Amtrak’s Long Distance Trains: Not Just “Land Cruises”

Last week I wrote about the tension that the US national rail carrier Amtrak faces between ridership goals — which require focusing on its best markets — and coverage goals — which require covering the entire country.  I was applying a framework that I developed for urban public transit, but that seemed relevant enough to be useful in discussing Amtrak.  The post attracted a great comment thread with lots of lively disagreement.  So let me briefly respond to the commenters’ main objections.  To be clear, though, I am not an intercity rail expert, so I am intentionally keeping a high altitude on an issue with lots of rich detail.  I may be wrong, and if so I’m sure commenters will say so, with receipts.

To recap:  Amtrak sees its biggest growth opportunities as corridors linking major cities under 500 miles.  (This is also the ideal distance for high-speed rail, but Amtrak’s plan is about providing medium-speed service even as high-speed rail is developed in parallel.)  The company’s new vision document, Amtrak Connects US, is almost entirely about investing in such corridors, serving trips lasting a few hours at most.  But the US also has huge states with small populations, and there, Amtrak runs its multi-day long-haul trains.  Worldwide, only Russia, China, and Canada have longer passenger train lines than the US.  The Chicago-Los Angeles train formed by the Texas Eagle and Sunset Limited, is almost three times longer (in both time and distance) than the longest line in Europe.

Amtrak’s long-haul trains have two roles: they are marketed as a scenic and relaxing way to travel between cities if you’re not in a hurry, but people also use them for access to towns along the way.  (I was thinking of the first market when I carelessly called them “land cruises, and the objections of many rural readers is understandable.)  These services do as well as they do only because they combine both markets , so each kind of user depends on the other for the total package to make sense. You can see the “land cruise” role competing with the local access role in the service design. For example, these trains sometimes follow routings selected for scenery but not population, most obviously in Montana where the Empire Builder‘s far-northerly routing goes through spectacular Glacier National Park but misses all of the state’s largest population centers.

Amtrak’s Empire Builder. Map: Jkan997 at Wikipedia.

Many commenters objected that these can’t be coverage service because their ridership is actually pretty high, so I should be clear that by ridership I always ultimately mean ridership divided by operating cost.  These trains are expensive to run.  I will not delve into the arguments over Amtrak’s accounting for these trains, but it’s easy to see that they can’t be using labor very efficiently.  The many rural stations need staff, all of them serving just one train at a time.  The long runs require crew to rotate in and out of duty on board, so those people need places to sleep.  The frequent delays mean that employees (both on the train and at the stations) often work longer than their scheduled shifts, incurring overtime.  It’s all very labor intensive, compared to short train lines where you turn over passengers quickly and most your staff can go home every night.

Meanwhile, the fares, if you don’t get a private room, are almost zero.  Portland, Oregon to Wisconsin Dells in central Wisconsin, coach, nonrefundable, a month out, is currently showing a fare of only $128, which is about 6.5 cents per mile.  A similar coach seat on the Northeast Regional train from Washington DC to New York with the same features is $31 or 13 cents per mile, twice the cost for a service that almost certainly costs Amtrak less to provide on a per passenger basis.  So the cost of these services lies not just in their inefficiency but in their low per-mile fare, which of course is what keeps them affordable enough to have a lot of use.

So can these services be justified by their ridership?  It depends entirely on whether you count ridership in passengers or passenger-miles.  If you want long-distance services to look good, you count passenger-miles, which values one person going ten miles as much as ten people going one mile.   In the urban transit context, there is a similar suburb-vs city debate.  If you want to make long-haul suburb-to-city service look better than shorter runs within the dense city, you cite passenger-miles, but some inner city folks will object that those long distances are a side effect of poor land use planning and location choices, not an actual benefit.  The benefit lies in how many actual human beings have gotten to where they’re going.  There’s no objective way to decide the question between measuring passengers and measuring passenger-miles.  It comes down to what kinds of trips you value.  A rural-urban divide is unavoidable on that point, because long distances are the defining fact of rural life.

