Populist movements don't build themselves ...

... It doesn't matter what the "horse race" outcome of the campaign is, if we fight the campaign. Fighting it, we learn how to fight. Learning how to fight political battles, we become citizens again. Becoming citizens again, we reclaim the Republic that lies dormant beneath the bread and circuses of modern American society.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sunday Train: Rescuing the Cardinal from Demise

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

When looking at the famously mis-titled "Vision for High Speed Rail in America" map trotted out last year, showing those of state-planned High Speed Rail corridors that have already applied for and received official designation as High Speed Rail corridors ... there are ghosts on that map.

The Ghosts of Trains Past, also known as the Amtrak long distance routes.

As discussed on November 8th of last year in Rescuing the Innocent Amtrak Numbers from SubsidyScope, some of these ghosts are healthier than others. One of the ones in the most dire shape is the Cardinal, responsible for the only line on that map that enters either West Virgnia or eastern Kentucky.

Why it does so badly, and how it might be fixed up a bit, after the fold.

---[ Discussion at Agent Orange and elsewhere around the web ]---

Conventional Long Distance Rail Aint Easy

When tossing aside the fatally flawed SubsidyScope treatment of capital depreciation ... and I am still eagerly awaiting their consideration of the subsidies to road and air transport that uses the same approach to capital depreciation ... most long haul Amtrak routes have similar financial performance. If one says, "long haul Amtrak routes recover between 40% and 50% of their operating costs from fare revenue", that would cover ten of fifteen services:
  • from the Southwest Chief (IL/CA) and City of New Orleans (IL/LA) at 49%,
  • through the Silver Meteor (NY/FL), Capital Ltd (DC/IL), Coast Starlight (WA/CA), Crescent (NY/LA), Texas Eagle (IL/TX), California Zephyr (IL/CA),
  • to the Silver Star (NY/FL) and Lakeshore Ltd (MA|NY/IL) at 41%.

There are three that did better in the year that SubsidyScope considered: the specialty Auto Train between Virginia and Florida, at 85%, the Empire Builder from Illinois to Washington and Oregon at 61%, and the Palmetto from New York to Georgia at 55%.

And two that did worse: the Cardinal at 34%, and the Sunset Ltd from Louisiana to California at 23%.

This is not a diary about "fixing long distance rail". Whether 40% to 50% is a reasonable return given the other benefits that long distance rail may provide is not something I am fixing to consider tonight.

Instead, considering the norm of 41% to 49% ... the Cardinal falls short. That means that if the long knives come out, its neck is not far from the chopping block. And that is true even if in fact the average long haul route does provide twice as many external benefits as passenger benefits, and so it is true even if the Cardinal breaks even in an economic sense.

And its worse than that. The Cardinal is a route that runs three times a week in each direction. The final leg of its route to Chicago and first leg of its route from Chicago is "the Hoosier State", which runs as an independent short corridor routes the rest of the week.

And the Hoosier State is in even more dire straits ... where 9 of 26 regional corridor routes have operating cost recovery between 64% and 79%; 20 of 26 have operating cost recovery above 50%; and 25 out of 26 have operating cost recover above 30% ...

... the Hoosier State has operating cost recovery of 15%.

I have seen a comment to the effect that when Senator Byrd is no longer there to defend it, the Cardinal is going to be shut down. While I have no idea how accurate that comment is - it is certainly plausible.

Oh. My. God. How does it hit 34%?

And then you look at the schedule of the Cardinal, and wonder how it gets enough fares to cover 34% of its operating costs.

Consider it as a train to get to Chicago. Westbound, it is scheduled to arrive in Chicago at 10:35 in the morning, after leaving Indianapolis at 6:30am - that is the daily Hoosier State schedule. It is scheduled to arrive in Indianapolis at 4:44am, after leaving Cincinnati at 1:10am. It traveled through Kentucky between 10pm and midnight, and through West Virginia between 6:30pm and 9:35pm, leaving the capital of Charleston WV at 8:10pm.

Scanning up the timetable, the train got into southern West Virginia from western Virginia, and to there from Washington, DC. And that is the real surprise: this route which spends so much of its time heading up toward Chicago from the east by southeast ... originates in New York. Of course, nobody would take it from New York to Chicago, even if they were determined to rider the train, since its the slowest of the New York to Chicago trains.

The problem is, if you stop the train and turn it around at Washington DC, there does not seem to be a lot that is gained ... because the total route end to end is 23:25 from DC to Chicago, and 24:10 from Chicago to DC. So when taking turn-over operations and the schedule slack to cope with the inevitable delays, its hard to tailor the timetable to provide appropriate return trip schedules without losing quite a lot of time sitting idle.

As to how it hits 34%, that could well be on that part between New York and western Virginia ... which is part of the reason why the schedule timing is so poor for the majority of the route.

Except, with a little imagination ... it might be possible to fix the schedule up.

Fixing the Cardinal

The balance of this diary is done on a simple rule. I transport the current scheduled times between cities from existing Amtrak scheduled routes to the route that I am building here. Sure, in the Sunday Train, I've spent more than a little time writing about High Speed Rail ... but here, I am sticking to the conventional rail Amtrak.

That does not guarantee that these timetables are either feasible or, if feasible, exact. I have no inside information on rail system bottlenecks, and so this should be seen as nothing but a rough sketch. However, its a rough sketch draw with the brush of existing scheduled services.

Start out by breaking the Hoosier State free of the Cardinal. It might run, for instance, down from Chicago at 7:30am, and return to Chicago at 7:00pm, if that is what transport studies indicates is the most appealing schedule. It might make one round trip and one single trip, providing different MWF and TRS schedules. It might run from Chicago through Indianapolis to Cincinnati and back each day. If running past Miami of Ohio in the middle of the day makes it look promising, it could add a Miami University station. Whatever looks to be the most attractive to the most passengers riding the train for the longest trips.

