By Noel T. Braymer
If the current published plan is correct, Amtrak is planning to connect the Southwest Chief with a one or two car section between La Junta and Pueblo while the rest of the Chief stays on the current route. This will allow service from Pueblo to Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Illinois. But it will miss connections to New Mexico, northern Arizona and Southern California. The combined populations of the states available by Amtrak’s plan is roughly 25 million. But it will miss the population of just Southern California which is almost 23 million and that of New Mexico at 2 million. Clearly a better option would be to connect Pueblo to all of the markets on the Southwest Chief. This can be done by simply rerouting the Southwest Chief to Pueblo.
There may be some concern about taking a “detour” which will slow the running time of the train between Los Angeles and Chicago. But Amtrak is not competing with the airlines for travel between Los Angeles and Chicago. Most of the passengers on Long Distance trains don’t travel from end point to end point. They are traveling between the many stations on the route or making connections to other trains to other destinations. What is missing with the planning for Pueblo service is the realization of what the effect of just adding one station can have to the entire Amtrak network.
The airlines discovered a long time ago that the secret to increasing ridership and revenues is to serve as many places as possible. They do that by using hubs, airports that have connections to other planes to other places. Even the budget airlines that have fewer connections often fly on routes that make many stops. A plane from San Diego to Sacramento can start in Albuquerque and end up in Spokane with a full plane on most of the route with passengers getting on and off at each airport. We see the same thing with the Pacific Surfliner trains that run between San Luis Obispo and San Diego. The one round trip between San Luis Obispo and San Diego usually runs at over 100 percent capacity. In summer this train often has 10 car trainsets compared to the 6 car trainsets of most Surfliner trains. This train also brings in the most revenue with longer distance average trips. LOSSAN is working with Amtrak to add a 12th roundtrip between Los Angeles and San Diego on the Surfliners this October. As part of this service improvement it will create a second round trip between San Diego and San Luis Obispo. The point of this is to increase ridership and revenues for the Surfliners.
The science of how train ridership works was developed in the 1980’s by the late Dr. Adrian Herzog. Working with former RailPAC President Byron Nordberg and Minnesota Rail Passenger Association President Andrew Selden, they worked out plans to expand Long Distance Rail Passenger service in this country which would have a level of ridership and revenue to create a self supporting service which wouldn’t need a subsidy. This was based around connecting and expanding Long Distance Passenger service to serve most of the continental United States. Dr. Herzog called this a Matrix Theory. As a professor of Astronomy and Physics at Cal State Northridge, he was allowed to use the schools’ mainframe computer for research. With this came computer simulations of ridership with different routes and connections on the Long Distance Rail Network. This formed the basis of the proposed service improvements for a self-supporting rail passenger service. Dr Herzog was born in Switzerland. In Europe rail service is generally well connected. But in Switzerland connections are taken to an even greater level. Switzerland has some of the highest levels of rail travel of any county in the world and has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world.
Key to a Matrix Theory plan is to connect as many city pairs as possible to each train. If we look at a hypothetical train route with 4 stations, we get 6 city pairs that round trip tickets can be sold. These would be stations 1&2, 1&3, 1&4, 2&3, 2&4 and 3&4. An easy way to calculate this is to take the number of stations, in this case 4 and multiply it by this number minus 1 which is 3, so 4 times 3. This gives you 12. Then divide by 2 which is 6. So if we add just one more station to the 4 on this route, we get 5 times 4 which is 20, divided by 2 is now 10 city pairs. By just adding one more station to 4 stations you go from 6 markets to 10 markets on this hypothetical route. Now lets see what this means on the Southwest Chief by adding Pueblo to the mix.
Right now the Southwest Chief has 33 stations. That gives it 528 city pairs it serves on its current route. That doesn’t count the connections at Los Angeles or Chicago with other trains. So what happens if you add just one station to the the Southwest Chief? You create 33 new city pairs for the whole route. For the city of Pueblo that would mean it has 561 markets it can have for people to go to or come from. So what happens if Pueblo gets a stub train that connects it at La Junta to/from Chicago. For Pueblo, that gives it 16 stations between it and Chicago on the present route. That gives Pueblo only 120 city pair markets instead of 561 if the entire Chief train were rerouted to Pueblo. Rerouting the train instead of running an additional section also saves on an extra crew and locomotive to shuttle a few cars back and forth between Pueblo and La Junta.
Should the Chief be split into 2 train sections in Colorado? There are problems with available equipment which Amtrak is short of for Long Distance services. But in an ideal world a new section of the Chief should be run from Pueblo to Denver. Most of the population of Colorado lives near the I-25 freeway running north and south between Pueblo, Colorado Springs and Denver. This section from Pueblo would give direct service from Southern California to the Denver Metro area. But the real prize would be connections to the California Zephyr. The Zephyr has 35 stations which gives it 595 city pair markets it serves. It the trains were scheduled so there were connections in both directions for both trains there would be a major increase in the markets served by both trains. These connections would be much like hub connections at an airport, so wait times would be in the range of a few hours. But by adding stations here and there which Amtrak has been doing lately, and adding sections which connect to trains like the California Zephyr and Southwest Chief, we can increase rail ridership and get improved utilization of rail passenger service in this Country.