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Author Topic: Origin of a theory
Mr. Toy
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As I write this I have the TV on in the background tuned to C-SPAN, showing a House transportation committee hearing on transportation infrastructure. The subject of passenger rail came up, along with the routine emphasis on "300-500 mile corridors."

It seems to be taken as gospel these days that roughly 500 miles is considered the longest appropriate length for a modern passenger rail route. But where did this figure come from? I hear it all the time, but over several years of research, study, and discussion, I have never uncovered the origin of the 500 mile theory. Nor have I ever encountered any documentation illustrating why this is the best length for corridor services.

Personally, I have always been skeptical of this figure, having demonstrated in my own experience that trains work best for trips in the 500-1,000 mile range. Indeed, according to data I have seen, the average long distance train rider falls right in the middle of that range. In my experience, out here in the wild west, trips under 450 miles tend to be faster and cheaper by car than by train. Trips much over 1,000 miles tend to be better by air both in cost and time.

Even if it is proven that I'm a rare exception and that trains are best for most people's trips under 500 miles, does that mean train routes should be limited to 500 miles? Since people can get on and off en route, wouldn't a 700-1,000 mile route would be able to accommodate more 300-500 mile trips than a 500 mile route could?

Does anyone have any insights as to the origin of the 500 mile theory and has it ever been supported by actual data?

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Henry Kisor
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Maybe it is the distance a Roman legion could march in a week? After all, they gave us the span of 4 feet 8 1/2 inches . . .
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notelvis
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Maybe it's because Boston to Washington is about 35 miles short of 500 miles and that corridor is the model most of the policy folks want to replicate.

The notion of corridor is based on the oldest existing US corridor. Who needs data when a good notion will suffice?

Kind of like the story about railroad standard gauge being the same width as the wheels on Roman Chariots and how the standard railroad gauge in turn influenced how large the solid rocket boosters for the space shuttle could be.

PS - OK........I'm posting on the same page and at the same time with Henry Kisor......an author who's work I have enjoyed.

My life is complete!!!!

--------------------
David Pressley

Advocating for passenger trains since 1973!

Climbing toward 5,000 posts like the Southwest Chief ascending Raton Pass. Cautiously, not nearly as fast as in the old days, and hoping to avoid premature reroutes.

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Gilbert B Norman
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My first exposure to the 500 mile threshold was from DPM with "Who Shot the Passenger Train' appearing in April 1959 TRAINS.

It is probably the duration at which air travel's speed will obviate any of the hassles involved therewith - even high speed rail traversing that distance in 6 hours.

1000 miles is simply too long for most. Somehow, I don't think the universe of Forum participants here is really all that much Type A - I know I'm not even if the rest of my family is "hyper Type-A".

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George Harris
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500 miles is one of thes items of "revealed wisdom", probably better spelled "wisdumb" that seems to take hold with no factual basis whatsoever. Remember the various items of the past, "travel faster than 20 mph is dangerous because people will be unable to breathe", apparently by someone who had never been outside in a 30 mph wind; "heavier than air flight is impossible" stated firmly as late as about 1905, as the picture of the Wright brothers' plan was considered trick photography; "the practical maximum speed on rails is about 100 mph for standard gauge and 60 mph for narrow gauge" stated firmly in some text books into the 1960's.

Plausible but unproven, and sometimes unprovable statements seem to contain more certainty than a lot of provable facts.

If 300 to 500 miles is the magic number, then why is there such high ridership on the Los Angeles to San Diego (128 miles) and Oakland to Sacramento (90 miles) lines despite the train being slower than driving time?

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Southwest Chief
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quote:
Originally posted by George Harris:
....If 300 to 500 miles is the magic number, then why is there such high ridership on the Los Angeles to San Diego .... line despite the train being slower than driving time?

Because if given a suitable alternate option, no one really wants to drive the 5 [Roll Eyes]

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MetSox
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My opinion is that it's not a 500 mile theory, it's a 3 hour theory. If a train can cover any distance over about 200 miles in less than 3 hours, it can succesfully compete with the airlines for the business traveler. When you factor in travel to and from the airport, check-in, security screening, etc., a 3 hour downtown to downtown train ride compares quite favorably. Using existing French TGV technology, trains can run comfortably at up to 220 mph. If they can maintain that top speed for an entire journey,they should be able to average at least 170 nonstop. Ipso facto, 170x3=510.

Since the Metroliners were introduced in 1969, Amtrak (Penn Central the first 2 years) has been able to capture the largest share of the New York-Washington Market. The airlines must be breathing a collective sigh of relief because the Acela can't make the New York-Boston run in less than 3.5 hours.

