Peak Factors and Intercity Trains

In contrast with Reason’s fraud, CARRD’s Elizabeth Alexis makes a more serious criticism of the XpressWest plan: there is a prominent peak in travel from Southern California to Las Vegas on Friday afternoon and Sunday afternoon, and this means that there will be a lot of ancillary costs associated with peaks, such as extra rolling stock with low utilization rates. More ambitiously, she compares it to commuter trains’ peaks, and uses this to argue that commuter rail-style subsidies may be required. The reality is quite different – intercity trains just cost less to run per seat than local trains, and although the Southern California-Las Vegas travel market may have a stronger peak than most, the difference with high-speed services around the world is (at most) one of degree and not kind.

First, let’s look at how much actual peaking there is between Southern California and Las Vegas. XpressWest’s Environmental Impact Statements include an analysis of current travel patterns (as of 2004) and a ridership projection. This is contained in the ridership forecast in appendix F-D. Table 16, on PDF-page 55, claims that present auto traffic on Friday is 2.03 times as high as on other weekdays and 1.48 times as high as on the average day, including both low-use days and the weekend peak. On Sunday, the numbers are 2.53 and 1.84 respectively. The ridership projections assume that the annual-to-Friday ridership ratio will be 236 (the annual-to-weekday ratio on urban transit systems in the US appears to be about 300). Of course, it is unlikely that traffic is evenly distributed on the peak days – most likely it clusters in the afternoon peak.

However, the same is true, if only slightly less prominently, on existing HSR. For some evidence of this, read SNCF’s proposals for HSR in the US, linked on The Transport Politic, which explain that by rotating trains for maintenance during weekdays SNCF can have near-100% availability for the weekend peak. On PDF-page 195 of the California proposal, it says,

To cater to weekend traffic peaks, train maintenance operations are scheduled to take place between midday on Mondays and Thursday evening and at night.

By timing maintenance in this way, approximately 80% of the fleet can be available in the week (between Monday noon and Friday noon) and as much as 98% at weekends.

This does not mean the peak-to-base traffic ratio on the TGV is 98:80. It is normal on local and regional trains to have both more capacity available for the peak and more crowding. On the TGV all passengers must reserve a seat, but SNCF can instead institute peak pricing. For a random example, I tested Paris-Lyon tickets on October 10th (a Wednesday) and the 12th (a Friday). In both cases, frequency is hourly in the morning and early afternoon and half-hourly in the afternoon peak – but the fare was €25-30 on Wednesday versus €60-89 on Friday beginning at 5 pm. And with only two intermediate stops, both quite far from Paris and in very small towns, the LGV Sud-Est is not a good commuter route. Routes with significant high-speed commuter traffic are different: in the off-peak most Paris-Tours trips require a transfer, and there are only two direct TGVs before the afternoon peak, at 7:34 and 1:40 again on 10/10, and two direct low-speed intercity trains; in the afternoon peak, this rises to half-hourly direct TGVs and additional low-speed trains, and the fare on the two most expensive peak TGVs is €59 versus €15-20 in the off-peak.

In contrast, let us now look at the subsidized local services, both in France (for comparability with the TGV) and in the US and Japan (where schedules are easy to obtain). In Japan, we can use Hyperdia to find the peak-to-base ratio; three heavily used lines in the Tokyo area that I specifically checked – Yamanote, Chuo Rapid (to Tachikawa), and Tokaido Main (to Odawara) – have about twice as much inbound frequency in the peak hour, 8-9 am, than in the afternoon and evening off-peaks. In the US, BART, which is similar in function to European commuter trains, runs 24 trains per hour through the Transbay Tube and the central San Francisco subway at the peak, 16 in the midday off-peak, and 6 in the evenings and on weekends. New York’s subway schedules show a peak-to-midday ratio of about 2, with slightly reduced traffic in the evenings and on weekends. Paris runs 30 tph in the peak on the RER A (in the peak direction) and 20 on the RER B, and 18 and 12 respectively in the midday off-peak; this makes for a lower peak-to-base ratio than on the TGV, but does not lead to profitability.

