need to re-invigorate our national rail system
Excerpts from a speech given to the Austin Business Travel
9 March, 2004
One of the new Amtrak Cascades Talgo tilting trains, set
in beautiful scenery in the Pacific Northwest.
The trains make travel
a pleasant, relaxing, comfortable and convenient experience.
Now that air travel is strongly
recovering from the post 9/11 doldrums, flight delays, airport
congestion, and security hassles are all multiplying once more.
The increasing inconvenience of
air travel and its inability to cope with future passenger
growth all mean America needs to review its travel priorities
and invest heavily in rail.
unprofitability is not its own fault
Railroads are like airlines.
They have very high fixed costs, but very low variable operating
costs. The cost of transporting one extra passenger is
very low indeed, but the cost of maintaining carriages,
locomotives, track and signaling is all very high.
The recipe for profit
involves a railroad operating many train services, so as to
spread these high costs over as many passengers as possible.
Reducing services rarely
solves a loss making situation. It just reduces the
business base and makes it even more difficult for the remaining
services to carry the unchanged very high fixed costs.
without exception, for every year since Amtrak's founding in
1970, the organization has struggled with losing money and
inadequate funding from Congress. Amtrak has been trapped
in a vicious death spiral - it lacks the money to update its
services, and so suffers less ridership, which means less
Congressional support, less funding, more neglect, more
cutbacks, and so on.
Amtrak compared to other
In Europe, over 90% of train
routes operate more than five trains a day. Many operate
ten or twenty trains.
Frequent services mean that
the costs of staffing stations, and of maintaining the trains
and track are all spread over many passengers.
But in the US, only 5% of
Amtrak's routes offer five trains a day. 75% of the Amtrak
network supports only one single train a day.
It is impossible for any
railroad to trade profitably with such a thin level of service.
Amtrak can't easily grow
Amtrak has a shortage of
carriages at present. Compared to operating normal
standards elsewhere in the world, Amtrak has only one tenth as
many coaches per mile of track. Adding extra services is
difficult when there are insufficient carriages.
Amtrak's recipe for success
Amtrak needs to orient
itself to provide three different types of services.
In some limited cases, where
Amtrak has appropriate routes, it could
and should provide local commuter type services.
In these cases, Amtrak would
be providing an alternate to cars and buses, and would be
carrying daily commuters short distances between home and work.
It would not need high speed trains because these services
typically stop and start regularly on their routes.
Intercity High Speed Rail
Amtrak needs to identify
high density 'rail corridors' where relatively large population
centers lie within about 400 miles of each other. Even
better are rail triangles or circles, where three or more cities
can be brought into a large loop.
Plenty of other examples can
In these situations, Amtrak
needs to upgrade the track and trains so that it can provide
European style high speed passenger trains operating very
regularly, sometimes even every 30 minutes, similar to air
shuttles. These trains
would travel at speeds typically between 150 - 200 mph, and
would average speeds (including stops and slowdowns) of 100 - 150 mph.
A 400 mile journey reduces down to
little more than two hours - comparable to the time it takes to fly
(after allowing for checkin time, security screening, baggage claim,
flight delays, travel time time and from airports, etc).
High speed rail would
provide an alternative to short haul air travel and/or to
A variation on the simple
passenger only train concept would be to add special wagons to
the train into which people could drive their cars. This
hybrid train, carrying both passengers and their cars, would
provide the ultimate flexibility for many people.
The train would carry them
the long distance comfortably, conveniently, quickly and safely.
They would use their car to travel to the train's starting
point, and then to travel from the end of the train route to
their final destination, use their own car for travel while at
the destination, then drive it back to the train for the journey
Long Distance Rail
Instead of competing with the
Greyhound bus type demographic, it should re-orient itself as
providing middle and upper market 'tourist train' experiences.
Examples of the success of
this strategy can be seen in Australia. Australia is
similar in size to the US, and its main rail network is
similarly slow speed rather than high speed. But its
tourist trains such as the Indian Pacific (which travels 2720
miles from west to east coast between Sydney and Perth on a
three night journey) and the Ghan (from north to south, 1860
miles between Adelaide and Darwin) are both popular and
profitable with locals and tourists alike.
