Monday, August 18, 2008

Intercity Passenger Rail Ridership Keeps on Rising

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

RailPAC has the latest ridership numbers for Amtrak California services, and they're record numbers:

Capitol Corridor (July 2008):

161,731 passengers +32.6% vs. 2007
(another all-time record, and still the third busiest route in the country,
by a wide margin)
Passengers for 10 months YTD: 1,390,474 (10 months YTD: +15.5%)
(total riders for the latest 12 months: 1,637,130, +15.5% above prior 12 months)

$2,236,661 revenue +34.3% vs. 2007 (10 months YTD: +21.3%)

The farebox recovery revenue-to-cost ratio for July is 64.9% (an all time high), and the year-to-date revenue-to-cost ratio is 55%.

No transportation system in this country pays for itself, roads included. That being said, 65% farebox recovery is pretty damned good. The numbers from the other two Amtrak California corridors:

Pacific Surfliners (July 2008):

301,374 passengers +12.3% vs. 2007, still the second busiest route in the nation, by a wide margin
Passengers for 10 months YTD: 2,369,792 (10 months YTD: +7.3%)
As noted above, this is more monthly passengers than the Acela Express on the Northeast Corridor, for the 3rd consecutive month

$6,002,911 revenue +18.1% vs. 2007 (10 months YTD: +9.1%)

San Joaquins (July 2008):

100,564 passengers +32.1% vs. 2007, now fifth busiest in the nation (overtaking New York State’s Empire Corridor Service)
Passengers for 10 months YTD: 777,514 (10 months YTD: +17.2%)

$3,444,847 revenue +47.5% vs. 2007 (10 months YTD: +18.3%)

I'm sure there are still some deniers out there who will argue that HSR will have trouble attracting riders, but if the comparatively lesser Amtrak California services are witnessing huge ridership growth, surely HSR will thrive in CA just as it has everywhere else in the world it's been adopted.

These numbers are impressive, but they're about to hit a ceiling. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration has been slow to release Prop 1B bond money for new cars, and on the Capitol Corridor and Pacific Surfliner trains, it's not uncommon to encounter standing-room only crowds. And of course the routes have inherent physical limitations in that the state doesn't own the tracks, meaning expanded services and faster travel times aren't yet possible.

Of course, these intercity services don't provide the speed that most intrastate travelers want. If we're going to give Californians a viable alternative to increasingly expensive and yet less available flights, it's time we got started with high speed rail.


Spokker said...

Rode on the Coast Starlight last week. It was packed. The conductor had to ask singles to move to other seats so two, three, and four person groups could sit together.

I was checking the price of roomettes earlier, and it's sold out conditions all over. Things will slow down next month as they usually do for Amtrak, but that's when Metrolink ridership is going to get real interesting.

From The Bottleneck Blog:

"Metrolink ridership up

The commuter rail service averaged 48,289 riders on weekdays in July, which is a new record and a 16% increase over July 2007 (not July 2008 as stated earlier). "Ridership usually picks up in September each year, so it will be interesting to see what happens this year because we're in unchartered territory," said Denise Tyrrell, a Metrolink spokeswoman."

Anonymous said...

We are not going to lose!!! YES on prop1 PS ..what are we going to name the trains?

Rafael said...

There'll be a lot of pressure on the Governor to release prop 1B funds earmarked for rail as soon as the budget mess is finally sorted out. Oil may have come off its summer peak for now, but prices at the pump are still above the pain threshold for many low and average earners.

The new rolling stock can't come fast enough, perhaps they'll even refurbish some old cars as a stopgap measure.

Thanks to the FRA, passenger rail operators cannot buy off-the-shelf rolling stock from international suppliers. With HSR projects going full throttle all over the world, they cannot be bothered to develop custom products for the tiny US passenger rail market. As a result, orders for new rolling stock typically have lead times of a year or two.

Let's hope they're at least smart enough to order only full double deck DMU gear (e.g. this) and spec in courtesy electrical outlets plus space for internet networking and proxy server equipment. Those freight-related delays are going to get worse before they get better, so passengers will want to be productive in transit long before California HSR goes into service.

Rafael said...

