Amtrak has started a “writers’ residencies” program that would allow free rides for writers on long-term train rides. The first such residency went to Jessica Gross, who wrote about her experience in the Paris Review.
I am in a little sleeper cabin on a train to Chicago. Framing the window are two plush seats; between them is a small table that you can slide up and out. Its top is a chessboard. Next to one of the chairs is a seat whose top flips up to reveal a toilet, and above that is a “Folding Sink”—something like a Murphy bed with a spigot. There are little cups, little towels, a tiny bar of soap. A sliding door pulls closed and locks with a latch; you can draw the curtains, as I have done, over the two windows pointing out to the corridor. The room is 3’6” by 6’8”. It is efficient and quaint. I am ensconced.
I’m only here for the journey. Soon after I get to Chicago, I’ll board a train and come right back to New York: thirty-nine hours in transit—forty-four, with delays. And I’m here to write: I owe this trip to Alexander Chee, who said in his PEN Ten interview that his favorite place to work was on the train. “I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers,” he said. I did, too, so I tweeted as much, as did a number of other writers; Amtrak got involved and ended up offering me a writers’ residency “test run.” (Disclaimer disclaimed: the trip was free.)
So here I am.
The Wire has many more details about how the program started and how it might work in the future. It’s worth noting the number of residencies are limited, but I think this is a great idea. Personally, my best writing* is done when I am completely alone, and I can imagine beautiful scenery might help spur the imagination.
What do you think? Is this good advertising for Amtrak or a waste of funds for an agency deeply in debt?
*Though I’ve never had anything more than a short story published.
82 Replies to “Amtrak Writers in Residence”
Good advertising or a waste of funds? Well. if the space is empty anyway then the incremental cost of carrying one extra person is lost in the noise. If they are turning away a paying customer, then it’s a waste. Solution. Offer residencies on a space available basis.
We have a winner. :-) This is correct.
(Worth noting, this first “residency” was offered in Amtrak’s weakest-ridership month of the year — February. On a train in the snowbelt — the Florida trains do good business in February.)
It seems to me this should, at the very least, be subject to the same restrictions that the rest of us are subject to when paying for trips with Amtrak Guest Rewards points. Some trips are blacked out completely because the demand is simply too high on those days.
Despite the nonsense that everyone goes on about there being no demand for long distance train travel, the reality is that it is very common for trips to sell out, or be sold out to the point where no cost effective seats are available.
What Amtrak really needs isn’t a program designed to advertise the seats it already has, and are all too frequently sold out, but a program to add more capacity on the existing trains so that those who would willingly ride can actually buy a seat.
Nobody has denied that there is a small, dedicated — and very vocal — contingent of railfans who will gleefully sacrifice time at their destination in favor of the journey.
But at most, this represents a few thousand passengers total traveling on all long-haul trains nationwide at the very peak of demand.
That’s not a primary transportation purpose being subsidized. It’s a subculture.
On any given day, in small towns and big cities across the country, tens of thousands will convene at thousands of separate sites to watch death metal bands, to throw cosplay parties, to race their muscle cars. And that’s fine. But no one thinks the federal government should be showering those subcultures with millions in subsidies. Railfandom should really be no different.
Oh, and I checked. I could buy a ticket to either Chicago or Los Angeles on trains leaving tomorrow.* Your protestations of a regular lack of seat supply may be a bit… overstated.
*(Of course, for only $65 more in each case, I could buy a last-minute ticket for air travel and, y’know, actually get there tomorrow too.)
A few years ago in November I made a sudden trip to Chicago to visit a friend who had a short time between Navy assignments. Last-minute flights were in the $650 range, but Amtrak had a seat around $300 I think. I literally bought the ticket one afternoon and traveled the next morning. The train was a quarter full in the west but filled up completely in North Dakota. Of course, early November is one of the lowest-travel periods so I wouldn’t expect the same deal in the summer or around Christmas.
Actually, I bought the ticket in the morning and departed that afternoon. I though that’s what I had done, but Amtrak’s scheduler was down so I couldn’t verify it, so I thought, “It’s 12 hours to the midnight pause in Spokane so I couldn’t have departed in the afternoon, I must be imagining that.” But it’s actually 8 hours and the train departs at 4:40pm, so my original recollection was right after all.
Then your train was busier than tomorrow’s $175 train.
And booking further ahead, of course, will tend to erase any discrepancy between the 4-hour and 48-hour journeys.
Either way, the proposition that there is huge unmet demand for really slow travel is roundly false.
You have obviously not attempted to travel by Amtrak too much.
+ Very frequently the Coast Starlight is sold out between Eugene and Sacramento. In the 1980s, before the new ticketing system, one of the main complaints from passengers was that it was frequently over booked to the point they had to use the diner and the lounge as extra seating capacity.
+ The people you will actually meet on the train are almost always those that are traveling that way because they are trying to get someplace, not because they are railfans. Again, if you don’t believe me, try it sometime.
Looking at this supposed train tomorrow that is empty, the Empire Builder has one roomette left at the $786 level. There are NO lower level seats left, so if you are elderly / handicapped / otherwise need a lower level seat you don’t have that option. There are no family size rooms or standard bedrooms.
However, sleepers generally make a net profit, so having those sell out is a source of financial problems.
Seattle -> Los Angeles? Sure, tomorrow you can get there for $145, but again all lower level seats are sold out, and again only a roomette is available for sleepers.
Try again in a few months, and look at the summer seating, and you will find a very different story. Usually, by mid-May or so a number of the trains in June will be sold out. Not all of them, but certain high demand days.
Also, the story told above where the train leaves Seattle half – empty, and is then sold out by the time it reaches Chicago, is a pretty common phenomena. North Dakota to Chicago winds up being the limiting area for the Empire Builder. People who would like to travel Seattle -> Chicago can’t when that happens, because the North Dakota -> Chicago traffic has filled all the seats.
Ideally, there would be more capacity operated between North Dakota and Chicago, which would free up capacity Seattle -> Chicago. Last I knew, there were quite a pile of Superliners awaiting wreck repair at Beach Grove, and Congress had allocated funds in the budget for their repair, but Congress had not authorized the expenditure.
I’m sorry, Glenn, but your defenses above bring you dangerously close to the backward-bending, willful-blindspotting, and reality-warping of your crazier subculture cousins.
Upstairs/downstairs? Roomette or room-lite? Who cares!? The train holds barely a few hundred people, and for all of the intermediate “demand points” it supposedly passes on its 48-hour journey, it will be traveling with seats empty! It does so more often than not, year-round. The number of people willing to spend $800 to crawl across the northern reaches of the country in “profitable” sleepers maxes out at about 50, and it isn’t going to get any higher.
Those people who in your experience “are [just] trying to get someplace” have chosen the least time- and cost-efficient ways to do so. They are, by definition, behaving irrationally in their modal selection. There’s no harm in this irrational choice, but it does mean that they are assigning significant value to the journey over the destination, choosing rail for the sake of choosing rail. That makes them part of the niche.
Again, we’re talking a few hundred people on once-per-day trains. The same number of people will show up to see some Balkan-punk-rap-techno hybrid band you’ve never heard of at the Doug Fir. Should the federal government subsidize every Balkan-punk-rap-techno hybrid concert ticket to the tune of hundreds of dollars? Why not? It’s a niche/subculture of equal economic and likely greater numerical significance!
Glenn, I know you’re not nearly as beyond the pale as the “Acela is cooked” liars. That those guys could straight-facedly claim a corridor which successfully beats the airlines for business travelers (at business-travel fares), which carries an order of magnitude more passengers than the rest of the Amtrak system combined, which has virtually conquered travel between New York City and the nation’s capital, is “secretly the real money loser” is laughable on its face, and makes them the literal enemies of rail as useful transportation.
