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Thread: Amtrak, why more expensive than flying?

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    Cyburbian jsk1983's avatar
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    Amtrak, why more expensive than flying?

    Last week I flew home from England, and was encountered with a blizzard/snowstorm when I arrived in NY. Anyways my flight back to Buffalo was cancelled and I ended up taking Amtrak home, which ended up taking 9-10 hours. I did buy the ticket last minute, but I was still surprised to find out it cost $75. Jetblue on the otherhand cost $57 with all taxes and fees included. So my question is why is the train so much more expensive, ecspecially considering it takes substantially longer? Does it have to do with subsidies, lack of competition, or is it just more expensive to run the railroad than it is to run an airline?

  2. #2
    Cyburbian Emeritus Chet's avatar
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    Good question!

    My 0.02:

    Amtrak is heavily subsidized by the government, so I doubt it is that or a lack of competition. The age / cost to maintain our rail infrastructure, Amtrak's lease arrangement to run on private lines, UNIONS, and freight logisitics all weigh in I'm sure.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian jordanb's avatar
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    Amtrak doesn't make money for a litany of reasons.

    However, its actual price structure is derived from its mandate to maximize revenue. It gets "cash injections" from the federal government that are pretty much exactly like the bailouts occasionally given to the airlines, except that they're much more frequent (every year) and much smaller than those given to the airlines.

    Amtrak, as it was created and reiterated in the Amtrak Reform Act of 1997, is supposed to be a subsidy-free operation that turns a profit (which is why it gets emergency bailouts every year instead of a real budget). Consequently, Amtrak has built (like the airlines) a very complicated fare system. Along many of Amtrak's corridors, the trains always fill up, but Amtrak can't run more service because they don't have the money, so instead they have the fares climb as it gets closer to the departure date, until they can be very expensive for walk-ups. Like I said, that's all about maximizing revenue, something Amtrak has a mandate to do.

    You can get good deals on Amtrak (like on the airlines) by buying your ticket well in advance, and generally an advanced-purchased ticket on Amtrak will be far lower than the airlines.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian jsk1983's avatar
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    "You can get good deals on Amtrak (like on the airlines) by buying your ticket well in advance, and generally an advanced-purchased ticket on Amtrak will be far lower than the airlines." -jordanb

    Just out of curiosity I checked out the fares for sometime in June, Its still $63. Of course the extra $6 is worth as You arrive in Manhattan, not outer Queens.

  5. #5
    jimi_d's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by jsk1983
    "You can get good deals on Amtrak (like on the airlines) by buying your ticket well in advance, and generally an advanced-purchased ticket on Amtrak will be far lower than the airlines." -jordanb

    Just out of curiosity I checked out the fares for sometime in June, Its still $63. Of course the extra $6 is worth as You arrive in Manhattan, not outer Queens.
    Besides the convenience of not ending up in SE Queens, it costs at least $7 to get out of JFK ($5 Airtrain + $2 Subway), so there goes the $6 saving.

    IMHO, Amtrak is very badly run if it wants to make money. The high fares (with exceptions for advance booking) discourage spontaneous travel, leading people to choose to drive. Spontaneity is one of the few things going for a railroad, so their logic's totally screwed. They need to simplify their fares structure between any two points to something like the following multipliers:

    Single fare: (100%)
    Return fare, either leg before 10am: 200%
    Return fare, not valid before 10am: 120%
    Seat/berth reservation (each direction): +10% of single or +$5 (whichever is greater)

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    Cyburbian jordanb's avatar
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    Amtrak is limited in the amount of service it can run because it barely has enough train sets to operate the system it has. Therefore, it does not necessarily have a goal of increasing ridership. On most routes, there would be no place to put them.

    This is something I think people who don't ride Amtrak much don't understand. Amtrak does not run empty trains. In fact most of their trans run full or nearly full. But the system is so skeletal that there is very little total system capacity.

    Amtrak could reduce its fares and guarantee that every train leaves people standing on the platform, but then it'd need even more subsidy and wouldn't be carrying that many more people. And Congress would be raising hell about Amtrak's falling fare revenues.

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    Cyburbian the north omaha star's avatar
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    One would think that the Northeast Corridor would have lower fares to play the revenue by volume game. However, since the Northeast Corridor is the only money making route that Amtrak has, it's going to squeeze every red cent out of us Northeasterners.
    I am recognizing that the voice inside my head
    is urging me to be myself but never follow someone else
    Because opinions are like voices we all have a different kind". --Q-Tip

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    Cyburbian Plus PlannerGirl's avatar
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    Sorry I just dont agree with Amtrak not running empty trains becouse they DO I have been on them.

