PRIIA-Mandated Amtrak Studies Promote New Long-Distance Corridor Service

Pioneer Corridor Options Map

» If Congress finds the funds, more trains could extend through Montana, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, and British Columbia.

The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act passed by Congress last year mandated that Amtrak study investment in four long-distance train corridors, in addition to demanding that the FRA write a National Rail Plan. The reports, released Friday, paint the picture of a company excited about the expansion of rail service into new areas but paralyzed by insufficient government subsidies.

Each of the corridors considered — two through the Western half of the U.S., one into Canada, and another through Pennsylvania — currently lacks reliable, frequent train service. But none of the proposed improvements will be able to make up their operating costs, so either Amtrak will have to find additional long-term aid from federal and state governments in addition to the initial necessary capital upgrades, or it will be incapable of funding the lines. The reports, submitted to Congress, have no immediate consequence, but they will certainly spur the interest of legislators who want to bring new rail service to their congressional districts — but will have to find the money to do so first.

Amtrak Service to Vancouver during and after the 2010 Olympics

With the 2010 Winter Olympics taking place in British Columbia in a few months, Amtrak was asked to consider how best to ensure adequate service to and from Vancouver during the event. The study suggests having trains depart the Canadian city later in the evening to allow Washington State residents to attend more events during the day, but it does not propose the addition of any new midday trains, at least in the short term.

One major impediment to expansion of rail service is the required customs and immigration procedures at the U.S.-Canada border, which requires trains to wait at least 15 minutes. The facility can only handle one train at a time; more trains would increase the likelihood of route overlapping and additional delays. As a result, Amtrak proposes that Congress pays for $500,000 in upgrades at the Vancouver station to allow pre-clearance inspections of U.S.-bound passengers there. This would eliminate the mid-journey delay and reduce journey times.

North Coast Hiawatha Route Map

North Coast Hiawatha Route Renewal

This route was last operated by Amtrak in 1979 but was abandoned because of a lack of adequate funding. The Amtrak study, however, suggests providing new service to the northernmost sections of the lower 48, traveling through North Dakota, Montana, and Idaho, on the way between Chicago and Seattle, paralleling existing Empire Builder service. Notably, it would allow direct Amtrak service to Helena, Montana and expand access to the Twin Cities and Fargo.

Amtrak predicts relatively high ridership for this route — roughly 350,000 annual passengers depending on the exact routing. The rail company would suffer a net loss of $39 million a year with the line’s implementation, including the reduction in number of people expected to take Empire Builder trains. Overall, Amtrak expects a higher than average 58% farebox recovery ratio, which as the table below demonstrates, would be the forth highest in the country for long-distance routes. Even so, the net loss would still have to be offset by some kind of subsidy.

Amtrak Routes Farebox Recovery ComparisonAny additional service would require up to one billion dollars in capital costs, a difficult figure for this rural corridor with no commitment from the states served for funding help. Track and station upgrades would cost $700 million, a number that would include the upgrades of some 17 stations that currently lack platforms; new trains would total more than $300 million. The second estimate would include six trains and 54 passenger cars required to provide daily two-way service along this massively long route. Service implementation could take 48 to 60 months… if the congressional delegation from the affected states comes together to fund the system.

Pennsylvanian Corridor Expansion

The most important element of Amtrak’s report on service to Pennsylvania endorses the expansion of rail service between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. Currently, Pennsylvanian Corridor trains only make one round-trip between Pittsburgh and New York City a day, but Amtrak would expand the line to two a day taking the nine-hour trip. Recent growth of ridership on the Keystone Corridor between Harrisburg and Philadelphia as a result of service improvements and expansion suggests that there is plenty of demand for better rail service in Pennsylvania.

New service, including an additional Keystone train at night, would cost $7 million a year, but would do nothing to ameliorate the currently depressing rail conditions west of Harriburg. Today, taking the train between there and Pittsburgh requires 5h30, compared to 3h30 driving and 4h15 on Greyhound. Slow speeds make it incredibly difficult to encourage more people to take the train.

That said, the study does mention the possibility of studying new high-speed service to Pittsburgh, with eight to ten trains a day operating at speeds of up to 150 mph. Such service, however, would require a new right-of-way or at least new tracks, and it’s unlikely in the next few decades.

The report also negates the possibility of more train stops at Princeton Junction and Cornwall Heights, both of which are located on the Northeast Corridor. Adding those two destinations to more Northeast Regional Trains would add six to eight minutes to travel times, attract few new passengers, and reduce the performance of corridor trains. The study concludes that SEPTA and New Jersey Transit already provide enough commuter service to both places.

A new stop at Rockwood, Pennsylvania along the Capitol Limited service between Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh is encouraged.

Pioneer Route Reinitiation

Service between Chicago and Seattle is already provided by the Empire Builder and would be expanded by the North Coast Hiawatha route mentioned above. However, the recreation of the Pioneer Route, which was canceled in 1997, would add a third daily service between the cities. The corridor, pictured at the top of this post, could be routed in several different ways, potentially serving Salt Lake City or cities in southern Wyoming.

Corridor capital upgrades would cost between $300 and 500 million according to estimates by track owner Union Pacific, and the train would only attract about 100,000 annual daily riders, leading to a 20-30% farebox recovery ratio, putting its performance at the bottom of long-distance services offered by Amtrak. Not surprising for a route that will take 27 hours to traverse the West and take quite a detour-filled route between Chicago and Seattle. The advantages of the line, though, would come in its offering of daily trains to areas that are currently isolated from any mode of non-automobile transportation in rural Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon.

Images above: from the respective Amtrak reports

59 replies on “PRIIA-Mandated Amtrak Studies Promote New Long-Distance Corridor Service”

It’s difficult to come up with an appropriate metric to compare these proposals. I don’t know that farebox recovery percentage works. ROI seems perverse: Northern Hiawatha, invest $1B to lose $40M/yr; Pioneer, invest $400M to lose $20M/yr. Which is a better ROI: -4% or -5%?

In regards to the Pioneer’s connection to the Zephyr, I think the route through Cheyenne makes the most sense. It brings two more Senators and a representative on board (Wyoming has no Amtrak rail service at present). And it also restores the service lost when the Zephyr went back to the D&RG route.

