Overperforming Rail Lines

Amtrak’s latest addition to the Northeast Corridor network, the once daily Lynchburg extension, is overperforming. Both Amtrak’s press release and local reporters brag that this train has overperformed ridership expectations by a factor of 2.5 and revenue expectations by a factor of 3. As a result, it has been consistently operationally profitable, in fact the only train to have this distinction other than the Acela.

The remarkable thing about it is that service levels aren’t high. The average speed south of Washington is mediocre, about 80 km/h. NARP talks about the importance of frequency; but the train is once daily, and is offset by only two hours from the Crescent, a long-distance train covering the same route. There were weak signs of pent-up demand on the Crescent – it sometimes sells out due to limited capacity, but even then it loses money like all other long-distance trains.

The best explanation for this success is that, although the route is slow, so are the competing highways. There are no Interstates that realistically compete with this train; I-81 is too far west. Google Maps gives a Washington-Lynchburg travel time of 3:32, versus 3:46 on the Regional and 3:30 on the Crescent. Add in traffic and the train can beat the car.

A more general point is that bad service that is failing could become more successful if it were improved. German regional trains that were closed due to low ridership when they ran just a few times per day are now flourishing after reopening on an hourly clockface schedule. And several Amtrak corridor runs improved their ridership and finances after more than daily or twice daily frequency was added; they just have to compete with faster roads, so they still lose money.

The next issue is then what other gaps there are in the Interstate network to be filled by trains. I’d say the biggest is Chicago-Kansas City, on which the Southwest Chief takes 7:11 and, since the only all-freeway route detours through St. Louis, driving takes 8:33. But this is a much longer distance, and the route is served by air. At shorter range, some other options I’m thinking of are Chicago-Fort Wayne and New York-Albany-Burlington. Any other suggestions?

Edit: for a similar view on frequency, see this rant, sourced to, I believe, the URPA. There are a lot of things in there that are just insane, but the point about financial performance improving with service levels is true. Too bad the implication is that those extra frequencies belong on long-distance rather than medium-distance trains. With the same equipment as just one extra long-distance run, Amtrak could run 4-5 times daily frequencies on an important corridor run.


  1. John

    I drive from Chicago to Fort Wayne a few times a year on my way to Ohio and US-30 is a better route than you might expect. Fort Wayne is also smaller and less transit-friendly than you might expect. Nevertheless, routing the line from Chicago to Toledo and Cleveland through Fort Wayne would make sense to me, especially if they did it at a convenient time of day instead of 3 AM like they do now.

    For other routes, Indianapolis to Bloomington to Evansville lacks an interstate freeway (a new I-69 is being planned). Not sure what the demand would be like though.

    • Alon Levy

      Fair enough… but Lynchburg and Charlottesville are also small (smaller than Fort Wayne). I don’t know how transit-friendly any of the three is; it could be that Fort Wayne is more spread out.

      Are you the same John who blogs on Xing Columbus?

      • John

        Agree that Lynchburg is small. I have a cousin who went to school there and a frliend who lived there for a while (eventually moved to Charlotte), but I haven’t visited, so I don’t have much of a feel for the urban form. Maybe Fort Wayne would surprise me. I’ll gladly support new train service from Chicago.

        …and yes, I’m the same John

  2. Joseph E

    Train service to Mexico could be amazingly successful, if the border waits could be kept as short as possible (in fact, this would be the main benefit). Right now some of the busiest intercity buses in the western half of the country are express routes that stop in just major cities on the way to Mexico. The low cost of the ticket is key. But comfortable, fast train service with short border waits could be popular even at a moderate cost.

    I understand that many other countries historically had border checks done by officers who walked thru the train, between the last station and the border, so the train would not need to stop for passports to be checked. This could save 30 minutes to an hour at a border crossing, or even more.

    Consider that the San Diego Trolley gets impressive ridership at the station at the border crossing, despite sometimes 1 hour waits to walk thru the crossing, and poor connections on the Mexican side.