@ cal -

not quite sure what you are referring to. The trainset hardware will no doubt have numerical reference numbers, but may well sport something more evocative as well, e.g. "Spirit of your town here" or some such.

Amtrak has a tradition of naming not the hardware but rather the services it is applied to, i.e. Coast Starlight, California Zephyr, Southwest Chief, San Joaquin etc. Selected trains elsewhere in the world also sport such names, e.g. the Rocky Mountaineer, the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, the Blue Train, the Ghan and the various Trenhotels.

California HSR, much like similar systems everywhere else, will be a modern, comfortable but otherwise utilitarian transportation service. It won't be about the journey, the food or the views - it'll be about scooting around the state at a moment's notice on renewable power and knowing exactly when you'll get there.

Giving the SF-Anaheim HSR service a name would send the wrong signal and, possibly cause some people to assume a non-existent link with Amtrak and all they associate with that. I really hope CHSRA isn't kicking any names around.

Anonymous said...


you write:

"No transportation system in this country pays for itself, roads included. That being said, 65% farebox recovery is pretty damned good. "

As you point out here, all the passenger systems loose money, but you and the CHSRA are still willing to promote the lies that the HSR system will not only not loose money, but will generate huge profits. Those profits are going to pay for the expansion of the system to San Diego and Sacramento. They are also going to pay to the private investors a nice return on their investment.


Matthew Melzer said...

Anonymous @ 3:57:

Top HSR services around the world operate in the black "above the rail," that is, after the initial capital investment. As with all passenger transportation infrastructure, there need to be public assistance with initial construction, equipment procurement, and other capital projects. That doesn't preclude good long-term value for investors.

arcady said...

Yes, ridership on Amtrak has increased tremendously, but it's still a very, very long way from 6 trains per day to 4 trains per hour, and the HSR project wants to make that leap all in one go. That's what worries me.

Robert Cruickshank said...

I'll be on the Starlight at the end of next week, headed to Santa Ana and back. I'm expecting it to be packed, seeing as it's Labor Day weekend. I usually like to hang out in the Lounge Car, but that may be difficult on a sold-out train.

Anon, my point was that no existing transportation system in the US pays for itself. True HSR on the model of the TGV DOES pay for itself, as Matt Melzer explained. I fully expect our own project to do the same.

arcady, I don't think it's that big a leap. The ridership numbers suggest the demand is there now - all we have to do is build the rails so that more trains can run more frequently. A lack of speed and a lack of cars is the only thing holding back passenger rail ridership in CA.

Anonymous said...


There's a distinct difference between Amtrak and the HSR concept. Amtrak is a slow inefficient system with outdated equipment. Its sole political purpose is simply to preserve the existence of passenger rail service for future expansion (ie, CAHSR or the high speed system they're trying to make in Texas and the midwest). Amtrak serviceability is greatly restricted by certain factors, the biggest being a lack of capacity on existing routes, a lack of funding, a lack of equipment, not owning its own tracks (freight railroads own the tracks Amtrak runs on, which causes massive delays), and political clout. The service is terribly inconsistent and unprofessional. An op-ed I read in a transit magazine by a guy who lived in America and visited Europe as part of contract work for a rail system said the Europeans said that the American passenger rail system is comparable to that of 3rd world countries. It doesn't compare to HSR.

HSR on the contrary is an ultra-efficient system with seemless connectability, speed, and reliability. Its going to have its own dedicated. France had the same problem in the 1960s with inconsistent inefficient passenger service until they introduced their TGV service.

Rafael said...

@ arcady -

just because the HSR network will have the capacity to support trains at headways of just a few minutes (not 15) does not mean that this capacity will be used on day one. That certainly hasn't been the case for any other HSR network.

CHSRA has always been realistic and said that it would take a small number of years to build ridership levels to the point where operations are self-sustaining. Whatever is left over after those are paid for are then supposed be used to pay for the extensions to San Diego and Sacramento before any private investors actually see any return at all. Time will tell if that's really how it will play out.

Robert Cruickshank said...

And speaking of the Coast Starlight, its ridership was up 27.7% in July.

Should add new momentum for the Amtrak funding bill currently before the Senate, which would as I understand it guarantee 5 years of funding at a higher level than the starvation diet Amtrak's had for most of the Bush administration.

Brandon in California said...

