Monday, October 22, 2012

Who takes Amtrak's long distance trains?

The trains are almost entirely taken by the elderly

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.
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.”
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.

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

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Vegas X-Train to be integrated with Amtrak

A reported email from the company to shareholders:

Dear X Train Shareholders and fans:
Well, the long hot summer here in Las Vegas is over finally. And although the heat was turned up pretty high here, we had it turned up even higher on our project. We began our actual construction project on the station at the Plaza Hotel by hiring on our civil engineers, Walker Engineering, our General Contractor – R&O Construction, our Architects, Carpenter, Sellers, DelGatto, our rail engineers DeBerg & Associates as well as a host of ancillary professional staff with the City of Las Vegas. The civil engineering report was completed by Walker engineering and now identifies all infrastructure constraints on the site. We are now working with DeBerg to lay in the rail location and to orient the platform for speedy unloading. Approvals will take about 6 months before we can begin construction.
We acquired 10 railcars outright and have them parked in a rail yard in Wisconsin. The cars are bi-level designs which we will refurbish into our Vegas Class club lounge cars. The designs for the interiors are being done by Carpenter Sellers DelGatto, architects, and are very spiffy.
This is a working sample of one configuration which has a self-contained bar/lounge and food service area in each car and holds 40 people in complete comfort. (Photo not included) Other designs are in the works as well and we will show them to you as they are available. We will be acquiring additional rail cars to add to this set and expect to begin renovation after the first of the year 2013.
Our marketing efforts have gone into high gear with the addition of our COO- Passenger Services – Penny Stegeman. Penny comes from the Vegas ticketing business and the airline services business. In her first two calls to major properties here in town, both customers indicated they could fill a train all year with just their own clients. Pretty good start for us on that. We have a lot more to talk about with these folks, but both are extremely excited about being part of the project. No names as yet. That is still confidential, but we will make it public when it’s all done.
On the technology side, Bob Gottesman has come on board as our EVP/CIO and has two jobs he is responsible for. First he is the project manager for our development projects. This is like building the trip from the Earth to the Moon. Each project from station construction to car acquisition and build-out to logistics planning to IT systems is like a business of its own. I have attached Bob’s dashboard from the project management system so you can see what I’m talking about. It’s complicated, to say the least. We currently have about 400 tasks we manage. By the time the train runs, it will be 4,000.
We completed an offering of $2.28 million for the company. This capital allows us to proceed with the development of the station, electronics infrastructure and to acquire the railset for the first train. Our next mission is to organize for our larger offering later this year. We have moved the ball forward with the railroads and expect final logistics to be completed by November for both railroads. Amtrak was selected as our haulage partner and we are now working on the marketing and technical interface with their existing train network. You will be able to buy an X Train ticket at any one of the thousands of Amtrak kiosks nationwide. We will be carried on their national timetable as well.

Via Amtrak Unlimited

I'm still of the opinion that this company is a scam and that it will never run a single train. On the other hand, they apparently have gotten Amtrak to take them seriously to a degree. I'm not sure if haulage partner means that they are simply contracting with Amtrak to be in the timetable (such as Saratoga & North Creek or the Grand Canyon Railway do) or whether they have also contracted with Amtrak to supply conductors, engineers, and possibly on board service personnel.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

September ridership marginally up for Surfliners

September information is now up.

Pacific Surfliner +0.8% (-5% for year)
Capitol Corridor -8.9%  (+2% for year)
San Joaquin +7.8% (+7% for year)
Coast Starlight +7.8%
Nationally +4.1%
Metrolink -2.9%
Coaster -5.5%

Pacific Surfliner +8.2% (+6% for year)
Capitol Corridor +3.5%
San Joaquin +3.0%
Coast Starlight +0.8%
Nationally +7.4%

Impressively, on time performance for the Surfliner Express hit 100% in September, in large part thanks to a new equipment rotation which results in it using single level equipment only every other day. Overall the Surfliner has vastly improved its OTP with 84.6% for September; though this is with a more lenient standard than the commuter rail agencies. Coaster maintained an impressive 99.1% OTP while Metrolink's Ventura and Orange County lines were 98.0% and 96.2% respectively.

One factor for the decline in commuter ridership was the loss of two weekdays in September 2012 compared to the year prior. Coaster the Surfliner were both affected by the shutdown of track south of Oceanside for one weekend though this did not prevent the Surfliner from managing to increase ridership mildly.

