Sanity Checks on HSR Ridership

If you multiply the populations of the metro areas served as a proxy for HSR ridership, then by comparison to Shinkansen lines as well as the AVE, New York-Washington traffic should be about 15-20 million passengers per year. It’s even higher if we include Madrid-Seville, an overperformer with more ridership than Madrid-Barcelona. This is just between the two metro areas, excluding additional passengers to Philadelphia. This raises two questions: what does the data suggest about modifying product-of-populations as a proxy, perhaps to account for distance? And, more importantly, is such ridership realistic for the Northeast Corridor?

First, at least on the Shinkansen and the AVE, in the range of distances up to nearly 4 hours, there’s no effect of distance on ridership, especially if we combine air and rail ridership. (We’re trying to apply this analysis to a city pair on which trains will take not much more than an hour and a half; end-to-end air traffic can be assumed to be zero.) Beyond that, Tokyo-Fukuoka air and rail ridership combined still underperforms shorter-distance links. One explanation is that as distance increases, total travel volume decreases, but rail and then air market share grows at the expense of cars and buses, and in the 1.5-4-hour range, these effects more or less cancel out. At longer distances, there is no longer much highway travel for trains and planes to poach.

With distance ignored, large cities consistently underperform small cities. This is not a surprise based on SNCF’s refined gravity model of ridership, in which travel volume is proportional not to the product of the city populations, but to the product raised to an exponent lower than 1. SNCF uses an empirically derived exponent, between 0.8 and 0.9, and AVE and Shinkansen data is indeed more consistent with that range. Some city pairs still underperform in a way that can’t be explained by population and distance, such as Tokyo-Okayama, but the exponent perfectly explains why Tokyo-Osaka underperforms a model with exponent 1.

So what about the Northeast Corridor? Current Amtrak ridership between New York and Washington is 1.74 million, but that’s just between Penn Station and Union Station. Amtrak provides its top 10 city pairs in the Northeast in its Master Plan, which include New York-Baltimore and New York-BWI, at 650,000 between them. I don’t know the ridership on more minor city pairs, such as those involving Newark or Stamford. I would guess the total including those is about 3-3.5 million; this is based just on extrapolating that of the top-10 markets on the southern half of the line just under half the ridership is between the New York and Washington metro areas, and applying a fudge factor to account for the fact that secondary markets not involving New York-Washington are less likely to make the top 10.

In contrast, based on comparison to the Shinkansen and AVE, we should expect HSR ridership of 15-20 million, about 5 times what I believe the present ridership is. (In fact, based on comparison to the lower-fare KTX, it should be if anything higher.) This is despite the fact that the current trip time is either 2:47 or 3:25 whereas with HSR it would be about 1:35. The importance of this is that we can’t expect induced demand to quintuple ridership out of halving trip time, but instead we need to explain this based on competition with cars and buses.

Part of this competition has to be about fares. Amtrak charges very high fares (see the route performance report) – on average, 28 cents per km on the Regional, and 48 on the Acela. Shinkansen fares average 23 cents per km on Tokaido, 20 on Sanyo, and 24 on the JR East network. That said, the shorter distance of New York-Washington means that absolute fares are not higher, particularly on the cheaper option. However, high fare per km does mean the trip is less competitive with cheap express buses and with driving.

This comes in addition to travel time. The Regional is an hour faster than Megabus; HSR that is three hours faster Megabus, especially if it’s also cheaper than today’s Regional, could make a serious dent in the Megabus network. Express buses already have trouble with secondary markets, because those can’t piggyback on primary markets as intermediate stops the way they can with trains. Better trains could poach the express bus market and reduce it to where it was ten years ago.

At the range of the top-performing city pairs, most people take trains rather than use roads. I do not have data for individual city pairs in Japan (but see here for Korea, where HSR overperforms, perhaps due to lower fares, which are about 15 cents per km before discounts), but at the distance of New York-Washington, 360 km, trains get a little more than half the total mode share and cars get the other half. Amtrak’s 2010 Vision says that the current rail mode share on the entire Northeast Corridor is 6%; it does not say what the share on New York-Washington is, but I’ve seen 14% elsewhere (no reference, sorry), and the Vision says that incremental Master Plan improvements will raise it to 26%. Of course going from 14% to 50% also involves induced demand, and this means the expected rise in ridership is a higher factor, potentially a factor of 5.

