By Noel T. Braymer
Daily rail passenger service has been known for years to be financially more productive than less than daily service. Longer routes and better connections are well known to increase ridership and revenue. Trains don’t make money unless there are paying passengers riding the trains.
The history of Amtrak’s Long Distance Trains has largely been one of cutbacks rather than of service expansion. During the Amtrak Presidency of W. Graham Claytor Jr. between 1982-1993, he expanded Long Distance services and ordered new additional equipment which increased revenue production while reducing operating costs. While Claytor was Amtrak President, Amtrak greatly increased Amtrak’s cost recovery which Claytor predicted by 2000 Amtrak would break even. After Claytor retired, his successors cut back Long Distance service and Amtrak’s revenues declined. With the roll out of the Acela in 2000, Amtrak most or less went broke which led to billion dollar bailouts for Amtrak.
So here we go again with Amtrak’s plan to operate 3 trains weekly service starting in October for all its Long Distance Trains. Based on ridership, Amtrak says it will later expand daily service. But some trains might also be terminated. What is missing is the key to increasing ridership. It boils down to passenger miles. That’s a major part of increasing revenues: having people ride trains on longer trips. What is needed to fill up trains or any form of commercial travel are connections to as many markets as possible. A simple example of this is when Amtrak would run express trains between major cities. They skipped the stations in between to go faster between 2 major cities. When doing this, ridership and revenue on these trains would decline and not increase because people couldn’t get to where they wanted to go.
A good example of a productive train is the Empire Builder. It has one if not the longest route of any of Amtrak’s trains. It runs between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest. It also brings in the most revenue of any of Amtrak’s trains. One thing the Empire Builder has, but most Amtrak trains don’t are train sections. The Empire Builder runs between Chicago, Wisconsin, Minnesota and out to Spokane, Washington. At Spokane the Empire splits in 2 with one “section” headed for Seattle, Washington and the other section for Portland, Oregon. The process is reversed in the other direction when the whole train heads east from Spokane to Chicago. Connecting train sections and splitting them has been a very successful for well over 100 years. It is almost like having 2 trains for the price of one. Amtrak also has the Lake Shore limited which runs from New York to Boston or Chicago with train sections joining and splitting at Albany. These section trains generally predate Amtrak. Yet they remain very productive to this day.
In addition to adding more sections to Amtrak trains, what will increase ridership are better connections to other services. This is a major part of the California State Rail Plan. This will create timed connections between services as well as make ticketing seamless. Cell phones are already used for ticketing both for monthly passes as well as day trips. What is included in the State Rail plan is using cellphones to work out a full itinerary for trips with connections. This can include bus and local rail service, hotels, and transfers between Amtrak and regional rail services. All this can be handled with a bar code that can be scanned on a person’s cell phone.