Elizabeth’s problem with running strongly peaked HSR is that it would have a lot of empty trains, and this by itself would require subsidies. This sounds reasonable, but the actual difference between the profitability of intercity and local trains is not seating utilization. Taiwan HSR had 46% seat occupancy in 2009; it made a profit before interest. The Sanyo Shinkansen averages about 35 actual riders per car (compare car- and passenger-km on PDF-page 19); the 16-car sets that run through from the Tokaido Shinkansen average 83 seats per car, and the 8-car sets that run exclusively on Sanyo average 71. I do not know the seating occupancy on Japanese commuter trains, though it likely averages well over 100%, but in New York, subway cars average 28 passengers, a seat occupancy of about two-thirds. For an alternative measure, taking seating capacity into account, New York subway cars average about 1.5 seats per linear meter, versus 1.4 on the Sanyo Shinkansen.

Nor is the issue a difference of fare – PDF-page 18 of the Sanyo factsheet establishes an average fare of about $0.20 per passenger-km – and unlike on the TGV, fares do not vary based on time of day. Just the operating expenses of the New York City Subway are $0.21 per passenger-km. Those on Sanyo are far lower, judging by JR West’s profitability after depreciation and interest. Something else here is going on: intercity trains can control costs better, perhaps because they have less legacy infrastructure and labor to deal with, or perhaps because faster trips mean that the trains and their operators are more productive.

Of course any operator should strive to reduce the peak-to-base ratio, and doing so can result in meaningful gains in productivity. Vancouver’s busiest bus, the 99-B, benefits strongly from a bidirectional peak; it has not eliminated the peak, but by avoiding unidirectionality, at least the reverse-peak buses don’t run empty.

For XpressWest, it means it is strongly favorable to go after the Las Vegas-to-Los Angeles market, which the Victorville terminus ensures the trains will not serve at all due to passengers’ different responses to transfers at the origin and destination end. So far its plan is to just wait for California HSR to open a Palmdale-Los Angeles link; it has Victorville-Palmdale as a second phase, with plans to either run through-trains to Los Angeles and San Francisco or (worse, and unlikely) make people transfer at Palmdale. This is not enough, and although California is committed to building through Palmdale, it may not have enough money for it; the current budget is $15 billion to complete Bakersfield-Palmdale-Sylmar, which requires $9 billion in outside, presumably federal funding.

At the risk of heresy, let me propose that XpressWest build a medium-speed link, above ground, through Cajon Pass. High speeds are not possible anyway because of the grade, so they might as well compromise on other design standards, build curves of radius 1 km (146 km/h with the currently proposed cant and FRA waiver-free cant deficiency, 160 km/h maximum with unambitious European cant and cant deficiency, 200 km/h with tilting trains and high cant) and not 4 km, and keep everything above ground.

The risk of cost escalation is still higher than for building in the I-15 median north of Victorville, because environmental and geological work may sow that a tunnel is needed in any case. But given that XpressWest can make a profit on Victorville-Las Vegas alone, why not spend a few millions on studying Cajon Pass, and if it proves affordable then build to San Bernardino and if not then not? Independently of what California HSR does northwest of Los Angeles, a route to San Bernardino is already enough to make XpressWest independent of traffic congestion, reduce the need for a large parking lot in Victorville, and raise the number of Las Vegas-to-Los Angeles travelers from zero to small. And beyond that, electrifying and double-tracking Los Angeles-San Bernardino and running through-service cannot be done under present FRA regulations, but is feasible given enough waivers and then the project would provide bidirectional service.


  1. EngineerScotty

    Dumb question. Will this line be able to share rolling stock with other proposed lines in California, which might have a different peak than one catering to folks going to Sin City for the weekend?

