A simple way to increase Rail Passenger Miles

By Noel T. Braymer

The Department of Transportation keeps records on many elements of this country’s transportation system. This is done by the DOT’s Research and Innovative Technology Administration Bureau of Transportation Statistics. To measure how people travel the DOT counts the Passenger Miles traveled by different modes. For example a person riding a bike 2 miles produces 2 passenger miles. A family of 4 on a 100 mile car trip to Grandma’s produces 400 passenger miles. The DOT’s most recent data on passenger miles by travel modes has recently been published for 2010. Here are some numbers from this most recent report

2010 passenger-miles (in millions) for passenger modes

Autos                  2,814,055

Light Trucks          831,312

Air                          564,790

Bus                         292,319

Motorcycle                19,886

Rail                              6,420

Ferry                               389

What these numbers show is in terms of passenger miles, rail passenger service has a long way to go to be significant. For years cars and light trucks  which include SUV’s have produced well over 80 percent of total passenger miles of all travel modes. Air travel for years has carried around 10 per cent of all passenger miles while rail passenger service carries less than one percent of all passenger miles.

The key to producing passenger miles is to carry many people a long distance. Amtrak carries most of its passengers on the Northeast Corridor (NEC). This translates into 1.89 billion Rail Passenger Miles. The Long Distance Trains carry fewer passengers than the NEC Trains. But Long Distance Trains product 2.93 billion Rail Passenger Miles in this county. Expanding Long Distance Rail Service would be the fastest way to increase Rail Passenger Miles in this Country. This would also spread rail passenger service to more places and to more people across the country than Short Distance Trains. This translates into more political support for rail passenger service. Where communities have rail passenger service the level of support increases in proportion to the number of markets the trains serve. The reciprocal is true, people who live in places with no rail passenger service have little or no reason to support or even be interested in rail passenger service.

So how can we increase Rail Passenger Miles on Long Distance Trains? We can start by adding more cars to the trains we have now. In the past passenger trains carried as many as 18 cars. Few trains in this country carry more than 10 cars today. Will anyone fill these seat? Much of the year Amtrak turns passengers away because they don’t have enough room on their Long Distance Trains. Won’t Amtrak lose money increasing their costs with more passengers? That hasn’t seemed to be a problem on other Amtrak trains.

Former Amtrak President W. Graham Claytor said in 1991 his goal was to buy more long distance rail passenger cars to increase Amtrak’s revenue. His priority was to add more cars to existing Long Distance Trains because like today passengers were being turned away. Claytor also extended existing services to increase revenue by extending the Sunset from New Orleans to Florida and the Palmetto from Savannah to Jacksonville. While Claytor was at Amtrak the Pioneer still connected with the Zephyr in Utah to Seattle and the Desert Wind to Los Angeles. When Claytor was at Amtrak for just over 11 years he increased its cost recovery from 42 percent to 80 percent. He predicted when he left Amtrak in 1993 Amtrak could recover 100 percent of its costs by 2000 if it continued his policies.

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