    In NC I would take the train to various places and there would be a handful of folks in coach and maybe 2 people in Biz/First class one of them being ME!!
    "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." Ben Franklin

    Remember this motto to live by: "Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, martini in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming 'WOO- HOO what a ride!'"

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    Cyburbian jordanb's avatar
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    If the trains are full, no volume gain can be made by lowering fares.

    That's Amtrak's basic problem. It barely has enough train sets to run the service it has, and it occasionally has to cancel train runs because its barely-maintained 1970s equipment breaks down and it doesn’t have any spares.

    And the Northeast Corridor does not turn a profit. It has an operating profit, but Amtrak has massive capital liabilities there that completely wipe that profit out (depreciation and maintenance of right of way and rolling stock). In fact, most of the "bailout money" that Amtrak gets every year goes into trying to keep the NE corridor open. Every other corridor Amtrak operates is subsidized by the states (Illinois Service, Hiawatha, Capital Corridor, Coast Starlight, etc) and the National System (long distance trains) have such low service levels that they really don't cost very much to run.

  10. #10
    Cyburbian jordanb's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by PlannerGirl
    In NC I would take the train to various places and there would be a handful of folks in coach and maybe 2 people in Biz/First class one of them being ME!!
    Well, is that train still running? There have been several long distance routes that Amtrak has tried and abandoned because they didn't have the ridership. Recently, though, the situation has gotten so bad with rolling stock that they've had to cut back service that has decent ridership, like the Three Rivers.

    The other thing you have to consider is that trains operate differently from planes. Because a train route is linier and a airplane route is point-to-point, most passengers on a train are not riding from one end to the other.

    Here's a case in point: consider the Statehouse Corridor. It's part of the Illinois Service that operates between Chicago and St. Louis by way of Springfield. It nearly always runs full, even the red-eye run. But it leaves St. Louis nearly empty, so if you were to get on at St. Louis and get off in Springfield, you'd conclude that the train has no ridership.

    But then at least a hundred people get on every train at Springfield, and another hundred at Bloomington, and then it's full by the time it gets to Joliet. Because 95% of the passengers on the train are going to Chicago, the train could be "full" even though it's mostly empty for half of its run and the only place all the seats are full is the stretch between Joliet and Chicago.

    So that's a case where the train is operating at capacity, and the only way to increase ridership would be to lengthen the train or run more trains, but you wouldn't know it unless you actually rode it all the way into Chicago (where most of the passengers are going).

  11. #11
    Cyburbian jresta's avatar
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    The last airline bailout - $5 billion - was more than Amtrak has gotten in its 30 year existence. Everything about airlines is subsidized - from the fuel, to operations, to pension funds, to planes, to security, to the airports themselves.

    Amtrak charges more in the northeast corridor (including the empire and keystone corridors) than anywhere else because, for the most part, local service is offered on the same tracks so the quicker amtrak service is considered premium. Either way it's still usually cheaper and faster than flying. Where train travel is most often not cheaper and definitely no faster is on long haul routes and there's been a lot of talk lately about dropping the long haul routes and focusing on corridor travel - runs of 3-4 hours in length.

    The 146 miles from Philly to DC takes 1:50 and costs $96 r/t - it doesn't matter if i buy the ticket for travel in 2 hours or 2 months - it's still the same price. The cheapest flight i could find (reserving 2 months in advance) was $197 and it would take 3.5 hours (xfer in Boston) in the air but in reality would take over 5 hours because it's a half hour drive to the airport and i'd have to be there an hour early.
    If you land at Reagan it's not that bad for getting into town but Dulles is out in the middle of nowhere.

    Travelling the 121 miles between LA and San Diego would take 2:30 and cost $52 r/t.

    The 95 miles between Chicago and Milwaukee would take 1:30 and cost $40 r/t

    The only thing that comes close to being competitive in terms of price is bus travel
    but no one can drive from Center City to Capitol Hill in 2 hours - especially not for a 10am meeting. Likewise, i've seen the traffic on the Dan Ryan. The only one that might come close is that LA - San Diego trip. Which is due in large part to heavy rail freight traffic and inadequate infrastructure to handle it - something that California has been working on.
    Indeed you can usually tell when the concepts of democracy and citizenship are weakening. There is an increase in the role of charity and in the worship of volunteerism. These represent the élite citizen's imitation of noblesse oblige; that is, of pretending to be aristocrats or oligarchs, as opposed to being citizens.

  12. #12
    Cyburbian jordanb's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by jresta
    there's been a lot of talk lately about dropping the long haul routes and focusing on corridor travel - runs of 3-4 hours in length.
    They've been talking about that for years and it's a bad idea.