It's very likely the first service will be between LA and San Francisco. I think we can assume that right now; right?

Or, the very first starter segment could be an initial segment that operates along a shorter distance dependant on completion of tracks - similar to how BART rolled out service in the first few months or year (Caldecott Tunnel segment was not ready when the Bay Tube service began).

When LA-SF is ready I suspect 1 hour service leaving terminus's during broad peak period times with possibly 90 minute or 120min (2hr) separation during the low-demand times; mid-day weekends or Sundays.

As demand increases and as more segments become service ready, more trains would be layered into the schedule.

Upon build-out, which could be a few years after the initial segment opens, I suspect peak period trains could be leaving San Francisco at least 4 or more times per hour. Maybe up to 6 or 8 dependant on local support for local or regional service that is layered in (and not running full length of state).

Remember, there will be about 5 long-haul lines:

SF to LA and onto Anahiem/Irvine
SF to LA and onto San Diego
SF to Sacramento
Sac to LA and onto Anahiem/Irvine
Sac to LA and onto San Diego

Some trains will not go all the way to either terminus's, like San Diego, and maybe short-turned in LA. Additionally, some trains will be regional or express and not serve each and every station.

Due to size, demand and location in the planned system, stations with the most scheduled train departures will very likely be San Jose and LA Union Station.

At these stations, at peak times for state-wide service, plus possible local and regional service, I can imagine trains could be scheduled seemingly minutes apart for a singular direction.

arcady said...

France had, and has a very extensive existing passenger rail network, and that has been the key to making the TGV successful, with through service to places far outside the high speed network itself. It wouldn't surprise me if over half the TGV passenger-miles are not actually on the high speed network at all. Even Spain has dual-gauge trains for through service from the AVE network onto broad-gauge conventional lines. And that's something the HSRA people seem to be missing. Yes, things are more difficult in the US, but that's just because there hasn't been any impetus to change the silly FRA regulations, but the HSR project may well have been the thing.

Brandon in California said...

^^^ My above post was in response to arcady at 9:23.

The CHSRA does not intend to start levels of service that high from the get-go.

It cannot.

Segments will open up in a phased fashion.

Additionally, scheduled trips and enabling the added capacity (also include train length into equation), would be based on demand.

Based on ridership reports mentioned above, plus awareness of substantial population growth, I very much suspect demand will be there.

Spokker said...

"The service is terribly inconsistent"

Can't argue this one. While the Coast Starlight can offer a relaxing environment (I was surprised how quiet it was in coach on the two sold out trains I rode this Summer) and incredible views, there is a reason more people don't take it, it takes up a whole day of travel to go anywhere in California. My trip, 11 hours from San Jose to Los Angeles. I loved every second of it, but I understand that for many people, it's not their cup of tea.

On-time performance doesn't help either. While improved over years past, it's still pretty shoddy.

My two trips were 52 and 3 hours late into Los Angeles respectively. Actually, the 52 minute delay was beneficial to me, since I didn't have to wait as long for my Surfliner connection, but it's still not desirable for passengers not continuing south, or for anyone waiting for the Starlight to show up at the station mid-route.

"and unprofessional"

This I take issue with. Sure, there are horror stories out there, but I have found Amtrak employees to be mostly excellent. Conductors are always willing to help with problems and provide information on delays. Cafe car attendants are upbeat and hard working.

Many employees have personality, make smalltalk, and are free to joke around. Announcements over the PA have actually been funny, with passengers chuckling at the staff's corny jokes.

My experiences have been on the Surfliner (many trips), the San Joaquins, and the Coast Starlght (a few trips). Maybe it's only Amtrak in California that has their act together, I don't know. But I've had nothing but great trips on their trains.

arcady said...

brandon: I don't think we can assume anything that the HSRA hasn't told us. And I haven't heard anything about phased construction, or operation on only part of the line. The impression I get is that they are planning this whole thing as a standalone system, and it would be pretty much useless until a whole segment (LA to SF or San Diego) is opened. The French model would be to run the high speed trains over normal speed lines until the high speed line can be extended.

Brandon in California said...

Yes, the intent is to build it as quickly, safely and expediously as possible.

With that said, trains will be running before the whole system is complete.

