Frequency is Key to Successful Short-Distance Passenger Train Service

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Frequency is Key to Successful Short-Distance Passenger Train Service

by Malcolm Kenton


When a traveler considers whether to drive, fly or take a train to a destination, the biggest factors in that decision are generally cost, convenience and travel time. Passenger trains—even those running at “conventional” speeds up to 90 mph—often offer shorter travel times than cars for trips greater than 50 miles. Yet the car is often more convenient, especially if there are a limited number of train departures to choose from. Travelers generally prefer to go at their own pace instead of planning trips around public transportation (including airline) schedules. Therefore, the more frequencies are added to a passenger train route that is both cost- and trip time-competitive with driving, the faster the rate at which train ridership grows.

The histories of contemporary passenger train routes in different parts of the United States have demonstrated this to be the case. Presented here are four Amtrak routes that have witnessed noteworthy ridership gains with the addition of train frequencies.


Capitol Corridor – Oakland-San Jose-Sacramento, CA

From 1970 to 1991, there were only two daily intercity trains between these three major central California cities, both of which were long-distance runs that were impractical for local travel. In 1990, however, California voters approved three bond measures, the largest of which was a citizen initiative, providing a mandate and seed money for the establishment of new short-distance trains between the cities. The first Capitol Corridor trains rolled in December 1991, with three daily round-trips.

By 1995, however, ridership was languishing and the state and Amtrak’s budget problems made the corridor a candidate for abandonment. But the communities along the route fought to keep the service going. A 1996 state law allowed any of the cities, counties or transit agencies along any of the three state-sponsored corridors to form a Joint Powers Authority to assume the management of the train service. Only the communities on the Capitol Corridor elected to do so.

The Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority (CCJPA), an agency formed by a compact of local transit authorities that took over the line’s operation from the state transportation department in 19971 and selected the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) as the full-time managing agency, a position BART still holds.

463,000 annual riders used the Capitol Corridor in fiscal 1998. Four round-trips were operating by October of that year with a state subsidy of $12 million and a farebox recovery ratio (percent of total costs covered by passenger revenue) of 29.8%. CCJPA successfully lobbied the state legislature to invest in new equipment and track upgrades to meet the strong demand for train service that began to grow once more attractive schedules were offered—despite that no federal match was available at that time similar to that offered for state highway, aviation and urban transit investment.2

Fifth and sixth round-trips were added within the first few months of CCJPA management, resulting in a ridership increase of 17% and increasing the farebox recovery ratio to 31%. The decision in February 2000 to terminate service to Colfax (east of Sacramento) and use the saved costs to fund a seventh Sacramento-Oakland round-trip resulted in a 40% ridership jump while costs stayed flat, giving the service a 40% farebox recovery ratio. Former CCJPA Managing Director Eugene Skoropowski calls this the “magic line” between offering the public a real transportation service versus “just a chance to ride a train.”3

The keys to the Capitol Corridor’s success were political will at the highest levels of state government, an aggressive, customer-focused management team, a strong partnership with host railroad Union Pacific (UP), and consistent capital funding for service expansion. CCJPA’s model cooperation with UP proves that a major freight railroad will respond positively to greater passenger service on its tracks so long as its ability to operate and grow its freight business is protected. This allowed for significant portions of the line to be double-tracked by the mid-2000s.4

The state took delivery of 12 new coaches from 2001 to 2003, making three additional frequencies possible, for a total of twelve. Ridership and revenue growth was then outpacing cost growth, so no additional state subsidy was needed. In 2004, all three Amtrak California corridors reported double-digit ridership growth. Upon completion of state- and locally-funded track construction projects in, three more weekday Oakland-San Jose round-trips were added, along with four more weekday Oakland-Sacramento round-trips, for a total of 32 trains. By fiscal 2008, ridership had grown to 1.67 million, an increase of 530,000 riders over four years.5

From 2001 to 2008, state subsidy remained flat, but a modest increase was needed in 2009 to cover higher Amtrak labor costs. By that point, farebox recovery was a remarkable 55%, and the state cost per passenger mile was half of what it was in 1998.6 All the right ingredients came together to provide a true passenger train success story, consistently ranked by passengers as among the country’s top five in customer service, in the heart of the world’s automobile capital. On-time performance on the Capitol Corridor is 97%, mostly on a busy mainline freight railroad serving a major port.

