The reasons why long distance passenger trains serve such a vital purpose
A Foundation For National Mobility
Mobility. It’s the life-blood of a modern economy. America’s mobility is declining-threatening our future prosperity and quality of life. As driving and flying become less attractive and more expensive, Americans are rediscovering trains.
Since 2000, public use of intercity trains has increased three times faster than the population, six times faster than road use, and seventeen times faster than air travel! Train travel reached a new record in 2012. Millions of travelers, however, are unable to benefit from trains because the nation’s intercity passenger rail system is too small to meet the demand.
That is what All Aboard Minnesota.org is all about. Advocating and Creating more mobility for Minnesotans and the surrounding region with more passenger trains. The time has come to transform the nation’s long distance passenger train network from a neglected, bare bones operation into a robust and thriving mobility machine.
Mobility and a Healthy Economy
Mobility is the foundation of a healthy, vibrant, growing economy. By connecting people a multi-modal network of travel choices provides a powerful catalyst for innovation and economic development. Mobility is so important to freedom and quality of life that it is recognized as a legitimate and important function of government.
For more than seven decades, government has focused public resources and funds on developing road and air transportation. It is increasingly apparent, however, that road and air transportation have been built out to their maximum utility and that America cannot continue to rely so heavily on these two transportation modes. The boost they provided to the US economy has plateaued. We are mired in congestion, travel times are growing, and productivity is falling. The best we can expect from road and air transportation in the future is maintaining the status quo. Just doing that will become increasingly expensive as the nation’s population grows.
The United States has begun to recognize the contribution passenger trains could make to our mobility and quality of life. They can provide travelers with affordable, safe and dependable mobility that allows them to escape congestion, reduce stress and use travel time productively. Investments to upgrade our passenger rail system will produce more dramatic improvements in convenience, speed, safety and affordability than equivalent investments in either road or air.
However, in debating the nature and scope of the nation’s future intercity passenger train system, opinion leaders and policy makers have largely dismissed one entire category of trains: those that travel long distances.
Long Distance Routes: The Foundation for a New National Mobility System
The nation’s long distance passenger train network has only 15 routes, most with just one train a day: two with only three per week. Nonetheless, these routes are heavily used. The Empire Builder traveling through Minnesota is one of the most used routes in the national system ( see Fact Sheet: Empire Builder – provide link here ). They account for 43% of passenger-miles on the nation’s entire intercity passenger train system ( a passenger-mile is one passenger carried one mile ). They carry passenger loads comparable to those of the short distance trains in the Northeast Corridor. They would carry even more passengers if Amtrak had more equipment, greater frequencies and more routes. Lack of service, not lack of demand, is what limits usage.
Long distance passenger train routes currently perform a significant transportation function. They also represent the foundation on which we could build a national passenger train network that would provide new, high quality mobility choices to a large and geographically diverse cross-section of Americans. Their unique capabilities make them ideal for connecting major urban areas with each other and with smaller cities and communities-many in rural areas-which are becoming more isolated from major economic centers as regional airline and bus services disappear.
The value of long distance train routes is often overlooked because of the misconception that air travel time has made them obsolete. Many believe that different modes only serve distinctly different markets: car trips for less than 100 miles, plane trips for more than 500 miles, and by default, train trips for 100 to 500 miles. This construct is based on the assumption that route length-for reasons neither obvious nor stated-should coincide with trip length, on the misconception that all travelers have the same needs, and on the erroneous notion that trip time is the primary, if not only, consideration for everyone.
Besides trip time, however, other considerations that affect travel decisions include price, schedules, convenience, comfort, safety, accessibility and connectivity. Some people, for example, choose train trips for shorter than 100 miles because driving isn’t attractive or possible: other choose train trips longer than 500 miles because they do not live near an airport with affordable air service.
Long distance trains can serve short, medium, and long distance markets in ways other modes cannot. The longer the route, the more origin and destination combinations it can serve. A long distance corridor joins many cities and small towns in a linear network. Each stop is linked to every other stop. Long distance routes are in essence, connected and overlapping corridors. Moreover, the utility of individual routes grows exponentially when they become part of an integrated system that provides easy transfers to trains on other routes, feeder buses, local transit systems, and airports. Such connectivity serves more people, generates greater revenue, drives economies of scale and improves public mobility.