If the LA to SF segment is completed first, the tracks will not sit idle until Sacramento and San Diego segments come online... which could be years later.

Additionally, and as I understand the project, construction of the first phase will not begin uniformily across the whole segment. There are not enough construction workers, equipment, or concrete, etc, available all at the same time.

Even the first phase would be construncted in phases and probably ordrered based on segment/project readiness of those segments; ie, property aquisition, local agreements, design and engineering documents ready, etc.

And, I have seen reference that a Valley segment would be first (envision ground breaking cerimony in Fresno or something like that).

Also, train set testing needs to occur and long straight track for top speed is needed. The Valley is the longest, maybe only, segment that would have trains run up to 220mph.

And to that, it is quite possible that a segment linking something like Fresno to SF could be ready a year ahead of a segment to LA. In such an instance, yes, I suspect limited service would be phased in between something like Frseno and SF.

Voters would want it. The legislature would want it. Why, because we're paying for it and want to see a return as expideciously as possible.

It's sepculation, but a very meritable and palatable phase-in of service. And, it would not set a precident. SF BART started similarly as I am sure other systems did too.

Anonymous said...

Rafael..what I was thinking was a service Acela or Eurostar..Im sure CAHRSA is going to give it some marketing name.

arcady said...

Brandon: and I expect there would be no through HSR trains to San Diego or Sacramento until the HSR line is extended there? Because it'd be a whole lot more cost effective to start building ridership by running HSR trains on normal electrified lines before going all-out on the fancy and expensive HSR line.

Robert Cruickshank said...

I think brandon's right that you're going to see a phased construction approach. It's unclear though whether the HSR system will open in pieces or not - I would guess that it would, but it depends on which sections we're talking about. SF to SJ would bring in a lot of revenue. I'm not sure that's true of Fresno to Bakersfield.

arcady, the thing is Amtrak California trains already cover much of the existing HSR route. The part they don't is the crucial missing link - between Bakersfield and LA. If that gets built first, then it would be conceivably possible to run Amtrak California trains through it so the San Joaquins can connect to LA. (Or it might not be possible - I'm not a train tech expert.)

In any event, it's not clear to me how the French method is all that applicable here, or all that superior to what's being proposed.

Robert Cruickshank said...

The other problem, arcady, is that we just don't have the tracks to begin with. If you wanted to have "HSR service" from LA to SD you're not going to be able to improve upon the times the Surfliners already do without investing in tracks. And if you're building new tracks, why not build them as HSR tracks?

Brandon in California said...

I am unsure Amtrak could operate their standard trainsets on the proposed system. I am speaking to locations where grades are too steep.

HSR can climb steeper grades while Amtrak, or other frieght for that matter, cannot.

I believe the segment from Bakesfield into LA includes some steep grades.

There are also FRA requirments that would need to be addressed concerning compatibity of equipment; test worthiness and so forth.

Spokker said...

HSR could connect to the San Joaquins before the rest of the system is built. There is currently no rail connection between LA-Bakersfield.

Brandon in California said...

Robert, That's true.

There are no applicable electrified tracks anywhere in the state. And, to me it does not make sense to put up catenary along existing tracks when 1) HSR tracks will be constructed elsewhere and 2) there is still FRA requirments to deal with concerning incompatible equipment.

By the way, many of the coastal communities from San Diego to LA adamantly opposed catenary b/c it would obstruct views and so forth. They also opposed double tracking where only single tracks currenlty exists.

Think Carlsbad, Solano Beach, San Juan Capistrano, etc.

Thus, CHSRA ended up with the I-15 corridor and going through Riverside to connect San Diego to Los Angeles.

Arggg! I still think the San Diego connection can cut back over to the coast sooner. Rather than going up all the way to Riverside it seems that a line could connect from Murrieta over to Irvine through the hills. Likely more expensive, but it would trim the travel time from San Diego to LA substantially it appears.

Spokker said...

I would go for improvements to the LOSSAN corridor rather than building HSR there. The right decision to go inland was made.

Isn't San Juan Capistrano a historical area? I can't imagine anything would or could be done there. I believe it's going to remain a bottleneck for the foreseeable future.

According to the route map, LA-San Diego is still 1 hour and 18 minutes, faster than driving and current rail services.