The Capitol Corridor and Starlight present an interesting set of contrasts when it comes to revenue and ridership. A tremendously steep decline in ridership, likely in part for the same reason as the commuter rail agencies, still results in a fairly decent increase in revenue while the Starlight, despite nearly doubling the national growth rate, eked out a miserly increase in revenue that won't even hold up with inflation. I'm honestly not sure how the Starlight in particular managed to do that. Presumably the ridership increase is from using it for short distance trips that do not yield very much, but there's no station pair information available.

One further interesting note is the mention that the Coast Daylight "should ideally continue on to San Diego." Hopefully the northern end will see an extension to Sacramento as well for a one-seat ride through most of California's major metropolitan areas.

Friday, October 5, 2012

In California, Carmageddon is followed by the Gaspocalypse

California gas prices rise 20 cents overnight, 40-50 cents since beginning of the week and it's only going to get worse.

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Californians woke up to a shock Friday as overnight gasoline prices jumped by as much as 20 cents a gallon in some areas, ending a week of soaring costs that saw some stations close and others charge record prices.
The average price of regular gas across the state was nearly $4.49 a gallon, the highest in the nation, according to AAA's Daily Fuel Gauge report.
In Southern California, the price jumped 20 cents a gallon overnight to $4.53 in Ventura. And in the Los Angeles-Long Beach area prices went up 19 cents to nearly $4.54. And it wasn't any better to the north, as a gallon of regular gas in San Francisco averaged nearly $4.60.
In many areas, prices have jumped 40 cents in a week as refinery problems have created shortages and helped send wholesale prices soaring. Some stations ran out of gas and shut down Thursday rather than pay those costs.
Even Costco, the giant discount store chain that sells large volumes of gas, decided to close some stations, the Los Angeles Times ( reported.
"We do not know when we will be resupplied," read a sign at one Southern California Costco, according to the Times.
Other gas stations charged more than $5 a gallon. The Low-P station in Calabasas charged $5.69 Thursday. The pumps bore hand-written signs reading: "We are sorry, it is not our fault," the Times said.
While gas prices have spiked around the nation, refinery outages and pipeline problems have added to woes in California.
Among the recent disruptions, an Aug. 6 fire at a Chevron Corp. refinery in Richmond left one of the region's largest refineries producing at a reduced capacity. A power failure in Southern California has affected an Exxon Mobil Corp. refinery, and a Chevron pipeline that moves crude to Northern California also was shut down.
The national average for gas is about $3.79 a gallon, the highest ever for this time of year. However, gas prices in many states have started decreasing, which is typical for October.
But in California, gasoline inventories are the lowest in more than 10 years — a situation made worse by the state's strict pollution limits that require a special blend of cleaner-burning gasoline during hot summer months.
Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst at, said he is seeing the highest prices in the state around Los Angeles, where on Thursday at least five stations have crossed the $5 a gallon mark, including $5.29 in Burbank and $5.11 in Norwalk.
Prices will keep rising, he says, because in the past week wholesale gasoline prices have jumped $1 a gallon, but average retail prices have increased only 30 cents.
"This is one of the easiest forecasts: Retail prices are going to skyrocket," DeHaan said.

Well, the silver lining in this cloud is that the Pacific Surfliner should finally break its year long ridership decline. In addition to Amtrak California routes and the various California commuter rail lines,  the Cascades should also see a bumper month as they also serve a PADD V state, which means they are mostly dependent on California refineries and oil will not be readily available from the rest of the country (due to lack of pipelines; with oil railcars busy serving Bakken, even that is likely not available as an option, even if formulation waivers were available).

Unfortunately, this is going to really screw with California's economy and employment situation in a rather bad way. We don't have the infrastructure necessary in order for many to switch away from use of a personal automobile to mass transit and we won't for sometime. Hopefully it will change the political attitudes such that bus service, at the very least, will increase instead of the cutbacks it has largely seen since the recession, as well as increase support for rail, BRT, electrification and other mass transit projects, but I'm sufficiently cynical, or just too used to reading the OC Register, to really expect terribly much.

I do hope that the authors of the Fuel Tax Swap, which lowered the sales tax rate on gasoline in exchange for a higher flat excise rate, are kicking themselves for the amount of revenue, dedicated to public transit as it happened, was lost thanks to it.