I’m not going to try using this method to estimate shorter-distance ridership, because then car ownership, sprawl levels, etc. become a much bigger issue, and quick-and-dirty sanity checks don’t work and are no replacement for serious ridership studies. But we can apply the method to other longer-distance portions of the Northeast Corridor. If we use the lower end of the scale, we get New York-Washington at 15 million annual passengers or a little more, New York-Boston at 15 million or a little less, Boston-Washington at 6 million, Boston-Philadelphia at 5 million.

As a secondary sanity check, the Boston-Washington air market is about 2.5 million, and for HSR to get 2.5 times as much ridership on a formerly air-dominated city pair as the pre-HSR air travel volume is the same performance Eurostar got.

All four metro areas should be interpreted as broadly as possible, to maintain comparability with Japanese metro areas, whose definition is loose and roughly comparable to the American combined statistical area. So there are just four cities on the Northeast Corridor, really. This is still not all the ridership there is – there is still New York-Philadelphia and Philadelphia-Washington, I’m just less comfortable making even an ex-recto estimate. But even without those two potentially high-ridership city pairs, we get high passenger density on all segments of the line.

Update: although I have not found city-to-city ridership data from France, I have found region-to-region numbers from Paris to the southwest. I also have some air traffic volumes from which we can deduce air/rail markets: on Paris-Nice the TGV has a 31% share of the air/rail market; on Paris-Marseille I’ve seen numbers ranging from 60% to 83%, and for this post’s purposes I’m going to assume 70%. We get air/rail traffic numbers from Paris to Marseille (5.2 million, but this grows to 9.2 million if we assume 83% TGV share and declines to 3.9 million if we assume 60%), Nice (4.2 million), Midi-Pyrenees (3.2 million), Aquitaine (5.5 million), and Poitou-Charentes (3.3 million). With the exception of the Midi-Pyrenees number, which represents a fairly long distance, all overperform the Shinkansen. Ignoring distance as always and using an exponent of 0.8, Paris-Marseille overperforms Tokyo-Sendai by a factor of 1.85, Paris-Nice by 2.21, Paris-Midi-Pyrenees by 0.77 (i.e. it underperforms), Paris-Aquitaine by 1.26, and Paris-Poitou-Charentes by 1.22. Per-kilometer fares are much lower than on Shinkansen – indeed SNCF’s total revenue, both high- and low-speed, divided just by TGV passenger-km, is €0.14 – and this can contribute to the higher traffic.

Paris-Nice can be explained as a major leisure corridor, similar to the unusually high passenger traffic to Florida or Las Vegas. But bear in mind that Nice and Marseille are metro areas and not entire regions, and under any assumption that Bordeaux and Toulouse get a greater share of the travel to Paris than the rural areas in their respective regions, they will overperform by a substantial margin. Although French metro areas are defined less loosely than Japanese ones, which can skew the Marseille and Nice numbers, the Aquitaine and Midi-Pyrenees numbers are if anything defined too loosely due to the inclusion of outright rural departments.


  1. Jim Harper

    yeah, well, ridership just doesn’t seem to be a problem on HSR. The four hour break point seems plausible and intuitive and corresponds with quite a few potential city pairs in the U.S., not just the Northeast corridor.

    • Nathanael

      SNCF’s model exponent fits basic principles of economic geography:
      * In a really big city, most people have everything they need within the city, and so don’t travel outside it as much as in smaller coomunities
      * In a somewhat smaller city, there are a lot of people to travel, but they can’t get everything locally…. so they travel to other cities slightly more.

  2. jim

    The New York-Washington, Philadelphia-Washington and New York-Philadelphia trips impose heavy (for North America) tolls on automobile travel. This partly counteracts the high fares that Amtrak charges.

    • Adirondacker12800

      Here to DC with gas at $4 a gallon and 35 mpg is about half of the Amtrak fare. Add in the tolls and the Amtrak fare is ten bucks more. Considering that driving to DC is one quarter of a 3,000 mile oil change – from the Saratoga Springs station – the Amtrak fare is less than ten bucks more. And driving to DC uses up about 5 bucks of tire.
      Amtrak is aiming their fares at people who consider gas, tolls and a few bucks for wear and tear. The cheap buses are aiming at people who only consider gas.
      Train from Saratoga Springs to DC takes 20 minutes more than Google’s estimate of the driving time. Google is optimistic. It’s worth ten bucks to not have to drive for 8 hours.

      • Andre Lot

        Problem is: majority of people are not going from somewhere within half-mile of origin station to somewhere within half-mile of destination station.

        There is also the factor of comfort: having to share your personal perceived space with strangers 2 feet from you is certainly less comfortable than having a steel and glass double cage to shield you from noise/obnoxious people/people you would rather not interact with/just annoying travel mates.