However, a connection between Ogden and Salt Lake City might be desireable for passengers traveling from the Pacific Northwest. Why not use Frontrunner trains currently serving that route for connecting passengers? Amtrak could very easily work out a ticketing scheme with UTA.

Amtrak could also market the routes to tourists. The Zephyr’s route through the Rockies is arguably one of the most scenic in the United States. With the Pioneer, Zephyr, and Frontrunner, tourists based out of Denver could easily make a loop through the Rockies.

Getting tourists on board has certainly worked for Via’s Canadian as well as the privately operated Rocky Mountaineer.

Just like the HSIPR grants, these studies allow the freight railroads to present a Christmas list of infrasturcture improvements. It’s senseless to invest $400M or more for a single daily round trip. Does Amtrak get multiple pre-paid trackage easments for that so they could expand service in the future? It seems to me that the track capacity would be improved to the benefit of the host railroad at times when Amtrak is using the tracks.

For the Pioneer route, I don’t understand why they insist on hooking cars up to the Zephyr to get to Chicago. Travelers from Seattle, Portland, SLC and Denver already have another option for getting to Chicago. Is it so hard to change trains? Adding a route from Seattle or Portland to SLC or Denver improves the connectivity of the network and gives lots of people more options. Also, if they don’t do the car exchange, they don’t need to get two trains to the same place at the same time, and they wouldn’t be constrained to Superliner equipment.

Ressurrecting the North Coast Hiawatha (could they rename it, it makes no sense at this end of the country) would be good for getting more service to cities that don’t have any currently. That said, I don’t understand why their proposed schedule gets the train to Pasco and Spokane at the same ungodly hour as the Empire Builder. This might be true also in Fargo; I didn’t check.

For getting new stations, they ought to start service with existing stations and designate every other proposed stop as a provisional station. They should make a deal with the other cities on the route. If the locals want a stop, they should fund the station, including ADA compliance. Amtrak’s role then would just be advising and inspection.

Yonah, you need to include both direct and indirect costs. If you only include direct costs, then Amtrak minus the long-distance corridors had a cost recovery ratio of 119% in fiscal 2008 – including all the money sinks like Empire (69%), Wolverine (55%), and the Surfliner (84%). The NEC had a ratio of 158%. Against those statistics, investing in a 58% recovery route that passes through Wyoming so that Wyoming’s Senators will support more funding for other money-losing routes isn’t a wise decision on Amtrak’s part. Just stop seeking rent and start running like a normal railroad.

Aw, the reason changing trains is infeasible is that Amtrak has an on-time performance of about 0%, once you stop treating 30 minutes late arrivals as on time. The Zephyr is so bad that even by Amtrak’s metrics, it had a 5% OTP in fiscal 2008, with an average lateness of 4 hours and 16 minutes.

Long distance Amtrak is a complete waste of money. $1 billion for 1 train a day across 2,000 miles of wilderness cannot be justified, that money could upgrade 1 or 2 actual corridors to a dozen trains/day each way with 10 times the ridership.

The Pioneer and North Coast routes are not corridors, but rather land cruises. Amtrak should price them as cruises, but of course can’t until it provides the requisite service, amenities, and customer friendly staffing. Which the union refuses to allow, there are plenty of surly and lousy staff on Amtrak trains that can’t be fired for consistently poor customer service. Unless that changes, best to kill Amtrak’s long distance and concentrate on actual corridors, where nearly all the growth potential resides. Preserve Amtrak’s rights to operate the LD routes, renegotiated to all subcontracting to private carries that can actually operate a legitimate land cruise business, but that will involve tricky negotiations with the hosts railroads.

Amtrak has had decades to get its act together, all too often the union has blocked attempts to improve the often lousy customer service, so to hell with them. The only way to move forward is for drastic changes. Of course that won’t happen until at least 2013. Corruption that believes that you get out of debt by diving far deeper into debt isn’t going to figure out how to successfully reform a political animal like Amtrak.

Best we can probably hope for is that they fix and create regional corridors first and solve the long distance puzzle later.

Our friends over at United Rail Passenger Alliance have commented extensively on the Pioneer proposal.

UPR does a persuasive job of taking apart the pessimistic projections from Amtrak. Apparently ridership and revenues are based largely on the last year of the old Pioneer, 1997. Of course population has grown considerably in cities like Denver, Salt Lake, and Boise during the past decade, up 41% in the states involved.

Amtrak then says it expects lower figures because of the growth of low cost airlines in the region. Hunh? Since when do Amtrak passengers chose cheap airlines over the long distance trains? Either the riders are committed to train travel, because they are phobic or obese or they like to look out the windows and see landscape, whatever, OR they get on board in small towns and cities without service from Frontier or Southwest or anybody. If anything, the growth of the non-traditional airlines has given tourists more flexibility to plan trips by rail with a one-way return by air.

Then Amtrak planners assume revenue per passenger mile comparable to the Sunset Limited, which runs only three days a week, an obvious curse on its revenues compared to the daily trains.

The second link carries a report from the Cascadia Center for Regional Development. (Hey — did Shakespeare have a hand in writing this one? Some of it reminds me of things I’ve read before at URP.) They make a good case for a tweaked alternative, Denver-Portland-Seattle-Vancouver.

Cascadia proposes running north Denver-Boulder-Longmont-Fort Collins-downtown Cheyenne on BSNF tracks, passing through metro areas of 600,000 in the evening. It would then cross Wyoming going slow on purpose, to arrive in Salt Lake City in mid-morning. It would leave for Ogden and make Idaho stops in daylight, before going slow on purpose again to arrive in Portland in the morning.

Reverse direction the Pioneer would in effect add a frequency to Seattle-Portland to support the Cascades service, and again pass through Idaho in daylight and Wyoming in the dark.

For the most part, this schedule is aimed at pleasure travelers, in addition to those stranded without air service along the way. The overnight service between Salt Lake and Denver could appeal to some business travelers. It could take some riders from the scenic route through Colorado on the California Zephyr that often sells out.

Much of the BSNF tracks Cheyenne-Denver are set for upgrades to commuter rail as part of the FasTracks plan.

