Rail Page Index:
Railfan Reports and experiences
Amtrak Station List
GPS Coordinates for Amtrak Stations (separate page)
Train Dispatching Game
Railfan points of interest
Rail Related Thoughts
Mass Tranist Ideas
High Speed Rail in the Northeast Corridor
Rails to Trails?
Railroad related links (This is the same list as is accessable through my weblinks page.)
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The train provides unique opportunities to meet new people, make new friends, get to places you wouldn't otherwise get to, and view the land from a unique perspective. I have experienced all of these things on the train; indeed, many of my trips provide all of them. Below is a summary of the train systems I've used and how much of them I've traveled on.
I have ridden Amtrak to many different destinations spanning the United States. I've covered approximately 80% of Amtrak's routes. NOTE: Due to Amtrak's fluctuating route map, it is hard to estimate a percentage. There are many routes that Amtrak once operated that I never travelled on and therefore likely never will. There are a few Amtrak routes that have been discontinued or relocated since I travelled on them. One is the old Broadway Limited route through Fort Wayne, IN. I travelled this route only between Fort Wayne and Chicago. The other route that shifted was the route from Galesburg, IL to Chicago, on which I travelled the old Santa Fe route via Joliet. There have also been a few other minor changes, such as the elimination of a backup move departing Pittsburgh westbound. I have been on the old backup route several times (I believe there were two possible backup moves, as I seem to recall using both of them on different occasions.) I also detoured on Amtrak 48, the Lake Shore Limited, via the Southern Tier route from Buffalo to Binghamton, then on the D & H up to Schenectady. In total, I've ridden just OVER 100,000 miles on Amtrak.
I've also ridden VIA Rail Canada 5%, on the corridor between Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal.
Subway and transit system riding
I have ridden subways and other local rail based transit systems, sometimes just for the ride, in many cities, including
New York subways 90%
Newark, NJ light rail 85%
NJT River Line light rail 95%
Hudson/Bergen NJT Light Rail 60%
New York/New Jersey PATH (before 1990)
Philadelphia SEPTA Subway (2002)
Philadelphia-NJ PATCO (2009)
Baltimore Metro Subway (2006), and light rail 95%
Washington DC Metro (2003)
Boston Subway 45%
Montreal Metro (1990 & 2009)
Toronto TTC subway 60%, and Streetcars 5%?
Cleveland RTA (2002)
Atlanta MARTA (2003)
Jacksonville Skyway (2003)
Orlando Sunnrail (1/2018)
Tampa Teco Streetcar 90%
Miami Metrorail (2005) and Metromover (people mover system) (2007)
New Orleans Streetcars 85% of operating lines as of 1/31/08
Chicago CTA including the new Pink line (2007)
St. Louis Metrolink Light Rail 50%
Trinity Railway Express (2009)
Dallas light rail (DART) (2/2009)
Dallas M-Line StreetCar (1/2009)
Seattle Sound Transit Light Rail (8/2009)
Seattle Monorail (2009)
Portland, Oregon (MAX and Trolley) 40%
Sacramento, CA Light Rail 5%
San Francisco Muni 20%, and Cable Cars (1984)
San Jose, CA Light Rail 5%
Los Angeles Metro Rail (subway and light rail) 60%
San Diego 50%
Guadalajara, Mexico (2007)
Berlin (Germany) 10%.
I have also ridden on segments of the following regional commuter lines. Some portions of some of these systems are on Amtrak, however I have ridden at least some portion of each system listed using the rail service mentioned. For example, though I have covered the entire Virginia Railway Express system on Amtrak, I have not actually ridden a VRE train, and thus VRE is not listed. And though I have only ridden a Chicago Metra train on a few routes, I have covered a greater percentage of that system on Amtrak, and thus a greater percentage is listed.
New Jersey Transit 85%
Long Island Rail Road 30%
SEPTA regional rail 55%
MARC (Maryland sponsored commuter rail in the Washington DC/Baltimore Area) 80%
Boston T 20%
Miami area Tri-Rail (2007)
Metra (Chicago) 40%
Burlington, VT's Champlain Flyer (2002) (since discontinued)
STM (formerly STCUM) Montreal 60%
Music City Star Nashville-Lebanon (2009)
CalTrain San Francisco-San Jose (70%)
I've also ridden a number of tourist lines including
Georgia Museum of Agriculture and Historic Village steam train (2018)
Chattanooga Choo Choo Trolley (2014)
Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum Missionary Ridge Local in Chattanooga, TN (2012 twice)
Blue Ridge Scenic Railway from Blue Ridge, GA, to Copper Hill, TN (2010)
Stone Mountain (2009)
Pikes Peak Cog Railway (2006)
Dollywood Narrow Gauge Steam Train (2003)
Upper Hudson River Railroad (2001)
Batten Kill, NY (1998)
Lookout Mountain Incline Railway (Chattanooga) (1997 and 2009)
A Dinner Train (Broadway Dinner Train?) in Nashville that ran from downtown to I think Hermitage (1992-1993?)
Busch Gardens Railway, Busch Gardens, Williamsburg VA (1989)
Durango and Silverton (1984)
Steamtown (when in Vermont, probably before 1984)
Disney World Steam train that circles Magic Kingdom, (around 1983)
Also Disney World Monorail between Magic Kingdom and Epcot Center (year is same as above, around 1983 and 2016)
something near Flemington, NJ (1980's?)