        • orulz

          I hold that the factor of comfort applies in exactly the opposite direction.

          Sitting on a train, even if (god forbid) it’s next to somebody you don’t know, is orders of magnitude more comfortable because you don’t have to maintain attention and focus on the road. Even discounting the fact that time on a train can be productive time, white-knuckling it down 95 for hours in heavy traffic is EXHAUSTING. Driving at times when there is no traffic sucks, too, because that would mean it’s so late that most normal human beings would be asleep at such a time.

          I think that many, if not most, people would agree with me on this.

          If the car drove itself, I would buy your argument, but it doesn’t, so I won’t.

          • orulz

            I guess to sum up, bost people I know are neither so protective of their “personal percieved space” for the duration of a couple hours during travel, nor so misanthropic as to hate being near “other people” so much as to avoid riding a train just as a matter of principle – particularly given that it means you DON’T HAVE TO drive.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Many of the people who want everybody to drive everywhere are agoraphobic to a degree. Some of them to a greater degree.
            I find that napping is a great way to pass the time. Something I can’t do while I’m driving. When I do awaken I don’t have to wait until the next rest stop to use a restroom. Or if I’m bit peckish, get something to eat.
            Google says it’s 7:20 from Saratoga Springs to Washington D.C. Maybe if I was to leave at ten on a Saturday night. Even then maybe not. They are working on the bridges over the Mohawk and it’s one lane in each direction all weekend starting next week If it rains add two hours. Which if you do it other than on Friday or Saturday night you get to Washington just in time for rush hour. It’s worth ten bucks to be able to nap, use the restroom. eat etc. for 8 hours. And I don’t have to park the car when I get there…

        • Adirondacker12800

          There are these things called buses, subways, taxis to take you from the station to your destination if it’s too far to walk.

          • Eric

            Subways only go to a limited set of locations, buses are too slow for most people, and taxis make the cost of the non-car option unjustifiably high.

          • Beta Magellan

            We also shouldn’t forget that people actually do drive to train stations, either to get dropped-off/picked up or to use station parking. When my family lived in the Boston area, for instance, we drove to South Station and then took the train to New York.

          • Bobr821

            I make many inter-city rail trips between places that have lousy local transportation. Most-often I am picked up and dropped off by friends/family/colleagues. In cases where that does not work, a cab ride is nearly always less than $20. Rental cars are also remarkably flexible now that most agencies pick you up.

            The very small number of trips I take that fall outside these parameters usually result in me driving.

            In general terms, I have found that getting from the train station to my final destination is almost always easier / cheaper than airport transportation.

          • Nathanael

            On intercity trips to places with no public transportation, I do what I’d do if arriving by plane: I *rent a car*. (Yes, it’s critically important to have car rental at destination train stations where the public transporation is poor.)

            On the origin end, I get to the station the only reasonable way (given the lack of bus service to the nearest train station: *I drive*.

            Sure, I’d rather get there some other way. But it still beats (a) the nightmare which airports and flying have become, and (b) driving more than an hour at a time to go the full distance — that is getting into “occupational stress injury” territory for me.

        • Beta Magellan

          The converting the NEC, particularly between New York and Washington, into a tolled autobahn-style expressway (with only advisory speed limits) which only connects to other interstate highways, not local and state roads. Amtrak’s already slow and most projected upgrades are far too expensive, plus (as Andre notes) rail won’t get people from suburban destination to suburban destination, which constitutes a lot of travel nowadays. In terms of door-to-door travel time it would be a lot quicker and help draw intercity traffic from I-95. Although there might be some eminent domain issues in some places, IIRC the ROW is grade-separated and you wouldn’t have to worry as much about curve-straightening. Plus, you won’t have to worry about electromagnetic radiation from overhead electric wires anymore.

          • Adirondacker12800

            They could build an enormous parking garage where the Secaucus station is and everyone could transfer to the 7 train – from the buses. The people in cars would have to settle for Harrison and PATH since the ROW is only two tracks wide east of there. Same thing where Zoo interlocking is so that the commuters displaced from the trains could drive into Philadelphia and transfer to a bus that gets them downtown. They could use the ROW of the suburban lines to build commuter highways! Same thing on Long Island. Tear down Penn Station in Baltimore and make it a parking garage. Union Station is probably big enough that, at least initially, they could just pave it over.

      • David Alexander

        Amtrak is aiming their fares at people who consider gas, tolls and a few bucks for wear and tear.