All I ask of the railfan contingent is to try a little harder to view policymaking on rational terms. SEA-PDX Cascades is one of the great Amtrak success stories, offering a service on its way to being as time-competitive as Acela for a fraction of the fare. It is has the potential to capture significant modeshare along its route, which is why Congress prohibiting further investment in it (while doubling down on the long-haul money toilet) is an obscenity. I long for the day when SEA-VAC is equally effective, as it has every geometric reason to be. On the other hand, PDX-VAC is never going to be a competitive train trip — the single-digit demand backs me up on this — and that’s okay!
Chicago-MSP too has every reason to benefit from speed enhancements and usable frequencies. If the once-per-day train is so well-used from North Dakota, then there’s no reason not to continue one trip beyond MSP, optimized for convenient hours and taking advantage of Chicago-MSP improvements, while adding capacity in the form of more seats and fewer bedrooms. None of this requires sending the train another 1300 miles to Seattle at a staggering loss. Sorry. No one needs their pet interest subsidized that badly.
d.p. — February is Amtrak’s weakest month, followed by January. Sellout conditions on Amtrak happen at Thanksgiving, in June-July, and sometimes around Christmas and New Years.
Of course, when you’ve got the rolling stock for June, there’s no real savings in *not* running it in Feburary — this sort of seasonal fluctuation in load factor is unavoidable.
Glenn: the wrecked Superliners were mostly repaired through the ARRA program. The remaining ones are REALLY wrecked and not economically repairable.
I’m going to, once again, make my plug for looking at the different LD trains and their segments independently. Salt Lake City to Reno is a hopeless route; it is run to get US Senate votes, to reduce the number of maintenance bases needed, and to provide a minimal level of cross-country connectivity for the small clientele who demand it. By contrast, Chicago-Upstate NY(-NYC/Boston) is a very viable route with high popularity (commanding high prices) which simply needs more & faster trains. Most of the other routes are somewhere in between these two extremes. Treating “LD trains” as a monolith risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
FWIW, d.p., you vastly underestimate the market for sleepers across the “uncompetitive” routes. Perhaps “50” was just hyperbole on your part, but if not, you could try looking at Amtrak’s actual sleeper ridership figures for each route, which are several orders of magnitude larger than that. Sure, it’s a niche, but it’s a larger niche than you’re claiming.
d.p., I also suggest you pay a little more attention to Glenn’s comments about lower level seats. Why are these important? Because these are the seats where mobility-impaired people (in wheelchairs, or who otherwise can’t handle stairs) can sit. Amtrak has *disproportionately high* demand (relative to other transportation options) among mobility-impaired people, for reasons which should be obvious when you think about it for a while. Running out of space for them indicates unserved demand.
(This problem is much less acute on the eastern single-level trains with high-level boarding, where people in wheelchairs can get into any car. Arguably the bilevels with their tiny staircases were not well-thought-out.)
No, I suggest you pay attention to what I’m saying, which is that your pet interest has no more inherent value than anyone else’s pet interest.
I did not assign those numbers at random. The long-haul routes carry 300-something seated and 50-odd sleeping passengers each, and that is at or near the peak of demand. Yes, even if trains sell out more frequently in summer. No serious person believes that demand exists to double these routes — never mind to have the “frequent” service you desire — and even then you’d be looking at 0.0001% modeshare among the city pairs supposedly “served”.
The demand here is fringe, any way you crunch it. Get that through your head. It’s railfans and retired people, and even then it’s only the tiniest fraction of the latter. I have some very important disabled — but not retired — people in my life, and they want to get to their freaking destinations quickly, just like 99.9999% of everybody else. They’d also resent your attempt to lump them in with the elderly and time-insensitive.
I have no trouble with these trains existing for touristic purposes, but there’s no rational basis on which to subsidize them to the tune of hundreds of dollars per boarding. Period.
There are real people who “are [just] trying to get someplace”– I’ve done the Chicago -> Seattle trip in a roomette, and that’s more expensive than flying and so you’d only do that if you’re a railfan or have some condition that prevents flying, but my friend has done that trip a couple times a year without a roomette (sleeping in the seats) because it’s cheaper than flying. She did that as a single mom taking her kids from WA (where she lives) to visit their grandparents in IL for xmas or summer vacation. I don’t know if that means Amtrak deserves subsidies, but it is real transportation rather than just a hobby for some people.
What I meant is that it is vanishingly rare. As in, a handful of people out of the already tiny-in-the-grand-scheme sliver of people on the train. Perhaps a few thousands in an entire year, out of millions and millions and millions and millions of trips taken.
If your friend’s decision was entirely financial as you say (and not a “my kid loves trains so here goes nothing”), then her situation is even rarer: an air ticket purchased reasonably in advance will be cheaper than Amtrak by a mile, high or low season. Even buying at the last minute, and even with Amtrak’s youth discount, she probably spent enough in two days of on-board food to have eradicated any savings on the purchase price.
Meanwhile, 99% of those making that trip without flying would have just piled the kids into the car they already owned, or borrowed, or rented, or purchased on Craigslist for less money and less hassle than taking Amtrak 2000 miles.
Others have pointed out that a national mobility subsidy could be far more justly, effectively, and efficiently spent in the form of an Essential Bus Service (like the Essential Air Service, but broader), combined with a program to raise intercity buses out of the indignity in which Greyhound has let them fester. Such a network could actually hub-and-spoke the underserved parts of the country into reasonable connectivity, unbeholden to the arbitrary places rails happened to be laid 150 years ago.
A national bus system would be a class-divided epic fail. There is the simple fact – many middle class and most upper class will not ride a bus. Period, end. This is a problem faced by many mass transit system – the social stigmatism of “bus”. I cannot count how many times I have been told “I will ride a train, I won’t ride a bus”. And if nobody but the poor uses it then it will be a poorly maintained mess [which is currently is, IMNSHO].
And there is some valid grounds for that too. Buses tend to be noisier and more cramped. And you think a train is slow… intercity busses. I am a transit advocate – and I probably will never do it again. As a friend who recently used the intercity Megabus service said: “Never again, never”.
If inter-city bus is the answer – then let’s not bother and just skip it.
Well, they won’t ride a train either. Because the train doesn’t go anywhere they need to go, and it does so at 45mph average once per day.
Again, the modeshare for long-haul Amtrak is so low that it literally doesn’t register on any chart. It is an epic fail as transportation, right before your eyes, today. You can’t just ignore that because trains!
Lifeline intercity bus service using the uncongested, surplus-capacity portions of the Interstate system would travel significantly faster — as buses between, say, Seattle and Spokane already do — while providing service where people might reasonably be headed.
For example, one could use them to connect to cities with higher-volume airports that offer more competitively priced long-haul flights. Because you’re right that just as few people want to cross the country on a bus as they do on a slow-ass train.
Cross country bus as a single mom with two kids ages approx 8 and 6 would be pretty awful (given that you have to transfer several times, compared to no transfers on the Empire Builder) and a cross country drive as the only driver with 2 kids would also be pretty implausible. At least you can sleep in your seat on the train– if you’re driving cross country with 2 kids you might take a chance and sleep on the side of the road, or you might have to pay for motel. She said they brought their own food to avoid having to pay for on-board food. Basically what it comes down to is there is no reasonable way for low-income people to travel cross country– if you’re unemployed and can spare the time for slower train vs. faster plane, then it might be an option. You are right about ticket prices, though– I just checked Amtrak ticket prices for the Empire Builder today and it looks like they have gone up substantially since I last checked (my trip was 5 years ago), so her cost analysis might look different now.
