Thursday, December 26, 2013

Silver Service and Florida Intrastate Travel

Just before Christmas, the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) delivered an early gift to those of us who like to look into the various statistics behind Amtrak with the 2013 ridership data. Being a bit of a data junkie, I immediately took a dive into it and came up with some rather surprising information regarding the distribution of travel within the state of Florida. The perception which I had always had of the two Florida serving trains, the Silver Star and the Silver Meteor, were that they were, to a significant degree, used, or intended at least, for travel from the Northeast to Florida and back again. The truth, however, is quite different: A significant and possibly the greatest single segment of travel on these two trains is actually Florida intrastate travel.

Struck by the fact that Florida city pairs, all to Tampa, were the primary city pairs for ridership on the Silver Star, I decided to look deeper into the ridership according to distance recorded by each station stop in Florida. As NARP has presented the data, the total number of boardings and alightings is given, as well as a percentage breakdown by distance, for every hundred miles of travel. I took this information, put it into a spreadsheet, and then calculated the distance to both Jacksonville, the most northerly Florida station, and the nearest out of Florida station, Jesup, Georgia. This information was either readily available from the station data sheet when Jacksonville was one of the top city pairs or was calculated from the current Silver Service timetable and the distance to the next station on the route which did have that information readily available. I then proceeded to sum up all of the boardings and alightings which existed in bands which were indisputably within the state of Florida. This method resulted in a certain degree of undercounting: There are no boardings or alightings counted from Jacksonville because Jesup lay only 92 miles away; similarly, ridership between Tampa and Jacksonville is not counted, despite being a top ridership city pair, because Jacksonville and Jesup lay within the same distance band at 203 and 299 miles distance respectively.

That conservative underestimate gives us a figure of at least 357,162 boardings and alightings, which translates into 178,581 passengers solely traveling within the state of Florida. With a combined ridership of 770,586 for the Silver Star and Silver Meteor, this means that at least 23% of their combined ridership is from travel solely within the state of Florida. In fact, at least 42.8% of all Florida traffic is within the state of Florida. Considered as a separate service, Florida certainly wouldn’t be one of the top performing routes, ranking between #36 Washington-Lynchburg and #37 Piedmont (though I suspect ridership levels on par with the Palmetto if all Florida intrastate travel were counted), but it would be a respectable performance level nonetheless, and all the more so for how poor the current service is for intrastate travel. The fastest trip between Miami and Orlando, one of the major rail corridors, is 5 hours and 3 minutes (Southbound, North is 5:45), aboard the Meteor, arriving at Orlando at 6:55pm and Miami at 1:23pm. This compares with a driving time of three and a half hours, assuming no major delays. Between Tampa and Orlando, though the train takes an extra hour than unobstructed traffic, and is probably on par with normal freeway travel before consideration of the last mile (2:03 vs 1:18), it suffers from similarly poor timings and only a single frequency in the midday and evening.

Obviously, this inclines one to think that All Aboard Florida will do quite well when they begin service, especially if future extensions are built to Jacksonville and Tampa. It also implies that the lack of an intrastate Florida train has been a severe mistake by Amtrak and the state of Florida. There is definitely a market to be served, yet all that they are offered is a pair of long distance trains which run in close succession to each other.

Certainly there appears to be a will to spend, and to spend heavily, for passenger rail service in Florida. Twice billions were appropriated for building a high speed rail service, though twice again cancelled by the governor, and currently a billion dollars, 25% from the state and 25% from local counties, is being used to purchase and construct the SunRail commuter line in Orlando. Further back, between 1982 and 1984, the state of Florida funded a once daily train between Miami and Tampa, canceling it when it failed to maintain a 60% operating ratio as required under the enabling Florida law. This funding requirement is not as ambitious as it may nowadays seem; Amtrak’s accounting systems were different back then and under them the Pacific Surfliner had farebox recovery levels of 59.1% and 76.4% for 1982-1983 and 1983-1984 respectively (page 24). It does however, seem to be an experiment foredoomed to failure by lack of frequencies and the short timeframe in which to build up ridership. At an expense of only $2.1 million over those two years, it also does seem like quite the odd penny to pinch.

