Friday, October 24, 2014

Average number of seats per Amtrak train

For all my complaints and suggestions that particular routes really need an extra car or two (such as the Carolinian), I've never really had a good way of estimating the length of said trains except counting cars on Youtube videos, a task which is, quite frankly, somewhat less than appealing. However, the other day it hit me that since, courtesy of the FRA, we have the number of passenger-miles per train-mile, and from Amtrak's own monthly performance reports we can derive the occupancy of each train route, we can simply divide the passenger-miles per train-miles by the occupancy in order to figure out how long each train is, to an approximate average. It's not exact (the Acela does not have 304 seats for instance), but it should be within the right ballpark figure. If there's anything that jumps out as particularly weird or off, please let me know.

Train Average seats per train
Acela
312


Keystone
335
Northeast Regional
442
—Richmond/Newport News
437
—Lynchburg
506
—Norfolk
510
—New Haven/Springfield
242


Capitol Corridor
314
Carolinian
331
Cascades
261
Downeaster
290
Adirondack
270
Empire Service
388
Ethan Allen Express
387
Maple Leaf
203
Heartland Flyer
224
Hiawatha
406
Hoosier State
153
Carl Sandburg/Illinois Zephyr
266
Illini/Saluki
332
Lincoln Service
311
Blue Water
361
Pere Marquette
221
Wolverine
396
Kansas City-St. Louis
178
Pacific Surfliner
474
Pennsylvanian
303
Piedmont
159
San Joaquins
315
Vermonter
298


Auto Train
512
California Zephyr
294
Capitol Limited
289
Cardinal
225
City of New Orleans
262
Coast Starlight
356
Crescent
303
Empire Builder
352
Lake Shore Limited
384
Palmetto
319
Silver Meteor
357
Silver Star
307
Southwest Chief
290
Sunset Limited
264
Texas Eagle
259

Monday, October 13, 2014

Where Orange County workers are from shows the need for reverse commute service

Earlier today I came across the 2012 Workforce Housing Scorecard by the Orange County Business Council. Skimming through it, one section in particular caught my eye:
In 2010, only 58 percent of those who worked in Orange County lived in Orange County; among the remainder, 20.5 percent lived in Los Angeles County, 11.8 percent in the Inland Empire, 5.2 percent in San Diego County, and 27.8 percent commuted 25 miles or more

That 20.5% of Orange County's workers come from Los Angeles County, while 11.8% come from the Inland Empire, is a rather reasonable thing in and of itself. Los Angeles, after all, is quite a bit larger than Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. But it's notable in light of the poor service which Orange County sees for workers from Los Angeles compared to that which it sees for those from the Inland Empire. Metrolink is, after all, notable for providing one of the very few suburb to suburb lines in the country with the imaginatively named Inland Empire-Orange County Line. As Metrolink itself has noticed, job growth in Orange County has led to the OC and IEOC lines being protected from ridership losses (page 86):

Analysis of the regional economic recovery have shown robust job growth in south Orange County, the South Bay and the West Side, while downtown Los Angeles job growth has been relatively flat. This trend was further reinforced by government employee furloughs (a major job sector for downtown Los Angeles). This is reflected in ridership growth on the Orange County and IEOC Lines while other lines have been flat or declining.
Additionally, while downtown Los Angeles has been shedding jobs, it's been adding housing, to the extent of 20% of all new housing in Los Angeles County (though this is also an indicator of how bad the rest of the county is at permitting new housing). Meanwhile the chief worker importing cities of Orange County; Anaheim, Santa Ana, Irvine, and Orange; are all served by Metrolink directly from Los Angeles. Now, surely in a rational world twice the potential ridership market (workers commuting into Orange County) would merit at least a comparable level of service. Unfortunately, we live in the land of Metrolink.

