Corridors and Long-Hauls, Continued

Posted by George Hamlin
on Friday, June 1, 2018

It strikes me that at least a fair amount of the concern being expressed recently that Amtrak’s long-haul routes might be in peril stems from history, and, to some extent, nostalgia for a more glorious time.  Railroads helped knit the country together (for that matter, Canada, also), making possible routine round-trip travel from coast to coast possible.  As recently in our history as the World War II era, the rail mode was the only reasonable alternative for long-distance travel for most people.

Losing this “pride of place” almost certainly plays a role in the angst being experienced by many people that have some connection with railroading, including railfans, when Amtrak’s future is questioned.  This isn’t the first modal shift of this sort that has occurred, as I suspect that the relatively small numbers of canal, steamboat and stagecoach enthusiasts could attest.

However, railroads continue to play a major role in our society, from both economic and social perspectives.  Freight railroads continue to knit the economy together, far more efficiently than in the ‘glory years’, and have adapted well to participating in truly global traffic flows, as well as removing a substantial volume of traffic from the nation’s highways.

On the passenger side, while long-haul seems to have fallen out of favor, particularly compared with growth in the population and economy since World War II, short-haul in the form of commuter service has undergone a Renaissance, and is now installed in places like northern Virginia and Nashville, Tennessee, where they had little, if any presence in prior times.  As I’ve noted previously, the same applies to short/medium-haul corridors under Amtrak, in a number of areas.

The question in my mind is not, should we get rid of the long-hauls, but rather, how can we play to the railroads’ apparent strengths in short and medium-haul in areas of significant population density?

Corridors work best when they don’t have to work in isolation.  Considering the ‘classic’ Northeast Corridor as Washington to Boston, it is fed by both the Keystone and Empire Service operations, both of which are corridors in their own right.  (They also are fed by commuter services, for that matter, and Empire Service also has feeders from Montreal and Vermont.)  Corridors also function well when they connect large population nodes, and are able to benefit smaller intermediate points, as well. 

Let’s look at how the Corridor concept could be adapted to at least some portions of the current long-haul route system, using the Crescent as an example.  Traffic from the Northeast Corridor north of New York, as well as Empire and Keystone Service feed into the train at New York and Philadelphia, enhancing its traffic prospects.

South of Washington, portions of its route already are involved in corridor type service, including the Lynchburg-Washington segment of the Virginia-sponsored regional to Roanoke (which itself feeds the Northeast Corridor) and Greensboro-Charlotte, via North Carolina’s Piedmont service, with Amtrak’s Carolinian integrated into the Piedmont schedule pattern over this portion of its route.

What about south of Charlotte?  I suspect that the Charlotte-Atlanta portion of the Crescent’s route is probably a good candidate for corridor-type service.  An extension from Atlanta to Birmingham might be a possibility also. Another one worth considering would be a Charlotte-Columbia extension of the Piedmont Service, if South Carolina could be persuaded to participate. 

A daytime Washington-Atlanta train probably could reinforce the cluster of corridors contemplated here with service to and from Washington and Atlanta for points in the Carolinas and southern Virginia now served at undesirable times.   This could also apply to the Crescent’s schedule south of Atlanta, which already resembles a daytime corridor service; somewhat like that of the Palmetto along the Atlantic Coast. 

Similar principles also apply to the Lake Shore Limited, which already is an integral part of Empire Service.  Daytime Cleveland-Chicago service would be high on my list; Buffalo-Chicago might also be considered.  For that matter, Cleveland-Buffalo-New York could be a possibility.  In the summer of 1953, the NYC’s Empire State Express required 12 hours and 25 minutes to travel from New York to Cleveland.  Surprisingly, as of Amtrak’s November 2017 timetable, the Lake Shore required slightly less than 12 hours to cover this route, albeit at an undesirable time in Cleveland.

The nodes that define corridor services work best when they have multiple frequencies in multiple directions.  Convenient daytime service on both the New York and Chicago routes, including their numerous intermediate points, would create more opportunities in Cleveland for Amtrak than the present schedules there; an extension to and from Pittsburgh on the Pennsylvanian’s route would provide even more reasons for Clevelanders to consider Amtrak for their travels.

There likely are other potential applications, as well.  A second Chicago-Kansas City train in the daytime, perhaps with an extension to Tulsa or Oklahoma City might be a possibility.  New Orleans-Houston-San Antonio could be another.

So, how do we find out if any of these might work?   I’d submit that an experiment might be in order.  Take either the Crescent or Lake Shore route and install a daytime overlay on the portion of these routes now operated at night.  See what happens. 

There are a variety of outcomes possible, including the most optimistic, that traffic would be stimulated enough to support both the existing and new services.  Another alternative might be no stimulation of new traffic; while unlikely, in my opinion, it would be good to know this.  And finally, the daytime service could essentially steal most of the traffic from the overnight services; if so, the market will have spoken.  An advantage of conducting this type of experiment is that it would occur in locations where Amtrak already is a known quantity.

Notwithstanding the risks inherent in this methodology, wouldn’t it be a good thing to know if it could help intercity passenger travel by rail in the U.S. grow?

Photo by George W. Hamlin

Piedmont Service train 73 at Concord, North Carolina

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