Why doesn't Amtrak run significantly longer trains?

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TheCrescent

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Jun 24, 2020
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If I am understanding railroad economics correctly (which may not be the case):

Railroads have huge overhead, such as expenses for tracks, stations, dispatching, equipment and back-office operations. Once those overhead costs are covered, revenues from operating trains quickly turn into profits.

Fuel and power are also large expenses, so maximizing the revenues generated from a dollar spent on fuel/power is a way to earn profits.

Thus freight railroads run long trains, maximizing revenues per train, and maximizing the revenue per dollar spent on fuel, even if the marginal revenue per car on the train isn't that much. E.g., a long train hauling junk for a low price per ton of junk can be profitable, but a shorter train wouldn't be.

So if freight railroads run long trains hauling low-budget products, why doesn't Amtrak run very long trains full of passengers, even if most of the cars are filled with passengers who pay low ticket prices?

For example, the Crescent currently has 3 coaches and 2 sleeping cars. Wouldn't the train perform much better financially if Amtrak tacked on maybe 5 more cars, even if the cars are full of high-density seats and customers paying low ticket prices?

So wouldn't Amtrak be better off by buying a bunch of aging NJ Transit Comet cars, tacking them onto its trains, and significantly expanding its ridership per train, even if those additional cars are a budget class of travel, with very low ticket prices?
 

joelkfla

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If I am understanding railroad economics correctly (which may not be the case):

Railroads have huge overhead, such as expenses for tracks, stations, dispatching, equipment and back-office operations. Once those overhead costs are covered, revenues from operating trains quickly turn into profits.

Fuel and power are also large expenses, so maximizing the revenues generated from a dollar spent on fuel/power is a way to earn profits.

Thus freight railroads run long trains, maximizing revenues per train, and maximizing the revenue per dollar spent on fuel, even if the marginal revenue per car on the train isn't that much. E.g., a long train hauling junk for a low price per ton of junk can be profitable, but a shorter train wouldn't be.

So if freight railroads run long trains hauling low-budget products, why doesn't Amtrak run very long trains full of passengers, even if most of the cars are filled with passengers who pay low ticket prices?

For example, the Crescent currently has 3 coaches and 2 sleeping cars. Wouldn't the train perform much better financially if Amtrak tacked on maybe 5 more cars, even if the cars are full of high-density seats and customers paying low ticket prices?

So wouldn't Amtrak be better off by buying a bunch of aging NJ Transit Comet cars, tacking them onto its trains, and significantly expanding its ridership per train, even if those additional cars are a budget class of travel, with very low ticket prices?
At the moment, there's an equipment shortage allegedly due to a shortage of maintenance personnel. Even before that, I don't think Amtrak had a lot of extra equipment lying around.

They also need to get more TA's onboard to handle additional cars.

I think we're all hoping that we'll get longer trains eventually with the addition of the VL II's and the Ventures to the fleet.
 

irv818

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I was amazed at the length of ViaRail's Canadian on a trip a few years ago , and that it was completely full, sold out.
Of course, it is more of a tourist attraction than most US train trips.
Freight trains don't really need anyone to serve champagne, cook or turn down the beds...
 
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If I am understanding railroad economics correctly (which may not be the case):

Railroads have huge overhead, such as expenses for tracks, stations, dispatching, equipment and back-office operations. Once those overhead costs are covered, revenues from operating trains quickly turn into profits.

Fuel and power are also large expenses, so maximizing the revenues generated from a dollar spent on fuel/power is a way to earn profits.

Thus freight railroads run long trains, maximizing revenues per train, and maximizing the revenue per dollar spent on fuel, even if the marginal revenue per car on the train isn't that much. E.g., a long train hauling junk for a low price per ton of junk can be profitable, but a shorter train wouldn't be.

So if freight railroads run long trains hauling low-budget products, why doesn't Amtrak run very long trains full of passengers, even if most of the cars are filled with passengers who pay low ticket prices?

