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Airline Mismanagement

It is fashionable to disparage rail travel in general, and Amtrak in particular.

Such sentiments are unfair and incorrect.

Passenger rail has as much relevance to our future wellbeing at the start of the 21th century as it did, in changed circumstances, at the start of the 20th century.

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We need to re-invigorate our national rail system

Excerpts from a speech given to the Austin Business Travel Association, 9 March, 2004

One of the new Amtrak Cascades Talgo tilting trains, set in beautiful scenery in the Pacific Northwest.

The trains make travel a pleasant, relaxing, comfortable and convenient experience.



Now that air travel is strongly recovering from the post 9/11 doldrums, flight delays, airport congestion, and security hassles are all multiplying once more.

The increasing inconvenience of air travel and its inability to cope with future passenger growth all mean America needs to review its travel priorities and invest heavily in rail.

Amtrak's chronic unprofitability is not its own fault

Railroads are like airlines.  They have very high fixed costs, but very low variable operating costs.  The cost of transporting one extra passenger is very low indeed, but the cost of maintaining carriages, locomotives, track and signaling is all very high.

The recipe for profit involves a railroad operating many train services, so as to spread these high costs over as many passengers as possible.

Reducing services rarely solves a loss making situation.  It just reduces the business base and makes it even more difficult for the remaining services to carry the unchanged very high fixed costs.

Unfortunately, almost without exception, for every year since Amtrak's founding in 1970, the organization has struggled with losing money and inadequate funding from Congress.  Amtrak has been trapped in a vicious death spiral - it lacks the money to update its services, and so suffers less ridership, which means less Congressional support, less funding, more neglect, more cutbacks, and so on.

Amtrak compared to other railroads

In Europe, over 90% of train routes operate more than five trains a day.  Many operate ten or twenty trains.

Frequent services mean that the costs of staffing stations, and of maintaining the trains and track are all spread over many passengers.

But in the US, only 5% of Amtrak's routes offer five trains a day.  75% of the Amtrak network supports only one single train a day.

It is impossible for any railroad to trade profitably with such a thin level of service.

Amtrak can't easily grow

Amtrak has a shortage of carriages at present.  Compared to operating normal standards elsewhere in the world, Amtrak has only one tenth as many coaches per mile of track.  Adding extra services is difficult when there are insufficient carriages.

Amtrak's recipe for success

Amtrak needs to orient itself to provide three different types of services.

Local Commuter

In some limited cases, where Amtrak has appropriate routes, it could and should provide local commuter type services.

In these cases, Amtrak would be providing an alternate to cars and buses, and would be carrying daily commuters short distances between home and work.  It would not need high speed trains because these services typically stop and start regularly on their routes.

Intercity High Speed Rail

Amtrak needs to identify high density 'rail corridors' where relatively large population centers lie within about 400 miles of each other.  Even better are rail triangles or circles, where three or more cities can be brought into a large loop.

  • Boston/New York/DC is an example of a corridor.

  • Dallas/Houston/San Antonio/Austin/Fort Worth/Dallas is an example of a loop.

Plenty of other examples can be found.

In these situations, Amtrak needs to upgrade the track and trains so that it can provide European style high speed passenger trains operating very regularly, sometimes even every 30 minutes, similar to air shuttles.  These trains would travel at speeds typically between 150 - 200 mph, and would average speeds (including stops and slowdowns) of 100 - 150 mph.

A 400 mile journey reduces down to little more than two hours - comparable to the time it takes to fly (after allowing for checkin time, security screening, baggage claim, flight delays, travel time time and from airports, etc).

High speed rail would provide an alternative to short haul air travel and/or to driving oneself.

A variation on the simple passenger only train concept would be to add special wagons to the train into which people could drive their cars.  This hybrid train, carrying both passengers and their cars, would provide the ultimate flexibility for many people.

The train would carry them the long distance comfortably, conveniently, quickly and safely.  They would use their car to travel to the train's starting point, and then to travel from the end of the train route to their final destination, use their own car for travel while at the destination, then drive it back to the train for the journey home again.

Long Distance Rail

Instead of competing with the Greyhound bus type demographic, it should re-orient itself as providing middle and upper market 'tourist train' experiences.

Examples of the success of this strategy can be seen in Australia.  Australia is similar in size to the US, and its main rail network is similarly slow speed rather than high speed.  But its tourist trains such as the Indian Pacific (which travels 2720 miles from west to east coast between Sydney and Perth on a three night journey) and the Ghan (from north to south, 1860 miles between Adelaide and Darwin) are both popular and profitable with locals and tourists alike.