  2. Adirondacker12800

    Elizabeth Alexis makes a more serious criticism of the XpressWest plan…

    A serious one where she claims that with a Friday afternoon peak towards Las Vegas and a Sunday afternoon peak towards Los Angeles the trains will be sitting around empty five days of the week? What about the people who decide to take Monday off instead of Friday? Won’t they be on the Saturday trains – which if they use even rudimentary load management, will be cheaper? How about all the Las Vegasans who work odd hours and odd shifts who want to go to Los Angeles on their days off? Not quite the thundering herd that will be Californians headed to Nevada but it will be there. And no business travel. Las Vegas is an important convention destination. Unless you don’t want to count convention travel as business travel. And the people who have to call on their clients in Las Vegas even though they live in LA or vice versa. They’ll be driving I suppose.
    .. when CARRD says things I look forward to it. I can use a good laugh.

  3. Pingback: The Hidden Benefits of Schlepping Groceries |
  4. Matt

    Just to comment on the Cajon Pass issue – the common response is that the grades through the pass are too steep to contend with at higher speeds, yet the steepest path on the BNSF route (more direct downhill line during the double track era) is only in the region of 3.2% (the other two tracks are limited to 2.2% with more curves) and the UP line has grades under 2.5%. Surely this would not be an issue to run at higher speeds, and that the only issue would be getting larger radius curves into the tighter confines of the pass with clearance for the existing rail networks/highway networks?

      • Joey

        It wouldn’t be terribly difficult to add more tracks through Cajón. You probably want to anyway, (a) As you mentioned, because freight trains are slow, and (b) to straighten out the worst curves.

        • Adirondacker12800

          Straighten a few curves… in the mountains.. how many viaducts and tunnels do they have to build? If it was easy the civil engineers Union Pacific and the Santa Fe employed over the years wouldn’t have put the curves where they put them.

          • Alon Levy

            If you’re willing to use the same 4.5% ruling grade XpressWest is using elsewhere on the line, it’s easier than if you’re limited to heavy freight ruling grade.

          • Adirondacker12800

            So then you are building two tracks and electrification. If you build two tracks and electrification to Palmdale, which they are going to build anyway, it’s going to cost less. And click on the terrain option in Google maps sometime. There’s a reason why the railroads and the Interstate more or less follow each other.

  5. Eric F

    Reason’s “fraud” does a better job of explaining how things actually work in the real world than any of the transit-obsessed commentators and their parrots in the mainstream media.

      • Rico

        To be fair it may be his true belief, in which case fair comment. Of course it would help if he mentioned what he agrees with in Reason’s report that he does not with say Alon’s post.

        • Eric F

          It’s more of a general statement regarding Reason than any particular report. I don’t have a developed view on rail service to Las Vegas. When I look at the real world, I see cost escalation for transit projects that quickly become subsidy sinks. Simultaneously, I see intentional underinvestment in auto-mobility to force transit use, which has the effect of immiserating millions for marginal bumps in transit use. Meanwhile the media and societal elites tell you that transit is good for you and you should feel guilty about using a car. This springloads enough support to get big transit projects started and the cycle continues. That’s been the plot line of California HSR, from my layperson’s vantage point. Meanwhile the 710 is incomplete and the 241 toll road is a pipe dream.

          • rico

            At the risk of waisting a lot of time you are aware that car travel has higher levels of subsidies than the vast majority of public transportation even ignoring externalities like health/pollution/quality of life etc.? You should also note freeways are just as likely to experience cost overruns/escalation. But really you should look at it this way, you may never use HSR or public transportation but the thousands that do won’t be on the freeway with you.

          • Eric

            I see intentional underinvestment in rail mobility, as money is wasted on the 710 and people are pushing the 241 toll road pipe dream while trying to kill the only real HSR project in the nation.

          • BruceMcF

            It seems like you are looking at the margin of road investment. Looking at the projects that are on the edge of being funded, you will find projects struggling to be funded and projects that are going unfunded. That’s true whether we are overinvesting or underinvesting in road transport. The question there is not whether there are any unfunded road projects, but what kind of total benefit/cost ratio they have.