        But how many people on average consider that fact? Admittedly, as I drive an old beater, my choices for long distance travel end up assuming the cost of a car rental as the idea of paying for a long distance tow or repair in a strange city are rather unpleasant even with a roadside assisstance regime. While the car rental is automatically more expensive for a solo trip, as a roadgeek, I have to take into account the emotional benefits of the drive versus the emotional benefit from taking Amtrak. In most cases, Amtrak wins as I’ll milk the AGR program for points, and the train allows me to catch up on sleep, alcohol consumption, or Facebook. But as I noted in the previous post, I drove to Montreal despite being far more expensive.

        • Nathanael

          More and more people will be in your position, Mr. Alexander, as the age of the car fleet in the US continues to increase. Most people can’t afford to replace their car when they want to, not anymore.

      • Beta Magellan

        Don’t forget the cost of parking, either—stowing one’s car for several days in a major city like New York, Chicago or San Francisco doesn’t come cheap, and tourists often end up using taxis and transit to get around anyway.

        • Nathanael

          Parking in Manhattan — yeech! For a couple of days, it costs more than a train ticket.

  3. gelboak

    Though it would be very hard to model, a discussion comparing HSR potential
    in the NY-Wash. DC corridor with HSR between large cities in Japan and Europe
    needs to consider the higher level of car ownership and the very different land
    use patterns in the US. A final destination in Manhattan, Brooklyn, parts of Queens,
    DC proper, or maybe Arlington, weighs very much in favor of train or Megabus;
    but a final destination in no. New Jersey, Westchester Co., Long Island, Rockville,
    Bethesda, Tyson’s Corner, etc makes car travel far more favorable. In the US,
    even in the NY metro area in its entirety, a far larger share of potential travelers
    will begin or end their trip in suburban areas, far from inter-city train stations, and
    with cheap/plentiful parking, than in, say Japan or Spain.

    • Matthew

      I often travel by train and commuter bus to Northern New Jersey, and it is pretty convenient. I get there faster than many destinations in Queens could be reached from Penn Station. You may be underestimating NYC-area transit.

      • Adirondacker12800

        and he’s underestimating Philadelphia area transit. Newark has a fast frequent bus system. Jersey City connects to Amtrak across the platform eastbound and down a flight of stairs westbound. Long Island isn’t quite as convenient but there’s train every hour to LIRR stations west of central Suffolk county. Baltimore has a mass transit system. And why is getting to Arlington from Union Station easier than from Bethesda? Bethesda is on the Red Line just like Union station. The Red Line doesn’t go to Virginia. Unless he thinks people people in Arlington go the Amtrak station in Alexandria…. and some of the people in Westchester can use the Amtrak Stations in Westchester, there’s three.

      • Henry

        Queens’s transit network is frequent, if not fast – then again, I might be getting the short end of the stick with my two-hour commute.

        Frequency probably matters less for intercity transport, though – one who lives in, say, Hicksville, Long Island, does not simply all of a sudden get the craving to visit the National Mall.

        • Alon Levy

          If the connections are not timed well – and when you have so many commuter lines feeding into one trunk line you can’t time everything well – then low frequencies can force long layovers.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Worst case, during the day, using the LIRR is an hour layover. 1:10 if you try really really hard. Even using a Regional it’s still faster than driving unless you are going someplace in metro DC that’s hard to get to from Union Station.

    • Alon Levy

      You’re right that the US isn’t Japan or Korea, but then again Spain isn’t Japan or Korea either. Neither is France (see post update) – provincial France is a land of hypermarkets and sprawl, and although the historic towns are walkable enough, they’re far from everything. I don’t have any numbers, but I won’t be surprised if in the really provincial parts of France or even in Sendai, transit usage is comparable to Washington’s or even lower.

  4. jim

    Current Amtrak travel within the South End is about 7M. If that’s 14% of the all-mode travel, then all trips add up to 50M. Which makes 15M for a target New York Metro to Washington-Baltimore Metro over ambitious: it would require something over 60% mode share. Even with a 1:35 trip time (which I doubt will be achieved), that’s unlikely.

    Fare structure is going to affect ridership, too. I’d expect Amtrak (or any private entity that ended up exploiting the NEC) to price travel at a revenue-maximizing level rather than a ridership-maximizing level. My own back of the envelope calculations suggest that would lead to something closer to a 40% mode share (with nominal HSR fares about 30% higher than current nominal Regional fares). If that’s so then, ignoring any induced demand, we’re talking something closer to 8M NY-WAS/BAL, 6M NY-PHL, 4M PHL-WAS/BAL and 2M WAS-BAL.

