Midnight Thought on Living Energy Independence (asleep on a train)

(10 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

First draft edited using the excellent online editing tools at Agent Orange

Over the past two years, I’ve looked at several levels of rail in the nation’s transportation system

  • “True” or “Very” High Speed Rail (HSR)
  • “Express” HSR
  • Rail/Air integration
  • Rail/Bus Integration
  • Rail/Bike Integration
  • Long Distance / Local Rail Integration …

… but not as much on the coast to coast rail network. However, when on occasion one of my diaries struck a chord, the coast to coast rail network always came up. So with a Friday off, I’ll take a crack at it today.

For reference, this is the network proposed by the National Association of Railroad Passengers

Promised Links (all but one at Agent Orange)

Freight/Passenger Rail Electrification

HSR / Regular Interurbans


HSR / Local Transport Integration

Train/Bus Integration

Train/Bike Integration …

Transit Oriented Development …


Sensible and Senseless Use of the Three Hour Rule

I have, in some of the diaries above, mentioned the Three Hour Rule. Indeed, the “America was made for HSR” diaries are founded on the Three Hour Rule. The Three Hour Rule is actually a Two Hour / Three Hour rule, but is still a pretty simple rule of thumb:

  • A two hour train trip can dominate an air transport market
  • A three hour train trip can capture 2/5 of an air transport market

Where can such a simple rule of thumb go astray?

  • 1. Equating Trips and Routes
  • 2. Equating Passenger Air Market with Potential Rail Travel Market
  • 3. Treating secondary transport market demands as transport demands of zero

1. Equating Trips and Routes

Consider the following ‘Paul Revere’ Route:


How many trips are there? Well, its 8+7+6+5+4+3+2+1 or 36 (that is, A and the eight possible destinations, B and the 7 possible destinations, etc.).

OK, let me make that route proportional to time … and then measure total two and three hour trips.

{---two hours----} 3
       {---two hours----} 3
            {---two hours----} 2
               {---two hours----} 2
                     {---two hours----} 3
                              {---two hours----} 2
                                   {---two hours----} 2, 1

{-------three hours-------} 4 (+1)
       {-------three hours-------} 4 (+1)
            {-------three hours-------} 5 (+3)
               {-------three hours-------} 4 (+2)
                     {-------three hours-------} 3 (+0)
                              {-------three hours-------} 3 (+1)
                                   {---three hours-...} 3, 2, 1 (+0)

That’d be 18 two hours trips, or 50% of the trips … and 8 additional three hour trips, giving 26 trips of three hours or less, 72% of the total.

Now, suppose we break that route up into routes of three hours maximum … how many direct 3 hour trips remain?

A——B—-C–D—–E 10 direct trips

E——–F—-G–H 6 direct trips

H———I 1 direct trip

That’s a total of 17 … or, in other words, 35% of the direct three hour trips are lost.

Of course, there’s a trade-off … add too many stops, too close together, and the effective speed drops. That is, after all, why passenger trains since the 1800’s have been scheduled with “Express” and “Local” services. But trains give up far less time when they stop to pick up passengers than planes do, and so even Express services are designed with intermediate stops to multiply the number of trips offered by each operation of that set.

But when looking at extending the route … patronage on the multiple-day routes presently operated by Amtrak is dominated by trips of half a day or less. And in many states, two and three hour trips available are only available because the train is passing through on a much longer route.

“Supporting Two and Three Hour Trips” means nothing like “almost all routes are three hours or less”. Quite the opposite.

2. Equating Passenger Air Market with Potential Rail Travel Market

A second point to bear in mind is that the three hour rule focuses on the passenger air market. This is handy rhetorically, since it sidesteps a large body of mythmaking about automobile travel by pointing to a large number of travelers who have already demonstrated their willingness to step out of their car.

However, in the real world, there is a lot of long distance travel by car. And when you think through it carefully, setting the body of car driving myths to one side … to a substantial degree, the strongest rail competitiveness with long distance car travel is out beyond the limit of the three hour rule.

The mistake many make is to think of the question like a light switch … everyone drives, or everyone rides the train. But the reality is that the long distance motoring public is spread along a spectrum that runs from “would rather drive than to be at the destination” to “hate to drive, but there is absolutely no other alternative”.

So what are the competitive advantages of long distance rail over long distance driving?

First and primarily, there is a substantial restriction on what you can do while driving. Watching a movie, chatting on the internet, reading a book, fine tuning the spreadsheet model and polishing the powerpoint for the presentation … there are a wide range of things that can be done while riding a train that cannot be done while driving. And, obviously, the longer the time behind the wheel, the greater the restriction that poses.

For a substantial portion of the long distance car traveling public, the driving is a chore. And sitting in a cabin, watching movies, dozing, walking to the dining car for a snack … even watching the scenery for the majority of rail routes through rural areas … that counts as leisure time. And for another portion of the long distance car traveling public, the driving is paid but relatively unproductive time that could be used to get work done.

And it turns out that a large portion of existing Amtrak trips are in the slot between three hours and twelve hours. And, indeed, many Amtrak riders book cabinettes even though they are not making a traditional night-time sleeper trip. It is simply a travel option that is far more comfortable than traveling by air and, especially for the designated driver, traveling by car.

3. Treating secondary transport market demands as transport demands of zero

Now, it seems highly likely that ordinary Amtrak services will not be able to attract a majority of travelers for trips that take twelve hours or more by train. However, it does have competitive advantages with some of those travelers.

For the portion of the long distance drivers that stop to eat and stop to sleep along the trip, riding a train adds hundreds of miles to the daily distance covered, because the train does not stop moving. A three hour daytime trip gains very little advantage … while a twenty-four hour drive gains substantially.

