Why aren't overnight trains able to compete with flying?

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Tlcooper93

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Making blanket statements about everyone just doesn’t work. Business (and essential non-leisure) also looks different for each person.

For me, I value different aspects of travel as it effects the quality of my output and oftentimes, an overnight train is indeed the best way to travel.

I however, am not going to pretend I am the norm, and neither should anyone else pretend that their habits are the norm. People travel different ways for myriad reasons. Some people enjoy the slower pace, some are afraid of flying, some want to be more environmentally conscious (this pool is growing). My sister exclusively drives for business, oftentimes upwards of 8 hours.

Many people take overnight trains in coach for business and they happen to be minorities, who don’t have the privilege of flying for one reason or another. I’ve met people on an overnight bus for business... so just because one has the privilege of booking endless flights with a fancy job to get home to a fancy bed, it doesn’t mean they are in the majority.
 
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crescent-zephyr

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I am based in Florida. I have to go to the Milwaukee area once in a while for a day or two of meetings. Tell me how to do that on Amtrak without it taking an entire week.
You’d have 4 full days of travel that’s for sure. If there was a Chicago to Florida train like there should be you’d have a great option to consider.

But I made plenty of crazy trips work for me in my business travel. I would take Jefferson Lines up to Fargo to catch the empire builder in the middle of the night.
 

Danib62

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Are there any other “easy” overnight journeys that make sense like the Boston/DC trip? I think we can agree the NYC/Chicago trip is probably a little less desirable - but perhaps there are other connecting journeys?
I think Washington, DC to Atlanta would be a good candidate. Right now it leaves at 6:30p and gets in the next day at 8:43a. You trim that down a tiny bit and it's a pretty viable option.
 

dlagrua

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Why aren't overnight trains able to compete with flying?
Simply because they don't want to be. Amtrak is apparently only trying to be competitive to the airlines on the corridor routes like NYP -WAS. They do a good job at this on the efficient NEC route. On LD routes it seems that Amtrak doesn't have plans to expand the service. If the sleepers fill up this would seem that more are needed but do we hear anything about it from the BOD about missing a potential money making opportunitis on LD or overnight routes? Years back (1960's) there were trains like the PRR Broadway Ltd where the consist was entirely sleepers. I believe that would go over again today.
 

nendee

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“People travel different ways for a myriad of reasons. Some people enjoy the slower pace, some are afraid of flying, some want to be more environmentally conscious (this pool is growing).”
- Jordan Schlansky
 

sttom

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Are there any other “easy” overnight journeys that make sense like the Boston/DC trip? I think we can agree the NYC/Chicago trip is probably a little less desirable - but perhaps there are other connecting journeys?
This isn't an exhaustive list:

New York - North Carolina
DC - Atlanta
DC - Cincinnati
Chicago - St Paul
Chicago - Nashville
Chicago - Fort Worth
Chicago - Denver
Denver - Fort Worth
Denver - Salt Lake City
Denver - Albuquerque
Denver - St Louis
Kansas City - St Paul
Los Angeles - Tucson
Los Angeles - San Francisco/Sacramento
 

MARC Rider

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My sister exclusively drives for business, oftentimes upwards of 8 hours.
It's a funny thing, but our Agency had no problem with people driving between Ann Arbor, MI, and Washington, DC. And that's a 10 1/2 hour drive. I started doing it more often, because getting a rental car in Toledo at 5 AM was sort of a pain, and the alternative was turning it it at 10 PM at the airport or sitting and waiting many hours at the Toledo train station. They even let me use my personal vehicle, paying me 50 cents a mile, which means I got reimbursed about $500 just for the car, but then the government airfare was $400 round trip, plus a rental car, so I guess it was a wash financially. Later, I realized I could rent a car in Baltimore or DC for ~$200 plus gas, and I started doing that. Even later, a bunch of us started having to make trips to contractors around Akron, Ohio, and all of us just rented cars and drove out (6-7 hour drive) rather than bother with a plane to Cleveland and a rental car and 1+ hour drive down to Akron/Kent/Ravenna, etc. The only problem we ever got from the travel office was their inquiries about why we were buying a full tank of gas on the first day of the trip. (Usually, one needed to fill up the tank at the first rest stop on the Ohio Turnpike.)
 

lordsigma

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For me trains are very competitive with flying. I am afraid of flying - an irrational fear yes but the anxiety and stress I get trying to get myself on a flight for the 2 weeks before it is just not worth it - meanwhile riding trains I find as one of the most relaxing and enjoyable experiences. So for me it isn’t a hard choice. Granted I’m not everyone.
 

