Townhall Finance's Nick Sorrentino asks, "Why Don’t We Have any Private Passenger Trains?"  He's inspired during a relaxing and close-to-time ride on the Southern Crescent into Official Territory.
Overall I don’t have many complaints with Amtrak. For the most part it’s on time. The trains are usually pretty clean. The fares are reasonable. The stretch I ride is usually populated with regular Washington DC commuters and so I get the sense a bit of extra attention is paid. This morning however I got on a train which had started last night in New Orleans (from what I could gather) and which would arrive ultimately in New York in the afternoon.

The train was late by 15 minutes – not terrible – but just as I was about to hop on a stream of bleary eyed people poured out, most immediately lighting cigarettes as they exited. They got off. We got on. The people finished their smokes and the train started rolling again. By then we were ½ hour late.

I know I am being picky.* Frankly $33 to go from Charlottesville to Washington DC is a very good deal. I get to sit at a table in the cafe car while I write this. It certainly beats the heck out of driving 3 ½ hours into Washington. And that’s if I don’t hit traffic, which I always do.

So, as I fly along just south of Manassas I wonder why it is that no one can make any money doing this privately?
The challenge is in identifying corridors along which there is sufficient intermodal and automotive traffic to permit a blending of 125 mph passenger trains with 100 mph container trains and 80 mph autorack trains.  Now you have a fighting chance of optimizing the track structure, particularly on curves and turnouts, to maintain these schedules.

Bring in open-top freight cars limited to 45 mph (to preclude too much of the cargo being jostled out), 150-ton bulk hopper cars, and tank trains, and you have an engineering problem.  But those commodities are precisely what keep the freight railroads profitable.

Years ago, the freight cars weren't as heavy, and the same track structure would work with 45 mph freight trains and 100 mph steam-powered passenger trains.  Freight cars and the diesels that now pull them have gotten bigger.
I am arguing however that someone figure out how to run a competing line.

Maybe this can’t be done physically. Maybe there isn’t enough room on the rails. I am sure there is a reason other than just bureaucratic hassles why private passenger trains don’t run. (Well I’m not sure.) And I accept that there are probably legitimate profitability issues, at least as passenger trains ran in the past.

But the train I am on will soon put me right in the heart of downtown Washington. I will get off and be right where I need to be. This is hugely convenient. It saves me time and money. It is something for which I certainly would pay a premium. But with a private train, I might not even have to pay such a premium, especially with lines competing with each other.

Additionally the quality of the food, seating, even sleeping quarters (?) would likely be of higher quality.

Given the convenience and general comfort of trains versus car and plane travel there is a market, I am convinced of it.

Passenger trains were put out of business we are told by cars and the highway system. But that was before the hell we have on the highways these days. There was a time when there was such a thing as an “open highway.” No longer. Driving is just a pain.

Imagine a train from Washington to Atlanta which is spacious. Which doesn’t have the hassles of the airport. Which maybe even has a special cigar lounge or an upscale bar. Alternatively maybe a coffee car with plants and ambient New Age music a little further down. These are things cars and planes just can’t provide. Maybe the train has tiny private offices in which to do work and even hold meetings. The sleeping quarters could be on par with a reasonably good hotel. Ooooh and what a bout a “kids car.” Where children could stretch out and literally bounce off the walls. There were times when I would have killed for such a thing traveling with 3 small children.

People will pay for these things.

Some of course will only want to pay for the transportation (probably me most of the time) but even these folks will likely have a much nicer experience than the average airline passenger. The real estate issues on trains are not as challenging as they are on the Delta regional flight to Pittsburgh. (Does Delta fly there?)

Additionally, and perhaps there is a limit on this which I am just not aware of, if the private line was wildly successful the company could just tack on a few additional passenger cars. If the economy soured it could also reduce them as needed.
Atlanta to Washington, D.C. :  In 1954, The Southern Railway offered the Crescent at 1.55, the Peach Queen at 2.05, the Southerner at 10.55, a New Orleans - Atlanta - Washington Express at 12.40, and a Piedmont Limited at 9.10 (all times shown at Peachtree Station, approximately the location of Amtrak's current station.)  Or you could ride unnamed local 136 leaving at 10.55.  Or you could use Seaboard Air Line's Silver Comet, away from Terminal Station at 6.20, or the all-coach Cotton Blossom at 1.45 or an unnamed local at 9.45.

The Crescent featured a lookout lounge observation car, and in those days a gentleman would ask the ladies for permission to light a cigar.  Some of the trains of that era offered play areas for children, sometimes with a traveling nurse in case the rough-housing lead to owies.  The lounge cars would serve coffee in the morning and adult beverages in the evening.  Want to hold a meeting?  Book a drawing room.

Headed for Pittsburgh?  Book space on Southern's Royal Palm, out of Atlanta at 8.10, into Cincinnati at 8.45.  The lookout lounge car was available for first-class passengers.  Board The Pennsylvania Railroad's St. Louisan, away at 11.20, into Pittsburgh at 6.50.  Or you could leave the Southerner in Washington at 9.10 and transfer to Baltimore and Ohio's Washington - Pittsburgh - Chicago Express, leaving at 1.15, into Pittsburgh at 8.35.  Or change at Philadelphia for a Pennsylvania Railroad train.  There was no more direct rail route, which is one reason a lot of people chose to drive, and the hub-and-spoke airline networks of today pretty much killed any chance of a comeback.

Tacking on additional cars?  The railroads used to do that as a matter of course.  Thus the formality of


to provide for a second section of the train, if adding a coach or two for college break or an extra sleeper for Easter wasn't enough capacity.

But there was plenty of additional capacity on the roads in 1954, with the Interstate Highway System coming.  Highway miles driven from 1970 or so onward (when Amtrak came to be) have far outpaced highway lanes built (which makes driving such a pain).

And $50 million to get started purchase you maybe twenty coaches and a locomotive at current prices.


David Foster said...

I wonder how much the economics would improve if lighter passenger cars, instead of the very heavy ones required by today's regulatons, could be used? Less fuel costs to haul X passengers; more flexibility in adding cars to handle additional traffic when required without running into traction limits.

Stephen Karlson said...

At the margin, not much. Because of differing car widths and platform heights, European or Asian coaching stock can't be brought to North America without modifications. The problem is that each new type of coaching stock requires de novo tooling, as repeat orders are rare, and the intervals between fleet upgrades are long.

Traction limits are less of an issue with diesels as long as a second or third unit can be relatively easily added. That is, provided there are enough diesels on hand. But Amtrak attempts to operate with much less of a reserve than the common carriers used to.