If yer ain’t fer me, your aginst me.
That’s the spirit!
If you cut off funding for worthwhile corridors in California and the Northwest and Illinois in order to beat the drum for long-haul bullshit, Jim, then you are anti-transportation.
If you make the ludicrous claim that the NEC is the money-loser, because it doesn’t hit your nostalgic spirit the same way that the desert vista from your dome car does, then you are anti-transportation.
d.p., again, I ask you, WHICH TRAINS are you talking about. I do not accept people who claim vaguely that “the long distance trains” are the problem. That is a sign of not paying attention.
“If your friend’s decision was entirely financial as you say (and not a “my kid loves trains so here goes nothing”), then her situation is even rarer: an air ticket purchased reasonably in advance will be cheaper than Amtrak by a mile, high or low season.”
On the Empire Builder? Yeah, that is rare. On the Lake Shore Limited? No, actually, airline tickets from Chicago to upstate NY often run higher than Amtrak.
I don’t know what the solution is, Jessica, aside from a better distribution of income in general. Of course, no mode of long-distance travel is infinitely scalable, and more people being able to afford to fly regularly would simply raise the price of those seats.
I would probably be inclined to point out that the expectation of every family criss-crossing the continent multiple times per year is a very recent one, and perhaps there must always be a percentage of people more regionally bound. But that doesn’t seem either equitable or optimistic.
But I think you understand that 48-hour rail trips at 42mph and a $700 subsidy per head is about the least efficient possible way for the government to support the needs of your friend or other mothers like her.
Nathanael, your “no-flying-period market” reality-warping is dangerously close to tin-foil-hat land.
New York to Chicago is two hours on a plane. It’s 12 in a car. It’s nearly a complete day and night on the train. At those differentials, who gives a shit if Amtrak saves $15 at certain purchase dates?
Are there any long-distance trains that carry more than a few hundred individuals per day? No? Well then burn ’em all. Keep regional corridors spliced from within them, where legitimate demand exists.
A few hundred people is not legitimate demand.
How about some facts?
Amtrak’s LD system lost about $627 million in FY 13 and carried 4,753,868 passengers (~13,000 per day). That’s a loss of ~$132 per passenger. The sleepers carried a total of 690,606 passengers in FY 13. That’s an average of about 1900 passengers per day.
Train speeds vary by route: the Coast Starlight averages less than 40 mph (end-to-end), other routes are closer to 50 mph.
So it’s a subculture? So what? The whole country is a collection of subcultures, and most of them are subsidized to one extent or another. The Military. Seniors. Religious folks. Car buffs. Home owners. Aviation foamers. Rail foamers. Sports fans. Transit nerds.
Get off your high horse and join society.
Ah, okay. I can’t wait to receive my $627 million Federal subsidy for the travelling Balkan-punk-rap-techno festival I’m planning (with Cosplay sideshow). I can safely assume I have your support, right, “Citizen”?
Again, the long-haul fetishism that has yet again brought out the crazies today has painful opportunity costs, in the form of Acela’s quality lag and the complete cessation of support for productive regional corridors. (I guess the people who just want a competitive travel option from SEA-PDX weren’t “subculture-y” enough.)
Literally any project designed to efficiently move a statistically significant number of people anywhere in the U.S. would be a better use of $627 million than Amtrak Long Distance is.
The irony here is that government support for the arts — which is what this post was actually supposed to be about, before Glenn unleashed a can of worms by insisting that we critics can’t fathom the enormity of long-haul demand — is something we desperately need in this country! We’re the only developed country that offers essentially negligible support for art and artists, and the non-commercialized facets of our culture have suffered greatly for it.
Unfortunately, I can’t think of a less direct way to support the arts than to give hundreds of millions in easement payments to for-profit freight railroads on the off-chance that a writer might occasionally fill an empty seat for inspiration.
Your own personal fetish does not a subculture make, d.p. And your animosity towards the long-distance trains seems both silly and naive to me. You want to go after waste? Go look at the military. You want more arts funding? Well, in my opinion, and judging from what passes as “public art” these days, We already subsidize that particular gravy train plenty. There’s lots feeding at that trough.
So see? It’s ok to disagree. :-)
And now we’ve traveled in a complete circle without getting anywhere. How fitting for a discussion of Amtrak long-distance.
Do you remember why I brought up the “subculture” comparisons in the first place?
Amtrak long-hauls — which serve no statistically valid transportation purpose, but which you think I’m “silly and naive” not to go kookoo for cocoa puffs over, carry a mere 13,000 very dedicated slowpokes per day.
On any given day, just for comparison, bands playing some obscure kind of music you’d never have any reason to hear/care about will cumulatively bring many tens of thousands of people into performance spaces nationwide to indulge in their particular pet interest. Their interest has no more or less inherent value than the slow trains you like so much. So is it any less “silly and naive” that you wouldn’t see fit to subsidize their subculture?
I never said there isn’t military waste. But that’s irrelevant to a discussion of the present-day transportation pie, from which NEC profits are being raided — and belittled(!?) — because you think trains crawling through the Montana hinterlands are so very awesome.
Amtrak long-hauls are objectively unimportant. Claiming otherwise on behalf of your fetish just makes you objectively wrong.
And speaking of wrong… That you instantly associate committee-whittled “public art” displays with the basic notion of government support for the arts sector exposes how terrible our nation’s relationship to its arts output is. Slipping “1% for crap” into transportation budgets does nothing but inflate transport costs and leave us with mockable art.
Art and artists and arts initiatives should be supported with no-strings-attach grants, just as nearly all European nations do. If you’re a practicing European artist, you can afford to live and work. In the city. Without taking on mountains of debt plus 60 hours of minimum-wage jobs that get in the way of your development. And thus artists have the freedom to push their media forward. Because their contributions add immeasurable value to a society.
I wouldn’t expect a city in which the most incompetent software engineer earns 8x the next Van Gogh to understand this, but economists and pedagogists and psychologists generally agree that America’s marginalization of the arts is profoundly “silly and naive” and destructive in the long term.
Dp, funding for art is abjectiveky unimportant. It doesn’t help me in my life. The 1% for art fund is welfare for people who presume to be creative. The symphony, opera, theate, etc, is more waste, much of it taxpayer subsidized. We need scientist, engineers, physicians, programmers – not some schmucks who imagine themselves artists but who should, in a free market, be working some menial job that suits their intellect. Those who truly have talent will get that recording contract or open that gallery or have their book published.
But yet we fund the arts, and a good many hacks make a healthy living off their own government slush fund. . I don’t begrudge them that. We all gotta live. But they have no purpose. Transportation always has a purpose.
Citizen, as a musician, I need to say that you couldn’t be more wrong. You wouldn’t have much to listen to at a concert — any concert — without government funding of the arts.
Bach? Funded by the church (which amounted to government at the time).
Haydn? Funded almost exclusively by government.
Mozart? Funded by a mix of government and private funds.
Beethoven? Funded almost exclusively by government.
Schubert? Funded mostly by government.
Wagner? Broke and unable to work until he got government funding.
Bruckner? Funded by the church.
Mahler? Funded almost exclusively by government.
I could go on, but you get the point. Western music as we know it (which underlies everything you listen to on your iPotato today) would not have developed but for government (or church) funding. The geniuses who spurred its development would have been too busy sweeping floors to study or compose.
The same is true in other arts.
“Upstairs/downstairs? Roomette or room-lite? Who cares!? The train holds barely a few hundred people, and for all of the intermediate “demand points” it supposedly passes on its 48-hour journey, it will be traveling with seats empty! It does so more often than not, year-round. The number of people willing to spend $800 to crawl across the northern reaches of the country in “profitable” sleepers maxes out at about 50, and it isn’t going to get any higher.”