For example, the Crescent currently has 3 coaches and 2 sleeping cars. Wouldn't the train perform much better financially if Amtrak tacked on maybe 5 more cars, even if the cars are full of high-density seats and customers paying low ticket prices?

So wouldn't Amtrak be better off by buying a bunch of aging NJ Transit Comet cars, tacking them onto its trains, and significantly expanding its ridership per train, even if those additional cars are a budget class of travel, with very low ticket prices?

This approach (for Class I’s) has contributed to increasingly lousy service to their customers and (inevitably) dwindling market share. It’s also the #1 cause of Amtrak LD delays - because Class I’s figure Amtrak fits in the hole and none of their mainline trains do.

But it sure has helped their share price - so it must be a spectacular strategy.
 

Willbridge

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If I am understanding railroad economics correctly (which may not be the case):

Railroads have huge overhead, such as expenses for tracks, stations, dispatching, equipment and back-office operations. Once those overhead costs are covered, revenues from operating trains quickly turn into profits.

Fuel and power are also large expenses, so maximizing the revenues generated from a dollar spent on fuel/power is a way to earn profits.

Thus freight railroads run long trains, maximizing revenues per train, and maximizing the revenue per dollar spent on fuel, even if the marginal revenue per car on the train isn't that much. E.g., a long train hauling junk for a low price per ton of junk can be profitable, but a shorter train wouldn't be.

So if freight railroads run long trains hauling low-budget products, why doesn't Amtrak run very long trains full of passengers, even if most of the cars are filled with passengers who pay low ticket prices?

For example, the Crescent currently has 3 coaches and 2 sleeping cars. Wouldn't the train perform much better financially if Amtrak tacked on maybe 5 more cars, even if the cars are full of high-density seats and customers paying low ticket prices?

So wouldn't Amtrak be better off by buying a bunch of aging NJ Transit Comet cars, tacking them onto its trains, and significantly expanding its ridership per train, even if those additional cars are a budget class of travel, with very low ticket prices?
When fares were fixed through regulations, railroads normally kept older equipment or rented cars from the Pullman company. Open section Pullmans could be put into service as coaches, seating four to a section that would normally carry two passengers. Now, with demand-based pricing, fares are raised instead of scrounging for equipment.

Here is a "tramp Pullman" in the mid-1960's -- these were painted bland colors and just lettered "Pullman".
---_0255 (2).jpg

Here is an extra coach for PDX<>SEA service. It began life as a Pullman car and was converted into a day coach for WWII. The NP had enough of these to operate excursions in off-seasons in the 1960's.

31k in Portland.jpg
 

John819

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The key economic consideration is whether your marginal revenue exceeds your marginal cost (assuming you have the equipment to add cars). To improve revenue Amtrak might consider having three classes of service on LD trains: Standard Coach, Business (which would include meals), and Sleeper.
 
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Santa Barbara, CA
There's also the issue of station length. Most passenger train operators prefer each train car to be able to be directly exited at a stop. Having people assemble at the cars within the station, or moving the train to allow later cars to disembark are not ideal. Freight cars have no need for passenger exit.
 

fdaley

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Longer trains absolutely make more sense economically, as the marginal cost of adding cars to a train is low. The problem for Amtrak is it doesn't have enough equipment to do this even in normal times, and now it apparently sidelined a bunch of its cars during the pandemic.

In fact, Amtrak ran much longer trains before the heritage cars were phased out in the early '90s. I can remember seeing the Crescent running with 14-15 cars in that era, compared with the 9-car sets that were standard in the pre-pandemic years, and the Lake Shore used to run with 17-18 cars west of Albany.

So a lot of the constraints on Amtrak's long-distance service are a result of equipment decisions made in the mid-90s. They've adapted to these limits by using revenue-management (read sharply higher fares, especially for sleeper space), but the reality is that they have the capacity to carry many fewer passengers than they had 30 years ago.

