The Importance of Maintaining Long Distance Passenger Rail

Oct 29th, 2013 | Posted by

Another year, another Congressional Republican attack on Amtrak’s popular long distance rail service.

Coast Starlight

This time California Republican Jeff Denham is among those seeking to shut down the high ridership service:

In a May hearing, Rep. Jeff Denham, a California Republican and chairman of the railroads subcommittee in the House of Representatives, noted that Amtrak’s long-distance routes lost a combined $600 million in 2012.

“We simply cannot afford to continue these levels of subsidized losses year after year,” Denham said.

The truth is that the United States can easily afford $600 million a year to subsidize long distance passenger trains. It’s 0.06% of a roughly $1 trillion federal budget. And it’s 0.0038% of a $15 trillion national GDP. It’s a statistically negligible drop in the bucket.

The problem with Denham’s approach, and with the article as a whole, is it assumes there’s something wrong with subsidizing transportation. The Interstate Highway System is massively subsidized, with 0.0% farebox recovery (the gas tax is by no means equivalent to purchasing an Amtrak ticket and even then gas taxes fail to cover the full system cost) and nobody bats an eye.

That’s because we have made a decision as a democracy that interstate freeways ought to be subsidized. One can argue the wisdom of that decision, but because it has popular support, that situation persists. And I would argue there’s nothing wrong with the public deciding to subsidize a particular form of transportation. The question should be whether we believe freeways are a good use of subsidies, not whether subsidies should exist in transportation.

Dave Johnson makes a similar point about Amtrak subsidies over at the Campaign for America’s Future:

Democracy is We the People doing things to make all of our lives better. So in a democracy “government spending” is by definition money we spend to make our lives better. Plutocracy and its “market solutions” are about government doing things for people who have money — the rest are seen as “losers” or “takers” who are just in the way. America since Reagan has been transforming from a democracy to a plutocracy that serves the people with the cash. In this example it is people in rural areas who might have to pay the price, losing their rail service.

Amtrak was started at a time when the United States was more democratic. It was seen as perfectly acceptable for Congress to subsidize long distance passenger rail because there was a clear national interest in doing so. It was seen as good to maintain a national rail network, providing people the opportunity to connect between states and metropolises without having to drive. For many people in cities with Amtrak long distance stations, the passenger trains serve as an important travel lifeline in a world where airlines have largely forsaken small towns.

The need for long distance passenger rail is even stronger today than it was in 1971 when Amtrak was created. Gas prices are soaring and so too are carbon emissions. Providing Americans with ways to get around that are more carbon efficient should be a national priority, well above market considerations. Climate change will cost far, far more than $600 million a year. We should be investing to electrify the long distance routes and provide more frequent service, not looking for excuses to eliminate them entirely.

Americans want to ride passenger trains. Give them the option and they’ll take it. It’s been proven time and again across the nation. The same is true with the long distance trains. We need a national rail network, one that serves towns large and small, in order to support a strong economy, reduce carbon emissions, and reduce gas consumption. And if we have to subsidize those trains, that ought to be just fine. After all, the savings we realize more than make up for the costs.

  1. Joe
    Oct 29th, 2013 at 21:11
    #1

    Jeff Denham supported the government shutdown.
    That made him unpopular in his district.

    He’s for expanding ACE commuter rail with subsidies to Merced but not interstate rail. Both are subsidized rail.

    Not sure he can thread that needle in 2014. He’s trying real hard to be both.

    Ted Judah Reply:

    Denham is a test case for how the Republican Party can survive in majority-Latino districts.

    There’s actually a good chance now that a new “highway” bill will get passed before the 2014 election because the GOP is frightened that there will be no new legislation to run on except the Senate immigration bill come next fall.

    Of course, Denham is co-sponsoring the immigration bill in the House to make it look like there are Republicans that aren’t 112% against any form of amnesty/more nonwhite people/anchor babies. So in exchange for taking a bullet in the eyes of the Club for Growth, he has to simultaneously prove his bona fides by going after Amtrak, the holy grail of all that the GOP opposes.

    Mitch McConnell knows better. He’s not going to take a bill to his friend Joe Biden that cuts Amtrak outright. Denham is just trying to cultivate his fundraising base for his run for statewide office…nothing more nothing less.

    jimsf Reply:

    And to think I have so many coworkers at amtrak who vote republican…including in Denhams district. It never ceases to amaze me how people with union jobs, whose paychecks come from a Washington DC adress, sit around bad mouthing taxes and government while voting for republican candidates who want to break their unions and eliminate their jobs. There must be stupid in the water.

    joe Reply:

    Reagan Democrats
    “The work of Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg is a classic study of Reagan Democrats. Greenberg analyzed white ethnic voters (largely unionized auto workers) in Macomb County, Michigan, just north of Detroit. The county voted 63 percent for John F. Kennedy in 1960, but 66 percent for Reagan in 1980. He concluded that “Reagan Democrats” no longer saw Democrats as champions of their working class aspirations, but instead saw them as working primarily for the benefit of others: the very poor, feminists, the unemployed, African Americans, Latinos, and other groups.”

    jimsf Reply:

    AKA cutting off your nose to spite your face. I wonder how many air traffic controllers voted for reagan before he canned them. While dems have certainly strayed from their labor roots to some extent, more like branched out really, republicans celebrate their anti union, anti government, anti worker, anti rail, anti transit, anti “anything that helps the working class” stance. To turn around and vote against keeping your own job, because you don’t like someone else getting assistance is just super lame. The same thing went on year after year with things like gay rights….. people would rather vote against their own welfare and livelihoods, than let someone they don’t like get something they have. Seriously pathetic. And this country has gone down this road over and over and over again. What the fuck is wrong with the american people? Its like a national festival of ignorance.

    Andy M Reply:

    I don’t think the comaprison to gay rights is appropriate here, as gay rights don’t cost tax money. People who oppose them don’t do so for fiscal reasons. However, if you depend on governemnt handouts, it makes perfect sense as a survival strategy to oppose other groups who also depend on those handouts if you believe money is running out or present spending levels are not sustainable.

    jimsf Reply:

    people who oppose things for so called “fiscal reasons” don’t really oppose those things for fiscal reasons. They just use that as an excuse to be assholes. That’s the real truth. American’s rampant big fat phony outrage about things is ever so tiring.

    joe Reply:

    Denham rides ACE to meet and greet voters and lobbies to extended ACE to Modest – okay by me – but it’s another money losing train service and a contradiction. He’s all for more taxing to pay for the service too.

    With U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham — a high-speed rail critic but fan of the Altamont Corridor Express — on hand, ACE representatives said a local sales tax increase could provide important funding for a long-awaited extension to Modesto and then Merced.

    http://www.modbee.com/2013/07/26/2829181/ace-train-service-to-modesto-hinges.html#storylink=cpy

    “There could be opportunities to grab federal dollars to spur an infusion of money to get things started,” Denham said Friday. Reeves said chances at landing such money are much greater if the county has “seed money” from a transportation tax.

    Denham listened to passengers on an ACE train in May, with TV cameras rolling, and on Friday invited other supporters to join him on a similar ride Aug. 15. He said ACE “has a different feel” than other public transportation, such as Bay Area Rapid Transit or Amtrak,

    Shorter Denham – I see more “whites” on ACE.

    jimsf Reply:

    “He said ACE “has a different feel” than other public transportation, such as Bay Area Rapid Transit or Amtrak”

    WTF?

    joe Reply:

    Really.

    It’s an appeal to this thinking …

    “”Reagan Democrats” no longer saw Democrats as champions of their working class aspirations, but instead saw them as working primarily for the benefit of others: the very poor, feminists, the unemployed, African Americans, Latinos, and other groups.”

    ACE is like a living room – your home – your kinda people.

    Andy M Reply:

    If you’re going to build a party on a policy of paying people to vote for you, and then you don’t pay certain groups, why should they still vote for you? Racism doesn’t come into it. It’s a basic admission that as a party you’re instrumentalizing greed.

    Walter Reply:

    I wouldn’t jump immediately to racism, but I’m definitely scratching my head as to what he could have possibly meant by this.

    Friendly folks of CA-10, please put this guy out of work.

    Nathanael Reply:

    Denham clearly has never actually ridden an Amtrak long-distance train, or at least not in decades.. The ones which he could catch in Sacramento or Oakland are… mostly full of fairly-well-to-do white people. (Fairly well-to-do because of the ticket prices.)

    He’s just ranting against Amtrak in order to sound good to the Highway Lobby portion of the Republican Party. What a tool.

    BMF of San Diego Reply:

    Agree with this.

    joe Reply:

    Threading a needle.

    He’s against Amtrak subsidies but for ACE expansion. He’s for HSR but not this project – quite mushy.
    HSR will factor into his re-election. If the project’s on track then its producing jobs in 2014. His opposition and mushy stance will work against him.

    Note PPP shows Denham behind a generic Dem and while too early, PPP was very accurate in the last election. It shows Denham is unpopular and vulnerable.
    http://www.turlockcitynews.com/news/item/1207-disputed-poll-shows-denham-could-be-vulnerable-in-2014

    VBobier Reply:

    VOTE all the Repubs/baggers out of office on Tuesday NOvember 4th, 2014!!!

  2. Michael
    Oct 29th, 2013 at 21:59
    #2

    Pretty photo. Elkhorn Slough and a late Starlight?

    J. Wong Reply:

    Nope. The Starlight travels inland through Salinas not anywhere near the coast at Monterrey Bay. I’m guessing Puget Sound.

    joe Reply:

    I think it does go along Elkhorn Slough. Here’s the Amtrak map on google earth.

    http://www.amtrak.com/coast-starlight-train

    Salinas to San Jose via the coast – very slow and I think this will be the same route for the CCSJ service between Salinas and San Jose. Stops will be added in Castroville and WatsonVille for the CC COmuter.

    Anyone one interested in getting to Gilroy, you disembark in Salinas, not San Jose.

    J. Wong Reply:

    “Near” is all relative. The right-of-way looks to be 3 or 4 miles inland of Monterrey Bay whereas the photo shows the train right next to the water! Even near Santa Barbara where the train travels along the coast, it’s at least 20 feet above the beach whereas it does travel along Puget Sound.

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    The track is just above the water at Elkhorn, the lowest point on the Coast line.

    Ted K. Reply:

    From the picture’s Flickr page :

    Coast Starligt
    December 28, 2008
    Elkhorn, California, US

    Ted K. Reply:

    s/Coast Starligt/Coast Starlight/

    Sorry for the typo.

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    Absolutely Elkhorn Slough. I knew it as soon as I saw the photo on Flickr even before seeing the caption. I know that place well.

  3. Alon Levy
    Oct 29th, 2013 at 23:06
    #3

    Robert, you’re arguing tautologically: it was decided democratically, therefore it must continue. No. Some people think that the democratic decision was wrong and needs to be reversed; you do not see Republicans claim that passenger rail is illegitimate (and must be stricken down as unconstitutional, for example), only that it’s a bad investment and the money should go elsewhere. That’s also the argument you’ve made about the Big Dig on the Puget Sound Alaskan Way Viaduct: it’s not illegitimate in a democracy, it’s just bad and shouldn’t be funded.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    The Republicans were arguing it was a bad investment before it passed. The Republicans argue that all sorts of things are bad/cost too much/will turn us all into drooling Communists whenever it doesn’t benefit rich straight white guys.

