Word-play and Passenger Trains January 12th, 2001
By Garl Latham, Dallas, TX.
From the January 2001 Western Rail Passenger Review
As hopes grow stronger for a new era of passenger railroading, and as we see dreams of the past become tomorrowâ€™s possibilities, several small but significant problems continue to foul our track to success. One such potential stumbling block involves semantics and the regrettable adoption of airline terminology by otherwise well-meaning railway passenger advocates. Quite often, one hears of “hub-and-spoke” systems being developed for modern corridors, whose trains will be “fast and frequent” – thereby able to effectively compete with the jet airplane. It all sounds wonderful…but, is it accurate, or even realistic? What should we be striving to achieve in our quest for a 21st century railroad?
One of the single biggest mistakes being made in the planning of new routes and services is the assumption that trains – to be successful in our age – need to emulate airplanes in design and operation. Nothing could be farther from the truth! If trains are to retain popular support and recapture market share, they need to be given an opportunity to build a firm foundation on their own strengths, taking advantage of their own natural superiorities, instead of following some misguided attempt at copying something else, pretending to be what they are not.
The desire to create “airliners on the ground” becomes no more evident than when reviewing current proposals for “high(er)-speed rail corridors” throughout these United States. When we read of new”hub-and-spoke” networks to be built using improved technologies which will offer “fast and frequent” service, those statements expose their proponentâ€™s ignorance of conventional passenger railroading and its inherent advantages. “Hubs” are not original to todayâ€™s commercial airline industry, but they have certainly come to maturity during the one-score years following deregulation. The speed of jets combined with a desire to reduce costs gave rise to their application throughout the U.S. Historically, within railroading, it was quite unusual to see this sort of operational pattern outside of local city streetcar lines and a handful of interurban roads.
Intercity railways perfected another routine which serves the public much more efficiently, exploiting the trainâ€™s strong points and accepting its limitations. Instead of forcing customers to rely upon hub-and-spoke traffic configurations, long distance trains were run as part of a grid-type route matrix, interchanging passengers not only at their terminal points, but also at certain intermediate stations. The towns where these junctions were located became collectively known as “Gateway Cities”. These gateways, from Cincinnati and Denver to Manly, Iowa and Effingham, Illinois, provided railroad travelers, many times by way of true “Union Station” facilities, the opportunity to transfer from one train – even one system – to another.
The railroadâ€™s proven “grid-and-gateway” pattern is infinitely more logical for todayâ€™s passenger train operators to have as a guide than an approach which was developed for another industry, using totally different technology. Airline-style hub-and-spoke operations area great deal less efficient when applied to rail-based services, and tend to be passenger unfriendly. If long distance trains are to truly work as a viable means of public transport – and they can indeed do so – then a railroad-minded scheme must needs be applied to their operation, which demands the traditional grid-and-gateway approach! The other oft-encountered phrase being bantered about among those proposing new-and-improved railway passenger systems is”fast-and- frequent”, as if those two things are goals in and of themselves. Once again, at face value, this seems to make sense. Why wouldnâ€™t we want our new trains to be “high speed” (after all, thatâ€™s what the public wants!) and running â€˜round the clock? Arenâ€™t these the reasons people travel by airplane to begin with?!
While dissecting this argument, we find another example of flawed thinking, based upon several erroneous assumptions. From the presumption that airplanes are the trainâ€™s biggest competitor (it is, in fact, the private automobile) to the myth that most people “fly”because of the jetâ€™s speed and service (when itâ€™s actually due to the airplane often being perceived as the only reasonable alternative to driving), itâ€™s easy to see the misguided mindset which prevails among many who otherwise would consider themselves transportation”experts” and believers in some sort of railway passenger service. When viewed in the proper perspective, it should be obvious that trains donâ€™t need to be “fast and frequent” as defined by todayâ€™s airline standards. A comfortable, reliable 79 to 90 mile-per-hour average over-the-road speed would be enough to woo a sizeable number of passengers to the rails, whereas top speeds in the 110 m/h range and beyond soon involve the operator in a classic example of”the law of diminishing returns” (it costs too much to maintain the infrastructure versus the time and revenue benefits derived from that additional speed). Also, “frequent” in a railway setting does not mean the same thing as “frequent” to the typical airline patron of the year 2000. It would be wonderful (and quite adequate) to see four or five trains every day on most “corridors” (even current Chicago- based proposals revolve around a maximum eight train-per-day frequency);Southwest Airlines in comparison brags about having 45 non-stops each business day between Dallas and Houston!
If our government could ever be convinced to make the investment necessary for the construction and maintenance of a new passenger railway network (similar to the Interstate II proposal from Amtrak Reform Council Chairman Gil Carmichael), such a system would receive my unqualified support! However, the road and air lobbies are extremely powerful and firmly intrenched within Washington, and that alone may very well eliminate sizeable spending for rail-related facilities and equipment. This is especially true if the investment was viewed as coming at the expense of subsidies reserved for various highway and skyway special interests.
No… instead of beginning with high-dollar, new-from-the-ground-up corridors, designed to impersonate earth-bound airlines, railway passenger services of the next generation will need to be 1) reliant upon existing infrastructure, 2) operationally self-sufficient, 3) able to share guideway space with other (commuter/intermodal/freight) traffic, and 4) planned and executed to offer a viable alternative to the de-facto monopolies inherent in todayâ€™s travel world (due to the United Statesâ€™s lack of a comprehensive passenger transportation policy). It is also imperative that we embrace a multiple number of inter- corridor, long distance routes as an integral part of any railway system developed for the North American continent.
For a “reasonable” (read: “minimal”) financial commitment – tied to an esoteric understanding of railroad operations – a rebuilt, revitalized system of intercity passenger trains could once again exist; trains that would effectively serve a diverse passenger base with comfortable, reliable, cost-effective transportaion. The railway alternative, far from being outmoded and unnecessary, should be considered a foundational part of our total transportation network – a true 21st century solution to a contemporary need!