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By Andrew Selden

Some critics of long distance trains look at the route map and say, “Who would ride a train from Chicago to Los Angeles? We should get rid of this.” That is like asking, “Who would drive I-94 from Detroit to Seattle? We should tear up that useless Interstate.”

As with the interstates, the secret is the intermediate markets that the train links. Just as a 2,000-mile Interstate freeway links as many origin/destination (“O/D”) opportunities as there are on- and off-ramps, so a long distance train connects as many O/D pairs as there are stops on the line, plus connecting opportunities along the way and at the endpoints.

For the Empire Builder, for example, the route’s 41 stops between Chicago and Seattle (set aside for the moment the Portland Section) represent a potential of 1,640 O/D pairs just within the route, plus a vastly greater number through connections at the endpoints and at Spokane (for Oregon and California).

On the Empire Builder, for example, the average trip exceeds 800 miles, some are much longer, and some shorter. The average trip spans about 14 hours. St. Paul to Seattle is about 38 hours. On average, every seat and berth turns over about 2½ times on every trip. This is how the train (like ALL long distance trains) generates its enormous productivity: long routes with many intermediate stations, and turnover.

We recently saw a sleeping car manifest for one trip of the through sleeper that is connected from the Texas Eagle to the Sunset Limited at San Antonio three days a week. It was instructive on the character of the traffic that uses the train for longer distance travel. We acknowledge that sleeping car passengers skew towards longer trips (why pay Amtrak’s astronomical sleeping car prices for a shorter trip?). Even so, on this eastbound trip, in February of 2015, no one rode all the way through Los Angeles-Chicago on this car (no surprise), yet the car remained sold-out, with passengers on these trips:

Los Angeles to Dallas, Tucson, Maricopa, Austin, Little Rock.
Little Rock, Texarkana, Temple, Maricopa, and St. Louis to Chicago.
Tucson to Ft. Worth, Chicago, Joliet, and San Antonio.
El Paso to St. Louis, San Antonio, and San Marcos.
San Antonio to Dallas.
Dallas to St. Louis and Chicago.
Austin to St. Louis.
Palm Springs to Mineola.
Lordsburg and San Marcos to San Antonio.
Longview to Springfield.

Note that many or even most of these O/D pairs have daily direct air service, usually with several flights a day. Note, too, that this one Superliner sleeper was essentially sold-out over its entire itinerary, and that Amtrak probably turned away as many potential passengers as it carried on this one off-season trip. Ponder how much revenue Amtrak lost by not having a second sleeping car on this train, or by not running this service daily. These are strategic lost opportunities, invisible to the brick-headed people who snipe at Amtrak long distance service, even those inside Amtrak management who still don’t get what these opportunities represent.

It is possible even that a few of these travelers were the briefcase-toting business travelers who make up so much of the traffic at the airports, in addition to the Seniors, students, tourists and rail-preferring customers who used this train, and paid fares that far exceeded the cost of coach air fares to do it.

This pattern prevails throughout the long distance network. It explains why the California Zephyr is full just about every departure between Chicago and Denver, a market in which there are dozens of daily non-stop commercial flights. It explains why sleeping car fares from Minnesota to the west coast are often in the range of $1,000 or more, three times what Delta will sell you a ticket for. By not running more Superliner sleepers on existing trains, and on more routes and better interconnecting them, Amtrak is leaving tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars of forfeited revenue on the table, every year.

We know from Amtrak itself that these trains are already making money – they are not receiving ANY of Amtrak’s lavish federal subsidies – so adding cars to gather still more revenues won’t cost the taxpayer anything. So why is it that Amtrak’s strategic plan calls for more money-losing high speed trains in the Northeast, but absolutely nothing for the western long distance services? Joe Boardman really is the worst businessman in the country.