            It might be more informative to look at the bulk of spending on roadwork subsidies, parking subsidies, gas-tax cross-subsidies, and operating subsidies to the road transport system. That’s not normally covered in the news, since its taken for granted as the way things are.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, except it doesn’t. It publishes reports like this over and over, each time saying wrong things, making up numbers, misquoting academic research, and so on. This is where you get zingers like how they compute the risk of dying in a car accident, or how Cox completely made up the factoid that the Prius is more emissions-efficient than NYCT, or how the Florida HSR report compares costs to California on irrelevant metrics, or how James E. Moore said it was insane to expect the LA Blue Line to ever reach the projected ridership level (it did). And if you look at Cato instead, you’ll see their resident anti-transit hack embarrass himself over and over about parking minimums.

      • Nathanael

        If you want to see Cato or Reason publish something reasonable (rather than dishonest), you have to read Radley Balko on civil liberties.

        I can think of no other honest example from either group. It’s not just transportation; they have axes to grind on every economic issue, and they use lies and misinterpreted statistics to back them up in every single case I’ve seen — other than Radley Balko. (I guess they let Radley Balko in because they don’t see civil liberties as an economic issue, or something.)

        The anti-rail stuff is just more obvious because they’ve been proven wrong, dramatically, so many times.

        • Alon Levy

          Some of what they write about immigration is reasonable. And they’re also more perceptive than most about certain partisan issues, since they are (officially) distinct from both parties, but are also against Ron Paul (who represents Rothbard’s anti-Koch faction of libertarianism).

  6. anonymouse

    FRA waivers on the San Bernardino Line might actually be feasible. The whole line is owned by Metrolink, and there’s minimal freight service on the part west of Pomona, and less minimal, but purely local, freight service on the part between Pomona and San Bernardino. If Caltrain ever actually gets noncompliant EMUs, that would be a good precedent for this sort of thing.

    • Joey

      There’s a section between El Monte and Baldwin Park which is shared by freight and owned by UP AFAIK. This could be remedied by restoring the trackage along Ramona BLVD, though that might not be cheap. You would probably also want a flyover of UP’s trackage along the LA river, but that’s more straightforward.

    • Nathanael

      The real problem with the San Bernadino Line is the single-tracking down the middle of the freeway. This could be easily double-tracked except that Caltrans is LANE
      HUNGRY and wants MILLION LANE NOW PLZ. So until the taboo against removing freeway lanes goes away, the line will be single-tracked.

      • Nathanael

        To be clear, they could double-track now, but they’re busily adding MORE lanes instead.

  7. Elizabeth

    I think this is a very interesting discussion. I would separate out the different issues.

    Peaking (generally)
    Everyone would agree that peaking is bad for operators. The question is whether is just a negative or whether it is a fatal flaw.

    I would throw out a couple of thoughts. First, the larger and more diverse the routes by an operator, the easier it is to do clever things to minimize impact (SNCF -> maintenance on Thursdays, Southwest using LV as through airport for people going different places). Second, the more the peak is about business travelers, the better. Yield management can get a ton of money from very price insensitive customers that allows them to offer dirt cheap fares on the way back to the leisure traveler ($50 normally -> $200 and $25).

    While yield management can help smooth peaks, it typically won’t get rid of them. Operators either end up running empty trains or having trains sit around. Renfe Avant trains (the commuter high speed rail ones) have a 30% load factor.

    Highways of course have this same issue – if you build for peak traffic, you end up with a lot lanes that are empty for 18hrs a day that still need to be maintained. Ditto for electricity generation – peaks suck.

    What load factor do you need to make money (or why does Taiwan seem to make money and commuter lines don’t)?

    I don’t think there is a magic number – there are a lot of different cost structures out there and don’t ignore the importance of accounting. The games played between operating and capital costs and the new trend of separating track ownership from operators are not insignificant. I think it is important to start digging into numbers to understand what drives the cost structures. There is surprisingly little out there.