Strasburg Railroad (1977 and 2003)
I have also ridden a number of people mover/monorail systems most commonly but not exclusively found at airports. While it could be argued that some of these systems aren't true rail systems, I include them if they operate on fixed guideways that control steering (busways don't count) and have well defined station stops. They include:
Orlando International Airport 50%
Newark Liberty International Airport Airlink people mover system 90%
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport Automated People Mover (APM) (within the secure area) 80%, And ATL SkyTrain (Outside the secure area) (2013)
Dallas Fort Worth Skylink (2008)
Chicago O'hare Airport Transit System (ATS) (2006)
Ealge One monorail between Busch Gardens at Williamsburg and Anheuser-Busch brewery where tours were available. Dismantled in the 1990s (1989)
I have also ridden some small trains, including at a park in Spartanburg SC, The Cincinnatti Zoo (2015), the St. Louis Zoo (2016), and the Stanford Central Florida Zoo (2014).
The year indicates that I rode the entire system (that I am aware of) as of that year. If 2 or more years are listed, it means I either rode the entire system again, or rode just the new segments added since the previous year listed. % indicates approximate percentage of the system that I have covered (rough estimate). My goal is to cover as much of these systems as possible, and I keep system maps on which I have marked the routes I've travelled.
I have a book that claims to include all the urban rail based transit systems in the world, at least those that have maps. However, I did not find any mention in the book of the following rail based systems I hope to ride someday:
Trolleys in Kenosha, WI
Trolleys in Memphis, TN
Trolleys in Little Rock, AR
Trolley in Savannah, GA
I have a current subscription to and a collection of virtually every issue of Trains magazine that extends back as far as WW II.
Feel free to e-mail me with questions for additional information based on these experiences.
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Amtrak Stations and addresses
I also have a file containing the GPS coordinates of every (or at least most) Amtrak stations. You can access it here: GPS Coordinates for Amtrak Stations
On the web:
This file is also hosted at : TrainWeb.org.
In the spring of 1995, I typed up a list of Amtrak stations with their street addresses which were included with Amtrak schedules on an all volunteer maintaned web site at http://www.libertynet.org/dvarp/Amtrak/. This link is no longer valid, and the organization DVARP now has their own web site domain at www.dvarp.org.
This was before Amtrak hosted schedules on their web page. You can access this list at http://www.cwrr.com/Amtrak/stations.html.
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Roads that parallel railroad tracks
Using my map drawing program, I am beginning to collect a list of places where roads parallel the railroad for significant distances. These routes make interesting side routes for the moderate to serious railfan. If you would like to contribute to this, please contact me at Bill222E@ensingers.com.
New York State:
If you like to bike, skate, jog, or walk, there are several places in New York State where a path for such activities parallels a railroad. One of them is the bike path along the Mohawk river and Erie barge canal from Albany to Buffalo, but as I haven't explored this, I'm not sure what sections go alongside the tracks.
Another trail runs along the side of the D & H tracks between Outlet Road (Just south of Ballston Spa at the north end to the hamlet of Ballston Lake route 146A on the south end. There is a parking area less than a quarter mile from the northern end of this trail. The path is part of the old Schenectady-Ballston Spa and Saratoga interurban line.
New York City:
The city subway is controlled at least partly by control rooms with train boards in the subway stations themselves. I have found two such locations:
Chambers St. station on the south end of the southbound platform for the 1, 2, and 3 trains. The board in this room faces away from the windows, but if you stand on the local side of this booth and look in the side window, you can catch a glimpse of the board.
At the West 4th St/Washington Square station, the south end of the platform for southbound B, D, F, and Q trains contains a much more visible circuit board. This station serves local and express trains for two lines, and all 8 tracks are represented on the board. The lines on top are for the tracks upstairs, and the lines on the bottom are for the tracks for the B, D, F, and Q trains. In each group of 4 lines, the top two represent northbound trains, and the other two represent southbound trains.
Up around 33rd street, there is (or at least once was) a place where a grate covers a hole in the sidewalk through which you can actually see what I believe are the PATH trains to New Jersey. If anyone knows the actual location of this, please let me know.
Take a ride on the #7 train out to the end of the line in Queens, then get in the first car for the ride back. You get a good view of the NYC skyline from the east side.
In New Jersey:
I don't think it's there anymore, but it was probably back in the mid 1980's that there was an Amtrak car in what appeared to be somewhat of a junk yard on the northeast corner of the intersection of the Garden State parkway and Rt 78. It looked like a Heritage fleet car, but being that I would never go past it much slower than 55 mph on the highways, I never got a good look at it. If anyone knows what happened to it, I'd be interested to know.
If you like airplanes as well as trains, take a ride on the DC Metro to National Airport. The Metro station platform provides a pretty good view of the runway. The terminal blocks part of the runway, and things may have changed since I was there, but it was still perhaps the best spot to watch planes take off and land while remaining in the Metro system.
If you would like to contribute to this list, please send your ideas to me at Bill222E@ensingers.com. When you write, please let me know how you found my page and the address for your web page if you have one.
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General Ideas all system planners should keep in mind when planning transit systems:
Having connections between systems is key. The more connections at one location that can be made, the better.
Bullet trains are not always the answer: the faster a service is in relation to surrounding nearby options, the better. Providing relatively rapid service through a congested area and making it accessible and convenient to those on the far side encourages riders to use the system.
A service that connects two congested endpoints, such as two nearby city centers helps keep a transit vehicle full over longer stretches of its route vs a downtown to suburbs link.
A downtown to suburbs mass transit link should provide extra services at or near its endpoint such as a transit bus terminal or parking area: keep in mind that this endpoint's potential market reach is not just everyone living within walking distance of the terminal, but also within bus riding distance and even within driving distances, which can extend 100 miles or more! This is especially true if there is convenient access to an interstate and/or major highway.
