Thursday, October 11, 2012

Amtrak ridership update

People have been talking about the gross numbers of Amtrak carrying more riders than at any time since its founding in 1972. I have a couple of thoughts on this.

First, we now need a new benchmark to measure Amtrak ridership by. It's tricky, because Amtrak didn't take over all the passenger trains in the country. Commuter services were often retained by the railroads, eventually being taken over by state-run agencies or authorities like Metro-North, New Jersey Transit, Metra, the MBTA and Caltrain. When they are reinstated, they are often controlled by state agencies or authorities like Sound Transit, Valley Metro or Denver's RTD.

We could compare Amtrak ridership with pre-Amtrak ridership on all non-commuter trains, but now Amtrak runs some routes that primarily serve commuters (the trains to Lynchburg and Newport News in Virginia, for example), and some current non-commuter routes are run by other organizations, such as the LIRR's Montauk service, the Alaska Railroad and the Grand Canyon Railway. So it would be nice to see the ridership on all pre-Amtrak long-distance trains compared to all Amtrak long-distance trains, for example.

My second point is that there are some very interesting specifics in the data, particularly on Pages C-1 and C-2 of the July Monthly Performance Report (PDF). Last July, there were only four services that ran an operating surplus from January to July: the Acela and Northeast Regional, the Lynchburg service and the "Non NEC Special Trains," whatever they are.

This year all four of those are making a larger operating surplus, and so are the "NEC Special Trains," the Washington-Newport News service ($3 million surplus), the Pere Marquette (Grand Rapids to Chicago, $100,000) and the Carolinian (Raleigh to Charlotte, $700,000).

Even more interesting, many of the "state sponsored trains" are close to breaking even. The Ethan Allen Express has a year-to-date loss of less than $100,000. The Piedmont, which goes from Washington to Charlotte, has a year-to-date loss of $300,000. Kansas City-Saint Louis service is down $1.4 million. All three of them earn a significant chunk of their revenue in the fall, presumably from leaf-peepers and skiers, and all three will probably run a net surplus for this year.

The following trains all have year-to-date operating losses of less than three million dollars: the Adirondack ($2 million), the Heartland Flyer (Fort Worth to Oklahoma City, $2.2 million), the Maple Leaf ($2.3 million), the Illinois Zephyr (Chicago to Quincy, $2.4 million), the Downeaster ($2.5 million), the Vermonter and the Hiawathas ($2.6 million), and the Blue Water (Chicago to Port Huron, $2.8 million). Of those trains, only the Blue Water had an annual operating loss over a million dollars in 2011. Most of them will probably make a slight operating profit this year.

The question then is what to do with these services. I don't know the details of Amtrak's agreements with the states. It may make sense for the states to shift their contribution from operating to capital and buy more rolling stock. If we get a congress that wants to invest in Amtrak, it may buy the rolling stock, leaving the states with money to invest in new routes.

The most profitable routes, like Washington-Lynchburg, may be of interest to private companies. What makes the most sense would be for the host railroad, in this case Norfolk Southern, to take it back and maybe extend it to Danville and Greensboro. In any case, it's good news.


Paul Druce said...

One note: Amtrak counts state subsidies as revenue, you have to backtrack a bit and go off of ticket revenue in order to see what the real loss is (though that ignores F&B revenue, but that's not a terribly large portion).

Cap'n Transit said...

Seriously, Paul? Well, that's nuts, and it throws out the whole thing. Do you know offhand where to find ticket revenue?

Paul Druce said...

Page A-3.5

Woody said...

The Repubs loved to hate the Stimulus program. And HSR fans loved to hate the fact that the $10 billion or so in Stimulus funds for passenger rail were spread over almost every Amtrak route, instead of all going to a few true HSR lines.

In fact, several of the Amtrak trains you cite will benefit from Stimulus-funded upgrades.

The Chicago-bound Michigan services -- chiefly the three Wolverine trains Pontiac-Detroit-Dearborn-Ann Arbor-Kalamazoo, but also the Blue Water Port Huron-Flint-Lansing-Kalamazoo -- will begin showing much better results this fiscal year. Upgrades to the tracks amounting to well over $300 million will slice time off the schedules. The improved service will attract more passengers and allow fare increases. These routes will then see passenger totals approaching a million a year as they rapidly move toward break-even or better.