That's why I'm hoping a good chunk of the new infrastructure funding will get used for new cars for both short- and long-distance services -- not just to replace existing cars but to expand the fleet. Without that, there won't be much latitude to grow existing services, let alone expand the network.
 

zephyr17

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I was amazed at the length of ViaRail's Canadian on a trip a few years ago , and that it was completely full, sold out.
Of course, it is more of a tourist attraction than most US train trips.
Freight trains don't really need anyone to serve champagne, cook or turn down the beds...
Yeah, but that is a 7 days worth of trains in 2 trains.

And you are correct in that it really does not perform a basic transportation function, which Amtrak trains still do.
 

irv818

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toccoa
Yeah, but that is a 7 days worth of trains in 2 trains.

And you are correct in that it really does not perform a basic transportation function, which Amtrak trains still do.
Erm.. at the time, I believe there were 3 trains per week in each direction.
At least in winter, the Canadian would stop for passengers even in places where there wasn't a station. It's a pretty important basic service in a place where winters can be deadly.
You are correct, many of the passengers during the summer trip were from Europe, so it is definitely a tourist attraction.
 
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zephyr17

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Erm.. at the time, I believe there were 3 trains per week in each direction.
At least in winter, the Canadian would stop for passengers even in places where there wasn't a station. It's a pretty important basic service in a place where winters can be deadly.
You are correct, many of the passengers during the summer trip were from Europe, so it is definitely a tourist attraction.
Well, it was suspended entirely for over a year. It is once a week now. It is twice a week at most in the most remote spots in Northern Ontario.

When you don't run it at all for a year, then only run once a week, I think any argument that it provides a basic transportation function goes right out the window.

Those remote areas had to rely on snowmobiles, boats and ATVs for over a year, because there was no train.

That isn't "basic transportation"
 
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lstone19

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In fact, Amtrak ran much longer trains before the heritage cars were phased out in the early '90s. I can remember seeing the Crescent running with 14-15 cars in that era, compared with the 9-car sets that were standard in the pre-pandemic years, and the Lake Shore used to run with 17-18 cars west of Albany.

Back around 1980, I frequently saw the LSL pass through Sandusky, OH. A typical consist (from my log of a trip on 8/3/81) was NY Bag/Dorm, NY Slumbercoach, 2 NY Sleepers, 4 NY Coaches, NY Lounge, NY Diner, 3 BOS coaches, BOS sleeper, BOS Baggage (15 cars - separate BOS Lounge operated ALB-BOS).

Two years later, on 8/29/83, we had 16 cars but now with the BOS section in front: 2 Baggage, BOS Sleeper, 3 BOS Coaches, BOS Lounge, NY Diner, NY Lounge, 4 NY Coaches, NY Sleeper, NY Slumbercoach, NY Bag/Dorm plus 2 private cars on the rear for a total of 18 cars which from what I remember was the HEP limit. Three years later on 8/25/86, it was the same consist (plus a Material Handling Car up front less the two private cars) for 17 cars CHI-ALB.
 

fdaley

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Back around 1980, I frequently saw the LSL pass through Sandusky, OH. A typical consist (from my log of a trip on 8/3/81) was NY Bag/Dorm, NY Slumbercoach, 2 NY Sleepers, 4 NY Coaches, NY Lounge, NY Diner, 3 BOS coaches, BOS sleeper, BOS Baggage (15 cars - separate BOS Lounge operated ALB-BOS).

Two years later, on 8/29/83, we had 16 cars but now with the BOS section in front: 2 Baggage, BOS Sleeper, 3 BOS Coaches, BOS Lounge, NY Diner, NY Lounge, 4 NY Coaches, NY Sleeper, NY Slumbercoach, NY Bag/Dorm plus 2 private cars on the rear for a total of 18 cars which from what I remember was the HEP limit. Three years later on 8/25/86, it was the same consist (plus a Material Handling Car up front less the two private cars) for 17 cars CHI-ALB.

Yes, these are the kinds of consists I remember seeing on the Lake Shore routinely in that era. Plus there was a brief period in the early '90s when it carried a dome coach as well between ALB and CHI. I think you're right that the limit was 18 cars. Compare that to the eastbound I saw arriving in Albany in early 2020, right before the pandemic: BOS sleeper, lounge/business, 1 BOS coach, 2 NY coaches, diner (sans dining), 2 NYP sleepers, baggage.
 
