Four steps to improve long distance service in the U.S.

Written By Sean Jeans Gail

All this week, the NARP blog has been using our recently released white paper to examine how passengers use long distance trains, and how this unique transportation mode benefits communities both large and small.

[Read the first entry] [Read the second entry]

However, these long distance routes, facing both political attacks and underinvestment, are in need of a lot of help. There is no quick and easy political solution to these funding problems—specifically, how we conceive of the government’s role in funding allmodes of transportation. This work is essential, however, because it will protect existing service, an essential foundation for all future development. That’s why NARP is so committed to the task of educating political and business leaders about the value of the existing long-distance trains

What NARP’s white paper does address is how we can take practical, incremental steps to providing a dramatically improved passenger train network that serves a significant percentage of the U.S. population:

An effective strategy for making long distance intercity routes a more relevant and attractive mobility choice will contain at least four elements:

1. Fill gaps in the current network to create a true, web like grid and gateway system that provides direct service in major city pair markets. The linear nature of the current national network makes it difficult, if not impossible, to make many trips by train. Increasing frequencies on existing routes is necessary but not sufficient to make trains a mobility choice that is a widely available and relevant mobility option. Major metropolitan areas need routes that extend in multiple directions. A quick look at a map of the current network shows how few cities have such service today. Long distance routes represent the fastest and most economically efficient way to make trains a widely available and attractive mobility choice for large numbers of Americans.

2. Increase frequencies. One train a day (much less only three trains a week) is not sufficient to accommodate the needs of most travelers. Low frequencies also are not economically efficient. Additional frequencies will:

· Make the train more time competitive with driving, especially for the majority of travelers who use these routes to make shorter trips;

· Allow daytime service in every community served;

· Increase labor productivity both in stations and on board the train;

· Improve asset utilization.

Frequently sold-out trains indicate that the demand exists to justify the relatively modest investment. Experience demonstrates that higher frequencies attract more passengers and generate greater revenue.

3. Initiate a large scale, long term program to procure high-performance trainsets that are fast, fuel efficient and suitable for overnight and longer distance trips. Modern equipment will provide the capacity needed to accommodate current demand, attract new passengers, increase revenue, reduce fuel and maintenance costs, and increase farebox recovery. New equipment is the prerequisite foundation for all initiatives to improve and expand service on the national passenger train network.

4. Make track improvements that increase reliability and decrease trip times. Speed and punctuality are important to virtually all passengers, including those making long trips. Many decision makers have incorrectly assumed that speed is not important to anyone choosing a train operating on a long distance route. They do not understand how people use these trains today, much less their potential to serve new markets tomorrow. Take, for example, business travelers, a market segment likely to choose the premium priced sleeping car service that generates a disproportionate amount of revenue. The 780 mile corridor between Chicago and Washington DC currently has only one train a day. It leaves Chicagoat 6:10 PM and arrives in Washington at 12:40 PM the next day, too late for the business traveler to conduct a full day of business in Washington. Boosting the average speed just 20 miles an hour would cut trip time to 12 hours, making possible a 7:00 PM departure with an 8:00 AM arrival. Such a schedule in this and many other markets would be attractive to business travelers who want to avoid the airline experience and the cost of a hotel room. Reliability and speed will also drive increased labor productivity, lower operating costs, greater asset utilization and higher revenue by tapping new markets.

Mobility, Freedom and Prosperity

Mobility lies at the core of economic growth and human progress. By bringing people together, it is the catalyst for the kind of creativity, invention and innovation that has made America the envy of the world.

Fuel prices, congestion and ever bigger trucks make driving less appropriate and attractive for many trips. Regional feeder flights, the only option in many smaller markets, have been in decline for over a decade as airlines consolidate service into the top three dozen markets. Lack of choice is un-American. In a land that justifiably worships individual freedom and liberty, government should not mandate that people have and use motor vehicles. But it does.

With few exceptions, it makes those without motor vehicles less mobile and provides a lower quality of life. To be true to its values, America must offer its citizens better mobility choices. The brand and color of a motor vehicle is not meaningful choice. Long distance routes with modern trains, adequate track, signals and stations can outperform road and air in many markets. With routes offering multiple frequencies radiating in different directions, they can revitalize metropolitan cores by making them easily accessible from many points. A web of railroad routes converging in urban cores creates gateways to other routes and other modes; and generates vibrant centers of economic activity and homes offering high quality of life. People with such choices have the freedom Americans deserve.

It’s worth pointing out that in most other industrialized countries, public funding of passenger trains is a non-controversial matter, as highway funding is in the U.S. (generally speaking—in recent years, everything that Congress takes up has become controversial). Part of NARP’s work involves changing the prevailing mindset from one that sees passenger trains as a private enterprise that should be expected to make a profit to one that sees railroad infrastructure—and passenger trains as an extension of that—as public utilities, like our highways, waterways, electric grid, etc.