The failure of the Silver Palm may have soured the state of Florida, unreasonably in my opinion, on supporting an intercity train, but it should not have done so for Amtrak. Just a few years earlier, for about the same million dollar per year cost as the Silver Palm, Amtrak added, at their own expense, an additional round trip between Los Angeles and San Diego; this despite the fact that there were already three state supported round trips on the route (and three more that were not supported by the state). Ridership in the waning months of the second year showed increases of 66% over the previous year and it is reasonable to suggest that it could have continued to increase to the point of no longer requiring a subsidy.

Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that strong consideration should have been made to truncating one of the Silver Service trains at Jacksonville, using its equipment for a Florida intercity service, while transferring its sleepers to the surviving train. This would have freed up four sets of equipment for use within the state of Florida while consolidating certain costs for the sleepers onto just one train, possibly allowing for greater efficiencies. Given the example of the second Silver Palm, which ran from New York to Miami, it seems likely that this would have been a ridership positive move.

First running November of 1996, ridership on the Silver Palm appeared to completely cannibalize that of the Silver Star and Silver Meteor. In a year of general increase, the Silver Palm began with 188,000 riders while the Star and Meteor collectively lost 174,000 riders (page 37). With how important intrastate ridership is to the contemporary Silver Service, it’s no wonder that the Silver Palm, which had extremely poor timing for state service, did no great miracles in increasing ridership levels. Southbound it left Jacksonville at 1:56 in the morning, skipping Orlando except for a bus connection (though at that hour, it’s doubtful there would have been many riders bound for DisneyWorld), and arriving at Tampa at 6:47 in the morning. Five minutes later it left for a 12:07 arrival into Miami.  At 5pm it left Miami, reaching Tampa at 10:13, skipping Orlando once more, and arriving at Jacksonville at 2:33am.

These were terrible times for an intercity service to run and they are worsened by the fact that the Silver Palm originated in New York, making all of its southbound times somewhat theoretical and dependent on keeping good time for nine hundred miles earlier; something that those stuck relying on the Empire Builder have known is easier said than done these past few years! Unsurprisingly, when the Silver Palm, now without sleeper or diner service and renamed the Palmetto, was cut back to Savannah, Georgia, there was only a minor change in ridership upon the Silver Service routes (combined in Amtrak’s ridership figures).

Why this is so is fairly simple of course: People want to travel only a few hours and they want to do so at reasonable times of the day, with an emphasis on day. Incredibly few intercity trips of any type are taken in the middle of the night or the earliest hours of morning; even commuter traffic is relatively rare at this time. Train stops at these times will not be well patronized, as one can clearly see in Ohio. Furthermore, these trips to be taken by train, they need to be competitive with other modes of travel, such as by air. This is, of course, ignoring the ability that speed has to induce ridership; many more trips were taken between Los Angeles and Chicago when air service began than were ever taken by train between the two cities.

If we look at NARP’s data, for all long distance trains, 31.2% of the trips taken were under three hundred miles in duration and an additional 18.8% were less than 500 miles in length and only 14.9% were over a thousand miles in duration. To a certain extent the distance which passengers travel is inflated thanks to the fact that on busier corridors, such as New York to Washington and New York to Albany, the long distance trains run receive or depart only, not allowing trips to be booked within those distances and requiring passengers to use corridor trains instead.

