By Noel T. Braymer
Why and when people travel is not a one size fits all situation. Much of the thinking on transportation planning is centered on commuter travel during “rush hours”. But the fact is commuting is only a small percentage of the travel market. People want or need to travel to different places, at different times and for different reasons. Sometimes people travel for work. Other times people travel to go to school or to visit family and friends. People travel to shop, or for personal business. But most people travel sometimes for the sake of getting away and having fun. Often the trip is more important than the destination. If we look at the local Amtrak trains in California, they are busiest on the weekends, over holiday seasons and in the summer. The Pacific Surfliners busiest months are July and August. This is during the Del Mar Track Horse Racing season, Comic-Con and summer vacation time. Successful travel services need to accomodate as many different travel markets as possible to be successful. Failure to serve multiple travel markets is a major reason ridership is often low when they could be filled serving unserved travel markets with modest service expansion .
The most basic question a traveler asks is can I get to where I want to go, when I want to go and get back when I want to ? This is a major obstacle for people taking the train: often trains don’t travel when people want to travel or return when they need to. This is a major issue when trains in some cases only run 3 day a week in this country. Frequent rail service is more convenient and usually increases ridership. As extra trains were added on the Pacific Surfliner route as well as the Capitol Corridor and the San Joaquin trains ridership went up. The opposite happens often when rail service is cut. As rail ridership declined after World War II, several railroads tried to save money by running fewer trains, cutting the least used trains late at night. The problem was that ridership dropped more than for those trains there were cut. A factor in people riding the train it was discovered is even if a person never rides the last train of the night, knowing there was a late night train meant they wouldn’t be stranded all night if they missed their train home.
Even if you live near a train station doesn’t mean that you can go from there to where you want to go. One old fashion solution to solve this problem is to run trains as sections. This is like getting two trains for the price of one. An example of this is the Lake Shore Limited.The Lake Shore leaves Chicago going east to Albany. At Albany the train is split into 2 sections, with one heading to Boston and the other to New York City. This is much cheaper than running two separate trains from both East Coast terminals to Chicago. The Empire Builder from Chicago runs through North Dakota to Spokane Washington. From there one half of the train heads to Seattle, Washington and the other to Portland, Oregon. The Empire Building usually has the highest ridership and produces the most revenues of the Long Distance trains.
Getting to one’s final destination is critical as well. Just because you can get on a train doesn’t mean you can get to your final destination. It isn’t possible to run trains everywhere. This is where feeder buses come into play. Good transit connections are also important at train stations. Having dedicated bus service connecting to trains also works. In California all the intra-California Amtrak trains have connections to buses. On the Pacific Surfliner trains there is bus service north of Los Angeles which connect to Los Angeles-San Diego trains to allow more service for passengers. The San Joaquin trains depends for roughly half of its ridership from bus connections. This includes bus service shared with Capitol Corridor trains from Emeryville to downtown San Francisco as well as connections between Southern California and to Sacramento from Stockton. At Sacramento is a major bus hub for Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin train passengers to inland Northern California, High Sierra and Reno. Dedicated train/bus service also works with regional transportation service. GO Transit is the Regional Rail service for the Toronto Metro area in Ontario, Canada. Bus are run as stand alone services as well as connectors to trains from places without rail service. Buses also serve rail lines stations to add more frequent service when demand is not high enough to justify full rail service.
Just as important as having good connections at train stations for ridership, is the need to make train stations a destination. This includes commercial development at and around the stations. Around the world trains stations often have shops, restaurants, movie theaters and nearby office buildings which feeds ridership. When train service is increased at a station, commercial developments soon follows. A good example of the need for easy access at train stations to places is the failure of rail service to Atlantic City. In the late 70’s early 80’s with major casinos being built to make Atlantic City the East Coast Las Vegas, there were plans by Amtrak and New Jersey Transit to cash in. Both services gambled a good deal of money to run service to Atlantic City. It was a flop. The problem was the casinos were literally on the other side of the freeway from the train station. There were no plans to get people to the casinos or arrangements with the casinos to market a joint travel/ lodging package. Passengers had to walk a good distance or get a cab to get to a casino. The way most people got to Atlantic City at this time was to take a charter bus which picked them up near their home and dropped them of at the hotel/casino they had reservations. This was faster and more convenient than taking the train to Atlantic City.
For many travelers, the journey is more important than the destination. On a long distance train there is often spectacular scenery and a view of the country you can’t get from the sameness seen from the freeway. Another pleasure for many passengers on long distance trains is meeting and talking with other passengers from all over the country and even around the world. On a long distance train, people often meet and talk eating at the diner where you are often guaranteed a dining partner due to limited seating or in the lounge car. Traveling by sleeper car is more expensive in most cases than flying. Yet people are willing to pay more to ride across the country in a sleeper. They expect for their money to have a pleasant travel adventure seeing things and meeting people they can’t do in a car or plane. Sleeping car passengers are looking for good service for the extra money they are paying. Unlike cruise ships, trains can’t offer shows or gambling. Historically passenger trains did offer excellent food and a high level of personal service to attract passengers and to give the railroads a good public image. If sleeping car passengers wanted a cheap trip they would have packed their own food and taken the bus.