Home » New Amtrak Service Proves That Even Slow-Ass Trains Can Beat The Airlines

New Amtrak Service Proves That Even Slow-Ass Trains Can Beat The Airlines

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Trains! They’re too slow, goes the refrain. Too old-fashioned, or too expensive in the case of their high-speed brethren. And yet, run the numbers, and you’ll find that Americans actually want trains, and want them bad. Even the slow ones are packing up with passengers!

Amtrak’s new Borealis service is a quality example. On the surface, it isn’t particularly exceptional. It’s a state-sponsored intercity train service between Chicago, Illinois and Saint Paul, Minnesota, passing Milwaukee on the way. It runs once daily in each direction, with an average travel time of 7 hours and 20 minutes. It’s a 411 miles run that operates at an average of 54 mph. Absolutely nothing special.

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The Borealis is so much slower than air travel, you’d be forgiven for assuming nobody is getting on board. And yet, as Twitter account Hot Rails figured out, this thing is taking a chunk out of the airlines anyway! It’s early days yet—but these numbers are raising eyebrows.

Conventional Wisdom Is Anything But

The data comes to us from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, which reported an average of 604 riders a day in the first 10 days of the service’s operation. Even with 38.5% of the riders only travelling to stations on the Chicago to Milwaukee stretch, plenty of riders were relying on the train to get from Chicago to Minneapolis/St Paul.

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As Hot Rails explains, we can compare those numbers to the most recent domestic air travel data from the US Department of Transport. The DoT records an average of 2019 passengers per day flying between Chicago and Minneapolis/St Paul. Even cutting out the 38.5% of shorter-haul riders, that suggests the train is hauling somewhere around 18% of the daily passenger total between the two cities.

To figure it a simpler way, if those 604 passengers all caught flights, it’d take four Airbus A320s to carry them all. Two trains replacing four flights is a win, environmentally speaking.

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The train journey is often cheaper, but not drastically so. On shorter notice, though, the airfares can get a lot more expensive.
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The Borealis service has a pretty solid menu, too.

It’s a result that might feel strange at first glance. That’s a lot of people choosing not to take the plane, which would cover the same distance in maybe an hour. Of course, airport transfers, security, and all the rest does add to the pain, but the plane still comes out much faster than the train ride at over 7 hours.

Conventional wisdom is that rail links are only competitive with air travel over shorter distances. One graph is commonly bandied around, which states that high-speed rail is only competitive out to distances of 500 miles or so. Conventional rail, being much slower, doesn’t get a look in. But that graph assumes that high-speed rail is only “better” if it’s faster than air travel on a door-to-door basis. As the Borealis service shows us, people will readily choose the train in great numbers, whether or not it’s faster than air.

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In fact, that graph is a bastardization of a graph from a British study published in 2004. The original was solely used to compare travel time between regular rail, high-speed rail, and air travel. It shows us that even slow conventional rail can beat air travel on door-to-door travel time for distances of 250 miles or less. It also doesn’t assume that speed is everything to the customer.

Indeed, as Hot Rails explains, the relationship between travel time and railway market share is more of a curve. When rail travel times sink beneath 5 hours, the trains see a rapid increase in market share versus airlines. This is based on data from city pairs all over the world. In Europe, the Paris to Brussels rail connection boasts 97.7% market share, with a travel time of under 1.4 hours. Training from Beijing to Wuhan takes a lot longer at 5.3 hours, but it scored a 52% market share of passengers in 2015 data. The train might not win 100% of travellers in that case, but it’s still diverting a ton of people away from air travel.

Beijing to Shanghai is a particularly great example, though, for how faster travel times boost rail market share. The rail route had 36% market share in 2000, with a travel time of 14 hours. By 2005, the travel time was just 12 hours, and market share inched up to 38%. In 2012, at under 6 hours, rail had 43% of the market. Fast forward to 2019, and the journey took just 4.3 hours. The market share versus air? A whopping 73%!

Longer routes can do well in some cases. Berlin to Stockholm takes 15 hours by train, but still scored 13.5% market shaer in 2022. However, underinvestment and ticket affordability can have more of an impact on these routes. Australia’s Adelaide to Melbourne route took almost 13 hours in 1971, but held 29% market share because planes were expensive. In today’s era of cheap air travel, the same rail route has just 1.1% of the market share, even though it only takes 10.5 hours by train today.

