The case for time efficiency (Grid and Gateway, part 4)

It has been true since the birth of Acela.

It remained true for the entire life of Metroliner service.

Even now, it's an important part of traditional "Pullman"-style transportation.

The matter at hand is the efficient use of time while traveling: the way passenger train services, even those of conventional speeds, can not only tap into but help create an exclusive market.

The Grid and Gateway proposition will never work well if the basic concept of time efficiency is ignored. It's what enables travelers to work and play and eat and sleep while moving. It's also the thing that allows high-speed corridors to claim "faster" travel times than their airline competitors.

After all, even today's Acela doesn't really beat commercial air shuttles between New York City and Washington, D.C. It can only claim time superiority when comparing total trip duration between, say, midtown Manhattan and the U.S. Capitol building. Once everything is factored in (transit to/from passenger terminals, security delays, boarding procedures, etc.), the train can get you to your final destination sooner - and in better physical shape! - than the flyboys.

At an intermodal conference, Andrew Sharp of the International Air Rail Organisation once mentioned how the Eurostar wasn't literally able to beat the aeroplane's terminal-to-terminal transit times between London and Brussels; but, the train gave travelers longer uninterrupted periods for work or leisure activities, thereby drastically increasing productivity. The free hours were there to claim; all that was left was one's choice as to how to spend them.

When dealing with conventional technologies and speeds, the overnight trip (back to the "Pullman" concept) can work quite well. Today, there are still a handful of routes and services which might appeal to the business traveler of a certain mindset. Dallas to St. Louis is a current example: board your train toward the end of a business day, relax, have a leisurely dinner, perhaps a night cap or two, sleep in a real bed, complete your morning toiletry rituals and enjoy a nice breakfast before arriving just as the new business day begins.

If a traveler is engaged in activities which are important to one's own health and welfare (such as a good meal, a decent night's sleep and a place to prepare for a new day), why should it be necessary to justify the completion of those tasks while moving?

Oh, but justification is necessary! After all, this is the 21st century.

Ultimately, we may be discussing a problem which can only be solved through targeted marketing. A completely new generation of people must be convinced that passenger train travel is not only a desirable option in itself, but is also not hopelessly old fashioned. It's the latter notion which tends to undermine perfectly useful concepts. [Not very long ago, I literally offended a friend by asking if he had seen the morning papers! This man is so enamoured with technology and the latest in electronic gadgetry that the very idea of reading a physical newspaper is anathema.] The ability to move beyond this societal bias and see conventional passenger trains as something besides historical artifacts is absolutely mandatory.

Unfortunately, contemporary realities don't help very much in this regard.

The problems inherent in North America's existing network of passenger trains are legion. Use of the term "anemic" is far too kind. Most major city pairs enjoy no direct connecting services, whatsoever - and those that do are fortunate to see one train per route, each way, daily. "You can't get there from here" is trite, but true.

Even more depressing, however, is the fact that the city pairs which are still connected usually have trains operating on far slower schedules than those which existed 50 or 75 years ago. This makes the service (and utilization of equipment and infrastructure) much less efficient than it should be. What we might call "the need for speed" is present along every line - not just the short- and medium-haul routes.

Consider Amtrak's Chicago to Los Angeles run via the former Santa Fe. To many people, the basic question is "why take 40 hours for a trip when you can make it in 4:30"? Perhaps more to the point, if you are willing to dedicate 40 hours (or, traditionally, thirty-nine-and-three-quarters-hours) to the trip, what difference would it really make if your journey ended up taking a few hours more? You've already decided to spend around 10 times longer to travel by train instead of jet airplane; to fret over the nominal details seems silly.

However, with that 40-hour journey, only one full day is spent en route. Not three days, mind you (as in Monday through Wednesday, for example), but two nights and one full day (or Monday night through Wednesday morning), with the entire business day available at both the beginning and ending of the trip to use in whatever way you choose.

I realise this may sound incongruous. It might not seem necessary to trim point to point running times on a cross-country service (although we should never forget how long-haul lines actually exist as a combination of interconnecting and overlapping corridors, dependant upon their several intermediate stations for health and vitality).