    Induced demand is the hard thing to guess at, of course.

    • Nathanael

      Horribly, Amtrak’s pricing right now is ridership-maximizing, because Amtrak is seat-capacity-constrained.

      So, y’know, underbuild and buy too few trains and you’ll guarantee high fares…

      • Andre Lot

        If a transportation company wanted only to maximize ridership, it should set fares to fill as many seats as possible but not one extra. Which means the lowest possible fare that doesn’t cause costumers wanting to travel and not finding tickets because trains are full (assuming an all-seated operation, since standing passengers detract from the comfort of both seated and unseated ones and are an absurdity in high-speed lines).

        Maybe you are referring to the situation where the demand curve has two intersects with the supply curve (draw as in breaking even on direct operational costs, possibly aggregating any effect of a fixed subsidy if any), one with lower and other with higher ridership. But such instances are more an oddity of some markets than a typical scenario on high-speed train operations.

        In any case, technology has made easier to implement price discrimination (the marketing concept), so having empty seats wouldn’t be a reason not to use yield management.

        • Nathanael


          I’m referring to the fact that Amtrak doesn’t have enough cars for either Acela or the long-distance intercity trains, so it just keeps raising prices (because as long as you keep selling out, why *not* raise prices); if it could buy cars off the shelf it could make more money by charging lower prices, but there’s a lead time for purchases of rolling stock.

          • Nathanael

            I’m saying that if you can’t meet seat demand with your available rolling stock, then ridership-maximizing and revenue-maximizing may be the same policy.

      • Alon Levy

        That’s the Acela, not the Regional. In fact the entire schema of separating passengers into two classes of service is very much about revenue; if Amtrak were ridership-maximizing, it would buy more Regionals and locomotives to haul them to the exclusion of lower-capacity Acela cars.

        The pricing within the basic Acela/Regional system is partially revenue-maximizing in the short run (in the long run, yield management won’t do good for your customer satisfaction), but the NEC’s branding is about so much more than pricing each train.

        • Adirondacker12800

          There’s about 6 classes of service. NY-Philadelphia they price trips on the Keystones lower than on the Regionals. There’s no business class or food service on the Keystones. If you really want deluxe service between NY and DC and you don’t mind spending four hours to do it or paying the fare to Richmond lets say, book a sleeping car room on one of the long distance trains. Then there’s always the commuter train option.

  5. gelboak

    I agree that Arlington and Bethesda, if you can generalize about either of them, are comparable in their accessibility to public transit. I also agree that there are parts of northern New Jersey, certainly Newark and Jersey City that are close to NE Corridor stations and well served by buses, commuter trains, and PATH. I am not arguing that public transit-Amtrak-public transit is unthinkable for anything other than some who lives in midtown Manhattan and whose final dest. is the Dept. of Justice bldg next to Union Station.

    Can you agree with my broader point that travel time and convenience for origin-originating intercity train station and terminating inter-city train station-final destination trips is **very** important, and all other things equal, the greater suburbanization of the US compared to Europe and Japan makes inter-city travel by car far more attractive in the US?

    • Henry

      If you consider sitting in traffic in the Lincoln or Holland tunnels or in I-95 “attractive”, then yes, it is a very attractive prospect.

      The one big factor in travel time would be traffic on I-95, which snarls up pretty badly.

    • Nathanael

      Not really. Intercity travel by car in Europe is very nice if you have lots of money (for the toll roads and the parking) and don’t mind, well, driving a lot. I’ve done it.

      Lack of train stations and lack of train services makes intercity travel by train less attractive in the US. Untolled expressways make intercity travel by car… about as popular as in Germany, where the autobahns are also free.

      People are forced into cars in the US by the lack of train service. If that’s what you mean, then I agree. Heck, I had a trip to Fort Collins, Colorado for unpleasant reasons. I went by train. Which was great, except that I (or someone else) had to drive for an hour at *each end*, first to get to a train station and then to get from a train station. I met people who were driving even *further* to catch the train, and some who were taking 4-hour bus rides to catch the train. Well, you can see how that’s going to suppress ridership — the fact that it’s as high as it is shows that the demand for trains is *massive*.

  6. gelboak


    Is your driving-train cost comparison for a single person traveling? How would things flush
    out for a family of three or four.

    • Henry

      Per-person cost would probably fall, but at the same time, there are perks that a train offers that a car does not (easy access to toilets and food/drink facilities, reduced chance of delays due to traffic, etc.)

