduces RASM, so OBS personnel are added beyond the minimum necessary, until the right balance is achieved.

The train equivalent would be better food service and better trained servers providing standardized good to excellent service.

There are other minor factors affecting both CASM and RASM.

But in general when I mentioned "balanced scorecard" in my previous post, it is this sort of balancing of factors pulling in opposite directions that I was alluding to. Apparently some missed that point completely.

But the enormous success of many LCCs in the airline industry while full service airlines struggle to survive suggests that in general most likely all Coach service cramming passengers is a winner over more luxurious service, most unfortunately, I might add.
 
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Indeed, airlines have used mainly four methods to reduce CASM:

1. Use newer planes that weigh less. This has much more spectacular effect for airplanes since all that weight has to be lifted to a significant altitude before you even start moving in right earnest towards your destination., unlike trains which just has to accelerate them to a much slower speed than planes, on steel rails.

2. Use more efficient engines.

3. Pack more passengers

4. Reduce OBS crew to the minimum allowed by regulations.

But this is just one side of the equation. The other side is RASM. If you wish to run a going business, in general RASM has to be greater than CASM.

1. Because packing too tight will reduce willingness to pay higher fare the desire to pack has to be balanced against whether you are getting enough RASM to cover the wonderful CASM achieved. :) So we see proliferation of Pods instead of cramped seats, sometimes occupying as much as a third of the plane.

The train equivalent of this would be more BC and Sleepers.

2. Lack of service reduces RASM, so OBS personnel are added beyond the minimum necessary, until the right balance is achieved.

The train equivalent would be better food service and better trained servers providing standardized good to excellent service.

There are other minor factors affecting both CASM and RASM.

But in general when I mentioned "balanced scorecard" in my previous post, it is this sort of balancing of factors pulling in opposite directions that I was alluding to. Apparently some missed that point completely.
What do ASM, CASM, & RASM stand for? Couldn't find definitions in our Common Abbreviations thread or on Wikipedia.
 

jis

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What do ASM, CASM, & RASM stand for? Couldn't find definitions in our Common Abbreviations thread or on Wikipedia.
ASM - Available Seat Miles
CASM - Cost per Available Seat Mile
RASM - Revenue per Available Seat Mile

Standard terminology in the passenger transportation industry.

Amtrak does provide its consolidated CASM and RASM every month. Needless to say, its RASM is less than its CASM.
 
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