Anonymous said...


HSR through Palmdale will likely be built with grades of up to 3.5% because high speed trains can easily climb that. The current Tehachapi Pass grade maxes out at 2.2% and trains crawl very slowly over that, but those are freight. I believe that an Amtrak CA F59PHI plus four California cars could make it up 3.5%, but it wouldn't be very fast and I don't know that it has the adhesion to start from a standstill. Diesel multiple units would fare better, but there's no way Amtrak CA would spend money on special equipment that would just be unnecessary in a couple years anyway.

Rafael said...

@ cal -

there's no point in giving a service product a special name unless you have a range of products on offer. Initially, there will be a grand total of one HSR service: San Francisco to Anaheim.

Some of the European HSR services do have distinct names, e.g. Eurostar and Thalys, but that's mostly because of new multinational ownership structures. By contrast, SNCF refers to its various TGV services simply as "Reseau" (i.e. network), "Atlantique", "Est" etc.

High speed rail does engender national or regional pride whenever a new route enters service or a new trainset design is unveiled, but as the novelty fades it quickly becomes exactly what it is supposed to be: useful, affordable, dependable infrastructure. It's not supposed to stir the heart, it's supposed to move your backside. Think "prosaic" rather than "poetic".

arcady said...

So... we don't have any electrified mainline, Amtrak service is slow and hardly adequate, and the FRA regulations preclude HSR trains running on normal tracks. So instead having the core system serve SF, San Jose, Oakland, Sacramento, Chico, Redding, Reno, Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside, and Palm Springs, it will only serve LA, SF, San Jose, and some points in between. And then you have to transfer, and not even a cross-platform transfer since the HSRA intends to build its own stations as much as possible. That's not cost-effective use of infrastructure. And why electrify existing tracks? Because it can be done quickly, in a matter of a couple years given money, and because plain old electrified train service can go 125 mph with no problems, and that will be the base network supporting the high speed system.

Oh, and as for the HSR routing between LA and San Diego, that's just to stimulate the real estate markets in places like Riverside and Temecula.

Unknown said...

As for the name - California High Speed Rail is pretty good for right now because the name describes the service pretty well. A practical name is more important at this stage; maybe California Bullet Train would be just as informative (The Japanese dont really call the Shinkansen 'bullet train', thats more for foreigner so us Californians could swoop that name if we wanted.)

As a San Diegan I would want the most direct route to LA so we could be more effeciently connected to the rest of the state. BUT having the line go through Riverside is actually a great idea in terms of ridership from daily commuters. In San Diego commuters could come from Riverside, Temecula, Murrieta and Escondido into central San Diego. Into LA commuters could come from Temecula, the Inland Empire, Ontario into downtown LA. So if there was a direct line from LA to SD than those heavily commuted routes would be left HSR-less and thus hurt HSR and Southern California at the expense of a few minutes saved from SD to LA.

Anonymous said...

Amtrak California trains already cover much of the existing HSR route. The part they don't is the crucial missing link - between Bakersfield and LA.

Actually, there is an even more critical missing link in the Amtrack California train system - Los Banos to Gilroy!

Brandon in California said...

Arcady, you can learn more about the proposed California HSR system on their website. They provided their adopted peferred alignment.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of ridership, it's kind of amusing to check out the Interactive Rail Map on the authority's website. For example, Transbay Terminal is listed as 32,000 boardings/day and 86 trains/day. Really? By my calculations each of the 43 southbound trains would have to carry 744 passengers.

Admittedly it's not unusual for the French to link one TGV Duplex + one TGV Reseau (922 pax) or even two Duplexes (1,090), but it strains credibility that the majority of trains would be two trainsets. More likely 86 would be the number of long distance trains serving the Bay Area (hardly unreasonable - the Bay Area currently has 450 flights per day to/from SoCal) while the 32,000 number includes passengers that would take regional HSR service from Gilroy and San Jose (but sadly not Altamont).

arcady said...

And they want to build a second deck of tracks over Diridon Station? Now that's a cost-effective use of money! Somehow I had thought that nine tracks was more than enough for the foreseeable future for Caltrain, Amtrak, ACE, and yes, even HSR, especially given that this is a through station for HSR, and Caltrain can terminate trains at Tamien as well. On the other hand, having only 6 platforms at the Transbay Terminal is somewhat worrisome, given that it will be a terminal for both Caltrain and the HSR trains.