My other question about the “rural lifeline” case for the long-distance trains is: Do these services really match the pattern of rural demand?  Probably not.  If you were optimizing a network for access to rural communities, it wouldn’t look much like these long-haul lines. Instead, it would look like a robust set of links between smaller centers and nearby larger ones.  Most rural intercity travel demand isn’t for the thousand-mile trips that Amtrak makes.  It’s more local, under 200 miles, with smaller centers usually needing access to larger ones that have more jobs, essential services, and onward transportation options.

This, of course, is the role of a robust bus system, working with trains as appropriate.  The major Australian states, for example, have publicly funded intercity bus+rail systems that connect most rural towns into their nearest larger center, with onward connections, bus or rail, to the big city.  This pattern is most likely to connect small towns to the destinations most useful to them.  As commercial intercity bus services wither in the US, there will be an increasing role for state funding and management of similar services.  I’ve beaten this drum before, but right now, in the US, rural transit between towns is mostly provided by county-level agencies with minimal state coordination.  Every county line is a potential barrier for travelers on those services.  At best adjacent counties have to make deals to allow service to flow over county lines to serve the trips people need.  What’s missing is often a network managed and funded by the state, running many of the lines that commercial carriers once ran.  Pieces of that might be rail, but a lot of it is probably logical bus networks that may cross the state but don’t cross half the country.

Does that mean the long-haul trains shouldn’t exist?  Not necessarily.  Personally, I’d love to see more of them.  Overnight trains are having a renaissance in Europe, and this suggests new markets where some useful rural service could be combined with overnights between bigger cities.

But still, Amtrak is right not to focus on these trains as part of a ridership-maximizing strategy.  Right now they are part of how Amtrak meets its competing goal of covering the whole country.  But because this has become an exercise in counting states, and thus Senate votes, the result is such thin coverage that most rural communities don’t have access to it. Even towns with stations may not have service in the right direction, or at a useful time of day, or with the decent on-time performance that comes only from shorter lines.  Most of the lifeline access that the rural US needs is logically provided by robust bus networks, managed by states if they can’t make a profit. By all means let’s keep and celebrate the long-haul trains, and expand them as appropriate.  But let’s not let them distract us from what it would really take to provide liberating transportation to rural America.

17 Responses to Amtrak’s Long Distance Trains: Not Just “Land Cruises”

  1. BG August 12, 2023 at 12:17 pm #

    Can you clarify what you mean by “locals also use them for access to towns along the way” ?

    I agree that there’s nothing inherently wrong about long-haul routes (as long as they’re part of a system that’s successful in other ways) but how do long-haul routes that pass through a town once a day at a random time really serve anyone? How many of these routes are actually useful, such that someone could take Amtrak to a destination a reasonable distance away — say, 2 hours or less — and then come back on the same day, at hours that fit an average person’s schedule?

    For instance if someone in Toccoa, GA wants to go to Atlanta for the day they could take the 6:45am train and arrive to Atlanta at 8:43am, which is a reasonable departure time and competitive with driving time-wise. But if they want to take the train home they’d leave Atlanta at 11:29pm and arrive back to Toccoa at 1:03am. That’s awful. Not to mention that there’s a near-zero chance that the train will arrive or depart +/- 10 minutes of the scheduled time. You might not actually leave Atlanta until 12:45am, who knows.

    Amtrak needs to focus on targeted regional service first, for example connecting all major cities (1M+ pop) <300 miles apart with HSR that runs trains at least once an hour in each direction. Build a network that serves the needs of lots of people, even if total coverage is low. Once Amtrak can prove that they can do that competently, and that it's a good alternative to driving (and not just for captive riders), I'm sure that more and more cities will ask to be part of that successful system. 10-20 years later we'd really have something functional that wouldn't be a global embarrassment.

