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


  1. While I strongly disagree with your bias against long-distance trains, I have to admit that some of your suggestions do deserve a closer look.
    First of all, all of Amtrak's long-distance trains connect several large cities. Yes, these trains are essential for the small towns that sit along the route (keep in mind that these locatoins have limited transportation options to begin with), but the backbone of the long-distance network are large cities it connects.
    Now, your claim that these trains are used primarily by the elderly is somewhat exaggerated. While it's true that the retirees have more free time in their possession, there are more younger people taking long-distance trains than you might think. College students during their recess have a lot of available time as well, and they enjoy traveling at least as much as their grandparents do (probably even more). I use Amtrak's long-distance trains quite often (I'm in my 30's) and I see many young faces among fellow travelers.
    There are other reasons in favor of long-distance trains. For one thing, this transportation mode is remainig prevalent in other major countries, including Russia and China that are both our competitors. How can we compete with those countries by standards of living if our citizens' travel choice is largely limited to driving and flying? And yes, Russia and China do have domestic air service; and car ownership in those countries is growing more than ever. But their governments keep treating rail transportation as essential and are not even thinking of underfunding it. The reason for the origial decline in U.S. passeger rail in the middle of 20th Century was that unfunded private railroads were unable to compete with heavily subsidized highways and aviation. "A lot of money" that Amtrak receives is minuscule in comparison with the amounts of funds other modes receive.

    1. Go to NARP, click Resources, get to Fact Sheets by Train. Look, for example, at the Empire Builder.

      The fact that Chicago-Seattle is the second highest city pair could mislead you into thinking that the Empire Builder depends heavily on the big cities at either end. It does not. Look at the table on the right hand, showing that barely 8% of the trips were over 2,000 miles. So over 90% of the travelers do not ride end to end.

      Of course, a lot of trips are like the top city pair, St Paul to Chicago, or the sixth ranked pair, Pasco-Portland at the other end, with a big city providing many riders. But the third ranked city pair may be most typical: St Paul to Minot, because about 60% of the trips on the Builder are under 600 miles.

      This analysis makes me doubt that the big cities are the backbone of the long distance trains; the small cities and towns seem to be. Not that there is anything wrong with that. FlyoverLand deserves transportation options too.

      The big cities do get advantaged that their departure and arrival times are always in waking hours. But passengers in Fargo, ND, for example, meet the westbound train at 3:35 a.m. and the eastbound train at 2:13 a.m. Damn, the "service" compares to what Cleveland, Ohio, gets. Yet in 2008 (latest figures, alas) almost 25,000 passengers boarded or alighted in the dark of night in Fargo.

  2. Now let's look into your suggestions to make long-distance trains for fiscally efficient.

    1 (Raising fares on long-distance routes). From purely fiscal perspective it makes perfect sense. I don't know why Amtrak doesn't raise those fares. My suspicion is that, unlike in the Northeast Corridor where trains run at capacity despite higher fares and low-cost bus competition, long-haul trains might not take ridership for granted and, therefore, have to make sure they don't chase potential riders away by high fares. But maybe I'm mistaking; perhaps there is enough safe room for Amtrak to raise long-distane fares. Given the systemwide growth of Amtrak ridership, this might be a possibility.

    2 (Selling sleeper travel by room). If I understand you right, you're suggesting that Amtrak should charge for a full occupancy of a compartment, regardless of how many people are actually occupying it (instead of the current practice of charging a coach fare per customer plus a single compartment price). I'm not sure if this practice will help Amtrak's bottom line. Rather it could actually chase away potential sleeper riders. I would offer another solution: to reduce the level of luxury in the sleeper class. Particularly, to stop including the cost of meals and unlimited drinks, as well as to allow two independent passengers share a compartment. But then again, this, too, could chase away some riders who would like to pay more for more. As a compromise, one of the two sleepers on the train could be use for low-luxury service, and the other for high-luxury.

    3 (Prohibiting the use og Guest Rewards point for sleeper travel). I doubt this could do Amtrak any good. Instead, Guess Rewards points should be used for any service in the same proportion as actual dollars. The number of points that can buy a sleeper ride is considerably higher than the number of points that can by a coach ride. And if someone has earned enough points to afford a free sleeper ride, he or she has contributed substantially more money to Amtrak than he's now getting back. And if some travelers choose Amtrak specifically because of Guest Rewards in hope that maybe one day many years from now they'll get a free sleeper ride, it is a great marketing approach on Amtrak's part. It is simply too difficult to "abuse" the program without allowing Amtrak to benefit from this "abuse".

  3. Many senior citizens *cannot* drive *or* fly. There's a reason why disabled people are also overrepresented on Amtrak trains.

    I think it's unconscionable to decide that trains should be removed merely because they're ridden by older people. It's basically "let them be shut-ins" thinking.

    However, it's also true that the Southwest Chief *is* unusual; it attracts less "short-hop" traffic than the rest of the double-overnight trains, and it goes to Arizona. I'd expect the trains to Florida to bias old too.

    Further, the double-overnight trip is a rather specialized area; it's not typical. The ridership on the Lake Shore Limited or City of New Orleans is very different from that on the Southwest Chief.

    (1) is already being done. Amtrak raises prices to meet demand.

    (2) is silly. Most of the Amtrak charge is already for the room. Effectively, Amtrak charges extra for the second occupant, presumably to account for the included food.

    (3) is a dopey idea. Do you have any idea how frequent flyer program marketing actually works? Obviously, sleeper travel should require *large* numbers of points, but it's an attractive reward, just as all frequent flyer programs offer first class travel as a reward.

    Regarding the age pattern, there's a well-documented bias against train travel among people who came of age in the "car crazy era" from the 1940s through the 1970s, so I'd expect a bimodal distribution of passengers. I would not be surprised if the 31% who aren't over 65 are in fact under 45.

    1. By the way, it ticks me off when people talk about "the long-distance trains" as if the Lake Shore Limited (bustling daily overnight service from upstate NY to Chicago) is the same as the Sunset Limited (anemic and poorly patronized 3-a-week service which stops an hour outside Phoenix on its extremely slow way from LA to New Orleans).

      One is substantially more useful than the other.


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