Cascadia does not mention it, but this Front Line section of track would become a part of the service being talked about Cheyenne-Denver-Colo Springs-Albuquerque-El Paso, bringing all the benefits of greater frequency, and creating connections from the Northwest and the Rockies to cities in Texas and eventually the Southeast.

Cascadia and URP both attack the claim that start-up would require investing hundreds of millions in infrastructure. I can see why the freights would want the upgrades, but I don’t know if it is all actually necessary.

The reports also question the cost of new equipment assigned to the new route. Amtrak says it will need new railcars costing an average of $4.5 million each when or if they become available. Well, we should find out what new cars will cost. Amtrak needs hundreds of them soon, like yesterday, if it is to add frequencies, state-supported or otherwise, and restore or expand service.

In my mind, I work from the general to the particular on this. I say, We want to expand passenger rail for all the usual reasons — from mobility for slivers of the population to reducing global heating and climate change. I say, We set a numeric goal, like increasing rail passengers by 50% by a certain date. So put, say, $10 billion into new and improved equipment and an expanded route system for Amtrak, can that get us to the goal?

Then I won’t worry so much about how much new cars for the restored Pioneer will cost. I’ll want to know, Will the new Pioneer help us get a 50% increase in total ridership on the long-distance trains? Or would we get more bang for the buck putting that effort into, say, daily service on the Cardinal or another frequency on the Crescent, or what?

I say, We set a numeric goal, like increasing rail passengers by 50% by a certain date. So put, say, $10 billion into new and improved equipment and an expanded route system for Amtrak, can that get us to the goal?

At $10 billion, if Amtrak only increases ridership by 50%, its entire management should be fired and its assets sold off for scraps. $10 billion gets you 1:30 service on NY-DC and NY-Boston; to put things in perspective, on the less populated LA-SF corridor, similar speeds are expected to lead to 65 million riders a year, more than twice Amtrak’s total ridership. On the NEC, 100 million is feasible.

The only problem is that this would require Amtrak to give up the idea that it exists to provide nostalgia rides in the Interior West, and that the services that people actually ride should be locally funded.

Apparently ridership and revenues are based largely on the last year of the old Pioneer, 1997. Of course population has grown considerably in cities like Denver, Salt Lake, and Boise during the past decade, up 41% in the states involved.

Amtrak’s LD ridership numbers don’t bear much relation to population growth. In the last decade, the fastest growth has been on short-distance corridor service in low-growth states, such as the Northeastern states, Illinois, and California. The LD services have been trending down, even though they’re the only services in such high-growth states as Florida, Georgia, and Arizona.

as someone living in the pacific northwest these all sound really good to me… more trains to vancouver bc, north coast hiawatha, pioneer.

but whats really needed is the ohio hub/3C project and increased service and routes in OH, western PA, western NY, MI, IN which is extremely underserved by amtrak service and I think is one of the biggest holes in the amtrak system at least for major population centers.

amtrak sees its role as interstate travel creating a national system. whereas local authorities/states can take care of the short distance routes within a single state. these projects have fairly minimal amtrak involvement other than being contracted to run the trains and including them in the national system map. anyhow thats why i have to believe amtrak is pushing the multi-state long distance routes like the NCH & the pioneer over the Ohio 3C.

lots of ripping on Amtrak but has anyone caught from the reports that it’s actually illegal for Amtrak to add a second pittsburgh train (estimated at an incremental loss of 7 million) but that it’s legal for them to add any of these other routes?.? BTW, $10 buys you improved OTP and an hour off the whole corridor, not 90 min DC-NY. not that it isn’t important, 45 min off Philly to Boston gives you a 4h15m ride which is comparable with flight times and much faster than driving. that said, Amtrak is managed from washington DC and so you get DC quality work.

All of the red and yellow alignments appear to be on STRACTNET. A program to establish Rapid Freight Rail paths while electrifying STRACNET would allow those to be 110mph routes with lower running costs per mile and lower vehicle capital costs per mile (because of quicker traversal).

It would not seem likely to bring the Frontier to covering its operating costs, but it seems like it would be closer.

eldondre: I wouldn’t call it “illegal” to add a second Pittsburgh train. It’s more accurate to say that, under federal law, Amtrak must seek funding from the relevant state government (here, Pennsylvania) before it can expand any route that (1) is under 750 miles and (2) operates at a loss.
That’s just a reflection of Amtrak’s funding straitjacket.
To me, it’s far more troubling that Amtrak is also asking for $2.2 million to add a stop in Rockwood, PA that it estimates will net 6 more passengers per day. The Capitol Limited already stops in Connellsville and Cumberland; adding a no-horse town to the list makes a mockery of the word “Limited.”

Aw, the reason changing trains is infeasible is that Amtrak has an on-time performance of about 0%, once you stop treating 30 minutes late arrivals as on time. The Zephyr is so bad that even by Amtrak’s metrics, it had a 5% OTP in fiscal 2008, with an average lateness of 4 hours and 16 minutes

All the more reason to not try for a rendezvous. If there were decent frequencies on the route, there’s no problem with waiting for the next train. Also, if the Pioneer has a segment between Ogden and Denver, there are two chances to catch the Zephyr. If you miss the first one, continue on.

BTW, $10 buys you improved OTP and an hour off the whole corridor, not 90 min DC-NY.

$1 billion buys you constant tension catenary from NY to DC, which is worth about 15 minutes on its own, and much more when you include other upgrades. Getting the rest of the NY-DC corridor up to full speed is a matter of about 10 or so easements in Maryland and New Jersey, most of which have costs measured in the tens of millions each; only one should require any eminent domain. Getting the FRA to repeal its 150 mph speed limit costs nothing. By then you’ve already gotten NY-DC down to about 2:00-2:15 for $1-1.5 billion, on current equipment. Noncompliant EMUs running at 300 km/h should be able to do it in about 1:45, or 1:30 with a Wilmington bypass and a new tunnel in Baltimore (whose estimated cost is about $250 million).

