8.7.09

FREQUENCY MATTERS.

Trains for America gets involved in a Streetsblog rebuttal to a curious Boston Globe column by Ed Glaeser. The column and the rebuttal deal with the potential, or lack thereof, for high-speed rail in Texas (thickly settled sprawling clusters separated by desert, albeit with potential for really fast running between the clusters). Somehow, though, the conversation turns to the long-distance trains.
President Carter emasculated the network of inter-city passenger trains and cut about 30 percent of the destinations in a single stroke of the pen. Presidents Clinton and Bush have continued a policy of starving Amtrak of the necessary capital for equipment to expand and operate a reasonable national network of so-called “slow” trains.
These trains operate over the trackage of frequently indifferent host railroads and, prior to the economic slowdown, have been subjected to numerous lengthy delays which destroy public credibility for the Amtrak product. The inter-city trains have lacked the political leadership and management support necessary for successful operation.
To some extent, that's a continuation of transportation policy from the diversion of mail and express to air in the late 1960s and the act of destroying the network in order to save it that the 1970 legislation establishing Amtrak committed. The Western transcontinental railroads offered a flagship train, sometimes a one-night-out service from Chicago to California, and one or more supporting trains, which generally operated on a schedule that differed from the flagship by about twelve hours. That pattern filled a deficiency in the current network.
Long distance Amtrak trains provide essential service in towns like Minot, Texarkana, and Meridian. Since most routes have only one train, half of the service area is reached in the dead of night (like Little Rock) and is essentially unserved.
Tell me about that Little Rock. There used to be additional Eagles, also hitting Texarkana, as well as service to Memphis and Oklahoma City on the Rock Island line. The Empire Builders call on Minot by night. The Western Star made it by day (and there used to be a network of trains in the Minnesota and Red River corridor). Additional trains on the long-distance routes would enhance the productivity of the existing trains.
Because long distance trains operate over long distances (clever turn of a phrase, huh?) and stop in many smaller towns, some seats are unoccupied on a longer basis than would be the case on a commercial airliner. Professional analysts of such things inform me that long haul trains experience a type of bell cure for traffic intensity. The highest loads are often in the middle of the route.
Only enthusiasts are likely to ride the Empire Builder or the Southwest Chief end to end. Minot to Grand Forks or Fargo (for Crookston) to St. Cloud or Topeka to Lawrence, particularly at college holidays, will produce the bulk of the ridership. (I bet there's something similar on the Trans-Siberian, although I don't know if anyone goes away to college at Akademgorodok any more.)

Greater frequency of long-distance trains will make those trains more useful, as well as offering better connections to the corridor trains, another point I've been repeating. That's a point advocates of the renewed Rockford train service have yet to grasp.
But Genoa officials say it’s not about Genoa versus Belvidere. Instead, it's a regional project, with the possibility of serving all of DeKalb County, including Northern Illinois University, the only state university without passenger rail service.
“This isn’t a Genoa appeal,” [Genoa mayor Todd] Walker said. “Genoa is not getting this railroad in a vacuum. This is a win for the entire area.”
The resolution states that the route following Canadian National through Genoa is $11.5 million, or 37 percent, cheaper than the route through Belvidere, and its operating cost would be $100,000 less annually. The study says its ridership would be 39 percent higher than the alternative Belvidere route, and it would service all of DeKalb County, which has double the population of Boone County.
Also, it would be easier to implement because it would only have to negotiate one railroad, as opposed to the Belvidere alternative, which would use rail lines from Metra, Union Pacific and Canadian National.
Rent-seeking is fun. But making a case for Northern Illinois University providing a lot of student traffic for one Amtrak train a day, through Genoa, is a stretch. The Genoa train station is a shorter bus ride from the University only because Elburn officials haven't opened a street connection that's only four blocks from Highway 47, and the Elburn line offers hourly trips on weekdays and a memory-pattern schedule on weekends, into Chicago. An extension of the Elburn line to DeKalb is still ten years away ... it's always ten years away.

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