Also, while our transport system implies that in the majority of cases it is an advantage to have the car there at the destination, there are some trips where its a nuisance rather than a benefit.

Of course, there is the assertion that “Americans don’t want sleeper trains, that’s so 1940’s”. And many people evaluating that against their image of the typical American traveler would be inclined to agree. However, it is not typical American travelers that are traveling … its the full spectrum of actual travelers. And the plain fact is that on many of the long distance Amtrak routes today, for all their limited schedules and infamous on-time-running performance, the sleeper cars are booked out months in advance.

Or, in other words, existing trains and existing routes could sell more sleeper cabin trips, if only the rail sleeper cars existed for them to do so. So, in defiance of the stereotype, the actual American traveling public provides more demand for sleeper car trips than can be accommodated with existing rolling stock.

Now this third point interacts with the points above … take that 5 1/2 hour route, and extend it to make a 24 hour route, and you start getting a large number of overlapping four to twelve hour trips that compete for patronage from people who do not want to sacrifice a big slice of their day to driving. And that 24 hour route offers trips to travelers who would rather arrive the same time the next day rather than leave in the morning and arrive in the evening of the following day …

… and run a few of those end to end, to avoid breaking those trips, and you have a three to six day route, with large numbers of two to three hour trips, a majority of trips eight hours or less, and very few trips lasting more than a day. Like the normal travel patterns on the existing Amtrak services.

Should it be Amtrak?

Simple answer: yes.

I am not a proponent giving Amtrak any special preferences in operating HSR services.

And I am no big cheerleader for the current Amtrak management (see the “Route Matrix Revolutions” diary).

But the first serious problem with Amtrak for this class of service is being forced to operate on rail that is either of substandard quality, or congested by the strong growth in demand for rail freight. And the second serious problem is that it does not have sufficient rolling stock to meet demand for trips is presently offers.

Solving the first problem is something that I argue we must do for rail freight, if our ability to ship freight from coast to coast is going to be independent of our access to imported crude oil. We have to upgrade and electrify our national freight rail grid (The Oil Drum) … at the same time putting a national HVDC electric grid in place that ensures that the power that can be produced by technically viable sustainable, renewable power resources in the country can be brought to the markets where they are required.

In the version I am imagining here, the Federal government establishes an authority that builds the HVDC and electric rail infrastructure, and sells electricity to the rail consumer at a regulated rate. This represents a tremendous saving in operating costs to railroads, compared to diesel traction, so there will be competition to be added to the grid. Electrification projects would be launched in successive waves, with railroads competing for provision of the electrification on various factors, including total capacity of the rail lines being served and on-time running performance of passenger rail services sharing the route.

As electrification of main national through routes are completed, new electric stock is put in place on the electrified routes with expanded capacity for both freight and passenger rail, and existing diesel stock is released to be used to extend the rail network as well as increase the frequency on existing routes.

And just as with the electric rail freight grid, what this system does is guarantee that far more people will be able to get to a train station to make an important trip, even if our crude oil supplies are suddenly interrupted or dramatically curtailed.

Oh, and about that map up here

Before signing off to hear what y’all think about it, I do want to include a couple of words from the National Association of Railroad Passengers FAQ on their proposed national route system … just to be clear that the above is nothing like the back-of-the-envelope “red-line” sketch I did regarding HSR:

Q: How did you pick the cities to be linked?

A: Cities were picked based on Bureau of Transportation Statistics documentation of American travel patterns and the current pattern of existing rail lines or rail right of ways that would be logical routes, at least initially.

Q: Is this logistically achievable?

A: The routes proposed already exist in the form of existing rail or rail right-of-way (though most will require upgrades).

Q: Will the rail lines be linked to existing systems?

A: The system NARP is proposing will utilize in-use rail lines, existing lines that are not in use, and land that has been zoned for tracks, which have been designed to link to existing systems including commuter rail.

… but using freight rail electrification as a pivot point … that one is my own.

Midnight Oil – My Country (1993)

I hear you say the truth must take a beating

The flag a camouflage for your deceiving

I know, yes I know

It’s written on your soul

I know, we all make mistakes

This is not a case of blurred vision

It’s a case of black holes, pocket holes, soul holes

Did I hear you say

My country right or wrong

My country oh so strong

My country right or wrong

My country going wrong

My country right or wrong


Skip to comment form

    • BruceMcF on August 16, 2008 at 01:50

    … first drafts at Agent Orange is if by accident you hit the wrecklist, starting to answer comments becomes a black hole that sucks up time.

    • Viet71 on August 16, 2008 at 17:54


    FWIW, I drive and fly quite a bit along the Northeast corridor, bewteen Boston and D.C.  I prefer my car to airplanes when the trip is no more than about 180 miles one-way.  I prefer the train to both car and planes, for almost any trip, but the problem with train travel for me always has been not speed of travel (I like to relax on trains) but reliability of service.

  1.  hasn’t for 25 years,we have crossed the country several times on Amtrack. Each time it’s a nightmare the tracks are in disrepair, it constantly breaks down and you end up rerouted or shuffled to a bus, it’s got to be intentional, a drowning in the bathtub type of thing. All this talk of energy and no pol ever brings up national rail.

    Good for Merekly. The Amtrack from Seattle to LA is the best section of rail I’ve experienced in my cross country adventures. I also have to wonder why we have not considered putting money into rail freight? Super highways and trucks seem such a suck whole and the cost of shipping food is just getting worse. Great essay thanks.  

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