NY-Boston is more expensive because the Shore Line is too curved. It requires four big ticket items: a tunnel east of Stamford, another tunnel in Bridgeport, an el between the two tunnels, and a bypass in the I-95 median from New Haven to the Rhode Island state line. At the common per-km costs they should add up to about $5 billion. If NIMBYs and cost overruns make that impossible, then upgrade only on one side of New Haven, and then use the speed differential to convince people that spending the extra money is worth it; that’s how they built the TGV.

That’s just a reflection of Amtrak’s funding straitjacket.

It’s a reflection of Congressional pork, and of Amtrak’s unwillingness to try changing things. The Pioneer will run through 4 states, which compares with 8 + DC for the Acela and 7 + DC for the Carolinian. Wyoming is a rich state with a lot of coal wealth; it can afford to fund its own trains.

Aw: hey, I agree with you on the train splitting – within the parameters of “We must operate a train to Wyoming,” it makes more sense to do a Zephyr-style split than to get people to transfer.

I’m not sure the two chances to catch the connection reflect how Amtrak works. Amtrak tickets book you for a particular leg of a particular journey. In other words, if you have a ticket from Omaha to Denver on the Zephyr and from Denver to Pocatello on the Pioneer, and you miss the connection in Denver, you need to change your ticket to be allowed to continue on the train to Ogden. It’s not always like this everywhere – e.g. in Germany tickets only specify origin and destination, and you can take any reasonable route from one to the other – but it’s how Amtrak does things right now.

Why am I not surprised to see that new stop on the Capitol Limited, which will add about 5 minutes to the trip time, would be not so far from the famous …

“John Murtha Johnstown Airport … derided … as the “Airport to Nowhere” for its lack of flights and outsized capacity far in excess of demand. … a taxpayer-funded boondoggle built to benefit Rep. John A. Murtha (D-PA), Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. With three departures a day [to Dulles] and an average passenger load of 25 per aircraft, the Johnstown Airport may be one of the most expensive taxpayer-subsidized ventures in the history of U.S. commercial aviation.

“Although the airport … has very little other activity, as of April 2009, it had received almost $200 million in federal subsidies.”

from Wikipedia, of course

No telling what it would cost if the good Congresscritter decided that Johnstown needs HSR.

Folks who are quick to criticize Amtrak’s “management” should keep in mind that its “management”, including Mr. Boardman and the Board, do what they are told to do by the real bosses.

It’s not just the politicians. Management has bought into rent-seeking; it uses false statistics to make it look as if rail subsidies are an eternal fact of life (e.g. it lumps SNCF’s commuter operations together with its profitable intercity ones to claim SNCF loses money), it neglects the NEC in its appropriations requests even though the corridor is operationally profitable and could be expanded as per the rules, and even on its own tracks it doesn’t care about OTP.

I simply do not buy UP’s numbers on upgrading the Pioneer route. It’s not as though they downgraded it in 1997; this is a major route with Class 4 trackage, a critical part of their system. They’re just trying to exact a very high price for an extra slot a day in each direction.

On the North Coast Hiawatha route (or what should really be called the North Coast Limited seeing as it’s not the Milwaukee Road route), I can see where there would be some costly issues. If you want to get 79mph out of the portion between approximately central North Dakota and Spokane, you’re talking major track replacement and/or upgrade. Montana Rail Link, to which BN spun off the route close to 20 years ago, isn’t even a Class I carrier but rather a Class II shortline. I don’t know the specifics of the track but expect that it’s Class 3. As for running the Hiawatha on its true, original Milwaukee Road route, forget it — the Montana segment of that west of Billings disappeared entirely in the 1970s after the Milwaukee’s accounting mistakenly allocated profits generated on this route to other routes that were in reality losing money.

At the stated numbers, neither of these projects makes sense unless they also substantially enhance capacity for the freight railroads and for local authorities to run local passenger services. But as I say, don’t believe UP’s stated numbers.

I guess the proposed timetable for the North Coast Limited worked for someobody. Somebody who hadn’t read this section on page 11:

From “Yakima it then passes through Ellensburg, crossing the Cascades at scenic Stampede Pass. The Pass features spectacular scenery characterized by rich evergreen forests and dramatic vistas of snow-capped mountains.”

Westbound the train passes through this spectacular scenery from about 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. Isn’t it dark then in the deep of winter? Eastbound you get a second chance to take the views in the dark, as the train passes from Ellensburg to Yakima between 8:35 and 9:43 p.m. In other words, if you want to see these dramatic vistas, you’d better drive your car and not take this damn train.

One could also add that the stop in Fargo would be in the middle of the night, just like on the Empire Builder. So much for the goal of allowing people from Fargo to ride rail without getting on a train at 1 am.

“We’re closed and I’m off-duty”- that was a complete BS post. I guess we should shut down the rural stretches of interstate too then and all small regional low traffic airports. What money pits.

Public infrastructure should not generate a profit- it is a public good and should be funded through tax dollars.

Minimal upgrades are not what we should be investing in though. Upgrade the high volume, high potential routes to true high speed.

That was a baseless dig at Obama- he is corrupt because of the deficit? Are you kidding me?

Personally I don’t think the US should be spending money on money-sucking rural Interstates and airports, either, but at least the Interstate program doesn’t have a mandate to make a profit on all non-rural routes. Amtrak does.

Sure, Amtrak should upgrade the high potential routes. It’s just that none of them goes through Montana. They all serve short-distance regional traffic: California, the NEC, Empire, Keystone, Lincoln, Wolverine. So by law they all have to be profitable or else Amtrak needs state support to invest in them.

As for infrastructure as a public good? Great. Spend the money on water works, public transit, electrical grid repairs, renewable power. Those things all have large positive externalities. Excursion trains through Montana don’t. The joy you derive from sitting on a train and pretending it’s 1937 all over again isn’t a social good.

Come on, Alon — If you or I get on the Empire Builder through Montana, we’d be pretending that it is 1937 all over again.

The folks getting on in Fargo, ND, at 3:35 a.m. and getting off at Minot, ND, at 8:34 a.m., or in Libby, MT, at 10:59 p.m., are doing it because it’s the best travel option they’ve got.

