Thursday, August 20, 2009

Why disappointing trains in the US contribute to few modern train systems in emerging countries

A key ingredient to a sustainable infrastructure is a well functioning train system. However, throughout the developing worlds you barely see plans for efficient, timely, comfortable railway systems. What is the reason for this opportunity gap – a gap that misses the chance to decrease emissions, traffic congestion, and fuel consumption?

One reason might be the lack of any state-of-the-art train system in the USA. A large part if not the majority of all infrastructure development projects is funded and/or heavily influenced by the US and US-educated experts. And if those experts built their expertise on the experience with US trains, they are bound to discourage investments into railways for anything but the most basic commuter services.

I am now living since 3 years in one of the largest and most affluent metro areas of the US, specifically in a county adjacent to New York City and have been visiting the US regularly since 20 years. Before that I lived in Germany and traveled as a consultant all over the world, often relying on public transportation, not only because it might be cheaper (it often is not), but it usually is more comfortable, reliable and/or effective than taxis, rental cars or the plane. But only in the US trains consistently fail to live up to any expectations relative to other places I worked, lived or spent vacation at. The latest experience which triggered this blog entry was on the brand new, highly praised and probably most expensive train over here: the Acela Express from NY Penn Station to Washington D.C. Union Station.

Many different little things really show you what the general mindset about the train service is (see later), but the biggest frustration came already the day before boarding the train. Though I was checking schedules and prices 1-2 weeks before, I didn’t expect any shortage of seats as it is in the middle of summer and neither out nor back was the busiest time of the day. Therefore, I did not feel the need to book right away, knowing that my meeting might change. However, when I finally went to the website the day before, the total price for the trip was suddenly up 120%! The business strategists at Amtrak apparently think they are primarily competing with airlines. So it would be appropriate to replicate the price determination process of airlines where seats get more expensive the closer you are to the travel date and the fewer places are left on the vehicle. However, as the Deutsche Bahn in Germany a couple of years learned the hard way, the competition is actually the car. Therefore, you need to provide as much flexibility, simplicity and predicticability that you would also get from taking your personal vehicle. By increasing prices without any business reason (the train was at least half empty) and by tying your ticket to the actual train, you fail completely on all three attributes. Especially, when the only other alternative you modeled the system after – airplanes – are now doing even better than you. The price for the same time and date via Delta would have been nearly 50% lower. Only because I needed the actual hours to work on the train, I stayed with my choice.

Here are the other gaps / failures I identified on that single roundtrip:

  • Train design failures:
    • Hook for jacket missing
    • Old curtains that primarily collect dust, but barely defend bright sunlight
    • Tip of the arm rest based of metal, much longer than necessary. But that is exactly where many people place their arms, thus making it uncomfortable
    • No place to put trash at your table
    • Installations under the opposite seat leaving not enough room to really stretch long legs
    • Loudspeaker announcements too loud or not understandable
  • Operations design failures:
    • Conductor wearing sunglasses, shouting “Ticket!” and slamming the doors – no eye contact, no “please”.
    • No information about the service on the train
    • No service in business class (cart coming by only on the way from D.C.)
    • No Wifi on board, in Penn Station, in Philadelphia, in D.C. – only at the stop in Newark MetroStation
  • Business design failures:
    • Price for tickets go up contrary to business reason (many unsold seats), making the train uncompetitive to both car and plane
    • Tickets are tied to a specific train, so you cannot simply adjust as meetings change
    • No way to book at connecting ticket from the suburbs (or hard to find)

These might be all little things, but combined, they make up a major performance gap for the high-speed poster child train. If you then add to this all the aspects of the normal subway and commuter train systems it is no surprise that people don’t appreciate the train in the US and are therefore not the advocate to install modern train systems across the world. Unfortunately, that leaves a major opportunity on the table not only for the US, but also the emerging countries.

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