Thursday, March 29, 2012

What ridership does All Aboard Florida need to break even?

With All Aboard Florida's initial announcement and their declaration that it would operate without public subsidy, it's worth taking a gander at how reasonable such a statement is. For the purpose of analysis, I made two assumptions:
1. That their hourly service really was hourly and that this schedule was consistent every day of the week. I don't expect this to be the case for the first couple of years (in large part because of the expense and unavailability of enough train sets to manage it), but it's a reasonable assumption for a mature service.
2. That it took four hours from departure until the train arrived at the final destination, was turned around, and departed again.

Between these two assumptions, the result was eight train sets with a total of 32 daily trips between Orlando and Miami with the first train leaving at 6am and the last leaving at 10pm. With a 240 mile long route, that runs to a hair over 2.3 million train-miles per year. At Amtrak's FY2011 budget of $78.42 core expenses per train-mile (page A-2.2), that presents a total annual cost of $219.8 million to run the passenger service. This, however, might be considered a high end figure. A British report (Figure 2.11, page 30) indicates that their cost of train service is £10.6 per train-kilometer plus an additional £6.83 for track access charges (which we may lump together) for a total cost, after conversion, of $44.76 per train-mile (although this figure is somewhat normalized for direct comparisons with various European nations rather than being an exact figure). Since Metrolink achieved $55.7 in 2006 (page 5), $60.14 in 2010 dollars, this seems a reasonable figure and we may figure $125 million per year as a low end figure (an additional support may be found in Figure 3.1, page 23 of the 2007-2008 Pacific Surfliner Business Plan which quotes $48.43 as train expenses per train mile, however this may not include infrastructure and does not appear to include other overhead which the British figure does).

Interestingly, although using the British figure as the lower bound, it is entirely possible that the numbers might be even lower. A brief examination of Amtrak's FY2009 budget, the last to contain expense figures for the entire year, indicates that the Piedmont costs as little as $13 ($28, I neglected to account for a schedule change) per train-mile, the Carolinian $33, and the Palmetto $42.8 (meanwhile, the Acela costs $99 per train-mile and the Surfliner $64). The Ethan Allen Express is the most interesting since it runs the same distance (241 miles in 5.5 hours) at an average cost of $25.58 per train mile. There may be some creative accounting involved, however, and it will be interesting to see how the numbers change once Section 209 pricing is fully implemented. It is also possible, though I would think it profoundly unlikely, that the lower frequency of the trains contributes to a lower cost basis.

With these figures, the question becomes one of ticket pricing. Referring once again to Amtrak's budget, their average ticket yield of 28.96 cents per passenger mile equates to a $69.50 ticket for Orlando to Miami. This is actually a fairly price competitive fare given a US average fuel efficiency of 23.8 miles per gallon, $4 a gallon gasoline and tolls on the competing roads (although there is a 30 minute slower routing which is free of tolls), especially given the car competitive times of the planned rail service. Assuming this, All Aboard Florida would require 1.8-3.2 million passengers, paying full fare and traveling the whole length, in order to break even. Higher or lower fares, of course, would change the numbers.

Is this a reasonable figure? It does appear to be so. The ridership figures fit comfortably within the potential carrying capacity of the trains (at 500 seats per train, in line with current Surfliner consists, they represent a 30-55% load factor). Both numbers are also significantly lower than the Florida High Speed Rail Authority's Orlando-Miami planning study predicted for a 120+ mile per hour system, although with a longer travel time as well (2015 ridership of 4 million, with a 2011 start, and a travel time of 2:33). Provided that they are able to market themselves well, especially to the younger demographics, they stand a healthy chance of reaching that ridership level.

1 comment:

  1. I think there definitely is some funny accounting going on for the Ethan Allen and the Carolinian. Note that both trains share corridors with other operations (the former with the NYP-ALB corridor; the latter with the NEC-south). Amtrak tends to treat any train on the NEC as a NEC train and lump both costs and revenues in there, and I think the treatment is the same with the NYP-ALB section (check ridership numbers, but IIRC the Ethan Allen's ridership figures are more or less just traffic going north of Albany, with traffic south of there credited to the lower Empire Corridor).

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