Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Goals for long distance trains

Man, you railfans are a chatty bunch! I think my two recent posts on the competitive environment for long distance trains and long distance trains around the world have gotten the first and fifth most comments out of all of my posts. But as C.P. Norris wrote on the earlier post, "I think this debate needs to start with exactly what problem you're trying to solve." And Norris is right: I really should have started with this. So now, let's try to see how long distance trains fit in with our goals, helpfully stated for you at the top of the page.

First, regarding access for all: are all people equally deserving of access, or are some a higher priority than others? To the extent that some are a higher priority than others, it is as a counterweight to existing disadvantages, which means that poor people, Black and Hispanic people, and women should be higher priorities. We should also be looking for the best bang for our subsidy buck, so trains that serve the largest number of people per dollar should count more.

I don't have the numbers, but my impression is that the Silver Meteor and Silver Star are the long distance trains with the highest proportion of African American riders; I have certainly seen and spoken with many on those trains who were traveling between work in Northern cities and family or retirement in the South. I'm not sure what the income of Black Silver Service riders is compared with that of the African American community at large. But if any long distance trains deserve support on access grounds per person, my guess would be that it's the Silver Service.

Transit reduces pollution and carnage, increases efficiency and improves society to the extent that it gets people out of cars. Long distance trains, in addition, can do this by getting people off of planes.

I have a strong desire to preserve the long distance train network. So much of it has disappeared and not come back, and I worry that losing any more routes will start a snowball effect, swallowing up any remaining trains that are not profitable or state-subsidized. But I have to admit that I'm hard pressed to see how that fits with any of my goals.

The problem is that it's not really clear how many people the long distance trains are keeping out of cars and planes, and it's not clear how many more we can get out of cars and planes by improving service.

The only way I can think of that maintaining a route like the Southwest Chief can get people out of their cars is a long term one: that there's more political support for maintaining or improving a route than for restarting one. Just look at the stimulus rail money. Two projects (Ohio and Florida) were for corridors that don't currently have service on them; the rest are all for existing corridors, including the California High-Speed Rail project, which is a fancy bypass for the San Joaquins.

It would seem, then, that operating subsidies tend to motivate capital subsidies beyond what the freight railroads are willing to spend. That means that they may be worth keeping on certain long distance routes, if they can someday draw enough people out of cars and planes, with the right combination of capital investment and road and air disinvestment. The question becomes figuring out which routes those are.

When you comment on this post, please be clear about your goals, so that others can decide whether they share them.


Christopher Parker said...

Most people who ride the (full) long distance trains are people who have shifted from driving to trains, so if that is your goal, the long-distance train fulfills it admirably. Including the Southwest Chief.

I'm wondering if the doubt you allude to by bringing up the Southwest Chief is one of scale. There simply are not enough long distance trains to even equal 1% of the intercity market, meaning that as currently constituted, long distance trains don't make much difference. But if enough service was provided to meet unmet demand, this would change.

Another way to look at it is in terms of cost per mile of providing a service that shifts people out of cars. The cost of operation of long distance trains is very low. With virtually no capital expenditures, they cover 69% of their operating costs -- far far more than virtually every transit operation in America. This suggests providing more long-distance trains before we improve other forms of transit as we'll get the most bang for the buck.

neroden@gmail said...

"To the extent that some are a higher priority than others, it is as a counterweight to existing disadvantages, which means that poor people, Black and Hispanic people, and women should be higher priorities."

Actually, this also means that disabled people should be top priorities.

And, oh coincidence, disabled people tend to find train trips much easier to use than bus trips, or driving, or flying!

neroden@gmail said...

"The problem is that it's not really clear how many people the long distance trains are keeping out of cars and planes,"

They're mostly running as full as trains ever get, so we can assume "as many as there are seats for"....

"and it's not clear how many more we can get out of cars and planes by improving service."
Only one way to find out for real -- improve service.

It's pretty clear, however, from previous experiments that if you can run faster than driving, you can suddenly charge a lot more and get the same ridership; and if you run twice a day instead of once a day, you increase ridership by more than a factor of two. So those are some starting points.

Adirondacker12800 said...

My goal, if I have one, is an appropriate solution to the problem. To arrive at an appropriate solution you have to define the problem. If you imply a solution to the problem by asking "why aren't there more trains in the wide open empty spaces out west?" you are going to get a different answer than if you ask "how many people want to travel to and from those places?"

