Chicago to Los Angeles: two-thirds of a continent, 528 city-pairs, and one train

This week, NARP released a white paper looking at the unique benefits of long distance trains.  As part of that, the NARP blog will be publishing excerpts from "Long Distance Trains: Multipurpose Mobility Machines" to highlight key findings and recommendations.

The first entry uses the route of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief to illustrate the unique benefits of long distance trains, and dispel misconceptions about how passengers use long distance trains:

[C]onsider the 2,265 mile corridor between Chicago and Los Angeles. Critics claim that air travel has made such routes obsolete; that it would be cheaper for government to buy each passenger an airline ticket than to run trains on this route. If trains ran non-stop between these two cities, the critics might be right. But the trains do not and the critics are wrong.

This route currently has just one train a day in each direction, the Southwest Chief, yet it attracts 355,000 passengers per year—466 per departure.  Because it makes 31 intermediate stops, it provides a mobility choice for twenty five million Americans who live within just 25 miles of a station (31 million who live within 50 miles) for short, medium and long distance trips between 528 different city pairs with each and every trip.

Data demonstrate that trip lengths vary from very short (as few as 10 to 40 miles) to very long (more than 2,000 miles) and everything in between. Please note that many passengers connect to other trains at Chicago, Kansas City and Los Angeles, so many trips are actually longer.

The large metropolitan areas at each end point generate nearly three fourths of all traffic, but:

·         Only 8% travel the entire distance between Chicago and Los Angeles;

·         64% travel between the one end point city and intermediate points;

·         28% travel between intermediate cities;

·         19% travel between city pairs where the passenger volume is less than one trip per day: markets so small that only trains with the multiple intermediate stops could economically serve.

Long distance routes not only make transportation sense because they serve so many more markets every single trip than air ever could, they also make financial sense. The economic benefits of attracting people who travel long distances is substantial. Consider that the people who travel the entire distance between Chicago and Los Angeles account for just 8% of passengers but 20% of the route’s total revenue. Consider further that:

·         People who choose budget priced coach seats for trips shorter than 750 miles (the definition of a corridor route under federal law) account for 54% of passengers using this route but less than 37% of its revenue. By contrast, people making trips longer than 750 miles, even though a minority of travelers, account for 63% of revenue needed to defray operating costs.

·         Put another way, by providing comfort suitable for overnight travel and the convenience of a single seat ride, the route attracts 87% more people and generates 172% more coach revenue than short distance passengers alone.

·         The addition of sleeping car service further bolsters revenue. The people who choose this premium priced service account for just 17% of passengers but 44% of total revenue, adding 78% more revenue than coach service alone.

·         Sleeping car service generates such a disproportionate share of revenue because the average fare per mile is double that in coach and the average trip is 82% longer.

·         The average trip in sleeper is longer because few people make short distance trips in sleepers, not because people do not make long trips in coach. They do. In fact, even for trips longer than 2,000 miles, 27% more people choose coach than sleeper. (97% of passengers making trips under 500 miles choose coach)

All of the other long distance routes in America’s train network exhibit similar usage patterns (except Auto Train, which makes no intermediate station stops).

Long distance trains are cost efficient—a finding that may surprise many. Despite years of neglect and underinvestment, Amtrak’s national network is able to move one passenger one mile (the accepted industry measure of efficiency) at an average public cost roughly equal to shorter corridors outside the Northeast Corridor. This parity is hidden in Amtrak’s financial reports because they include state—but not federal—payments for service as revenue.

Since a substantial portion of the costs assigned to the various routes are fixed, there is an opportunity to lower units costs by adding more service. Congress could further improve efficiency and reduce cost by funding the replacement of Amtrak’s relatively old long distance fleet with modern, high performance trains.

In summary, increasing and expanding service on long distance routes represent an effective and economically efficient method for providing the American people with attractive and affordable mobility choices for many different types of trips to a wide variety of destinations.

The key to this is that one train can mean different things to different communities.  Long distance routes represent connected and overlapping corridors that serve multiple regions—and feeder networks, for a variety of transportation modes.  For some passengers, it’s a convenient alternative to another mode.  For others, it’s a vital economic lifeline.


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0 #7 Herb McLane 2012-10-09 18:05
I agree with Dr. Hutton, if we could duplicate Germany's passenger rail and bus system (DBan runs them both) travel in the US would be safer, greener and save billions of gallons of fuel that we have to purchase from foreign countries!! I was AMAZED at how the German's have placed rail and roads together, making getting around easy! I could have rented a car and driven every where, but I did not need to do that, and enjoyed the travel!
+1 #6 Mark Martin 2012-09-24 21:22
Hi! You have such an interesting and informative page. I'll be looking forward to be visiting your site again and for your other posts as well. Keep up the good work! Thank you so much for sharing some information about this topic. This is a must-read blog.
In the United Kingdom Section 83(1) of the Railways Act 1993 defines "train" as follows:
a) two or more items of rolling stock coupled together, at least one of which is a locomotive; or
b) a locomotive not coupled to any other rolling stock.
You’ll find magic in such sparkling Chicago attractions as Navy Pier – the Midwest’s top tourist destination – and its boardwalk, 150-foot Ferris wheel, boat and segway tours, and countless dining or shopping options. Millennium Park offers dazzling music, art, landscape design and architecture – including the mammoth stainless-steel Cloud Gate sculpture – plus ice skating in the winter, splashing around in the interactive Crown Fountain during summer, and alfresco dining from spring to fall. Travel to the city of Chicago by train with Amtrak Vacations and see what you've been missing.

train travel to Chicago
+4 #5 Dr. Winfield Hutton 2012-09-20 14:56
As an American living in Germany, I can appreciate the efficiency and comfort of rail travel!! If the USA were to provide the extent of rail travel that Germany does, the roads would be safer and our reliance on fossil fuels would be far, far less -- and people would arrive rested, rather than streeed out by driving a car!!!
+4 #4 James C. Pakala 2012-09-18 01:32
Airlines have dropped much of their service to smaller and medium-size cities because it's too expensive to land and takeoff, or they charge very high fares and have only tiny connecting planes. Trains alone can offer electric outlets at every seat, food whenever you want it, ability to walk around, large seats that truly recline, and other benefits no other land mode can offer.
+4 #3 Kim Stevens 2012-09-17 22:15
I am one of those people who, for medical reasons, cannot travel by air. To be above 5000 feet (air cabins are pressurized to 10,000 feet) brings a serious risk of death. But I also have to travel transcontinenta l (Los Angeles to Washington DC and back); train is by far the fastest and cheapest way for me to do that (as well as being relaxing and enjoyable, and a way I can get work done while traveling). So please to not propose air travel as an option for rail passengers.
-4 #2 Mark Man 2012-09-17 18:09
"that it would be cheaper for government to buy each passenger an airline ticket than to run trains on this route"

I just love this comment, which shows up so often. Interestingly enough, this comment in reverse is really the answer that would increase rail travel withOUT adding tax payer money. A 10% across the board price increase almost puts operating costs at zero. A 10% ridership increase more than does. The question is not how much the government should pay, it is HOW MUCH THEY shouldN'T pay.

+4 #1 Lawrence Laslett 2012-09-17 17:07
As air travel becomes more congested, more expensive, and less comfortable, train travel will become increasingly attractive, assuming continued investment in the system occurs to maintain/improv e its function.

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