Of course it will require investment in completely new, dedicated high speed lines to accomplish the speeds necessary for this kind of operation. The nickel-and-dime "incremental" approach will only have marginal results, at best in relieving highway and airport congestion.

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Mr. Toy
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Messrs. Harris, Kisor, and the starstruck Mr. Pressley [Wink] echo the thoughts I had behind my original post.

GBN's & MetSox's time theory is something I have also considered, but it strikes me as something somebody calculated on a cocktail napkin rather than having actual research behind it. You know, including check in times, a train takes X hours to go N miles. A plane takes Y hours to go N miles. Therefore when X exceeds Y then a train is no longer marketable. That argument doesn't take into account other factors in making a transportation choice (the others being cost, convenience - such as location of the depots/terminals in relation to the origin/destination addresses, reliability, and to a lesser extent, comfort). Thus the time calculation alone seems too simplistic.

And the time theory still doesn't answer the second part of my question. Even if we can document that most riders won't travel significantly more than 500 miles by train, does that mean routes should be limited to that distance? With a 500 mile route, the threshold distance only applies to endpoint travelers. Travelers originating at the midpoint would be limited to a 250 mile range in either direction, even though they may want to travel farther.

Thus I think George has correctly defined it as the common "wisdumb."
---------------

Now I gotta go see if I can find a copy of Henry's book. [Cool]

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delvyrails
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More "wisdumb": only the "public" modes count. Never mind that the automobile is the dominant transportation mode up to about 750 miles, at which it finally is overtaken by aviation (U. S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics).

There are still a lot more people who drive from near one coast to the other (for a variety of reasons) than take Amtrak. IMO, putting those people on the train (maybe with their cars, too) is the real challenge that Washington would rather ignore.

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John Pawson

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RRCHINA
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There are so many variables, anomalies, which pertain to US travel and which do not apply to European or Japanese passenger operations (which we too frequently cite for comparison) that these discussions tend to be emotional, even with the well informed and knowledgeable correspondants we have here.

It is a rapidly changing enviornment and I don't think we should get to 'worked' up over what is issued by politicians who are notorious for talking about problems, but never able to solve them.

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yukon11
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I would like to add to Mr. Toy's list of "other factors". I would add "the train excursion experience". If we can project, ahead, to the kind of train travel we all would want, I think the passenger train provides some unique attractions that removes it from an "A to B to C" comparison.

If you want expeditious travel, air travel obviously can't be be beat. The automobile, for shorter trips, may be the only convenient mode. Consider, however, a modern passenger train for long distance travel with convenient road-side depots , not in congested city centers. Compare it with a cruise ship. People on a cruise ship are there for the excursion..the good food, social interaction, scenery, etc. The number of people taking a cruise ship is small, compared to other forms of transportation. A modern, well run passenger train, I think, would have most of the benefits of the cruise ship with the advantage of long distance travel, as a major objective. In additon, access could be easier than any mode with the exception of the automobile. For me, I take the train for virtually all vaction travel.. wouldn't consider any other form of long-distance travel. A modern, superbly-run passenger train would always represent a small percentage of travellers..but what form of transportation is more enjoyable?

Richard

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Gilbert B Norman
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While I respect your thoughts, Richard, what I think you and others here who enjoy riding LD trains overlook is that 'The Government' is not in business to fund "WOOFS" on rail travel excursions (possibly they should as there are "more of us' every day - and we comprise a very reliable voting bloc). While well meaning in your intent, such is what plays into the hands of the likes of Dr. Utt and Sen. (President?) McCain.
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yukon11
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I quite agree with your comment, Mr. Norman. I was not addressing the political & economic reality. I was more interested in the not-yet-accomplished potential.

Richard

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George Harris
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Mr. Normon: If the government is not in the business of funding excursion type travel, why do they build, operate, maintain cruise ship terminals, national parks, etc., and so on?
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Gilbert B Norman
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I figured National Parks would come up Mr Harris, but the NPS has a budget in the range of $2.2B and more visitors, who have traveled there and stay there at the likes of the Ahwahnee on their own dime, are hosted than Amtrak ever sees as passnegers.

Cruiseship terminals? While I do not claim to be informed of Love Tub affairs (I was on my last during 1988; could care less if I ever see one again), if a government agency has constructed cruiseship terminals, it is analagous to building airports since the lines must pay user fees to access such. They are not giving the cruiselines operating subsidies such as Amtrak, and especially Amtrak LD, enjoys.

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Mr. Toy
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I've never been comfortable with cruise ship comparisons. Amtrak is first and foremost a transportation provider. Granted, tourism is a huge part of the transportation business, but the primary purpose of Amtrak is to get people from A to B, regardless of the purpose.