    Loren Petrich Reply:

    Yes, they don’t moan and groan that government military and police forces cost too much and that we should all become vigilantes.

    Nathanael Reply:

    Exactly.

    Libertarians are a bit different. I respect libertarians more than I respect Republicans. Libertarians actually *do* moan and groan that government military and police forces cost too much and say that we should all become vigilantes, so at least they’re consistent.

    Republicans are just hypocrites. Though to be fair, many at the “grassroots level” are simply ignorant and have no idea what their elected officials are doing.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    and most libetarians along with wanting very laissez laissez-faire business policy don’t want the government telling people what they can do in their bedrooms, what kind of drugs they can ingest etc. That lets them explain the cycle that happens when the government stops arresting people for drugs means cutting the budget for prison and frees up the police and courts to pursue crimes they do think are the government business.

    The stereotypical TeaPartier doesn’t know what their officials are doing because that would require thought. And as long as those officials consistently cut taxes on rich people no one points out that they aren’t keeping to their campaign promises. Or that they didn’t have campaign promises beyond pledging to cut taxes on rich people and chanting USA USA USA, Mom and apple pie.

    Nathanael Reply:

    ” you do not see Republicans claim that passenger rail is illegitimate (and must be stricken down as unconstitutional, for example),”

    Uh, actually you DO see Republicans claim that passenger rail is illegitimate. They claim that government funding for giant highways are legitimate but that government funding for passenger rail isn’t. They really, really do this. Look harder and you’ll find some quotes.

    Sure, they say it’s OK if it’s run by a private for-profit company, but they say that about *everything*. If there’s profiteering to be done, why then it’s OK!

  4. Eric
    Oct 30th, 2013 at 01:23
    #4

    “The need for long distance passenger rail is even stronger today than it was in 1971 when Amtrak was created.”

    Um, this is ridiculous. The reason Amtrak was created was that the previously existing passenger rail companies were failing. The reason they were failing on long distance routes was that air travel became popular and provides a much higher value for those routes. That was true in 1971 and it’s even more true now and will continue to be in the future. Get rid of the transcontinental routes and Amtrak will make a profit overall. Not that $600m is so much in the big picture, but by unnecessarily asking for subsidies you hand a gigantic ax to Amtrak’s opponents, and it’s no surprise that they grind it nonstop to oppose the many worthwhile rail projects in the US.

    Andy M Reply:

    It’s more complicated than that. Freight railroads have seen considerable levels of deregulation over the years, but back in the 1960s they had little control over pricing and it was very difficult to actually abandon or close a route. There were some profitable freight corridors back then but it was the sheer mass of unprofitable freight activities was the millstone around the collective necks of the railroads. Passenger trains were not the biggest cause of their problems. Remember that Penn Central went bankrupt after spinning its passenger operations off to Amtrak, not before? Furthermore, some freight railroads decided to keep their passenger trains for many further years rather than hand them over to Amtrak, and this despite the fact that they were spinning losses. This was because they preferred to shoulder those losses on their own balance sheet rather than have an external agency interfere in their scheduling. Passenger trains were not killing the freight railroads and being able to lose these services was not the silver bullet that saved them. It was deregulation that did that.

    Maybe on end-to-end transcontinental routes, I would concede that airlines had an overwhelming natural advantage, but in fact much of Amtrak’s traffic is over shorter distances than that and in fact this is also where much of the resurgence is presently occurring.

    TomW Reply:

    It annoys me when people look a long distance route (say LA-Chicago) and point out that air travel is much quicker from one end to the other. It’s true but not relevant. Those trains do not run non-stop – they serve a plethora of intermediate stations, which creates a lot of (overlapping) shorter-distance potential trips.

    Simiraly for roads, air travel is quicker than driving for the long interstates (e.g. I-80 from LA to Chicago). They were built to serve all the communities along the routes, which creates a lot of (overlapping) shorter-distance potential trips.

    Paul Druce Reply:

    The travel is largely between big cities with air service between them however.

    Brian Reply:

    From Amtrak: http://www.amtrak.com/ccurl/374/876/Long%20Distance%20Trains.pdf

    “Few passengers ride between route endpoints
    Most passengers on long-distance trains ride to or from stations along the route, and not between the major cities that serve as route endpoints. For exam ple, in fiscal year 2010 less than ten percent of the 342,000 passengers on the Chicago to Los Angeles
    Southwest Chief rode from end to end. Over 90 percent of the passengers boarded and/or or detrained at the 31 intermediate stops along the 2,265
    miles of track, many in small towns.”

    “Financial Performance of Long Distance Trains
    Long distance trains cover approximately 75 percent of their direct costs through passenger revenue, and approximately half of their fully allocated costs (which include system expenses shared with other train services). This ratio is comparable to many corridor routes around the country. “

    Paul Druce Reply:

    There are more big cities than just the end point ones.

    Nathanael Reply:

    Air service from (say) Buffalo, NY to Chicago, IL sucks and is very expensive.

    Amtrak demand from Buffalo, NY to Chicago, IL is quite high and increasing every year.

    The route from Buffalo, NY to Chicago, IL — the “Lake Shore Limited” — is considered a “long-distance train”. The amount of Amtrak’s budget which would be saved by cancelling it is, roughly, 2 million dollars a year.

    The Silver Meteor, one of the “long-distance trains” from New York to Florida, which does go between cities that mostly have OK airline service, is not only extremely popular and increasingly busy, it is actually *profitable* — if it were discontinued, Amtrak would LOSE 4 million dollars a year more.

    http://www.amtrak.com/ccurl/778/373/Amtrak-Covers-88-Percent-of-Operating-Costs-ATK-13-022.pdf

    Now, what about those Western trains? Note that the (avoidable or direct) cost of running the Empire Builder is roughly 10 million dollars a year. It’s heavily used by the small towns it runs through, which have NO decent airline service, and by their hinterland; they account for a little under half of the riders on that train.

    For maintaining this, you get the voting support for passenger rail in the US Senate of Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota. As with everything else in the US, the structure of the Senate means that subsidies go to the depopulated Plains and Mountain West states. If you want to change that, I suggest a Constitutional amendment to reform the Senate; this is not something you can fix just with Amtrak, because it happens in *every single federal government program*.

    —-

    Generic attacks on “long distance trains” are nonsense and trigger my bullshit detector. If you don’t think the California Zephyr service from Sacramento to Salt Lake City is worth keeping, say that, rather than spouting platitudes about “long-distance trains”.

    (By the way, the California Zephyr service from Denver to Chicago is significantly busier than the western end — enough that Amtrak always adds an extra car with ~75 seats just from Denver to Chicago. It’s also significantly faster and significantly more reliable and is likely to have financial performance similar to that of the Capitol Limited. And this is despite skipping every significant city in Iowa. If Iowa had approved its own passenger rail “corridor” plan, rather than electing a lunatic Republican state legislature, the extra traffic from following that corridor through the Iowa cities could easily have made Denver-Chicago profitable.)

    joe Reply:

    “many in small towns.”

    If Amtrak cuts service to small towns in intermediate states then the underlying support for the service is diminished. These Amtrak lines keep towns and regions in states alive and connect the nation.

    This is just another attack on public services for ideology sake. If we agree to cut these long distance lines, we are complicit in arguments that the government should abandon all services.

    If profitable privatize, if subsidized, eliminate it.

    Eric Reply:

    Ah. So you admit these routes are highly subsidized. Unlike many Amtrak routes which make a profit. So raise the fares on these routes by 33% or whatever until they break even. There is no reason for Northeast Corridor riders to be subsidizing trips from Raton, NM to Mendota, IL.

    Eric Reply:

    (I know that in general raising fares by 33% does not mean increasing revenue by 33%. But if these routes are really socially important, as is argued, the demand for them should be pretty inflexible.)

    joe Reply:

    One reason is that NE is part of the US of A.

    Senators in the these between places, once cut out of Amtrak, will not support rail regardless of party affiliation. Certainly not in the NE which wants billions to modernize.

    And this is about 900 Million.
    We pump 800 Billion into defense annually and another 50-60B into the NSA and then we budget our wars outside the defense budget.

    900 million.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    One of the reasons neo-liberals give to privatize government services beyond the most basic ones is that government provision of services leads to politicization: Amtrak chooses routes based on maximizing Congressional support, not based on maximizing transportation benefits. Now think that all industry worked like this, which was the case in Latin America until not too long ago and in the Soviet bloc: oil drilling decisions, factory placement, decisions of which goods to manufacture, and so on were based on the need to placate members of the oligarchy rather than consumer desires or environmental concerns.

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    Alon: Amtrak’s l/d routes are based on the best performing trains of the 1960s and haven’t changed much since.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    The subsequent decisions of which routes to keep were political.

    Ted Judah Reply:

    And if you privatize the decisions will still political. The opprobrium of power is used because it’s a monopoly, not because government is actual operator.

    Secondly, given that the main interlocutor of political decision are established businesses themselves, these “political decisions” were really business by any means necessary….

    Alon Levy Reply:

    The decision to privatize and the way that it’s done are both political, but subsequently the operations are not political. For example, the JRs have resisted political pressure to keep rural branch lines, and JR Central has resisted political pressure to have the Chuo Shinkansen detour to serve Nagano.

    Ted Judah Reply:

    Obviously you aren’t familiar with Tanaka Kakuei or the Joetsu Shinkansen then…

    jimsf Reply:

    Then where is your map of where long distance routes should go?

    Nathanael Reply:

    Pretty much all industry is politicized in the US. That 900 BILLION (with a “B”) dollar per year military-industrial-complex spending distorts things a lot. And then there’s agriculture subsidies…

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Obviously you aren’t familiar with Tanaka Kakuei or the Joetsu Shinkansen then…

    This was before privatization. Privatization came about precisely because of the Joetsu Shinkansen and a wealth of narrow-gauge branch lines that served the same political purposes.

    jimsf Reply:

    eric said There is no reason for Northeast Corridor riders to be subsidizing trips from Raton, NM to Mendota, IL

    and there is no reason for taxpayers in new york, la, and san francisco. and other blue area, to subside red welfare states who refuse to take care of their own responsibilites.

    Andy M Reply:

    Ah, so the good folsk in the North east can say, what is New Mexico to me anyway? Why should anybody living in such a place benefit from my tax dollars? Let them pay for their stuff themselves, and if they can’t afford it, let them rot. Fair enough. But the moment you mention anything about a secession, these same folks say, no you can’t do that. Either you are the same country or you are not. You can’t pick the best of both worlds.

    TomA Reply:

    Ironically enough, the secessionists (in as much as they really exists, which is not that much) are generally in favor of making each state pay for itself on almost every issue outside the military. If you want a socialized healthcare program we won’t stop you – but you can’t make it federal. If you want trains – pay for them yourself out of your own tax dollars.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    the secessionists are usually promoting seceding because “their” tax money it going to those awful people in the cities. ( Cities almost never seriously or even unseriously suggest secession ). Some one then whispers in their ear that those awful people in the cities are the ones that pay for all the benefits stalwart Real Americans expect to get and the secessionists wander off to spend more time with their families. Where they can suck up the subsidies they get from the big cities as one big happy family.