The talkers on hate radio rail against passenger rail as if Amtrak’s long distance trains cost something big. They do not. For any one year they cost altogether a few hundred million. Damn, more than $100 billion — BILLIONS, not millions — was donated to prop up A.I.G. alone, or sunk into Citibank, or forked over to the many other organized groups (of thieves or incompetents, you choose) on Wall Street. Not to mention what is spilled onto the sands of Iraq and Afghanistan every passing week.

Try to keep some sense of proportion about these things. Put the decimal point in the right place. And don’t fall for the rightwing trick of making Amtrak the poster child for the ideology that thinks government can’t — and shouldn’t — do anything except make the rich richer.

There’s an interesting question, of course, of how much we should subsidize rural areas. At various times in the past (and to some extent today), it has been government policy to provide some level of basic infrastructure to all parts of the country, except for extreme wilderness–hence most parts of the US have roads going to them, are connected to the power grid, and have daily mail service that costs (for the user) the same as malling a letter from Wall Street to midtown.

Obviously, providing this is expensive. And has has been discussed previously–small states such as ND can often command resources above and beyond what their population might otherwise merit, due to how power is apportined in Washington (and has been since 1789). On another topic, why should a corrupt Democratic senator from North Dakota be in the driver’s seat for healthcare reform? You tell me.

Subsidies for rural rail lines will be determined by Congress as long as Amtrak remains a political football. Its the only reason the long distance lines are still being used.

The real metric is in terms of opportunity cost. You have a fixed, unknown amount of money to use in these four cases. If I commit to one, the others will probably go unfunded or with extremely meager resources given the task. The worst solution is to try and do something on all four. Personally, I think that linking Pittsburgh to Harrisburg has the greatest overall payoff than looking at three different lines originating in Seattle and arriving in Chicago. If we are going to build a sustainable rail network and passenger rail business, we need to keep building better connections among our more closely located metropolitan areas.

Until the Constitution is amended (DON’T GO THERE!) or the world ends, we’ll have to live with small-state Senators and high-seniority Members of Congress will always having disproportionate power over how and where the money is spent.

So when I think about California HSR coming in at $45 or $50 Billion on a good day, and I figure that realistically it’s gonna take at least $25 Billion of federal money to get that job done, well. If anybody thinks Cali will get $25 Bil for a spanking new HSR line while Montana and North Dakota and Florida get sh*t, they aint thinking how the real world works.

So yeah, we are looking to balance the porkish projects serving a few thousand passengers in Podunk with the tens of millions of riders that Alon is gonna get on the improved and really fast NEC.

Where to get the best bang for the buck? Fortunately, I don’t think we are limited to choosing between, much less adding both, new lines from Chicago to Seattle. Sen Tester of MT seems to be pushing hard for the North Coast revival. Sen Crapo of ID to restore the Pioneer. Amtrak is talking good stuff about a new service on the Western end of the Sunset Limited. Not so good on the Eastern end, but that segment too has friends in D.C.

NARP, of course, has its Vision of future service with several dozen potential routes. United Rail has its own wish list.

I’m sure we see several more candidates for route expansion before the dust settles on this matter.

The discussion here has highlighted the fact that we don’t have agreed measures on where to expand long distance services if we are going to have them (and we are). Should we look for routes that will yield the largest revenue increases? Boost passenger totals the most? Look at farebox results? Count revenue-passenger-miles? Or what?

If we don’t have easily understood, readily available performance measures to use in evaluating proposed new routes, we could find ourselves with routes like the Cardinal, which iirc could easily have been named for Cong Staggers of West Virginia. Now running only three times a week, passing through mountains in the dark, arriving in Cincinnati after midnight in one direction and pre-dawn in the other, the Cardinal today seems like a route designed to fail

The cost recovery ratios for the long distance trains are generally much better than those for corridor services, like California or Illinois’ state supported trains.

The thing that I see missing from detailed discussion in the reports (skimmed, not read) is that the more trains you run, the more you spread fixed costs over more travelers, becoming more efficient. You also make trains a better travel option for more O/D pairs, increasing ridership and revenue.

Tom Veil @ 13
Woody @ 17
I guess it will be good news to have Cong. John Murtha loving trains like he loves his little $200 million airport.

“JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — For the past five years, only two passenger trains have stopped at Johnstown’s Walnut Street station each day. And Rockwood has been without passenger-rail service since 1971.

“[An Amtrak] study determined that two issues are ‘worthy of further consideration’: Whether it makes sense to allow the existing Capitol Limited to stop in Rockwood, and whether it is feasible to bolster the Pennsylvanian service between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg.

“Amtrak found steadily increasing ridership on the Pennsylvanian, citing annual growth of 7 percent from 2006-08. That figure is even higher west of Harrisburg, administrators said.

“So the rail company is proposing two additional trains – one eastbound and one westbound – each day between Pittsburgh and New York City. Those trains would stop in Johnstown.

“Also, Amtrak is interested in another train in each direction between Harrisburg and Altoona.

“Certainly this is something that is worth looking into further,” said Johnstown-based U.S. Rep. John Murtha.

“The stimulus bill provided $1.3 billion for Amtrak to improve the speed and capacity of existing rail service, in addition to $8 billion for high-speed rail projects,” Murtha said. “Congress and the White House are determined to revolutionize intercity transport, and rail service is going to play a lead role in these efforts.”

from the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat via UTU:News

The cost recovery on long distance trains is not good at all, and in sheer dollars, it’s enormous. that said, short distance corridors vary substantially in cost recovery. As for ND, I think the Builder is unique amongst long distance trains because it serves areas poorly served by airports and with the weather there, I’d imagine small planes are unreliable. This, perhaps, explains why it attracts more riders every year than any other long distance route. I also think that Amtrak would be better off adding a second daily Empire Builder than this other route. It would be cheaper to run (shared stations) and start (only need equipment). On the other hand, small states shouldn’t get the only federally funded trains. and let’s face it, in many areas like Philly, NY, Chicago, and Seattle it’s unlikely the stations woudl still be in use as they are today if there were only long distance trains, they’d be more like Atlanta and the stations would be malls or something like that.