Cars are an ideal solution for the times of day when few people want travel, anywhere, to places few people want to go to, anytime. The Second Avenue subway is an appropriate solution for the East Side of Manhattan. Cars cost a lot more than people think they do and the Second Avenue subway is costing much more than it should. That's a separate, if related, set of questions.

Cars on Second Avenue aren't a good solution and subway trains between Fargo and Williston aren't if for any other reason the seats are too hard. If everyone in Williams County, where Williston is located, decided to take a train trip at the same time, with two and half minute headways and 1000 passenger trains there's no one in Williams County an hour later.

Amtrak's growth in fiscal year 2012 in North Dakota was astounding. Ridership was 154,864 for the whole year for the whole state. Multiply that by ten. Decide that they all are intrastate trips and that demand is even and you want to provide service 16 hours a day weekdays. ( 250 days a year ) 6,194 boardings and alightings a day. Round that to 400 boardings and alighting an hour. 25-passenger buses are an appropriate solution. That might be overkill. Hauling 500 passenger trains around isn't. Shoving around a Colorado Railcar double decker probably isn't either. They live in the middle of nowhere. They don't have 747 service to Chicago or even 767 service anywhere. There aren't any stagecoaches either. No one is chomping at the bit to start up steamboat service between Pierre SD and Bismarck ND on Lake Oahe. What's wrong with fairly frequent service in a plush van, one like the people in the outer boroughs and Hudson county use but with better seating? Twice a day because the state highway the van runs on connects 20 itty bitty towns with an average population of 300? Though it probably be cheaper to institute a dial-a-ride service and have two taxis serve the market. And the few people needing rides would get "better" service.

... what's an appropriate solution? We all like to eat so having paved roads in the Dakotas is probably something that we are going to have to subsidize. Or tax farms or grain to pay for. Having rail to the grain elevators may make sense. Having rail through the state so the grain can get to the flour mill and the flour can get to a pasta factory probably makes sense or so that the grain can get to ports and Washington apples and Idaho potatoes can make it to Minneapolis, Toronto and Boston. ( and every once in a while when there is a potato shortage in Idaho, Maine potatoes can go to the french fry plants in Idaho ) Whether or not running passenger trains over those tracks makes much sense is a different question. They might be getting "better" service with 25 passenger buses. 25 passenger buses may be overkill. 12 passenger vans with WiFi, though there are so few people in the Dakotas the 3G or 4G networks for the WiFi may not be there...... all of the places in the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho could be defined as "places few people want to go to, anytime" Why aren't cars are a good solution for their very low volume transportation needs?

Adirondacker12800 said...

... another way to look at equitable. I hate to keep picking on North Dakota but North Dakota actually has Amtrak passengers.

The population of North Dakota is 1 70th of the usually number tossed around for the "NEC"

Spend 100 billion getting Boston to DC down to three hours and North Dakota should get 1/70th of that.. to be equitable... 1/70th of 100 billion is 1.42 billion. Lets round that to 1.5 billion. The Record of Decision for Scranton service projected that restoring track between the Delaware River and Port Morris New Jersey, upgrading the rest of the route, and trains, would cost half a billion. It's 80 miles from Port Morris to Scranton. So for North Dakota's billion and half they get 240 miles of upgraded railroad. In nice round numbers it's 200 miles from Bismarck to Fargo and 80 from Fargo to Grand Forks.

A third way to examine equity is that there are 700,000 people in North Dakota. Or 700,000 in metro Scranton-Wilkes Barre. So if the people of greater Scranton get 80 miles of track for a half billion the people of North Dakota get 80 miles of track for Fargo to Grand Forks. How 'bout when the people of Scranton get 125 miles of track restored to Philadelphia the people of North Dakota can start thinking of track to Bismarck?

BruceMcF said...

Note that if we treated rail as we treated roads, where construction of roads to serve long distance freight needs is heavily subsidized on the condition that the same routes are permitted to be used for passenger transport, there wouldn't be an issue ~ for much less subsidy per ton-mile we could have a network of 90mph electric freight corridors more extensive than the current Amtrak corridor system, ON WHICH we could run 110mph long distance passenger trains at an operating surplus.

neroden@gmail said...