The Vermonter will have a trip time 27 minutes faster with the coming winter timetable, thanks to Stimulus-paid upgrades to the tracks in Vermont. Work is underway in Massachusetts that will cut another half hour from the running time. Going to that second home near Burlington, you will arrive around 7:45 instead of 8:45 pm. Well worth it.

The Ethan Alan, the Adirondack, the Maple Leaf, the Empire Corridor trains NYC-Albany-Syracuse-Rochester-Buffalo-Niagara Falls, as well as the long distance Lake Shore Limited will all soon benefit from upgrades underway -- especially double-tracking a stretch between Albany and Schenectady.

More public investment could shave travel times, markedly increase ridership, and move a few of Amtrak's more successful routes toward operating surpluses.

But I wonder why anyone outside the Ayn Rand cult thinks that those successes and those surpluses should be privatized, while Amtrak's loser routes remain a public responsibility.

Woody said...

Capn, if you redo this item to use ticket revenue and exclude the current state subsidies, OK.

But usually these state payments are small; the total from Pennsylvania is less than $20 million for trains carrying well over a million a year; Illinois may be twice that.

Virginia had budgeted to cover a loss on the new "Lynchburger" train, simply an extended Regional D.C.-Charlottesville-Lynchburg (are you sure that's mostly commuters). But when it turned out so successful, they shifted the funds to cover a new service Norfolk-Richmond-D.C. to start in December. But it's not much money, $20 million tops.

In any case, state subsidies in or out, your larger point stands, as I took it: Amtrak is not hopeless, and where service improves a bit, ridership improves a lot.

But with all due respect, if you revise this post, note some garbles:

The Carolinian runs NYC-D.C.-Richmond-Raleigh-Charlotte.

The Piedmont is Raleigh-Greensboro-Charlotte.

The Piedmont used to shuttle twice a day, then about a year ago another departure was added, making three trains a day each way. So the Piedmont became another example where adding more trains attracts more riders from the great pool of pent-up demand.

In Missouri, the state kicked in some money, as did Union Pacific, topped off with some Stimulus, to double track some miles, add passing lanes, put in one or two new wider bridges, etc. The on-time figures had been a disgrace, with more than 1 of 3 trains late, but nowadays the St Louis-Kansas City trains run better than the national average (which is up to 82 or 84% or so). This is another example where modest capital improvements can pay off with substantial ridership increases.

Most of these routes would really pop if they had more daily trains. But Amtrak has no extra coaches or locomotives. None. (Not even enuff to add a daily Cardinal where the train runs only three days a week, thereby maximizing its own costs and its customers' inconvenience.)

So even states eager to subsidize more trains get turned away.

Amtrak has proposed a fleet order of 200 railcars for six years, God and Congress willing. But those would be replacements and it really would need even more to meet demand from subsidy-ready states and the millions of potential passengers.

Woody said...

Not to monopolise the comments

The subject of state subsidies is bubbling right now because of PRIIA, the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, if I got that right. It was passed by a Democratic Congress in 2008, the last months of Bush's term. (It actually had some bipartisan features; not saying that's a good thing.)

One section kicks in next year, attempting to level the playing field among the states. PRIIA divided Amtrak's routes into the corridor trains of less than 750 miles iirc, and the long distance. The plan is to make the states pay for the shorter routes. The l.d. trains crossing many state lines with their sleepers and diners would be Amtrak's 'national' responsibility.

The devil in that neatness is that Amtrak has been running a number of corridor routes like forever, notably NYC-Buffalo, Chicago-Detroit, a few others, and either eating the losses or at best sharing losses with the states. But in the next fiscal year, Amtrak is supposed to eat no more losses on these routes, so the states must pay up. Hear the squeals?

Some states, Illinois and Michigan for example, saw this thing coming. They grabbed their chance with Stimulus money to invest to improve the medium distance routes within their states. With the resulting revenue growth, they could cut the operating losses and escape large increases in the subsidies.

Others like NYS slept through it, failing in the first round to put in winning bids for any big "shovel-ready" projects.

In California, the Governator choose to go for broke of CAHSR and asked for no money to improve the three regular-rail corridors in that state (probably the right call).

Not sure what happened in Pennsylvania, which had gotten a fat share of Amtrak's meagre capital budget for the Keystone route in recent years, but in the Stimulus frenzy they lost out big time.

Of course, many political leaders assumed that more funds would come along to invest in passenger rail and create jobs even after the Stimulus was history. It still feels like a recession, but the Repubs in Congress killed that notion.