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Trogdor

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The LD consist reductions really took hold in the mid 1990s when Amtrak retired most of the revenue Heritage fleet with no (or insufficient) replacement.

50 Viewliner sleepers was never enough to replace the hundred-plus Heritage sleepers that were in service before. Attrition of equipment through damage and wrecks has also limited the ability to run full consists.

On top of that, increases in corridor service around the country have redirected some coach cars for that expansion. Once the Siemens cars finally enter proper service in good numbers, that should free up some coach cars for use elsewhere. It is curious that the Viewliner sleeper fleet has grown by 50% yet sleeping car consists on eastern trains have effectively not increased at all.
 

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You are correct, many of the passengers during the summer trip were from Europe, so it is definitely a tourist attraction.
Not according to the CBSA. My friendly border agent informed me that "riding a train" was not a valid reason for entering Canada and that I needed to start telling her "the truth" if I wanted to get in. I had never encountered a border agency that made the CBP look friendly and inviting but the CBSA found a way.
 

Larry H.

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I was amazed at the length of ViaRail's Canadian on a trip a few years ago , and that it was completely full, sold out.
Of course, it is more of a tourist attraction than most US train trips.
Freight trains don't really need anyone to serve champagne, cook or turn down the beds...
Its been a long time ago but we went across Canada on the Canadian National train. We were in the last car which was one of many sleepers and coaches, it was car 22 in the consist. I have some older photos of the Union Pacific City trains combined coming into California. I counted 38 cars which is about the longest I have seen in our nation. Some european trains run with over 30 cars still and seem to be pretty crowded.
 

zephyr17

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Yeah, but that is a 7 days worth of trains in 2 trains.

And you are correct in that it really does not perform a basic transportation function, which Amtrak trains still do.
Not according to the CBSA. My friendly border agent informed me that "riding a train" was not a valid reason for entering Canada and that I needed to start telling her "the truth" if I wanted to get in. I had never encountered a border agency that made the CBP look friendly and inviting but the CBSA found a way.
I just entered on Friday, and the CBSA agent at the Pacific Highway bus crossing appeared not to know there even was a train across Canada, or what VIA was.

Had to show him my tickets.

Agree with you about CBSA. Some of the most disagreeable border agents I have ever encountered anywhere are the CBSA agents on the BC-Washington border.
 

lstone19

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I just entered on Friday, and the CBSA agent at the Pacific Highway bus crossing appeared not to know there even was a train across Canada, or what VIA was.

Had to show him my tickets.

Agree with you about CBSA. Some of the most disagreeable border agents I have ever encountered anywhere are the CBSA agents on the BC-Washington border.

Flip side of it was when I went to Vancouver to ride the Canadian to Toronto in 2019, the CBSA agent asked me what I would be doing in Canada and when I said I was joining a group to "ride the Canadian, the train to Toronto," she merely said "sounds like fun" and sent me on my way.
 

Bob Dylan

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I just entered on Friday, and the CBSA agent at the Pacific Highway bus crossing appeared not to know there even was a train across Canada, or what VIA was.

Had to show him my tickets.

Agree with you about CBSA. Some of the most disagreeable border agents I have ever encountered anywhere are the CBSA agents on the BC-Washington border.
I was on the Maple Leaf one time and when we got to Niagara Falls,ON and the CBSA Agents boarded the Train to check us, ( the procedure was changed to where you take your stuff and go into the VIA Station soon afterward) the agent asked me why I'd want to ride a Train all the way to Vancouver for 4 days and 4 nights when there's nothing to see till you get to the Rockies!🤔🤪
 

John from RI

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New Jersey Transit (NJT) and Southeast Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA) run special low cost trains between New York and Philadelphia. You change trains in Trenton and the next train is on the same track waiting for you. You can buy a through ticket at any station the trains stops at. This is commuter service with commuter seats and it is slower than Amtrak as it makes more stops. It is also a lot cheaper and you can buy your ticket just before you board the train.