Links to a city's airport or airports should be considered a priority, and the more options one has to get to various places at the airport, the better. Understanding that many airports are so big they need a people mover inside the secure area, outside the secure area, and sometimes both, making an extra transfer to use both systems is understandable. However, the more transfers one has to make once they reach ground transportation to get to their final destination, the less likely they will use transit at all to get beyond the airport. In order to get people to use transit, they need to get out of their car. Keeping this in mind, remember that when people get off a plane, they are already out of their car, and thus can just as easily transfer to transit as to a car. This makes airports an ideal location for a transit hub combining not just airplanes, but trains, subways, and busses.
People are more likely to transfer between different lines in the same transit system than between different transit systems. Buying a separate ticket at each transfer is a hinderance. With this in mind, when considering options for expanding transit in an area where systems already exist, consider the advantage of expanding an existing system rather than building an entirely new one.
Also consider improving the existing system before building a parallel new higher speed system. This is particularly beneficial for systems that handle tranis of a variety of different types, such as high speed, commuter, and regional trains. Thus improving the existing system benefits more than just the fastest trains, but benefits all trains.
Consider market reach. The more destinations reachable by any given system, the more opportunities there are for people to use the system. The more origin/destination pairs there are, the more potential trips there will be available to any potential user.
The more transfers a person needs to make to get to their destination, the less likely they will use transit. This places emphasis on creating transit hubs, where you can transfer to many different systems at one location rather than making multiple transfers at different locations. Keeping in mind that trains carry many more people than other modes, trains are therefore more useful in high density areas, or to connect major transit hubs, where there are already lots of people.
Trains and fixed guideway systems are also potentially the fastest form of transit, and thus useful for longer stretches across areas of low density, or to provide express type service through high density areas where other trasit options are much slower and where busses can provide more local service.
Light rail, street cars, and trolleys are useful for many things as well, but keep in mind that using these systems on congested city streets will slow their transit time. If this same system then attempts to jump a long distance to a city's airport, for example, you may end up with few riders if driving or even a bus gets there quicker.
Suggestions for specific systems:
Extend the Newark, NJ Airlink people mover to downtown Newark Penn Station to greatly increase interconnectivity.
Extend the TECO Streetcar in Tampa, FL through the middle of downtown to the Marion Transit Center to connect with a large number of bus lines serving the entire Tampa area. The east end of the line should connect with more bus routes as well.
Jacksonville's people mover system links a downtown bus terminal to the downtown area, which is a good thing, but the downtown area is quite small. The other end of the system links to a parking garage, another good thing. Still, ridership is low, and I suspect the system just doesn't connect enough high density pedestrian locations, and transport them long enough distances to make the system truly useful.
Hyperloop, the future?
I have compiled another web site dealing with a form of transportation different from any commonly in existence as of 2018. The concept has been around for a long time, however not until 2017 were serious efforts made to bring it to reality in the form of a full scale 1/4 mile long test track. This method involves propelling a pod through a tube with significantly reduced air pressure, using mag-lev technology to accelerate the pod to a speed where it can glide like an airplane. The current common name is "hyperloop." This technology has the potential to transform transportation systems as we know it for a variety of reasons. Because of the revolutionary nature of what is possible with this technology, I have put together a web site detailing the many potential ways it could be used and many of the issues surrounding it. You can read more about it here: Hyperloop travel.
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If Amtrak hadn't happened, I am certain that some railroads would have retained their passenger trains. Indeed, several railroads opted to stay out of Amtrak, and continued running trains well past the required date. Among them are The Southern Cresent, Rio Grande's train from Denver to Salt Lake City. I remember reading in old issues of Trains that I think it was probably Southern Pacific or Santa Fe would have kept their trains running if they knew what Amtrak was going to do with them. However, Auto Train ran through most of the 70's and did quite well until one train derailed. I think a number of regional corridors would still have develped or be retained, almost certainly including The Northeast Corridor, which if nothing else would have been saved by Washington DC politicians, if for no other reason than one of its main terminals is just a few blocks from the Capitol.
Amtrak and Market Share
Amtrak has this going for it: Though its share of the travel market is tiny, a large percentage of Americans have ridden the train at least once in their lifetimes, and many who haven't would probably consider trying the train at least once, if for nothing else than the experience. This is significant because it shows that the travel market pie is sliced in more than one way. For Amtrak, it isn't a matter of carrying just a small number of people who travel, but offering an alternative that many people would choose given the right conditions, whereas for most trips they fly or drive. Amtrak's "slice" of the travel market, therefore, doesn't just reflect a small group of people who take the train for most trips but a large group of people who choose the train for a very small number of trips. This means a couple things: a large number of people have heard of Amtrak and have even ridden at least once, and if those customers can be convinced to try Amtrak again (more likely the better experience they had) even if it is just their second trip, ridership would increase significantly. If every American rode Amtrak only once every 10 years, Amtrak's ridership would increase significantly. No doubt many won't ride, ever, either because of poor experience or stories from friends, or economic reasons, or they just don't travel much, or don't live near an Amtrak station, but this does give a picture for the pool of customers and potential customers Amtrak has to work with.
Amtrak and Politics I believe Amtrak has done reasonably well over the years especially considering the political football that it's been. Amtrak has increased passenger traffic and at times has had a very respectable rate of return per dollar spent when compared to other passenger railroads. But Amtrak can't break free of government dependency until it becomes self sufficient, and as long as it is dependent on government, it is hobbled by the whims of politicians demanding what services it should or shouldn't provide. It seems like a catch-22 type situation. I think one of the fundamental problems with Amtrak is its conflicting role as a public service and a mandate to be profitable. If it is really going to be profitable, it must have the freedom to add and cut trains and other services as it sees fit, without the government dictating what must and must not run. If it is to be a public service, it must receive sufficient funds to run the services the politicans deem necessary. In recent years, the mandate to be profitable has been removed, however, government funding levels and mandates for service often still conflict.