    For one, it wouldn’t significantly decrease the subsidy that Amtrak needs because the long distance trains don't cost a lot of money (compared to the NE corridor), because service levels are so low.

    Secondly, the losses aren't as much as you'd expect because Amtrak makes so much money off of the sleeper cars (which they charge an arm and a leg for to pleasure riders).

    Third, many of the trains (most significantly the Empire Builder, which runs between Chicago and Seattle) are very important to their communities. The train is often the only way to get in or out of some of those mountain towns where it stops in the winter.

    Fourth, and most importantly, without the federal subsidy, the NE corridor will not work. If you shut down the national network, the only states with Amtrak service outside the NE corridor will be Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, California, Oregon, and Washington---and those states will only have service because they directly subsidize their corridors. There will be no support for Amtrak at the federal level outside the NE corridor and those states. So no national network, no NE corridor.

  13. #13
    Has anyone ever been on an Amtrak train, within 1/2 hour or closer of their destination, only to have the train stop and wait and hour or so for replacement union workers? Maybe this is one reason Amtrak cannot afford lower their prices - if the train could have been continued for the extra 1/2 hour, it would have saved them a lot of time and money that could possibly be passed down to the passengers by lowering rates.

  14. #14
    Cyburbian jordanb's avatar
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    ^-- 'tis not Union rules. That's FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) rules. No train crew can work for more than twelve hours at a time.

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    Cyburbian Plus PlannerGirl's avatar
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    Yes the Piedmont and Carolinian are still running and when I last took a ride a couple years ago they had new upgraded cars.
    "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." Ben Franklin

    Remember this motto to live by: "Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, martini in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming 'WOO- HOO what a ride!'"

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    Mich_Airport_Planner's avatar
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    It's rough way to travel at times too. Some of the routes travel in the middle of the night AKA Toledo to Syracuse. Who wants to do that when you can spend the extra $100 and fly? I'd rather take the train- more predictable- but in reality, I am on a plane...usually sitting next to the bathroom.

  17. #17
    Quote Originally posted by jordanb
    ^-- 'tis not Union rules. That's FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) rules. No train crew can work for more than twelve hours at a time.

    Thanks! I understand the logic behind this, but it is still frustrating to be a passenger that is so close to the destination.

  18. #18
    Cyburbian jresta's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by jordanb
    They've been talking about that for years and it's a bad idea.

    For one, it wouldn’t significantly decrease the subsidy that Amtrak needs because the long distance trains don't cost a lot of money (compared to the NE corridor), because service levels are so low.

    Secondly, the losses aren't as much as you'd expect because Amtrak makes so much money off of the sleeper cars (which they charge an arm and a leg for to pleasure riders).

    Third, many of the trains (most significantly the Empire Builder, which runs between Chicago and Seattle) are very important to their communities. The train is often the only way to get in or out of some of those mountain towns where it stops in the winter.

    Fourth, and most importantly, without the federal subsidy, the NE corridor will not work. If you shut down the national network, the only states with Amtrak service outside the NE corridor will be Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, California, Oregon, and Washington---and those states will only have service because they directly subsidize their corridors. There will be no support for Amtrak at the federal level outside the NE corridor and those states. So no national network, no NE corridor.
    I don't think they should completely drop the long haul routes either. I certainly don't think these places should have NO service. I definitely do think that Amtrak is squandering equipment on routes that don't compete well with the competition -cars or planes.

    After all, who the hell spends 64 hours on a train from JAX to LA? Only the most avid rail "fans" (i know i'd be pulling my teeth out just to dull the cabin fever). Anyone who can afford that train ride and has half a brain is flying.

    If we're really worried about some guy stuck in the mountains in Montana then run shuttle service between Spokane and Minot and offer people two round trips per day - rather than having one train plus crew stuck on a 49 hour trek from Chicago to Seattle - and only offering the people one train a day.

    I'm all for subsidizing rail service - but i'm not for subsidizing hobbyists. And btw, the northeast corridor isn't going anywhere. We'd lose the federal subsidy and it might shut down for a month or two while details are ironed out but the gub'nas made that clear when (Amtrak threatened their shutdown not so long ago) they put together the multi-state corridor taskforce that the service wasn't going to go away.
    Indeed you can usually tell when the concepts of democracy and citizenship are weakening. There is an increase in the role of charity and in the worship of volunteerism. These represent the élite citizen's imitation of noblesse oblige; that is, of pretending to be aristocrats or oligarchs, as opposed to being citizens.

  19. #19
    Cyburbian jresta's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Ass. Planner
    Thanks! I understand the logic behind this, but it is still frustrating to be a passenger that is so close to the destination.
    So when it's a union safety rule it's bad but when it's an FRA safety rule it's good?
    Indeed you can usually tell when the concepts of democracy and citizenship are weakening. There is an increase in the role of charity and in the worship of volunteerism. These represent the élite citizen's imitation of noblesse oblige; that is, of pretending to be aristocrats or oligarchs, as opposed to being citizens.

