walnut wrote:It is sort of amazing that all of the talk about the NEC misses a very obvious point: namely, that market share for the NEC should include so-called "commuter" trains.
Does the 16% market share only mean Amtrak and does it only mean between certain points? If so, the NEC clearly has a higher share of corridor traffic, because the vast majority of trips are on commuter trains.
Why this matters: the maximum load point on Amtrak NEC trains is between New York and Philadelphia, which is just about 90 miles long. The trip takes a little over an hour, and in the future it will take less than an hour. That is, for all intents and purposes, a commuter trip.
The way to dramatically increase market share in the Northeast is to integrate all train operations into one federation, and manage accordingly. This means that the train schedules, capacities, fares, and stopping patterns are all rationalized not based on the politics of individual state agencies, but rather the actual travel market.
Under that method, you wouldn't necessarily need to drop billions into infrastructure (although New York Penn and approaches is the real bottleneck). But you would need to change the Amtrak and commuter business models.
Rationalize fares at $0.22/mile for coach, and $0.40 for first class.
Divide schedules into:
Local -- mostly all stops on a set route
Zonal Express -- express for a while, then local stops.
Intercity -- no stops outside major cities
(and possibly regional - but not necessarily).
The above schedules would then be synchronized at transfer points, for moving between trains. Thus, you could travel between any two stations in the Northeast in the minimum amount of time by switching between intercity and local trains.
Intercity trains must then run at least every half hour for about 14 to 16 hours per day. With the reduced fares and no stops, ridership will grow rapidly, so trains will need to be long, and possibly double-deck. In other words, the "next generation corridor equipment" is critical, because it supports (or prevents) the new business model.
Now, would the above model satisfy Amtrak's goal to minimize federal subsidies? It depends on how you do your accounting. Are we minimizing subsidy per passenger, or to the corporation? Are we counting local subsidies? The real answer is that we can move many more people by rail than we do today (perhaps at least twice as many) although it will require new equipment, some infrastructure upgrades, and a total rethink of New York City terminal operations. But per passenger subsidies would probably come down, although total subsidy might be slightly higher (if you include the capital). But most of this money will be spent anyway, so the per passenger figure is the "ruling grade" in defining the public interest, in my opinion.
Amtrak comes out way ahead, because they operate the "intercity" trains. Because they will run so fast and because they now do more "work" due to lower fares and coordinated transfers, their overall operating economics may improve. It transitions from a "cream the market" transportation model to a "mass market" model based on larger volume. And it might just scale.
I like how you're thinking, but I think that if there's any problem it's your assertion that commuter service and Amtrak in the northeast should be rationalized. I actually don't think this is the proper approach, especially given the problems that would be included for local mass transit. Is DC Metrorail considered part of this arrangement? Would the New York Subway be Amtrak-managed? both of these are important considerations.
One big reason for not integrating the service along the NEC spine is that it would lead to long-term problems; capacity concerns are made worse when we talk about increasing intercity service. Case in point: Washington Union Station. Union Station is probably the "lightweight" of the major NEC stations. It only has roughly 10 through tracks, and for NEC service it's essentially a 12-track terminal. Compare that to Penn Station's 21 through tracks, and 30th Street Station's 12 (can someone verify that please?) through tracks. Logistically, your idea calls for a greater emphasis on running intercity trains, but something has to give in the system; Union Station is already near capacity and MARC has to double-stack their trains during most of the day (though arguably this is due to Amtrak not letting them use more platforms, so even though some Amtrak platforms are under-utilized, MARC's are over-utilized). In all honesty, though, Union Station is
pushing near its capacity, and it doesn't currently have the space needed for extra Regional trains.
Another difficulty is that equipment options are different throughout the corridor; the tunnels near Penn Station limit double-deck operations, but this isn't a constraint anywhere else in the NEC. Unifying service would likely mean unifying equipment on the NEC, but in many cases this would lead to less capacity.
Further, all of the commuter rail lines are only part of other systems. Would we be unifying Amtrak and, say, NJT's NEC Line, or would we be combining Amtrak and NJT as a whole?
Finally, I think some cooperation already does exist. MARC has an agreement with Amtrak whereby MARC monthly tcket holders can use some Regional trains. I think there are a few similar agreements in place for other commuter rail agencies.
What I think really needs to be done is for there to be a unified online trip planning system. Essentially Google Earth so that you can plan an entire trip from anyplace within a mile or two of a train/subway station to any other point in the NEC system. Essentially do what they did with Metra, CTA and Amtrak with Chicago and Milwaukee in terms of Google Earth.