CCJPA staff is still following a “build-out plan” calling for sixteen San Jose-Oakland, eighteen Oakland-Sacramento, ten Sacramento-Roseville, and four Roseville-Auburn round-trips.


Amtrak Virginia – Washington, DC-Charlottesville-Lynchburg, VA

The Norfolk Southern-owned rail line connecting Washington, DC (and, by extension, the entire Northeast Corridor) to Manassas, Culpeper, Charlottesville and Lynchburg, VA, saw only one daily Amtrak round-trip until October 1, 2009 (plus an additional thrice-weekly round-trip serving all of the above except Lynchburg). Nevertheless, passengers traveling between Lynchburg and Charlottesville and Northeast Corridor points accounted for some of the best-patronized city pairs on that one train, the New York-New Orleans Crescent, in fiscal 2009, with almost 20% of the route’s riders traveling between 300 and 400 miles out of a route total of 1,377.7 Washington-Charlottesville also represented the 4th-busiest city pair, and New York-Charlottesville the 8th-busiest city pair, on the tri-weekly New York-Chicago Cardinal in fiscal 2009.8

Thanks to funding from the Commonwealth of Virginia, resulting from significant grassroots support along the route, Amtrak extended a daily Northeast Regional round-trip, which had been Boston-Washington, south to Lynchburg starting on October 1, 2009. The new train provided a schedule only two hours apart from that of the Crescent, but greatly exceeded Amtrak’s ridership projections in just the first six months of its operation, thanks in part to the Crescent’s limited capacity,9 especially for shorter-haul travelers. A little over 9,000 passengers use this train within Virginia each month, in addition to those still using the Crescent and Cardinal. Passenger revenues have been so strong that the Commonwealth has not had to provide any operating support to Amtrak for the Washington-Lynchburg portion of the run.10


Hiawatha Service – Chicago, IL-Milwaukee, WI

This route, which has been connecting Chicago to Milwaukee with three intermediate stops continuously since before Amtrak began operations in 1971, is the seventh busiest in the Amtrak system, with a per-mile ridership exceeded only by the Northeast Corridor and California’s Capitol Corridor.11 While originally funded entirely by Amtrak, the states of Illinois and Wisconsin now contribute operating support for the Hiawathas. In 1971, the corridor was served by four daily round-trips, a number that quickly increased to seven, but was cut back to three or four during the 1980s, until the states pitched in to support two more frequencies starting in 1989.12 Today, six round-trips operate daily (five on Sundays), excluding the Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder, which does not take local Chicago-Milwaukee passengers.13

451,100 passengers rode Hiawatha trains in 2004, a number that grew 73.6% to 783,060 in fiscal 2010.14 State operating support for the route helps to keep fares low enough to attract substantial ridership.15 People who regularly travel between Milwaukee and Chicago have enjoyed a relatively high level of train service for so many years that it has helped to engender a train-riding culture. The 2005 addition of a stop at Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport16 is drawing Chicago-area residents looking for cheaper flights and better flight schedules than those available from O’Hare and Midway, as well as suburban Milwaukee residents who find the airport station more convenient than the center-city station.