It’s just that the longer any of this stuff takes, the harder it is to justify.

This is also one of the main reasons why restoration of mid-continent gateways, such as St. Louis, is so imperative. As we've already discussed, total trip time depends upon more than over-the-road speed; it also depends upon time efficiency - and that is partly reliant on things like routings and junction points and connections.

Back to "two nights and one full day" for just a moment:

There's no reason why it should take more than one full business day to travel by train from Dallas to New York. However, without eastbound service in place via the St. Louis gateway, passengers from Dallas are required to go all the way into Chicago to effect their east coast connections. That fact, combined with the overall lack of service and (at times painfully) slow speeds, successfully turns a one business day trip into a two business day trip. In one fell swoop, we go from "it might be fun, if I can ever swing it" to "that's ridiculous; I can't even consider it!"

Of course, what the New York Central System was able to do between New York and Chicago with private money and two sets of equipment now takes Amtrak public money and four sets. A 20% reduction in running time along the Water Level Route (not an outrageous goal, by any means) would make a world of difference - especially if the cars which suddenly became available for reassignment were used to double the frequency along that same line.

It may be a smoke dream, but the logic is sound.

Is that logic, however, enough to justify investment? I believe it is - as alternative modes continue to become less viable due to their own shortcomings. Call it transition by attrition.

In the meantime, that general impression of passenger-trains-as-societal-anachronisms looms as a veritable fortress.

I can't help but recall an older couple (of the Korean War generation) I met briefly a few years back while serving as Director of Operations at Dallas' Museum of the American Railroad. The family in question lived in Terrell, around 30 miles east/southeast of Big D (and now essentially considered a Dallas suburb). Terrell is also a station situated along UP's former T&P main - the same route used by Amtrak's Texas Eagle.

As we engaged in polite conversation, I discovered their daughter, son-in-law and precious grandchildren were living in Springfield, Illinois and that they visited them as often as possible.

Naturally, I asked if their travels ever involved the use of passenger train service. I may as well have been speaking in unknown tongues, for the couple acted as if they didn't even understand the question. Perhaps they honestly did not.

I reiterated my query and they responded by saying no; they had always used commercial airline services and never even considered the train.

Determined to make sense of this, I prodded them for additional information. "Oh, how does that work?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Well, you obviously can't purchase an airline ticket from Terrell to Springfield, so how do you complete your trip?"

The answer was nothing short of profound. In fact, it not only depressed me at the time; it was memorable enough to recall, in detail, today.

Their standard routine was to get into an automobile, then drive approximately 60 miles west to the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Not only did they begin their journey by heading in the opposite direction of their final destination; but, because of potential traffic problems, they always completed this first leg the night before their scheduled flight! The next day, after 18-sum-odd hours away from home and a net loss of mileage, they finally boarded an airplane bound for St. Louis and rented a car at Lambert Field for the (minimum) two hour drive north to the state capital.

I was flabbergasted.

"You know, there's a train," I said, "from Mineola (about 45 miles east of Terrell via a safe, mellow country highway) which goes directly to Springfield. No connections required - and all the requisite dining, lounge and sleeping car accommodations are included."

"How long would that take?"

"Well, about 16 hours, or so; it's a simple overnight trip. It'd certainly be less time than you're spending now and..."

"Oh, my gracious! 16 hours on a train? That seems like an awfully long time. I'm not sure we could handle that!"


And you know, maybe they couldn't.

The following story may be apocryphal, but it makes a valid point:

Supposedly, during the latter part of the 20th century, an audio production group became eagerly involved in the creation of a new radio drama series - complete with professional actors, live music and sound effects. Full of hopeful anticipation, they hired a marketing research firm to determine the best time for their broadcasts.

After studying the matter, the agency returned with a simple answer: "1937."