So says someone who knows nothing about Amtrak. Amtrak’s long distance routes carry just under 5 million people per year. Sleepers carry about 2000 people per day which I think is slightly higher than your 50 number. They’re also breaking all time records for ridership. One point that d.p. doesn’t seem to have any understanding of is “enjoying the journey”. The old grandmas on the train are not “rail fans”, they’re people who prefer to see the country and don’t want to drive. How about the working professionals, the college kids the families. Perhaps he needs to actually ride a train once.
We’re so stuck in this idea that we have to get to our destination as fast as possible and in the process completely miss the journey. Most of the people that I’ve met on trains don’t care one bit about trains, they’re not fans, they’re travellers who chose the nicest way to get across the country and most of them are willing to pay more for it. Look for how many sleeper units are filled per train for that. The last time I rode the Coast Starlight 50% of the train were sleeper cars. It’s very popular.
What anti-rail people are really about is that Amtrak is subsidized. So are airports, air routes, highways, streets and just about every single other method of transportation. If we cut train subsidies then we need to cut ALL transportation subsidies. That means your gas is going to start resembling Europe priced gas and virtually all plane tickets will rise in cost, some will double.
You know what people do when they know their usage numbers are less than stellar but wish to pretend otherwise? They annualize the numbers. It doesn’t fool anyone. All we have to do is divide by 365 to be super unimpressed.
SeaTac airport alone saw 34.7 million passengers last year. Whoops — 5 million on every Amtrak long-haul combined doesn’t seem so impressive anymore, does it?
“Sleepers carry about 2000 people per day”, you say? On about 30 train consists, no? What’s 2000/30? Okay, that’s 67. I was off by seventeen. 67 big spenders per day on routes that costs tens of millions to operate. I am so very, very impressed.
Your Chattanooga Choo Choos are explicitly siphoning money that could be used for valid transportation, like investing in Acela ROW improvements so it can actually live up to its high-speed claims, or bringing Cascades up to reliability snuff.
Slow transportation may be “nice” for long-haul Amtrak’s 0.0000000001% modeshare, but anyone who values their time in the slightest does not give a shit. You are the very embodiment of opportunity cost.
Just be careful when you challenge d.p. you take the time to research the numbers.
His opinions might be couched in religious fervor, but beware falling into the trap of arguing the point his way.
Art is one of the few things that distinguish humans from all living creatures (besides language, toolmaking, and religion). There’s a human necessity for the beautiful, the expressive, etc. If we complletely eliminated art we’d live in a world of the simplest geometric colorless shapes — whatever shapes are most “productive”. I was going to say “like the Brutalist and International Styles” but when I looked at pictures to confirm, even that was too artistic to describe it.
Many famous artists were not recognized in their lifetime but only afterward, so they could not “open that gallery” that made them rich.
I agree that the “1% for art” program, both Seattle’s and Sound Transit’s, have not been particulaly effective, but that’s because they’ve been stunningly bad in choosing human-scaled and non-tacky art. That’s more a problem with the current art trends than with art as a whole. I could see these programs possibly scaled back or turned into a different kind of program (e.g., make the structural pieces of the station beautiful like the Moscow Metro rather than spending on standalone sculptures, or replace concrete plazas/statues/lawns next to highrises with dense flower-and-shrub gardens).
I think this is great. Amtrak has done a lot lately to try to turn its performance liabilities into marketing assets. Ads like these specifically cite the slower speeds and sometimes circuitous routings as charming reasons to ride. Given that — at least for long-distance routes — Amtrak is basically mandated by Congress to run long, unprofitable heritage routes, they may as well make the most of it. Giving writers free sleepers on a space-available basis is a hell of a lot cheaper than hiring a marketing firm, and will probably give them good publicity.
Those long distance routes are not as unprofitable as people think. A recent audit of Amtrak’s books found a bit of `cooking`. The Acela and North East corridor is not as profitable as Amtrak claims [some takes on the NE corridor show it self-sustaining or a bit better] and the long-haul trains financially do better than generally thought. But per-rider-revenue-dollar Amtrak invests more in Acela and the NE corridor – kind of as a show piece [at least that was my reading of the numbers].
Also people misunderstand the ridership of the long-distance trains. The great majority do NOT ride from end-to-end but use them as connections to nearer city pairs. In that use case these trains do serve as a form of primary transportation.
As many of the city pairs on the central corridors, particularly around Chicago and other mid-west cities, see improved services ridership on those corridors is booming. 110MPH service already exists between Chicago and Detroit and that is one of Amtraks busiest and most revenue rich routes. 110MPH is being deployed now from Chicago to St. Louis. That will be a solid route through the a populous section of the midwest.
How about from Pittsburgh to Chicago? You need to get the entire corridor.
> How about from Pittsburgh to Chicago? You need to get the entire corridor.
Upgrades of a corridor require the participation of the state’s DOT. Both Illinois and Michigan DOTs have adopted quite progressive attitudes towards rail.
But Indiana and especially Ohio are quite hostile to rail. So I expect the `quality` system to grow west and south; going east there is just little political support, if not outright political hostility.
The future of passenger rail in Oklahoma and Texas seems bright as well. There is even a new private [for-profit] operator beginning service in Oklahoma this year. The system will be a bit fragmentary for awhile – but even a few years ago predicting this level of improvement would have gotten you laughed out of the room.
Not just the state DOTs, but the railroad owners as well. For the Michigan routes, a portion of the route is owned by Amtrak, and NS has recently sold off a portion of the route.
Ohio has plans for expanding passenger rail in the state. They were on-track to implementing a small piece of that plan until the current governor was elected and reversed that plan. At least WA state got some benefit from the money he turned down.
For Chicago – St. Louis, it’s BNSF and UP. They grudgingly let someone else pay for their capital upgrades.
Texas has a long, long way to go in passenger rail. You can’t even get from Houston to Dallas without detouring all the way to San Antonio and enduring a several-hour layover there in the middle of the night.
A recent audit of Amtrak’s books found a bit of `cooking`.
As best as I can tell, there is no “audit”, internal or external, that claims this. There are, however, many aspersions to this effect cast in the pages of Rail Crazy Monthly-type publications that cater to people who love trains but paradoxically hate transportation. These aspersions are invariably backed up by claims of having “special” knowledge of “how stuff works”, but never with any, you know… math.
Those long distance routes are not as unprofitable as people think. A recent audit of Amtrak’s books found a bit of `cooking`. The Acela and North East corridor is not as profitable as Amtrak claims [some takes on the NE corridor show it self-sustaining or a bit better] and the long-haul trains financially do better than generally thought. But per-rider-revenue-dollar Amtrak invests more in Acela and the NE corridor – kind of as a show piece
There are several different things going on here. The Northeast Corridor trains include Amtrak, and quite a lot of other traffic (MBTA, Metro-North, New Jersey Transit, SEPTA, Maryland Area Rail Commuter, Virginia Railway Express). Those services contribute to the overall cost effective nature of the corridor as they help spread the costs among quite a lot of train traffic. So, Acela has cheaper operating costs just because the fixed costs of having a train service are spread among so many other trains.
Above the rail, Acela is usually net profit for Amtrak, because they can charge a premium for the higher speed tickets. They are also popular at that price, so that there is a fair amount of traffic on them.
They also didn’t cost much of anything for Amtrak to purchase, since the Canadian government was the primary financing package.
