The National Academies

NCRRP 03-02 [Completed]

Intercity Passenger Rail in the Context of Dynamic Travel Markets

  Project Data
Funds: $500,000
Research Agency: Resource Systems Group, Inc.
Principal Investigator: Matthew Coogan
Effective Date: 7/29/2013


Intercity passenger rail in the United States is often analyzed from the supply-side perspective. As a result, the importance of travel times, frequency, and service quality is generally well documented in the literature and in actual market experience; however, questions regarding intercity passenger mode choice decisions in a changing marketplace are less well studied. Because of this imbalance, decision makers responsible for planning, financing, and implementing and operating intercity passenger rail lack an effective analytical framework that takes into account changing demand-side attributes in the context of changing supply-side competition. This is a problem when considering levels of service, modal attributes, costs, and other relevant factors that are necessary as part of the planning and implementation process. Nevertheless, these decision makers must make service and capital investment decisions that frequently require long-term commitments for markets that may change significantly in the future.

Also contributing to this uncertainty is a lack of understanding from the perspective of the passenger or potential passenger:
  • What are the factors behind an individual’s decision to choose rail or some other mode of travel for an intercity trip?
  • How do these factors vary among individuals, markets, types of service, and trip purposes?
Many travel markets have recently experienced major shifts in travel patterns, illustrated by three characteristics: (1) a rapid rise of intercity bus travel in selected city-to-city travel markets, (2) significant air-to-rail mode shift in markets such as the Northeast Corridor, and (3) significant changes in mode preference among younger and older generational cohorts. Some of these changes are directly related to changes in the supply or quality of service, but many are based on additional factors that have not been as thoroughly researched or documented.

As planned or potential intercity passenger rail infrastructure investments and service improvements are considered, many of these non-supply side factors will affect demand for and frequency of service. In this competitive environment, decision makers need effective strategies to address varied factors to facilitate a more consistent approach to evaluating alternative system investments. Research is needed that considers how these additional factors can affect demand for rail and other competitive modes so that future decision makers can more accurately plan and analyze impacts of these investments on the multi-modal transportation network.


The objective of this research was to develop an analytical framework to improve understanding of how current or potential intercity travelers make the choice to travel by air, rail, bus, or private automobile for the majority of their trip. This framework provides guidance for use by a diverse audience of practitioners and decision makers considering alternative planning, operating, financing, service, and capital investment strategies for intercity passenger rail service in existing and potential travel markets, and it should allow users to evaluate how mode choice is affected by a variety of changing and evolving parameters including, but not limited to, the following:
  • Demographics and income;
  • Access and egress at trip beginning and end;
  • Technology changes related to the transportation system;
  • Technology changes affecting lifestyle;
  • Cultural and societal attitudes;
  • Land use, community livability, and environmental concerns;
  • Trip purpose and cost;
  • Passenger value of time and perception of productivity;
  • Competitive response from alternative travel modes; and
  • Service attributes and system performance.

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