By Noel T. Braymer
Simple: run more passenger trains faster, more often to more places. While you are at it also offer travel deals and discounts for rail service to fill up trains that have extra room. This sounds simple but it is proven to work. An example of this is New York’s Metro North. It has had steady ridership growth despite its main commuter market to Manhattan showing no growth. Metro North over the last few years has been expanding services including reverse commute travel and off peak as well as discretionary travel. This has included more frequent services all day long and the weekends.
How people travel is based on what they consider is their best travel value. Travel value is made up of a combination of cost, safety and convenience. Cost and safety are fairly straight forward, although maintenance and cleanliness are also important for making passengers feel safe. Convenience boils down to the ease, comfort and total time it takes to get where someone wants to go. For a person taking a train that includes time for ticketing, walking to and from the train, waiting at the station and waiting for connections to get to their final destination.
Even if the train is faster than traveling by car, that means nothing to a person waiting 2 to 6 hours for a train. More frequent rail service attracts more passengers because it makes rail travel more convenient. A traditional commuter may take the same trains to work and home for years because their schedule never changes. But increasingly people don’t have rigid schedules or destinations.
Many times in the past passenger railroads have cut service in an attempt to save money from trains that didn’t carry many passengers. When this happened ridership often fell on the busier trains too. The reason for this is passengers want the option to being able to get home early or late even if they rarely need these trains. The fear of being stranded in the middle of the day during a family emergency or missing the last train of the night keeps people from riding the trains and stuck in traffic.
Should an operator run trains with light ridership just to get people to keep riding the busier trains? These less busy trains can be filled up with a combination of discounted fares and improved connections to more destination. Airlines and Intercity bus companies price their tickets on travel demand. They regularly discount tickets to ensure that their planes and buses are not empty. Most of the cost of rail passenger service comes from the overhead not the operation of the trains. It is better to keep trains running as long as you get additional riders and revenue.
While many trains don’t have reserved seating like airlines, there are ways to discount travel for trains that have room to spare. On Google the most clicked on ads have words like free, cheap, discount and save. Most routes have times of the day or week as well as individual trains that could benefit with discounted tickets. Unique ticket stock might be used for discounted trains to make it easier when inspecting tickets to discourage cheating on non-discounted trains. For many potential riders lower prices can draw them to ride trains outside of rush hours or to draw riders to a service in need of a boost.
More frequent rail service greatly improves the convenience of trains travel for passengers. So does a greater range of destination. No one will ride a train if it doesn’t go where they want to go. This can be done with dedicated connections with through ticketing with other trains and buses as an inexpensive way to serve more destinations. This has been very successfully done on Amtrak trains supported by the State of California. Half of the passengers on the San Joaquin Trains ride a bus for connections to San Francisco, Reno, Redding, Los Angeles and the Pacific Surfliner trains. Surfliner trains have bus connections to the Capitol Corridor trains, Palm Springs and to Surfliner stations north of Los Angeles for trains that don’t go north of Union Station.
Long overdue and promised in the future are more and better connections between Coaster and Metrolink trains with schedule changes and joint ticketing. Also needed are improved connections like this between Metrolink and Pacific Surfliner trains. Up north better connections are still possible between Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin trains with ACE, Caltrain and BART.
California is a huge travel market and people are looking for economical, safe and convenient travel options like train travel. In order to have service that truly covers this state we need more rail service. For this to happen we need growing ridership. Strong ridership and revenue numbers are the best way to convince the public and politicians to spend the money for the next round of improvements. This is how we were able to get where we are today with minor improvements to service spurring major ridership growth.True there are some crowded trains in California. But not all trains are crowded, some are rather empty at time. We can start by adding cars and locomotives to existing trains to allow for more growth. The point is to get more trains in the future we need even more riders now.