» We can expect modest jumps in ridership after investing in relatively minor rail line upgrades.
In 2006, Amtrak and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation completed work on improvements to the Keystone Corridor, which runs 104 miles from Philadelphia to Harrisburg. The $145 million project increased top speeds to 110 mph and allowed for full electric operation, making it possible to run trains reliably from New York’s Penn Station. The line now offers 14 weekday round trips between Harrisburg and Philadelphia and 1h35 trip times between the city centers on express trains (compared with two hours previously), with local routes making the journey in up to 1h55. The improvements on the Keystone demonstrate the small gains that can be garnered from making rail services more time competitive.
The upgrades to the route have allowed Amtrak to increase passenger totals significantly over the past two years. Though Keystone ridership has been on the rise since 2003, its 20% growth in 2007 and 2008 vastly outpaced that of the Amtrak system as a whole. Overall, the corridor attracted 1.2 million people in 2008, compared with 400,000 in 1998; it now represents 4% of total U.S. intercity rail ridership, compared to 2% ten years ago. It is reasonable to assume that the increase in number of users is a reflection of the improved services provided after the renovation.
In addition, the uptick in ridership and the switch to electric operation have provided a number of benefits, namely an increase in revenues and a decline in per-passenger government subsidies. Fare revenue increased from about $2.4 million in 2005 to $7.2 million last year. Subsidies decreased from about 27¢ per passenger mile in 2005 to about 20¢ in 2008. This is clear evidence of the benefits of rail investment — as more people take advantage of a line, Amtrak is able to save money per passenger mile.
According to the 1995 American Travel Survey, the most recent data available, travel between the Philadelphia and Harrisburg metro areas was the 17th highest of all metro pairs in the U.S. — with slightly less travel than between Boston and New York! Travel between Harrisburg and Washington and New York was relatively high was well. This should be a well-used train line. But Keystone remains a subsidized train: last year, the state of Pennsylvania provided almost as much in operations aid to the line as passengers contributed in fares. Despite the capital investment, this train line will never reach a fare/passenger volume equilibrium that will allow it to be profitable.
Keystone’s example, though relevant to other corridors, is somewhat of an exception. The investments made in 2005 and 2006 on catenary upgrades and track replacement were made in the context of an already high-quality line. The corridor between Harrisburg and Philadelphia is owned by Amtrak, and electrification along the whole line was in place by the end of the 1930s. Though the corridor was once fully four-tracked, it continues to offer at least two tracks along its entire route.
There are few rail corridors in the U.S. that offer similar conditions today. Confounding matters, most are owned by freight railroads, making improvements a difficult process. As a result, the $145 million spent by the State of Pennsylvania on the project would likely buy fewer improvements in other states.
Even so, the experience with the Keystone Line is indicative of the kind of ridership improvements we’ll get with other 110 mph “high-speed” investments being proposed for places like Illinois or the Southwest. In other words, there might be a doubling of ridership over ten years, but no huge mode shift. Unlike true high-speed rail operating at speeds upwards of 200 mph, trains traveling at 110 mph maximum can hardly compete with automobiles. Driving between Philadelphia and Harrisburg takes about two hours — from origin to destination. If the Keystone train, operating as an express, takes an hour and a half in train travel alone, there is no overall time advantage for the train: this is a major hindrance to increasing ridership. A true high-speed train, operating at an average speed of 130 mph, would cover the distance between the cities in 48 minutes and attract enough ridership to make the line operationally profitable.
Nonetheless, it is clear that even minor investments such as those completed in Pennsylvania do improve conditions for riders, make train travel more effective, and reduce subsidies per passenger.