At the same time, Acela is hugely expensive to operate and maintain, because it is something unique in the entire world. The Federal Railroad Administration “Tier II” requirements means that it is horribly overweight compared to what the rest of the world operates. There was a plan at some point to add an additional coach to each train set so that they could make more money off them, by selling more seats. Eventually, however, that plan was scrapped because of the huge costs involved in trying to build more one of a kind coaches.
Also, tickets on Acela are not unlimited in price. New York’s Chinatown buses compete on the bottom end of the ticket scale, and there is reasonable air service between many of the cities.
The long distance trains, however, have sleepers. Those tend to be cost effective if not profitable. Yet, many of those long distance trains serve stations that are relatively expensive to operate per passenger due to the relatively few passengers that use the stations. Spokane, for example, has one train a day each direction and really is busy enough to require staffing, but isn’t busy enough to be particularly good when it comes to operating costs. There are dozens of unstaffed stations as well, but they still have to be maintained by someone.
I can see how staffing especially becomes a problem if you’ve got just one train a day serving the station, but with the trains in opposite directions going by several hours apart. It’s hard to find people willing to work a couple hours in spurts with a 3 hour gap in between, so the result is having to pay people to sit there during the entire interval. Add in the fact that every time a train gets delayed an hour, someone at every station has to get paid to sit there an additional hour, things get worse.
“But per-rider-revenue-dollar Amtrak invests more in Acela and the NE corridor – kind of as a show piece ”
Actually, it’s because Amtrak owns it. The separation of ownership is a big deal; Amtrak doesn’t put money into freight-owned lines, because Amtrak has learned from hard experience that the freight carriers will just use the improvements for their own benefit and shaft Amtrak.
Amtrak also invested a bunch into the Keystone (Amtrak owns it), a certain amount into the Springfield line (Amtrak owns it), and a lot into the portion of the Michigan line from Porter, IN to Kalamazoo. Why those endpoints? Because that’s where Amtrak owns it. Amtrak also put money into the Empire Connection (owns it!).
North Carolina has put a lot of money into Charlotte-Greensboro-Raleigh — North Carolina owns it. The local goverments in California have put money into Fullerton-San Diego — because they own it. New York just leased Schenectady-Poughkeepsie and Michigan just bought Kalamazoo-Dearborn, so we should see some investment going into those lines soon too.
The biggest Amtrak project which needs to get done outside the NEC is a passenger-exclusive set of tracks from Chicago Union Station to Porter, IN (known as “South of the Lake”); this is the source of vast delays on all the Michigan corridor services as well as the worst delays on the NY-Chicago, Boston-Chicago, and DC-Chicago routes; if done right it could also improve service on Chicago-Indianapolis, Chicago-Carbondale, and Chicago-New Orleans.
The property acquisition is quite beyond Amtrak’s budget but Michigan and Illinois are looking into it. Indiana is being unhelpful but, frankly, for this small section of track, I think Michigan and Illinois are getting to the point where they’re willing to just buy the land in Indiana themselves. (Which they legally can.)
The comments regarding Amtrak’s books…
…the problem is that standard accounting techniques (GAAP) are crap for railroads. If you’ve ever analyzed the annual reports of Class Is, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you analyze Amtrak using *railroad-specific* techniques, you can get sensible resuits, same as with the class Is.
The big problem relates to the extremely capital-intensive nature of railroads. Railroads have huge fixed costs and tiny variable costs — and this applies at several different levels. (What’s “fixed” and what’s “variable” is relative.)
A reservations system is a large fixed cost, but it can serve anything from a tiny train system to the entire national train system.
A station is a large fixed cost, but it can serve anywhere from one to hundreds of trains.
Operating a train is a large fixed cost — but the variable cost of adding carriages is low.
Operating a carriage is a fixed cost — but the variable cost of adding passengers to it is nonexistent.
Anyway, the point is that economies of scale dominate railroading. As a result, almost all costs are in some sense “overhead” — there are very few actual variable costs in there. Marginal costs are zero until you need to buy a new fleet of trains, and then suddenly they’re a bazillion — stuff like that.
Ordinary GAAP accounting is very bad at handling this. Congressionally mandated “cost allocation” proceudes used by Amtrak are worse, as they misleadingly slather the overhead onto different trains as if it were “operating costs” — when it isn’t actually avoidable cost.
For most analytical purposes, you need to look at marginal costs — which Amtrak doesn’t report most of the time — but in addition to being extremely lumpy due to economies of scale, they’re not additive (the cost of adding one frequency — high; the cost of adding a second — much lower; the savings from removing one frequency — low; the savings from removing all frequencies — potentially higher).
Boardman produced a “direct costs” graph for Congress once (something close to avoidable costs for removing a single route). The Silver Meteor and Palmetto are profitable, the Auto Train is breakeven, and the Lake Shore Limited is close to break-even.
The California Zephyr looks like a money-pit on this graph… but of course Boardman didn’t break down the difference between different *segments* of the route. Denver-Chicago is far more popular than Chicago-California *and* runs faster *and* (as a standalone route) would use only a third of the equipment…
And this is before we start talking about network effects. Revenue allocation doesn’t take the network effects into account: cut a connection and you may lose the entire rest of the trip. You can cut a connection even by changing the schedule of a train or by cutting one of several trains per day. VIA recently cut the late train from Toronto to Sarnia, which was a bad move just from the point of view of the local traffic, but it also broke same-day connections from Amtrak’s Maple Leaf and therefore the connections to an entire network of train routes.
How do you do that sort of accounting? You can do it case-specific, but there’s no good way to put it into GAAP form and give a “this is how profitable X route is”.
Famously, most railroads cut “unprofitable” branch lines in the 50s and 60s only to discover that their “profitable” mainline traffic was connecting from the branch lines. Whoops.
Anyway, my points are:
– economies of scale, including network effects, dominate railroads
– as a result, accounting for railroads is not straightfoward at all, and you can’t get a bottom-line number for the value of any route.
– Go big (high frequency, long trains, big network) or go home.
There are no “network effects” on multi-thousand-mile crawlers that run once a day at 50mph mostly through the middle of nowhere. No one but the frothiest foamer has a through ticket from Little Rock to Fargo via Chicago. Give me a freaking break.
Network effects would have mattered if the same historic company had owned the Morristown-Newark and the New York-Philadelphia lines, and cut the former. It doesn’t have a lick of relevance for Amtrak long hauls.
Actually, last spring I was on the (thrice-daily) train from Champaign to Chicago. I was connecting to the airport, but the guy right next to me was connecting to the Empire Builder to Minnesota.
Take that as un-representatively as you will, but it does happen.
That is way closer to the New Jersey-Pennsylvania example above than it is to Nathanael’s definition of “network effects”.
And wouldn’t your seat-mate have had an infinitely easier journey if Chicago-Minnesota were run as an improved service with multiple departures per day, and designed to legitimately compete with air travel, rather than as part of the Denying The 20th Century Express?
Oh, and Nathanael, I can’t help but note that you’re ignoring Amtrak’s primary non-fixed cost: labor.
Of course, economies of scale allow this marginal cost to be employed quite productively on the Northeast Corridor, on Cascades, or on Chicago-region services. On the long hauls, you’d be looking at a near-doubling of labor costs the moment you added an extra train.
If your point is that network effects are more appreciable on shorter-distance trips, I agree completely. I think Nathaniel’s Maple Leaf – Toronto-Sarnia example falls into the same bucket as a medium-distance trip where network effects matter.
I think Nathaniel’s point is that network effects from a less profitable section of a route might matter for the more profitable section of the route, just as if it were a connection. That’s more reasonable than your Little Rock – Chicago – Fargo example precisely because it’s shorter distance. I agree with him in theory; whether it actually matters in practice is a decision we should make from data.