The IEOC Line currently offers five daily arrivals in Irvine prior to 9:00 AM. The 91 Line serves Fullerton and Buena Park in the north with an additional three for a total of eight peak frequencies from the Inland Empire to Orange County. From Los Angeles, Metrolink offers only one single, solitary train before 9:00 AM (though a second arrives in Irvine at 9:08). If you're a monthly pass holder and your destination is one served by Amtrak, there are two additional trains that you can take on the Pacific Surfliner, but this is far from ideal and doesn't help those who are heading towards a Metrolink only station or are coming from Norwalk/Santa Fe Springs, which is not served by Amtrak.

If we extend the definition of peak to arrivals by 9:30 AM for Los Angeles and Irvine, in order to account for intermediate destinations (the average trip being somewhat less than the distance from Irvine to Los Angeles), the June 2011 data shows 440 reverse peak AM riders on the two reverse commute trains (600 & 682) out of a total of 3,542 peak riders (601, 603, 605, 607, 681, 683, 685 additional). 12% of the ridership is less than the 22% of trains that those two trains represents, but they're not quite as advantaged as the peak direction trains. Neither is in an early morning time slot such as the best train, 601, which, arriving at Union Station at 6:40 AM, carried an average weekday load of 648 passengers. Train 600 stops at Irvine, preventing it from carrying any commuters further to Oceanside, and while 682 does continue down to Oceanside and has the higher ridership of the two, it arrives at 10:10 AM, making it an off-peak train for that destination rather than reverse commute. Reverse commute ridership is also depressed by the poor options for getting home: The last northbound Metrolink currently leaves Irvine at 5:10 PM and Amtrak really isn't a substitute even where it can be taken: The only two Amtrak trains after that are at 7:38 and 9:59 PM. Even rush hour traffic on the 5 isn't bad enough to justify that long of a wait for the next train.

It's clear that, despite Metrolink's poor offerings, there's already demand for reverse commute service on the Orange County Line and that, should it be adequately offered, it has the potential to result in substantial ridership gains. Indeed, given the current strong financial performance of the Orange County Line (revenue recovery of 73.1% even including the lackluster Fullerton-Laguna Niguel runs), it's possible that a successful reverse commute program could bring the Orange County Line up to the rare status of an operationally profitable commuter line. As the slots and equipment become available, therefore, Metrolink should prioritize adding reverse commute service from Los Angeles to Laguna Niguel and Oceanside.

Monday, September 22, 2014

All Aboard Florida Ridership and Revenue Highlights

Continuing from my last post, here's a look at the ridership and revenue appendix to All Aboard Florida's Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

To begin with, it's a bit of a misnomer as there's no revenue information in the available summary report. Though I lack any proof, I believe that this was simply, and reasonably, redacted from the report in order to protect their commercial interests. It is a bit unfortunate however since the fare level has a rather large impact on the reasonableness of their ridership estimates.

One thing I would like to quickly address is the mystery I had with the number of passengers diverted from air travel exceeding the number of Orlando-Miami air passengers by a significant margin. As it turns out, according to the FAA on page 24, the number of Orlando-Ft. Lauderdale air passengers is nearly double that of Orlando-Miami, totaling 163,500 annual passengers. The diversion is only on the order of 60% of air passengers then which is rather more reasonable. The diversion from Amtrak is still somewhat mysterious, but may be a result of growth projections as well as possible intermodal trips from All Aboard Florida.

While the EIS refers to the 3.5 million ridership figure as coming from the most conservative ridership case, that's not strictly accurate, at least as how I'd read it. Rather, the 3.5 million comes from the base case. In their own words:
The scenario does not include potential future changes to the proposed AAF service, such as additional future station locations; and does not include consideration of future changes to the relevant transportation network that are subject to some level of uncertainty, such as impact of the growth in congestion on major highways and arterials in the market area, or the impact of potential direct connections with local transit improvements planned by local and regional agencies. (page 3)

Accounting for connections to other transit, such as SunRail and Ft. Lauderdale's streetcar; marketing initiatives; frequent rider loyalty programs; revenue yield management; and other incentives; results in a ridership forecast of up to 5.1 million in 2019, composed of 2,434,300 Orlando riders and 2,671,556 riders traveling solely within the West Palm Beach-Miami corridor. I don't believe this is an achievable ridership figure for the very simple reason that they do not have nearly enough seats to satisfy demand, which amounts to an average of 437 passengers per train every single day. Even nine-car trains are going to see frequently sold out trains in the peak periods and while some will go for cheaper off-peak trains, it's stretching the imagination to suggest that they'll manage to nearly fill each and every single one of them.