Jason, read Amtrak’s latest report about route performance. In FY 2008, Chicago-St. Louis service operationally broke even, as did the Virginia section of the NEC and the Carolinian. Conversely, half of Amtrak’s operating loss came from just a few long-distance routes, such as the Empire Builder and the California Zephyr.

As for the Empire Builder: it’s unprofitable even if you include only avoidable costs, i.e. the costs of running the trains, as opposed to infrastructure or stations. So adding a second train would incur further losses for Amtrak.

The issue of rural subsidy is really backward. North Dakota and Montana, which rank in the top 10 states in federal spending per dollar they pay in federal taxes, are not poor states. They’re much richer than Harlem, which ranks in the top third of Congressional districts in federal taxes per capita, and which should if anything get more due to its higher living costs.

When discussing Amtrak, it’s really backward, because infrastructure is the wrong way to help depressed regions – just look at how poor the Tennessee Valley is, despite decades of federal public works. You help the poor by spending money on programs for the poor: income support, universal health care, equal school funding, subsidized college tuition. And you improve transportation by spending money on good investments. Trying to combine the two programs together doesn’t improve either mobility or entrenched poverty.

I’m aware the Builder loses money but I think it may actually lose less money than an entirely separate line since things like stations are already available and two a day is always good for revenue. I can see access being an issue for those areas, rather than your typical welfare programs. Moreover, there’s only equipment startup costs. Of course, I’m sure if it shared facilities with a Twin-cities Chicago line it would also benefit financially since some of its stations would no longer be shared.

The stations aren’t counted in avoidable costs. Avoidable costs only include the operating costs of running the trains, including fuel, labor, and trackage fees; they don’t include extra trains, or stations.

Two trains per day isn’t good for revenue. Those long-distance trains have never run more than once per day, even when they were the premier luxury trains for their host railroads.

Access isn’t a real issue for Wyoming. For its population, two-lane roads are enough; the Interstate system is already overkill. I can see why rail service may be critical for a region of 20 million, but for a string of towns of 20 thousand, it isn’t much better than the Bridge to Nowhere, which was sold on similar access issues.

Rail-friendly politician in ND says Thanks but Not Thanks to Amtrak & BSNF’s Billion-dollar price to restart the North Shore Limited.

“I would love to see us have two passenger lines in North Dakota,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who worked with Sen. Jon Tester of Montana to push for the feasibility study. “The fact that Amtrak runs full trains though the state (on the Empire Builder route) demonstrates that there’s interest.”

But …

“Prohibitive [cost] … under today’s numbers, that’s not likely to happen,” Sen. Dorgan said.

“Two trains per day isn’t good for revenue.” Probably not, and I’m not arguing for yet more long distance trains, but one thing that a second frequency on these long multi-day routes, twelve or so hours out of phase with the first, would do is provide daytime service to stations that previously only got service in the middle of the night. Which would probably increase ridership. Though I don’t know by how much.

“Two trains per day isn’t good for revenue.” This is an unsupported assertion. Obviously a second train calling at stations in the daylight previously visited only at night would pick up new customers. But even in daylight, when greater frequency is offered it brings forth new demand. When the State of Illinois agreed to pay for two more rains to be added to the existing (daylight) schedule of three a day Chicago-St Louis, that raised the number of trains by 67%. The number of passengers on that route increased by 95% in just two years, and continues to edge up.

Amtrak itself just reported favorably on adding a second frequency between NYC-Philly-Harrisburg-Pittsburgh.

Of course greater frequencies add riders. Look at how AirTran and Southwest go into a market, usually two or three flights a day, and gear up to five a day within a year. Passengers want a choice of departure times, even those rail passengers that Along disparages as going on land cruises.

No, I do have support the assertion about two daily trains: the long-distance trains have never been run more than daily. This is different from Chicago-St. Louis, where there used to be 12 trains per day before the 1950s.

The key difference is that Chicago-St. Louis service is geared for business and leisure passengers who are going on the full length of the route, or most of the route, which means that it needs to offer convenient departure times. The LD services are not like that; they either provide service to small towns, which don’t have the population to fill trains, or provide excursion services to people who for some reason won’t fly or drive (e.g. Amish, travelers who wish to experience LD trains); this means that offering multiple trains per day is less useful.

Alon — I’m completely unpersuaded by your repeated assertion.

Chicago-Normal-Springfield-St Louis used to have three trains a day, now it has five trains and twice as many riders. Chicago-Milwaukee-St Paul-Fargo has one daily train, the Empire Builder. But adding the North Coast Limited to Chicago-Milwaukee-St Paul-Fargo for two daily trains, the route would have far more rail passengers than now.

Chicago-St Paul is on the list for 110 mph service in the Midwest Regional plan. Those trains will run faster, with shorter trips times. But the route will also benefit simply from having more frequencies.

Portland-Seattle used to have one daily train. Then they started up Cascades trains, now four a day. They’ve asked for half a billion dollars for that route promising no shorter trips at all, but adding two more Cascades departures.

Kansas City-Jefferson-St Louis had one train a day, the State of Missouri paid for a second run. Now Missouri is asking for stimulus funds to buy another train set to add another departure.

Virginia recently added another train Richmond-D.C.

North Carolina added another train Raleigh-Charlotte.

More states would add more corridor trains if they could get the passenger rail cars to do so. Because adding a second frequency adds passengers.

Woody, you’re telling a post-1960s history of rail services. None of the recent service expansions on short-distance corridors expands frequency beyond what was common before WW2; they mimic operations that profit-motivated railroads engaged in. This wouldn’t be true for adding a second Empire Builder, or another LD train running the same route, which no profit-motivated railroad has run. The closest thing Amtrak does to it is the Palmetto/Silver Star/Silver Meteor combination, which is a low-ridership money drain. Providing three daily trains from New York to Savannah doesn’t seem to do much to increase ridership.

What you say about Chicago-St. Paul is completely different from adding LD service. Yes, there’s room for more Chicago-Twin Cities service. It’d be short-distance, just like the Carolinian or Lincoln Service, and could achieve similar performance. It’d attract a reasonable number of business and leisure travelers by US standards. It’d be just like the service expansions you mention, and nothing like adding more service to Montana and North Dakota.