Tlcooper93

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It's a funny thing, but our Agency had no problem with people driving between Ann Arbor, MI, and Washington, DC. And that's a 10 1/2 hour drive. I started doing it more often, because getting a rental car in Toledo at 5 AM was sort of a pain, and the alternative was turning it it at 10 PM at the airport or sitting and waiting many hours at the Toledo train station. They even let me use my personal vehicle, paying me 50 cents a mile, which means I got reimbursed about $500 just for the car, but then the government airfare was $400 round trip, plus a rental car, so I guess it was a wash financially. Later, I realized I could rent a car in Baltimore or DC for ~$200 plus gas, and I started doing that. Even later, a bunch of us started having to make trips to contractors around Akron, Ohio, and all of us just rented cars and drove out (6-7 hour drive) rather than bother with a plane to Cleveland and a rental car and 1+ hour drive down to Akron/Kent/Ravenna, etc. The only problem we ever got from the travel office was their inquiries about why we were buying a full tank of gas on the first day of the trip. (Usually, one needed to fill up the tank at the first rest stop on the Ohio Turnpike.)
Yet another example of trains not fathomable in the public consciousness.

“People travel different ways for a myriad of reasons. Some people enjoy the slower pace, some are afraid of flying, some want to be more environmentally conscious (this pool is growing).”
- Jordan Schlansky
?
 
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Ferroequinologist

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I remember back around 1969-1970 sitting in the club car of the Broadway Limited. A big winter snow storm had started and planes were grounded. There were three very well dressed businessmen in the club car who were talking to a trainman. One asked to speak to the "Pullman conductor" as he wanted a larger room. "Sir, we no longer have Pullman conductors" the employee explained. Today's Amtrak employees probably wouldn't know what a Pullman conductor was but fifty years ago was not that far from the era when businessmen routinely travelled overnight by train as my grandfather did. These businessmen were probably in their early sixties and had had the experience of traveling by train twenty or more years earlier. That era has long since vanished and the consciousness of LD trains as a form of transport for business travelers hardly exists. The only exception I can think of is ACELA. I was surprised to hear a line in the TV series House of Cards when a staffer tells someone to "Get on the next ACELA" to New York. I wonder how many people outside the NE Corridor knew what he was talking about - but at least it was a line that reflected that the train, in some form, remains a part of the consciousness of people in a sector of the nation.
 

Tlcooper93

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I remember back around 1969-1970 sitting in the club car of the Broadway Limited. A big winter snow storm had started and planes were grounded. There were three very well dressed businessmen in the club car who were talking to a trainman. One asked to speak to the "Pullman conductor" as he wanted a larger room. "Sir, we no longer have Pullman conductors" the employee explained. Today's Amtrak employees probably wouldn't know what a Pullman conductor was but fifty years ago was not that far from the era when businessmen routinely travelled overnight by train as my grandfather did. These businessmen were probably in their early sixties and had had the experience of traveling by train twenty or more years earlier. That era has long since vanished and the consciousness of LD trains as a form of transport for business travelers hardly exists. The only exception I can think of is ACELA. I was surprised to hear a line in the TV series House of Cards when a staffer tells someone to "Get on the next ACELA" to New York. I wonder how many people outside the NE Corridor knew what he was talking about - but at least it was a line that reflected that the train, in some form, remains a part of the consciousness of people in a sector of the nation.
The NEC is a wonderful and peculiar place that really feels more like Europe than the US:
-You can take a high speed train (not officially HSR but more or less mirrors what HSR looks like in some European countries).
-There's high frequency service
-There is a popular night train with sleeper service.
-You have plenty of extra rail and transit infrastructure to compliment the NEC so that cars are not needed for intercity travel so long as you remain in the metro area (perhaps cars are even a burden)
-Big beautiful train stations that are destinations in and of themselves.