      I would also imagine that a family of four would be very frustrated with the amount of traffic on I-94.

      • David Alexander

        easy access to toilets and food/drink facilities, reduced chance of delays due to traffic

        In the first case, I’d agree here. In the second case, most corridors tend to have some type of chain restaurant or fast food place at every exit or so, but for a three to four hour trip, it’s unlikely that I’d stop to eat unless I was really hungry. As for the third, for some reason, there seems to be this weird acceptance that “there will always be traffic”, but Amtrak needs to perform with 100% OTP to be of any use. OTOH, sitting on Regional with no AC because your locomotive failed en route can sometimes make other modes look more appealing…

        Admittedly, it’s been a while, but the last time that I hit any traffic on I-95 was during rush hour on the Beltway or in Fairfield County, CT. Otherwise, it’s been relatively traffic free during middays. If anything, it’s getting to I-95 where the problems exist, IMHO.

    • Adirondacker12800

      At four bucks a gallon the train fare and tolls are almost the same as a single roundtrip Amtrak fare if you select the lower priced trips. Unless you are in a city served by the non-Greyhound lines the Greyhound fare is a bit lower but not my much.
      Not many families go on business trips. Business trips are a significant fraction of the market. People traveling alone are a significant fraction of the travel market.

      • Alon Levy

        The expressway toll in Japan is $98 one-way from Tokyo to Osaka.

        That said, French tolls are much lower, and French cars’ fuel consumption is just a little bit higher than Japanese ones’, because of all the diesel cars (I think fuel costs are comparable today, but they used to be lower in Japan). I forget the toll from Paris to Lyon – maybe €20?

        Also, about people traveling together, in California the average intercity car occupancy is 2. The average perceived occupancy is even higher. So it’s important for HSR to be convenient enough to be better for families than driving. It has obvious advantages, including reduced motion sickness and the ability to go to the bathroom, but Amtrak has those advantages today and still most people drive.

        • Adirondacker12800

          If I remember correctly the roundtrip toll between here and DC is 50-ish. There’s a few high priced bridges in the route and Delaware has breathtakingly high tolls. Tolled from Albany to south of Baltimore.

        • ant6n

          Regarding bathrooms: buses have them too; and even if you drive you have access to bathrooms at highways – it’s just a bit less flexible.

          To get small groups of people to travel trains (i.e. families), instead of lowering individual ticket prices so that they are competitive with multiple people driving, Amtrak could try to offer tickets that still allow charging high fares for business trips. For example, offer group/family rates, offer special tickets at certain times during the week, sell relatively small contingents of ultra cheap tickets way in advance, offer cheap tickets in much slower or more cramped trains, etc. This of course requires a higher capacity on the NEC.

          Actually maybe all the people thinking about faster speeds on the NEC got it all wrong: maybe we really need more capacity – with the same speed as today, but quadrupled capacity, ridership may triple.

          • Alon Levy

            The problem with the capacity argument is that the Regional is not at capacity. The Acela is, and it’s practically all of the operating profits of the NEC, but most ridership is on the Regional. The problem with lowering fares under the current regime is that despite the high fares, the Regional is only about breaking even. Maybe Amtrak could get away with fuller trains if it lowered fares a bit, but it’s uncertain. Of course this is due to extreme featherbedding – the cheaper Shinkansen makes windfall profits, and the even cheaper TGV is also very profitable.

          • ant6n

            Maybe Amtrak should start thinking about using the Regional as a competitor to driving and (some) buses, and the Acela as a competitor to flying.

            I wonder if a small startup-like railway could operate on the NEC, in a similar role as megabus etc. Use used commuter rail equipment, start at Hoboken and Queens rather than Penn station, and run a bit slower (i.e. as fast as your older equipment allows) – but directly compete with the buses. The question is whether that could make money, and whether Amtrak would allow trains on their tracks that compete with Amtrak, even if their market is different.

          • Nathanael

            “The problem with the capacity argument is that the Regional is not at capacity. ”

            Are you sure about that? If so, Regional Amfleets should be redirected to the long-distance routes which actually *are* selling out routinely.

          • Nathanael

            Alon: I hate to say this, but you *literally cannot compare* any American cost of employees with any European cost of employees, because American companies have to pay for employee healthcare at exorbitant prices, and yes, that includes Amtrak. In contrast, this is just not an issue in Europe.

          • Alon Levy

            Okay, then let’s look at Canada instead: Via Rail’s Corridor costs 33 cents per passenger-km to operate (link, PDF-p. 4), of which 20 come from fares and 13 from government subsidies.