Downeaster Service – Boston, MA-Portland, ME

The state of Maine was without a passenger train connection to Boston—and thus the rest of the national network—from 1964, when the Boston and Maine Railroad ended intercity service north of Dover, NH,17 to December 2001. State investment in Amtrak-operated service between Portland and Boston’s North Station on the former B&M line now mostly owned by Pan Am Railways was the direct result of years of organizing by TrainRiders/Northeast, which led to the Maine legislature passing the first citizen-initiated bill in its history. The bill directed the state to use all means necessary to create Boston-Portland passenger rail service and to spend no less than $40 million to do so.18 Downeaster service began in 2001 with four round-trips, with a fifth being added in 2007.19

245,135 passengers used Downeaster trains in fiscal 2002. Ridership grew to 361,634 by fiscal 2007 (almost a 50% increase), then rose an additional 31.2% into 2008 with the addition of the fifth frequency. 4,000 more took Downeaster in 2010 than in 2008.20 The Downeaster enjoys tremendous public support and buy-in, and work is being done in preparation for extending service further east to Brunswick, ME. Trackwork over time has shaved 20 minutes off the travel time between the two endpoints.21


Piedmont Service – Raleigh-Greensboro-Charlotte, NC

When Amtrak began operations in 1971, there was no passenger train service connecting North Carolina’s three largest cities. Raleigh was served by one daily New York-Miami Amtrak roundtrip, and Greensboro and Charlotte were served by one daily New York-New Orleans round-trip, operated by Southern Railway until Amtrak took over in 1979.22 Both trains served North Carolina at inconvenient hours.  With operating support from the states of North Carolina and Virginia, Amtrak’s Carolinian began daily Charlotte-Raleigh-Richmond-New York service for a one-year trial in 1984, reinstating it “for good” in 1990.

Seeing the significant patronage of the Carolinian by intra-state passengers, the visionary Rail Division of the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) bought and restored pre-Amtrak coaches, café cars, and coach-baggage cars, purchased new locomotives, and began operating a stand-alone Raleigh-Greensboro-Charlotte train, the Piedmont, in 1995. The Piedmont operated a reverse schedule to the Carolinian, providing a morning and evening train in each direction to all cities on the route.23

Almost 48,000 passengers rode the Piedmont in fiscal 1998. Patronage grew 43% to over 68,000 by fiscal 2009. In May 2010, the NCDOT Rail Division inaugurated a third mid-day Piedmont round-trip using more restored vintage equipment. This caused fiscal 2010 Piedmont ridership (not including the Carolinian) to jump to almost 100,000 (a 46% increase in one year)!24 NCDOT plans to add a fourth frequency to the corridor within the next two years as demand continues to outpace the supply of seats.



  2. Federal matching funds for state intercity passenger rail infrastructure investment had never been offered in U.S. history until the passage of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008. Any previous federal funding for passenger trains had come through Amtrak.
  3. Email interview with Eugene Skoropowski.
  4. NARP News, May 2000
  5., page 30.
  6. Email interview with Eugene Skoropowski.
  7., page 36. Among 8 top city pairs by ridership, New York-Charlottesville is number 5, Washington-Charlottesville is number 6, Washington-Lynchburg is number 7, and New York-Lynchburg is number 8.
  8., page 12.
  9. A typical Crescent consists of two sleepers and four or five coaches, and a diner and café, all of which operate New York-New Orleans. The type of coach used on the Crescent (Amfleet II) seats only up to 60 passengers, whereas a Northeast Regional coach (Amfleet I) seats up to 84.
  10., confirmed by an Amtrak representative.
  13. Amtrak System Timetable, Fall 2010-Winter 2011.
  14., page 15, and
  15. As of October 2010, the base one-way unreserved coach fare between Milwaukee and Chicago was $21.00. This compares to a base Baltimore-Philadelphia reserved coach fare (a comparable distance and travel time) of $32.00.
  20. Ridership statistics furnished by Amtrak; source document available This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .
  21. Comparison of Amtrak’s January 2002 ( and October 2010 System Timetables
  23. Ridership statistics furnished by Amtrak; source document available This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Copyright January 2011 National Association of Railroad Passengers, Inc.