There are a number of other isues in which political bickering is ridiculous. These include the following:
If the Federal Government is to subsidize a national passenger rail network, I think the following stipulations are reasonable:
Each train operated by the system must make at least one stop in each of two or more states or be supported entirely by the state in which the train operates.
Any trains (apart from state sponsored trains) must connect to the national network through at least one point on the route, with preference given to trains that connect at one or both ends of its route.
If a proposal is made that a train passing through a state that provides no support for that train keep its doors closed while in that state, the proposal should be rejected, as this limits ticket revenue. At the very least, passengers should be allowed to get on or off the train in that state as long as they are traveling to or from outside the state, but even this limits revenue and therefore isn't a good idea.
Corridors should be accounted for separately from the national network.
If it is the federal government's resposnibility to provide for interstate transportation, then interstate corridors should be part of that, and their cost not forced to be a state burden, however, multiple states should not be prohibited from forming consortioms to support regional corridors.
Long distance trains using corridors for part of their route should be accounted for appropriately accoding to their need. For example, long distance trains don't need track designed for high speed corridor service if they don't operate at the maximum speed on that corridor, and therefore should not be charged with the increased maintenance cost of the higher speed track, but only an appropriate fraction of maintaining track to the lower speed standard.
Sources of Funding for Amtrak
Any agency that receives tax dollars to cover their losses is subject to the very real problem of wasteful spending and a general lack of accountability. This is in part because any shortfall of revenue due to people not wanting to buy a product that is less than what it could be is simply made up with the subsidy rather than any incentive to immprove service to attract new customers. It can also mean that bonuses and high salaries can be paid even when performance of those employees is less than what that extra money is worth.
While non-government businesses can fall prey to similar issues, they will generally fail if the problem becomes severe enough. However government subsidies create a different problem: the customer of the business is the government, not the people the business it serves. In Amtrak's case, Amtrak's biggest customer is the government, not any single passenger or even group of passengers. Therefore, the focus is to serve the needs of the government to keep that income coming in. This virtually guarantees that the passenger epxerience won't be ideal, or likely not even close to it. When government officials call for austerity, passenger service suffers. When government provides more funding to increase service, you can guarantee those who provide that service will be more interested in getting the highest price for the service provided rather than trying to meet a budget.
Part of the solution may be to have a funding source tied to specific benefits Amtrak provides. For example, the number of cars it takes off the road tied to a corresponding reduction in the need for highway building and maintenance. This can also be measured by the economic benefit of providing convenient, quick, and reliable access to congested areas or as a benefit to rural areas that lack any other form of long distance connections. Just having a more or less predictable funding source will help improve Amtrak's economics due to a better ability to plan bugets ahead. There's also no reason why Amtrak couldn't seek (or shouldn't be encouraged to seek) corporate support and other donations, such as PBS does during its pledge drives.
Not the Federal Government's Responsibility
However, it is not the responsibility of our government to run a national passenger rail network, or even to sponsor one. The only thing I can find in the constitution speaking to the issue of transportation is in Article I Section. 8.: The Congress shall have Power to... [among other things] establish Post Offices and post Roads." I suppose if Amtrak were commissioned to carry mail, it would fall under this category. At one time, Amtrak did carry mail. I'm not sure if it still does. Rail, of course, did not exist in 1776 in a form in any real sense the same way as it does today, and so there is an open question as to what extent this constitutional mandate applies to other modes of transportation beyond post roads.
The role of Federal Government in providing transportation
To the extent that all modes of transportation have an impact on more than one person's private property, there is of necessity a requirement for negotiation between multiple property owners. This is true for a path from someone's house to his next door's neighbor's house, on up to the coast to coast interstate highway crossing many farmer's fields and cutting through big cities. Airports are limited to a defined piece of land, but planes still make considerable noise heard well beyond airport land, and even occasionally crash on other people's houses. Boats perhaps avoid interference more than any other form, but navigable waters don't go everywhere and many routes where they do go are either too slow or not direct enough to be remotely practical. Thus government in some form must be involved in making transportation decisions, and perhaps even paying some of the cost of building them, especially when it comes to compensating land owners.
When government should provide passenger rail transportation
Most long distance rail lines are already established, so the question is limited to establishing local and regional new rapid transit lines in their various forms, light rail, commuter, subway, etc. New and existing long distance and corridor routes leave only the question of if and how much subsidy the government should pay to operate them. This question should best be answered by how much traffic these routes take off parallel highways, the increased economic activity they generate, and congestion elimiation at chokepoints, often the big city or cities as which the lines terminate or otherwise serve. Consider how far you would have to walk from a parking garage to your destination vs where a rapid transit vehicle could drop you off to your destination. If for example, adding an additional lane to an interstate is more expensive than building and maintaining the transit line, then the transit line would be the way go go.
Road vs Rail
The most efficient transport of an object (freight or passenger) for any mode of transportation involves moving the object from orign to destination in a straight line. This is almost never the case for any object needing to be moved. But for understanding comparisions, it's a good place to start. When you compare a straignt road and a straight railroad with this in mind, the road actually has an advantage for very small sizes, weights, and volumes of freight. This is simply because the capital cost of building the road or railroad to handle the same volume of freight is different, and all you need for the road is a level solid surface. The railroad needs that same surface PLUS track, ties, tie plates, clips or spikes and so on. Keeping all things equal, the advantage goes to rail fairly quickly as volumes, weights, and size increase. However, add in curves, hills, and distances to destinations between different origins and destinations, and the point where the efficiency of rail overtakes that of roads goes up significantly. Then add in the fact that in order to generate enough traffic to reach the level of efficency where rail overtakes road, the freight often must be brought to the rail line by road, there is yet another inefficiency added in: the transfer to rail.
