By Noel T. Braymer
Non stop service generally isn’t profitable for transportation. Non-stop flights before 1980 were subsidized in this country with tax deductible airline ticketing. Most air travel was for business before 1980 which the businesses got much of its money back because of business tax deductions. Deregulating airlines forced competition between airlines to get more business. With that came hub and spoke airports for connections to many more markets and more revenue. Since then low fare airlines often with multiple stops between major airports have lead in profitability. Amtrak’s fixation on Acela trains on the Northeast Corridor (NEC) blinds it to connections to many other markets. Most travel on the NEC now is between New York and Philadelphia which is a distance of less than 100 miles. For most of the length of the NEC intercity bus travel serves more market pairs and stations which are convenient for people’s origins and destinations. When Atlantic City opened gambling in the 1980’s, Amtrak thought their rail service to Atlantic City would be profitable. What they didn’t think about was how people would get to the casinos from the train station which was not close with limited pedestrian access. Most visitors to the casinos got bus rides from near their homes to the casinos where people had reservations at a hotel/casino.
Outside of the NEC most regional Amtrak service is subsidized by the states these trains run through. While most of these services serve major cities, they according to Amtrak are not close to operating profitably. Many of these services operate only a few trains a day. Lets compare this to the Amtrak trains in California which the State helps to subsidize. In the North is the Capitol Corridor service which runs most of their trains between Sacramento and San Jose which is 133 miles long. This is more of a commuter service than an intercity service. But to their credit the Capital Corridor Joint Powers Agency runs a very tight operation and has a very high recovery from the fare box and excellent on time performance. The other Amtrak service in Northern California is the San Joaquin Train with 4 trains a day service between Bakersfield and Oakland with 2 trains a day between Bakersfield and Sacramento plus bus connections at Stockton to and from Sacramento. Also a major part of the ridership on the San Joaquin’s are a system of connecting buses to the San Joaquin trains. Major connecting stations on the San Joaquin trains to bus service include Bakersfield, Stockton, Sacramento, Merced, and Emeryville. These buses provide connections to the Los Angeles area, extra connection to Sacramento, travel to San Francisco, Las Vegas, Reno, Yosemite and up to Redding among other towns in the northern most part of California.
The first state subsidized service on Amtrak in this country was the San Diegans which the State started subsidizing in the mid 1970’s. After the State paid to add 3 additional round trips to the exiting 3 between San Diego and Los Angeles ridership on the trains tripled and cost recovery rose. By 2000 the service was renamed the Pacific Surfliner and until last year it had roughly hourly service between San Diego and Los Angeles with 4 round trips between San Diego to Santa Barbara as well 2 round trips between San Luis Obispo and San Diego. Currently in large part due to the Conronavirus 19 outbreak, fewer trains are in service for the time being.
What is in the planning stage now in California is a State Master Rail Plan. Between the 3 Joint Powers Agencies that control the Pacific Surfliner, San Joaquin and Capitol Corridor are efforts to better connect these 3 services together with better connections to other services in the State. Much of the inspiration this master plan is the nation of Switzerland. Switzerland is one of the wealthiest countries in the world on a per capita basis. It also has some of the highest use of public transportation. One of the things done in Switzerland is to run most of their trains on the same schedule at the same time of the hour. This is called a memory schedule because you just need to know what minute of the hour you local train is due. Also in Switzerland rail service is so frequent there are never long waits in most cases for a train.
Included with this at most stations are connecting bus, rail transit, river boats and tourist train services as well as connections to major train stations and airports. The long term plan for California include memory schedules, frequent regular service and connections to other transportation services. We can see some of this in play now with the Peoplemover to LAX now under construction with connecting transfers to the Green and Crenshaw Light Rail Lines .Planning is underway to start shuttle bus connection this year between the Old Town San Diego Transit Center and the terminals at San Diego’s Airport to reduce traffic congestion around the Airport. At Old Town is already rail service to the Surfliners and local “Coaster” trains in San Diego County. Also the Green Line San Diego light rail service to Mission Valley stops there and in a few years the Blue Line Trolley will also stop at Old Town after being extended north to the busy University City/UCSD Campus which is heavily traveled now by bus and gridlocked traffic,
As part of the State Rail Plan is smart phone ticketing. Already using an app on a smart phone is common for many rail and transit services. What the State Rail plan would allow is buying an entire itinerary from your Smart Phone much like ordering airline tickets with hotel and rental car reservation. If you want people out of cars you need economical and convenient services that have advantages over driving a car and with many of the missing connections of current public transportation. The Swiss shows that this can be true which is also seen in many other affluent nations around the world. The reason isn’t because they don’t have a choice. But that they prefer clean, reliable transportation services like rail.
The graphic above is from the current California State Rail Plan which demonstrates what is being planned for California rail service.