Thursday, December 23, 2010

The 'Dazzling' Success of Amtrak's Acela

As we congratulate Amtrak's Acela on their tenth anniversary and their record 3.2 million passengers in 2010, we should also keep in mind that the population of the Northeast region through which this "high-speed" train runs is about the same as ours in California. Acela, as you know, runs through a number of major US cities, from Boston, NYC, Philadelphia to Washington, D.C.

So what, you ask? Our very own CHSRA projects 40 million passengers annually by 2030. While 40 million comes closer to any possible reality than their original number of 117 million (which they put out before the election of 2008) it's still far too high. How do we know? Just check ALL the projected ridership numbers for most other HSR systems around the world and see what the real numbers look like. (See: Bent Flyvbjerg, Oxford University, for lots of academic research on this issue.)

If, after 10 years, Acela carries an annual 3+ million passengers, how on earth will the CA HSR carry 40 million?

By the way, a much more reliable metric for comparing passenger transit is passenger-miles. Not only does this measure lend itself more readily to comparisons, it's far more accurate since otherwise we don't know the distance travelled by those passengers. How do the passenger numbers break down by distances travelled? Commuters vs. full distance riders, for example. For example, how many passengers will actually travel on the California train the 400 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles? Isn't that a critical piece of information to have prior to building this break-the-bank project? Therefore, 'passenger-miles' is far more accurate and useful. Maybe that's why they don't use it.

And, about that 25 million passengers per decade mentioned in the article; that comes to an average of 2.5 million annual passengers.

Then, there's that $440 million ticket revenue. It sounds like a lot, and there are many who keep claiming that Acela is profitable. I think not! For that point, see the excerpt from the second article, below.

BTW, try this freebie, and Happy Holidays:


12/23/2010 Amtrak

Amtrak marks Acela Express' 10th year

This month, Amtrak is recognizing the 10th anniversary of the Acela Express, the nation’s first high-speed passenger-rail service.

In fiscal-year 2010, Acela high-speed trains carried more than 3.2 million passengers and earned $440 million in ticket revenue. More than 25 million passengers have traveled on Acela during the past decade.

Traveling at speeds up to 150 mph, Acela provides hourly service during peak morning and afternoon rush hours between New York City, Washington, D.C., and intermediate cities. It also provides round-trips between New York City and Boston.


The Acela Express: Aboard America’s Fastest Train

Posted on Thursday, November 12th, 2009 at 5:58 am by dpacheco

The following is an excerpt from Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service by James McCommons. It has been adapted for the Web.

“The corridor is a money pit, but Amtrak covers it up with funny accounting,” according to Don Phillips. Amtrak measures overall ridership and revenue rather than passenger miles traveled and passenger revenues per mile traveled, which is how airlines and other transportation companies factor costs. The billions allocated by Congress and put into the corridor infrastructure are not depreciated (amortized) as an operating cost against Acela’s bottom line. Consequently, Acela’s cost recovery comes out looking pretty good.

In 2009, under a new administration, Amtrak began a process of changing its accounting practices and the way it measures riders, however.

The myth of the Northeast Corridor’s profitability has a long history, said Jim McClellan, who worked as a planner for FRA when Amtrak was created. Back then, some studies assumed the Northeast Corridor trains would make money for Amtrak and that those profits could offset losses on the other parts of the network. It was wishful thinking, said McClellan, but it helped support the notion that Amtrak wouldn’t always need government help. And that’s what the Nixon administration and some congressional members wanted to hear.

“The concept wasn’t vetted well, and other assumptions were based on it being true. It was a house of cards. In our zeal to save the freight railroads and some passenger trains, we just accepted it would make money. Everyone wanted to believe it.”

The Amtrak Reform Council, created by Congress in the late 1990s to help the company become self-sufficient, suggested Amtrak sell or spin off the corridor as a separate corporation, which could then sell bonds for the repairs. Amtrak would continue only as an operating company.

When I interviewed Gil Carmichael, chair of the council and the FRA administrator under George H. W. Bush, he said that the corridor actually needs $20 billion not $5 billion in improvements. “Amtrak didn’t want to hear about creating a separate company because it wants its own railroad, but it would be better off without the corridor,” he said. “The infrastructure company could raise the kind of money that Amtrak hasn’t been able to provide.”