Now Indiana, for example, is being asked to pay for the Hoosier, a train that runs Indianapolis-Chicago on the four days a week that the long distance Cardinal does not make its run NYC-D.C.-Chalottesville-Charleston-Cincinnati-Indianapolis-Chicago.

Obviously, a good train running several times a day Indianapolis-Chicago would carry many passengers, like Milwaukee-Chicago or St Louis-Springfield-Chicago. But that right of way is lousy, the tracks are crowded with freights, there's only one train a day, and the losses are large.

Indiana missed a chance to bid for Stimulus funds to upgrade those tracks. And it sure ain't gonna invest its own money, not when there are highways to be built! So expect to see an end to the Hoosier train on this corridor next year.

Vermont, OTOH, teamed up with its neighbors, investing in projects to upgrade the tracks New Haven-Hartford-Springfield-St Albans-. When all is said and done, the Vermonter schedule will be chopped by almost one and a half hours. And within three years, Vermont's DOT says the Vermonter will extend to Montreal and add 40,000 passengers a year.

As all these examples show, for Amtrak to be successful it needs to be grown, not chopped up and shrunk.

neroden@gmail said...

Woody ---

New York has a particularly undemocratic and nontransparent legislative process, but the people "on the inside" have leaked assurances that NYS will be paying for the Empire Corridor trains. I believe the politicos are demanding the return of food service.

Pennsylvania is trying to get out of paying the Pennsylvanian and Keystone costs allocated to them, but it seems like their strategy is to raise fares and see if that reduces what they'll have to pay.

Michigan... well, they basically committed to paying for the routes, but odd things are going on...

Indiana's state government has no intention of retaining the Hoosier state, even though a lot of locals are upset by that. But then, it's Indiana.

\Now, regarding capital improvements.

Worth noting in California is that the Surfliner route already had a massive package of funded projects; it couldn't take much more! The other two state-funded routes are not worth spending money on; the San Joaquins will be largely replaced by HSR and the Capitol Corridor is as good as it's going to get without HSR (and, uh, it's UP).

The states which got the most out of the stimulus for passenger rail were the states with large existing plans which they had already been working on. Washington State got an enormous hunk of its plan funded, and North Carolina a somewhat smaller but still very large hunk. This is because they both had very substantial plans which they'd already been building.

NY didn't have a plan. NY had very little in the pipeline to speak of. Luckily, there were a few individual projects which were already being promoted, and NY got most of them funded: state control over Hoffmans-Poughkeepsie, signal renewal along the length of it, double-tracking Albany-Schenectady, fourth platform at Albany, relocated station at Niagara Falls.

States like Kansas had even less of a plan, and will get nothing at all.

neroden@gmail said...

"But I wonder why anyone outside the Ayn Rand cult thinks that those successes and those surpluses should be privatized, while Amtrak's loser routes remain a public responsibility."

Well, some of the people who think this are simply rent-seekers: they want the money from the surpluses! They can't stand the idea of the public getting the money from the surpluses, they want it!

I think it's as simple as that really. I have no idea why "ordinary people" (who will never own such a company) would fall for their propaganda, though. I guess a lot of people fall for propaganda really easily.

neroden@gmail said...

BTW, does ANYONE know what the "NEC Special Trains" and "Non-NEC Special Trains" consisted of in any given year? I've never been able to find anyone who knew.

Paul Druce said...

They're specially chartered trains. How Amtrak manages to lose money on them, I'm not terribly certain.

Woody said...

Chartered trains means who? The funeral train for RFK was 44 years ago. Kerry and Edwards made a whistle-stop tour from St Louis to the Grand Canyon back in August 2004.

The Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus (their website features a train on the opening page)? Or maybe the Army? Boy Scouts heading to Jamboree? Once-a-year-tours of scenic areas or excursions with old equipment for the foamers? Amtrak's own 40th Anniversary Celebration train?

I know it's bare a penny on a hundred dollar bill, but Cap'n and neroden and I wonder wtf?

Steve Stofka said...

Woody: Anyone who wants to and can pay for it can charter an Amtrak trains. Traditionally, railfan groups are among the bigger customers of chartered trains.

Also, does anybody know (a) if Amtrak charges a fee for private car operators who want to hook up on the end of Amtrak trains, and (b) if so, where to find it? Very, very, very hard to imagine Amtrak loses money in that sector.

Paul Druce said...

Private car tariff can be found here:

Also, the captchas on this are incredibly annoying