The problem is that Nathanael’s solar-flare-intensity blind spots prohibit him from making the distinction that you and I are making.
Perhaps there are some routine travelers coming off the Maple Leaf from upstate New York and looking for a transfer to London (more likely than fringe Sarnia). But Nathanael can’t stop himself there. They severed “the connections to an entire network of train routes[!!!]”, he proclaims (imagining a Sarnia resident choo-chooing through Hamilton, Buffalo, and Cleveland to reach Chicago, 400 miles further than driving and thrice as expensive as a plane).
The Maple Leaf does not have “connections to an entire network of train routes”. It’s a problem to be so rail~lusional as to be unable to see that.
Well, I have to say I exaggerated a little when saying “a whole network”, but the reason for that particular random example is that a forum I was on got asked, not long ago, how to get back home from Florida to Sarnia without flying (…that market again, the no-flying-period market, it’s bigger than most people think). Obviously not in a big hurry. They figured they should consider taking the train.
The alternative they presented was driving for three solid days with two hotel overnights (no nighttime driving for safety reasons). Due mostly to broken connections, any existing train route manages to be *much slower than that* and therefore no good at all.
Which is ridiculous. There is enough population to support corridor services along the entire route. But the broken connections screw it up.
Yeah, my focus is perhaps too laser-like. But you get customers you might not predict if you’ve got a network, and one break in the chain loses you the entire trip. I still remember the people walking away from the Amtrak ticket counter in Syracuse when they found out they couldn’t get from Toledo to Detroit by train.
Outside the commuter corridors, intercity travel is something most Americans simply don’t do that often — a few times a year at most. This applies no matter how you’re travelling. But the airline network (although it’s shrinking, and I predict doom in a few decades) is still complete enough that most people assume that whereever they’re going they can get there by air (maybe with multiple long, unreliable transfers). The passenger railroad network in the US isn’t.
Yes, of course, network effects apply more to high-frequency corridors and short corridors.
Would I replace the Lake Shore Limited with frequent (many times daily) corridor trains, connecting to each other along the entire route? In a New York minute.
Is that a real trade-off? No, it’s not. In practice, what we get is incremental addition of one frequency at a time to part of a route, and it’s better to have one run which connects through than none at all. I don’t know WHY we never get “big bang” corridor starts — I really do think “go big or go home” is the right way to do things — but it doesn’t seem to match the politics of the situation.
Not even in the Northeast Corridor, which has been slowly upgraded and restored in an agonizingly slow series of underfunded mini-projects, which still leave it with massive deferred maintenance.
Hell, this even applies to local rail. Look at your Seattle history. Central Link, even with the various extensions, is an inferior second-best to Forward Thrust… but did Forward Thrust actually get built? No, because somehow the political alignment has not allowed for “big bang” rail projects in most places for a very long time. Perhaps since the IND Second System was cancelled. I’m not sure, maybe the mood will change.
“There are no “network effects” on multi-thousand-mile crawlers that run once a day at 50mph mostly through the middle of nowhere. No one but the frothiest foamer has a through ticket from Little Rock to Fargo via Chicago. Give me a freaking break.”
I’m sure you know this as fact? Ride a long distance train some day and do yourself a favor and wander around (you can do that you know) and BS with your fellow travellers. Ask them where they’re coming from and where they’re going. Also ask them why they’re on the train. You’ll be surprise with the answers. It took me riding both the Coast Starlight AND the Empire Builder to change my opinion of LD trains.
Don’t worry, when you come back here understanding what you currently don’t we’ll still be nice to you. 50% of all people on long distance trains do not ride them from end to end. That means the other half do. Out of those 50% a significant portion of them are not originating in either end city. It’s not uncommon for people on the Coast Starlight to be going to/from San Diego and/or Vancouver BC. The Starlight doesn’t go to either place. I’ve run into people from Texas and Montana on that train. I haven’t however, ran into people from the east coast on that train.
Get on a train and talk to people, that’s all I ask. Ignorance is so unbecoming.
Are foamers really unfamiliar with the concept of “the exception that proves the rule”?
A couple hundred people per day make the profoundly irrational decision to ride all the way from San Diego to Vancouver at 40mph. Good for them. That doesn’t require $627 million in government support.
Sorry, that’s a couple of hundred slowpokes (at the very, very highest) who ride all the way on the Coast Starlight. You’d be lucky to find a single soul continuing to Vancouver. (Cascades, with its less foamer-y clientele, has fewer than ten daily PDX-VAC through riders.)
Any way you slice it, you’re looking at exception proving the rule kinds of ridership numbers.
Amtrak is on the right track, but I don’t think this particular writing thing will be effective. The prize is too small, and publicity from it will be tiny, as well. Besides, people don’t write anymore. They Tweet, and Post, and Blog, and Vine, and Instagram, and Text, and Youtube. Amtrak is old world. Forgotten. Why remind people of that fact with an old world skill and pastime; writing? Still do a gimmicky marketing thing, but hip it up. Bring it up to date. Perhaps, instead, if they offered 10 years of free rides to any passenger who, for example, takes a video on an Amtrak train that goes viral. Something like that.
When ever larger numbers of people came to be able to afford air travel, not only our passenger railroads, but also our intercity bus companies either went out of business or survived badly degraded.
I can remember long-distance trips in beautiful red and yellow Union Pacific sleeper coaches with lovely green interiors. Also a lot of really enjoyable very long distance travel aboard Greyhound buses, including the impressive semi-double-deck Scenicruisers.
Through a country that, before the enormous shopping malls, really was worth many hours of traveling through instead of speeding over. It’s comforting to observe that the plant world visibly starts to destroy pavement after less than a year of deferred maintenance.
I really do believe that future generations, starting with the ones now in high school, will decide they want to live in a country that meets this description. Seeing the construction quality of a lot of present sprawl, shouldn’t take much diesel behind a Caterpillar blade to clear it for restoration.
But in preparation, it might be a good time to start discussing just how long a single passenger rail line should be. The high-speed trains of Europe run through an entire continent that could fall into the continental United States and take trained dogs to a month to find. The Trans-Siberian is probably the world’s most instructive remaining example for our own rail system.
(Any readers ever ride on it? Still future travel plan for me. Want a few trips on the Crimean trolleybus line between Yalta and Simferopol, across the Yaila Mountains. Doubt the Russian soldiers would be much more disruptive than passengers on one or two Metro routes.)
The history seems to show that the subsidies for car travel, more than those for air travel, are what destroyed the railroads. The Interstates, not the airlines, seem to be the point correlated with the decline.
“The Trans-Siberian is probably the world’s most instructive remaining example for our own rail system.”
I haven’t taken it; I know some people who have. It is a decent model. First things to realize are:
(1) It runs on time.
(2) There are many trains per day, locals and expresses.
The Trans-Siberian route actually MUCH MUCH longer than anything the US has ever considered. The US could be dropped into Siberia and it would look tiny. Russia has EIGHT TIME ZONES, and the Trans-Siberian runs through seven of them. The US has four, not counting Alaska and Hawaii. Think about it. Worth noting is that there are massive cities scattered along this route — the cities which won World War II, because the Germans didn’t realize that there were giant industrial cities behind the Urals. Perm, Ekaterinburg, Tyumen, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk — these all have populations over half a million. (By all accounts ridership drops off quite a bit between Irkutsk and Khabarovsk; most tourists turn south on the Trans-Mongolian route at this point rather than continuing to Vladivostok.)
I have taken the Moscow-St. Petersburg sleeper. Before the construction of the 4-hour high-speed train route, the 8-hour sleeper was an extremely sensible and effective route.
