Friday, February 15, 2013

Increasing train ridership and revenue cheaply with buses

Lately there has been some discussion that PennDOT may cease to fund the Pennsylvanian come October and 100% state support requirements. Running once a day between New York and Pittsburgh, it's the only train serving Pennsylvania west of Harrisburg and at least half of its 200,000 annual riders come from this area. That PennDOT may choose not to fund the Pennsylvanian is rather befuddling given that the subsidy would only be in the realm of $5-6 million, but Pennsylvania was hard hit by gerrymandering and that could be a major contributing cause. Whatever the reason may be, Pennsylvania and other states should look at adopting one of California's best practices and add connecting bus service in order to improve ridership and revenue on short distance corridor routes.

As RailPAC is fond of noting, and Caltrans explicitly referred to in their recent report on the Surfliner Express, the number of city pairs is critical for determining and supporting ridership. Saving a few minutes of schedule time by cutting a few cities has not only failed to meet with success, either in California or elsewhere in the country, but generally resulted in plummeting ridership. Adding city pairs, generally through lengthening the route, has rather the opposite effect, boosting ridership and with it revenue. Of course, lengthening the route can be a rather expensive endeavor and without also speeding up travel, revenue and ridership gains won't necessarily counter the increased expense of running the train further. However, adding additional potential city pairs via painless transfers is a solution which California has adopted with great success with its Thruway system and which ought to be adopted by PennDOT and other agencies.

For all intents and purposes, California's Thruway system is the Amtrak Thruway system, representing not only the densest network of bus schedules, but, unsurprisingly, the vast majority of ridership. Indeed, several of its routes have greater ridership than many of Amtrak's short distance corridors. In particular, the Los Angeles-Bakersfield bus bridge between the Pacific Surfliners and San Joaquins has greater ridership than the Pennsylvanian (212,000 riders vs 207,422 riders in FY11). One in six Amtrak California riders uses the Thruway system and, according to the draft 2013 California State Rail Plan, "Almost 50 percent of San Joaquin route passengers use a bus on at least one end of their trip." (page 217).

Of course, if the goal is to reduce potential subsidy levels, this is all rather moot if the increased ridership and bus services would simply increase the level of subsidy. However, I do not believe that this is a realistic fear. With rare exceptions, every Thruway passenger is a new passenger. Since the marginal cost of an additional passenger is effectively null, we can consider the entire revenue gained by the addition of that passenger to count against the cost of operating the connecting service. In the particular case of the Pennsylvanian, the average passenger contributes $43.78 in ticket revenue, rising to $46.70 if we include food and beverage revenues (based on FY2012 figures). With only a single train per day, a single bus should be able to service both directions for a particular route without much trouble. Examining for Pittsburgh, Akron/Canton, Cleveland, and Altoona, a daily rate of $900-1000 would appear to be the typical rate. In order to break even with such a price, any individual route would need to average 21-23 daily riders or an annual total of 8,400; less if one adds a small amount to the cost of the ticket for the bus bridge. Any ridership in excess of this is simply profit from the viewpoint of the train operator. While Amtrak or PennDOT could probably bring this rate down with the incentives of a fixed long term contract, it should suffice to prove the point.

Why look at Ohio if the Pennsylvanian receives no funding, taxes, or other such incentive to provide service to Ohioans? For the very simple reason that anyone who is traveling to or from Ohio and does so with the Pennsylvanian makes money for PennDOT. Certainly if the lines are not at least revenue neutral, they shouldn't be continued. If, however, they operate with net positive revenue, there is absolutely no reason for PennDOT not to operate cross-border bus operations just as it does cross-border train operations with the Pennsylvanian and Keystone Service.

As a final benefit, the ridership from connecting bus services allows for simple assessment of where train extensions would find ready demand as well as providing a significant amount of political support for such extensions. It is one thing to suggest that, for example, the San Joaquins ought to be extended an additional 160 miles north to Redding, California. It is quite another to suggest so and add "and we already have 140,210 annual riders on the bus transfer" to the mix (California State Rail Plan, pages 243-244) as well as have those riders petitioning their legislative representatives for that extension.


  1. An excellent suggestion.

    Back in 2009, a PRIAA study of the Pennsylvanian --
    -- was mostly about the potential for a second run on the Pennsylvanian route.

    It did look at one Thruway Bus opportunity, p 42-43:

    "... Amtrak also recommends PennDOT consider ... bus/rail service between State College and Harrisburg. ... take advantage of the existing high-frequency and fast trips provided by the Keystone Corridor ...

    "Harrisburg already has an excellent multi-modal station which would provide very convenient transfers between the two services. Only a potential investment in bus equipment and operating costs of the bus connections would be required. ..."

    However, I found *nothing* in the report suggesting there'd been any research into bus connections from Morgantown, Wheeling, Weirton, or Steubenville, or from Warren and Youngstown, or Akron and Canton, or even Columbus. And because Cleveland is served only in the dead of night, there might be strong demand for a daylight Thruway bus connection from that major city as well.

  2. Forgot something when I posted above.

    Problem is, the current eastbound departure of the Pennsylvanian out of Pittsburgh is 7:20 a.m. That's pretty early if you have to catch a bus from Ohio to get there in time. (The current westbound train is scheduled to arrive at 8:05 p.m., and would allow most bus riders to get home before bedtime.)

    It's roughly 80 miles from Morgantown (West Virginia U, with 30,000 students), 45 miles from Steubenville/Weirton, 80 miles from Youngstown, and around 3 hours from Cleveland and from Columbus. YYMV.

    However, the PRIIA study suggested that a second run of the Pennsylvanian, heading east at 1 p.m., arriving NYC at 10:30 p.m., might garner another 140,000 passengers a year.

    That second, later departure would allow Thruway bus passengers to get to Pgh from Ohio cities and other nearby locations. But westbound the study proposed to leave NYC at 2:11 p.m. and arrive in Pgh after 11 p.m. (This gives a good connection to the Capitol Limited, but it's lousy for buses.)

    In conclusion, if we could double the frequencies of the Pennsylvanian (impossible until more equipment becomes available), then one train each direction could benefit from aggressive deployment of Thruway bus service to smaller cities near Pgh.

    On the current schedule's single train with a 7:20 a.m. departure, probably not.

    Or, maybe move the current EB departure back to, say, 9:20 a.m. and arrive in NYC around 7 p.m.? No, that 11-hour day plays hell with the bus driver's life and legal schedule. So we need that second run to fit with bus service.

    Just one more example that the way to fix Amtrak is to grow the business, not to play knick-knack-tally-whack and chop the system to death.