A Tale of Two Trains


Funny thing about trains.  They work well for people over short distances when the densities are high enough, but are terrible over long, wide-open spaces.  They work well for freight over long distances, but lose those efficiencies over short distances.

In the first instance, Amtrak, with record ridership, is losing more money than ever.  The northeast corridor is making money, but the long-haul trains through the sparsely populated Not Northeast gives it all back, and more.  Amtrak’s argument for keeping routes like the California Zephyr is that they provide a service to people who have no other means of transportation.  It’s exactly the same argument that led the ICC to require the Western Pacific to keep running this line even though they were hemmorhaging money.

How many people?  Well, let’s take the segment that I often use, the part between Denver and Omaha.  Now, people in Lincoln can drive to the Omaha airport.  If we add up all the alightings and boardings between Lincoln and Denver for 2010, not including Lincoln and Denver, we get 13,295 people.  That’s 13,295 people boarding and leaving the train at those four stations, for the whole year.  About 36 people a day.  Part of this is the time of night, but why do you think this part of the trip is overnight?

I love taking the train rather than flying.  I like that it’s overnight, that it’s less hurried, that I can get up a little early or stay up a little late and work, and that I don’t have to subject myself to a cavity exam.  But let’s not pretend this is an economical way to travel out here.

Freight is another matter.  Ever since the ICC went away, rail freight as a percentage of total freight has been rising.  In part, that’s because the lines have been able to invest a little in their operations, rather than being told that any profit is too much and being treated like utilities.   And in the last year, intermodal traffic – a combination of rail and truck – grew 9% year-over-year, even as total rail traffic increased only 0.5%.

Steven Hayward has an interesting post about rail efficiency, and the fuel efficiency of engines:

In fact, the energy intensity of locomotives has improved substantially, with BTUs per freight mile falling by 65 percent since 1960. In other words, although total freight-rail miles have tripled since 1960, total railroad fuel consumption has remained about flat. If railroad locomotives had made no efficiency improvements since 1960, we’d have needed 9.2 billion gallons of fuel in 2009 instead of the 3.1 billion gallons actually consumed.

Passenger trains may have cafe cars, but freight trains have no CAFE standards of which I am aware.

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