Long distance rail would seldom compete against air travel, for the same reason that these days, trans-Atlantic passenger ships don't compete against jet planes.  It would, instead, provide a relaxing and different type of travel experience for people with time on their hands and who wished to enjoy the journey as much as the destination.

Other types of rail transportation

Amtrak needs to focus on providing high speed and high frequency service in the high population density corridors.  But other types of rail services can also be considered - for example, providing overnight trains on medium distance routes would offer a way for passengers to board a train in one city in the evening, travel while they slept, and arrive refreshed and ready the next morning at their destination.

Funding Amtrak's Growth

During Amtrak's 34 years, it has consumed more than $25 billion of public funding.  The irony is that if this money was given to Amtrak up front, enabling Amtrak to create a world class rail network, then the organization might well now be significantly profitable, and carrying vastly greater numbers of passengers than it currently is.  But, instead, dribbling this money out to Amtrak, year by year, and each year giving Amtrak less money than it needs to grow and build a truly successful rail network, there is nothing to show for the $25 billion to date.

Amtrak's lack of success to date should surprise no-one.  It was formed out of the loss-making remains of several different passenger rail services, and has always been in need of revolutionary transformation to progress from a marginal loss-making service to a popular key part of our nation's transportation infrastructure.

While our Congress struggles to find as little as $1 billion a year for Amtrak - an inadequate amount that just causes Amtrak to continue gradually decaying and shrinking, other countries have no such problem funding their rail networks.

Britain - a country that already has an extensive rail network, and a country with five times fewer people - has no problem funding its rail network with a $15 billion upgrade program, backed up with an undertaking to grow that funding up to as much as $45 billion if needed.

On a per capita basis, this would suggest spending $225 billion on Amtrak upgrades and improvements.  In sad reality, for the upcoming fiscal year, the government is proposing to give Amtrak a mere $10 million (yes, million, not billion) for development of high speed rail.

Australia - a country with a rail network very similar to the US - has just added an extra 1000 miles of track.

The hidden cost of not developing our national rail system

California is considering a high speed rail operation that would cost $37 billion to develop.  This will reduce the travel time between Los Angeles and San Francisco to a mere 2 hours.

While this is a huge amount of money, studies suggest that, if the high speed rail is not developed, it will cost the state $87 billion to build new freeways and airports.

Amtrak's rejuvenation is definitely costly.  But, based on this Californian study, the costs of not reviving Amtrak may be much greater.

A revived Amtrak benefits everyone, including people that don't and never will use Amtrak.  Amtrak will take the pressure off our national highway system, and will similarly reduce the rapidly returning congestion in our skies.

Good rail service brings more than financial benefits

For any traveler, air travel has become a form of cruel and unusual punishment.  No-one flies for fun any more.

For the business traveler, a plane journey is an unproductive costly waste of time.  Few people can work on a plane, even in first class, with cramped seats allowing little space to spread papers out or to work on a laptop.  Worse still, bans on using cell phones mean that the busy executive is not only unable to work, but he is also incommunicado for the duration of the flight.  Even the very costly seatback phones that used to be available on some planes have now been largely removed.

In contrast, rail seating is much more spacious with plenty of room for working or for relaxing.  And there are no restrictions on cell phone usage, and all electronic devices can be used at any time of the journey.

From a health and comfort perspective, travelers can get up, walk around, and need not fear 'economy class syndrome' - DVT - that comes from being forced to sit in an unergonomic airline seat for too long.  There is plenty of fresh air, and plenty of lovely views out the windows, and passengers never have to fasten their seat belts or worry about turbulence.

Rail travel is very energy-efficient.  It is the most effective form of mass transportation available, using vastly less energy resource per person than cars, planes or buses.

Disrupting rail travel has less appeal to a terrorist than disrupting air travel or commuter travel.  Being restricted to its track, there is little danger of a terrorist choosing to hijack a train, and even if they did, there is no way they could then crash the train into a tall building.

The bombing atrocities in Madrid in March 04 were the result of ten separate bombs on four different commuter trains - high density trains with people crowded into a confined space.  Long distance trains are not so people-intensive, and so have less attraction as a terrorism target.

Rail - a return to a new golden era of travel

This great nation owes much of its early development to the spread of the railroads.  Railroads united this nation when it was young.

Now that we are past our adolescence, it is time for us to return to the railroads that made us great.  Latest generation trains can help us solve the new transportation, social, and economic challenges of the 21st century.

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Originally published 11 Mar 2004, last update 20 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.





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