Now, it is suggested by some that the advantage of the long distance train is that it allows multiple of these corridors to be undertaken by a single train with the added bonus of some long distance passengers to help subsidize the travel. This comes at the downside, however, of giving many communities and even important corridors poor hours of service, especially when there is a misguided focus on creating a trip which best serves an end to end run rather than the more typical and desirable journeys in between (which may involve one end, but not both). As well, as I mentioned earlier, the long distances introduce significantly more potential for major delays to passengers as well as increased risk of train cancellation due to work on a portion of the line. Foamers may joke about how they should pay extra for the “pleasure” of riding longer in a delayed train, but passengers who are stuck waiting several hours, especially with Amtrak’s employee culture of refusing to give information about delays, for the single daily train which serves them will have rather a different view of the situation.

There is also the factor of equipment utilization. The current Silver Star and Silver Meteor use, not counting maintenance reserves and protect equipment, sixteen locomotives and seventy-six cars of various types. The Pacific Surfliner uses half that figure. Could not significant gains have been made in both ridership and revenue by having only a single train from New York to Miami while the rest of the equipment provides multiple frequencies? Certainly it could not match the frequencies of the Surfliner, not when Tampa to Orlando crawls along at 25 miles per hour (though that figure could easily have been improved with improvements to the line), but several frequencies, each conducive to more riders, could reasonably have been made, even across the whole extent of the state from Miami to Jacksonville.

Now, of course, it is far too late for Amtrak to consider such a thing. All Aboard Florida has committed to providing a significant number of frequencies with significantly improved service between Miami and Orlando, predicting three million riders and nearly twice as much revenue as the Silver Star and Silver Meteor combined, despite using less equipment. But Florida is hardly the only state where intrastate ridership makes up such a major portion of total existing ridership. Even if Amtrak is unwilling to shorten or cancel long distance routes in order to create spare equipment for more frequent corridor routings, it should still examine the potential for new corridor service that the existing long distance trains have shown may be popular that it might proactively offer this service to the states. It really makes no sense for Amtrak to be so incredibly passive and to be reliant upon the various states and local communities taking the initiative every time. It should be proactively offering plans for improved service and keeping those plans updated so that a change in the political weather does not risk losing its wind before anything is capable of starting.

12 comments:

  1. Interestingly, Amtrak actually *did* do some trial runs on the FEC line back in 2010. FDOT, FEC, and Amtrak all seemed to be on board with the prompt re-introduction of passenger service to correspond with Phase I of the state’s Tampa-Orlando HSR line, presumably with buses from Orlando Airport to Cocoa as an interim solution. From what I gather, that was shelved with the HSR plans themselves after Rick Scott took office.

    http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2010-04-29/news/fl-passenger-train-test-run-20100429_1_amtrak-passenger-train-florida-east-coast-railway

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    1. Rick Scott: the criminal gift that keeps on giving.

      I guess the same is true of Scott Walker.

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  2. Well, there goes any argument that there's no demand for intrastate rail in Florida, at whatever speed.

    Assuming your preferred solution is unavailable, would you say the numbers support expanding Tampa service by rerouting the Silver Meteor, even at the expense of an extra two hours and change for passengers travelling south of Winter Haven, or is holding the line on trip time South Florida-Orlando and South Florida-Jacksonville more important?

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    1. I think it probably would be better off rerouting so that they both hit Tampa; Tampa's intrastate ridership alone is 5.7% of the Star's ridership and contributes about half a coach car every day in each direction. An additional frequency, appropriately timed, would probably do well. South Florida to Orlando is going to be lost to All Aboard Florida, I don't see Amtrak retaining anything other than meager crumbs of that traffic; South Florida traffic to Jacksonville will probably use unofficial connections via AAF (as I believe they've stated no interlining in their STB application) or we may see AAF set up their own bus connections to Jacksonville, both for revenue now and to prime the pump for a future expansion.

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    2. That would ruin the only direct Orlando-South Florida service. I would argue it would be a better option to keep the current route but have a thruway bus connection at Winter Haven to Tampa. Obviously neither solution is ideal until you introduce a completely intrastate train.

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    3. And AAF is a joke. I'll believe it when I see it.

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  3. It is absolutely clear that Amtrak should have had an intrastate Florida service long ago.

