I am a frequent flier. Since very few commercial airliners crash, I naturally assume that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the airlines themselves are doing everything possible to ensure that flight crews are medically fit to fly commercial airplanes.
A few weeks ago, the Federal Rail Administration asked for input from the rail industry and the public about the role automation and artificial intelligence (AI) can play in rail. It is a sign that FRA recognizes the rail industry will need to leverage technology to safely and efficiently transport more freight and passengers by rail in the coming decades across the U.S.
Almost 20 years ago, there was a good solution which Amtrak experimented with to make its dining cars on long distance trains perform better financially: It was the 24-hour dining car on the Sunset Limited. This was accompanied by an onboard promotion of “When You’re Hungry, You’re Hungry” and promotional materials were placed in every coach seatback and sleeping car accommodation.
Passenger trains don’t operate in a vacuum. They compete for business against air and motor vehicles. The results of the competition are reflected in, and measured by, their respective market share. Automobiles win the competition for the great majority of intercity travel, even in the highest-density corridors.
Richard Anderson, Amtrak’s new President and CEO, has been bringing a “business approach” to intercity rail passenger service. Although the Northeast Corridor (NEC) has huge capital costs, Amtrak’s services in the NEC at least produce a positive operating cash flow, and state-supported services elsewhere at least break even. Anderson has correctly identified the long-distance passenger train network as a source of unfunded operating losses.
You think Amtrak has problems with long-distance train punctuality? VIA Rail Canada recently has been experiencing debilitating delays with the Canadian, its premier, first-class Toronto-Vancouver train, renowned for luxurious accommodations, excellent on-board service, and—oh yes—dining cars. But I’m not going to broach that subject just now.
Watching Washington, May 2018: Railroads, as do all for-profit undertakings, earn their crust by selling at a price-multiple above production costs. Otherwise, they become revenue inadequate, meaning they lose investors, cease renewing assets, hollow out service and fail.
After 48 years of providing long-distance passenger train services, is Amtrak preparing to scuttle these operations and dismantle its National Network? That nightmare prospect, long desired for decades by anti-passenger-rail politicians, now seems a real and perhaps imminent possibility.
“Amtrak must be redefined” begs an immediate response, not just because of the attack on the stewards of Amtrak’s operation over the years, but due to a plethora of allegations lacking factual support.
Freight railroads don’t prosper because shippers have affection for them. Instead, railroads profit when their services are economically relevant. When freight services net customers fewer benefits than the prices railroads need to charge, the customers disappear and, soon, so do the services. These outcomes are not unique to railroads. They hold for all profit-motivated commerce.