Brandon in California said...

I am not familiar with the planned Diridion Station... Are you saying that station would have 2 decks of HSR only platforms? ...kinda like a subway station (like in Oakland).

Or, would the station be elevated above existing tracks and the freight/Amtrak/ACE/Caltrains stuff?

If it is the latter, what is the issue? ... cause the whole system is planned to be grade separated. Something is going to have to be over or under the existing tracks and not cross at-grade.

Can you provide a link to the plan you're talking about?

Robert Cruickshank said...

Regarding San Jose Diridon, it's the latter: HSR tracks are to go over the existing tracks, which presumably will still be used by Caltrain, ACE, Capitol Corridor, and freight.

Again, arcady, the issue isn't just that the existing tracks aren't electrified, but that the existing tracks are owned mostly by freight companies that don't have much room as-is to accommodate passenger rail. You need to build new tracks why not just build HSR tracks?

Brandon in California said...

Okay... I saw the YouTube NC3D version of the San Jose Station.

Looks as expected it should be if it's going to be elevated over roadways and stuff. So, it looks good to me.

arcady said...

No, the issue is that big capital projects only come along once in a rare while, so when they happen, everyone piles on as much as possible. So rather than maybe take a couple minute hit on travel time and use the existing tracks which are owned, operated, and dispatched by Caltrain, and which will be expanded and electrified in a few years, and the existing platforms at Diridon (plus the two new ones that Caltrain also plans to build), they decide that hey, since we have billions of dollars, might as well spend a couple hundred million on building a huge elevated structure over everything. You know, instead of other, less important things, like maybe running a train to Salinas or Monterey or something.

Anonymous said...

Caltrain is already planning an expansion to salinas and Monterey. It is completely independent of any HSR plans or funds.

Are we sure that the youtube of San Jose is the official policy of the CAHSR or is it an "artist's conception"? I haven't seen any definitive final design on the authority's web site.

arcady said...

Even if it is the artist's conception, shouldn't this worry you at least a little? Where's the actual final design? Where are their budget numbers coming from if they don't even know if they're going to be double-decking Diridon? And yes, Caltrain has been planning their expansion for a while now, and I know the money isn't really fungible between the two projects, but that in itself is part of the problem. We're looking at projects, where we really need to be looking at systems.

Robert Cruickshank said...

The Caltrain extension is going to Salinas only. We poor schmucks in Monterey have to await the Transportation Agency of Monterey County's decision later this year on whether to build light rail from Monterey to Castroville, where the Caltrain service will have a stop.

Several years ago there was talk of extending the Capitol Corridor to Monterey, or perhaps reviving the Del Monte Express from SF to Monterey. That seems to have died, even though TAMC bought the Monterey Branch Line in 2003. A shame too, because Monterey County is much better suited to Amtrak California style service than Caltrain - how are you going to get a family and their luggage down here for a weekend on Caltrain?!

But the bigger point is that HSR isn't likely to negatively impact our plans here. Caltrain and light rail will be dependent on local funding sources, and a sales tax is going to the ballot this November. The Coast Daylight is slated to begin in 2011, assuming Prop 1B funds are allocated to purchase new cars, which will help connect us to SF and LA.

I'd love to see Monterey County get some of the $950 million for non-HSR rail that's contained in Prop 1, but we'll see what happens.

As to double-decking Diridon Station, well, I'm not convinced it's necessary. Seems like an easy target for budget savings to me.

Anonymous said...


Your quote

"As to double-decking Diridon Station, well, I'm not convinced it's necessary. Seems like an easy target for budget savings to me."

But Robert you just don't understand. How can Rod Diridon possibly get by with a single level station with his name attached. After all, this is going to be a monument to him for all he has contributed to the transportation community for all of his hard work.

Golly how can we all not be willing to pay homage to this man who has almost single handedly been able to produce the VTA light rail system, which is, if not the most expensive light rail system ever built, one of the 2 or 3 most expensive. And, of course, its ridership has been absolutely outstanding, running at about 25 to 35% of expected goals.