    My understanding on Taiwan is as follows (please chime in if you know more):
    Taiwan’s operating costs from every measure I have seen are an outlier in the sense of being very low. If Amtrak had the same cost structure per passenger, their operating budget for the whole Northeast Corridor would be $80 million.

    While this was technically a private deal, the government had a lot of influence and one of the things they mandated was that there would be low ticket prices. to do this day, there is minimal “yield management” and even business tickets are cheap.
    This drove the development of the whole system towards keeping operating costs low. The seats are 5 across and each trainset has almost 1000 people. The service is clean and efficient but barebones (no cafe cars!). Trainsets are used efficiently (they think they can use their 30 sets to do up to 210 runs a day (currently they do between 125 and 146, depending on the day). I have been told that labor costs are very low (lower than even GDP differences would suggest). They also have efficiencies of scale – the fixed costs of track and catenary maintenance get spread out over the many trains.
    The Taiwan trains also do the trip in sub – 2 hrs, which allows crews to make 4 trips in a working day.

    Desert Xpress
    I’m not making up the stuff about how big the peak is or how unrealistic their numbers are. The Desert Xpress ridership numbers themselvesassumed that 5/7 of all LA – Vegas travelers go on a Friday, with a large percentage aiming to get their after hotel checkin time at 3 and leave after checkout time on Sunday. Vegas is to LA as Tahoe is to the Bay Area.
    According to the operations report review, they will have hourly service Monday through Friday lunchtime, and then go to 20 minute service through Sunday. This is a 3:1 change in service.
    Their operational plans called for 16 train sets to meet Friday afternoon peak service.
    So for all the weekdays, they will have 32 train services a day (hourly each direction) for which only a handful of trainsets are needed (even on a 2 hour cycle basis).

    Even with the peaking issues, they have assumed 85 to 92% load factors. For real.
    Someone asked about biz travelers. Yes, they exist. And they fly. And they will keep flying. Most people in LA live reasonably close to an airport. No matter how nice the train is, it will be hard to tempt business travelers to drive the 90 (Burbank) to 100 (LAX) miles to Victorville in ever-unpredictable LA traffic.
    I think the ridership numbers are simply wrong on the willingness of people to drive 90 miles and then take a train. The access coefficient sensitivity is probably half the size or less than it should be. I know Reinhard’s work well. One result is that once the access is by car, people take the plane. This comes from the nature of the beast – a 100% stated preference survey. The average car going to Vegas has 2 1/2 people in it. Even at a very cheap $50 per ticket, that is $250 roundtrip they are out of pocket vs maybe $50 for gas and $0 for parking.

    This doesn’t count the issue Reason raised – that instead of growing by 40% since 2005, trips to Vegas are down. They had some air numbers and I looked at Caltrans data, which shows a 10% decline in vehicles.

    I know the numbers are wrong on how they took an (inflated) aggregate demand number and split it up over the week. First, though, I do want to give them credit for even doing this. The CHSRA model completely ignored this and assumed all commute demand was symmetrical (am and pm) until very recently.

    First, they divided up the travel demand according to how highway demand varied. The problem is that highway demand is comprised of a number of different things, from people just passing through Vegas to people going to Vegas but not from LA and not through Victorville, plus the people coming from Vegas. The LA demand part of traffic will show more severe peaks than general traffic numbers.

    Second, demand for a train that saves you time in cases of bad traffic will depend critically on the traffic and the frequency. You can’t just take your proposed riders and spread them according to when people now travel. The group of people who drive during the rest of the week typically face no delays past Victorville. These people are much less likely than those traveling on Friday to take the train. This is an error that I think is a critical one made in many forecasts – a forecast is made on generalized conditions and then a specific operating plan is drawn up that ignores the fact that ridership demand for trains varies.