Facts about a long distance routes; 25% of trips or more than 1,000 miles; 34% of trips are 501-999 miles; 31% of trips ore 500 miles or less.
Better Locations, More Markets
Trains have an inherent advantage over air because trains can make many intermediate stops quickly and without using large amounts of fuel. Stations, because they are less expensive to build and operate than airports, can be located in more places. Moreover, they are, or can be, located in the middle of cities and small towns whereas commercial airports, because of their larger land foot print and noise, are usually located far outside city centers and away from densely populated areas.
Smaller markets do not generate enough traffic to attract low fare airlines and, with the rising price of fuel and the inefficiencies of short flights and smaller aircraft, are less sustainable for more and more trips, with air service becoming prohibitively expense or nonexistent. These markets are also losing intercity bus service. For those that still have it, intercity buses frequently opt for stations inconveniently located at truck stops near major highways to save time. Most low fare curbside buses travel non -stop or nearly so between major cities, and do not serve smaller intermediate communities. Trains offer a cost effective way to restore mobility choices to cities and towns of all sizes along a railroad corridor in a way that neither air nor bus service can accomplish. Significant redevelopment has been sparked by creation of multi-modal transportation centers even in places where the catalyst was just one daily Amtrak round-trip.
A steel wheel running on a steel rail generates very little friction compared to rubber-tired vehicles like cars and trucks. A diesel-powered passenger train can move nearly two and one-half more time per people per gallon than a typical automobile. Airplanes burn significant amounts of fuel for take-offs and landings, making short and medium distance trips less economic at the current and future price of fuel. Because trains use fuel efficiently and do not have a significant fuel penalty for stops, the cost of train travel is not has heavily influenced by fuel prices as the cost of air and road travel. As a bonus, passenger trains can offer more room to sit, stand and move around. Economy passenger can relax in fully reclining seats as wide as first-class seats on airplanes; sleeping car passengers can have private rooms with a bed.
Long distance trains are a cost efficient-a finding that may surprise many. Despite years of neglect, underinvestment and retrenchment, Amtrak’s long distance network moves one passenger one mile (the accepted industry measure of efficiency) at an average public cost roughly equal to that of short distance trains on corridors outside the Northeast. This parity is not obvious in Amtrak’s financial reports because the reports include state-but not federal-payments for service as revenue.
Passenger fares on long distance trains cover nearly all the costs of fuel, equipment maintenance, servicing, train crews, supplies and food. Public funding is needed to cover the costs of infrastructure, stations, and overhead functions. A comprehensive national system with more routes and greater frequencies will require a higher level of public support. But since many of these costs are fixed, expanded service would increase efficiency and lower the cost per passenger mile. Congress could lower this cost even further by funding the purchase of modern, high performance trains to replace Amtrak’s aging long distance fleet and to provide the capacity needed to add extra cars to existing trains and launch new service. Additional cars to expand capacity are especially needed for the Empire Builder. Additionally, new equipment costs less to maintain.
Goals like “operational self-sufficiency,” “Profit” or minimize federal operating support are neither reasonable nor sound public policy objectives. This is supported by the fact that federal and state funds subsidize air and road travel. The effect of these goals is to block improvements needed to modernize the nation’s intercity passenger train system and rejuvenate our increasingly expensive and dysfunctional transportation system. The driving purpose should be to harvest the public benefits that trains produce for the communities they serve and for the nation as a whole. Studies have found that even one train a day produces benefits that exceed costs.
More Choices, Greater Mobility
Our world is changing rapidly. Baby boomers are aging. Young people give internet access higher priority than having a car. Congestion, cost, personal technology and other long term forces are causing more and more Americans to choose the train in all its forms over transportation options-when they have that choice. Unfortunately, most Americans do not have the choice, which makes the need for trains all the more urgent.
People with choices are better able to adapt to, and less likely to suffer from, changing circumstances and new realities. People with fewer choices have less freedom to adapt. People without choices are trapped.
The time has come to transform the national passenger train network from a neglected, bare-bones operation into a robust and thriving mobility machine!
Note; this content is sourced from the National Association of Railroad Passenger white paper “Long Distance Trains, a Foundation for National Mobility”