Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Random Thoughts: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles or the problems with Amtrak and passenger rail in the US.

Amtrak just doesn't work for most people.

You see a lot of people upset about the lack of high speed rail in the US. High speed rail could actually work in some locations but unless Amtrak can fix some of its current problems, high speed rail will just be an expensive boondoggle.

For most trips Amtrak is too slow and too expensive.
I actually went to the Amtrak website and created some trips using a start date of March 1st so about one month in the future I used Hipmunk for the airline info, and Google maps for the car info. I used 25 MPG as the milege and $4.00 a gallon for the price of gas. The costs do not include food, wear and tear on the car or lodging. The first trip is from Miami, Florida to Atlanta, Georgia. Being from Florida, Miami makes sense as a starting point and Atlanta is a major population center and business hub.

Cost for a round trip from Miami to Atlanta.

  • Amtrak $502
  • Airline $238
  • Car $211.84

If you are traveling by yourself the car is the cheapest but not by much. If you are traveling for business the plane looks like it is a good choice. If you are taking a family vacation the car starts to make more sense. Amtrak is twice as expensive as the airline or the car.

Time for a Miami to Atlanta trip.

  • Amtrak 46:02
  • Airline 1:46
  • Car 9:14

As you can see it will take two full days “actually three days by the calendar since the train does not leave at midnight” to travel from Miami to Atlanta. Even driving a car is four times faster than a train. Why is the train so slow going to Atlanta, simple Amtrak make you go to Washington DC to get to Atlanta. While a spoke and hub system works well with airlines it is not as effective with slower trains. Atlanta is a major airline hub so this trip does give the plane an advantage. But the fact that you can not travel from any city in Florida to Atlanta without going through Washington DC is one of the problems that Amtrak needs to fix. They need more hubs and more trains for them to be practical business travel. High speed rail will solve the time issue using a train speed of 200 mph which is fast by anyone's standard. With high speed rail the same trip will take only eight and a half hours which is still several times slower than the airline trip. Remember that this is does not include any stops and a magical zero layover in Washington DC. With a reasonable amount of time allocated to changing trains you are going to still take longer on a train to get to Atlanta than driving a car.

Now it is time to look at a more direct trip In this case the trip is a direct trip from Miami to Washington D.C..

Cost of trip from Miami to Washington DC.

  • Train $274
  • Airline $229
  • Car $336

The train beats the car for cost but the airline is still cheaper than the train or the car.

Travel time for the Miami to Washington D.C. trip.

  • Train 23:01
  • Plane 2:30
  • Automobile 14:58
  • Direct high-speed train 5 hours.

The plane still wins for speed even over high-speed rail in raw numbers. High-speed rail could win in this case if you are going from city center to city center. The current train is slower than the car and not even close to the plane. With a direct route the train is still a lot slower than the car. So what is the problem now. The answer is simple. The train probably stops a dozen times or more between Miami and Washington DC.


Where a train works, the northeast corridor. Washington DC to New York city.
I actually created two trips one using Amtrak's high-speed train and one with Amtrak's standard train.

Cost breakdown.

  • High-speed $304
  • Train $98
  • Plane $146
  • Car $72.32

The high-speed rail is most expensive option but as you can see the regular train is a lot less expensive than the plane and is even competitive with a car.

Travel time

  • High-speed 2:52
  • Train 3:25
  • Plane 1:10
  • Car 3:44

If you are traveling alone it would be dumb to drive to New York city from Washington DC. Even taking the conventional train makes all the sense in the world over driving. If you are going from city center to city center even the regular train will probably beat the plane after you factor in the time spent getting to and from the airport as well as the hassle at the airport.

The other problem with Amtrak, you can't get there from here.
I am not talking about small towns but there are large cities with no Amtrak service or with Amtrak “bus” service. The two big examples that jumped out at me are Detroit, Michigan and Houston, Texas. There is also no service for the entire state of South Dakota, if you want to take a train to see Mount Rushmore your out of luck.  While not having service to South Dakota is a relatively small issue not having service to Houston or Detroit is a problem.

Would you want to spend four or five days in one of these seats?

Cost and comfort. 
In many cases trains are more expensive flying and frankly less comfortable than a plane. The lowest price tickets on a plane gives you a seat like an airplane. It is a bigger seat than a plane but you will spend longer on a train going to Atlanta from Miami than you would spend in on a plane flying from Miami to Australia.  Why pay more to go slower and be uncomfortable.


High-speed rail projects.
High-speed rail makes sense when the distances are short and the ridership is high. The northeast shows that even the regular train service can be competitive with planes and automobiles. Cost is still an issue but the benefit of city center to city center and lack of weather delays makes even the current low-speed high-speed train a good alternative to driving or flying. Some of the planned high-speed rail projects seems to be nothing more than pork-barrel projects. The Florida high-speed rail project is a prime example. The first leg was to connect the Orland airport to Disney and International drive. Is there any reason to use expansive high-speed rail on that short of trip?  Wouldn't a light rail system do the task just as well for at a lower cost? A prime location, for high-speed rail would between Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston Texas and eventually San Antonino and Austin. Those are major cities that are far enough a part for a train to make more sense than driving and short enough that a plane does not have that big of an advantage.

For a vacation Amtrak can make sense.
If the journey is the thing than a train trip can be great. Getting an Amtrak rail pass and spending a day or two in Washington, New York, Chicago, Salt Lake City, the Grand Canyon, and LA could be a great way to spend a vacation. If you are trying to get somewhere fast or cheap, then most of the time an airplane or a car is your best bet. High-speed could improve the transportation situation ins some markets and should be pursued in those markets however for a large part of the US the distances are too great for high-speed rail to compete with air travel but the cost needs to be kept down.


What Amtrak needs to fix for high speed rail to work in the US.

  1. Limit the stops. Stopping at every town between to major cities is a waste of time and will kill high speed rail.
  2. More direct routes. It is insane that to get to Atlanta from Miami you have to go to Washington DC.
  3. Get the cost down.
  4. Pick routes that make sense. The Dallas to Houston route seem like it should be one of the first to get high-speed rail. The amount of travel between those to cities is high and the area between is not densely populated allowing easy access to right of way. The north east corridor has a high population density so issues like right of way and even noise may delay the project and drive up the costs.  
  5. Sometimes a plane or a car is still going to be the best choice.  Once the distance is over 500 miles even high-speed rail can not compete with air travel.  When the distance is under 100 miles then it will be hard to beat a car. 
I want high-speed rail to work in the US.
I really do, but I know the worst thing that could happen to high-speed rail would be for high-speed rail projects like the one that was cancelled in Florida to be funded, but ending up as over priced, incomplete disasters.  Instead of a spending a lot of money on a large number of high speed rail projects I feel the US should completely fund one high speed rail project. I suggest Dallas to Houston but LA to San Francisco could be a good start.  The problem is that congress would never pass the budget because only one state would benefit. 


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