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Justin Hu Zdccnk Bx2s Unsplash
High-speed rail is attractive, but even conventional trains can be a great solution for intercity links. They’re cheap and convenient, but especially so on shorter distances. Credit: Justin Hu

Ultimately, what we’re seeing with the Borealis service is a vote of confidence for rail. In this city pair alone, hundreds of Americans are voting with their feet every day, and they’re choosing to ride the Amtrak instead of getting on a plane. Even though it’s slow!

Based on the data above, it seems likely a great deal more passengers would choose trains if the route was even just a little faster. You don’t even have to build full-on high-speed rail to get punters on trains. Even just bumping a service from 50 mph to 100 mph can be enough to slash travel times and attract more passengers. There are real cost-effective gains to be had on rail networks across America, just by learning these lessons.

A Personal Take

Few trains are considered cool, outside of the world of high-speed rail. In reality, though, customers are just looking to get from A to B. Even if a train is slow and unimpressive, it might still be quick enough to be an attractive option versus the Kafkaesque hell that is a modern domestic airport. Some people like to get to their destination without the long lines, invasive scanners, and handsy patdowns from the TSA.

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Ferrari never shipped press cars to my hometown, so the faster I’ve ever been on land was in a Chinese high-speed train.

As a car fan, and a plane fan, I’m also all-in on rail. There are things I like about driving, and there are things I like about flying. The former is interactive and a pleasure, the latter is fast. But riding high-speed rail across China blew my mind. Less fuss, comfortable seats, and they put a KFC in just about every station.

Heck, I’ve even caught night trains across Vietnam and seen the value there. They’re slow as wet week, but they’ll move you great distances while you’re sleeping—and you get a lie-flat bunk all to yourself for the price of a hot dinner. Trains can do things that planes just can’t.

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Even at six feet tall, a bunk on a Vietnamese train is much more comfortable than a seat in economy on any airline.

It’s early days yet for the Borealis service, and it might only be hauling an average of 600 people a day. But it’s a glimpse, and perhaps a promising example of what trains can do when they’re properly put to work. Food for thought, bureaucrats!

Image credits: Graph via Steer Davies Gleave study, Justin Hu via Unsplash license, Amtrak, Lewin Day

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Wuffles Cookie
Wuffles Cookie
9 days ago

A more correct title for this article would be: “Americans will happily spend 3x as long on a train if it means avoid frigging O’Hare airport.” I have flown through there far too many times in my life, and I can count the number of on-time departures I’ve had out of it on just two fingers.

EricTheViking
EricTheViking
9 days ago

I rode Amtrak trains only twice: one from Seattle to Vancouver, BC, Canada and one from Denver to Los Angeles. Ever since, I vowed never to ride with Amtrak ever again. They are so mind-numbingly slow and stop so frequently for many minutes while the freight trains pass by us. The restaurant—that is if you call it—is stocked with snack food that you got tired of so fast. Not to mention the rude and crude conductors who roused me awaken somewhere in Arizona for the ticket twice.

I am so accustomed to the European train systems that are very quick, smooth, comfortable, and likes.

Guillaume Maurice
Guillaume Maurice
9 days ago

travel time of 7 hours and 20 minutes. It’s a 411 miles run that operates at an average of 54 mph.

You need a TGV on that line ( a Shinkansen or an ICE will do also… the Chinese just stole the Japanese/German and French tech ).

That’s basically something like Paris to Marseille and we do that in 3 hours here.
Compared to plane travel it’s a killer ( mostly no fuss at railway stations, no security check, come 5 minutes before time and jump in)
You leave from the city center to end up in the city center, so no commuting to and from the airport… I let you add all the lost time compared to the train…
Oh and while zooming at 300km/h across the country side you actually are not in a cramped seat, you can open your laptop and work or do other stuff that can’t really be done on a plane.

