Updated: Aug 18, 2022
Night train service is making a comeback in Europe. With the high fuel prices, airline tickets are becoming crazy expensive. Night travel (when done correctly i.e leave in the evening and arrive in the morning) is a cheap and easy alternative.
Some obvious pros:
Saves money by combining the cost of travel and a night in a hotel.
Arrive at downtown locations as opposed to far away airports, no need to spend inflated uber prices.
Arrive in the morning and have a full day of vacation!
Not wasting a whole day sitting in a car or plane.
Can use current infrastructure due to the low speeds needed for quality sleeper cars.
So the question becomes, could this new era of sleeper cars be efficient within the south east and if so what would the service look like?
We would hope to have a bi-directional service, not only for customer travel but for logistics and practical issues of getting trains back to the origin stations. An example route would see the train be scheduled to leave its departure station between the hours of 8:00 P.M and 10:00 P.M spend about 11 hours on the tracks and arrive at the destination around 9:00 A.M. If we take the OBB model, a steward would be available to bring a lite breakfast before debarkation. This schedule would do a few things that would make this service naturally more profitable then current overnight sleepers. For starters it would prevent the need for cafe/ diner cars, staff changes and gives plenty of time for rooms to be cleaned between trains.
The trains themselves need to be new, clean and sleek. One of the biggest problem with American sleepers is they look old. In the modern era where people literally do things for the picture, we can't have a service that is stuck in the 90s.
Photos, courtesy of Siemens and OBB Nightjet, show how modern update sleepers can be comfortable and efficiently get people to their long distance destination. With these updated and modern cars a new demographic may become interred in the rail again.
In the grand scheme the quality of the trains doesn't matter if the service is unreliable. Right now sleeper trains aren't designed to be effective in the southeast. With most trains departing from New York they arrive in the population centers within the south at inconvenient times. Who would want to board a train at 3 am? Plus they are forced to stop in every small town along the way. To make night trains competitive with the three hour flight (most flights within the south are less than that) they would have to depart from stations in the south and limit stops along the way. The shorter distances, constant motion and travel along corridors during reduced travel times (night) should limit delays and keep trains on schedule.
The price for future services needs to be competitive with airlines. Right now a one bedroom ticket from Richmond VA to Orlando is $1242. The equivalent distance and cabin on the OBB route Amsterdam to Vienna, is $169. This price difference is truly astounding.
If trains were to do a handful of things they could bring down cost. First to adopt a cabin price model instead of a ticket model, So a family of four could pay one price for a room instead of four separate tickets. Second, lower the offering. By leaving later there is no need to provide full meals to the passengers. Lastly Get rid of the coach setting. Modular beads would provide a low cost option for individuals while still being able to charge more then just a standard seat. With these changes a family of four could travel together from Atlanta to Miami for as low as $125, based on OBB pricing, as opposed to $320 on a budget airline all while saving money on food, gas and hotel rooms.
Of course the key for this to be possible is distance and observing limitations. At a certain distance, despite speed and track improvements, air planes are going to be a better option. The model SEPRI used to create this map is based on speed, distance, time and the number of non-business flights (budget airlines) between the locations. The locations listed have the highest traffic volume in the southeast, that have a distance above 500 miles but below 1320 miles. Distances below 500 miles are better for HSR or other train services. Above 1320 miles and he train would be going too fast for a comfortable sleep. This model is based on little to no intermediate stops.
Some intermediate cities, Jacksonville for example, distance qualifies for some cities, such as Washington DC, Nashville, Houston, and Raleigh. However It does not appear that currently there is enough traffic volume from those areas. It did make the honorable mentions list. Along with Charlotte to New Orleans, All that being said we would love to see an expansive night train network connecting every metro area in the south east.
We at the SEPRI think night trains can work in the south east, but there are many hurdles. It is a case of will. If enough people want it and demand it we can see a system like this being created. Right now the will is not there but with advocacy, determination and persistence we can convince enough to demand high quality passenger rail.