Friday, May 15, 2009

Transport: Intermodal Solutions

PORTLAND, OREGON - My Amtrak Cascades corridor train was delayed in departing Seattle, Washington earlier this evening, waiting on a connecting bus from Bellingham that was scheduled to arrive a half-hour before the train departed, but because of traffic ended up delayed nearly 45 minutes. The time allowed for some reflection on the concept of intermodal transportation.

One thing that European countries seem to understand that the United States, with its emphasis on individual corporations and entities does not seem to understand, is that people want to get from point A to point B as easily as possible. They may prefer certain amenities or carriers along the way, but the main thing is being able to get from their origin to destination without major inconveniences along the way. In Switzerland, for example, the extensive passenger rail system is not only set up for easy connections between intercity and local (S-Bahn) services operated by the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB), but also other rail carriers like the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn (MGB) and the Bern-Lotschberg-Simplon (BLS)--and also the Post Bus system and ferries like the Schifffahrtsgesellschaft des Vierwaldst├Ąttersees (SGV). Go to the SBB web site and try, for example, a trip from Zurich, Switzerland to Friedrichshafen, Germany (home of the Zepplin museum) and all the intermodal possibilities appear.

The same sort of integration does not exist in any form in North America. Not only is there no easy way to compare Greyhound, Amtrak, and Southwest Airlines on a trip from, say San Diego, California to Sacramento, California, but there isn't even a good interface to compare all airlines, as many discount carriers like Southwest and Allegiant don't appear on the major travel search sites. Even if such a comparison site were available, there is no easy way to connect between services in most places. Bus and train stations are in different locations, and if a connection to an airport is available at all, it's via a city bus service, adding yet another leg for travelers.

Individual systems are making progress in this regard. The state-subsidized Amtrak California system provides integrated connecting train and bus service. It's not a coincidence that on this trip I used an Amtrak California bus from Sacramento to Oroville--it ran more frequently than Greyhound and departed from a more convenient location in Sacramento (of course, because of laws to protect Greyhound, I had to buy a ticket from Davis to Oroville and not ride the train from Davis, but it was still cheaper than Greyhound). Around Toronto, Ontario, GO Transit operates an integrated rail and bus system throughout the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, but integration with local transit systems is sorely lacking. In the San Francisco Bay Area, has long provided a multi-modal trip planner that has become quite useful, but fare integration has yet to follow suit in the manner that it has in Europe.

It's not rocket science to set up an integrated trip planner so that getting from Newark, Delaware to Amherst, Massachusetts could be done most efficiently by the traveler. Nor is it rocket science to set up a fare collection system to properly reimburse the individual carriers along the way so that the traveler would need to purchase only one ticket. However, setting up connections between different modes of transportation is a much harder infrastructure problem, and someone needs to have the authority to run the integrated resources. Unfortunately, that someone is most logically government, something that Europeans are willing to accept but still seems to be anathema to North Americans. So, likely North Americans will continue to lack the convenient public transportation systems that exist in Europe.

For the record, despite leaving Seattle 23 minutes late, thanks to relatively low freight traffic levels and quality dispatching from BNSF (including veteran Centralia South Dispatcher Earl W. Johnson), my Amtrak Cascades train arrived in Portland only 12 minutes late. The train reached its final destination of Eugene, Oregon only 5 minutes late, according to It definitely made sense to wait for the bus.

1 comment:

Tin Goat said...

Excellent musings...

The difference between Europe and United States is the difference between Socialist and Capitalist.
Europeans are more left leaning and understand that some cooperation benifits all, whereas the Americans are Capitalists and see any other mode and/or company as competition. In Canada, we fall somewhere inbetween.