  20. #20
    ^--No, that is not what I meant at all. It is just as frustrating whether it is a union rule or FRA. Didn't mean to offend. Sheesh, please have a on me.

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    Cyburbian The One's avatar
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    Trains

    I really like trains and they have that nostalgic aura about them.....maybe its just the old movies or the great train trips I've done in Europe......anyway.......
    I don't take trains anymore since getting married and having kids. Trains are anti-kids due to the length of travel. The sleeper cars (while ok for 007 in the movies ) cost a huge amount of money and are tiny anyway.....Trains are a great way to travel for the single person with lots of time and money........I'll have to wait until I'm retired.....
    "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."
    John Kenneth Galbraith

  22. #22
          mentarman's avatar
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    Interesting reading about Amtrak - learned a lot. I took it once from Chicago to NYC a few years ago. It was cheaper than flying esp. because several of us were going and they had some bring-a-friend type deal. It was nice that it left from downtown Chicago and took us right to Manhattan. I hadn't really thought about it until reading this thread, but yeah, it was pretty full leaving Chicago, thinned out by the middle, we spent some time mostly picking up and dropping off Amish and/or Mennonite families. Then the train filled again as we got closer to the East Coast and into NYC.
    It was definitely an interesting way to see the country and I enjoyed that it went through the night -- you got to see some of the country, sleep, wake up and see more of the country but be a lot closer to your destination. I think it ran a little late each way but not too bad. It was a long trip and I did feel pretty grungy by the time I got to NYC, but it was very interesting.
    In my experience it was a lot more than just hobbyists on the rails...

  23. #23
    Cyburbian jresta's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by mentarman
    In my experience it was a lot more than just hobbyists on the rails...
    I've taken Amtrak to Buffalo(8hrs), Rochester (6hrs), Syracuse (4hrs), Albany (2hrs), Boston (4hrs), Hartford (3hrs), Richmond (4hrs), Raleigh (6hrs), Fayetteville (8hrs), Columbia (12hrs) and i've made countless other trips of 2 hours or less to DC, NYC, New Haven, Harrisburg, and Baltimore.

    I've never been able to pick out hobbyists on any of these trips and in fact, most of the people on the trains appeared to be either students, military, or people going to visit family. All of these trips were also half a day or less.

    Travelling from Chicago to the east coast takes 18-19 hours. It's not unreasonable to assume that the average person(or at least enough of them), trying to save a few bucks, would be willing to do an overnighter on a train.

    49 hours and 64 hours, on the other hand, is a stretch. I would bet that precious few travellers (people with a destination and a purpose to their trip - not "the trip is the destination") would be willing to spend 2-3 days on a train to get somewhere.
    I'm sure there are plenty of people going from Jacksonville to New Orleans by train. I'm also sure that there is plenty of traffic between New Orleans and Houston or between LA and Phoenix - but how many people are on that train from Jacksonville (or better still, it's origin in Orlando) to the last stop in LA?

    In taking a train on a 3,000 mile trip you're just asking for delays and you're asking for those delays to cascade. You're also incurring unnecessary crew costs. More importantly, you're not offering the service that most travellers are looking for - frequent departures and short trip times.

    Again, i'm not saying there shouldn't be service between Orlando and LA - i'm just questioning the need for a one seat ride.
    Indeed you can usually tell when the concepts of democracy and citizenship are weakening. There is an increase in the role of charity and in the worship of volunteerism. These represent the élite citizen's imitation of noblesse oblige; that is, of pretending to be aristocrats or oligarchs, as opposed to being citizens.

  24. #24
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    Quote Originally posted by PlannerGirl
    Yes the Piedmont and Carolinian are still running and when I last took a ride a couple years ago they had new upgraded cars.
    The Carolinian which runs NY to Charlotte with intermediate stops, is an Amtrak owned and operated train. but the NCDOT reimburses Amtrak for expenses incurred on the Raleigh to Charlotte Leg. The Piedmont, which runs Charlotte to Raleigh is owned by the state of NC and operated by Amtrak.

    If and when service is resumed to Asheville via Salisbury and/or Wilmington thru Fayetteville or Goldsboro, these services will also be operated by Amtrak with state owned trains.

  25. #25
    Cyburbian jsk1983's avatar
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    There was an article in the Buffalo News today about how much money Amtrak was losing in NY state, escpecially the Albany-Buffalo line. Heres the link: http://buffalonews.com/editorial/20050215/1038183.asp

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