    The end result of all this will be much, much lower demand. The size of the market is smaller than previously assumed, the attraction of the service is lower, and you will have serious peaking issues that will lead to inefficient service.
    And this train is not to be a Taiwan service – the plan is for party trains with great service – baggage, valet parking etc. Maybe the liquor sales onboard can help keep it afloat?

    • Alon Levy

      What is the reference for the claim that 5/7 of the projected traffic to Vegas is on Friday? What I see in the ridership and revenue projection (i.e. Appendix F-D) is that the projected annual-to-Friday traffic ratio is 236, which translates to Friday have 22% of the ridership. Even allowing for one-way ridership on Friday, there’s a nonzero background rate of traffic on weekdays and that is bidirectional. So instead of 5/7, it’s less than 40%. So you end up getting a 3:1 traffic peak ratio – higher than the Shinkansen (about 4:3, more because of peak capacity issues than because of lack of demand) and LGV Sud-Est (2:1) but not higher than the LGV Atlantique (again, look at the schedules to Tours).

      If Taiwan is a bad example for you, then look at everyone else’s load factors, too. The ICE’s is 50% if I remember correctly. The TGV and KTX’s are 70% but their trains have much lower capacity (the KTX fleet is single-level, as is most of the TGV fleet); the TGV’s load per linear meter is comparable to that of the New York City Subway, and although I don’t have numbers for Paris right now, I would guess they are comparable to New York’s or even higher. And then there’s the Sanyo Shinkansen. Multiple intercity systems are profitable at 1.5 passengers per linear meter – it’s not just Taiwan that’s uniquely cheap.

      Also, they did not just count car traffic (and when they did, they excluded through-traffic) – they applied separate models for ridership diverted from cars and from planes. This is where the assumed ridership comes from.

      You also can’t on the one hand say that there’s no weekday congestion past Victorville and on the other hand claim a traffic peak. The entire case you made on CAHSRBlog for why the congestion cushion even makes sense is that there’s congestion on the way to Victorville. It’s very contorted and wrong to say that:

      – There is unpredictable traffic on the way to Victorville, always, and therefore people will need to budget a huge amount of extra time on the way to the train station. (In reality there’s traffic, but it’s not unpredictable, and it affects cars and trains equally.) Remember, if there’s less traffic to Victorville on weekdays, or if the traffic is unpredictable, it improves the train’s competitiveness with cars.
      – There is no traffic beyond Victorville except at the peak. (In reality even at the peak there’s much less congestion beyond Victorville than in the LA Basin and Inland Empire. Most people clogging roads within the LA metro area are not traveling to Vegas.)

      In contrast, because the train fails to bypass the worst road traffic, it makes every bit of sense to assume that people are as likely to switch to the train on weekdays as on weekends. The same reason that makes the line questionable to begin with makes sure that the reason it’s questionable is not peaking, but rather market share.

      Finally, the recession will not last forever. The reason for reduced traffic to Vegas is the recession. Even the early-years ridership is fine to pay off the meager debt interest – no need for assuming Vegas will grow at the same rate it did in the 1990s and the housing bubble years.

    • Nathanael

      Given the length of an LA-Las Vegas drive (and the tendency for people to fall asleep and die), the train will be strictly superior and will capture a majority of the ex-driving traffic, except among people who really want their cars in Las Vegas. Even with the bizarre Victorville terminus.

      The main source of traffic on the LA-LV highway is, in fact, LA-LV. Traffic from northern California can still be intercepted in Victorville. Of course some traffic is people coming from LV to LA, and they won’t take the train until it connects to LA proper. The rest (the through traffic) is negligible, unless you’re looking at trucks.

      Liquor sales onboard always make a substantial profit.

      • Nathanael

        No comments on the future of Las Vegas; I think it’s in an implausible location.

      • BruceMcF

        Liquor sales must especially not be overlooked when considering the share of uncongested weekday travel. Unless the operating assumption is that people going to Vegas on a weekday are all teetotalers?

Leave a Reply to Alon Levy Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.