    • Lukas August 14, 2023 at 2:56 am #

      Part of the problem must still certainly be pinned to the fact that so much of America’s railways are owned by private freight rail companies, whose only really motivation is profit for shareholders–not increasing rail’s modal share of freight (or passengers). I won’t necessarily call for a jump to outright nationalization, because it’s pretty clear that no entity in the U.S.–public or private– could run a large rail system well. However, bringing more of our physical infrastructure under the aegis of public interest vs. private profit seems like an essential first step, at least for metropolitan region-adjacent trips like your example.

    • Jonathan Hallam August 14, 2023 at 11:56 am #


      Agreed, the service is bad – but apparently the ridership is good (or at least, the trains are nearly full) despite the bad service. Therefore, even small, low cost service improvements – or new, poor quality services – might generate high ridership.



    • GTinRaleigh August 21, 2023 at 5:56 am #

      I am from Gainesville, GA, so I am very familiar with he train to Atlanta and Back situation. I live in Raleigh, NC now and we have a very different situation with our trains to Charlotte. Same distance as Atlanta to Charlotte, but there are 5 trains in each direction every day. Could leave Raleigh at 5AM have a day in Charlotte then take a 6pm train home. It has stops at all the major cities in the way too. Toccoa would be in a great spot with that type of service. The reason it works seems to be that the State of NC prioritized it and it is all within the state. If I want to take a train home to Gainesville I need to take that frequent train to Greensboro NC then wait till 11pm to take the train to Gainesville. The options to get back to Gainesville would be sooo different if there where 5 trains a day between Atlanta and Charlotte. Would make taking the train to Gainesville a feasible option with good flexibility. Anyhow I thought the difference in Atlanta to Charlotte and Raleigh to Charlotte kind of highlights what this article is about with a very apples to apples comparison.

  2. Sherman Dorn August 13, 2023 at 10:52 am #

    This is a good follow-up; it would be better to add bus ridership as data for thinking about the long-haul routes, especially with your idea of using state rail or bus networks for sub-200 mile intercity connections. Until her last trip on Greyhound, she preferred buses to either Amtrak or flying, and notes that her fellow bus passengers rely on the bus long-haul connections.

    I think a first candidate for your idea would be an enhanced LA-Chicago route. There’s already the NM N-S rail (however disappointing it might be people at the moment). Imagine an enhanced NM rail-and-bus network, and a network in KS that also connects with OKC. (Also: If I remember correctly, that route is mostly at 79-mph (i.e., no PTC) speed limits. What would be necessary to shorten the route to 30 hours or less?)

  3. Max Wyss August 13, 2023 at 11:48 am #

    It is a question of random match when a long distance train can take regional missions. That means one of the needed trains, but regional missions means at least 4 trains per day and direction (more is better). These trains should be (in order to keep cost under control) single-manned, and the stops not require any staff. Yes, this looks very much like. a bus service, which could be the equivalent.

    This would, as stated, require a complete re-thinking of what and how transit shall accomplish.

    It also means to clarify the role of Amtrak (which IMHO would best be as an Intercity services operator, as it can work interstate).

  4. Alon Levy August 13, 2023 at 12:31 pm #

    The reason these are land cruises is that the frequency and reliability just aren’t there for the intermediate sections – a night train can run once a day and it will only be about as bad as night trains always are, but a day train on a segment like Atlanta-New Orleans or Memphis-New Orleans or Chicago-Minneapolis needs to be running every two hours at worst, and passengers need to be able to expect that the train won’t depart several hours off-schedule because of some hiccup in Montana.

    Nor is it really possible to build a good day train network out of night trains. Night train seating is not the same as day train seating. You can have a day train with night train seating, but it will be inefficient and lose money; Europe’s night train renaissance is orders of magnitude off of the ridership the high-speed day trains get, and appeals only to the sort of enviro-martyrs who would ride sailing boats across the Atlantic.

    • Michael Noda August 13, 2023 at 2:30 pm #

      I don’t think the long-distance routes that Amtrak actually has bear enough resemblance to each other to make these kinds of sweeping generalizations. For instance, the Southwest Chief could probably do very well with two, three, even four daily departures (dp CHI 13:00, 17:00, 21:00, 01:00; dp LAX 08:00, 12:00, 16:00, 20:00), and because of the size of the endpoints, the very consistent traffic generation all along the line, and the running time of the line, I believe that the ridership would follow the frequency. I do not have such optimisnm about any of the other western long-distance routes. The Empire Builder could do numbers at twice-daily, but the California Zephyr can be bustituted between Reno and Denver with no loss to public service.