A couple real world examples:
Consider conveyor belts handling baggage at an airport. Though suitcases and packages are light weight "freight" the high volume makes conveyor belts (more like rail than road) common. At the other extreme, even though rail handles nearly all the container traffic between Los Angeles and Chicago, there are still dozens of trucks on the interstates paralleling this route every day. Most of those trucks are coming from or going to destinations far from a rail line or intermodal terminal, and some of them may have even come from or are going to an intermodal terminal.
Rail has the advantage with high volumes and heavy weights, but will never completely fill the role of roads.
Roads are perhaps the most versatile form of transportation. A road can go virtually anywhere, up steep grades and around sharp curves with minimal infrastructure. Vehicles built for roads can be designed for virtually any purpose. And once you have your cargo, whether freight or passenger, in a road enabled vehicle, switching to any other mode of transportation creates an inefficiency. So if your trip starts on a dirt road in the mountains, it might as well continue to the paved 1 lane road to the 2 lane road, to the interstate to your final destination. Thus roads have the advantage over all other modes of transportation. At some point, however, the interstate highway becomes so crowded that traffic begins to slow, this regardless of how many lanes each way it has. Road still has an advantage because each vehicle can take its cargo directly to its destination, even though statistics may say that a train would easily carry the traffic of the overloaded road. Not until things like distance, overall trip time, increased productivity on the train rather than staring at the road, etc., come into play will people begin to choose the train. As this concerns the government, these factors must be considered before establishing a government sponsored passenger rail line.
There is a point at which rail does begin to make sense, and at this point, government involvement in paying for construction and operation should be acceptable with the understanding that it is cheaper than building a new highway or adding lanes to an existing one.
Equal playing field is ideal
I believe if all modes of transportation were to compete on a level playing field, ie., NO SUBSIDY for any mode, or at least, equal subsidy based on usage, there would be a place for profitable regularly scheduled common carrier passenger trains in certain markets. Indeed, there have been attempts at this from time to time, usually focused on particular markets, like ski trains, a Walt Disney World train, and the Auto Train pre-Amtrak. Florida East Coast's All Aboard Florida subsidiary is attempting non-subsidized passenger rail with its Brightline service. I suspect there would be more excursions and dinner trains as well. It might even be possible to run a nationwide network similar to what we know as Amtrak. But the focus of these services must be on passenger demand, and this holds true for Amtrak even as it exists today.
Ideas for a better national passenger train network
For long distance trains to be successful, they must meet the needs of the long distance traveler. When someone travels long distance, they have a choice of flying, driving, takeing a bus, or takeing a train. The train offers the following advantages: no mindless hours behind a steering wheel staring at white dashes on the road, more space than an airline seat, room to spread out in a lounge car, sleeper car options, dining car novelties, no overnight hotel stays, travel times comparable to driving and fares similar or less than airline flights. Busses could offer most of these services, but it would be difficult for a bus to offer all of them and have room for enough passengers to make it worth while.
Where the train stops in small to medium size towns, the service provided can become quite valuable to that community, offering transportation to its citizens and nearby towns to distant large cities or anywhere else Amtrak travels, as well as bringing tourists from distant cities to their community. This could generate considerable revenue for local businesses as well as increased train usage.
Passenger trains must also stop in enough cities along the way to generate enough passengers to fill the train and make the trip worth while. To do this, it not only helps to have stops every hour or so, but also to have connections with other long and short distance train service and other public transportation options at as many places along the way as possible. To understand the potential that such connections offers, consider that a train that serves just 2 cities has 2 city pairs that passengers can choose to travel between (that is, each trip can begin in either city and end in the other city, counting return trips as a separate trip). A train serving 3 stations has 6 city pairs. A train serving 5 cities has 20 city pairs. That is, when a 5 city train departs, let's say it has one passenger for each of the 4 cities down the line, and picks up 1 passenger at each of the next stop for each of the cities down the line from that stop. This train will have 4 people board at the first station for a total of 4 passengers, 1 person off and 3 on at the next station for a total of 6 on-board passengers, 2 off and 2 on at the 3rd stop maintaining 6 passengers, 3 off and 1 on at the 4th stop for a total of 4 passengers, and 4 off at the final stop. Total usage of the train comes to 10 passengers. If this train were to eliminate the in-between stops, it would only have the end-to-end passengers, which is only one person! Adding intermediate stations has an exponential effect on the number of potential city pairs a passenger can choose to travel between, which increases the utility of the train, and, for short distance travelers, increases ticket revenue since short distance fares tend to be higher percentage-wise than long distance fares. The exponential effect is also important to realize since linking up with another train, or even a bus or plane that serves additional stations greatly increases the city pairs a passenger can travel to and thus increases the utilization of both trains. Connecting busses and trains can also use the same terminal facilities, increasing the output of the terminal with little or no increase in expense.
Other things that can and should be done include renting station space to businesses, preventative maintenance, customer service, marketing the benefits of traveling by train honestly (take a more leisurely pace, or market it like a "land cruise"), build the excursion and tourist package business, improve ontime performance, partner with the freight railroads so that both the host railroad and Amtrak gets good publicity on the train (possibly including highlighting interesting information about the host railroad, like the businesses it serves and the quantity of freight moved, and its history), partner with regions the train travels through to highlight the tourist attractions of that region and making it easy for the tourist to get to those attractions by train and bus or van connections perhaps including discounts to some attractions, provide more and better on-board entertainment, fun things for kids, trivia or other types of games for all ages, make announcements when passing historic or significant places, and have onboard local history discussions as well as offer regional cuizine in the dining car. Some of these things Amtrak already does, but by no means as much as they could or probably should.
