More than 122,000 New Mexicans and 12,000 Santa Fe passengers take the Southwest Chief line through New Mexico each year, with a Lamy stop-off. Amtrak said 69 percent of the passengers on the line this year alone have been older than 55 years of age.Say what you will about senior mobility and the like, but I find it to be unconscionable that we are running train lines, each of which loses tens of millions of dollars a year, almost entirely for the benefit of senior citizens, many of whom are eligible for significant discounts on that rail travel as well. This is compounded by advocacy for a hundred million dollars simply to preserve an existing line which serves small towns rather than move to another line which serves multiple major population centers instead.
The train is an important mode of transportation for middle-aged and elderly people, said Beth Velasquez, interim director of AARP New Mexico. “AARP nationally is supporting continued funding for Amtrak. AARP has always been a strong supporter of public transportation,” she said. “A lot of people use the train to connect with more rural communities. We look at it as a vital part of public transportation.”
Now, admittedly, not all lines are the same and the Southwest Chief may be an outlier. With the recent oil boom, the Empire Builder almost certainly has a lower proportion of its passengers as senior citizens. But a substantial portion and almost certainly a majority of passengers on Amtrak's long distance routes will be senior citizens simply because of the nature of long distance travel, which require significant reserves of time and money that are almost exclusively possessed by retirees.
With all due respect to senior citizens, such travel is not essential intercity travel. There's no justification for spending so much money, and isolating so much equipment that might be more profitably used, on these routes, simply to give senior citizens a more comfortable alternative to driving or flying.
Politically, of course, eliminating the long distance routes, either in their entirety or by cutting them into more frequent shorter corridor routes, is not a feasible option. In addition to earning the ire of every rail passenger association, deservedly or not, and AARP, the various state governments would not be pleased at losing the revenue from connecting passengers (which can be a substantial fraction of corridor revenue) and at taking over the costs for running corridor segments which they preferred to retain.
So what can be done?
1. Raise fares on the long distance routes. These routes are luxury goods and the anecdotal reports of rail associations is that they are currently crowded. Instead of adding additional expensive equipment to them, which couldn't happen for several years anyhow, that demand should be taken advantage of by raising fares until demand matches the supply. The human interest angle given in the article, of an elderly woman who travels from Las Vegas, NM, to Kansas City by train, is a perfect example of how the trains are currently greatly underpriced. A coach ticket from Los Angeles to San Diego is $37, or 28.9 cents per mile. A coach ticket for her trip is $99, only 12.8 cents per mile, and a first class roomette, occupied singly, can be had for as low as $149 (plus a base travel fare of $99), pushing the cost up to 32.1 cents per mile, but including two free meals in the bargain as well (dinner and breakfast for this particular trip). Comparisons to the Northeast Corridor are even more lopsided and there's no justification for this until such time as Amtrak is losing more potential revenue than it gains in actual revenue from the fare hikes; something I suspect would be a long time off due to the fact that price conscious travelers already ignore the long distance trains in favor of airlines and driving.
2. Sell sleeper travel by the room. Currently rooms are sold as a certain charge in addition to the base travel fare. But since a single traveler purchasing a roomette for single occupancy deprives Amtrak of the potential revenue from a pair of travelers purchasing that same roomette, it's more reasonable to simply sell the room and give a maximum occupancy. This will raise prices on single travelers and those at less than current maximum occupancy rates without raising fares on the rest, but do so in a fairly unreasonable manner. If we refer to the earlier example, instead of paying $248 for a double occupancy sleeper occupied singly, our human interest traveler would pay $347. No difference at all if they travelled with a companion, but a substantial increase in revenue for Amtrak if they are single.
3. Prohibit the use of Amtrak Guest Rewards points for sleeper accommodations. Unlike the rest of Amtrak's services, sleepers have a substantial incremental cost built into them in addition to the opportunity cost of a free sleeper. Depending on how much that's taken advantage of, it can easily represent over a hundred dollars in expenses per traveler, rendering the AGR program of dubious value for Amtrak, especially if abused by those who take very short trips with the sole purpose of gaining significant point quantities. With the tremendous amount of money which needs to be recouped from long distance routes, serious consideration should be made as to whether free sleeper travel is a reward that is in keeping with Amtrak's cost recovery goals