Feb 202014
Level crossings are just one of the many problems Amtrak currently faces.

Level crossings are just one of the many problems Amtrak currently faces.

Here’s an interesting article about Amtrak’s Southwest Chief train that runs between Los Angeles and Chicago that uncritically reports on some issues but doesn’t analyze them at all.

The train is described as one of Amtrak’s ‘top financial performers’ – which presumably means it doesn’t lose as much money as some of the other long distance trains, and has had a steady 250,000 people annually traveling on it for the last some years.

But, top financial performer or not, Amtrak says it needs to spend $200 million to upgrade the track the train runs over.  This track is not owned by Amtrak – it is owned by the freight-only  Burlington Northern Santa Fe RR, with Amtrak having operating rights over the track.  The freight railroad is apparently quite happy with the track as it is, but Amtrak says it needs to accelerate its trains and that requires improving the track.

The epiphany, such as it is, comes in this comment from Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari, explaining why they need to speed up their trains :

The train is not viable as a business when it operates at a lower speed, because it ends up being slower than driving

We don’t disagree with him at all, indeed, we enthusiastically endorse his conversion to common sense.  Amtrak started operations in May 1971 – it has only taken it 43 years to realize this point – one of the essential value-adds of a successful train service is speedy travel.  We also wonder – does this mean that Amtrak will seek to speed up all its other trains as well?

But, having said that, will speeding up some parts of the journey to a maximum of 79 mph be sufficient to enable Amtrak to truly compete with driving?  Let’s examine the facts and figures that lie behind Amtrak’s claim (and its associated $200 million funding request).

How Fast is Fast Enough?

Currently, the Southwest Chief is timetabled to take 42 hours eastbound and 43 hours 15 minutes westbound for its 2265 mile journey, which means an average speed of either 52 mph or 54 mph.  Google Maps reports the travel time by car between downtown Chicago and downtown Los Angeles as being 29 hours (2016 miles at an average of 70 mph).

Of course, it is unlikely that a real journey by private car would be that fast.  You’d need to add time for gas and bathroom and meal stops, and possibly also for an overnight stop somewhere along the way as well.  Adding say 12 hours for an overnight stop, and only minimal times for other stops brings the car travel time up to or over the train’s travel time.

On the other hand, if we measure the ‘true’ journey time as being the time it takes from starting your journey, eg at your home, to completing your journey, eg at a hotel at the destination, when you are traveling any route by car, there is essentially no more time to add, but if by train, you need to add the time (and cost) required to get to the train station, and either park or pay the taxi, and then the time required to get from the station to the ultimate destination at the other end (and the cost of either a taxi or rental car).  This could be another couple of hours (and hundreds of dollars) added to the train option.

Let’s ignore the cost issues for this analysis, and concentrate solely on the time issues.  So is Amtrak already faster than a car?  Maybe, and maybe not – and currently of course we’re only looking at this one route as an example.

There is, however, at least one other obvious competing form of transportation – long distance bus service.

Greyhound will get you from Chicago to Los Angeles, albeit with three changes of bus en route, and will take 46 1/2 hours to do so.  If one had to choose between getting on a single train in Chicago and walking off it in Los Angeles 42 hours later, or traveling on a series of four different buses, and taking 46 1/2 hours, the choice is probably fairly obvious to most people – at least in this example (but not consistently so in other city-pair examples), Amtrak is appreciably better than Greyhound.

And then there are airplanes.  To travel by air from downtown Chicago to downtown Los Angeles would take about 4 hours for the flight, plus add an extra four hours for travel between the airports and downtowns (or wherever else your travel actually starts and finishes), checkin time, luggage collection, etc, and that makes, in total, an eight-hour equivalent travel experience.

So here’s the interesting thing.  On this route – a route where Amtrak says it needs to spend $200 million in order to compete on a time basis against driving the distance – Amtrak already has a time-competitive product.  It is faster than a bus, and also clearly more comfortable and convenient, and it is comparable in time to driving (if you stop overnight en route) and probably again more comfortable and convenient.

Note that this is not Amtrak’s slowest route, not by a large margin.  We’ve not analyzed all its routes, but we do see the Coast Starlight, between Los Angeles and Seattle, averages a terribly slow 39 mph.