  • Your usual perceptive, thoughtful essay, Garl.  Thanks.  When considering total times, do not forget "slack," which was invented by railroads and now has been embraced by airlines.  Just last week I had the experience of having to make a Delta-Delta connection in Atlanta.  The published schedule showed that my connection would be boarding even before my first flight arrived in Atlanta.  Then I learned that my first flight would arrive considerably earlier than the schedule said, because the trip simply doesn't take as long as the carrier posts.  Reminded me of a trip on the northbound Southern Crescent some 30 years or so ago.  We were stopped on a siding for about an hour in the middle of the night.  Arrival in Washington was "right on time."  Arriving much earlier would not have been of any value, and the Southern was very proud of its "on-time" record.  

    You are very correct to consider door-to-door time of travel rather than the published schedules of transportation providers.  It is door-to-door that is really significant.  Segment time (station to station,) time in the security line, etc., are of little significance.  Now all we have to do is reeducate an entire generation or two of Americans to these facts.

  • Freight moves not by segments but by the totality of the time from dock to dock.  Railroads used to "boast" that they handed off shipments to connecting carriers right on time and if the shipment arrived late it was the fault of the connecting carrier.  Bull!  Shippers saw only a late shipment and didn't "reward" one carrier for being on-time and penalizing the other.  They switched to truck where they could.  This is why the carriers are putting so much effort into first mile-last mile issues.  Being told that a car spent "only" a week on my railroad, but two weeks on the connecting carrier doesn't make up for a car arriving days late.

  • Last year I was traveling to the APTA Bus Conference in Memphis. I was going for one day only to present as a panel member. I reserved a sleeper, boarded the City of New Orleans south bound in Chicago woke up in Memphis participated in my panel discussion, had a meeting socialized at BB King's on Beal Street with colleagues reboarded the City of New Orleans now north bound and again slept the night away arriving back in Chicago the following morning. The hardest part of the trip was walking out of the door and onto the street car in Memphis.

    Price? Cheaper than an economy fare on the plane.

    Quality of life two nights sleep versus two airport hassles in one day.

    Regional travel by rail in my mind can and will increasingly (high speed rail hint hint) be an arena in which rail can effectively compete with air travel.

  • While I envy you your trip to Memphis, I have a couple of concerns.  You say rail can effectively compete with air travel, but you do not define "effectively."  Price? convenience? comfort?  Price probably is the greatest area of concern.  What would the fare be if there were to be no public subsidy for Amtrak?  Would that fare be at a level that travelers would willingly pay, or would it price them off the rails?  I don't know the answers to these questions, but Your anecdotal example of the joys of rail travel really do need more information.

  • Another great article! I started out reading the article hurriedly, anxious to provide feedback against rail travel between cities more than 3-4 hours apart (distances varying depending on effective speed).  By the time I was half way through the piece, I was having serious second thoughts. And by the time I reached the end, I decided to give in.

    I recently rode the MBTA between Boston and Providence.  The outbound service on a bi-level being PULLED by deisel locomotive over trackage shared with Acela represented one of the most (if not THE most) comfortable and efficient commuter operations I have tried in all my western excursions.

    My son and I fly Denver-Chicago frequently.  The return airfare for the two of us, including free bag checks on Southwest, is cheaper and significantly more convenient than driving. We would opt for the train if the service offerings were reasonable.  

  • Larry,

    Our search for answers related to the comparisons of rail and air travel may finally be forthcoming.  

    The Texas Central Railway, a Japanese-U.S. partnership led by the Central Japan Railway Co., plans to front $10 billion to launch a 220 mph passenger-rail service connecting Dallas and Houston, according to May 9 article posted on the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s website.

    Led by Central Japan Railway Co., the investors say they will not seek any state or federal funds to operate the line, which could be running by 2020. Instead, they plan to recoup costs through fares. The group has started looking at potential routes to connect the two cities, which are about 250 miles apart, according to the group.

    I still have my doubts that the project will get legs but if nothing else it is a bold statement that begs discussion!

  • Thanks, Blaine.  Dallas-Houston would seem to be just about the ideal distance.  By the time you get to the airport (whether by private auto or local transportation, it makes no difference which), clear TSA, fly between Dallas and Houston, and then get to final destination, a 220 mph high-speed train probably would be competitive with flying - depending on the fare, of course.