      Whereas to take your example of Atlanta-New Orleans, there really isn’t time in the day to squeeze in another train besides the current schedule of the Crescent. Because New Orleans is much bigger than anything in Alabama, and Atlanta is vastly bigger than New Orleans, a marginal frequency will do nearly nothing for ridership because most ridership will be endpoint-endpoint.

      Or to take another train from the rainy half of the continent, the Cardinal is a CHI-IND day train and a WV-NEC day train that happen to run through with each other overnight so Amtrak can keep Cincinnati on the network. But there is no possible day train or set of day trains that can connect Cincinnati to the NEC, whether via WV or via Pittsburgh, without full-fledged HSR. As long as there aren’t any HSR trunks to connect to, Amtrak (or any other conventional intercity rail operator) is condemned to be too slow to be able to build a network of day trains without building it out of night trains.

  5. max August 17, 2023 at 2:08 pm #

    Small nitpick: at least in the state where I live, “the many rural stations” don’t have any staff. They have a concrete platform, and maybe a bus shelter if you’re lucky. Even some small cities here don’t have a staffed station building.

  6. Stephanie Stout August 17, 2023 at 10:46 pm #

    A nationwide network of fast, frequent, intercity passenger trains operating on short-to-medium distance routes could make Amtrak useful to millions of Americans, but basing the system on state-supported corridors will result in most of the nation continuing to be underserved. Many states are financially too poor to participate. Others have Republican dominated state governments opposed to passenger rail but always support more highways.

    Only a few states like CA, TX, FL, and OH have big cities in the right places to anchor the endpoints of multiple passenger rail corridors that would serve a substantial portion of those states. Most states only have 1 or 2 potential passenger rail corridors wholly within the state, and many have none because most worthwhile corridors cross one or more state borders. All states along a state-supported passenger rail corridor must agree to cooperate and fund the project and commit to long-term operation and maintenance. Finding states with good will and good fortune is no small political task. If states can abdicate their responsibility, they will do so. Too many states have crappy schools, parks, and roads, let alone non-existent transit or passenger rail.

    Buses alone cannot be the basis of a nationwide ground passenger network, but buses can be a useful addition to a passenger rail system by reaching out further into the countryside away from the major rail lines. Every Amtrak station should also host bus lines running perpendicular or diagonal to the rail line all the way to the next parallel Amtrak line with morning, afternoon, and evening departures and arrivals.

    As the national passenger rail system of a supposedly modern and great nation, Amtrak should be provided the mandate and funding for at least 40 long-distance routes with a basic service frequency of at least 4 trains a day each way plus 60 to 120 short-to-medium distance corridors with hourly service regardless of what the states may or may not provide. Americans are not motivated by small, obscure, half-hearted projects shortchanged by Congress; we want and support the biggest and best. For over 50 years, Amtrak has never been appropriated enough money for the long-distance routes nor the medium distance-corridors nor even the North East Corridor all by itself. The minimalist approach simply has not worked. The super-size Amtrak I propose can be built within a decade for less money per year than we blew fighting useless oils wars in the Middle East for the last 30+ years. Those unless oil wars taught us that the money IS there and IS AFFORDABLE if we set national goals and stuck to them.

  7. TW August 18, 2023 at 8:47 am #

    “For example, these trains sometimes follow routings selected for scenery but not population, most obviously in Montana where the Empire Builder‘s far-northerly routing goes through spectacular Glacier National Park but misses all of the state’s largest population centers.”

    The Empire Builder was not selected over the North Coast Hiawatha (which took a more southerly route through larger population centers like Bismarck, Billings, and Missoula) because it went through a more scenic route. It was selected because the areas it served (including Glacier National Park) had poorer roads and much poorer bus service. In terms of journeys between communities outside of metropolitan statistical areas on Amtrak long-distance services, the top eight journeys are all on the Empire Builder, the most popular being between Whitefish and Williston, with around 3,500 annual trips.