    Unfortunately, in 2008 this was rendered more difficult by PRIIA's requirement that such short corridors receive state funding (unless they are truly profitable).

    Before that, of course, we had the "revolving door" Amtrak Presidents who could not be expected to do anything. Working backwards, Crosbie was temporary, Kummant was purely defensive, Hughes was temporary, Gunn was mistakenly cutting service, and Warrington was loading up on debt in the misguided mail-and-parcels scheme.

    Perhaps Thomas Downs might have done it, but he was making a mess of the railroad too. I don't know why Claytor didn't do it, but by then we're far enough back in time that the ridership might have been wildly different.

    We may also look at the question of why the state of Florida didn't do it. Which it *still could*. For that, I suppose we can look at the repeated "back and forth" of Florida funding trains followed by cancelling them -- almost as bad as Cincinnati's "progress" on urban rail!

    Certainly, Amtrak should have a plan in the drawer for Florida intrastate intercity rail: Miami-Tampa, Tampa-Orlando, and Orlando-Jacksonville at least -- a plan ready to present to each incoming governor, and to any state legislator who's interested. But it's not going to happen without a push from the state, and I suppose it never was going to.

    For all I know, Amtrak *does* have such a plan sitting in the drawer. Whenever the service is disrupted due to stuff happening in Georgia or South Carolina or North Carolina or Virginia, the same Miami-Tampa-Orlando-Jacksonville intrastate service suddenly appears....

    Anyway, if intrastate service happens, I'd support the termination of direct service from New York to Tampa. Amtrak still has to maintain its trains in Miami, which makes Tampa a detour for trains from the north. With intrastate service, decent transfers in Orlando could preserve all trips.

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  4. "But Florida is hardly the only state where intrastate ridership makes up such a major portion of total existing ridership."

    I don't think this is actually true. Reread the PIPs, please, to look at the ridership patterns. I think Florida is really a special case here.

    "Even if Amtrak is unwilling to shorten or cancel long distance routes in order to create spare equipment for more frequent corridor routings, it should still examine the potential for new corridor service that the existing long distance trains have shown may be popular that it might proactively offer this service to the states."

    Yeah, definitely. I'll examine them for you.

    I see the following sections of existing routes with unserved corridor potential:
    - Florida
    - Boston-Albany route of the LSL
    - pretty much anything along the Cardinal west of Lynchburg
    - in-state routes out of New Orleans
    - Minneapolis-Chicago
    - Denver "Ski Train"
    - San Antonio - Fort Worth

    All others would be corridors on new routes which do not currently host passenger trains. I agree that Amtrak should be going around to the states promoting some of these, but they are going to be very hard to get started. And most of the best ones already *have* pressure groups pushing for them:
    - Phoenix-Tucson
    - New Orleans-Mobile
    - Omaha-Chicago via the major cities in Iowa
    - Pretty much any route you can name in Texas
    - Minneapolis-Duluth

    Perhaps the single most important route which does *not* currently have local government backing is Detroit-Toledo, which Amtrak probably should be pushing for.

    But I guess I don't see a lot of opportunity for Amtrak to "steer the conversation" here; most of the obvious routes are already being pushed (Detroit-Toledo aside) and it's a matter of getting state funding now.

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  5. Florida's Amtrak service is absolutely ridiculous, compared to any similarly populated region of the country.

    The silver services carry alignments and schedules identical to, often worse than, the ones developed in the 1930s, when the entire state of Florida had about as many people as the Bronx, and steamboat and other water-based transportation was still commonplace. They have speeds today inferior to the ones they did then. Florida has nearly as many people than the STATE of New York now, a greater number soon, and our highways are better maintained than nearly any others in the nation (it's terrible driving anywhere else)- but they get congested, because they're the only viable option.

    Amtrak has lagged so far behind in serving the Florida of this century, that a freight railroad is introducing passenger service here.