MAX FRESH OFF
MAX FRESH OFF
10 days ago

I have taken the Coast Starlight from LA to Oakland, can confirm it is slow (11 hours vs. 6-8 hour drive or 90 minute flight). But, the scenery is beautiful – the tracks run along the beach through most of Central California. I read that Brightline in Florida is cutting rider predictions, I wonder what their market share is for Orlando/Miami trips vs. air travel?

Weddings/Birthdays/Whale Breachings
Weddings/Birthdays/Whale Breachings
9 days ago
Reply to  MAX FRESH OFF

I don’t know about market share, but it’s pricey for what it is. The trains are new and is much quicker way to get up and down that Atlantic side. Unless, of course, you are on one that kills a pedestrian/car occupants. They are really good at that one.

MAX FRESH OFF
MAX FRESH OFF
9 days ago

I take Metrolink to commute to LA, and I am quite aware of the frequency of fatal rail collisions. They don’t even seem to get covered by the local news. I think that they don’t want to encourage copycats.

Last edited 9 days ago by MAX FRESH OFF
Weddings/Birthdays/Whale Breachings
Weddings/Birthdays/Whale Breachings
9 days ago
Reply to  MAX FRESH OFF

Oh, I was talking about Brightline. But, yeah, the news tends to ignore train accidents if they can get away with it. For whatever reason.

Guillaume Maurice
Guillaume Maurice
9 days ago

sadly people are accustomed to a 50km/h freight train and think they can outrun that 150km/h passenger train. Most of the time it doesn’t work.
That’s why High Speed Tracks in Europe are secured and do not have any level crossing.( note that they still hit an occasionnal biped, but most of the time it’s quadrupeds or flying dinosaurs

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Weddings/Birthdays/Whale Breachings
Weddings/Birthdays/Whale Breachings
9 days ago

Whoah. What kind of sorcery is that expanded quote box? lol

Guillaume Maurice
Guillaume Maurice
9 days ago

Spoilers

ADDvanced
ADDvanced
10 days ago

Personal opinion: We do not have the population density to support a good rail network.

https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&url=https%3A%2F%2Fserc.carleton.edu%2Fdetails%2Fimages%2F131700.html&psig=AOvVaw1FC4nTTEj6wFbHV3DPVW21&ust=1720030456187000&source=images&cd=vfe&opi=89978449&ved=0CBEQjRxqFwoTCOCs5PT6iIcDFQAAAAAdAAAAABAE

Everywhere there is a lot of density, rail works really well. Most of america is NOT densely populated, and since most cities have garbage infrastructure for getting around without a car, rail doesn’t make sense here. Yet.

Guillaume Maurice
Guillaume Maurice
9 days ago
Reply to  ADDvanced

I agree with you, train s not really a viable option to go from east to west coast even at HST speed.
Now in the dense areas you should have a decent rail network with at least a real HST in The Corridor ( and not trains designed to go 300Km/h or more castrated by the track geometry to 160 or less )

JunkerDave
JunkerDave
9 days ago
Reply to  ADDvanced

True, but since most cities have garbage infrastructure for getting around without a car, flying doesn’t make sense, either.

Ben
Ben
10 days ago

average travel time of 7 hours and 20 minutes.

Out of curiosity, I mapped the driving route from Minneapolis to Chicago. 6 hours and 8 minutes. Forget planes, driving yourself is faster.

Which is relevant because I had a friend who tried to take the train to Chicago and it was delayed so long that she ended up just hopping in her car and driving in order to get there in time.

Also interesting, Google maps does not even present this as an option. The only mass transit options they mention are buses. They definitely need to get more visibility if they want people to use this.

It will be interesting to see how this turns out. I know people who are train-curious, but so far no one who is all-in on trains. It remains to be seen whether the initial ridership numbers are just curious or if they’re going to be converts.

ADDvanced
ADDvanced
10 days ago
Reply to  Ben

One time I was living in MKE right near an amtrak station, and wanted to go up north to Eau Claire. I had 5 people. They wanted $75 per person, each direction, so a total of $750. We got in my car and drove there and back for under $60 in gas.

Wrong Wheel Drive
Wrong Wheel Drive
10 days ago
Reply to  ADDvanced

That’s the problem, Amtrak competes with planes for price but cars for time. Something is absolutely wrong in that equation!

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