Base case 2019 market share


Congested auto travel times were accounted for in estimating station access and long-distance auto travel times. The AAF forecast is not predicated on future growth in congestion, however. This is a conservative approach as it is very likely that congestion within and between the regions will increase, making non-highway modes of travel more competitive. (Page 11)
It's also interesting to note that the impact of fuel prices upon ridership are considered to be negligible, with travel time (including station access time) and frequency being the dominant factors on ridership. A 20% increase in gasoline or air fare leads only to a 1.4% and 1.7% predicted increase in AAF ridership. On the other hand, decreasing the running time by 10% leads to a 5% increase in ridership in the West Palm Beach-Miami market and 7% overall (with a similar drop should running times increase). Similarly, large gains are expected when travel times increase for parallel modes; in the most extreme, a 20% increase in travel time due to freeway congestion (but not impeding intracity travel to stations), there is a predicted 16% ridership gain in the long distance market and 12% in the short distance.

However, the ridership summary does graphically show that putting the northern terminus at Orlando Airport is probably not the best decision. Compare the population and employment density of the Orlando station with that of the other three:



In pure numbers, there are 170,944 people living within a 5-mile radius of the West Palm Beach station (2010), 232,800 within five miles of Fort Lauderdale, 469,842 within five miles of the new Miami station, but only 58,439 within five miles of the Orlando station. Having never once yet enjoyed the drive into an airport, I would not be surprised if Orlando underperformed due to the inconvenient nature of its station. That said, it is something that should be easily fixed: SunRail's planned connection to Orlando Airport would cost $100 million to build. That's a fairly small sum in the scheme of things for All Aboard Florida and it's possible that SunRail will prove amenable to allowing trackage rights to the Amtrak station in Orlando in exchange for bankrolling the project. That's a trade that will do wonders to boost ridership figures and connectivity in Orlando while aiding both projects.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Highlights from All Aboard Florida's Draft EIS

The Federal Railroad Administration released the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for All Aboard Florida today; the following are some highlights from it.

According to a ridership and revenue forecast commissioned by Florida East Coast Industries and prepared by Louis Berger Group (LBG) for the Project, the most conservative total annual ridership would amount to approximately 3.5 million in 2019. Among the 2019 project totals, approximately 2.0 million would be short distance trips (Ft. Lauderdale – Miami, West Palm Beach – Miami, West Palm Beach – Ft. Lauderdale) and 1.5 million would be long distance trips (Orlando – Southeast Florida). Total annual ridership is predicted to exceed 4 million by year 2030. (Page S-6)

If 3.5 million is their most conservative estimate, which comes out to an average of 300 passengers per train, I'm really surprised at the lack of capacity in their trains. With one coach as first class seating, their seven car sets will only have 446 seats, 396 if one coach is a dedicated café car. I anticipate that peak trains will probably sell out fairly quickly, especially if their conservative estimates do prove to be conservative. On the other hand, it will be fairly easy for them to expand their capacity as it should be a running production line and the initial Phase 1 operations, West Palm Beach to Miami, should give them a warning as to whether their ridership estimates are significantly off in either direction.

Additionally, if there are 2.0 million trips between West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami, it's probable that a going proposition could be made simply on that traffic. Orlando nearly doubles the traffic, and is probably higher revenue traffic, but it also represents a major capital investment sink. Quite frankly, Florida should have looked at investing in this corridor a long time ago.

On page S-7, there's a summary of the construction elements involved. The Orlando extension will build six new bridges (including one for the Vehicle Maintenance Facility) while 25 bridges will be reconstructed on the existing Florida East Coast alignment, including seven between West Palm Beach and Miami.