    Now, that's not a bad thing for the future of passenger rail in Florida. There actually are a lot of excellent factors going for Florida:
    The new Sun Rail commuter rail system is the first in this whole part of the country- but the connection and feeder between orlando and the I-4 corridor isn't the biggest part of that-
    CSX got a bundle of money from the moving of freight traffic off of their A-line, and used it in double-tracking, grade separating, and signalling their S-line to build a rail superhighway from the Port of Tampa to the Port of Jacksonville and. That's in anticipation of the Panama Canal expansion project, because Tampa is much more well-suited to intermodal container transshipment than Miami or Port Everglades. But that capacity isn't running out soon, and it's for time-sensitive freight, so it's far more conductive to passenger carrying, plus the track is new and/or well maintained.

    All Aboard Florida (i.e. the Florida East Coast Railroad) has made massive improvements between Miami and Coca, and is laying new rapid rail track from Orlando International Airport to their mainline. A next phase is most likely going to Jacksonville.

    Amtrak's most profitable and best-loved train outside of the NEC is based in Florida (The Auto Train).

    A huge portion of our population is potential rail users: Nearly half of our population is either under 24 (as you know, millennials are driving less, or don't even have licenses- but love to travel) or over 65 (They may drive to the store, but many aren't up for going 100+ miles behind the wheel, and they LOVE bus tours- more of them would take Amtrak if greater service were available)

    Intermodal transportation and Florida's tourism sector were made for each other- It's now possible to fly into the state, take a train, and catch your cruiseship at the port, without ever using a car. We get a lot of european travellers- the more train options there are, the more of them will use the train.
    (continued, #1)

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  6. Given all this, it's asinine that Amtrak continues to give florida less service than Florida had 80 years ago.

    Here's what I'd like to see for changes in existing lines:
    Re-route the Palmetto to go from DC to Tampa, extended from savannah to Jacksonville, then via CSX's S-line. That would re-activate service at Ocala and for Gainesville, which means over 65,000 college students and 600,000 people overall who currently have only 2+hour bus rides for thruway service receiving Amtrak service. Redcoach is making a killing offering service from UF to Tampa. It's good local ridership and it opens that cooridor.

    Re-route the Silver Meteor over the FEC right of way. Service along the A1A/I-95 cooridor from jacksonville to miami- that 5+ hour drive is an easy one to compete with, and FEC is already outfitting it for ideal passenger use. Amtrak currently takes nearly 11 hours to make that trip- FEC main line could take it down significantly- if the stretch between West Palm Beach and Cocoa is indicative, quite possibly under 4 hours.

    But that's not the most important part- Florida's population density is concentrated along the our coast. Nearly 10 million live in the counties along the atlantic between jacksonville and Miami. The current alignment grossly underserves that population (and a huge tourism sector). They'd use rail if it were a reasonably competitive, or at least available, choice.

    Silver Star: This route may just need to be rethought entirely.
    Amtrak probably can't to this in their current sitatuion:
    (What's most needed is conncecting, frequent, cooridor service betwen Tampa/St Pete and Orlando International Airport to fill the gap left by the other options- running along the SunRail tracks toward the coast would be ideal- especially if a connection could be made betwen Deland (existing) and Daytona (a new station along the FEC right of way). Go from there to jacksonville and then along the current meteor alignment. Florida HSR would have been a real asset in making any amtrak service between tampa and orlando unecessary, but we have what we have)

    Auto-Train: I can't offer much to improve the most profitable and best-loved service, but here's two possibilities:
    1. Let non-car passengers buy tickets. Thruway could be provided at Lorton (sunrail covers orlando area transfers) or passengers could arrange their own travel.
    It might not be a lot, but they'd be gravy anyway (pay more than they cost operations)
    2. Move the refuelling from Florence to Charleston (technically North Charleston) and allow non-car passengers to board or exit: but from a specifically designated car to make the service indistinguishable to current riders. Again, there may not be a lot, but Gravy.
    (Given some of the information in this post, maybe a non-auto stop at Jacksonville is also tenable- anything that creates connections strengthens the overall network)
    The new Charleston station will be co-located with the Airport, so there are possibilities there as well.