Now, don't think about the Cardinal route as a New York route, think about it as a Chicago route. Chicago to Indianapolis is covered. Chicago to Cincinnati through to DC is a much longer ride. And the best way to cut time out of the ride is to make it a sleeper service.

So leave Chicago at 10pm. The train runs through Indianapolis between 4am and 5am, then reached Cincinnati at 7:45am. It gets to Charleston, WV about 12:30pm, starts passing through western Virgnia around 4:30pm, and hits Washington around 10:10pm.

OK, now, we have a train arriving in DC at about 10:10pm ... why not make it a night train as well. I'll have it continue around 11pm heading up toward Pittsburgh, along the Capital Corridor route. It gets to Pittsburgh about 7am, Cleveland about 10am, Toledo 12:30pm, and gets to Chicago about 4pm. That gives it six hours to get ready to start the loop all over again.

The key to the night train scheduling is to make sure that the reverse trip is a similar night train. So a second train runs the reverse route, leaving Chicago at about noon, getting to Cleveland about 7:15pm and Pittsburgh 10:40pm, then DC at 6:30 the next morning. Leave DC at 8:30 to arrive at Charleston WV 5:30pm, Cincinnati at 10:30pm, and Chicago at about 7:55 the next morning.

Now, this is still a three-times-a-week train, but now the overnight service into Chicago arrives before the Start of Business, getting maximum value from the sleeper train. The same thing happens heading southwest into DC on the Cleveland/Pittsburgh leg.

This route also allows more fine tuning of service to transport demand than is normally possible on such a long route ... because alternate days without a Cardinal service can be provided a complementary service. For example, the original Cardinal could run from New York through DC to Charleston in a day, and return the following day. An alternate daytime Cleveland/Pittsburgh service would connect to the Northeast Corridor further north, running from Chicago to Pittsburgh and then to Philadelphia, with late evening connections still available both north and south.

Its not perfect - but perfection is a fantasy

Of course, this is not a perfect schedule. For one thing, just like the Cardinal, there will be delays, because the route is not designed to allow trains to run without delays.

And of course, its too damn slow.

However, it provides Ohio's two largest cities with intercity train service that is not between midnight and 6am. Each obtains daytime connections with part of its economic hinterland - up the Ohio River Valley for Cincinnati and along Lake Eries for Cleveland. And existing service to West Virginia and Kentucky is provided at a more appealing time of day.

If the Cardinal is going to get its operating cost recovery ratio up into the 40%~50% range, and get its neck off the chopping block ... turning its philosophy from the "one of the most out of the way conceivable trips from New York to Chicago" to a long Appalachian Loop out of Chicago with transfers at Washington DC may well be the way to go about it.

Midnight Oil: Truganini


dejv said...

If there's some Midwester service in need of Talgos, it's Cardinal. The new cars are forward-compatible with express HSR (with possible exception of level boarding) and its tilting could easily shave 2-2.5 of 11 hours through curvy Charlottesville-Cincy section. This alone should make possible daily DC-Chicago service with 3 trainsets (+ one spare).

I used Cardinal during my trip to USA 7 years ago. The train was almost full but its ticket was about half price of regular NYC-DC service and seat pitch was very generous.

BruceMcF said...

DC/Chicago, cut 3 hours out, and DC/Chicago is down to about 21 hrs., which is getting close to daily service each way with two sets territory.

The question would be corridor capacity: its one thing to be able to go faster, if there's a 20mph coal train in front of you, the difference between 40mph around a curve and 79mph around a curve is entirely hypothetical.

dejv said...

IIRC, the freight trains run every 2-3 hours at healthy 45-55 mph, so the trains shouldn't interfere very much, especially if the line is remotely controlled to allow efficient wrong-track overtakes. This covers whole WV section. There could still be problems at VA approach to drainage divide (according to this page, it's twice steeper than whole WV section) and single tracked line through Blue Ridge Mountains.

jim said...

NYP-CIN is already in day-train territory. The run takes 18 hours. Two sets, 6AM to midnight each direction. It's the CIN-CHI segment that needs improvement: 320 miles in 8.5 hours: less than 40 mph.

Recall: Amtrak tried to discontinue this train once already. The 1979 act allowed Amtrak to cancel routes, subject to congressional disapproval. 1980: Amtrak announces cancellation of the (then Chicago to Washington) Cardinal. WV and Cincinnati combine to ferociously lobby against it. There were negotiations. Upshot: Amtrak agreed to restore the train, BUT only three days a week with minimal services (there's never been a baggage car, there's only been a dining car for two years and that by accident and there's only ever been one sleeper), BUT it'd run to NYP. The compromised was enshrined in official congressional disapproval of the cancellation.

To reopen the compromise requires congressional action. Amtrak won't attempt to do that unless it can get some real reduction in its losses from the train. Obviously one way of reducing the losses from the train is to get it cancelled (and I still think that's the likely outcome if WV can't wield a big congressional stick); the other is to turn it into a day train. A daily day-train from NY to Cincy would cost about as much to run as the three day a week night train from Chicago to New York. It might well attract double the ridership.

Couple that with extending the Hoosier State to Cincinnati, and Cincy's looking fairly good (especially if Triple-C can be brought into Cincinnati Union Terminal). WV would lose its train to Chicago, but would get a daily train into the NEC.

I don't know if anyone is looking to broker a compromise, but if someone is, there's a possible outcome.