            Also, the extreme cost of health care is not that large a component of corporate payroll. US health care costs are about 17% of GDP versus 7-12% in the rest of the advanced developed world. (I’m lumping in private and public costs because it all comes out of your paycheck anyway; for the same reason, France’s 50% employer payroll tax just raises total employee compensation equivalent since it all goes back to social security recipients.) From the point of view of the broader economy, it wastes about 8% of GDP. So this means that it’s normal for costs to be 8% higher. Instead, they’re 50-100% higher.

          • Nathanael

            Actually, it’s startling how many of our economic distortion problems come back to the lack of a National Health Service or equivalent. Not as many as come back to the lack of a carbon tax, but still a hell of a lot.

          • Adirondacker12800

            If so, Regional Amfleets should be redirected to the long-distance routes which actually *are* selling out routinely.

            Yeah but the long distance passengers would get reallllllly annoyed when they are asked to leave the train at 5 AM so that the teletransporter can whisk the cars back to Boston, Sunnyside or Ivy City for daytime service on the NEC. Rumor on the foamer boards is that the 5PM and 6PM Acelas sell out fairly frequently and sometimes the 5:05 and 6:25 Regionals. It’s one of the reasons Amtrak has snuck in a few extra Regionals or facsimiles in during the late afternoon.

          • Nathanael

            “(I’m lumping in private and public costs because it all comes out of your paycheck anyway; ”

            Actually this depends *greatly* on the way the funding scheme is structured. Yes, if it’s a payroll tax like in France, it comes out of your paycheck. Are they all payroll taxes? Nope.

            “Funding for the insurance plans comes from the general revenues of the Canadian provinces/territories,”
            So Canada is actually the more extreme case: it does NOT come out of your paycheck, it’s coming straight out of general taxation. Hiring an additional worker doesn’t increase the Canadian Medicare funding.

          • Nathanael

            Well, we know some of the other causes of a high cost structure: President Bush’s “Arbitration” board famously gave the Amtrak unions more than they’d asked for. :sigh:

        • Nathanael

          “Also, about people traveling together, in California the average intercity car occupancy is 2. The average perceived occupancy is even higher.”

          That’s a funny and interesting psychological point.

          • Alon Levy

            It’s not psychological. Perceived occupancy is just the average occupancy calculated per traveler rather than per vehicle. If half the cars have 1 occupant and half have 3, the average occupancy is 2 and the average perceived occupancy is 2.5. What this means is that a large majority of people are not alone in their car. If a train is attractive to all people who drive alone and only to them, it will take off a fair number of cars off the road, but it may still not get high ridership because of this.

          • Nathanael

            Still funny. Because then car drivers should think that such a rail system is a great idea (for getting a huge number of cars off the road, eliminating congestion) and should therefore subsidize it. They don’t seem to think that way…

          • BruceMcF

            Or if 1/3 of the cars are fully occupied at 4, and 2/3 have 1 driver, the average occupancy is 2, and the perceived occupancy is 3. In which case the leverage for increasing energy efficiency by removing single occupancy cars is even greater, since it getting 2/3 of the cars off the road with 1 driver and leaving 1/3 of the cars on the road with 4 occupants doubles the fuel efficiency of the auto segment of the transport system.

            Its hard to tell in what sense “high ridership” is being used in “may not achieve high ridership because of this”. “High ridership relative to car patronage” implies that there is some specific pragmatic benefit from crossing the threshold between fewer and more passengers traveling by car, but I do not see what that benefit is supposed to be. RIdership is more often judged to be high or low relative to the requirements for avoidable operating cost break even, full operating cost break-even, and full operating and capital cost break-even.

            If in the 2x1driver, 1×1 driver + 3 passengers scenario, a rail service swept up all single occupancy trips and no full occupancy trips, that would be 1/3 of the auto patronage and in most cases would be generating an operating surplus. And, politically, it would surely be serving more than 1/3 of intercity travelers, since at present some of those people in some of those full occupancy trips are also at some other time the driver in a single occupancy trip.

      • David Alexander

        if you select the lower priced trips

        And what if you book at the last minute, a tendency that many procrastinators including myself have. I tend to book as a discretionary “tourist” instead of a business person, so I tend to book within two or three days of my trip, but I’m subject to much higher prices which affects the calculations for my trip decisions.

        Of course, as others would note, how much of the market is composed of day trippers who wait until weather reports ensure sunny days to book tickets?

        • Adirondacker12800

          all the other modes gouge you too. Even the tolls have peak and off peak rates.