"What's wrong with fairly frequent service in a plush van, one like the people in the outer boroughs and Hudson county use but with better seating?"

The problem? It doesn't run in the winter. Those roads are frequently not plowed well enough for buses to get through. Cars actually kind of suck in the frozen north, even for low-volume applications.

Which gets us into some more complicated points here: weather matters.

An equivalent collection of towns in the Southwest? Yeah, I really can't argue in that case; buses are all that you can justify.

It wouldn't make sense to build tracks just for passengers in North Dakota. The tracks are already there for freight though. No reason not to run passenger trains on them.

Of course, it's also important that the Empire Builder isn't *just* serving North Dakota, it's also serving Montana, and Minnesota, and Washington state, and disabled people who can't fly or drive who are travelling from Chicago to Seattle, and so on and so on.

Now, I brought up the "towns in the Southwest" example for a specific reason. The Southwest Chief is likely to abandon the Raton Pass route because there isn't enough freight traffic to make it worth maintaining (none at all across Raton Pass, and only low-speed traffic through western Kansas).

I support this. The alternative is to run the Southwest Chief on the route which is used by large numbers of 50 mph intermodal trains use, and which also goes through substantially larger cities (Wichita and Amarillo).

In fact, the train should have been rerouted long ago. It will still serve all the other people (disabled people going from Chicago or Kansas City or points east to Albuquerque or Los Angeles, etc. etc.), but it picks up larger intermediate cities. There is no particular reason to run it by the Raton Pass; it doesn't attract that many tourists.

busplanner said...

@neroden -

Please don't use weather or disabled persons as an argument for train service. They are red herrings.

1. In any given day, how many people who are disabled but who cannot take a bus or a plane want to travel over the entire route of the Empire Builder? (Please remember that they still need to get to and from the train stations and if they can do that by bus or taxi or car, they can take a bus or a car for a longer trip. And, airlines have gotten pretty good at accommodating some severely disabled people, based on some recent observations I've made on trips and based on conversations with a disabled neighbor who when he had to travel 2100 miles each way for a family emergency chose a few hours plane trip over the multi-day train trip because his medical condition would not have permitted the multi-day trip.

And, what do disabled people do in metropolitan areas without trains, such as Las Vegas, Columbus (OH), or Nashville, each of which have a greater population than North Dakota and Montana combined.

2. Weather - Trains are impacted by floods/washouts, landslides, and blizzards and the Empire Builder is a good example.

In bad weather, people should not travel. And, if the roads in a northern state blizzard are not cleared, people will not be able to get to the train station to catch the train, anyway.

Adirondacker12800 said...

ON WHICH we could run 110mph long distance passenger trains at an operating surplus.

The rehab Amtrak is doing between New Brunswick and Trenton... everyone complains that it's costing 450 million. It's 25 miles from Trenton to New Brunswick and it's a four track railroad so that 100 miles of track... 4.5 million per track mile. There's lots of other stuff going on for that 450 million. But to get 90 MPH freight you have to do stuff too. Go with 10 million a route mile. A new lane of Interstate grade highway, in places where it's cheap to build, costs 25 million mile. It's why Virginia is leaning towards upgrading the railroad instead of widening I-81.
100 MPH trains break even or make money in Virginia. That isn't long distance. People use them because the drive to DC takes longer and you don't have to park the train when it gets there. There isn't any traffic congestion in the Dakotas and there's never any problem finding parking.
There's 250,000 people in metro Lynchburg who have things to do with the five million people in metro DC, the two million in metro Baltimore and the 6 million in metro Phialdelphia. All places where the traffic and parking are bad. How many trips are the 700,000 people of North Dakota going to generate among themselves? Fargo to places along the sole transcontinental freight route might be cheap to operate and scare up enough passengers to fill a short train. There aren't enough people in other places. Even if the electrified tracks go to the grain elevator in town.

Anonymous said...

I would say my goal is an efficient transportation system (and I would say that reducing pollution, reducing injury, and improving access are all features of a more efficient system).

As far as "preserving" the long distance passenger rail network is concerned, which is what I think the Cap'n is referring to, it is much less important than preventing the ROW from being foolishly sold off. As long as the ROW is there, it can be used in the future if it is needed.

When it comes to long distance trains in the western US, the question is simply if there are enough trips being made between those smaller cities to justify the service. (See longer thoughts here)