    Andy M Reply:

    OK, I was expecting some pedant to say that. But I think in the bigger context the principle still stands. On what basis can you say that people in the north east should not pay for a train in New Mexico as a matter of principle rather than on the basis of a nuanced analysis of the situation? To me that’s reverse secessionism in all but name.

    joe Reply:

    Is the NE is complaining about Amtrak and national rail service?. The NE is willing to fund the federal government.

    Maybe you need to show why it’s an issue to the NE first.

    jimsf Reply:

    Im a secessionist for the opposite reason. Im tired of californian paying to support the loser states, and then having to turn around and put up with their political bullshit as they take our money.

    Nathanael Reply:

    The secessionists prove themselves to be hypocrites when they start demanding federal military pork.

    If we really did split up, California and the Northeast would field utterly deadly militaries, as would the industrial midwest around Chicago. Texas? Not so much.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    First, the most active secessionist movement seems to be in Texas, which is a net donor (though not by as large an amount as the Northeast).

    Second, the secessionists usually self-delude about how much they rely on federal support. I have never seen one say outright “Mississippi gets more money from the feds than it sends in taxes and this is fostering dependence and I think Mississippi would do better under independence without these transfer programs.” I have seen very few even admit it after directly challenged about the direction of transfers. Mostly they really think that cities soak up welfare while military pork doesn’t count.

    And third, a huge percentage of the support for secession is about the desire to see segregation reestablished. Human rights concerns trump issues of local decision making.

    Andy M. Reply:

    Firstly, I think it highly unlikely that there will be a return to segregation in our time in the western hemisphere. The countries where anything remotely like that could happen are those facing ethnic and/or strife in parts of Africa and Asia, but even there it is unlikely that any segregation with any degree of permanence will emerge. Most of that region’s strife is being encouraged or aggravated by external influence (and much of it traceable to Saudi oil money). For segregation to occur outside of that region, so many other things will have to change first that the segregation will be the least of the problems. And anyway, it’s not going to happen.

    Secondly, any true secessionist would say, I’d rather be poor and free than continue to be fed and subsidized by those who stand between me and my liberty (think of the Irish Free State for example). This is the test that most modern secessionists fail and that reveals their true stamina, or lack thereof. However, nobody is guaranteeing that net transfer will continue at its present levels. If it tails off, a lot of people could jump the fence on secession. I would not postulate that secession is totally unthinkable. Who would have foreseen in the early 1980s the collapse of the USSR or Yugoslavia or Apartheid South Africa? The seemingly invincible can crumble faster than most of would think. The only constant is change and change has a habit of not happening at a slow and constant plod but happening in tsunami-like waves between periods of relative stability. Just because the people who are talking about secession now are obviously not ready to walk the talk, don’t assume that there will never be a secessionist movement that sings a different tune. Also, don’t assume that such secessionists will be of the same political color as the present lot.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Actually, given the increasing moves toward disenfranchising blacks and de facto de-naturalizing many Hispanics, I don’t think resegregation should be ruled out.

    As for secession, in fact most of the active secessionist movements within the first world are in regions that subsidize the capital instead of being subsidized by it. Of Europe’s four most active movement – Catalonia, Flanders, Northern Italy, Scotland – the first three are net tax donors, which strongly figures into their rhetoric, and the last is roughly neutral. Moreover, within Northern Italy, Lega Nord seems to be most popular in the richer areas, i.e. Lombardy, than in somewhat lower-income Central Italian regions that it claims to be part of the North, like Tuscany. Historically, three of Europe’s countries – Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Belgium – were formed by secession of a rich region overtaxed to fund a foreign capital: Switzerland started demanding and getting imperial immediacy after it boomed due to the opening of an improved road through St. Gotthard Pass; the Netherlands rebelled against Spain after Spain tried to overtax Antwerp’s booming economy to fund religious wars (although Antwerp itself remained under Spanish control, leading its commercial class to flee to Amsterdam); Belgium declared independence from the Netherlands when Wallonia was the most industrialized part of Continental Europe.

    But history aside, American Southern secessionists do not say “we’d rather be poor than have Yankees tell us how to govern.” They believe they’d be rich on their own, based on the wealth of the slave plantation owners 160 years ago.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    The places where secession is popular are already segregated. Well, were never particularly multicultural and are desperately trying to get away from those icky people in the cities.

    Ted Judah Reply:

    Alon,

    Your theory is right on, and that’s why there’s no chance in hell of there being secession today.

    You don’t have to look back further than 1968 to see the oil-rich region of Biafra try to secede (and fail) from Nigeria. And closer to home, it should be pointed out that Mississippi, the poorest of states in 2013, was the richest in 1860 because of the value of cotton exports and slaves. Not that it’s all that surprising that the Confederacy tried to leave given that the US was formed over precisely the same dispute about wealthy types having to pay for Britain’s wars.

    And that’s precisely the problem with assuming there will be more secession today. The white, insular American voting bloc isn’t getting richer, it’s getting poorer and has for a long time. They also aren’t particularly geographically isolated so the preferred method of domination is apartheid a la Jim Crow and other disenfranchisement.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Mississippi may have had the richest voters in the US in 1860 but it wasn’t the richest state.

    Andy M Reply:

    What about Somaliland? That would be one example of the poorest part of a country seceding and becoming even poorer. Money isn’t the only motivator for people to do crazy things.

    Nathanael Reply:

    Andy M: Somaliland seceded because Somalia was wracked by a endless civil war, and Somaliland was capable of creating a peaceful state on its own.

    This is actually very similar to the richer areas seceding — the more *peaceful* area seceded rather than being dragged into the war being conducted around the capital. You could compare it to West Virginia seceding from Virginia during the Civil War if you want a US historical example.

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    It is a political fallacy to tailor your own actions to appease your opponents. They will never come around. Those who oppose federal passenger rail funding will not be brought around to supporting it. We need to concentrate on electing rail supporters, not on playing to rail opponents.

    Nathanael Reply:

    Eric, the reason the previous passenger rail routes were failing was *government subsidies* to the roads and the airlines and airports, combined with *government taxes* on the railroads.

    Go look it up.

  5. BMF of San Diego
    Oct 30th, 2013 at 07:37
    #5

    I do not feel long distance rail travel is important at all. The benefit to cost, is subsidy, is far too high. Small towns in middle America, and related travel demand, is far too low to warrant regular train service. Certainly nothing more than 1 or 2 trips per week. Subsidy required is too high. Demand too low.

    jimsf Reply:

    so what. we can well afford it as a nation. its a drop in the budget bucket and its part of a national network.

    jimsf Reply:

    many small towns also get very expensive subsidized interstate highway system service.

    TomA Reply:

    And what air service they get is subsidized too.

    VBobier Reply:

    Which for most small towns served by Amtrak is ZILCH…

    BMF of San Diego Reply:

    Which is the way it should be, IMO.

    Admittedly, I’m a bit polarized on this issue. Publicly provided service should be provided first… at locations where it is utilized the greatest. Urban areas.

    Nathanael Reply:

    What cost?

    The Silver Meteor, a “long distance train”, is profitable. (Cancelling it would *cost* Amtrak money every year.)
    The Palmetto, a “long distance train”, is profitable. (Discontinuing it would *cost* Amtrak money every year.)
    The Lake Shore Limited, a “long distance train”, costs Amtrak roughly $2 million dollars a year to operate as of a year ago (probably less now, as nearly every long-distance route at Amtrak is more profitable every year) — and that’s not counting the fact that it feeds passengers between New York corridor trains and otherwise-unprofitable Chicago corridors trains. Surely this is worth it.

    The subsidy for all the “small towns” served by the Empire Builder in North Dakota and Montana — which have no meaningful airline service, no expressways, and where the roads often close during winter storms — is about $10 million a year total. Worth it? To me, obviously yes.

    http://www.amtrak.com/ccurl/778/373/Amtrak-Covers-88-Percent-of-Operating-Costs-ATK-13-022.pdf

    It’s worth remembering that trains are a *capital-intensive business*. The majority of the costs of train service is “fixed costs” — costs which are the same no matter how much service you run. You gain very little by deleting services. In fact, to run a railroad competently, you have to run more and more intensive service in order to get enough revenues to cover the fixed costs.

    The best thing Amtrak could do to reduce the “subsidy” of most of the long-distance services is to run them all twice a day, 12 hours offset from each other. Some of the services have other fairly minor problems (the Rocky Mountain crossings are particularly slow, the Sunset Limited skips Phoenix, the SW Chief is on the less-populated route from Albuquerque to Kansas City, the Empire Builder is on the less-populated route from Omaha to Galesburg).

    Nathanael Reply:

    By contrast, start looking up the subsidies for highways in rural states. The subsidies are astronomical. We’d save a lot of money by abandoning some of the Interstates and putting in passenger train service instead.

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    Why is the subsidy “too high”? In fact, why should the level of subsidy matter at all when there are other factors at play, such as economic stimulus, reducing oil consumption and carbon emissions, and providing a national rail network?

    Donk Reply:

    I am with BMF on this one. You have to draw the line somewhere.

    And I seriously doubt that an Amtrak train reduce carbon emissions and oil consumption when it runs thru po-dunk towns with only a few passengers getting on/off.

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    Why? We have been subsidizing these services for over 40 years. I reject utterly the idea that subsidies are inherently bad. Those who claim they are need to explain why that is the case and why small towns should be cut off from service.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Because they think Amtrak is a plot designed to sap the precious body fluids of Real Americans ™ ? Their wish to be rid of the evil Amtrak should be fulfilled.

    EJ Reply:

    What’s the value of the economic stimulus provided by long distance Amtrak trains? What’s the reduction in carbon emissions? What’s the reduction in oil consumption?

    I’ve never been able to find hard numbers on this.

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    Tricky things subsidies. Subsidize everything and soon your paycheck is worthless. And as our debate demonstrates, one mans essential public service is the other’s worthless drain on the economy. Subsidize bread? But do you include Wonderbread or only organic 7-grain?

    Alon Levy Reply:

    You reject the idea that subsidies are inherently bad; consider the idea that some of us reject the idea that a connected national rail network is inherently good.

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    Trains for me but not for thee…

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    A choo choo on every block!

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    And a New York pundit at every dinner table…

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Hey, I support more rail service to Staten Island, Rockland County, West Roxbury, the South Bronx, and other places I’m never going to live in. Some of those places are underprivileged in ways that make the Dakotas’ isolation look trivial; sure they’re geographically close to where the top 10% live, but they’re socially isolated. Others aren’t underprivileged but have pent-up demand, which isn’t true of anywhere in the Dakotas except maybe Fargo and Sioux Falls and then it wouldn’t be a nationally connected network but a couple of daily corridor trains to MSP and Chicago.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Having worked in Melrose for quite some time… the South Bronx is fairly lousy with trains. That run 24/7.

    blankslate Reply:

    Others aren’t underprivileged but have pent-up demand, which isn’t true of anywhere in the Dakotas except maybe Fargo and Sioux Falls

    Williston, ND has the greatest pent up demand in the Dakotas right now. Ridership went up 82% last year and accounted for about 1/5 of all ridership on the Empire Builder.

    http://mtstandard.com/news/local/state-and-regional/oil-workers-fill-up-passenger-trains-amtrak-ridership-on-rise/article_d1c33f06-f294-11e2-8347-001a4bcf887a.html

    Nathanael Reply:

    Alon, the back half (North Dakota to Seattle) of the Empire Builder fills up too.