    “The benefit lies in how many actual human beings have gotten to where they’re going.”

    This attitude leads to the logical conclusion of Amtrak, and indeed all intercity transport, being worthless when intracity transport carries so much more people.

    • Dave August 18, 2023 at 2:53 pm #

      This attitude is also necessary in a world where transportation providers don’t have unlimited funds. If you only have so much money to spend on providing service, it’s pretty natural (and in my opinion, responsible) to ask “is that money going towards benefiting as many people as possible?” Very few public or private entities have an explicit goal to provide services to as few people as possible, which would be the opposite of the attitude you disparage here.

      • TW August 20, 2023 at 6:03 am #

        This does not actually respond to my point. I did not say that “how many people will benefit?” is a worthless metric, but as I said a sole focus on it leads to conclusions like spending money on intercity transport being worthless.

  8. Sean August 18, 2023 at 12:32 pm #

    The biggest oversight here in this discourse has to do with accessibility.

    Amtrak is a lifeline for people who can’t drive – senior citizens and disabled people. In some cases, certain kinds of disabled people cannot use airplanes and rely on Amtrak to travel. This is also why we need to expand rail travel across the US as well as push for level boarding, but I digress…

    For this reason – these trains are also important in providing an accessible way to travel for those who cannot travel by car or bus.

    Something to consider.

    • JackTatt August 23, 2023 at 5:40 am #

      Very good point. However, I must agree with Jarrett that a train once a day at less, at random times not optimized for these sorts of journeys is far from ideal.
      You almost want add on rail and bus services maxing out at 500ish km which runs in a two-hour headway allowing rural residents to make day trips to bigger towns and state capitals for shopping, major government services (courthouses, licensing, applications), and major economic services (specialized repair services, accountants and financial planners, etc that can not be profitable in small towns.

  9. Stephanie Stout August 22, 2023 at 2:52 am #

    I consider the label “cruise train” to be derogatory when applied to the Amtrak national system of long-distance passenger trains because it implies that tourist travel is less important than other purposes for travel. Yet in a number of states, tourists bring in more dollars, and tourism employs more people than extractive industries like mining, oil & gas, timber, farming, and ranching whose activities and resulting pollution can degrade the natural environment necessary to attract tourists. The lockdown brought about by the COVID 19 pandemic showed that a substantial portion of business travel is not necessary, and business meetings can be conducted by modern telecommunications. While at least some business travel is probably necessary and constitutes a valid tax deduction for business expenses, the tax deduction should only apply to coach-class travel and mid-price lodging and meals and no deduction for entertainment or alcohol. Individual business travelers and business firms who wish to upgrade to 1st class should pay for the upgrade from after-tax profits. As for personal travel that is not for business or tourism, my own rail journeys the decade before Amtrak and the first 5 years post Amtrak were for visiting family and friends. I was in my mid-20s before I could afford sightseeing trips via Amtrak. Except for a few trips on the North East Corridor and the San Diegan route, all of my trips were on long-distance trains, Amtrak or otherwise. Frequent passenger rail corridors simply do not exist in most places where I want to travel.

    All Amtrak long-distance passenger lines including existing routes, former routes to be restored, and new routes that never had Amtrak service should all be provided funding for equipment, track capacity expansion, and signal upgrades necessary for at least 4 trains a day each way with morning, afternoon, evening, and midnight departures from both endpoints and average speeds of at least 60 mph as the minimum standard. New equipment and station platforms should be designed for boarding from high-level platforms for faster boarding and accessibility for all passengers.

  10. scott thompson October 10, 2023 at 8:43 pm #

    i did the zephyr cross country….zephyrs of farts and gas in coach. it was terrible. 10 to 12 hours of train is at most what one should tolerate. busses on those big empty highways out west would be far cheaper with a more deluxe bus operating.