Other standard business operating procedures should also apply. Maximize the number of coaches and other cars that a single locomotive can pull and sell them out as often as possible. Discontinue or shorten trains that routinely run less than half full, or look for reasons why passengers aren't using those trains. Find solutions to reccuring operational problems. Allow employees to learn from their mistakes, but fire those who don't. Properly apply expenses to each revenue center (train). Generate revenue from other assets such as passenger stations, or sell the station and rent an office there.
Corridors and commuter trains operate most efficiently when their end points are both major passenger destinations. Most commuter lines serving big cities have terminals in the outer suburbs. This results in long trains leaving their outlying terminal near empty and filling up gradually as the train approaches the city. Moreover, rush hour trains tend to run full of traffic in one direction and near empty in the other direction. Trains that terminate at both ends at major destinations are more likely to be full at both ends as well as in the middle of their run... as people get off the train coming from one destination, others are getting on the train on their way to the destination at the other end of the line. A good example of such a system is the Trinity Railway Express between Dallas and Fort Worth, TX. This equals more revenue per train mile.
Passenger trains can be thought of as "sideways elevators." I thought of this while riding subways in NYC. Just as elevators going up and down the sky scrapers don't pay for themselves (very few have passenger fares except perhaps some that go to observation decks), they are simply paid for as part of the expense of the building, so the subways underground can be paid for as part of the cost of the real estate they serve. Florida East Coats's All Aboard Florida system is pursuing this model by using real estate profits to help pay for the train service, and the train service to help make the real estate valuable.
Problems with rail systems
Unused space on trains: A less than full train isn't going to generate as much revenue as a full train, all else being equal. This presents a problem for trains, since there is a lot more space to fill than other vehicles. Along a typical passenger train route, trains become less and less crowded the further away they get from the center of the city, usually either at the end of the route, or in the middle. The same is true for trains going away from the central business district against the rush hour, as well as trains operating during off-peak hours. The percentage of unfilled seats can add up to be substantial. And yet, without the service provided by these less than full trains, many of the trains that do run full wouldn't be as full.
Footprint of stations: the land use of a typical passenger train station is larger than that of a house, or even several houses, or even an apartment building or in some cases an apartment complex. This often means a longer walk to get out of the station than to get from the station to your car in the station parking lot. And certainly a longer walk than to get from your car in your driveway to your house. It also means the service area of a station isn't going to be very big. At a walking pace, you won't be able to go very far before the time consumed is greater than getting to your final destination by other means. Busses, taxis, and your car expand the service area radius some, but only so much before other means are faster.
Flexibility: A rail system is going to operate on a fixed route. Substantial work is required to deviate from that route even a tiny amount. Track must be built to high tolerances and maintaned to those tolerances. In order to justify the cost of a rail system, a substantial number of passengers must be expected to use it. Less than that and it would be significantly cheaper to move the passengers by other means, even if it means the personal automobile. Afterall, a road can be built literally dirt cheap. At minimum, if a pathway is passable by a car, it is sufficient to handle one car at a time. Improvements are only needed when traffic justifies it. Granted, at high traffic volume, the cost to increase capacity of a road becomes astronomical compared with a railway, as a new lane must be added in each direction, sometimes in areas where there isn't space for new lanes, compared to a rail line that could likely just add frequencies.
High Speed Rail
Limited stop high speed trains need to draw on densely populated areas to generate enough traffic to be practical. The farther your starting or ending point is from a high speed rail station, or the more difficult it is to get to the station, the less competitive the train will be. Many trips are downtown to downtown, the most likely to use a train, but many are from downtown to suburb, or suburb to suburb. These trips will likely start by car and thus be entirely car, or if long enough, car, plane, car. But if you have to drive through or around a city at rush hour, the train might be a viable alternative. Trains aren't impeded by heavy traffic nearly as much as cars. Thus, high speed trains, and passenger rail in general could benefit by having stops not just downtown, but also at the outskirts of a city, conveniently located next to a major highway with easy access and parking. Once a passenger is on a train, they are likely to stay on the train through multiple connections to as close to their final destination as possible.
Government and building high speed rail
Before a government should build a high speed rail line, it should consider how much bang for their buck they could get from improving the existing rail service in the same corridor. A high speed line is sleek and "sexy," but benefits are limited only to trains that use the new line, and only to relatively small areas around the stations it serves, especially if other transportation service in the same corridor continue to operate. Meanwhile, improving the existing infrastructure benefits all trains operating on that right of way. If these improvements are done incrementally, the cost is spread out over a period of time, while at the same time, increasing numbers of passengers will be attracted to the service. Both of these things tend to be more politically palatable with the general public, as they see costs not spiking yet both usage and the service provided improve.
Specific ideas for incrementally improved service
In the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak has proposed building a new high speed line from Boston to Washington. This is expected to cost billions. It will benefit mostly business travelers traveling between the major cities, and that's about it. Meanwhile, there is plenty of room for improving the existing service, both in reducing transit time, as well as increasing convenience. Considerable time could be saved by building a straighter and much faster line through Baltimore, for example, that all trains could use, avoding the painfully slow Baltimore tunnels. Expensive? Yes, but so is building a new high speed line through the area that only the high speed trains can use. Why not provide the benefit for the locals and regionals as well? The same can be said for the Philadelphia area. How about connecting Penn station with tracks leading out of Grand central? This would cut off the long swing through Queens. Expensive? Yes, but so is building a high speed line through the area that only the high speed trains could use. Too much traffic already coming out of grand central? Build a new tunnel under the existing tracks and connect further up the line. Straighten out the curves at Elizabeth, Metro Park, and various places in Connecticut. Expensive? Yes. Requires some emminent domain? Yes, but both issues apply to the high speed line that benefits only the high speed trains. There are reasons, perhaps very good reasons why some of these ideas won't work, but certainly many of them could, and there are many more ideas than just these. It is important to recognize that incremental improvements to existing systems tend to be more successful than totally new systems built from scratch.
