by Noel T. Braymer, RailPAC President — If I were to date the true beginning of Amtrak it wouldn’t be in 1971. Instead I would say 1964 with the creation of the Metroliner experiment. In the wake of the very successful introduction in Japan of the Shinkansen Trains with speeds of 125 mph, the call came for an American answer to these Japanese “Bullet Trains”. The reply was the Metroliner running express service between Washington and New York at 150 mph! This was the first time Federal dollars had been spent for rail passenger service. The promise was that the Metroliner would revive declining rail passenger ridership in this county and save the dying Pennsylvania Railroad that would run the Metroliner.
Well, the Metroliner trains ran. They survived the collapse of the Penn Central and the formation of Amtrak. But reality prevented the Metroliner experiment from ever reaching the goals originally set out for it. The original Multiple Unit equipment had the horsepower to run at 150 mph. But the tracks between New York and Washington couldn’t support these speeds plus such high speeds proved uneconomical to operate at with 1960’s technology. But the biggest problem that prevented the Metroliner from really working as proposed and continues to today is the traffic conditions on the NorthEast. Traffic conflicts with commuter trains is a leading reason the Acela trains don’t run on time. If you look at the Shinkansen railroad, it was built brand new like a transit system. Only Shinkansen trains ran on the Shinkansen railroad and all trains ran at about the same speed. On the NorthEast Corridor, the Metroliner was like a sports car trying to go fast on a congested highway. Unless there are many passing lanes you can only go as fast as the slowest vehicle ahead of you. Amtrak runs less than 10% of the train traffic on the NorthEast Corridor. Most of the traffic is commuter train traffic which runs slower and makes more stops. To run rail service faster than 110 mph on the east coast or anywhere would require dedicated tracks to separate fast trains from slower ones at least in the most congested areas. To run a high-speed railroad the secret is not in buying shiny new railcars, but the much more expensive unglamorous task of building a railroad capable of running high speed.
This brings up the question: is it really worth running high speed express trains on the NorthEast Corridor? With the Acela another attempt was made to create High Speed on the cheap with new cars, but only marginal upgrades to the right of way. What I call son of Metroliner, the Acela, doesn’t run on time.
At the October 2003 schedule change, Amtrak cut back the number of Acela trains run on the weekends added time to the schedule and cut out some intermediate stops. The hope is to bring the on-time performance up from the current 70% to over 90%. A major problem is the Acela equipment keeps breaking down which is one reason the trains are often late. Amtrak hopes that by at least running the trains on their advertised schedule they can win back riders. But these changes by Amtrak make no economic sense. The Acela’s equipment utilization was already poor to begin with; cutting service will only make it worse. The hope is reducing wear and tear and having more time to maintain the equipment will reduce breakdowns. But in the real world when you are not using highly capitalized equipment, you are losing money having it sit idle. Dropping intermediate stops also cuts back on potential ridership. Every non-stop train Amtrak has run has been a failure, remember the San Diegan Metroliner of the 1980’s? The market is not endpoint to endpoint. The market is in all those intermediate points.
What should be done? Maybe it is time to learn from the Swiss Railroad on how to run a railroad. The Swiss run their trains 95% within 4 minutes of schedule, 81% are within 60 seconds of the schedule! Just as important, the schedules are written so incoming trains arrive just minutes before other outgoing trains. This is done to make connections convenient for passengers. Maintaining connections by being on time is important when running a network of trains and busses with 2,794 stations! On the rare times trains are late the connection is guaranteed and the trains are held to make the connection. To simplify operation they keep the same schedule every hour of the day seven days a week. All trains to Zurich leave at the same time after the hour from the station. Not only does this simplify operations; it makes it easier for the passengers to remember the schedule. On time performance, and excellent connections must work since the Swiss use the train more than almost any people on the earth, on average 40 times a year!
Amtrak would do well to either junk or rebuild the Acela equipment. If it is unreliable now when fairly new, what will it be like as it ages? Amtrak should stop trying to run express trains that primarily serve endpoints. If you need a successful model for this look at the California corridor trains! Start by running fewer, but longer trains at slightly slower speeds. This will save money. Fill up the trains with lower fares, more reliable service, deluxe service for first class passengers and better connection to the entire eastern seaboard. The emphasis should be on connections to other trains, both Amtrak and commuter. Most people today don’t live downtown, and many rarely go downtown. Amtrak should market their trains with advertised connection to their other trains and the commuter trains. Commuter trains can provide connection to place like Long Island or Connecticut. They can also provide connections to commuter stops Amtrak bypasses. This is called a sweep train, which are common in Switzerland. A local train collects passengers ahead of the limited trains. Passengers get off the local train just before the limited passes and get on the limited. The process is reversed going the other direction with a sweep train closely following a limited train to pick up passengers going to stations the other train will bypass.
Amtrak can’t create a Swiss style railroad network overnight. But, they can run trains that are competitive in speed with autos. Simplifying their schedules and building connections to serve a much broader area will do more to increase ridership on the NEC than raising speeds to 150 mph. The Metroliner experiment has not succeeded in over forty years. It is time to run the rail passenger services based on successful models such as in Switzerland, or here in California.