    Nathanael Reply:

    “consider the idea that some of us reject the idea that a connected national rail network is inherently good.”

    That’s idiotic. A connected national rail network *is* in actual fact inherently good, just like a connected national phone network.

    Take your head out of your ass and look up “network effects”, Alon.

    Nathanael Reply:

    If you want to make a legitimate argument, you could argue that some of the long-distance trains simply do not provide meaningful links to the network — notably the three-a-week, roundabout-routing Cardinal, or the three-a-week, skipping-Phoenix Sunset Limited. The same way that most tourist trains don’t run often enough to be meaningful links in a network.

    Such arguments (the argument similar to “the once-a-month steamship does not provide a meaningful link in the postal network”) certainly do not apply to the NY-Chicago train, the NY-DC train, the NY-Florida trains, or even the Chicago-Denver train.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    There aren’t enough people out in the Dakotas or places equally empty to build up a network effect.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Um, no. There’s vanishingly little interest in ridership across those distances. North Dakota does not feed the Midwestern network much, because a) approximately nobody lives in North Dakota, and b) the demand for train travel over even the ND-Chicago distance is small.

    By a similar argument, consider the European rail network. For the longest time, you had to take diesels to travel internationally, because of the incompatible electrification systems. The HSR lines still for the most part don’t connect, and they’re only starting to connect gradually. And it’s completely fine – links like Paris-Munich are a lot less important in the grand scheme of things than Paris-Lyon.

  6. Neville Snark
    Oct 30th, 2013 at 08:13
    #6

    Slightly o/t, but not really: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-24721779

    Nathanael Reply:

    Speaking of the value of connected networks.

    The EU has put a pile of money into upgrading the Bulgarian railway network. Is this really because they think there is sufficient demand in Bulgaria? Of course it isn’t. Is it mere “subsidies for the East”? No. It’s because *Bulgaria is on the way from Western Europe to the Middle East*. The EU’s “TEN-T corridors” plan thinks big.

  7. trentbridge
    Oct 30th, 2013 at 09:14
    #7

    I think a Government-subsidized airline that used a fleet of DC3s and Boeing 707s and 727s to cross the country would run at a loss. What every Republican fails to mention is that there has been no investment in new rolling stock or locomotives for Amtrak in decades – so the long-distance trains have very, very old refurbished equipment. Now that Amtrak has the Viewliner 2 diner/baggage/sleeper cars in production at CAf and the ACS -64 locomotives from Siemens – they want to cut Amtrak down.

    Like Obamacare – the real threat to Republicans is that it might be popular and seen as a valuable addition to social welfare – and likewise Amtrak might provide a decent alternative to airlines for many communities.

    Everyone objects to Amtrak losses but every Congressional District wants to keep the trains running thru’ their home town.

    Paul Druce Reply:

    It’s really not the age of the equipment, it’s how little the equipment gets utilized and how crew intensive they are. Look at the California Zephyr. It requires six train sets and over the course of 50 hours, an individual train carries only 512 passengers and requires 37 operating crew in order to do so (10 OBS, 27 engineers and conductors). Meanwhile there are individual Surfliner runs which exceed a thousand passengers (though the average set only does 850 passengers a day on the Surfliner) with a far smaller crew.

    jimsf Reply:

    surfliners are trains where people are only on board for 30 minutes to a few hours. They don’t require staff. The zephyr is a three day trip. Of course you are going to have to have staffing. People are demanding. They want someone to assist them and they want assistance 24 hours a day during their trip.

    Paul Druce Reply:

    I’m aware of that. You are, however, missing the point of what I said and why.

    Nathanael Reply:

    The speed over the mountains is the core problem on the California Zephyr which makes its financial performance worse than other “long-distance” trains.

    A “Denver Zephyr” could be run with two trainsets from Denver to Chicago; the track is straight and flat, and even at 79 mph you can get good equipment utilization. Run it along the proposed Iowa corridor from Omaha to the Quad Cities at 90 mph and you’d do even better.

    But then west of Denver, the train slows down to climb through the mountains. And this is why the CZ requires six trainsets. Trans-Rockies trains are at a severe disadvantage.

    As I mentioned above, Amtrak already adds an extra car from Chicago-Denver every trip. The Chicago-Denver part of the CZ is doing quite well.

    The train route from Denver as far as Grand Junction, with all the ski resorts with no airline access, is also quite popular, and supported a second train to Winter Park (the “Ski Train”) until various business shenanigans and lack of equipment stopped it. But you’ll note if you read the schedule that this section is *much* slower than Denver-Chicago. Operating this alone would take two trainsets.

    This traffic is also largely separate from the east-of-Denver traffic; over half the train turns over in Denver.

    Apparently Sacramento to Reno is actually very popular as well — operating Emeryville to Reno would require two trainsets — but the speed is again worse than Denver-Chicago, because of the mountains.

    Reno to Salt Lake City to Grand Junction is the weakest, least busy part of the route. The expressways in this area are pretty empty and not worth maintaining, either. But please note that with six trainsets in operation to run the other services, it ends up being possible to run this without any additional trainsets. Such are the economies of scale in railroading.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    it’s a 1000 miles between Denver and Chicago. Even at an average speed of 200 mph flying would still be faster. And no there aren’t enough people in metro Kansas City or metro Omaha to scare up enough people that would be willing to take an Amtrak land cruise to Denver or Chicago. Or even St. Louis.

    jimsf Reply:

    you arent going to put 500 people on a train for three days with just an engineer and a conductor. It would be mayhem.

    Andy M Reply:

    No, but the California Zephyr is frequently fully booked. Especially on popular days. That means you can add additional cars and probably fill them too. Those additional cars would not require much additional staff and so would increase profitability. Alternatively, you can raise prices on days that demand outstrips supply and so increase cost recovery without reducing ridership. At the same time you can do more yield managament on days with low demand to get more people into those seats and bedrooms. Whetever you do, the high ridership definitely shows there is a need for this service. Those who advocate cutting it totally obviously don’t know what they’re talking about.

    jimsf Reply:

    Those things, except the extra cars- because we dont have any – are already being done. Meanwhile both ridership and revenue have been climbing steadily month after month year after year. And I can personally speak to the fact that amtrak has taken huge steps in financial accountability. There are still things- capital projects – that bewilder the employees because the company spends money on capital items and sub par contractors. Total waste of money. But the accounting as far as ticket revenue, has been tightened, waste has been eliminated, revenue generation has been maximized… but in my opinion it could go further. We should be charging for bags and charging for bike space, at least a nominal fee per bag. Also, discounts should be eliminated. Senior, disabled, triple A, Why should a senior, who probably has more money than god because they profited from being an american during americas most successful time period, be given a break, when some poor kid who works for minimum wage gets no such break.

    More revenue generating is in the works, including electronic baggage tracking. ( at which point fees will likely appear) as well a new fare tier system rolling out soon.

    Overtime, for employees has taken a huge hit. Its rarely available, and, because the trains have increased their on time performance so much, overtime for late operation has been cut to the bone. The number of passengers on board and the number passengers ussing station services has increased steadily but jobs have remained steady or been eliminated as we continue to do more with less. That is the reality.

    Nathanael Reply:

    People do not like it when you charge per bag for every bag. It’s cheesy nickel-and-diming. Do not do it.

    Amtrak has already instituted charges for *excess* baggage. Let people have their carryons for free, and let them have one checked suitcase each for free.

    The disabled discounts are partly compensation for the fact that Amtrak has really poor ADA compliance, so I’d keep them until Amtrak is fully ADA compliant. Biased here.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Baggage cars cost money to run. Baggage handlers like to get paid. Baggage handling is not kind to dwell times. The overhead racks on the trains are very commodious. I can put my “big” suitcase in them. Which I don’t mind doing because the effort to get it onto the train and into a rack is somewhat less than checking it with an airline.

    Eric Reply:

    If it’s fully booked then RAISE THE FARE until it is not quite fully booked. Free money!

    Nathanael Reply:

    Amtrak has been doing that!

    This is harder than it sounds. The train is frequently full from Denver to Chicago, and then not full from Reno to Salt Lake City. No matter how you tweak the pricing, you end up with this problem.

    The classic solution is to run more trains from Denver to Chicago. Because so much of the cost of running a railroad is in “fixed costs”, this can often make your operations profitable.

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    Back to the usual fallacies. It’s passenger miles that count, not passengers.

    Paul Druce Reply:

    Nonsense. What’s more important, 10 trips DC-NYC or a single LA-Chicago trip? Same passenger miles, but it’s fairly obvious that the NYC-DC trips are more important. Passenger miles are raised as an irrelevant appeal whose sole purpose and function is to bias against short distance trips, trips that are actually useful and relevant to people and with which Amtrak can compete. Amtrak cannot compete against air service, especially not with EAS, over long distances. It’s more expensive and takes an absurd length of time. It can compete with air and rail in the short distance market where far more trips are taken precisely because of that shorter distance. Meanwhile the long distance trains take up equipment and operational support which could be better used on corridor travel.

    Andy M Reply:

    Define important. Every trip is important to the person making that trip. On what basis can you say, if you are in NYC and you can choose between going to Newark or going to LA, then it is more important to go to Newark, and therefore the government should subsidize the train to Newark but not that to LA? That is an utterly nonsensical basis on which to prioritize government spending.

    Of course passenger miles count. If they didn’t you could just say, all trains should stop at New York Penn. So people going from Boston to Philly would need to take two trains. Amtrak could instantly double their number of trips. If they similarly broke the journey in more places they could expand the number of trips further. That’s the fallacy that you fall into when you say passenger miles are not a valid metric.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Why do you think the only alternative to passenger-km is unlinked trips? There is such a thing as linked trips.

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    Mr. Druce, such a Beltway centric view point.
    Air travel is competitive with train over long distances, EXCEPT where the passenger will not or is afraid of taking the plane, OR
    when the passenger is prepared to spend his own money to take in the scenery and see this great country from ground level, etc.etc.
    The vast majority of journeys in the NEC are by automobile, and the last time I checked there is still plenty of airline service, and intercity buses.
    And as you like to quote the great job the airlines do between major cities, please note that they measure their own performance in passenger miles.
    As for allocation of resources, ATK’s own performance in load factors on the NEC at about 40% indicates they have plenty of spare capacity to sell.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    First, the load factors are 45-50% on the Regional and 60-65% on the Acela. Go to the recent monthly reports and compare per seat-mile and per-passenger-mile contributions in the route performance section.

    Second, on the NEC, rail has about a 6% market share, vs. 1% nationally. Buses are roughly even with rail plus or minus a few percentage points. The volume of cars is almost the same, but the transit passenger volumes are very different.

    Third, passengers who don’t fly drive. There’s no huge untapped market of people living in the Dakotas, Montana, and western Kansas: not many people live in those areas, car ownership in those areas is about 100%, and flying is already a hassle because of airline monopolies so that people drive long distances.

    And fourth, airlines use passenger-km because it is relevant to questions of revenue. The yield on routes like NY-LA is lower than on the puddle jumpers, but it’s balanced out by very high intercontinental yields and by the lower per-seat operating costs of larger planes. On Amtrak, both factors work against longer routes: yields are much lower on the LD trains (¢11.4/p-km average excluding Auto Train) than on the NEC (¢29.4/p-km on the Regional, ¢53.3/p-km on the Acela), and operating costs are higher because there’s more crew per passenger, speeds are lower so there are even more crew-hours per passenger-km, energy costs are higher because of the inefficient diesel engines, and there’s more rolling stock to maintain per passenger-km because of lower speeds and lower seating density.