On the contrary: the goal of expanding service to the Twin Cities and the goal of adding more LD service are opposite to each other. For the same amount of rolling stock necessary to add a second daily Empire Builder, you could run four daily roundtrips from Chicago to MSP. The operating costs would be about the same, but ridership would be much higher, since MSP is a bigger draw than Minot and Billings. It’d replicate the success of the Lincoln Service, rather than the failure of the NEC-Savannah services.

According to the maps at the Empire Builder route had 3+ trains a day between Chicago and Minot in 1962 (with parallel service on other routes west of there), and the Pioneer route had 3+ trains a day for almost its entire route. Aside from what was good enough for my grandfather, Russia and China run similarly-long distance services with 3+ trains per day.

However, I agree that increased Chicago-MSP service would be a far better use of resources if politics were not an issue.

Anon256, the 1962 map shows daily service on most of the Empire Builder and North Coast Hiawatha routes. These two routes competed with each other rather than complemented each other, which is why Amtrak didn’t keep both. Even then three times daily service couldn’t compete with cars and planes, so it was dropped.

The other LD routes shown as more than daily are overlays of multiple routes. For example, the California Zephyr was overlaid with the Denver Zephyr; some of the other routes were overlaid with local trains. For example, the map says the Super Chief route had three times daily service; in fact, Wikipedia says, “However, at the height of its popularity, and with added equipment, the trains of the Super Chief made daily departures from both ends of the line.”

China runs LD services more than once per day, but it’s also upgrading those services to high-speed rail specs because that’s the only way they can compete with cars and planes. It isn’t planning on running multi-day treks through sparsely populated territory; it’s planning on turning those treks to 8-hour trips stopping at multiple major metro areas each.

Russia runs multiple services on the Trans-Siberian. However, there’s only one full-route, Moscow-Vladivostok run per day.

All I said was it would be more effective than running the North Coast Hiawatha. Of course it woudl benefit the revenue and of course it would lose money, that’s all besides the point. It would cost less than the north coast and provide better service to many area. the Builder is a different animal than most LD trains as the towns are mostly built around the railroad and air service is poor. Would I rather see faster short distance trains? yes, but I’d rather see a twice daily builder than a parallel route. At least it woudl offer travel choices for certain segments like seattle SPokane, Chicago-St. Paul, Minot-St. Paul, St. Paul-Whitefish.

eldonde — A great part of the appeal of a restored North Coast Limited is that it does overlay the Empire Builder in the most populated routes. Spokane-Seattle, Chicago-Milwaukee-St. Paul, and St Paul-Fargo.

The routes fork at Fargo. Currently the Empire Builder arrives at Fargo westbound and departs that city eastbound in the dark of night. So I’m sure that a North Coast service leaving Chicago about 6 or 8 hours earlier than the Empire Builder would attract a large number of new passengers to and from Fargo, and giving ND its first real Amtrak service, i.e. a daylight stop.

More importantly, a much earlier departure from Chicago would provide a daily morning train Chicago-St Paul-Fargo and in addition to the existing afternoon train. Two trains seems better than one on the route Chi-Twin Cities route that ultimately should be served by high-speed rail. We need to start growing here somehow.

Unfortunately, the sloppy plan advanced in the Amtrak report would have the North Coast leaving only about 3 hours earlier than the Empire Builder, providing two mid-day trains, not helpful at all.

The added frequency Spokane-Seattle would take a different route, via Pasco, but would double the trains between the two Washington cities.

I’m almost afraid to keep defending possible long distance routes, lest it cause a friend to turn blue in the face. But in fact, the detested “land cruises” enjoyed by passengers paying hundreds or thousands of dollars are a small fraction of the Empire Builder’s traffic. Chicago-Seattle/Portland are NOT the two top city pairs — that’s already Chicago-St Paul. The trips over 2,000 miles are only fewer than 1 out of 12 passengers, and more than half of those are paying “first class/Sleeper” rates. More than half of all passengers are travelling less than 500 miles.

I’m interested in how to improve the long distance trains because I know they will not go away, and because I believe they will play a role feeding passengers into the core HSR segments. So I continue to see some appeal in the two potential corridors contained within the Empire Builder/North Coast Limited at either end of the run.

But no reason for anyone to get blue in the face. With a price tag of $1 Billion to buy off the freights, er, to ready the tracks to restart service, as the Senator said, “It’s not gonna happen.”

It looks like Amtrack should try to market this new line as a lower 48 states version of the Alaska Railroad in that most of the line would be very senic and fun to look at. It looks like that if someone is going to travel on this root it would someone who wouldn’t be in a hurry to get from Point A to B but would be more into what is along the way then getting to Point B.

This rail line could make a small profit or pay for it’s own operating expenses if Amtrack tries to get the attention of the vacationing people who want to see senery and nature. It should try to link up to some nationral parks along the way.

Woody: you’re right, most of the travelers on the Empire Builder don’t go all the way from Chicago to Seattle. But the people who go from Chicago to St. Paul would be better served by 4 daily Chicago-MSP roundtrips. Even Chicago-Fargo would be better served by more short-distance trains – Amtrak could even extend one of the 4 Chicago-MSP trains to Fargo, serving it at a reasonable time, or alternatively provide shuttle bus connections.

People who go from one small-town station to another are already among the most subsidized people in America: they get underutilized four-lane highways, federal land management, and Essential Air Service subsidies. They’re more subsidized than even dirt-poor areas like the Mississippi Delta or Upstate New York. Excuse me if I’m skeptical of the value of a proposal to spend a billion dollars on giving them a second daily train.

The part about long-distance passengers feeding HSR is a myth that NARP presents without any evidence – where are all those connecting passengers from the Lake Shore Limited to the NEC? On the contrary: on existing HSR systems in Europe and Asia, most travelers are originating and departing, rather than transferring. Like in the US, passenger volumes on long-distance services in Europe and Japan are a rounding error compared to those on HSR lines; those services lose money and are there mainly because the local governments pay the rail operators to keep running them.

