Happening Now

How long distance trains compete

September 18, 2012

Written By Sean Jeans Gail

The United States’ immense, continent-sized geography is often cited to make the case against investing in intercity trains. One hears how trains are better suited for smaller countries in Europe, and that America is too big and sprawling to accommodate passenger rail. And while the distance between the coasts means that most people traveling from the East Coast to the West Coast will choose airplanes (though there are more than a few who’ll hop on a train for 3,000 miles, either out of necessity or preference) there is a flip-side to this immensity: it’s really hard to provide transportation to small- and medium-sized communities located in America’s vast heartland.

In today’s excerpt from “Long Distance Trains: Multipurpose Mobility Machines,” we examine the unique features that allow intercity trains to compete in several different categories of the U.S. travel market:

[Click here for yesterday’s entry: Chicago to Los Angeles: two-thirds of a continent, 528 city-pairs, and one train.]

Travel Time

Flying is fast once people are in the air, but becomes significantly slower the farther origins and destinations are from airports. The further travelers must use ground transportation to and from airports, the more trip time grows, average speed falls and air’s competitive edge erodes. Also, travelers not using a busy airline route face longer waits between flights and significantly higher fares. As a result, most long-distance trips are usually made by car. Even for trips up to 1,000 miles, more people drive than fly.

When properly configured, trains can be time competitive with driving, especially as trip length increases. On trips over 500 miles, most drivers will take breaks for meals and rest that add significantly to trip time. To save time and money, some drivers deliberately skip such breaks. Fatigue, stress, monotony and other factors, however, begin to compromise their ability to operate their vehicle safely, endangering not only themselves and any passengers in their vehicles but also others on the road. The longer the trip, the greater the danger of driving straight through becomes. People on a train, however, move safely while they eat and sleep. They can cover an additional 500 miles or more per day without stress, discomfort or danger to others.

Better Locations, More Markets

Trains have an inherent advantage over air because trains can make many intermediate stops quickly and without using large amounts of fuel.

Stations, because they are less expensive to build and operate than airports, can be located in more places. Moreover, they are, or can be, located in the middle of cities and small towns whereas commercial airports, because of their large land foot-print and noise, are usually located far outside city centers and away from densely populated areas.

Smaller markets do not generate enough traffic to attract low-fare airlines and, with the rising price of fuel and the inefficiencies of short flights and smaller aircraft, are less sustainable for more and more trips, with air service becoming prohibitively expensive or nonexistent.

These markets are also losing intercity bus service. For those that still have it, intercity buses frequently opt for stations inconveniently located at truck stops near major highways to avoid spending the time required to wind through neighborhoods to access town centers.

Trains represent a cost effective way to restore mobility choices to cities and towns of all sizes along a railroad corridor in a way that neither air nor bus service can accomplish. Because trains provide more convenience and accessibility for the nation’s smaller cities and towns, they offer urban renewal opportunities for communities that have lost population or businesses to larger metropolitan areas over the last few decades. Significant redevelopment has been sparked by creation of multimodal transportation centers even in places where the catalyst was just one daily Amtrak round-trip.


Long-distance routes offer a way to provide new, high quality mobility choice in many travel markets without implementing more expensive, higher speed intercity corridor services between multiple short distance endpoints. Their ability to aggregate many low-volume city pair markets into economically viable volumes makes long-distance routes an especially effective method to scale up service for large numbers of Americans quickly, cost effectively and at relatively low risk.

Consider the route between Chicago and Cleveland. This route currently has just two trains a day in each direction—both with unattractive late night or early morning arrival and departure times at Cleveland. More than 11 million Americans live within 25 miles of one of the 9 stations on this 341 mile corridor. Clearly, this market is large enough to support frequent daytime service. Capturing sufficient market share to generate economic volumes, however, would require a transit time of less than 3.5 hours and a frequency of 8 or 9 trains a day. This level of service would require long stretches of track dedicated to passenger trains.

A lower cost, lower risk option to begin serving this market is to extend the route east of Cleveland to New York City. In this way, a daytime service with longer trip times and fewer frequencies would, even with lower market share, still generate economically viable volumes because it would serve 171 city pair markets instead of just 36.

Similarly, with additional cars and locomotives on hand, long distance routes make it possible to launch new services and routes economically. Given the frequency of fuel price spikes, the instability of oil supplies and the negative impact such predictable events have on American pocketbooks and quality of life, the need to provide choices that ease or eliminate such economic stresses is critical. Driving and flying are very vulnerable to such fluctuations and, in the long term, will become too expensive for more and more middle class Americans to afford to the extent that they enjoy today.

A steel wheel running on a steel rail generates very little friction compared to rubber-tired vehicles like cars and trucks. A diesel-powered passenger train can move three times as many people per gallon than the typical automobile. A freight train can move one ton 484 miles on a gallon of fuel. Airplanes burn almost half their fuel for take offs and landings, making short and medium distance trips less economic as the price of fuel rises. Because trains use fuel efficiently and do not have a significant fuel penalty for stops, train fares are not as heavily influenced by fuel prices. As a bonus, passenger spaces can offer more room to sit, stand and move around. That means that economy passengers can relax in fully reclining seats as wide as the first-class seats on airplanes; and first-class passengers can have private rooms with a bed.