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    All good points Alon, but offset by getting the right of way for next to nothing, and the very high yield from sleeper pax. Regarding your third point, ATK does not need a huge market to make these trains more successful. A lot of passengers do go by rail in those states, it’s a good alternative. And I question your assumption about fuel costs. Diesel will be cheaper in the coming months. How are Amtrak’s electricity costs trending? And all those nasty worn out wires and masts, tsk, tsk…

    Paul Druce Reply:

    Sleeper yields aren’t high at all. Check the averages compared to the NERegional or Acela. That’s without considering the enormous extra costs associated with sleeper passengers.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    75 to 100 year old masts etc. Some of the power conversion equipment is equally ancient.
    The Northeast gets a significant fraction of it’s electricity from non fossil sources and a significant fraction from natural gas. I suspect that electricity rates will be more stable than diesel prices. Especially the stuff that Amtrak buys from the dedicated generators at Safe Harbor Dam.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    The yield is an average of all LD tickets, sleeper or otherwise.

    Do sleepers have such a high yield, even? Checking Chicago-Seattle sleepers for tomorrow gets me $415 for a roomette, which is ¢11.7/km. Sleeper passengers ride the train for longer distance on average, which reduces yield since fares are generally lower per unit of distance for longer distances (on the NEC, too – Boston-Washington is far cheaper than the sum of Boston-New York and New York-Washington). And that’s without taking into account higher staffing needs and lower seating density.

    Paul Druce Reply:

    Do sleepers have such a high yield, even?

    For FY2011, City of New Orleans sleepers averaged 13.8¢ per passenger-km, Southwest Chief averaged 13.6¢/pax-km, the Auto Train 18¢/pax-km, Coast Starlight 17.3¢/pax-km, and the Empire Builder 14.4¢/pax-km. Link For comparison purposes, in FY2012, the Palmetto averaged a coach fare of 12.5¢/pax-km.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Okay, so in all cases, this is well below average Regional fare, and in some it’s the same as the minimum Regional advance fare from New York to Washington or Boston ($49 for 360 km, or ¢13.6/p-km).

    Eric Reply:

    I seem to recall a discussion (here?) saying that Amtrak sleeper cars break even, but non-sleeper trips that serve meals operate at an unavoidable loss.

    blankslate Reply:

    non-sleeper trips that serve meals operate at an unavoidable loss

    What are the “non-sleeper trips that serve meals”? There are no free meals on Amtrak in either sleeper or non-sleeper class. The options are to overpay for subpar food in the dining car, or bring your own.

    Nathanael Reply:

    “There’s no huge untapped market of people living in the Dakotas, Montana, and western Kansas:”

    The government of Montana begs to differ, as it has been trying to get the “North Coast Hiawatha” restored for a long time. The people of Bismarck might also differ. (Yes, there is nothing in Western Kansas, this is true.)

    When you route your train to skip the larger cities, there *is* a huge untapped market — people who would take the train, but will not drive for an hour in *order* to take the train.

    There is, for instance, a huge untapped market in Iowa, where the Empire Builder takes the *wrong route*. The proposed Omaha-Des Moines-Iowa City-Moline corridor route taps the Des Moines and Iowa City markets, probably the Cedar Rapids market, and the Moline Westward market.

    Likewise, there’s a large untapped market in, uh, Phoenix, Arizona, which lost direct rail service in the 1990s and which never had daily service.

    Nathanael Reply:

    Paul Druce: sleeper ticket yields are high on the Lake Shore Limited, Silver Meteor, and Silver Star.

    The trans-Rockies trains charge much less, presumably because of lower demand.

    It is quite common for me to find roomette prices from Syracuse, NY to Chicago which are higher than the price from Chicago to Los Angeles. Checking for a random day in February (Amtrak’s lowest-ridership month), I find that it costs ~500 from Chicago to LA and ~250 from Syracuse to Chicago. Even so, compare the mileage and you’ll see that the yields are higher in the east. In higher-ridership months in midsummer, the difference is more extreme.

    However, the pricing really does contain a discount for longer trips. On the day I picked, Chicago-Denver is ~300, Denver-Emeryville is ~350, but Chicago-Emeryville is only ~450. Arguably, Amtrak is seriously undercharging for the longest trips (or overcharging for the shorter trips, as the case may be). I do wonder what’s up with that.

    Anyway, using Alon’s method of computing seat-miles per passenger mile, assuming that they’re roughly the same for sleeper and coach trips (which seems to be true on the LSL), and using the numbers for sleeper revenue and ridership from the August report to compute ticket yield, eyeballing the numbers for sleeper revenue and ridership for 2013 through August, and making an educated guess of pass-km / route-km based on the reported station pair popularity in the PIPs, I get 23.9 cents per pass-km in sleeper revenue for the Lake Shore Limited sleepers.

    23.9 cents per pass-km isn’t sky-high but it certainly does pay for operating the sleeper cars — in other words, they’re profitable. Amtrak, indeed, thinks that the sleeper profits are sufficient to pay for buying extra sleepers — *for the East Coast routes* — which is why Amtrak did so.

    Worth noting is that the dining cars are always loss leaders, on every train; of the “long-distance” trains, the Palmetto (no dining car) makes a profit (in avoidable-cost terms), while the Silver Meteor (following exactly the same route, although it runs further) makes a significantly smaller profit. The dining car really makes the difference.

    Want to make dining cars profitable? Well, first of all Amtrak is automating the inventory management, which should help a lot. Beyond that, I think think the only way to do it is to run the trains faster so people don’t want as many meals onboard.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Theres nothing out there. Bismark is a thriving metropolis just a little smaller than metro Ithaca. Fargo, the biggest city in the state in the biggest metro area in the state is 200 miles away. And it is smaller than metro Binghamton. With 200 miles of wheat field between them.
    Theres no one out there, you could stuff all of North Dakota into metro Poughkeepsie and all of South Dakota into metro Albany. All of Montana into metro Rochester and all of Idaho almost into metro Buffalo. The overflow could fill up metro Glens Falls.

  8. Paul Dyson
    Oct 30th, 2013 at 10:35
    #8

    A few points. The NEC does not make a profit. Just take the annual subsidy to Amtrak, deduct $300 -$600 million for the l/d trains and there is $600 million more to be accounted for. Post PRIIA the state trains are at least break even, probably profitable to ATK, so the rest of the loss has to be NEC. And in addition the NEC soaks up 95% of Amtrak’s capital each year.
    The l/d trains share maintenance facilities with state services, how those costs are allocated is hard to derive but I imagine ATK allocates a lot to the l/ds to make them look bad, but also charges the states a lot to inflate the PRIIA figures.
    The L/D trains could lose less money on operations with a new labor agreement that reduces some of the crew costs, but the better solution is to increase train length. There is a once in a decade opportunity to do that by Amtrak participating in the bi-level car build at Rochelle IL once the state cars are completed. They should be working on diner and sleeper prototypes but they are not. ATK hopes that they can con the states into paying for the western l/d trains in spite of ATK’s responsibility to run a national network. A few percentage points of the capital grant could pay for these prototypes. Also, once the state cars are delivered, the Superliners currently in CA corridor service should go back to the l/d trains where they belong.
    There is a big market for the services these trains provide. There are many citizens of this country who simply do not want to fly. There are plenty of affluent foreign tourists who will use a quality l/d product. There are journeys to and from intermediate towns that are better accomplished by train, and/or not served by other means. In spite of the deliberate neglect by Amtrak management over the years these trains continue to perform reasonably well and spin off a lot of cash using fully depreciated assets, and with de minimus right of way expense. The problem now is that after years of telling congress and the public that ATK’s problems are all the fault of the l/d trains it’s hard for management to ask for the capital to build new rolling stock for the service, even though their own stats reveal that the second largest revenue generator is the Empire Builder.
    The best result would be to separate the l/d trains from ATK DC management. Let them play with their NEC Lionel set, and publish exclusive accounts for each service, and we’ll see what the truth is.

    synonymouse Reply:

    Bravo, Paul.

    The Raton dilemma is one aspect of long distance that is most germane to CAHSR. It has technical shortcomings which make it inferior to the Transcon as far as BNSF is concerned and is divested as redundant. The affected states would like to retain the route but not enough apparently to come up with the maintenance money, and keep on subsidizing in perpetuity.

    The lesson for CAHSR is that the most efficient routing is paramount. Politicized decisions produce terrible results, such as BART broad gauge. The current PB-CHSRA leadership, post Van Ark ouster, has repeatedly demonstrated blindered incompetence. We do need a legal opinion on Palmdale inclusionism. If it is deemed sacrosanct we really do need to abort and start all over.

    Nathanael Reply:

    The problematic Raton routing does, indeed, have one significant lesson: you will get better ridership, enough to support the train service, by following the routing *through* and *stopping at* major cities (Amarillo, Wichita) — not by wandering around through smaller towns and avoiding major cities.

    CAHSR management figured this out, hence the downtown stops in Fresno and Bakersfield.

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    There is a big market for the services these trains provide.

    Perhaps so. There’s also a big market for free icecream.

    I simply don’t understand the special case pleading by otherwise rational people such as yourself where nostalgic trains are concerned. I must say it also just reeks (and I know this is absolutely not your case, but it’s still the impression!) of Real Americans being ripped off by them fancy New York City commie intellectual elites.

    I personally love steam locomotives and all, but I don’t suggest that you ought to buy me and and maintain it for me. If you like 1940s passenger railroading with sleepers and attendants and whistle stop towns and grand rolling vistas, hop on the Trans-Siberan … at least until the Russians also stop throwing their money at it.

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    Richard: I happen to think that with some creative marketing and cost cutting these trains could do quite well, and with a minimal subsidy. The passengers on these trains are mostly “Real Americans”, many of whom are determined not to fly, and have the time to make a slower journey. This may seem like an anachronism to you but if folks are willing to pay (and many do pay 4 figures for tickets with sleeper berths) then they should have the choice. In addition these trains can earn a lot of foreign exchange, (a concept alien to most Americans who seem to think we can make import goods indefinitely on borrrowed money).
    At least the trains are being used, unlike hundreds of airport gates around the country at redundant hubs.
    Another issue not raised here is that of Railroad Retirement, another anachronism. The Class Is want Amtrak to continue in order to keep feeding the RR system, otherwise they would have to bear all of that burden.

    Paul Druce Reply:

    Whether they’re willing to pay would be more relevant if they were actually willing to pay it instead of requiring hefty support from the American taxpayers. And seriously, any foreign exchange which Amtrak’s long distance trains earn is an absolute drop in the bucket. Disneyland probably earns more foreign exchange in a single day.

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    Both NEC and l/d passengers receive taxpayer support. Operating or capital expense, a dollar is still a dollar. As is a dollar earned from a tourist. ATK is turning away sleeper passengers on almost all routes so added capacity will sell. The overseas market is hardly broached given the sold out status of most trains in the west.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Sounds like they can raise fares, then.