That said, Yukon Richard has part of it right. Amtrak combines the need to travel with the pleasure of travel. It isn't an either/or thing. If I need to get somewhere, and I want to see the country at the same time, Amtrak makes that really easy.

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Gilbert B Norman
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quote:
Originally posted by Mr. Toy:
That said, Yukon Richard has part of it right. Amtrak combines the need to travel with the pleasure of travel. It isn't an either/or thing. If I need to get somewhere, and I want to see the country at the same time, Amtrak makes that really easy.

Even with, when compared with others here at the Forum, my less than estatic "more positives than negatives' assessment of my Amtrak travels, I still believe that assessments referencing the "pleasures' of travel will prove a "hard sell' in a public funding environment. There is much to suggest that the less pleasurable a transportation mode proves to be, i.e. municipal mass transit, the more public benefit can be drawn from subsidizing it.

Advocating rail travel on the strength of that "it's so pleasurable' could turn around and bite the advocates themselves. Moving people through densely populated areas is not too glamorous, but such has proved worthy of public funding.

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Mr. Toy
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GBN, if your assessment is correct, it is a sad commentary on our culture. It's as if the Declaration of Independence only included Life and Liberty, but draws the line at The Pursuit of Happiness.
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George Harris
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We have gotten derailed with the extraneous again.

The original question on the table was the origin of the "300 to 500 mile corridors"

At this point it appears that there is no legitimate origin for these numbers. It is simply what someone thought "felt good" without any serious analysis. If someone can point to any legitimate study of any kind in any country done within the last 50 years that provides any sort of basis for these numbers, I would love to know about it. Also, is there a relationship between ridership and perceived driving time on any corridor in these lengths.

What do we have in analysis of existing "corridor" operations? The variable of schedule times and schedule reliability for existing corridors probably skey any results beyond usability, so I am not sure that we have any worthwhile examples in the US, and not so sure about Canada, but any corridors there should be put in the pot as well.

Let us not forget, we are talking about ridership that is in some reasonable proportion of the trips make in the corridor, and not the issue of cost of developing the corridor, subsidy or the lack thereof, or other such factors.

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zephyr
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quote:
Originally posted by Mr. Toy:
GBN, if your assessment is correct, it is a sad commentary on our culture. It's as if the Declaration of Independence only included Life and Liberty, but draws the line at The Pursuit of Happiness.

Right on. And we're talkin' about more than Amtrak here.

What about blimps? For me, there's no more pleasurable way to get from points A to B than by blimp. I just love blimp travel. It's just so cool. And green, too.

But does the government spend one slim dime on mass blimp transportation? NO!

I'm a taxpayer. Where's the government's help in my pursuit of happiness? We absolutely need an adequately funded AmBlimp for the good of the country.

I admit I seldom watch C-Span (I prefer watching paint dry while chewing foil). But for those of you who do, why is there no wonking about blimp travel? Is no one in our government concerned about my pursuit of happiness?

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4021North
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Mr. Toy, as I recall, the 300-500 miles may have been what one study found was an optimum distance for high-speed rail to be competitive with other modes. Perhaps a similar numbers were mentioned in the book Supertrains by Joseph Vranich.

So the figure probably meant something at one time, but doesn't mean anything 99% of the time people bring it up, because they are forgetting the original context.

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Mr. Toy
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4021 may be onto something. His post suggested to me the possibility that 500 miles is the maximum distance a train can travel in a day so as not to have to deal with overnight travelers.

And to Zephyr, I will only say that venturing into the ridiculous does not discredit the established practical benefits of train travel. But to clarify, it seems sad to me that if a practical mode of transportation also happens to be fun, the fun part shouldn't politically disqualify it from public support as Mr. Norman suggested.

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Gilbert B Norman
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While NARP seems to envision that 'we the people' are prepared to leave the SUV in the garage (if it even fits) or say 'enough of the crap' with air transport and get on the train, it is just not going to happen. Simply because rail travel is first and foremost here and at similar groups, and so many here border on passionate about the rail travel experience, obfuscates that to the public at large, such is simply "out of sight out of mind'.

Hence NARP proposed their "vision" which to me is simply a connect the dots charade.

But Mr. MetSox's point that "its time not miles' appears to be quite valid. There is no such a thing as an airline flight from any metropolitan area to anywhere that will involve less than a four hour committment of time, hence the Northeast and Southern California corridors find themselves quite marketable. Since the auto obviates any need for transfers and formalities as well as its economies for group travel, its utility threshold can be higher.

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4021North
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The NARP plan mentioned above can be viewed at

http://www.narprail.org/cms/index.php/resources/list/C50/

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