With momentum on its side, Amtrak unveiled its grand plan for Amtrak System 2035, which it believes will be a sustainable system as prior to COVID-19 the rail operator was on pace to make 2020 its first financially profitable year in its 49-year existence.
With cries for better rail infrastructure and a presidential candidate that wears the nickname ‘Amtrak Joe’ like a badge of honor, Amtrak seems to finally be on the right track. In its Amtrak System 2035 plan, Amtrak has made it clear regionalized lines are the goal, forgoing long haul battles with airlines and focusing on a battle with car culture and regionalized connectivity that makes trains more attractive.
Amtrak System 2035
Analyzing the proposed map, the elder generations might recognize this map as showing some old routes returning from previous eras of Amtrak. Routes like St. Paul to Duluth, Chicago to Toronto, Tampa to Miami and Pittsburgh to Cleveland have already been in Amtrak’s route map in previous iterations of the company. Some of these dropped routes trace back to early years in Amtrak’s history since trains to Duluth have not seen service since 1978 due to the termination of the Arrowhead and inter-Florida service was dropped in 1985 when the Silver Palm was discontinued. Other routes, such as the Chicago to Toronto International and the New York to Chicago via Pittsburgh and Cleveland going Three Rivers were shortened, with the Pennsylvanian between New York and Pittsburgh replacing the Three Riversin 2005 and Blue Water stopping at the border town of Port Huron, Michigan without entering Canada taking over in 2004.
But some of these proposed routes are new for America’s largest passenger train operator, with the goal being to increase connecting traffic along with a hub-and-spoke system or feeding preexisting trains. Routes like Cheyenne-Pueblo, Tucson-Los Angeles, Las Vegas-Los Angeles and Nashville-Atlanta will feed lines like the Crescent, Empire Builder or terminate at a hub station to increase through traffic.
Finally, some routes are reviving previously canceled projects. In Wisconsin, Amtrak System 2035 calls for a route between Minneapolis and Milwaukee using a preexisting Canadian National track which revives a canceled project from 2010. Under previous Wisconsin administrations, a planned line from Milwaukee to Minneapolis would create an enhanced-speed train using Wisconsin-built trainsets from Spanish train builder Talgo. However, after the Talgo sets were built, the line was canceled by Governor Scott Walker and the trainsets were left for storage until Amtrak moved them to the Amtrak Cascades route.
So How Does Amtrak Stack Up Now?
For legacy carriers, operating banked schedules have resulted in more concern over connecting traffic over local traffic, especially on smaller routes where alternative modes are preferred over a commute to the airport. As a result, areas, where Amtrak service has been heavily invested in, seems to have found a home in and amongst the airlines without too much disruption, leaving a competitive environment for both airlines and the railroad with both tailoring schedules to capture specific market share. Furthermore, low cost and point to point carriers tend to avoid short-haul operations and instead prioritize longer flights over one hour in length, something Amtrak is not contesting in the proposed route map.
A good example of the airline-train balance in play exists across what Amtrak calls the “Northeast Corridor” between Washington D.C. and Boston. 16 of Amtrak’s 25 most popular train stations exist on the Northeast Corridor as the stretch of track is broken up into regionalized rail for commuter traffic using the Northeast Regional train and high-speed track for the Acela Express.
Using this core route, Amtrak has been able to build vertically and spider its route network off the mainline, including trains like the Keystone Service, Vermonter, Pennsylvanian, Empire Service and Adirondack. This is coupled with large markets such as New York, Boston and Washington D.C. which utilize their metro systems to feed passengers into train stations and allowing smoother transit times.
And the investment has created an aviation-rail balance similar to other large European and Asian markets. Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor has increased passenger throughput from 9.3 million in 2006 to 12.8 million in 2019. For comparison, air travel between Boston and the other biggest northeast markets like Philadelphia, and Washington D.C., have noted small increases as well. Statically, passenger counts from Boston to Philadelphia rose from 545 thousand to 662 thousand in the time frame and Washington-DCA climbed from 434 thousand to 777 thousand.
On the opposite coast, Amtrak has made a significant improvement in rail travel as well. In the Pacific Northwest, Amtrak Cascades goes up against airline service between Seattle and Portland, cities separated by 186 miles. The air operators for the longest time have a near-even split against Amtrak, only recently squeaking out a lead. Amtrak Cascades averages a consistent 811 thousand riders per year while Portland to Seattle air traffic has climbed from 995 thousand to 1,343 thousand. Similar trends can be seen by the California based Surfliner and San Joaquins, both of which put Californian cities on Amtrak’s top 25 busiest stations.
However, get off the coastline and Amtrak starts to struggle versus other competitors. For instance, the Lincoln Service, which operates a 284-mile journey from St. Louis to Chicago, get buried by airline operations from American, United and Southwest due to airline connectivity in Chicago. Since Chicago is primarily a launching point for long haul trains, Amtrak struggles to find connecting passengers from either end as long haul trains have been the Achilles heel of Amtrak operations for decades. Both airline and rail ridership numbers between Chicago and St. Louis have fallen recently with Amtrak rider numbers falling 654.6 thousand in 2013 to 620.5 thousand last year across the entire line. In the skies, the major three nonstop operators pulled in 1.41 million passengers in 2013 but fell to 1.13 million last year.
To combat this issue, Amtrak System 2035’s regionalized network is walking away from long haul operations in favor of shorter stints that could draw in connecting passengers. The railroad lists long haul trains as the least used and least profitable in the network, only maintaining the bare minimum to keep Congress happy as any further cuts were deemed to be ‘cutting off local towns from vital connections.’