Riders for AAF are expected to be primarily diverted from automobile modes (69 percent of forecast ridership). The Project would have the beneficial impact of removing 335,628 auto vehicle trips per year from the regional roadway network in 2016 and 1.2 million vehicles in 2019.
The proposed passenger rail service would divert 10 percent of its long‐distance riders from private inter‐city motorbus services, which totals approximately 152,600 annual bus passenger trips per year. The proposed service would divert 10 percent of its riders from the air service market, which totals approximately 152,600 annual aviation passenger trips per year. Two percent of the AAF long‐distance ridership is forecast to come from Amtrak passenger rail services. In 2019, this amounts to approximately 31,000 annual trips diverted from Amtrak which is about 4 percent of Amtrak’s 2012 ridership in South Florida. (Page S-9)

91% of ridership is expected to come via various diversions which leaves 9% for induced demand. That's a fairly low threshold to meet: in a perhaps extreme example, the Paris-Lyon LGV is credited with a 27% increase in total traffic while simultaneously rising to 72% of total mode-share, Table 1. If All Aboard Florida has significantly underestimated actual ridership, I expect induced demand to be where it has done so.

The Project would have long‐term direct economic benefits to local populations through the creation of approximately 1,100 jobs on average per year through 2021 and labor income valued at nearly $294 million through 2021. During construction, the Project would create an estimated 10,400 jobs on average per year and labor income valued at nearly $1.2 billion. Overall, the Project would realize approximately $1.2 billion to Florida’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in estimated annual economic development through 2021 and generate approximately $187 million in annual federal, state and local government tax revenue through 2021.1 Includes both direct, indirect and secondary federal, state and local government tax revenue generated from the Project (Page S-17)

The additional tax revenues that All Aboard Florida is claiming are a good reason for governments to look at investing in new and existing passenger rail corridors. Even if the service itself requires financial support, such as most state supported corridors currently require, that money can be recouped through the tax revenue that economic expansion garners, acting as a form of loss leader. That said, I take every job creation and economic impact report with quite a bit of salt.

Without further improvements to the existing I‐95 corridor, by 2035 100‐percent of the urban segments within the I‐95 corridor will be under “heavy congestion, and 55 percent of the non‐urban segments will see increased congestion” (I‐95 Corridor Coalition 2013).
...
In 1991, FDOT established a limit of ten lanes (five lanes in either direction) at any location on the Florida Interstate Highway System (FIHS) (FRA 2005). This limit to capacity was further solidified in 2002 and 2003, when FDOT procedures 525‐030‐250‐f and 525‐030‐255‐c set up specific criteria for widening all roads on the FIHS. These procedures were based on 2000 legislation (Section 225.02(3) of the Florida Statutes [FS]), which establishes criteria that must be considered when determining the number of lanes on the FIHS. The criteria include consideration of multi‐modal alternatives and considerations of local comprehensive plans and approved metropolitan long range transportation plans. The procedures (FDOT 2003) note:
“Nothing in Section 335.02 (3) FS precludes a number of lanes in excess of ten lanes. However, before the Department may determine the number of lanes should be more than ten, the availability of [right‐of‐ way] (ROW), and the capacity to accommodate other modes of transportation within the existing ROW must be considered.“ (Page 2-4)

Given the ease with which All Aboard Florida will be able to expand its capacity compared to the expense of widening highways, this should guarantee significant increase in passenger numbers for years to come. The biggest obstacles which All Aboard Florida will face are probably related to its agreement with Tri-Rail requiring high fares and a limited number of stations.

Amtrak currently operates two separate train services in the Project Corridor, the Silver Star and Silver Meteor (both between New York City, New York and Miami, Florida). There are two southbound (SB) trains per day and two northbound (NB) trains per day. The travel time between Orlando and Miami on the two Amtrak services is between 5 hours, 45 minutes and 7 hours, 34 minutes. Annual ridership on these two routes was 23,300 (Louis Berger Group 2013).
...
There are 244 daily and 88,900 annual passengers who travel between Orlando and Miami via airplane (Louis Berger Group 2013). (Pages 2-5-6)

I am quite confused as to how All Aboard Florida can expect to divert 31,000 passengers from Amtrak and 152,600 from air travel when these totals exceed the current passenger levels. Possibly they're considering, but not including, the passengers from Orlando to the West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale airports, but that wouldn't explain the Amtrak diversion issues. My best guess, assuming that they're not simply absurdly wrong, is that it is including trips currently made on Amtrak to cities not connected by the proposed All Aboard Florida network that will finish by intermodal connection: A bus from Orlando to Tampa for example.