Long distance rail would
seldom compete against air travel, for the same reason that
these days, trans-Atlantic passenger ships don't compete against
jet planes. It would, instead, provide a relaxing and
different type of travel experience for people with time on
their hands and who wished to enjoy the journey as much as the
Other types of rail
Amtrak needs to focus on
providing high speed and high frequency service in the high
population density corridors. But other types of rail
services can also be considered - for example, providing
overnight trains on medium distance routes would offer a way for
passengers to board a train in one city in the evening, travel
while they slept, and arrive refreshed and ready the next
morning at their destination.
Funding Amtrak's Growth
During Amtrak's 34 years, it
has consumed more than $25 billion of public funding. The
irony is that if this money was given to Amtrak up
front, enabling Amtrak to create a world class rail network,
then the organization might well now be significantly
profitable, and carrying vastly greater numbers of passengers
than it currently is. But, instead, dribbling this money
out to Amtrak, year by year, and each year giving Amtrak less
money than it needs to grow and build a truly successful rail
network, there is nothing to show for the $25 billion to date.
Amtrak's lack of success to
date should surprise no-one. It was formed out of the
loss-making remains of several different passenger rail
services, and has always been in need of revolutionary
transformation to progress from a marginal loss-making service
to a popular key part of our nation's transportation
While our Congress struggles
to find as little as $1 billion a year for Amtrak - an
inadequate amount that just causes Amtrak to continue gradually
decaying and shrinking, other countries have no such problem
funding their rail networks.
Britain - a country that
already has an extensive rail network, and a country with
five times fewer people - has no problem funding its rail
network with a $15 billion upgrade program, backed up with an
undertaking to grow that funding up to as much as $45 billion if
On a per capita basis, this
would suggest spending $225 billion on Amtrak upgrades and
improvements. In sad reality, for the upcoming fiscal
year, the government is proposing to give Amtrak a mere $10
million (yes, million, not billion) for development of high
Australia - a country with a
rail network very similar to the US - has just added an extra
1000 miles of track.
The hidden cost of not
developing our national rail system
California is considering a
high speed rail operation that would cost $37 billion to
develop. This will reduce the travel time between Los
Angeles and San Francisco to a mere 2½
While this is a huge amount
of money, studies suggest that, if the high speed rail is not
developed, it will cost the state $87 billion to build new
freeways and airports.
Amtrak's rejuvenation is
definitely costly. But, based on this Californian study,
the costs of not reviving Amtrak may be much greater.
A revived Amtrak benefits
everyone, including people that don't and never will use Amtrak.
Amtrak will take the pressure off our national highway system,
and will similarly reduce the rapidly returning congestion in
Good rail service brings more
than financial benefits
For any traveler, air travel
has become a form of cruel and unusual punishment. No-one
flies for fun any more.
For the business traveler, a
plane journey is an unproductive costly waste of time. Few
people can work on a plane, even in first class, with cramped
seats allowing little space to spread papers out or to work on a
laptop. Worse still, bans on using cell phones mean that
the busy executive is not only unable to work, but he is also
incommunicado for the duration of the flight. Even the
very costly seatback phones that used to be available on some
planes have now been largely removed.
In contrast, rail seating is
much more spacious with plenty of room for working or for
relaxing. And there are no restrictions on cell phone
usage, and all electronic devices can be used at any time of the
From a health and comfort
perspective, travelers can get up, walk around, and need not
fear 'economy class syndrome' - DVT - that comes from being
forced to sit in an unergonomic airline seat for too long.
There is plenty of fresh air, and plenty of lovely views out the
windows, and passengers never have to fasten their seat belts or
worry about turbulence.
Rail travel is very
energy-efficient. It is the most effective form of mass
transportation available, using vastly less energy resource per
person than cars, planes or buses.
Disrupting rail travel has
less appeal to a terrorist than disrupting air travel or
commuter travel. Being restricted to its track, there is
little danger of a terrorist choosing to hijack a train, and
even if they did, there is no way they could then crash the
train into a tall building.
The bombing atrocities in
Madrid in March 04 were the result of ten separate bombs on four
different commuter trains - high density trains with people
crowded into a confined space. Long distance trains are
not so people-intensive, and so have less attraction as a
Rail - a return to a new golden
era of travel
This great nation owes much
of its early development to the spread of the railroads.
Railroads united this nation when it was young.
Now that we are past our
adolescence, it is time for us to return to the railroads that
made us great. Latest generation trains can help us solve
the new transportation, social, and economic challenges of the
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11 Mar 2004, last update
26 Aug 2018
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