By Noel T. Braymer
It appears that current Amtrak President Richard Anderson came to Amtrak with a vision to create high density rail corridors between major cities in this country. One might call this his glide path to Amtrak’s profitability. Much of this vision was expressed in an interview a year ago with Anderson by Maria Saporta published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Here are some quotes from that interview. “Seventy years ago, we were dispersed across a very wide rural geography. If you look at the last census and the trends of the last three or four census, people are moving to urban areas and urban corridors in greater and greater numbers. And those corridors are not going to get more freeways, and we are not going to add more runways at our airports in congested cities. So rail transportation, in the short haul, is going to become increasingly important.” “If you think about it, look at Atlanta-Charlotte.You should run the trains as fast as you can and do it a couple of times a day on a nonstop basis. That’s really how we have to evolve.” So what could go wrong?
What Anderson is going after is the same market which the Florida based Brightline Rail service is providing, first between Miami and Palm Beach, then to Orlando and finally Tampa and likely Jacksonville. Brightline is doing this with private financing as a for profit venture. But Brightline’s primary source of profits won’t come from carrying passengers. Instead it will come from land development built around the new and future Brightline stations. This new service will be faster than most rail passenger service in this county at a top speed of 125 miles per hour. This is short of what is considered High Speed Rail, which now is usually speeds up to and over 150 miles per hour. Brightline has recently announced that it is buying the concession from XpressWest to build and run fast rail passenger service out of Las Vegas. XpressWest was planning to build an electrified, 150 mile per hour High Speed Rail service . Brightline will use much of the planning by XpressWest for a High Speed Rail service mostly on I-15 between Las Vegas and Victorville with construction beginning next year and service by 2022. Los Angeles and San Bernardino Counties will be building a new highway between Victorville and Palmdale. This highway will include a right of way for High Speed Rail service. It is likely that Brightline will take advantage of this work which could bring rail passenger service between Las Vegas and Palmdale.
The question is what type of service will Brightline run to Las Vegas? It would make sense for it to use the same Brightline equipment (125 mile an hour diesel locomotives and fast conventional passenger cars) on this service that they also use now in Florida. Current projection call for 2 hour travel times on the 185 miles between Las Vegas and Victorville at up to 120 miles per hour. Brightline would save quite a bit of money building a new railroad without electrification and it could get it in service sooner. Additional stations also will bring in more places to make money developing the land around the stations. The money made carrying passengers will be a bonus. With cleaner diesel and or diesel hybrid battery locomotives, Brightline rail service could provide a clean, fast passenger service at a lower start up cost than the High Speed Rail service originally planned for Las Vegas. With diesel locomotives Brightline service could be extended day one from Palmdale to Los Angeles.
But let’s next look at what I consider the most successful rail corridor passenger service in this country: the Pacific Surfliners. Much of the success for the Surfliners goes back to the efforts and planning for it by State and local agencies. After the State paid to add 4 addition round trips for a total of 7 rounds trips between 1976 to 1980, ridership went to over a million passengers annually between Los Angeles and San Diego by 1980. Compare this to just over 300,000 in 1975 with 3 round trips. This gives a glimpse of the effect added frequencies have on ridership. After years of court battles with the Southern Pacific Railroad, around 1988 the then called San Diegan trains were given permission to extend one round trip between San Diego and Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. Just this one new service change made a noticeable jump in the cost recovery for the San Diegan service. Why was that? First, extending service increases the average passenger miles a rail service can carry. That means more money since most tickets are priced based on distance. Also by adding more stations on a route, this opens new travel markets for passenger trains. Basically the more markets a service can offer, the more business it is likely to attract. This is at the heart of why airlines use hub and spoke airports. The airlines rarely fly non-stop fights without connections to other flights at the airports they go to or from.