        • Andre Lot

          Apparently smart pricing hasn’t been a problem in European countries whose train operators are adopting it aggressively (namely, Italy and Spain).

          As with many other services (hotels, certain event tickets, air travel), you are/would be able to gamble on the weather and pay far less or pay more for the convenience of deciding your travel plans at the last minute.

          It is not the main topic of this post at all, but from other engagements I’ve had discussing pricing model for non-commuting transportation, it seems people who like to decide things “on the spur of the moment” feel “wronged” or even “robbed” because they have to pay more, sometimes several times more, for an identical service of someone who could plan in advance, ignoring that erasing the last-minute premium would mean also eliminating the far-advanced purchase discount.

        • Richard Mlynarik

          Put “smart” in front of anything, and its awesome level gets dialled up to 11.

          You know who else was in favour of “smart”? Hilter! With “Smart Genocide(tm)”.

  7. David Alexander

    Admittedly, this isn’t scientific, but there’s a part of me that wonders if Americans are simply less predisposed to day trips when compared to their European counterparts. While you’re noting the potential high end of HSR based ridership, I’m left wondering if we should determine if the total number of current passengers using all modes is under performing compared to other first world counterparts. When I’ve attempted to play HSR advocate, and note the ability for HSR to provide for easy day trips in California (or the Midwest or Texas), the responses seemed lukewarm at best to the entire idea. It’s almost as if Americans are mobile in the sense that they move often, but intercity travel isn’t reflected in that mobility.

    • Beta Magellan

      I think it’s partly a distance thing—unless you’re really into local history, outside of the northeast there are just fewer opportunities for day trips from one major city to another. I’d guess that Californians just aren’t familiar with the whole idea of going to another city and back in a day because currently it’s next to impossible unless you want to go through the rigmarole of flying.

    • Nathanael

      Indeed, basically most places in the US “take too long to get to” for day trips, so people don’t do it.

      People in NY *do* take day trips to Philly and vice versa.

      Big cities in Western Europe are very close together.

    • BruceMcF

      We’d lose quite a number of Six Flags type amusement parks if Americans were not disposed to take day trips. Kings Island in southeast Ohio, for instance, is situated to be an interstate day trip from Cincinnati, Columbus and Indianapolis.

  8. Adirondacker12800

    So without getting out an envelope for back of the envelope calculations the 5 million people in greater Montreal and Ottawa and the 35 million within 2, 2 and half hours of HSR travel to Albany should generate generate 20 million trips. Then halve that because it’s international. So ten million. Spread out evenly over every day of a year thats almost 14,000 trips each way everyday ( something I used a calculator for ) So 14 1000 passenger trains or 28 500 passenger trains. Or ten billion dollars for ten million passengers a year is 1,000 a passenger. Not too shabby. Real quick and dirty amortization I come up with 20 cents a passenger amortized over 30 years. Half a million passengers a year comes out to 4 dollars a passenger .

    • Alon Levy

      The fudge factor for international travel is much higher than 2. The same method tells you New York-Toronto is almost as big as New York-Washington because including Hamilton and Niagara, the GTA is almost as large as the Baltimore-Washington area. In reality, it’s not observed in the air/rail market today, not even close – it’s a factor of about 3, and arguably this understates potential HSR market sizes because New York-Toronto is a longer-distance (i.e. higher-air-share) pair. And Montreal underperforms Toronto because of the language barrier.

      If New York-Montreal and the other city pairs that would use an Albany-Montreal link is 10 million, then obviously the link should be built, because those other links would partially use existing track, creating the same effect that makes New York-Toronto cost-effective even at very low ridership. Because of this effect even 5 or 6 million may be good enough, as long as the route avoids all but the lightest tunneling.

      (By the way, the computation I do to compare cost-effectiveness with passenger density is that if urban construction and tunneling are avoided or at least severely limited, cost is about $20 million/km plus about $100,000/year-km in maintenance, and conversely revenues minus variable of about 5 cents per passenger-km is possible. So you need a 2 million passenger-km/km density to cover maintenance, and then each 4 million on top of that are 1% return. Beating the long-term growth rate of about 1.5% requires 8 million, beating your average-risk 4% business rate of return requires 18 million, and so on. Now, tunnels make everything more complicated – even before costs started running over, CAHSR was a $50 million/km project. Of course there’s a limit to per-km measures – looking at it purely from an LA-SF perspective, Palmdale has lower per-km cost than Tejon, but of course based on any measure of competitiveness the LA-SF fares should be the same under either option. But broadly, those per-km measures are instructive.)

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