Amtrak’s latest addition to the Northeast Corridor network, the once daily Lynchburg extension, is overperforming. Both Amtrak’s press release and local reporters brag that this train has overperformed ridership expectations by a factor of 2.5 and revenue expectations by a factor of 3. As a result, it has been consistently operationally profitable, in fact the only train to have this distinction other than the Acela.
The remarkable thing about it is that service levels aren’t high. The average speed south of Washington is mediocre, about 80 km/h. NARP talks about the importance of frequency; but the train is once daily, and is offset by only two hours from the Crescent, a long-distance train covering the same route. There were weak signs of pent-up demand on the Crescent – it sometimes sells out due to limited capacity, but even then it loses money like all other long-distance trains.
The best explanation for this success is that, although the route is slow, so are the competing highways. There are no Interstates that realistically compete with this train; I-81 is too far west. Google Maps gives a Washington-Lynchburg travel time of 3:32, versus 3:46 on the Regional and 3:30 on the Crescent. Add in traffic and the train can beat the car.
A more general point is that bad service that is failing could become more successful if it were improved. German regional trains that were closed due to low ridership when they ran just a few times per day are now flourishing after reopening on an hourly clockface schedule. And several Amtrak corridor runs improved their ridership and finances after more than daily or twice daily frequency was added; they just have to compete with faster roads, so they still lose money.
The next issue is then what other gaps there are in the Interstate network to be filled by trains. I’d say the biggest is Chicago-Kansas City, on which the Southwest Chief takes 7:11 and, since the only all-freeway route detours through St. Louis, driving takes 8:33. But this is a much longer distance, and the route is served by air. At shorter range, some other options I’m thinking of are Chicago-Fort Wayne and New York-Albany-Burlington. Any other suggestions?
Edit: for a similar view on frequency, see this rant, sourced to, I believe, the URPA. There are a lot of things in there that are just insane, but the point about financial performance improving with service levels is true. Too bad the implication is that those extra frequencies belong on long-distance rather than medium-distance trains. With the same equipment as just one extra long-distance run, Amtrak could run 4-5 times daily frequencies on an important corridor run.