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    Certainly coach fares are too low, trying to compete with buses? Sleeper fares are probably bumping up against the max in a lot of cases. A more efficient reservation system might be able to sell more space, theoretically it might be possible to sell a sleeper two or more times on the longest trips.

    Joey Reply:

    Amtrak needs to realize that it’s not 1895 anymore and that seat reservations can be take care of in advance using a computer and not using slips of paper on the platform/on board.

    jimsf Reply:

    the new fare structure and a new res system are in the works already.

    jimsf Reply:

    Part of the new fare structure involves offering not only different fare buckets, but offers a choice to consumers as to the level of flexibility they want. Saver Value Flexi and Premium. Each with differing levels of restrictions.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Yep, you’re certainly hating your customers as much as the airlines do that way.

    jimsf Reply:

    yes that is true and there are no front line employees who think this is a good idea. But the pressure to become self sufficient, written into law, in an attempt to kill amtrak and bust unions, dictates that such revenue enhancement is necessary. We think it sucks. But management and the republicans have their own ideas.

    jimsf Reply:

    front line employees have been saying for years that what management is offering is NOT waht passengers are asking for. Employees want to get rid of fare buckets, not make them even more confusing. The pax already don’t understand why we can’t give them a straight answer when they ask us how much it costs to go from SLO to RNO. We are also being told to push pax to check more bags, while at the same time, limiting free bags to 2. We are suppose to discourage carry on bags.
    And pax want more personal assistance at stations and on board, not less.

    But this isn’t about increasing the use of public transit, and it isn’t about making it better for the public, its about adopting an airline model. That is where the company is going and its going there because thats what congress is telling it do.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    The customers can hate them for complex fare structures or the customers can hate them because they weren”t able to get a low fare. Or the train was fully booked when they wanted a last minute trip.
    Without the people who pay high travel-now fares the people who are traveling on buy-a-month-in-advance-no-changes wouldn’t be getting low fares. Without the people getting low fare during low demand periods they would be running even emptier trains during periods of low demand because the people who book a month ahead on the off peak train would be booking two months ahead on train with high demand. And the people who wanted to travel now would be annoyed because the train is sold out and they can’t get a ticket at any price unless they try to scalp one in the waiting room.
    Poeple want lots of things, they want free baggage, they want free red caps, they want free ponies too. Management has to do what it does to get the most people on the trains. Which fare management does.

    Nathanael Reply:

    “We are suppose to discourage carry on bags.”

    Not acceptable.

    “But this isn’t about increasing the use of public transit, and it isn’t about making it better for the public, its about adopting an airline model. ”
    The airlines are going bankrupt — all of them. It would be very unwise for Amtrak to emulate THAT type of idiocy.

    Airlines charge for bags because it’s expensive to lift heavy weights into the air.

    By contrast, it costs Amtrak next to nothing to tack on a baggage car and fill it with bags.

    The carry-on limit should be set so that if every passenger brings the maximum, there’s room for it in the train; and leave it at that.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Baggage cars cost almost as much to run as cars with seats in them. Foamers love to go and on and on and on about how dining cars don’t produce ticket revenue. Neither do baggage cars or crew sleepers.

    Nathanael Reply:

    Richard: the Russians, being smarter than you, are actually *extending* the Trans-Siberian.

    Paul Druce Reply:

    A few points. The NEC does not make a profit. Just take the annual subsidy to Amtrak, deduct $300 -$600 million for the l/d trains and there is $600 million more to be accounted for. Post PRIIA the state trains are at least break even, probably profitable to ATK, so the rest of the loss has to be NEC. And in addition the NEC soaks up 95% of Amtrak’s capital each year.

    That really depends on how we’re defining a profit. The operational subsidy is devoted towards the long distance trains (and previously some of the corridor trains). But the NEC pretty clearly makes an operational profit and probably makes one accounting for normal depreciation and such. It does not make sufficient money to pay for expansions nor for the 80 years of deferred maintenance on the corridor.

    As for soaking up 95% of Amtrak’s capital spending, that’s where 95% of Amtrak’s capital is. They don’t own the tracks the LD trains run on (and pay below market cost), they don’t own most stations, and so on.

    The l/d trains share maintenance facilities with state services, how those costs are allocated is hard to derive but I imagine ATK allocates a lot to the l/ds to make them look bad, but also charges the states a lot to inflate the PRIIA figures.

    Or, you know, the LD trains are allocated a lot because they make up a lot of the equipment. Remember that the NERegional And Acela only have about 21% of Amtrak’s cars and locomotives.

    Nathanael Reply:

    There is no evidence other than the whiny lies of passenger-hating Class I railroad execs to support the claim that Amtrak is paying them “below market cost” to run the LD trains.

    Of course, *by definition* Amtrak is paying the market cost to run the LD trains, given that the “market” consists of Amtrak negotiating with the Class Is.

    I allege that Amtrak is paying more than the true avoidable cost to run the LD trains and giving the Class Is a tidy profit. Prove me wrong.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    There are about 900 different ways to account for how much it costs to run a train over a piece of track. If Amtrak wants to use one that doesn’t let the railroad gouge them unmercifully theres going to ranting that Amtrak is engaging in communist socialization of costs for Unreal Americans to use trains.

    Ted Judah Reply:

    And yet no one here is proposing to consolidate routes or to expand service to biggest tourist draws like national parks….

    Meanwhile we are arguing over passenger miles from Denver to Chicago…

    Eric Reply:

    Cause the tracks don’t go to national parks.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    The Empire Builder goes through Glacier National Park. All of Montana had 149,813 passenger boarding and alightings in 2012.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    A lot of scenic sites were built specifically to be near the tracks and promoted by the railroad. Glacier National Park is one; in Harperland, the same is true of Lake Louise. Closer to the Adirondacks, the New York Central did a lot of work promoting the Niagara Falls as a tourist destination.

  9. Roger Christensen
    Oct 30th, 2013 at 11:00
    #9

    I see that next Thursday’s CAHSR Board Meeting features that oft-pulled agenda item considering the staff recommendation of the Fresno-Bakersfield route.
    What is the current staff recommendation? Still Hanford West?
    Hasn’t opinion shifted East?

    Elizabeth Reply:

    We believe it is now east – someone neglected to check the (high) water table in the west.

    There are three other key decisions:

    corcoran (in town or bypass)
    route near wasco/ shafter (in town or bypass)
    Bakersfield

  10. trentbridge
    Oct 30th, 2013 at 16:31
    #10

    Why don’t these HSR critics get the central point? Let’s suppose that a new airline is launched – let’s call it the Ryan/Romney Express – and it’s goal is to provide LA-SFO flights every thirty minutes each way and charge a flat $99 for the flight. Wonderful, right? Ninety-six flights a day. No taxpayers dollars are required.

    Not going to happen. SFO and LAX don’t want to waste valuable existing landing slots on these intrastate flights. They want more flights from across the world – a fully packed Airbus 380 or Dreamliner depositing foreign exchange spending tourists in California using these precious slots not a bunch of penny-pinching Californians. Other airports? Really – how many residents surrounding these smaller airports want another ninety-six flights and the ancillary traffic and noise per day? Good luck getting the terminal/parking/runway expansion thru’ the planning commission.

    We are not ‘nostalgia train buffs” for wanting HSR – we can see the needs of the future and respond accordingly.

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    Except that BUR and SJC have plenty of capacity and are begging for business.

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    Also that, by typically brilliant US federal regulation, whether “SFO and LAX don’t want to to waste valuable existing landing slots” or otherwise has no bearing in the slightest on anything.

    Good luck rectifying that.

    Transparent Rational Open Frictionless Market Forces for you, not us!

    StevieB Reply:

    BUR has added capacity because Southwest cancelled flights to use their planes on other routes. Dan Feger, the airport’s executive director, said airlines are not making enough money at BUR.

    “Airlines are not expanding their fleets,” he said. “Because their fleet is fixed, they reallocate their fleet to where they can make the most money, around the world…. We are the victim of that.”…

    Although past service levels show there were passengers who would use Bob Hope Airport for non-stop flights to locations such as Atlanta or Chicago, airlines in Burbank no longer fly directly to those destinations.

    They have chosen instead to shift their aircraft to more profitable routes, especially international service, Feger said.

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    Note that SWA still flies as many seats from BUR. They just keep getting longer versions of the 737 with more seats. The proposed new terminal at BUR is designed for the 737 900 which will have I believe 180 seats, almost double the original 737, but with the same wingspan.

    John Nachtigall Reply:

    Congratulations for perfectly describing Southwest Airlines business model. The largest most profitable airline in the US. They just use the airports in those areas that are not full. It worked great

    StevieB Reply:

    Merced airport is not full but Southwest Airlines in not expanding service because they can make more profit elsewhere. No airline would fly from Merced airport if they were not subsidized $1.8 million by Essential Air Services. You can add reduction in the need for subsidies at Merced airport to the benefits of California High Speed Rail over the more than 100 year lifespan of the rail line.

    John Nachtigall Reply:

    except that it is not an either or situation. By adding HSR you are just going to make everything less profitable by splitting the already low demand even further.

    Cars, Busses, and Planes are enough modes of transit, we dont need trains

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Roads don’t make money.

    John Nachtigall Reply:

    All transit is subsidized. Even walking (mandatory sidewalks)

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    For roads to make less profit they would have to be making a profit. And if all modes are subsidized so would the other modes.

    John Nachtigall Reply:

    So adding HSR adds to the subsidies and you have to buy new infrastructure. It is not cost effective

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    If you can avoid building highway that costs as much or more and the trains operate at or over break even which option uses more subsidy?

    John Nachtigall Reply:

    Trains, because building the capital infastructure and the new ROW is hugely expensive

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Roads aren’t built by elves using pixie dust. build the trains where they can be kept moderately full and new road doesn’t need to be built.

    John Nachtigall Reply:

    CAHSR will cost 70+ billion minimum and reduce traffic 1% in 30 years per the authorities own business plan. So I will have to build the roads anyway. It is just added cost

    synonymouse Reply:

    I suggest Tejon, I-5, Altamont could do better than that. Just quasi-hsr San Jose to Sac could pick up some significant traffic that would otherwise be auto. Sort of an uber-BART with modern tech and WC’s.

    Via that route some Norcal destinations to some Socal destinations could be faster via CAHSR than by air. And the price could be lower than $70bil.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    No one is suggesting that using HSR to go to the corner grocery store is a viable use. And no one is suggesting that HSR between Eureka and Ukiah should be built. A lane of Interstate grade highway can carry 2000 cars per hour. Stuff them fuller than what they usually are, on intercity trips, and they carry 2 people each. Or 4000 per hour. Or four 1,000 passenger HSR trains. The HSR trains can get there in half the time. So running two 1,000 passenger HSR trains carries as many people as as one lane of highway in the same amount of time. Or a three hour HSR trip versus a six hour drive between San Francisco and Los Angeles delvers as many people to their destination as are still on the highway

    John Nachtigall Reply:

    and what I am saying is that here in reality, we are paying 70+ billion for the infastructure to provide a 4th mode of transit and we will still have to pay to expand and maintain all the exisitng modes. So it is a 70 billion + add.

    Not Cost Effective

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    It replaces 140 billion of new capacity that would have to be built using the other modes. Unless you think that there will be less flying and driving and no population increases forever and ever.

    Nathanael Reply:

    John: for the cost of HSR, we could rebuild, maybe, two Interstate Highway interchanges.