All of this enables business travellers to utilize the NEC and Acela service; it exists as a pretty large share of the market. Some Boston financial firms send their people to NYC by train more than by plane (pre-pandemic).


I think the word is getting out!
We haven't seen this level of public acknowledgement, or interest in trains in decades. The fact that there is serious legislation considering the utter reorganization of hierarchy of spending in transit is amazing.
 
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zephyr17

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The only exception I can think of is ACELA.
The Cascades between Seattle and Portland are heavily used for business travel, as are the Surfliners, particularly between LA and San Diego. The Capitol Corridor between Sacramento and the Bay Area is big in business travel.

I can't speak to Michigan Services, or Lincoln Service, but imagine they have their share.

Plus the aforementioned Regionals.

What they all have in common is they are all Corridor services with moderate trip times and multiple frequencies. What they also have in common is they are not overnight trips. Anywhere multi-frequency corridor service is offered between business centers 2-4/5 hours apart business travel takes to the rails.

Overnight business travel by rail basically died on the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the offerings were much more plentiful and flexible, the trains generally faster and the onboard service better. It is not coming back. While some of here managed it, some often, some occasionally, we are not a representative sample. Business travelers generally do not like to be on the road any longer than they have to be.
 

zephyr17

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I think it could. In some markets. With the right service.

Also... eventually we as humans will have to admit that the environment matters. When that happens there will be more of a reason for passenger rail.
Amtrak would have to start structuring some service specifically oriented to time sensitive overnight business travel. Nothing in Amtrak's plans show the slightest indications of moving that way, with the possible exception of adding a sleeper to 65/66/67. Even that isn't serious, a real attempt at capturing business traffic would have included New York set out cars with early (9 pm) and late (8 am) occupancy.

Everything in Amtrak's proposals are oriented towards daytime Corridor services. There is a proven track record that those can attract business travelers. Overnight service for business travelers is a long shot and one in the dark.

The railroads couldn't keep it when they already had the business and better and much more complete services.
 

crescent-zephyr

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Amtrak would have to start structuring some service specifically oriented to time sensitive overnight business travel. Nothing in Amtrak's plans show the slightest indications of moving that way, with the possible exception of adding a sleeper to 65/66/67. Even that isn't serious, a real attempt at capturing business traffic would have included New York set out cars with early (9 pm) and late (8 am) occupancy.

Everything in Amtrak's proposals are oriented towards daytime Corridor services. There is a proven track record that those can attract business travelers. Overnight service for business travelers is a long shot and one in the dark.

The railroads couldn't keep it when they already had the business and better and much more complete services.
Wouldn’t necessarily be Amtrak.
 

zephyr17

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There’s talk of attempts at this from Boston/NYC - Montreal, but it’s a pipe dream at best (at least for the coming decade).
Hadn't heard about this, at least as non-Amtrak. Heard rumblings about maybe resuming the Montrealer as a overnight service if they ever put that Preclearance facility in Central Station.

Personally, I think a better candidate for business travel would be NYC-Toronto. Toronto is Canada's business capital and has been eclipsing Montreal as a business center for decades.
 

zephyr17

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Not sure why that matters? It’s not an impossibility.
Um, it matters because most railroads are pretty allergic to passenger trains and a market rate to attract the railroads to run a disruptive, rigidly scheduled train would be many times that of the Amtrak avoidable cost based rate, making the already dubious economics even more difficult. Especially in these days of PSR.

Nothing is an "impossibility". Making an near impossibility happen is highly improbable, though. I am trying to think in political and economic realities that currently exist and are likely to exist in the near future. No, it's not impossible, merely wildly unlikely.
 

crescent-zephyr

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Difficult? Sure. Impossible? Not at all.

Even more possible with rail friendly people in power (President Biden and our good friend Pete!)
 
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