That’s not to say that slicing some hours off Amtrak’s schedules wouldn’t be a good thing, but it would neither transform the dynamic of its competitive position compared to driving your own car or traveling by bus, nor would it make it any more competitive compared to the 8 hour air journey.

So how will $200 million actually help?

Is the Sum of the Parts Greater than the Whole?

Perhaps the answer lies by looking not at the complete journey, but at some of the other journeys between intermediate stops on the route.

The Southwest Chief includes 31 intermediary stops between Chicago and Los Angeles, and an unknown number of the train’s 250,000 passengers either get on or off (or both) at intermediate stops rather than in Chicago and Los Angeles.  We guess more than half the passengers travel only part of the journey rather than the total length of the line.

Maybe there are some time/speed advantages that can be experienced between intermediary stops?

Rather than look at a massive matrix of all 1056 combinations of departure and arrival cities, let’s examine three intermediary routes that between them span the total distance, and which involve significant sized cities.

RouteDistanceAmtrak TimeAmtrak Avg SpeedTime by BusTime by Car
Chicago – Kansas City4377′ 11″ or 7′ 32″60 mph10′ 25″ one change7′ 45″
Kansas City – Albuquerque90418′ 10″ or 18′ 14″50 mph17′ 30″ one change12′ 3″
Albuquerque – Los Angeles92416′ 30″ or 18′ 30″53 mph16′ 50″ one change11′ 17″
Chicago – Los Angeles226542′ or 43′ 15″53 mph46′ 30″ three changes29 hours


The first surprise is that Amtrak is competitive, time-wise, with buses on all routes (and much more convenient with no change of train required).

When we compare Amtrak to the self-drive car option though, we start to see big time discrepancies.  These enlarge even further if we add another two hours to the Amtrak times to factor in the time to get to and from the train stations.  If we further adjust to recognize that in our car, we can leave at a time of our choosing, and/or plan to arrive at a time of our choosing, rather than being forced to accept the sometimes very inconvenient departure/arrival times inherent in this one-train-a-day service, we see an interesting and perhaps counter-intuitive thing.

If compared to driving, Amtrak is actually less competitive on short distances than it is on long distances.

This does leave Amtrak wedged between two major competing forms of transport.  For short distances, it is easier/faster to drive, and for truly long distances, it is easier/faster to fly.  Is there a ‘sweet spot’ somewhere in the middle where Amtrak is better than either self-drive or flying?

How fast would Amtrak have to be to truly compete with driving a car?  Let’s subtract two hours from the time by car figures in the table above so as to truly equate total traveling time, from door to door, either by one’s own car, or by a mix of transfers to/from train stations and by train inbetween, and figure out what that would mean for Amtrak.

RouteDistanceTime by CarRequired Time by TrainRequired Avg Speed
Chicago – Kansas City4377′ 45″5′ 45″76 mph
Kansas City – Albuquerque90412′ 3″10′ 3″90 mph
Albuquerque – Los Angeles92411′ 17″9′ 17″100 mph
Chicago – Los Angeles226529 hours25 hours91 mph

(We italicize the last calculation because it is not so relevant, but shows what would happen if we adjusted the total train travel time).

Unfortunately, none of these required travel times are feasible as long as Amtrak is stuck with a 79 mph maximum speed.

Even the ‘easiest’ – the 76 mph average for the 437 miles between Chicago and Kansas City – could not be attained, because that average speed has to include areas of track with speed limits on it, and the six intermediate stops along the way.  To average 76 mph on this journey would require the train to reach top speeds well in excess of 90 mph, and that’s not possible under Amtrak’s present and planned future operating scenario.

As for the 100 mph average required for the Albuquerque-Los Angeles sector, with eleven intermediate stops along the way, that would be calling for typical cruising speeds of 120+ mph whenever possible.

So, we already know that for very short distances (100 – 200 miles) Amtrak is too much of a hassle, and for very long distances (say 1000+ miles – more than a convenient single day of driving by car) it starts to lose out to air travel, and from the calculation above, at 437 miles, it requires speeds that are impossible by Amtrak’s operating guidelines.