Middle Section of East-West Corridor (SR 417 to SR 520)
This section is approximately 17.5 miles long. East of SR 417, Alternative A would be within the SR 528 ROW. The alignment would be comprised of mostly a single new track, but would require extensive retaining walls and bridges in order to minimize its footprint and accommodate existing and future SR 528 infrastructure. Constructing a new rail line along this corridor would require stormwater features to capture and treat the runoff. Drainage would be comingled with the existing SR 528 drainage ditch. The proposed ROW in this section is an average of 60 feet wide and would impact approximately 127 acres of land. (page 3-31)
This single track section will probably be the single greatest limitation on capacity for All Aboard Florida if it should try to expand frequencies in the future, though the lack of commuter or freight service on this line means that it shouldn't be too crippling.

The new construction and improvements proposed along the FECR Corridor are:
• Improve approximately 128.5 miles of rail line;
• Reconstruct 18 bridges;
• Add approximately 109 miles of new second track;
• Eight miles of new third track;
• Upgrade highway and pedestrian crossings; and
• Upgrade signals and grade crossings. (Page 3-35)
No comment on this, simply bringing it out as a highlight.

AAF will implement a PTC system throughout the Project, including the E‐W Corridor between Orlando and Cocoa, and the N‐S Corridor between Cocoa and Miami. The new PTC system will be interoperable between the AAF and FECR trains. AAF will outfit 55 FECR locomotives as well as its own locomotives to avoid any incompatibility issues. AAF will also expand and supplement FECR’s Digicon Digital Traffic Control systems and add a new Back Office Server to satisfy FRA’s requirements (49 CFR part 236). The system will also use the existing Parallel Infrastructure LLC’s fiber optic system within the FECR Corridor. (Page 3-41)
There is no information however on the specific type of PTC installation.

The Project’s planned service between Orlando and Miami would consist of 16 revenue round‐trips leaving hourly in each direction from 5:00 AM to 9:00 PM, with planned stops at the two intermediate stations in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale. The last Orlando‐bound revenue train would arrive in Orlando at 12:10 AM and the last Miami‐bound revenue train would arrive in Miami at 11:10 PM.
Total scheduled travel time, including stops, is anticipated to be 3 hours, 10 minutes between the terminal stations. Station to station travel time would be 1 hour, 50 minutes from Orlando to West Palm Beach, and 1 hour, 20 minutes from West Palm Beach to Miami. (Page 3-44)

This is a good length of time for the trains to be operating, enabling both early morning and late night arrivals. While Orlando to West Palm Beach is approximately 30 minutes faster than driving (according to Google Maps at 6pm EDT), it's roughly the same speed as driving for West Palm Beach to Miami with traffic. Faster is always better, but same speed without aggravation should work quite well on its own.



The rolling stock for the Project would consist of ten train sets. Eight train sets would be required to be in concurrent operation along the AAF route to deliver regularly scheduled, hourly‐service frequency. Each train set would be comprised of two locomotives, and seven coach‐type passenger cars (two Business Cars, a Café/Economy Car, four Economy Coach Cars). In addition, AAF would procure one spare locomotive and one spare café car. The two‐locomotive arrangement provides redundant push/pull operation and would assure smooth operations up to the maximum speed of 125 mph even with an expansion of the train set to nine cars, if needed. The fleet and all facilities (stations and maintenance) are designed to accommodate expansion to nine‐car trains. (Page 3-45)

 So with two business cars the number of seats drops to 364 plus a nominal number, probably not more than 20, in the cafe car. I'll honestly be flabbergasted if they don't expand to 9 cars within a fairly short time-frame, though I'll admit that I may simply be biased by growing up with six car bilevel Surfliners as my norm.