Woody-that’s kind my point. if you want to improve long distance service, wy spend a billion for a small portion of the population. It would be far cheaper to just add a second train so there’s a morning and afternoon departure to the twin cities, etc. It’s not that I don’t think we shudl have higher speed trains between those cities, I do, just that if you’re going to expand LD service, you’d be better off addinga second builder (and this is one of the few lines I’d say that as it is unique among Amtrak’s long distance services in many ways, part tourist train, part real transportation…which is why it’s ridership is higher despite serving so few large population centers. Certainly the train would benefit, perhaps more, from improved trip times associated with upgrades for short distance service (and better facilities not to mention shared facilities…things like stations are considered direct costs when they exist solely to serve one train…ticketing, red caps, etc).

“they mimic operations that profit-motivated railroads engaged in.”

Profit-oriented railroads traditionally ran a “day train” and a “night train” on long distance routes when there was enough demand, and made a lot more money than just running one train.

This is why it is critical that a restored North Coast Hiawatha run 12 hours off from the Empire Builder — currently half the cities get hit at terrible hours, including some of the biggest. Even leisure or captive travellers don’t like to board at 2 AM. A 12-hour-offset North Coast Hiawatha is exactly the sort of train which the Hill Lines would have run, and it would be effective.

FYI, Billings and Bismarck although “small” by NYC standards are not really small towns. The North Coast Hiawatha route actually reaches *larger* cities than the Empire Builder. I would, personally, support two frequencies on the North Coast Hiawatha route and none on the Empire Builder route — it would likely do better– but one on each is probably more politically achievable.

“Just stop seeking rent and start running like a normal railroad.”

I’m not sure what planet you’ve been living on, Alon, but my study of railroad history shows *continuous* attempts by railroads to get political bonanzas, dating right back to Stephenson.

It’s not “rent-seeking” by the way — that’s a technical economic term, and you’re misusing it. When the freight railroads demand immense amounts of money for tracks they aren’t actually using, *that* is rent-seeking.

It refers, specifically, to trying to get government (or someone) o give you exclusive rights to something solely so that you can charge someone else to use those rights — when the alternative is that *anyone* would have been able to do whatever it was, with no exclusivity. Famous examples of rent-seeking include the whole of copyright and patent law, but especially term extensions; land “enclosure” laws turning public land into private; exclusive “franchises”; et cetera. This is not the situation you were describing.

A theoretical example of Amtrak *actually* rent-seeking would be if it fought to prevent other passenger operators from getting the same legal rights of access to railroads which it has.

For-profit railroads ran day trains and night trains only on routes that were short enough for the day train not to require an overnight stop. The Denver Zephyr ran multiple times a day; the California Zephyr didn’t.

My reference to rent-seeking is about the regulatory regime associated with Amtrak: FRA compliance, rules restricting investment in short-distance corridors, special train control standards that keep out foreign consultants, political preference for local planning. All of those conspire to keep expertise out.

The long-distance trains aren’t just “to provide service to rural areas”. They’re to provide cross-country transportation. As the price of gas goes up with diminshing oil reserves, the cost of air travel will get prohibitive and auto travel will be close behind. We need to build up a passenger rail infrastructure, and putting slow Amtrak trains on these corridors would be a good first step. Better tracks and high speed rail can come later. The existence of a popular slow line is the best way to make a faster line politically feasable.

I think that anyone who is going to use a 48 hour long train ride such as this will most likely be doing this for the fun of riding it. If enough people start using it for the idea of fun travel then having it would make sense then. Somehow that is how I could picture myself using this rail line. But I would wonder would it go to any good national parks or atractions along it’s route?

“My reference to rent-seeking is about the regulatory regime associated with Amtrak: FRA compliance, rules restricting investment in short-distance corridors, special train control standards that keep out foreign consultants, political preference for local planning. All of those conspire to keep expertise out.”

Yep, that’s rent-seeking, I agree. From what I can tell it is not rent-seeking *by* Amtrak, however. The motivations for those rules seem to come from, among other places, (a) the freights, who definitely rent-seek; (b) American industries who produce stuff for trains, wanting to get contracts in preference to foreigners; (c) certain states, wanting to exact pork for their state as the cost of running trains elsewhere.

Amtrak itself seems to actually oppose all of that.

“Until oil prices go up to the thousands of dollars per barrel, there’s no reason to take a 46-hour Empire Builder instead of a 4-hour flight.”

As long as the TSA randomly prohibits innocent people from flying without explanation or ability to challenge (no-fly list), and submits everyone else to demeaning rituals for no good reason (take off your shoes! put your toothpaste in this size container only!), and airlines nickel-and-dime customers (“Water? That’s extra. Bathrooms? That’s extra. Leg room? Not available.”), there will be a substantial market of people who will do practically anything to avoid taking a flight.

I would have agreed with you ten years ago. I may agree with you again if the current insanity of the airlines ever goes away. But right now, I would take a 46-hour train — in coach! — rather than a 4-hour flight, and not because I like long train trips — because I *HATE US AIRPLANE TRAVEL* today.

Hey, I hate air travel, too. On certain airlines, like Turkish, I wouldn’t be able to breathe well due to either cabin pressurization or high CO2 concentrations. So I’d try to take a train to Buffalo, which, at 8 hours, is still tolerable. But I wouldn’t even dream of going to San Francisco on anything other than a plane. They may charge for meals, but no, water is free (which it isn’t on Amtrak), and so are bathrooms, and the whole process takes 6 hours instead of 3 days.

But we’re both in the minority. Air travel has gotten inconvenient for everyone over the last 8 years, but Amtrak’s LD services haven’t shown much growth from it; most of Amtrak’s ridership increase has been on short-distance services. For most people, the main alternative to air is driving and the second alternative is buses.

I really do wish that Amtrak would restart the North Coast Hiawatha route through southern Montana. I live in Missoula just across the street from the former train station. The train stopped coming here in 1979. I can remember as a young child coming to Missoula to pick up my grandmother on the train, as well as a trip I took as a young kid with my grandmother, sister and brothers to Yellowstone National Park. That was probably the most fun part of my life. I would love to be able to ride the train again someday before I get ancient and leave this earth myself. However, the only way that will ever happen is if Amtrak restarts the North Coast Hiawatha route through Montana. Please keep your fingers crossed for that happening.

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