    If, say, the Pacific Surfliner could continue to Tijuana, this would be very popular. And a train from Mexical to El Centro, Indio, Riverside and then Los Angeles might be profitable (there is no direct freeway between Indio and Mexicali; 8 to 5 takes at 4 to 5 hours not including the border wait for a 230 mile route) if the tracks are in good condition. Further east, Chihuahua to Albuquerque via Juarez/El Paso seems possible, and Monterey to Houston via Corpus Christi could work (though these are long enough to need HSR upgrades to be time-competitive with flights).

    • Zmapper

      Sadly with the current realities a Mexico-USA train would be branded the Illegal Express by pundits and politicians. Plus you run into problems with how the governments pay for it, who operates it, who gets the revenues, etc. But ignoring current political realities, a LA-SD-Tijuana train would be useful to many.

      • Wad

        You could say the same about the current San Diego Trolley, which carries about 60,000 between Downtown and the border.

        San Diego’s economy also has tens of thousands of Mexican nationals who work in the U.S. and go home to Mexico daily.

      • Alon Levy

        Cross-border service would be great, if DHS were less paranoid. But if they were, chances are the border crossing would be faster by car as well. At present commuter volumes, a rail shuttle from San Diego to Tijuana would probably get airport-style security and immigration, more because that’s what DHS is used to than because it’s at all sensible.

  3. Nikko P

    Where does it say in the article about the German Regional rail line that increased frequency led to higher ridership? It does mention that ridership on the Bielefeld-Dissen/Bad Rothenfelde line was higher after the modernization but the article doesn’t attribute the higher ridership to higher frequency (in fact it doesn’t even mention frequency on that particular segment).

    I’m not denying that this is true, I would just like some clarification so I can cite it myself later.

    • Alon Levy

      There are other links for this, in the context of the need for off-peak service on regional transit. Within the same website, the quote can be found here: “If railroad service is always there when needed, ridership at ‘normal’ times of the day improves.”

      Human Transit is probably the best online source for the general idea for urban transit. The obvious way to extend this to intercity trains is that the shorter the distance, the more frequency matters, which is why local urban transit needs to run at least every 10-15 minutes all day to be useful, regional rail every 30-60 minutes, corridor trains 4-8 times daily, and long-distance trains once daily. Or you can think of it in terms of flying – daily flights on low-traffic intercontinental routes succeed where they’d fail on routes where driving is an option.

      • ant6n

        It seems to me that revival in regional rail was also due to the rail reforms since the 1994 and the way the operations are contracted out and subsidized now. There has also been a lot of investment into the infrastructure.

        Thirdly, a lot of attractive ticketing options have been made available now, that make travel especially attractive for young people. Regional trains are usually integrated in public transit fares – and public transit fares are integrated into train tickets. Also, there are tickets that are valid for up to 5 people in either one state or for all of Germany for a whole day – young or just price conscious people thus take series of regional trains in lieu of long distance trains. This, btw, works well because of integrated interval (hourly, bihourly) schedules, with regular with decent connections.

        Amtrak seems to moving in the opposite direction – you need to book far ahead online, the whole ticketing process like airlines with all the pains (even their tickets!), boarding gates, lack of connections, no integration with public transit. It seems that if any trains actually work well, it’s all despite Amtrak.

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  5. Nathanael

    “The next issue is then what other gaps there are in the Interstate network to be filled by trains.”

    Ithaca, NY – anywhere. 🙂 We don’t have an Interstate; at one point we were the largest conurbation in the US without one (which shows how overbuilt the Interstate network is). Unfortunately, it would have to be new-build rail, too, because the only rail line we have left goes completely in the wrong direction to get anywhere.

    I’ll second Chicago – Fort Wayne (Fort Wayne is precisely not on the Interstate from Chicago, and there’s a potentially very fast HSR route, which requires upgrading but is at least mostly intact), and Albany-Burlington (which I’d use myself). Also Detroit-Toledo(-Cleveland-NYC), as long as DHS is nutty about border security. (If they stop being nutty, Detroit-Niagara Falls-Buffalo-NYC.) Detroit-NYC is apparently the most requested unserved city pair on Amtrak — when people find out they have to take a bus or go via Chicago they give up.

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