    I say build HSR and let those interstate highway interchanges collapse; tear them down and don’t replace them when they become unsafe.

    Nathanael Reply:

    (I’m only cherrypicking slightly by picking the most expensive interchanges in the nation. Point stands though.)

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    …and then there’s airport terminals. Those cost almost as much as the Stegosaurus on Church Street.

    Joey Reply:

    So this means that all airport and highway expansion should stop.

    John Nachtigall Reply:

    MODES of transit. Not enough road, just enough choices

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    If they build HSR they won’t have to build as much road or airport.
    No one is going to force you out of your car. If you want to drive from you’ll be able to. Without all the people that are using the train clogging up the highway.

    Drunk Engineer Reply:

    More nonsense from the New York idiot.

    There is not one single highway project in California cancelled or de-funded as a result of HSR. SR-99 has expansion projects going on all over the corridor. Ditto for 580, 80, and 101. Even worse, HSR will be used to greenwash projects like the Los Banos 152 bypass, and the high-desert corridor.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Did I write “won’t build any more roads anywhere”?

    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/much

    John Nachtigall Reply:

    Look up the business plan. In 30 years they plan to reduce driving 1%. It’s just a fourth mode for a lot of money for very little benefit

    Nathanael Reply:

    Well, maybe you have messed-up politics in California (prop 13 anyone?)… but in most of the world, YES, fewer roads are built and there is less road expansion after HSR is built.

    And you know what? The same will happen in California. The road projects will be cancelled and defunded AFTER the HSR is operational, of course, not BEFORE it is operational.

    Joey Reply:

    Modes are arbitrary. There are plenty of arguments for having fewer modes. There are also plenty of arguments for having more modes (system redundancy and disaster recovery). Isn’t it better to do a cost-benefit analysis in each case rather than making blanket statements about how to add capacity in every case?

    Adding capacity to existing modes usually has some cost advantage over new ones, all other things being equal, but that has to be weighed against other factors. Like for instance the fact that highways are a badly inefficient use of space in terms of passengers per hour per unit width of right-of-way (compared to rail), or for instance the effects of pollution on the environment or on human health (hint: they’re not good).

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    When there are lots of people in one place that want to get to another place the cheapest way to move them is by rail. One of the reasons it’s cheaper is that it takes up less space, especially in expensive downtowns.

    John Nachtigall Reply:

    If that’s true why is the rail traffic passengers from Chicago to LA a rounding error. The whole years worth of passengers doesn’t make probably a weeks worth of air traffic and the road traffic and busses is probably an order of magnitude more.

    If rail is so awesome why isn’t it the dominate mode of transit.

    People like cars, they don’t want to share, it’s ultra convenient and you don’t have to walk. You can come and leave any time you want. People are not going to give up those advantages

    Alon Levy Reply:

    You’re asking about Chicago-LA, which is far beyond the maximum range at which rail is competitive. I might as well ask why almost nobody drives the whole way from Chicago to LA and then wonder if anyone needs cars at all.

    John Nachtigall Reply:

    Then why is everyone on this blog arguing that Amtrak long routes need to be continued? That is the title of the blog post.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    It’s very far from everyone.

    Paul Druce Reply:

    If that’s true why is the rail traffic passengers from Chicago to LA a rounding error. The whole years worth of passengers doesn’t make probably a weeks worth of air traffic and the road traffic and busses is probably an order of magnitude more.

    1,426,000 a year between LAX and O’Hare and Midway. Approximately 28,400 passengers a year between Los Angeles and Chicago on Amtrak (354,912 on the entire train route). So your guess is almost dead on.

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    There’s your answer, they should be continued to provide service to the intermediate points that have fewer alternatives. And with better management they should cover their operating costs. Imagine the choice; own the RoW, which happens to be high cost, much of it worn out, and carry short haul passengers, or pay a de minimus track charge, thanks to a historical fluke, and haul people long distances, selling the same seat multiple times en route. Only Amtrak’s NEC and DC centric management have failed to recognize the opportunity and instead have invested almost all their capital in the NEC, an indirect subsidy to commuters in 7 states.
    The businesses are so different you may as well split them up and give the l/d trains to some entrepreneurs that can make something of the enterprise.

    synonymouse Reply:

    That is precisely what is being faced at Raton, which would be wonderful to purchase and maintain, but difficult to justify with little thru freight business to pay the bills.

    A peripheral route more demanding to operate and expensive to maintain and with only occasional use has a hard life ahead. Marginalized and relegated to deferred and/or minimal maintenance.

    Focus on the most direct route.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    instead have invested almost all their capital in the NEC, an indirect subsidy to commuters in 7 states.

    People in those states pay more taxes to the Federal government than they get back in benefits so they are subsidizing themselves. Amtrak estimates that Amtrak has funded one third of the capital improvements and the states the NEC runs through the other two thirds.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    have invested almost all their capital in the NEC

    That’s where they own things. Why would they spend capital improvement money on things they don’t own?

    Nathanael Reply:

    “You’re asking about Chicago-LA, which is far beyond the maximum range at which rail is competitive. I might as well ask why almost nobody drives the whole way from Chicago to LA and then wonder if anyone needs cars at all.”

    Indeed, practically nobody drives from Chicago to LA either. It’s just a rounding error.

    By contrast, people drive from Chicago to NY, *and they also take the train from Chicago to NY*.

    I get really bored with idiots who tar all “long distance” routes with the results of the cross-Rockies routes.

    Nathanael Reply:

    “1,426,000 a year between LAX and O’Hare and Midway. Approximately 28,400 passengers a year between Los Angeles and Chicago on Amtrak (354,912 on the entire train route). So your guess is almost dead on.”

    If you look at various Amtrak reports, you see that that 355K passengers is LA-Flagstaff, Flagstaff-Albuquerque, Albuquerque-Kansas City, Kansas City-Chicago, etc. etc…

    ” or pay a de minimus track charge, thanks to a historical fluke, and haul people long distances, selling the same seat multiple times en route. Only Amtrak’s NEC and DC centric management have failed to recognize the opportunity ”

    The reasons this wasn’t really an opportunity are:
    (1) With freight haulers owning the tracks, who had an unreasoning hostility to passenger service, the passenger trains have repeatedly been illegally delayed by the freight haulers. This is documented. This reduces ridership. A lot. Where Amtrak dispatches, on-time performance is much better.
    (2) In the early years, the freight haulers were in slash-and-burn mode and many tracks (especially those of Penn Central) were reduced to conditions where they were entirely unusable.
    (3) The freight haulers are still insanely and intransigently resistant to added services — and greater frequency is what makes for more ridership. Witness the incredible difficulty Amtrak has had in getting a daily Sunset Limited or a daily Cardinal.

    I’m not saying Amtrak hasn’t made mistakes in the past. It has; the first CEO was asked “What could you do with a really large amount of money?” and he said he couldn’t spend it! Outrageous. The 1995 Thomas Downs cuts — cutting many routes to less than daily — was an unmitigated disaster and really stupid.

    But it hasn’t been easy to expand on freight-owned routes. Mostly due to the illegal obstructionism by the freight haulers. That obstructionism only seems to have changed with generational change, when the old hands from the 1970s and earlier retired.

    StevieB Reply:

    So your goal is to increase the profits of the heavily subsided airlines at Merced airport to the detriment of the economic benefits to the citizens of increased transportation options.

    John Nachtigall Reply:

    There is no economic benefit to increased transportation options. Especially if the other forms are also subsidized (which they are). All it creates is more money lost with no increased societal benefit. The good people of Merced have plenty of options to get around at all price points, they don’t need anther especially that is subsidized.

    joe Reply:

    “There is no economic benefit to increased transportation options.”

    If you only lived in the silicon valley you’d know that’s wrong.

    Here companies pay to bus employees into work from long distances and not only does it help recruit people, it improve productivity when they can work on the bus. Other’s give employees free transit passes, laptops and wifi so they can work on the train to work. This also helps reduce congestion nd allows the area to grow with less environmental impact.

    John Nachtigall Reply:

    I do live in Silicon Valley joe. I lived in Santa Clara for 12 years and have lived in Santa Rosa for 2

    And thanks for proving my point. They bus them,not put them on BART. The transportation options are plenty enough right now, no need for a 4th option. My company gives me a laptop and buys my phone and pays my cell phone bill. They also pay to bus people from San Francisco to Santa Rosa every day. The van has free wifi. It’s not for productivity at all, it’s a perk/benefit to draw good employees. Nothing to do with transit.

    John Nachtigall Reply:

    I forgot to add that this example does not matter for HSR anyway. HSR is not about commuting to work,

    synonymouse Reply:

    spent a couple of hours today in line at the Graton Casino to get my rewards card with the free $500(uh-huh). Met the general manager by accident. Place is huge – bigger than Thunder Valley. There are for sure going to be some extra cars on 101. No Sonoma Co. Transit or GGT service as yet.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Were the mind ray concentrators bothersome? The ones that are going to make everyone forget about Las Vegas? And Reno?

    jonathan Reply:

    @Synon:
    You know casinos enough to make comparisons??
    Yet you can’t see the difference between Las Vegas and smaller imitators?

    John Nachtigall Reply:

    I got a flyer in the mail. I haven’t visited yet

    Nathanael Reply:

    “There is no economic benefit to increased transportation options.”

    OK. You’re really really ignorant. Every economic study in the entire history of the world has shown a benefit from increased transportation options,

    jimsf Reply:

    you’re forgetting about growth

    John Nachtigall Reply:

    Expand existing options. More cost effective than creating new infastructure

    jimsf Reply:

    no it isnt.

    Nathanael Reply:

    What jimsf said. It isn’t. Widening a road costs far more than HSR and gives you far less.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    An interstate grade lane of highway can carry 2,000 cars an hour. An HSR track is roughly the same width. How many passengers can be carried by 1,000 passenger HSR trains on those tracks every hour? How much less does building interstate grade highway lanes cost versus building HSR if it does at all? How many lanes of highway do you have to build to equal the capacity of the HSR track? How many airplane trips can the highway lanes displace?

    John Nachtigall Reply:

    Add in the cost of infrastructure. HSR is way more expensive

    jimsf Reply:

    add the total cost of auto operation and infrastructure to the equation. health, and environmental damage, and it exceeds the cost of rail.

    John Nachtigall Reply:

    Except it won’t reduce auto operation in any meaningful way. It’s just cost for little benefit

    Nathanael Reply:

    You’re just wrong, John.

    The cost of infrastructure for a single lane of expressway is WAY WAY more expensive than for a single track of HSR. This is easy to look up. It’s not a matter of opinion, it’s just a matter of facts.

    You’re wrong.

  11. StevieB
    Oct 30th, 2013 at 16:45
    #11

    The National Council of State Legislators wrote the House’s railroad big four — Shuster, Nick Rahall, Jeff Denham and Corrine Brown — asking for more support of Amtrak. “It is in our nation’s interest to provide our rail system with the same financial security as other modes of transportation — highways, transit, aviation and waterways. As such, NCSL strongly supports a dedicated source of federal funding for passenger rail service, including adequate support for a capital improvement program,”

    Gleaned from Politico Morning Transportation. 10/30/13

  12. Loren Petrich
    Oct 30th, 2013 at 17:13
    #12

    The routes of the long-distance trains may reasonably be described as concatenated corridors.