Is there no distance that works for Amtrak?

It is More than Just Travel Time

So, there’s Amtrak’s first challenge.  By its own claim, it needs to be competitive with driving times, but to merely match the driving times, it would need to have impossibly high average speeds, and the range of distances at which it competes with cars and air travel too is unclear and very narrow.

Spending $200 million on track improvements would mean the train still massively fails to match driving times (other than for the longest sectors, at which point, air travel becomes overwhelmingly effective).

But, that’s not all.  The train travel time could be made so fast as to be almost instantaneous and it still would not be convenient if the departure/arrival times were at awful hours such as 3am.  That’s another time factor as well.  Maybe the Amtrak times force us into an unnecessary additional overnight, in which case the equivalency totally collapses.  Or maybe it just has us waiting around for the train for four hours longer than if we were traveling by car.  Either which way, it fails the total travel time (and convenience) tests.

Amtrak not only needs faster trains, but it needs more trains.

This should be no more a surprise to Amtrak as is its 43-years-in-the-making discovery that it needs to be as fast or faster than driving.  It needs only look to any other country with a vibrant rail service to note that in such countries, not only are the trains convincingly faster than private car travel, but they also have departures every hour or two – sometimes as frequently as every 30 minutes.

Or it can look to the airlines.  They have convincingly shown a preference for multiple flights a day on smaller planes, as compared to fewer flights on larger planes, even though operationally that is much more expensive and inconvenient.

Or, closer to home, it can see the same thing reflected in bus timetables.  Some of these routes where Amtrak has only one train a day are served by four or more buses.

What Should Amtrak Do?

Until such time as it gets government or state funding to allow the creation of true high-speed trains that can consistently travel at speeds in excess of 150 mph, it should not attempt to transform itself from ‘slow’ to merely ‘not quite so slow’.

Instead, it should spend the $200 million it is asking for this route (and comparable amounts for all other routes) on buying more trainsets to allow it to add more trains each day, so as to resolve the other part of its ‘time’ problem – the lack of a train at convenient times of day.  Doing so would allow it to better compete with inter-city buses, and weakly improve its competition compared to self driving.

Two trains wouldn’t double its passenger count, and three trains wouldn’t treble it.  But it would go a long way to making Amtrak a more relevant and measurable factor in the nation’s transportation system, and that would in turn give it a louder voice when it asks for the truly large sums of money needed for high-speed trains.

But adding more trains exposes another problem.  Amtrak doesn’t own its own track (except for a limited stretch in its North-East corridor).  It has to share the track with freight railroads, and to be blunt, the freight railroads don’t like sharing, because their own operational needs these days leave little room for Amtrak trains, let alone for more Amtrak trains.

Amtrak’s Impossible Challenge

Amtrak is currently locked into a no-win dilemma.  Small speed increases won’t affect its competitive dynamic to any measurable extent, and even if it could afford more train-sets, it will have problems fitting extra train schedules into the congested freight tracks it runs over.

Amtrak will never be profitable until it can offer a true value-added service that appeals to more than a tiny subsector of our traveling community at present.  It needs to provide a broadly appealing travel solution to a broad swathe of travelers.  It can only do this – as it now acknowledges itself – by truly competing against self-drive as an option, but it can not do this by tiny increments to its average train speeds.  It needs to double and treble its average train speeds – it needs to offer true high-speed rail service.

It is time for our President to honor his promise of four years ago.  Back then he told us

there’s no reason Europe or China should have the fastest trains

and he was and still is correct – well, no reason other than his unwillingness to fund the development of high-speed train service….

His comments were buttressed by his then Secretary of Transportation telling us that the US rail system would become ‘the go-to network, the world’s model for high-speed rail’.  (See our analysis of these empty promises, here.)

Spending hundreds of millions of dollars per route to occasionally increase train speeds to 79 mph – a snail’s pace compared to real high-speed rail – isn’t going to get us or Amtrak to this nirvana.

We need to spend the tens and hundreds of billions of dollars needed to give Amtrak its own dedicated high-speed rail network.  Nothing else will suffice.

  One Response to “Analyzing Amtrak’s Partial Epiphany”

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