Let’s look at how many markets a non stop service has. I’ll call them A and B. You can travel non stop from points A to B and from B to A: that’s 2 markets. What happens if we add a third station? This would be A,B and C. That gives A to B, B to A, A to C,C to A, B to C and C to B. In other words, by adding a third station on a route we go from 2 market pairs to 6 which triples the numbers of market pairs. So what happens if we add a 4th station on this service. We then would have 12 markets pairs. Two additional stations gives 6 times the number of market pairs as a non stop service. This explains why every time Amtrak has skipped stations to reduce running times on a route, ridership always goes down because the trips bypasses passengers at these skipped stations. What is also important to ridership is adding connections to trains. The San Joaquin trains get nearly half of its ridership from connecting Thruway Bus service. The Surfliners feeds many passengers in Los Angeles to the Coast Starlight, Southwest Chief and the Sunset Limited trains. Amtrak’s revenues would greatly improve if it expanded its long distance services with more connections to more regional services. A prime example of this the long proposed extension of the Heartland Flyer from Oklahoma City to Newton, Kansas. This would create connections with the Heartland Flyer to the Southwest Chief in both directions. Instead under Richard Anderson, Amtrak was planning to replace rail service at Newton with a bus between Albuquerque and Dodge City. Running new rail corridor services without connections to multiple markets and skipping viable markets on a route is a recipe for failure.
Of course adding frequencies, extending routes and building new connections between trains can all work on Amtrak as part of a National System to increase ridership and reduce its deficient. This would also greatly increase support for Amtrak service across the County. Unfortunately the vision of Mr. Anderson is based on “So rail transportation, in the short haul, is going to become increasingly important.” “If you think about it, look at Atlanta-Charlotte. You should run the trains as fast as you can and do it a couple of times a day on a nonstop basis. That’s really how we have to evolve.” This reflects what is typically called “flyover states mentality”. This is the attitude of many people who fly often that people who don’t live near a coast don’t matter. Of course the problem, at least for Amtrak is the number of Senators from these “Flyover States” can out vote the Senators from the coasts. If we want a model of good rail passenger service, Switzerland is the place to look. At most train stations in Switzerland, trains usually stop at the same time on the hour all day long, 7 days a week. These trains have connections to other trains, airports, ferries, cog railroads, river boats, buses and local transit at major cities. The Swiss have one of if not the highest usage per capital of rail passenger service of any county in the world. The Swiss love their rail service because it’s very good, and it is used by all levels of Swiss society. If you want to get political support for anything, including improved rail passenger service: you have to make more friends than enemies.
As for the future of corridors much can be done by improving what Amtrak has. Case in point is the Midwest. Chicago is a natural hub for transfers to travel across the Midwest. This also includes services which should run through Chicago and not as now with all trains terminating there. It looks like the States with local Amtrak service in the Mid-West are talking to each other to create a Mid-West rail system instead of keeping a collection of short rail lines. This is not to say this will be easy. The State of Illinois has recently stopped plans to add an additional round trip between Chicago and Milwaukee. This is in response to objections by homeowners near the tracks opposing more trains and construction of a new siding on this route for freight service. This is typical of the problems of trying to build anything when it come to rail service or much of anything else.
Amtrak would do itself a favor to turn its properties into sources of income, instead of a major overhead cost. But Amtrak should have started this over 30 years ago. So far they haven’t had much luck increasing their income at their properties with redevelopment projects. Airports and railroad stations around the world do everything they can to increase their income. But the real money in rail passenger service has always been in the land development it stimulates. Brightline understands that very well. Despite the partisan opposition to the California High Speed Rail Project, the main value for it is the economic growth it will create. The California High Speed Rail Project is a Public, Private, Partnership. That means that the private sector is expected to be involved mostly in the development around the stations as well as supplying construction of tracks and rail equipment. Development will produce income for the project and the State. For the cities of the San Joaquin Valley, High Speed Rail is a form of long overdue urban redevelopment. The High Speed Trains will likely operate at a profit which they are expected to do. Will High Speed Rail operation pay back all the costs for constructing it? Do any freeways pay for themselves? Except for tolls, roads don’t earn revenue. But transportation is central to economic activity. This is soon discovered in any disaster which shuts down most or all transportation.