    I think that the long-distance routes are a good way of building a nationwide constituency for Amtrak, something that some others here have pointed out or at least hinted at. A region-based political system creates incentives for pork barrel, because a politician who votes for pork for their district gets celebrated by their district’s people as bringing home the bacon. Amtrak currently serves 46 states, making its service pork for nearly every Senator and a sizable fraction of Representatives.

    I doubt that Amtrak is much worse than Essential Air Service, which subsidizes air travel to many places: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Essential_Air_Service Then, of course, there’s the Federal Aviation Administration’s budget in general.

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    The routes of the long-distance trains may reasonably be described as concatenated corridors.

    “Relics of historical routes” is more accurate.

    I think that the long-distance routes are a good way of building a nationwide constituency for Amtrak
    “Amtrak: never ever again” is the impression made upon my wife, who otherwise has put up with all sorts of train craziness all around the world, by Amtrak’s long-distance routes.

    Nathanael Reply:

    Concatenated corridors is about right for the Lake Shore Limited, Capitol Limited, Coast Starlight, Texas Eagle, Empire Builder, and even the Cardinal, none of which really follow the historical pre-Amtrak routes.

    Nathanael Reply:

    (The Cardinal is of course insufficient to be effective on most of the corridors it is on, and is best described as “pork for West Virginia.)

    Elizabeth Reply:

    Palmdale was once a recipient of essential air subsidies, before economic realities showed the limits of boosterism.

    http://www.cp-dr.com/node/2279

    One has to ask if there is insufficient demand to support a couple of SUBSIDIZED prop flights to SFO from Palmdale, how in the *** can a madera to palmdale hsr link pay its way?

    synonymouse Reply:

    It can’t and won’t and will have to be divested. Who will want to buy it?

    synonymouse Reply:

    Who wants to buy Raton?

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    the same people who want to buy Tejon. Or Tehachapi. Or all of the other places your fevered imagination comes up with that you think are vitally interesting to freight railroads.

    synonymouse Reply:

    BNSF spun off Raton as redundant and technically handicapped. Sounds like the DogLeg.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    There’s another HSR line in California that makes what they are proposing to build redundant?

    Nathanael Reply:

    In Synonymouse’s fevered imagination, someone has already built a Tejon Base Tunnel. Perhaps Mole Men.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Dagny Taggert had Howard Roark design it. Using Rearden Metal.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Flights from Palmdale to San Francisco aren’t particularly useful if you want to travel someplace other than San Francisco. There are other places people want to go to.
    A rail link between Palmdale and Madera wouldn’t pay for itself. People who want to go from Palmdale to Madera on the train would be taking advantage of the infrastructure to get people from Sacramento and San Francisco to Los Angeles and San Diego.
    .. and flying from Palmdale to San Francisco isn’t particularly useful if your origin is Fresno and your destination is Anaheim.

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    I fly from BUR to SFO to make connections, what’s the difference with Palmdale?

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    So if you were in Palmdale and you wanted to go to Fresno you’d drive to Burbank, fly to San Francsico, rent a car and drive to Fresno? Perhaps you’d fly to Fresno. Shouldn’t take much more time than just driving there will it? Google says it take 53 minutes to drive from Palmdale to Burbank. Or three hours and 7 minutes to drive from Palmdale to Fresno. Keep it nice and simple an hour and 15 minutes from the time you leave Palmdale to the time you are crossing the curb outside of the terminal in Burbank? Then an hour from the curb to when the plane’s door shuts? The shortest non stop that Expedia finds is an hour and 26 minutes. Sounds like driving from Palmdale to Burbank to take a plane to San Francisco to get to Fresno is a wonderful plan. remind us how long it going take the train to get from Los Angeles to San Francisco on a non stop. How long would a train take to get between Fresno and Palmdale with a stop in Bakersfield.

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    Blithering idiot, obviously that’s not what I meant. You said Palmdale to SFO was only good for SF, I responded that you can make connections at SFO to multiple destinations as I do from BUR. Of course if it keeps you amused have it it. Some people have too much free time…
    But obviously not enough time to figure out that there is a Thruway bus between Palmdale and Bakersfield. Also plenty of empty boxcars all the way to Fresno.

    Elizabeth Reply:

    The Authority is about to revise the initial operating segment from Merced / Burbank to Madera/Palmdale. They claim (using a haircutted version of my favorite ridership model) that it makes money. Yes, there is something very, very wrong with this model.

    joe Reply:

    ” (using a haircutted version of my favorite ridership model) ”

    Always important to note that this often maligned model is as good as it gets right now — in the US of A.

    synonymouse Reply:

    When you are proceeding from the nowhere to nowhere business model I guess you can plug in whatever venues you desire.

    I assume that means all change at Palmdale and Madera. Doubt they will go for the complications of dual-fuel, especially after Santiago de Compostela.

    And where do the UP freights cut in – at Mojave?

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    In 2025 when the population of the Antelope valley is larger than San Jose they can do what San Jose did and consoldate all the bitty suburbs into one city and become the second largest in the state Will that make you sftu about it going from nowhere to nowhere?

    Ted Judah Reply:

    Are you serious? Palmdale and the Antelope Valley are not going to bypass San Jose. Stop smoking synonymouse’s peyote.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    so where are all the people who will be moving to California in the next 20 years going to live?

    Drunk Engineer Reply:

    Ted:
    Don’t waste your time. He gets frequently confused by California geography.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    and your horse too
    Where are they gonna live?

    BruceMcF Reply:

    So you doubt that they will go for dual-fuel because building a high speed to conventional rail transition without PTC or even upgraded conventional signalling led to a tragic accident?

    jonathan Reply:

    Bruce, anyone who talks about “:PTC” in a European — or non -US context — only looks incompetent. Learn the relevant English-language terms. I mean, they’re only a century older.

    Nathanael Reply:

    People will willingly change trains at Palmdale, dumb though it sounds.

  13. Bill
    Oct 31st, 2013 at 09:45
    #13

    It probably wouldn’t lose so much money if it were electrified and fast, aka, efficient. Of course people don’t want to take 20 hours to get to Portland from Oakland. Or 10 to LA from San Jose.

  14. Andre L.
    Nov 1st, 2013 at 02:42
    #14

    I’m open to the discussion of different modes of transportation being subsidized.

    I dispute, however, the assertion that gas taxes are not some form (albeit imperfect) of user-pay fee, and also the hyperbolic statement that 0.0% of the Interstate system is funded by users (since part of it comprise toll roads).

    As for the argument of long routes being actually useful for smaller trips, I think it is misused to justify very inefficient routing. Routes with calling times in the middle of the night are of limited use. Sleeper cars are not a relevant travel service the state should be involved with. If Amtrak wanted to provide such medium distance travel, it would set up two trainsets on each of this routes, each travelling on superimposed sectors only at daytime (say, from 6AM to mid-night at the latest), on seat configuration only. That way every city pair would have an “extended business hours” services to reachable places within several hours of range, but none to locations 2,000 miles away (unless passengers de-board at last station, sleep at a hotel and catch another train next morning).

    Nathanael Reply:

    You are welcome to suggest better routings. I have, in fact, suggested better routings for certain trains. (The California Zephyr should go on rebuilt tracks from Omaha-Des Moines-Iowa City-Moline, for instance. The Southwest Chief should run Albuqeurque-Amarillo-Wichita-Kansas City.)

    The fact is that on a long route someone has to get served in the middle of the night. Amtrak does its best to place the middle-of-night parts in the long empty spaces (the Coast Starlight overnights between Sacramento and Eugene), but in some places it’s much harder to do (Chicago-East Coast). As for the sleeper car services, they are mildly profitable and cross-subsidize the coach services.

    Now, it would be lovely to run separate Buffalo-Chicago day trains in addition to the Buffalo-NY day trains, but (a) Amtrak has never had the equipment, (b) Amtrak has always had to fight with the freight railroads to get new service over such routes, (c) PRIIA, passed in 2008, prohibits Amtrak from starting this “short” multi-state route without state (as opposed to federal) government support, and (d) it goes through states with crazy anti-rail governments.

    In short, Amtrak has been politically hamstrung.

  15. Jos Callinet
    Nov 1st, 2013 at 08:43
    #15

    The strangest thing about this very lengthy thread of discussion is – no matter how we individually view the value and usefulness (or not) of Amtrak – if, tomorrow morning, Saturday, November 2, 2013, Amtrak were to suddenly disappear entirely from the face of the Earth leaving not a trace – its loss would put barely the tiniest dent in the overall US economy.

    Before we know it, Amtrak would soon be forgotten. There would of course be a brief public commotion and outcry over its disappearance, but soon that would subside and most people would go on about their normal lives and not notice any difference.

    Those directly affected by losing Amtrak service would soon enough adjust and find other means of travel.

    The net effect on our country were Amtrak to disappear entirely tomorrow would be comparable to an elephant’s getting bitten by a mosquito!

    jimsf Reply:

    the same is true of the total amount of the federal budget that goes to amtrak. mosquito/elephant. So why bother arguing about it when what we have IS serving millions of americans every year. We can well afford it. Anyone who seriously concerned about the federal budget…. seriously, isn’t going to start with or finish with amtrak as the issue. Totally disingenuous.

    Woody Reply:

    Convert the budgeted spending of the U.S. government from billions into pennies. At the rate of two pennies per billion dollars, you’d have a pile of 7,800 pennies on your den floor. Three pennies would be Amtrak. Remove those three pennies. Did it make a damn bit of difference?

    Why some folks need to obsess over Amtrak’s pennies is one of life’s little mysteries.

    And why now? Amtrak is getting better. Ridership has been growing, up 10 of the past 11 years, doubled since 2002. Better on-time performance (remember when every article had the obligatory mention of lateness? but they don’t nowadays); Wi-Fi on most trains; electronic ticketing; upgraded reservation systems; real-time inventory control on diners, cafe cars, and commissaries; 90+ wrecked cars restored to service, many other upgraded; new energy efficient electric locomotives for the NEC Regionals coming into the fleet early next year if not later this year; bi-level cars with 30% more capacity for Midwest and California corridors under construction now; a 130-car order for diners, sleepers, baggage cars, and crew dorm/bag cars to begin delivery by next summer; dozens of better stations from restored King St Station in Seattle to ADA compliance like high platforms, ramps, better lighting, paved parking lots; and soon to see major Stimulus-funded improvements in place on major routes like St. Louis-Chicago, Dearborn-Chicago, Raleigh-Charlotte, NYC-Schenectady-and-beyond, New Haven-Hartford-Springfield, Vermont-Montreal that will add another million Amtrak riders.

    Actually hard to point to any thing Amtrak has done wrong under Joe Boardman (and his bosses Obama-Biden-LaHood-Szabo). So now that Amtrak looks like it’s getting its act together, NOW is the time to kill it? Now? Somebody listening to too much hate talk radio.

    Nathanael Reply:

    Why do Republicans try to kill Amtrak? Because it’s a shibboleth, a sign that they’re Republicans. It’s just meaningless. Republicans emote, they don’t think.

    Nathanael Reply:

    Remember, they claim that “passenger rail is socialist”, and then they claim that “highways are capitalist”. Which is pretty close to being exactly backwards, but anyway….

  16. D. P. Lubic
    Nov 2nd, 2013 at 21:48
    #16
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