Specifics for a proposed passenger/freight rail system Chicago to Orlando, Florida
Incorporating many of the thoughts included above, I would develop such a system piece by piece. Recognizing that passenger rail is barely and rarely at best profitable, I would combine it with development of real estate in and near stations, and make sure there is easy access for people coming from near and far. I would link to as many local and regional transportation options at each station as possible. I would build it so it could handle priority freight. I would use existing rights of way and exisiting track where ever feasable. I would focus on customer service, reliability, and ease of use.
How about a system that starts at Chicago Union Station, and takes the old Erie right of way south toward Lafayette, IN, then follows the interstate to Indianapolis, connecting with the west side near the airport with easy connections to the interstates and local bus systems. Then going via Bloomington to Louisville, then Nashville, then to Chattanooga, Atlanta, and on into Florida. Key places to serve include but aren't limited to: Indianapolis International Airport (since it is a hub) Bloomington, IN and its' major college campus filled with young people who like to take adventure and travel home for holidays and school breaks, Atlanta Airport (one of the biggest airline hubs in the world but also has lots of connectiosn to the region with Marta, local hotel and regional busses, and a conference center, and Orlando airport, which is also a major airline hub and hopefully the future termminus of Florida East Coast's high speed line to Miami. New right of way would need to be built on certain segments, which can be built from the start for high speed, and until more of the system is built, that high speed can make up for slow running and delays on existing freight lines. I would start by making any new track only single track with passing sidings to significantly reduce startup costs, but making sure the right of way was wide enough to accommodate double track when demand justifies it.
Passenger trains and individual travel flexibility
This sounds a little confusing, but I'll say a few things. I can choose my method of transportation: I have a car. Amtrak makes a stop about 25 minutes away, or I could take a bus or plane. Over Thanksgiving, I drove home. I wanted to stop off on the way to do some things. Over Christmas, I took the train. This was more relaxing, and was worth while, since I met some interesting people along the way (this is common in train travel). Had I driven, I would not have had this opportunity. I don't take the bus or plane simply because I don't like the bus, and I simply prefer being on the ground, and there isn't an airport nearby. Now if the train were to go away, I would have one less choice of going home. I would also loose the flexibility of choosing the train for some trips if I wanted to be a bit more leasurely or if the car wasn't functioning. I would have to drive every time, or take the bus, but only if necessary.
The point in all this, is that riding the train is currently one of the choices an individual could make for a particular trip. Taking that away reduces the choice and thus the flexibility somewhat. An individual can't make an individual trip on the railroads without an expensive railroad car specifically certified to attach to one of Amtrak's or a freight railroad's trains, and this is only done by the very rich or by Railroad clubs. This would be true with or without Amtrak, and since freight railroads stand on their own, government involvement or non involvement wouldn't change the situation here. The same general thing is true for the airways, since planes are somewhat expensive, and few individuals have a long enough driveway to land their Cessna. If government is to afford the opportunity for individuals to have individual access to the railroads, a lot would have to change. And that would inevatibly end up costing a lot of money. The only practical way to move people on the rails is by passenger trains of the type Amtrak runs, subways, commuter trains, etc. Since these are big ticket items and need people with skills that most don't have, individual freedom to run on the railroads isn't practical.
Perhaps the best thing that's been proposed in response to having individual access to the railroads is that one or several companies own the tracks, and separate companies run trains on them, similarly to how trucks run on the highways. This system might work, but is drastically different to how things are run on the railroads today, so again, a lot would have to change.
Trains vs. Private Passenger Cars: Trains will never provide point to point travel to anywhere near as many destinations as cars. Only destinations immediately surrounding transit stops might be closer than you can park, but only so many places can be that close to a transit stop. Only when both origin and destination of a journey are conveniently close enough to the transit station at each end of the train portion of your trip will taking the train make sense. This of course will vary considerably depending on many factors including of course your own preference. The private car provides a literally turn-key solution to your travel needs, leave whenever you're ready. Trains can't do that except on high frequency lines that have the traffic to justify the frequency. You can carry as much baggage as will fit in your car when you drive, but on trains, you are limited to what you can carry and the baggage policies of the transit service. Trains will never go everywhere. The ability of a car to traverse rough terrain, montainous areas, remote locations, and so forth exceeds that of a train on a dollar for dollar basis, by far, any day. The layout of any city, its suburbs, and the surrounding area, will never be ideal for exclusive rail transit. Rail transit is primarily linear, but the surface of the earth is essentially 2 dimensional. Unless the city is located in a VERY narrow valley hemmed in by geographic obstacles, it will be difficult at best for at least some parts of the city to be reached by other parts without at least one transfer and/or a long walk to the transit stop. And such a narrow city isn't going to be able to be very big anyway, possibly not even dense enough to justify rail transit! But most cities are far more spread out than that, with only small portions dense enough to justify public transit.
All this demonstrates the limited usefulness of rail transit. Even if transit vehicles are quite full on a regular basis, the percentage of trips it carries will always be a small percentage. This does not mean rail transit is completely useless. Instead it demonstrates what conditions must be met for rail transit to be effective, as well as the need for a different solution.
