Happening Now

Bottlenecked: Amtrak Cannot Become a Victim of Its Own Success

September 11, 2013

Written By Cliff Dunn

Rumblings of a coming capacity constraint on the Northeast Corridor connote unpleasant implications for the rest of the system.

Amtrak has a habit of basing what long-term planning it does on very conservative estimates of ridership growth. This is done to prevent Amtrak’s critics from accusing the railroad of overestimating the number of people who will turn to trains for their travel needs. But it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. For medium-term budgeting purposes, Amtrak seems to assume ridership increases of 1.5%/yr on most routes. For fleet planning purposes (i.e. in the Fleet Strategy Plan), they assume 2% per year. Even trotting out these relatively lowball numbers (I will explain why I find them to be low momentarily), a capacity crunch seems to be on the horizon for the the Northeast Corridor (NEC) in the next few years. Given the lack of support on Capitol Hill for doing much beyond maintaining existing service levels, Amtrak sets itself up for a situation of perpetually lacking enough seats on the Corridor for the number who want to ride. This leads it to turn away hundreds of potential riders in the nation’s busiest travel market either through sold-out trains or the high fares that accompany them. This trend may worsen:

  • Ridership estimates have been overshot fairly steadily between 2006 and 2012. The possibility that Amtrak might end up "on target" for 2013, even after losing an immense amount of capacity (roughly equivalent to about 2-3% of annual ridership) due to Hurricane Sandy and the Boston Marathon bombing, does a wonderful job of highlighting how aggressively ridership is growing on the NEC. The rough rate of growth within the single Northeast Regional line item has been over 3% per year.
  • Amtrak’s figures omit the rapid growth on Northeast Regionals to/from Virginia: Ridership on Regionals that originate & terminate in Richmond, Newport News/Norfolk and Lynchburg grew by over 100%, from 401,361 in 2006 to 808,771 in 2012. At the Year to Date rate of growth for 2013, due in part to the addition of service to Norfolk, we could have approximately 900,000 riders. It is true that this has been due to the addition of new trains serving Richmond, Norfolk, and Lynchburg, but regardless of the source, a large share of those riders are still taking up seats north of Alexandria. Per Virginia's State Rail Plan, only about 11% of rides on the Lynchburg route and 14% of those on the Richmond-Norfolk/Newport News trains have both endpoints within Virginia. Some are going to Washington, but a good deal continue onwards. What this translates into, in essence, is about another 1% per year of growth on the NEC overall. Moreover, with respect to Virginia’s ridership, with the new funding sources for passenger rail in VA it is likely that the state will be in a perpetual state of “ramp-up” for quite some time. Per recently revised state plans, two additional trains will be extended to Norfolk and (at least) one to Roanoke within the next five years or so.

In 2012, ridership on the Northeast Regionals within the NEC Spine (Washington-Boston) was 8,014,175. Adding in the Regional ridership originating in Virginia, we arrive at 8,822,946. Subjecting these totals to compound interest outlines the issues facing Amtrak:

  • Assuming 2% growth, Amtrak would face demand of 110.4% of present levels in five years, 121.9% in ten years, 134.6% in fifteen years, and 148.6% in twenty years. This translates to an additional 900,000 riders on the NEC+VA by 2017, 1.9 million by 2022, 3.1 million by 2027, and 4.3 million by 2032. Assuming no substantial increase in frequencies, this would mean that an 8-car Regional (with seven revenue cars and 494 seats) would need to have 51 additional seats in five years, 108 seats in ten, 171 seats in fifteen, and 240 additional seats (or, three full additional revenue cars plus additional space) in twenty years. Thus, an 8-car Regional would extend to become an 11-car Regional; a 9-car Regional would need to be around 13 cars to meet its increased demand.
  • Assuming 3% growth, those levels increase substantially: At five years, demand is 115.9% of present levels. At ten years, it is 134.4%; at fifteen years, 155.8%; and at twenty years, 180.6%. In terms of riders, this means 1.4 million riders by 2017, 3.0 million by 2022, 4.9 million by 2027, and 7.1 million by 2032.
    The simple translation is that under a 3%-per-year scenario, doubling Regional frequencies would likely barely be keeping pace with demand, and if the added frequencies themselves (or, for that matter, potential modest track improvements) induce even a modest amount of further demand, even the doubled frequencies would themselves need to be lengthened. At the very least, unless Amtrak were to plan for trains in the 14-17 car range there is no practical way that current frequency levels can absorb this much additional demand.
  • Let us not forget Induced Demand: Growing demand, and the addition of capacity, induces further demand. This is a phenomenon witnessed repeatedly not just in passenger trains but also in other transportation modes—such as when adding lanes to a highway leads to more traffic. Recent expansions in Virginia and North Carolina in particular bear this out. Were additionalNortheast Regional frequencies to be added, ridership growth would accelerate even further as people shift away from the curbside buses to a more enjoyable form of travel, and others are moved to travel when they otherwise would have stayed put. Of course, lowering fares by expanding supply and thus making walk-up ticket purchases easier (reverting to something closer to unreserved seating) would accelerate demand even further.

This makes Amtrak’s need for additional cars and locomotives glaringly obvious—and this doesn’t even include the new and expanded services outside the NEC that NARP is pushing for. Amtrak will need somewhere between 100 and 150 new cars for the NEC alone. Among things Amtrak should consider to put more seats into service are:

  • Exercising existing single-level long-distance, locomotive, and bi-level coach orders to the fullest, and advancing a single-level coach order as soon as possible. If these new cars went to long-distance services, existing Amfleet cars used on long-distance trains could be added to Northeast Regionals.
  • Establishing a pool that would allow Amtrak to borrow cars from other North American passenger railroads when needed, including commuter railroads and VIA Rail Canada.
  • Work with host railroads to acquire the trackage rights necessary to operate more capacity outside the NEC.
  • Work with states in planning for new and expanded short-distance non-NEC service.
  • Continue to focus on making all aspects of the customer experience as good as they can be, so as not to turn existing and potential riders away.

An additional flaw in Amtrak’s strategy for the NEC is that it places the majority of ridership growth onto either Acela Express or a next-generation high-speed service. As long as these continue to be priced and marketed as premium services, they will remain out or reach for large segments of the population, particularly students, low-wage workers and entry-level professionals, and those on fixed incomes. Amtrak’s popularity has grown amongst younger people, but with so many of them being priced out of NEC services, the next generation of leaders is coming away with a less favorable impression of the company. For the time being, they are not the target audience for Acela or a premium next-generation high-speed train. That being said, the number of premium service seat miles is constant to what it was 25 year ago, and less than were offered 15 years ago. The attractive revenue generator that it is, expanded options, differentiation, and capacity for premium service certainly needs to remain as a focus. It is simply a mistake to make it the primary concentration of the program.

In the meantime, NARP members need to hammer home the point that Amtrak is doing incredibly well in a political environment that, at best, is not conducive to long-term planning, and, at worst, is downright hostile to the concept of a successful, national passenger train network. It is up to us advocates to convince legislators and Amtrak management not to let this critical moment in American passenger train history pass it by, but instead to grab the bull by the horns and make the plans and press for the resources necessary to take advantage of the tremendous growth potential that presents itself—not just in the next-generation HSR department, and above all, not just on the Northeast Corridor!

-- By NARP Member Cliff Dunn, with assistance from Malcolm Kenton and J. A. Zumwalt

Photo by Flickr.com user Wayan Vota.