To provide easy and safe train boarding and de‐boarding and to minimize the dwell time at stations, passengers would be distributed evenly along the platform. When AAF passengers purchase their tickets, they would select their seat, similar to the experience of airline passengers today. Along with each seat assignment, the tickets would indicate a number that coordinates with large numbering on each coach door location along the platform where the customer should wait to enter the train. These large numbers would be also affixed along the platform edge to assist with wayfinding. Uniform consistency of the AAF train sets would simplify this procedure, and give comfort to passengers that they have confirmed seating, and know exactly where it will be. These train features would support the planned dwell times at intermediate stations of 1 minute. (Page 3-45)

I'm not going to lie, my initial reaction to this was "Thank you Baby Railroading Jesus." There may be some degree of security theater nonsense going on with station design, but this is exactly how the seating and platforms ought to work and it will provide a substantial incentive, in the form of public relations, for Amtrak to fix its asinine boarding policies.

I'll be looking at the Ridership and Revenue Study Summary in a later post due to the length of this one and because I feel it ought to be considered separately.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Brief timeline of upcoming LOSSAN projects in San Diego County

A brief list of funded projects with a timeline for construction courtesy of a presentation to LOSSAN (end of the file). With the exception of the Oceanside Transit Center project, they are listed according to estimated year of completion.

2015
-Sorrento Valley double track (1.1 miles of double track, raised track bed, two wooden trestle bridges replaced).
-San Onofre double track Phase 1 (with phase 2 will be 5.8 miles of double track and wooden trestle bridge replacement).
-Construction starts on third track, additional platform, lengthened platform at Oceanside Transit Center.

2016
-Poinsettia station replaces at grade pedestrian crossing with an undercrossing and an inter-track fence, 15" platforms.

2017
-Los Peñasquitos Lagoon Bridges Replacement (four wooden trestle bridges replaced, allows increased speed)

2018
-Elvira to Morena (2.6 miles of double track and curve realignment).
-San Diego River Bridge (0.9 miles of double track, new double tracked bridge over San Diego River).

Thursday, September 11, 2014

All Aboard Florida goes with HST solution

SACRAMENTO, Calif.--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Today it was announced that Siemens has been selected to build the locomotives and passenger coaches for the All Aboard Florida passenger rail project that will connect South and Central Florida. All Aboard Florida and Siemens have been working together extensively on the development and design of the passenger rail cars that will transport millions of tourists, leisure and business travelers along Florida’s east coast.
This will be the first privately-owned, operated and maintained passenger rail system in the United States. When completed, it will also be one of the highest speed train routes running in the country today, operating at maximum speeds up to 125 mph. Importantly these trains, both the locomotives and the passenger coaches, will be “Made in America” at Siemens’ solar-powered rail manufacturing hub in Sacramento.
...
The initial five trainset purchase to serve the Miami to West Palm Beach segment will consist of two diesel-electric locomotives, one on each end of four passenger coaches. These diesel-electric locomotives will meet the highest emissions standards set by the federal government. All Aboard Florida and Siemens plan to expand the initial trainsets to seven coaches, and purchase an additional five trainsets, concurrent with environmental approvals and additional financing for the segment from West Palm Beach to the Orlando International Airport.
The stainless steel passenger coaches, the first to be manufactured by Siemens in the United States, will be state-of-the-art, ADA compliant and designed for comfort, featuring special ergonomic seating and Wi-Fi. The trainsets will also be level boarding, which allows for the ease of boarding without steps and provides easier access for bikes, walkers, strollers and wheelchairs. The locomotives will meet the latest federal rail safety regulations, including enhanced carbody structure safety with crash energy management components.
Charger locomotive fact sheet
Intercity passenger coach fact sheet

While in a sense it is disappointing that All Aboard Florida is going for locomotives and coach cars, they'll have an impressively high power to weight ratio that should make up for it. Assuming that the coaches are similar to Siemen's Viaggio coaches, it should have a power to weight ratio of 13 horsepower per short ton. This compares favorably with the British High Speed Train (IC125) which in a similar 2+7 has a power to weight ratio of 9.1 hp/ton and even with the Class 221 Voyager DMU's 12 hp/ton (though the Class 220 has one of 14.7 hp/ton). There should be no issues with accelerating up to speed even with the added weight penalties of FRA compliance.