Under the new model, Amtrak’s new routes seem to imitate what Europe and Asia have determined to be a good distance for passengers to select the rail for. For instance, Japanese logistics heavily favor airlines once trains start to breach 400-mile journeys. Even Japan’s Tōhaku Shinkansen and Hokkaido Shinkansen do not match the capacity created by airlines, with 1.64 million riders on the Hokkaido Shinkansen being well below the 9.6 million flyers between Tokyo-Haneda and Sapporo. Similarly, flights between Toyko-Haneda and Fukuoka, Osaka-Itami and Naha also rank as some of the most populated in the world, despite Osaka-Tokyo competing directly with the Tōkaidō Shinkansen and Fukuoka-Tokyo competing with a blend of the Tōkaidō Shinkansen and Kyūshū Shinkansen. Of these city-pairs, only the Tokyo-Osaka leg is less than 400 miles.
This also applies in Europe, where high-speed trains are limited by the distance they can travel before either transitioning into a different country or terminating at a large station. A large majority of the high-speed European network exists between 100 to 300 miles stints before arriving at a major city or connecting station. This can occur over a large network like the Central European InterCity Express or over a smaller network like the Benelux-based Thalys.
Democratic candidate for President Joe Biden seems to echo this idea, saying that he hopes the presence of a regionalized rail network will shift some small-town flights to rail service. He championed the idea that a better rail network will benefit both airlines and small communities who will still maintain connections to larger markets while busy international airports will free up space. Some cities like Johnstown, Pennsylvania have proven that the train can outlast the airplane. Amtrak traffic on the Pennsylvanian recorded 18,848 riders in 2019 which outperformed the Essential Air Service routes to Baltimore and Pittsburgh which totaled 10,010 passengers. All this while the Amtrak station has received much less funding than the airport has.
Of course, Amtrak’s current plan is all up to speculation including the $25 billion price tag and the lack of transparency of what stops and schedule Amtrak will run on the new Amtrak System 2035. The rail operator has struggled off its own Northeast Corridor due to a mix of diesel engines and using track not owned by the passenger rail company. Amtrak’s new routes will also play off this, utilizing a mix of Core Express Corridors that Amtrak says will be electrified and Regional and Feeder Corridors that are for shared tracks. This assumes that freight lines are willing to electrify these tracks or set aside one track for electrification, something that they would be potentially opposed to as it would severely impact the freight operator’s ability to haul high valued intermodal containers, which cannot be double stacked when under catenary wires.
Furthermore, this also assumes that Americans outside of the northeast and west coast are willing to accept Amtrak as a mode of regional traffic. The car culture in America has made travel on a long ribbon of concrete one of America’s most desired modes of transportation because of its flexibility. With airlines already staking a claim on medium to long haul operations, it’s up to railroads to close the short-haul gaps. However, a poorly executed schedule or lack of marketing strategy would leave the rail operator seeing similar results that got the International, Three Rivers, Arrowhead and Silver Palm pulled in the first place.
Furthermore, expansions into the south will be slow progress for Amtrak. While the goal is to establish a hub-and-spoke system similar to Chicago the plan is for this to take place over a 40-year plan. In the meantime, Amtrak routes will continue to rely on long haul trains to over the south as the Crescent, Palmetto and AutoTrain are the only three operating past the border of the Carolinas.
Finally, this assumes that these routes are sustainable or create sustainability. Amtrak has struggled to win over passengers before and has since gutted it’s route map and pursued cargo operations to offset passenger car costs. While most of these routes exist, most are government-supported such as the Hiawatha, Missouri River Runner and Illini. Whether these lines become self-sustainable has yet to be seen but the train operator hopes the profitability comes to them in the long term.
While many variables have yet to be determined, it is clear that Amtrak has what it believes is a sustainable future and that could very well change the way we look to air the current airline route map. If Amtrak’s future is achieved, a slow deconstruction of some Essential Air Service contracts could be seen as unprofitable air routes are replaced with a profitable rail network. In turn, this could be beneficial to those seeking business traffic at the loss of being an origin point for international or leisure passengers.
If Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor is a template for the rest of the network, it is clear that the business traveler is the key audience. Amtrak will have to swing non-northeastern business travelers away from their long withstanding relationships with airlines and show them the value of the Amtrak System 2035 network. The loss of frequencies may result as Amtrak wins over market share, especially in cities that are less than 400-miles from Chicago and Los Angeles but airlines could repel the railroad network once again, the same way Amtrak was created, to begin with.
However, it cannot be understated that this airline industry is not the previous one that Amtrak originally fought regional networks with back in the 1970s. Amtrak’s creation in 1971 was still in the era of government regulation and since the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, the industry has shifted priorities. Banked schedules, revenue management and the hub-and-spoke system have transformed the airline industry into a juggernaut of efficiency and connectivity. All while low-cost carriers and point-to-point airlines have provided competition to the established brands.
Since then Amtrak has experimented with both long haul lines and cargo as ways to boost revenue, only to fail due to a lack of support from consumers or suppliers. It has been the push for smaller lines and connectivity that has seen the railroad revitalized. Furthermore, Amtrak has taken advantage of adding former airline CEOs like Richard Anderson and William Flynn to help find solid footing and help increase the rail company’s once challenging goal of seeking profitability. The Northeast Corridor has proven that adding rail capacity does not take away from airline demand as airlines have also seen changes in priorities. Plus with leisure travel and longer business flights still in demand, the regionalized Amtrak schedule will not compete with airlines on all fronts.
However, for local and regional connected traffic, it’s the beginning of a new fight and one that Amtrak has not contested for quite some time. Americans have requested a rail network like Europe and Asia and Amtrak is willing to work towards that request. And unlike the 1970s, Amtrak is ready to give the airline industry a run for its money, this time-fighting connectivity with connectivity and will leave it up to the American people to decide: rail or air.
This article originally appeared on Airlines Geeks