Europe does have some lessons regarding longer-distance travel; most of them come from Germany’s CityNightLine. As you construct high-speed routes, what happens is that the distacnce over which you want to run sleeper trains becomes longer — the suitable and popular runtime for a sleeper train remains *exactly the same*, but the distance is longer. So with all the ICE high speed lines in Germany, CityNightLine is now mostly dedicated to serving trips which cross Germany entirely, from Switzerland to Denmark, stuff like that.
Anyway, if we’re going to use the Trans-Siberian as a model, the important things are to run on time, run multiple frequencies, and make sure to hit the big cities (half a million or more) — and then try to run as fast as possible.
The US actually *does* have the population structure to justify it in many places; we have enough half-a-million-population cities and they’re close enough together.
In the East, the so-called “long distance” trains generally actually stop in appropriate cities, and they just need more frequencies and faster running. The Lake Shore Limited, Capitol Limited, City of New Orleans, Silver Star, Silver Meteor, Crescent, and even the Cardinal stop in largely the correct cities. I can quibble over routes from Toledo to Chicago, and of course the Cardinal is crippled by slow running and three-a-week scheduling, but on the whole these are strings of cities with *potential*.
The Texas Eagle similarly hits a perfectly reasonable run of cities, it just runs too slow for words. Along pretty much segment of its route, it does far worse than driving, which is actually not true for most of the Eastern trains. And it’s late all the time too, of course. Despite this it is actually fairly popular, with growing ridership.
East of the Praries, the problem Amtrak has is that the freight railroads won’t run its trains on time or at reasonable speeds. That’s it. The routes are fine and have great potential.
But the actual routes taken by Amtrak in the West fail to reach big cities in several cases.
The Empire Builder has a fine route from Chicago-Milwaukee, skips Madison but still has an OK route to Minneapolis. But then it goes through territory with no really big cities, and west of Fargo, it skips even the medium-sized cities (it should go via Billings, obviously).
The California Zephyr carefully misses the entire string of medium-sized cities in Iowa, which are neatly lined up in a line on a railroad. (There is a proposal for Iowa to Chicago corridor service which would rebuild this, but it has been going nowhere because the Iowa legislature is run by anti-rail nuts.) It takes the most reasonable route from Omaha to Denver… and then takes a slow route through the mountains via Grand Junction to serve skiers rather than taking the faster route from Denver to Salt Lake City. There is then nothing between Salt Lake and Reno, followed by a slow route through the mountains to California. (Despite which, California to Reno apparently attracts a lot of passengers. Reno to Salt Lake doesn’t, nor does Salt Lake eastwards. I strongly suspect this of being run largely because it’s cheaper than building a maintenance base in Reno and one in Grand Junction — which goes to show you how tricky railroad accounting actually is.)
The Southwest Chief goes LA-Flagstaff-Albuquerque (fine) but then wanders off through the middle of nowhere before getting to Kansas City (Kansas City-Chicago also does fine). Going through Amarillo and Wichita would make far more sense.
Bizarrely, there is a campaign afoot to try to *keep* the train on its current, no-population route rather than rerouting it through Wichita and Amarillo to provide much improved service to many more people at lower cost. If this is the sort of railfan you complain about, d.p., I’m *right there with you*.
The Sunset Limited goes from LA to Phoenix — which would be fine except that it fails to stop in Phoenix, instead stopping way outside Phoenix. Then to Tucson (fine), El Paso (fine), San Antonio (long gap but OK), Houston (good), various Louisiana cities, and finally New Orleans.
But it *only runs three days a week*, making it useless. As a daily-or-better train stopping in Phoenix, this line actually has real potential to be like the Trans-Siberian and serve lots of people, thanks to the large cities which have grown up along the line — but it’s currently useless due to insufficient frequency and skipping one of the biggest cities on the route.
The Coast Starlight’s problems seem more akin to the problems of the eastern trains; that is, they are not problems of routing, they are problems of running on time, frequency, and speed. It takes a viable route through medium-sized cities in California, and then gets from Sacramento to Eugene as quick as it can. Of course, it would be better if it stopped in Medford, but it’s not as bad as skipping Phoenix is.
It is worth noting that some of the best possible longer-distance routes — between cities in Texas, across Georgia, across Ohio — simply don’t have any train service at all. And they don’t have train service for entirely political reasons.
I also can’t figure out the opposition by NM to keep the Chief on its current route. There’s talk about sending it up to Pueblo, but the Amarillo route seems better and faster.
Central Iowa service is definitely needed and that would do well, whether as a rerouted Zephyr or its own line.
The Empire Builder would benefit from taking the route through southern Montana via Billings, Missoula, etc. Sending it down into Madison would probably be worth the time.
A Chicago to Miami train like the Floridian seems like a gap in the system, I bet that would do ok.
If you honestly think Amarillo or Wichita to Flagstaff is an orgy of pent-up rail demand, then you are most definitely one of those railfans.
Please also note that the commenter above me, who assures us that “Central Iowa service is definitely needed and would do well”, is named after a terribly scheduled and vestigial bus route that mostly shadows a better route and hardly ever has any passengers.
Well, d.p., I guess you just don’t understand the demand for intercity rail service.
There *is* actually enough pent-up demand for intercity rail service in Wichita that locals have been actively campaigning for service. Particularly to Kansas City and Oklahoma City. (The state government does not care, of course.)
Amarillo, I really didn’t think they would care at all about rail service, but the city council was willing to drop $2 million to buy the former train station on a *completely* speculative basis just because of rumors that they might have a chance at train service.
Check the metro area population numbers. These are actual cities.
The route through central Iowa is a string: Quad Cities, Iowa City, Des Moines, Omaha, which contains basically the entire population of Iowa (well, if you assume people will drive from Cedar Rapids to Iowa City, which they will), and most of the population of Nebraska too. These are again actual metro areas, comparable in size to the ones on the Trans-Siberian. And the cities are not unreasonably far apart from each other.
The all-of-Iowa route is a better route than the Carbondale route or the Quincy route, which are considered “corridors”, and a hell of a lot better than any of the routes through Vermont, which have received substantial amounts of funding.
If you think the Quincy and Carbondale corridors and both Amtrak routes to Vermont should be deleted, then at least you’re consistent. Otherwise… think harder, d.p.
I guess you don’t understand that the handful of boardings you portray as whopping success stories do not constitute “demand” in any real sense of the world, and do not justify $700 losses per ticket when real transportation needs elsewhere are starved for funds.
And apparently you don’t understand that a handful of agitators with internet connections do not represent “pent-up” anything, or that electeds love faith-based civic investments.
You also don’t understand that claiming “these are real cities” is tilting at windmills, when those cities all have pervasive car cultures that render it insane to visit without a vehicle, and that give residents no reason to backtrack to a centralized depot to access a slower and more expensive means of intercity transportation.
If you want to see intercity rail demand in a future America, support advances in comprehensive urban transit (and no, that doesn’t mean streetcars), and support regional rail investments in, around, and between those places. Nobody takes trains to where they’ll be screwed if carless.
d.p., your claims of $700 losses per ticket are fundamentally fictional. I discussed the near-impossible problem of railroad accounting above. One of the conclusions is that the concept of “loss per ticket” is practically useless.
If you don’t think a meaningful number of people in Wichita or Amarillo will take trains, because of a “pervasive car culture”, take it up with their city governments. I tend to assume that places with a “pervasive car culture” will actually actively vote against spending so much as a dime on train service, as they have done elsewhere (including the whole of Georgia, Kentucky, etc).
It’s far easier to calculate where you’re simply renting an easement from a freight railroad, is it not.
The costs are staffing + lump payments to the railroads, and little else. The revenues are fares + subsidies.