Where this does fall short is in passenger capacity, which is just abysmal, with Siemens quoting 50 in first class and 66 in economy class. The Viaggio Comfort is supposed to hold 60-88 and the Amfleet I holds 62 in business class and 72 in coach (previously with up to 84 seats). As I strongly suspect that Siemens is attempting to position themselves for the future Amfleet replacement order, possibly building these at cost or even a loss in order to secure the contract, it's quite odd that the quoted capacities would be so low. The likely answer is that All Aboard Florida is going with a 2+1 seating as the base level with a large amount of leg room in first class. Personally I'm not overly fond of this as I think capacity should be second only to frequency, but the agreements with Tri-Rail which have required quite high short distance fares may have resulted in a base fare level so high that it doesn't make sense to do otherwise.

On another note, with this order, and especially if Siemens wins additional orders for the Charger and these coaches from Amtrak, Sacramento is clearly becoming a center of passenger rail manufacturing in the United States. It's a position that I don't think anyone would have predicted until possibly a few years ago and is quite an enjoyable finger in the eye of those who constantly claim that California's taxes and regulations are hostile to business. It will be quite interesting to see if Siemens attempts to move into the freight market once they've established themselves in American passenger railroading, bringing a large chunk of the Midwest's heavy industry to California with it.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Will 2015 be the year that Amtrak turns a profit?

Nine months in to Amtrak’s fiscal year and it is clear that 2014 is going to be Amtrak’s best year ever financially. Indeed, not only is it set to post the lowest loss in inflation adjusted dollars in its history, but the lowest loss in nominal dollars. In three of the months this year; October, December, and June; Amtrak has posted an operational profit, that is to say that it’s revenues have exceeded the costs of providing the service (but not accounting for items such as depreciation). These revenues were sufficiently great that, even with November showing a loss, Amtrak managed to eke out a profitable first quarter.

For the year to date, Amtrak has posted a loss of $128.4 million and is currently projecting a total loss for the year of $233.3 million. However, to do this, it would need to lose $35 million each month during its best performing time of year. Last year, between all three months combined, it lost only $34 million, posting a slight profit in July of $3 million. For it to show a loss of over a hundred million dollars instead would require that some truly amazing feats of accounting over the previous year. That’s not to say that that hasn’t happened: There is currently a $40.4 million in Auto Train expenses that appear to have vanished into the ether. Should it reappear, it will pose a rather significant impact to Amtrak’s bottom line. If, however, it truly has disappeared, and Amtrak’s performance in the fourth quarter matches that of the rest of the year, we should see operating profits in July and August both, with a small loss in September bringing Amtrak to a total operational loss for the year of only $95 million compared to last year’s $355 million loss.

What accounts for this dramatic change in fortunes? Some of it is the result of increased state payments, but this would be the smallest change. There is so far only a $35.6 million increase in revenue credited to state supported train revenue and $62.9 million expected for the whole year. This is dwarfed by the $79.2 million in increased ticket revenues and the $72.2 million reduction in expenses compared to 2013.

Will Amtrak be able to match this performance next year and thus post a small operating profit? It’s possible. This year has shown a net drop in ridership, even with adjustments to represent more accurate counting (multi-pass ridership was significantly overestimated), and revenue has been mostly stagnant outside of the Acela. If Amtrak can manage to grow ridership and revenue in its other segments next year, it should have a fairly strong chance of meeting that goal. Even if 2015 turns out not to be the year that Amtrak makes an operating profit, we should see it by the end of the decade as new equipment, especially the Acela replacement, comes online and expands Amtrak’s capacity.