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Train Life: Give Me a Seat & Move Your Feet
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Re: Missing the train
  • 4/30/2013 9:48:32 PM
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..

Broadway writes


@lyndon, great eye-opening insight. I had heard that the northeast corridor was Amtrak's profit engine and that trains to the rest of the country where done at a loss -- but it's good to hear that long distance travel is gaining.


 

Broadway, thanks for the feedback. I could write several pages on this issue and keep going all through the night, but let me try to condense some comments on this and still have time for recreation before bedtime.

Basically, part of the problem is one of "creative accounting". Amtrak has extremely heavy infrastructure (track, power, etc.), administrative overhead, and station expenses in the NE corridor (NEC). However, in its accounting, it has traditionally spread these heavy overhead expenses on an allocational basis throughout its system, based (I think) on  route-miles, passenger-miles, or vehicles-miles. In any case, a lot of the heavy NEC expenses get allocated away from the NEC and onto the National Network system, which inequitably raises the expense burden of these other trains and makes them seem less cost-effective than they actually are. (I've got an Amtrak meeting coming up in May and will try to find out the current status of this accounting situation.)

Another problem involves ridership. Yes, the NEC is overall the densest "corridor" of real estate in the USA, and does have the heaviest ridership. However, a whole lot of that ridership is fed into it by the National Network system — such as the Lake Shore Limited (Chicago-NYC), Capitol Limited, (Chicago-Washington), Cardinal (Chicago-NYC), Crescent (New Orleans-Washington-NYC), Palmetto (Boston-Savannah), Silver Star and Silver Meteor (Boston-Miami and Tampa), etc.  All these trains in turn are fed ridership by the rest of the system from the West Coast, Southwest, Pacific Northwest, etc.

In other words, cut out all these other trains (as the anti-rail critics in Washington and elsewhere have been trying to do for decades), and — instead of ending up with a profitable "star performer" in the NEC — you will suddenly find that ALL the NEC's heavy sunk costs are suddenly reallocated from the national system onto the NEC alone, AND the NEC ridership suddenly shrivels dramatically, because it no longer has the National Network trains feeding into it.

Hope this sheds more illumination on one of the more contentious issues with Amtrak.

 

Re: Missing the train
  • 4/30/2013 6:55:10 PM
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@lyndon, great eye-opening insight. I had heard that the northeast corridor was Amtrak's profit engine and that trains to the rest of the country where done at a loss -- but it's good to hear that long distance travel is gaining.

Re: Missing the train
  • 4/30/2013 6:39:17 PM
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I think Cleveland's rail experience will be part of the story for much of America outside of the Boston-NY-DC corridor.  US's size and scope has always been a limiting factor for commuter rail development. But with gasoline breaking $4/gal now on a consistent basis, the US has an opportunity to rethink its structure.  With analytics it may be better poise to implement what has eluded most location - a connected rail structure that can better connect cities with a reasonable drive time.  I would love something that better connected Chicago with Milwaukee, Indy, Detroit - even if it was along the interstates (and I love driving).

Re: Customer comfort
  • 4/29/2013 8:52:41 AM
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"My guess is that customer comfort falls very low on the list of concerns, far below cost, speed, ease of management, etc."

@Noreen,

Right?  It just makes sense that customer comfort is low on the list (if it's even on the list) of priorities.  Why do you think this is?

I think it's because transportation companies like the MTA have a monopoly on just about every single aspect of a commute (buses, tolls, trains...) and there's really no way to not give them money. 

I'd suggest we all start riding bikes to work but then that would lead to the creation of bicycle toll booths...

Re: Customer comfort
  • 4/29/2013 8:48:43 AM
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@Lyndon_Henry,

What a great response, it's very interesting to hear about the changes within the culture from someone close to the industry. It's also unfortunate to have my suspicions confirmed.

Re: Missing the train
  • 4/28/2013 11:02:30 PM
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..

Broadway writes


Amtrak knows how busy their train stations are. The problem with Amtrak is that the infrastructure in the northeast is too rickety and the area too crowded to make changes easy. And everywhere else Amtrak is unpopular and unused and a money loser.


 

Actually, Amtrak has the highest "farebox return" ratio of any public transport system in the country. (The "farebox return" ratio is the ratio of operating revenue to operating & maintenance expenses.)  This is often also called the "cost recovery" ratio.

Amtrak has the HIGHEST ratio for a public transport system in the country, at around 70%.  The average ratio for urban public transit systems is about 30% (i.e., public transit systems on average recover only about 30% of their ongoing O&M costs from revenues such as fares and advertising; the remainder comes from public funding.)

Amtrak has been chalking up record ridership levels, especially on its National Network (i.e. long-distance) trains.

The perennial problem with respect to Amtrak is that, since its creation in 1970, it has never been adequately funded — it's always been a kind of transportation stepchild; or, to use another metaphor, a kind of soccer ball kicked from one political party to the other, but never succeeding in scoring.

 

Re: Customer comfort
  • 4/28/2013 10:42:05 PM
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ChapAnjou asks


Where do you think customer comfort stands on the list of "important metrics" when important decisions are being made regarding railroad upgrades?

Would I be the ultimate pessimist if I argued that I don't think it's even considered?


 

I think what has happened in roughly the last 10-15 years or so is a slide by public transportation operators (including Amtrak) away from a focus on quality of service and meeting the needs of passengers (and the public) to a "business model" approach that emulates to some extent the private-industry profit model.

When I entered the public transportation field (a career change for me at the time), services and projects were evaluated not on the basis of their "profit" potential, but on the basis of a benefit-cost analysis — the ratio of potential benefits to the public (i.e., community as a whole) vs. the public investment and operational expense.

What's occurred is more of a shift toward a "business model" which somehow expects public transport to somehow yield a "return on investment", i.e., continuously move toward a profit basis.  Since this is impossible (e.g., public transit must compete with free public facilities such as streets and highways), the result is to cut services in the face of diminishing public revenue. 

This trend has been compounded by (1) the global economic crash of so-called "free market" systems, and (2) the ascendancy of an ideological "privatization" paradigm that exalts private-sector activities and institutions and is hostile to the public sector and investment in it (except in special cases where public funds can be channeled very directly into private cash flows, like Defense Dept. budget allocations to military contractors).

 

Re: Missing the train
  • 4/28/2013 10:32:06 PM
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Amtrak knows how busy their train stations are. The problem with Amtrak is that the infrastructure in the northeast is too rickety and the area too crowded to make changes easy. And everywhere else Amtrak is unpopular and unused and a money loser.

Re: Missing the train
  • 4/28/2013 10:24:51 PM
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..

Maryam asks


Does anyone have examples of Train systems abroad using analytics to improve the rider experience?


 

Virtually all major European rail systems (both urban and intercity) implement analytics in various aspects to render fast, efficient, frequent serivces, plus passenger information systems to keep passenger continuously and accurately updated as to the status of their trains. Certainly a model worthy of emulation by North American rail operators, include Amtrak, Via, and urban transit agencies.

The UK Guardian paper recently published interactive graphics of station-by-station activity which illustrates data visualization based on fairly large datasets processed through analytics:

Every train station in Britain listed and mapped: find out how busy each one is

I don't know how useful this is to the individual passenger, but for overall planning and decisionmaking, it should be worth something.

 

Re: Customer comfort
  • 4/28/2013 4:49:01 PM
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@Broadway,

" how has Western Europe been able to maintain the efficiency and technology of their rail system?"

I think that part of the reason might be due to the European Union transportation policies. There is the need for efficient transportation line - including railway lines - to allow people to move around from one country to another. 

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