Wednesday, May 9, 2012

"Next stop, Duluth Georgia!"

The Crescent, a historic train.

Its schedule and stops were based on post WWII population and travel patterns.

Between WWII and 1970, the interstate highway system was built out, Atlanta grew rapidly in response, but the Cresecent's schedule was virtually unchanged.

In the 40 years since then, Altanta has become virtually unrecognizable, tripling in size to over 5 million people.  However, the Crescent is virtually unchanged today!

Same stops.  Same running time.  Same schedule.

Atlanta.  What was just one of several southern cities on the route, is now the number one city in the southeast outside of Florida. Number 9 in the whole country. Good for the Crescent?  It should be, but it's not.

Atlanta has grown.  Has the ridership?  No.  In 1971, the train consistently operated 12-16 cars.  Now, it runs with 9 or 10 with the total available space roughly equal.

Well, then, has the profitability of the train grown?  No. It consistantly ranks near the bottom of Amtrak's long distance trains in their monthly reports.

Why? It doesn't stop where the people live.

How many people live in Metro Atlanta?  Take a look:

Atlanta MSA
yearpopulationchangegrowth rate per decade

Where do they live?  They are sprawled out, north, south, east and west, but more so on the north side.

(scale on map below:  The distance from Atlanta proper to Gainesville - in the upper RH corner is 50 miles)
2010 Census by zip code

There are over 3 million new people in the area since Amtrak started running the Crescent in 1980.  Many of them moved into new suburbs to the north of the city proper.  The Crescent's route runs right through one of these northern suburbs, Gwinnett County.  Here is the population for Gwinnett County over the same time period.

year population change growth rate % of Metro Region
1970 72,349 4%
1980 166,815 94,466 131% 7%
1990 352,910 186,095 112% 11%
2000 588,448 235,538 67% 14%
2010 805,321 216,873 37% 15%

The Crescent's currently makes one stop in Atlanta.  The population in the surrounding area is a bit less than a half million people.
463,000 people in shaded area that included Downtown, Midtown and Buckhead

The next stop to the north, after passing through the whole length of Gwinnett County is Gainesville.  A small, rural city centered around feed mills.  The population of the surrounding area is less than 60,000.
59,000 people in shaded area around Gainesville

 Duluth Georgia is about in the middle of the western edge of Gwinnett County, adjacent to the large, affluent suburbs of Alpharetta and Roswell in North Fulton County. The population of the immediate surrounding area is over a half million people.  It is about 20 miles from the Atlanta stop and 30 miles from the Gainesville stop by rail.
535,000 people in shaded area around Duluth

 Should these people want to ride the Crescent, they have to drive to Atlanta - with the potential for some serious traffic along the way - nominally a 40 minute trip.  Or, they can drive up to Gainesville - an easy drive - about 40 minutes the other way.

Some personal observation at Gainesville leads me to believe than many, if not most of the riders who get on there are coming from the Gwinnett/North Fulton area.

Would these people want to ride the Crescent?  It does go useful places at useful times of day.  It's a day trip to Birmingham and New Orleans in each direction including a stop in the college town of Tuscaloosa.  Its an evening trip up into the Carolinas, hitting the college town of Clemson and making a late night stop in Charlotte.  It's an overnight train to Charlottesville, DC, Philadelphia and New York.  Certainly, there are suburban Altlantans who would use the train if only they knew about it and it was convenient.

So, why doesn't train stop in Duluth?  Tradition forbids it?  Never thought of it?  Nobody ever asked?

Amtrak loses nearly 30 cents per passenger mile running the Crescent.  A lot of that is the fixed cost and overhead involved in running a train.  It would seem that Amtrak would be hungry for every incremental dollar of revenue that they can get their hands on.  There is more to marketing than setting fare levels and having a nice web site.  Stopping where the potential riders are should always be the first consideration.

It is clear that Amtrak should create a stop in Duluth - and should have done it a couple decades ago.

How hard would it be to do that?  Pretty easy.  The current site of the Southeastern Railway Museum is in a nearly ideal spot and their management is open to the idea.  It has really good highway access being adjacent to two major arterial roads.  All that's needed is a platform a few hundred feet long made of timber and asphalt and a short, wooden high level platform for handicap access, and some street lamps and you're in business.

Build it, tell people about it and watch the ridership climb.

So, how about it, Amtrak?


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