Planning for more Sun Belt passenger train routes

Even though the United States has struggled to build and use passenger rail between major cities, the CEO of Amtrak suggests that shift in where Americans live means there are new opportunities:

Photo by Pixabay on

There’s 100 million more people in the United States today than there were when Amtrak was created in 1971. And if you look about the shift of where people moved to and where they have moved from, there are 20, 25 dense corridors across our nation where Amtrak has little to no service. And that’s where people have moved to. Think about the corridors in Arizona, between Phoenix and Tucson and Flagstaff, and the route between Las Vegas and Southern California. Look at the growth that we’ve experienced in the Carolinas, for example, from Raleigh to Charlotte and Greensboro and Winston-Salem—we started the service there a couple of years ago with two trains a day, and we’re looking to grow that to six trains a day along that route.

A lot of the growth I’m talking about here would occur on corridors we already serve, but we’re only serving them once a day. Another that comes to mind is Nashville to Atlanta, with stops in Chattanooga. Try to fly that. There’s no service there. It’s a major corridor. It’s an integrated economy. I could go on and on, but I believe these areas of opportunity allow us, over the next 20-year period of time, to double our ridership.

The logic sounds similar to what has been proposed for the Midwest and other corridors in the United States: look to provide good quality passenger train service between cities where the distance means that flying is not that convenient. But, the geography in the example above has shifted from the Midwest, Northeast, or California corridors to the growing Sun Belt where there are plenty of highways but not as many other transit options.

Thinking more about these Sun Belt corridors, it seems like the Amtrak service is waiting for a critical mass of potential riders as opposed to thinking ahead of the population growth. Take the Nashville to Atlanta corridor. These areas have been growing for several decades: the city of Nashville boomed first in the 1960s and then has expanded from nearly 450,000 residents in 1970 to over 670,000 residents in 2019 while the Atlanta metropolitan region grew from just under a million residents in 1950 to over 6 million in 2019. Is it too late for Amtrak to get started with a thriving service or do they demand from potential riders to even consider boosting the amount of service? Imagine if Amtrak had planned for all of this five decades ago and connected the Sun Belt with numerous routes; how might this have affected population growth and transportation patterns? Could the United States have had a sprawling postwar era full of railroad passenger lines?

Key to national railroad on-time performance is Chicago?

In an interview, Amtrak’s leader suggests Chicago plays a critical role in the nation’s railroad structure:

I want to talk about on-time performance, and especially the role of freight prioritization. How has that played out?

The big problem I see right now is the on-time performance in and out of Chicago. Chicago is the hub for the long-distance system. All freights today are having a fluidity problem in and out of Chicago.

One of the things I’ve just done recently is every senior manager of this company had to adopt a train that operates in and out of Chicago. The reason for that is to get them really paying attention and focusing on a major part of what we do as a business. To make sure that our employees know that senior management’s paying attention to this. Communities know that senior management is out there looking at this. So that they understand our business better than they have in the past. That they can see what might be hurting us. Where can we improve ourselves? So that we can continue to hold a higher ground on the need for the freights to move our trains.

This is both a boon and a problem. For Chicago, this means that there is a tremendous amount of rail traffic going through the region, providing more opportunities for jobs and facilities. On the other hand, there is a limited amount of land, a lot of at-grade crossings, and getting trains through this bottleneck can be a headache. These issues have helped push more trains and facilities further out from the Loop, whether beltway lines or new intermodal facilities.

And this isn’t just a railroad problem in Chicago. As a transportation center, Chicago can be a bottleneck for air traffic with the soon-to-be world’s busiest airport (and recent infrastructure issues). The road traffic isn’t so great either.

It is easy to eavesdrop on conversations while on mass transit

A writer highlights how easy it is to overhear conversations on mass transit:

On Amtrak, powerful people talk loudly and spill secrets.

This is my conclusion based on five years’ field research commuting on Amtrak’s Acela between cities along the East Coast.

By now, you’ve heard about former NSA director Michael Hayden, who on Thursday talked nonstop to a reporter—on background—as the train went north from Washington, D.C. toward New York City. A few seats behind Hayden was Tom Matzzie, former Washington director of political group, who started live-tweeting his eavesdropping…

As someone who rides the Acela two to three times a week, I can tell you that what Hayden and Matzzie each did—talking loud and tweeting louder—isn’t unusual. In fact, private conversations are so often broadcast across the train car that it’s become fertile ground for competitive intelligence gathering, business development or, as in Matzzie’s case, gaining a whole bunch of new social media followers.

While it may be relatively easy to hear on Amtrak trains, this is also not hard on subways, buses, and other trains. There are plenty of people who talk loudly, particularly on cell phones. I wonder if the best way to stop such loud conversations is to tell people their safety (or even national security!) is at risk – the people around them could learn a lot and then harm them down the road.

Webb argues at the end that most people listening to these public conversations are “accidental spies,” people who would prefer not to hear. However, isn’t this part of participating in public spaces? One doesn’t have to go so far as to strain to hear what people are saying to analyze and/or enjoy human conversation. Why not listen to the lives of others? Doing so can be a lot more interesting than “reality TV” that is heavily edited and scripted.

A final thought: I wonder how many people read this commentary and then think how nice it is to drive themselves to work and elsewhere. No nosy people nearby then, particularly if you have tinted glass…

h/t Instapundit

Quick Review: an Amtrak short trip

In order to visit family, I recently traveled by Amtrak from Naperville, IL to Quincy, IL and back. I haven’t been on Amtrak for years – and so I’ll share a few thoughts.

1. The advantages to Amtrak travel: larger seats than found in coach sections in airplanes, plenty of space for luggage, a quicker trip than driving (4 hours one way and 3.5 on the return compared to 5 hours driving), the ability to read/do other things while traveling (instead of sitting behind a steering wheel), a reasonable round-trip price (cheaper than the gas would have cost and no extra wear on my vehicle), a generally quiet ride.

2. The disadvantages: limited travel times (either very early in the morning or later in the evening), no car to drive once arriving at my destination plus need someone to pickup/drive to the train station, having to travel with more people, a snack car with very limited offerings.

3. The kind of route I traveled seems to be one where the train could be positioned to succeed: the train cuts down on the travel time, the price is reasonable, and there is no competition from airlines. At the same time, there can’t be too much traffic on this route – while there were more people than I expected (undoubtedly helped by the fact that the train was linked to the third largest metropolitan area in the country), I imagine it might be difficult to generate revenue.

Overall: it was a good trip but there could be a lot of factors that would push me to drive instead. Perhaps this is an American perspective: driving is the default mode unless another form of transportation is an overwhelmingly better option. I could see why there are proponents of high-speed rail (and there are major plans to have a network in the Midwest that centers around Chicago): it would offer a helpful and needed alternative to driving.

Debating how fast high-speed rail should be

Some legislators in Illinois are questioning whether plans for 110 mph trains actually are high-speed trains. However, as you might expect, working out the details and the funding is complicated with many involved parties:

Officials at Amtrak, which has minimal expertise in operating high-speed rail, don’t see a problem topping out at only 110 mph. An infusion of billions of dollars in federal and state funding will mean better Amtrak service in the Midwest — just don’t mistake it for true high-speed trains.

The genuine article, service at up to 220 mph, is being planned in California and Florida. It already exists to a lesser degree on Amtrak Acela Express trains that get up to 150 mph on small portions of the route between Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington.

While 110 mph would be faster than current trains, there are some who argue that the speed must be dramatically increased from current levels to have the trains compete with airline travel and attract customers.