Public Comment on Amtrak’s Proposed Rate Increase

Picture of the Amtrak Downeaster Logo

 

To the Amtrak Fare Review Board:

Amtrak is soliciting public comment on its proposed 2018 fare plan for its Downeaster route between Portland, ME and Boston, MA. The full plan is located on the Downeaster’s Website. Please accept these comments in response to this plan.

Amtrak’s plan calls for an increase in one-way fares between most city pairs. One-way fares between Dover and Boston would increase from $20 to $21; Fares between Portland and Boston would increase from $25 to $29. Unlimited-ride monthly pass fares to Boston would increase $20, from $299 per month to $319 per month.

As a resident of Dover, NH, I oppose the one-way fare increases.

Amtrak’s plan states that 22% of Downeaster riders travel using a multi-ride pass, and after delving into the numbers, it is easy to understand why. An unlimited-ride ticket to Boston costs $319 per month, which equates to approximately $16 per round-trip (assuming you work in Boston 5 days per week.) By comparison, someone making the trip using their personal vehicle from Dover (DOV) to Boston would incur roughly $1,469 per month in expenses, or $73 per round-trip. For a Portland-Boston commute (POR), the cost is $2,506 per month, or $125 per round-trip.

Commute Cost to Boston North Station via Downeaster

StationBRKFREPORORBSAOWEMDOVDHMEXRHHL
Miles To Boston1461361161041008468625134
One-Way Trip$79$73$63$56$54$45$37$33$28$18
Cost Per Round-Trip$16$16$16$16$16$16$16$16$16$16
Cost Per Month$319$319$319$319$319$319$319$319$319$319
*Assumes 20 days travel per month.

Commute Cost to Boston Using Personal Vehicle

StationBRKFREPORORBSAOWEMDOVDHMEXRHHL
Miles To Boston1461361161041008468625134
Cost Per Round-Trip$158$147$125$112$108$91$73$67$55$37
Cost Per Month$3,154$2,938$2,506$2,246$2,160$1,814$1,469$1,339$1,102$734
*All prices calculated using IRS standard mileage rate of $0.54 per mile. Assumes 20 days travel per month.

 

The cost benefit for Boston commuters using Amtrak versus driving are substantial. Riders from Dover save $1,150 per month; riders from Portland save $2,187 per month.

While commuting to Boston on Amtrak’s Monthly Pass program makes financial sense, taking the same route using one-way fares does not. I suspect that many of Amtrak’s one-way fares are purchased by consumers for leisure travel. It is great to take the train to see a Bruins game, attend the Boston Beer Marathon, or spend a day visiting Boston’s museums. Unfortunately, the cost to do so with the train is expensive compared to driving.

An Amtrak rider purchasing a value fare from Dover to Boston will spend $42 round-trip. For a group of two people, the cost is $84, $10 more than driving. For a group of three, the cost is $126, $52 more than driving. Amtrak’s pricing model discourages use of public transportation for small groups of people wanting to attend events in Boston because it is too expensive. This seems antithetical to one of their strategic goals – getting more people using public transit.

Round-Trip Ticket to Boston Purchased as One-Way Fares at Proposed Price

Originating CityPORDOV
Driving$125$73
1 Rider$58$42
2 Riders$116$84
3 Riders$174$126

 

In addition to the high price tag of one-way fares, we need to consider the lack of available trains, which limits options for commuters and leisure travelers alike. During any given day of the week, there are only 5 trains departing in each direction throughout the day. Leaving from Dover on a Saturday, one can catch a train to Boston at 7:17AM, 9:17AM, 1:12PM, 4:35PM, or 8PM. These sporadically spaced trains do allow for much flexibility, or for contingency options if a train is missed. Want to catch a concert at 9? You need to take the 4:35 and arrive 3 hours early. Want to head home at midnight? You need to take a bus, because the last train leaves Boston at 10:30PM. Commuters face a similar problem: You can arrive in Boston Monday morning at 7:50AM or 10:50AM, but if you need to be at work at 7AM, you’re out of luck. If you miss your train, the next one won’t arrive for 3-4 hours, depending on the time of day.

The lack of available trains severely diminishes the usefulness of the Downeaster; you need to plan around the train’s schedule instead of relying on one just being there. Amtrak used to have more trains, but canceled them due to low-ridership. When you consider the price-point of one-way fares, it’s easy to see why: it’s much cheaper for a small group of passengers to drive to Boston instead of taking the train. If Amtrak lowered the price of its one-way fares to be competitive with driving, demand for Amtrak’s services would greatly increase. This would in turn support additional train times, making train travel more flexible and available for both leisure travelers and commuters alike. In exchange for this improved service, I believe monthly-pass commuters may accept a steeper fare increase, given that the current cost compared to driving is so low. Even if additional trains run revenues at cost or below cost, having them available makes the peak trains more valuable because you are no longer stuck waiting for a train. Lower one-way fares would help subsidize this cost through increased ridership.

I would ask Amtrak to consider the following changes to its proposal:

  • Reduce the cost of one-way trips on non-peak trains from Dover to Boston to $14.50. Round-trip tickets for two passengers at this price point would cost $58, which is $15 less than driving and $26 less than Amtrak’s proposed rate. This is low enough that it actually makes traveling on the train competitive with driving. Also consider reducing Portland-Boston fares to around $25. These prices are similar to what you would find on a comparable route to New York City using Metro-North or L.I.R.R.
  • Add more trains, so that they run every 60-90 minutes during peak hours, and every 2-3 hours during off-peak hours. I suspect that a lot of people do not take the train right now because of its rigidity in scheduling, and I think adding additional inbound trains arriving at 6:50AM and 8:50AM along with additional return times in the evening would increase demand for the service. It may be beneficial to study EZ-Pass data to determine when people are traveling and align it with train schedules. It would also help determine the towns commuters originate from, so you can market to them directly.
  • Replace the myriad of pricing plans currently available (saver vs value vs flexible vs premium) with a single classification, and allow ticket values to be used on any train. One problem with the current “saver” fares (in addition to not always being available to purchase) is that a ticket is good for that trip only. If you miss your train or cancel your plans, then you’re out of money; a very frustrating occurrence that makes you not want to take the train ever again! Not a good way to keep customers. To promote flexibility, the fare should retain its value for 1-year, or allow a refund for the value of the ticket minus a reasonable refund fee.

For completeness, I’ve included the cost comparison table with driving using the suggested price points of $25 and $14.50 from Portland and Dover, respectively:

 PORDOV
Driving$125$73
1 Rider$50$29
2 Riders$100$58
3 Riders$150$87

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Casey Eyring
Dover, NH