Amtrak can’t cut its way to success

April 24, 2018
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As passenger train advocates continue to speculate what the future will hold for Amtrak, the latest remarks from new CEO Richard Anderson paint a dim picture for long-distance trains. Although Anderson again spoke of new equipment and other improvements to state-supported corridor trains, there was no word of improvements to long-distance trains. Some are interpreting that as a bad sign.

It’s undeniable that Amtrak’s long-distance trains could benefit from some new thinking. The critical eye that Anderson brings to Amtrak as an outsider presents a great opportunity to remove the shackles of railroad tradition and have a different discussion about the way things are done. This discussion should result in more trains and more service, not less.

In a paper we produced in collaboration with the Rail Passengers Association, we examine why it’s actually lack of service (or supply), not lack of demand, that’s limiting the performance (and revenue) of long-distance trains.

In trying to explain why long-distance trains don’t make sense, Anderson pointed to the sweet spot for train travel being the 100- to 500-mile market. He’s not technically wrong, but he seems to be thinking of the long-distance trains from a non-stop, end-to-end perspective, as if they were airline routes. Few passengers ride them that way. Instead, the long-distance trains serve as multipurpose mobility machines for all the intermediate stops along their routes, many of which are far from airports and may not even have bus service.

The Southwest Chief, for instance, serves 528 city pairs on its 2,265-mile route between Chicago and Los Angeles. This one train serves as many destinations as an entire mid-size airline. About a third of the passengers use the train for short hops of less than 500 miles, another third between 500 and 1,000, and the remaining third more than 1,000 miles. Less than 10 percent travel the whole distance.

The convenience and utility of these trains are limited by their inflexible schedules: one a day in each direction, often serving intermediate destinations in the middle of the night. They suffer delays that make them impractical for business travel or other time-sensitive trips.

Although it will require an upfront investment in new train equipment and track upgrades, the best way to improve the long-term performance of these trains is to increase service and reliability. Add a second daily train that operates 8 hours away from the original schedule. This gives passengers more options and makes better use of fixed costs, like station maintenance. Work with the freight railroads (on their terms) to upgrade tracks and keep trains moving on time.

This would be a more productive direction than trying to reduce costs by removing amenities and cutting frequencies. That will only further degrade revenue and set up the classic “death spiral,” resulting in the eventual elimination of the service. The conspiracy-minded think this is the game Anderson is playing. That seems unlikely for a number of reasons, including the inestimable political opposition it would face, from village halls to Congress.

Amtrak needs to seize this moment to move the discussion about long-distance trains in a productive direction, one that increases revenue by providing better service, instead of cutting to save costs.

Tell your U.S. senators and representatives: Fund a new fleet for Amtrak!

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