    (Continued, #2)

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  7. Finally, here's what I'd like to see for a new line, and my conclusion:
    Renewed service from Chicago, via the midwest, tennessee, and Atlanta, then to savannah, jacksonville, the CSX S-line, and terminating in Tampa, or reversing from Tampa and continuing to Miami (if we're interested in maintaining the odd horseshoe in the middle of Florida that currently exists, this route is how).
    North of I-4, Florida's more integrated with Georgia than South Florida. No direct rail service is inexcusable. It's slightly asinine that Floridians on Amtrak can only go to Chicago if they go through D.C. first, so this fixes that as well.

    It's time that Amtrak started serving Florida like a state with nearly 20,000,000 people and the nation's most important tourism sector.
    Florida's more conductive to railway expansion than many realize.

    These routes would cover the vast majority of Florida's population- Add thruway between Naple/SW Florida and Miami+Tampa, and that's functionally the entire state's population served by Amtrak. It's possible, and it's the right move. Once full Amtrak service is in place, I think we'll see a lot more being done as far as intrastate rail travel, and the base of Floridians who use rail could possibly even support this to a profit, or politically support it to ample subsidy.

    (Final, #4)

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  8. I'd also like to see a major re-imagining of Sunset Limited:
    Sunset was truncated out of Florida and has been the worst performing train in the country ever since. This is a mistake that needs undone.
    Furthermore, given the massive length of the journey, some operational changes could really improve things.
    Here's my re-imagining of the line:
    The only long-distance, non-NEC interstate line to perform excellently is the Auto-Train. That should be a lesson.
    But I don't think that limited stops are the Auto-Train's special sauce- I think it's vehicle carriage (and maybe the wine tasting, though probably not).
    So here's the new itinerary:
    Origin: Sanford. Automobiles only. Typical wine and cheese, leave the station in the afternoon (specifics depend on track/freight realities).
    Route: Connect to CSX's S-line, then turning west to lake city and onward
    This bypasses Jacksonville, but unless the "amtrak probably can't do this" improvements are done, jacksonville is a rather inconvenient to serve form Sanford, and in my scenario, would be a well-served stop anyway. This route connects UCF, UF, FSU, basically 150,000 college students, by one rail service, for the first time in Florida's history. From there, gulf coast, new orleans, houston, and then STOP in San Antonio. (this would be around lunchtime the next day). All passengers detrain for lunch and a layover in San Antonio. Vehicles can be removed at this point, or be put on the train.
    Another wine/chesse tasting, because why not?
    Between 6:00 and 8:00, the train leaves San Antonio. It goes the current route from there, although ideally the non-service for phoenix would be fixed, but barring that, thruway services could connect passengers there. Terminus: New auto-train station in San Bernardino, California.
    This is a comparable drive between Los Angeles and San Diego, and MetroLink can take the non-auto passengers to a variety of other destinations from here. Arrival would be sometime in the afternoon or evening (again, depending on track and freight realities).

    The layover helps in ensuring that even if the first section of the journey is behind schedule, that the delays won't easily get the train stuck waiting behind slow-moving freight. It also gives another vehicle destination (in the booming texas triangle) and point of origin.

    Driving across the country is enough of a pain point that this could be important- I originally envisioned a (non-amtrak) service from El Paso to Beaumont with intermediate vehicle on/off-loading at san antonio, just because driving through texas is such an awful part of driving across the country.

    There is no currently way to get your vehicle across country available and well-known to most people other than driving for basically (optimistically) 3 straight days. With a service like this, the advantage in rolling resistance of steel-on-steel and the lesser wind resistance of running in consist provide an environmental benefit, and the service upholds rail service which otherwise wouldn't be viable on passenger service alone (e.g. the gulf coast stations)

    (Continued, #3)

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