What I believe is needed is public yet private autonomous bus vehicles. Such vehicles would work similar to private cars, yet at the same time be publicly accessible. Imagine going to the mall. A place no served by your local transit system, or even if it is, you may not be able to use it for any of the reasons most people don't use transit. However, under this new transit system, you could call for a public/private "bus" for this trip. It would come to your house and you could board it just like you do a regular transit bus. You and any passengers you choose to be with you (family or friends for example traveling with you) would get in and tell the vehicle where to go. You'd pay your fare and the vehicle would take you to your destination. You could then dismiss the vehicle or if you so choose (for a higher fee) tell the vehicle to park for you. However, the incentive would be to let the vehicle go, especially since at the mall, where people are coming and going all the time, once you're done, just go to the "bus stop" and take the next available vehicle. There would always be a vehicle available, or at least close, since others would be arriving and dismissing their vehicles. You wouldn't have to worry about schedules, even in the middle of the night. At virtually all public locations, a vehicle could be waiting, or at least not far away. At the very least, you could call for a vehicle any time, anywhere in the service area. Would this negate rail transit? No, because you could always take the vehicle to a transit stop if that works for you. And of course, the incentive to use transit is the same as always: lower cost, faster service, and avoiding congested areas. To the top of this page
After reviewing Amtrak's proposal to build a new high speed rail right of way for true high speed trains in the NEC, my response is that the money could better be spent improving existing service in the NEC as well as adding service in other areas of the country. Looking at Google earth, there are a number of opportunities to straighten out curves between Boston and Washington, many of which would require eminent domain, but some would not. Certainly this would be less eminent domain than building an entirely new right of way, even if it is routed through mostly empty land? Perhaps grades would be too steep without the curves? I doubt in most cases it would, but even so, bulldozers and some dynamite could solve some if not all of that problem, and with less earthmoving as a new ROW. I believe it is merely a catenary problem south of New York that limits trains from going a full 150mph, perhaps faster on straight stretches. Certainly upgrading this catenary would be cheaper than building all the miles of new catenary required for a new ROW. The express trains could benefit by using under normal conditions dedicated straight track through complex junctions such as "Zoo" in Philadelphia. Let slower trains take diverging routes. And finally, making such improvements to the existing system would benefit ALL trains, commuter, regional, long distance, and high speed, not just a handfull of high speed trains. Is more capacity an issue? There's room for expansion with use of double decker trains and adding an additional track.
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To those who say everything the government gets its hands on it then screws up. Conrail is an example of where despite government, the experiment succeeded. Probably, things could have been done better, but the experiment was successful. Conrail returned to profitability, and was sold to the public.
Branch line viability
I think it is important to consider how much revenue is generated when branch line loads are not on the branch in determining the viability of the branch. If a few miles of branch lines generates 50 cars per year that travel a long way on a main line (say 500 to 1000 miles), they'll generate more revenue than if they were going just a couple hundred miles after coming off a 30 or 40 mile branch. Thus the shorter branch that generates little traffic may be better worth keeping than a longer branch that has more traffic.
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In arguing in favor of train speed restrictions during flash flood warnings with a friend after BNSF imposed speed restrictions in affected areas, I made the following comments:
From what I understand, BNSF imposed the restrictions themselves, without the influence of any government legislation. Liberals in government get all hyped up about accidents, then want to create laws that impose restrictions, yet they don't know the business, and thus often don't know what they're doing when they write the laws. To make matters worse, when industry thumb their noses at government saying, we know what we're doing, there's no way to effectively prevent these things from happening, that acts as a catalyst to get the liberals even more upset, thus working harder to create laws that are often highly overburdening and ineffective. However, when industry takes the initiative to come up with a solution, as BNSF did in this case, and it prevents the very thing it's designed to prevent, then they have every right to say to government, look, we've come up with a sensible solution, it's working, and there's no reason to go through the law making process.
Also, what BNSF did in this case isn't liberal or conservative, it's just good common business sense. They took a simple concept that doesn't interfere significantly with their business and can prevent far greater disruption, and put it into action.
The point has been made that railroad structures were originally built to last 100 years or more. That may be the case, and indeed, many structures have lasted that long and are still in good shape. But some structures whether built to these specifications or not, haven't met this goal and are beginning to crumble.
Ideas for this particular case: It would take a little effort on the part of each major railroad to set up a system in which they would identify all places on their railroad where a flash flood could damage a railroad right of way, and then only places where a train moving at maximum speed with minimum visibility would be unable to stop between where the washout site first comes into view and the washout. If this doesn't eliminate many sites, it might not be worthwile trying to figure this out for each site. But the point is that branch lines where maximum speeds might only be 20 or 25 mph might not have to be inspected. Put this information into a computer that compares those locations automatically with flash flood warnings issued by the National Weather Service. When an overlap occurs, then and only then does the computer bother a human by sending a message to the dispatcher, who would then notify the next train through the area that there is potential for a flash flood, and to take it slow, and then only through the area of the potential washout, not through the entire flash flood warning zone. The railroad industry is very familiar with slow orders, so this can be very easily looked on as a temporary slow order.
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I am not opposed to the idea of turning old rail rights of way into trails. I enjoy biking and hiking, and an old railroad right of way provides an ideal pathway for such activities. However, there has been concern raised over wether the rails to trails movement has been taking away needed railroad capacity. Any railroad right of way turned into a trail needs to be genuinely dead for any possible railroad use. Suggestions include:
1. Relocation of a right of way. Example: when the new corridor to the container ports in Los Angeles is built and the current approaches are no longer needed, these could be turned into trails.
2. Logging or other types of railroads long ago abandoned. These lines are ideal for hikers to get to mountains or other hiking and camping areas.
3. Abandoned rights of way that have no hope of returning to rail use, either because of development along the right of way or because they do not connect to anything, specifically a real or potential customer, or another railroad.
I do not support:
1. Government funds to purchase active (whether profitable or not), nor non-abandoned rail lines for use as trails.
2. Denying the return of a rail trail to rail use.
3. Making it impossible for a rail trail to return to rail use.
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I have some text files kept offline that contain information related to railroads on the following topics. If you want me to send you any of these files, please send e-mail to Bill222E@ensingers.com. When you write, please let me know how you found my web site and the address for your web page if you have one.
TRAINS Hotspots Safety Supporting passenger trainsTo the top of this page