Late at night you can see musicians with their instruments riding on the train.
 

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I was on the Maple Leaf one time and when we got to Niagara Falls,ON and the CBSA Agents boarded the Train to check us, ( the procedure was changed to where you take your stuff and go into the VIA Station soon afterward) the agent asked me why I'd want to ride a Train all the way to Vancouver for 4 days and 4 nights when there's nothing to see till you get to the Rockies!
What was your reply? I'm always curious what other people say to invasive border agents. I stuck to my story about the train because it was true and the repeated prodding to change my answer sounded like she was baiting me into an easy disqualification for deceptive behavior. That said, I could not help but wonder if listing something more obvious and generic would get you through faster. When my GE expired I looked at getting Nexus to speed things up, but there was no way to do that back then.
 

George Harris

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finally! Back in Mississippi
New Jersey Transit (NJT) and Southeast Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA) run special low cost trains between New York and Philadelphia. You change trains in Trenton and the next train is on the same track waiting for you. You can buy a through ticket at any station the trains stops at. This is commuter service with commuter seats and it is slower than Amtrak as it makes more stops. It is also a lot cheaper and you can buy your ticket just before you board the train.
They do sell through tickets, but I don't think these are "special." It is just their normal service and used by people that want to avoid Amtrak's much higher fares. The NJT side is much faster and has wider spread stops than the SEPTA side of this service. It is also handy for those that want to go past Philadelphia and find Amtrak saying "sold out" for the train(s) you wanted. Because they are fixed consists, usually a "sold out" Amtrak train will be half full or less south of Philadelphia. Been there done that a couple times in the mid 1990's when traveling between DC and Newark or NYC. You get the NJT/SEPTA ticket from Newark or wherever in NJ and then get on the Amtrak train with an Amtrak ticket in Philly. It does work out to be an hour or more slower both with the commuter train average speed and the layover time in Philly, but it does get you there.

Perhaps this is another thing Amtrak should think about. While I don't think adding/subtracting cars in Philadelphia is reasonable, they should think about blocking out enough seats so that there is space for longer haul passengers. This was common for Pullman space in pre-Amtrak days. You could be told the car was sold out when there were actually spaces held back for other points than your target. If it turned out these were not sold by train time then they became available for passengers to other destinations.
 

Bob Dylan

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What was your reply? I'm always curious what other people say to invasive border agents. I stuck to my story about the train because it was true and the repeated prodding to change my answer sounded like she was baiting me into an easy disqualification for deceptive behavior. That said, I could not help but wonder if listing something more obvious and generic would get you through faster. When my GE expired I looked at getting Nexus to speed things up, but there was no way to do that back then.
I told him ( truthfully) that I was a long time Fan of Passenger Trains and tried to ride them wherever I went while traveling, and that I was looking forward to seeing places I'd not seen before like" the Shield",the Prairies and the Rockies( untruthful!😁😄)

Since I told him I was also visiting relatives in Ottawa and Oakville AZ part of a two week stay in Canada, I had no problem being admitted!
 
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daybeers

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The SEPTA/NJT connection really doesn't work all that well anymore. At the start of the pandemic SEPTA started not timing the connections in Trenton and they haven't remedied that. It's a terrible setup because nobody should be taking a regional or high speed train to go 90 miles. That's purely an intercity express train territory. It's stupid Amtrak capacity gets so used up in that corridor.
 
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The SEPTA/NJT connection really doesn't work all that well anymore. At the start of the pandemic SEPTA started not timing the connections in Trenton and they haven't remedied that. It's a terrible setup because nobody should be taking a regional or high speed train to go 90 miles. That's purely an intercity express train territory. It's stupid Amtrak capacity gets so used up in that corridor.
Ideally they would bring back the clockers that used to run NYC - PHL in the pre Amtrak days but that would require PA and NJ to set aside their parochial attitudes and work for the common good. Not holding my breath.
 
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