(Don’t even bother to consider website maintenance or ticket counters in places like Chicago as “costs”, since the vast, vast majority of those resources are consumed by the honest-to-god demand of NEC trains and Chicagoland ticket sales.)
That’s incredibly easy to calculate. And, unsurprisingly, the routes with multi-thousand-mile easements and on-board staffing and staffing along the way and ridership you could fit in my apartment lose huge amounts of money!
The Empire Builder needs to go south through most every large city in Montana. If possible it could then cut through the Black Hills then proceed east. This way it’s close to two national parks and a couple hundre thousand more people. There used to be a train that went that route but it’s been gone for quite a while.
My biggest problem with the Empire Builder is the schedule. It really needs to leave Seattle 8 hrs earlier (8am) so it would arrive in Spokane in the afternoon, Whitefish late at night, Minneapolis in the afternoon and Chicago early in the morning. That would put the sleeping hours in the boring parts of Montana and Minn/Wis.
You lost me at “every large city in Montana”.
Slow-train contortionist-defenders really have trouble understanding scale, don’t they?
Central Iowa service would serve Davenport, Iowa City, and Des Moines with a total urban area population of over 800,000. It would be better than the Burlington route. Amarillo and Witchita wouldn’t be an orgy of ridership but that route would do better than current route through Las Vegas NM, Trinidad, and a few other small cities.
Bus 62 is a reference to an old Youtube video that went viral a long time ago.
That’s nice. Iowa City is a charming college town, Davenport is barely a city, and Des Moines is the archtypal sprawling Midwestern burg with a car-and-garage-and-skywalk culture and no incentive to access a downtown railway station.
Meanwhile, I-80 is virtually without congestion the whole way, while the rail line in question winds around like a snake. Fine for freight travel, useless for people.
It’s delusional to think that slightly-less-ridiculous-than-the-present-route service makes for a home run.
d.p.: Davenport service (well, Moline) is already funded and under construction. I assume you disapprove of it? And disapprove of Quincy service? They can always drive to Aurora on (relatively) uncrowded highways!
If that’s your position, at least you’re consistent.
I take it you also disapprove of the Amtrak route through Vermont (maximum speed 59 mph — and that’s a very recent upgrade — on a very twisty route — largest city Burlington with a metro area population of only 211,261)?
(By contrast, the Iowa route can be run at 90 mph without too much work, according to the studies.)
I asked you this before.
If you think so, you’re taking a consistent position: don’t run trains to smallish cities where there are uncrowded road alternatives. I still think you’re *wrong*, but your position is *defensible*.
If you don’t think so… well, I’d like to know what you’re thinking, and what makes Burlington and Davenport/Moline worthy of service while Des Moines isn’t.
If your answer is arbitrary distance numbers, you haven’t been paying any attention at all. Time is what matters, not distance, and Burlington loses horribly on time.
If your answer is “Iowans vote against train service, Vermonters and Illinois residents vote for it” (which is fundamentally why things are the way they are) then fine, that’s a very defensible position — we do live in a democracy, supposedly. But then you have to support North Dakota service too.
Frankly I think the Empire Builder route beyond Minneapolis is ridiculous; it isn’t even the best route if you *are* going to run a train from Minneapolis to Seattle, and it seems to be completely impossible for it to be improved sufficiently to even run on *time*.
But I don’t understand what you’re thinking, and it seems like you’re generalizing your attack beyond that specific case. A lot of people have an unreasoning hostility to “long-distance” trains because of the name “long-distance”, nothing more. Or because they carry sleeper cars, which are derided thoughtlessly as “toys for the rich”. Or because they are believed to go through “flyover country” (which some of them do and some of them don’t). Or because they have dining cars, which are again derided thoughtlessly as “toys for the rich”. I don’t want to assume that you’re just being stupid like these people are, but if none of the above views are yours, it starts being really easy to believe that you have one of the *dumb* views.
d.p., you’re right that Iowa is a very car-oriented place. I’ve spent quite a bit of time there and have never heard of someone taking Amtrak from point A to point B within the state. Intercity bus service is used only as a last resort. Even in Des Moines, the state’s capital and largest city, the only transit service to the airport is a thrice-daily unidirectional route that seems designed to provide bare-bones commute coverage for airport workers who can’t afford cars.
The only partial exceptions to the state’s total automobile domination are the college towns where a good percentage of the student body doesn’t own a car and local bus service is decent if not great. This is where I think a large portion of potential intercity train ridership could come from. Carless college kids in Iowa City who want to visit family in the Quad Cities or go to an event in Des Moines currently have little choice but to get a ride over the entire distance from friends or family. I’m sure there are a lot of parents who would jump at the chance to buy their kid a train ticket once in a while when the alternative is driving a few hours round trip to pick them up from school.
Similarly there are lots of senior citizens in the state who might be able to drive to the train station in their hometown without incident, but a three-hour drive to visit family halfway across the state might not be the safest idea in the world. Many of these folks would appreciate a train option as well.
A train going through Iowa City and Des Moines on its way to Omaha could get decent ridership if tickets were priced well. It certainly couldn’t do worse than the towns that make up the current route. Would the routing change be enough to make the trip profitable? I honestly have no idea, but I doubt it.
I agree with you that the current subsidy for these long-distance routes is too high. If we can’t find a way to operate these routes with a much lower subsidy, we should cancel the routes entirely. That said, as long as we’re subsidizing the main competition (highways) to such a massive degree, some subsidy for intercity rail service does make some sense in my opinion.
The primary difference is that just a couple of hours travel from the Quad Cities will at least put you in an actual metropolis where you can reasonably expect to function without a car. Reverse demand will likely be limited to those with a family pick-up at the western end, but with a millions in and around Chicago, that demand could wind up being statistically significant.
(Large, cosmopolitan cities — the real “network effects”.)
None of this applies to Des Moines, because Des Moines is twice as far away, with none of the traffic-bypassing benefit that you got within Chicago’s 100-mile radius. And I have no idea what part of cross-Iowa service you think would run at highway-matching speeds; it certainly won’t be here.
Yes, Vermont is the same. As a destination escape for a city of almost 20 million, it could generate demand, if only the service were decent. But because the service isn’t competitive, this it does not do. If I were headed from New York to the Green Mountains, I’d take a train to Springfield and then rent a car there. Either seriously improve the Vermont service’s routing and appeal (it’s barely close enough that this could work), or just put it out of its misery.
Eric, that’s a reasonable comment. Iowa City’s student population doesn’t guarantee success, but I have no objection to seeing calculations done.
I just can’t suffer the crazies who want skeletal rail to car-oriented nowheres at any cost, and who now claim that because “rail has weird math”, the whopping subsidies magically don’t exist! It’s infuriating.
Also, Eric, thanks for more clearly making my point about how little Des Moines’ “urban” population matters when it has no public-transportation culture to speak of and is aggressively decentralized outside of the business district.
“Or because they have dining cars, which are again derided thoughtlessly as “toys for the rich”.”
What? Do they think people can go 24 or 48 hours without eating? Do they expect them all to go to the snack car for cookies and hamburgers? (And then the snack car would have to be bigger, turning it into a … dining car.) Or do they want the train to stop at McDonald’s like Greyhound does? FWIW, train meals cost the same as sit-down restaurant meals, so I assume they cover their costs.
An occasional writer or two is not going to make or break Amtrak’s financial model, It’s a neat thing to do and could produce some writing that those long distance train diehards (and maybe some other folks) will want to read. When you think of the billions of dollars of pro-automobile propaganda that the car and oil companies churn out, the cost of a free train ticket seems pretty miniscule.
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