Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Faster trains work better

Faster trains do better financially
The fastest train in the United States made $104.5 million in profit last year, and it did it by traveling at a modest average speed of 68 mph—about on par with Interstate highway travel speeds across the country.

It's not clear if TomTom counts potty breaks.

The Acela Express first rolled forth a decade ago to the familiar catcall of "Boondoggle!" The train had teething problems because it is a mishmash of Canadian and French technology squeezed into a form shaped by outdated federal regulations and sharp 170-year-old curves—a TGV only a committee could love. Yet today it operates as a popular route which carries more than 3 million people per year.

Amtrak as a whole runs at a severe loss every year because most of its trains travel too slowly make any money. The company would likely run at or near break-even if average speeds could be improved by just 20 to 30 mph. This is why state and federal governments have been pushing the idea of high-speed rail which isn't quite "high-speed" by international standards—A train limited to 90 mph on a fairly straight route would likely be able to achieve an average speed of 65 mph. A service with a top speed of 110 mph could likely average about 80. Note the trend line in the graph above—a train averaging 80 mph would have a strong chance of making money at that speed.

The theory goes that trains can make even more money as they go faster. Faster trains also increase ridership, providing a larger pot from which to draw funds. While high-speed trains are often lambasted as pipelines of luxury built on the backs of poor workers, that's not really the case. In France, the TGV (with a 186-mph top speed and with average speeds around 130 mph) was designed to be an inexpensive service to use, and many French consider the trains to be "cheap" today. Apparently, few other countries have followed that path, but it's certainly a valid way to go.

In the U.S., the Acela commands fairly hefty ticket prices. The trains are exclusively either Business Class or First Class. Business Class is about 50% more costly than standard Coach Class on the Acela's slower companion service along the route, the Northeast Regional. But, because each Acela train is fairly small, the higher prices arguably limit demand to keep seats available longer. The Acela may not be reaching its full potential, and Amtrak wants to cater to this latent demand by purchasing 40 more coaches for their fleet of 20 trains over the next few years.

There is a theory that speed limits imposed upon passenger trains in the mid-20th century were a major factor in causing their near-total demise in the United States. Following a 1946 crash in Naperville, Illinois, most trains across the country suddenly fell under a new 79 mph speed limit. A few kept the ability to go 90 or 100 if they had special signaling, but the new rules essentially put an end to increases in train speeds. Railroads slowly removed much of the expensive signaling technology that allowed their trains to run faster than 79 mph. By the turn of the 21st century, the only train outside of the Northeast to still make use of the signals was Amtrak's Southwest Chief.

That's a sad turn of events. Imagine if train speeds had continued to improve. The Burlington Route's Twin Zephyrs operated over the 427-mile route from Chicago to the Twin Cities in just 6 hours, for an average speed of 72 mph. They and other trains in the Midwest were capable of 110 mph or so back in the 1930s and 1940s. In that context, the emergence of Japan's Shinkansen at 130 mph in 1964 feels somewhat unremarkable. But, the United States was concerned enough about that turn of events that Congress passed the High Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1965. That legislation spurred development of the Budd Metroliner, which recorded a top speed of 164 mph in testing, though it was generally limited to 100 or 125 mph in regular service (still an improvement over the other GG1-propelled trains of the day which had a fairly hard limit around 100 mph). Today's Northeast Regional is a fairly direct descendant of the Metroliner, and continues to operate with a 125-mph top speed.

Another burst of interest came in the 1980s as France's TGVs began operating. There were plans for maglevs and TGVs all across the country. The 1990s brought the Intermodal Surface Transportation Act (ISTEA), and designated a number of high-speed rail corridors to be studied around the country. That laid the groundwork for the Acela, and led Amtrak to equip the rest of its fleet with diesel locomotives capable of 110-mph speeds in anticipation of improved rails. Unfortunately, little real investment occurred. Promising corridors continued to lay dormant or only have modest investment. It basically until 2010 for money to really start flowing again.

It's deeply troubling that so many decades have been lost to political wrangling. While we are continuing to see political ideologues reject federal funding for faster trains, I hope the resistance is shortlived. Faster trains work better. Amtrak could begin untying itself from federal subsidies if it could operate at high speeds.


  1. (1) Operating ratio does not cover capital costs. In rail capital costs are not insignificant.
    (2) A correlation does not causation make: do faster trains earn more money, or is more money invested in improving already high demand corridors (the Northeast) to make it faster?

    That said, the US certainly missed an opportunity in continuous improvement with speed limits and by not doing more grade separations to improve safety and allow higher speeds back when there was a significant market for intercity rail outside the Northeast (up through the 1950s). I suspect now we are just in an era of Genie-stuffing, and its going to be much harder than had we not let things get so bad for passenger rail.

  2. Yes, capital costs can be covered if the trains go fast enough. The time scale is usually said to be in the range of 10 to 30 years for good corridors. Whether departments of transportation will actually build anything at the right speed to do that remains to be seen -- many of them seem content to look at slower trains if their benefit/cost figures work out positively.

    Yes, speed is only a single factor among many. Looking at the data, I was amazed at how well some of the slower routes can do. Some of it could be attributed to "train culture" for routes originating in New York or other eastern cities. Sometimes it's just a good corridor at the right distance -- the Missouri River Runner from St. Louis to Kansas City does quite well, for instance.

    I think there's a lot of room for growth in passenger rail. There were probably 8 or so round-trips a day between the Twin Cities and Chicago along at least 5 routes back in the 1960s. The services were spread too thin. The population and level of travel demand are so much higher now than they were then -- we should be able to support at least one fast link again today.