Is America Finally Getting Interested in Passenger Rail?

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Despite fierce and prevalent Amtrak hating, and although I have yet to hear any presidential candidate discuss it, nationally syndicated columnist Neal Peirce suggests that "the stars are finally coming into alignment" for improvements of America’s passenger rail system. He writes:

America’s train advocates are mildly optimistic. And for some good reasons. Amtrak is reporting impressive ridership gains. Oil is pushing $100 a barrel, throwing a long shadow over affordability of travel on already congested highways. Airport delays hit an all-time high last summer. Global climate concerns are mounting.

Rail freight demands, meanwhile, are rising fast, suggesting joint improvements with passenger rail. Worries are rising about mobility gaps hindering the ability of America’s "megaregions" — the Northeast, Great Lakes, California and others – to match the performance of competitive regions worldwide.

Also positive for Amtrak: signs of a much friendlier reception in Congress. Add to that an array of states anxious to expand rail service, especially if they can get a federal "match" comparable to the 80 percent-20 percent federal-to-state match for highways.

For years, polls have shown Americans strongly in favor of Amtrak subsidies that would build a viable national rail system. But only slowly have legislators — federal and state — shown an openness to system expansion. And the Bush administration has been hostile; it’s even tried to zero-fund Amtrak.

So here’s the irony: Amtrak is able to report it carried 25.8 million passengers in the last fiscal year — up 1.5 million from the year before. Ticket revenue rose 11 percent. Trains on the Northeast Corridor and other popular corridors are increasingly sold out.

And no one knows, notes Rick Harnish of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, how expansive demand for Amtrak service would be if many more routes were opened, offering at least three or four trains daily for reasonable frequency. His bet is that millions of Americans would opt for the more convenient system, especially as oil soars in cost: "For 50 years we assumed we could do everything by car. It’s now painfully clear that’s not true."


Photo: stillsearching/Flickr

  • aguy

    “For years, polls have shown Americans strongly in favor of Amtrak subsidies that would build a viable national rail system.” Given that used to have a fairly efficient national airline network, wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on building strong REGIONAL rail networks?

    Even the European networks that we all drool over only cover a few hundred miles. And it seems like one of Amtrak’s biggest problems is all those cross country routes.

  • Dave H

    The thing about those long-distance routes: in my opinion they are a bit silly but they are an absolute political necessity to get any funding through the Senate. Most states would not have regional trains (at least not any time soon) so as long as we want Senators from, for example, Montana supporting Amtrak, they get to have their expensive long-distance trains. And they aren’t that expensive anyhow, compared to the other kinds of political pork that gets handed out.

  • Dave

    The European networks we drool over are based on new trackwork…look at the new connection into London that shaves 20 or so minutes off the ride to Paris.
    The Northeast corridor has the limited distances that should allow it to be home to world-class high-speed trains. For that to happen we would need new trackwork without rail crossings or curves.
    Good luck getting the right-of-ways. If Britain can do it through London and Paris we should be able to di it especially with the expanded eminent domain laws.
    But the homeowners and lawyers would hold it up for decades. And if the Feds won’t fund the Second Ave subway I doubt they’ll hop to fund an improved rail network either.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Forget 2nd Ave. Dave, what about the LIRR main line third track project. Held up for decades by a few cranks in Floral Park. What good would LIRR East Side Access be without grade separations and third track? The gates will be down constantly and no automobile traffic would be able to move north and south past the main line during rush hour. The drivers would hit the ceiling. There is no point to East Side Access without LIRR Main Line 3rd track.
    The Feds will fund the MTA capital plan, thats not the issue, its the Federal and Local piece that is in question. And, overcoming the NIMBY and BANANA forces in Nassau for the LIRR piece.

  • tdvandy

    Dave… with respect to the “Feds”. Remember, the “Feds” are us. If we want a truly great rail system, we need to elect people that will help to put that in place. Just to give you an example of how far we have to go: in Chicago if Amtrak or Metra wants to bring another train into the south concourse of Union Station during the morning rush, another track would need to be added, or the train would have to go through to the north concourse, out the other end of the station and then back in to an available track. This is for just ONE more train. All thanks to a serious lack of investment on OUR part.

  • anonymous

    The TGV network is successful in large part because the trains can use the conventional network to reach many destinations far from the HSR line. Of course, building HSR lines is easier in Europe, partly because they already have the technology and skills to do it, and partly because ROW acquisition is easier. The continuous sprawl for many miles around all major US cities makes it hard to bypass these congested and slow areas.

    And by the way, you may be laughing at Amtrak’s long distance services, but many of the cross-country trains are sold out for the holiday travel days, and some were sold out a month in advance. If anything, the national network needs more service, not less.

  • tdvandy

    Anonymous… exactly! We have to put the people in place to make this happen. Our future economic expansion in this country depends on it.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I guess I’ve taken these long-distance trains more than some Streetsbloggers. The trains I’ve taken further west (the Southwest Chief, the City of New Orleans, the Lake Shore Limited) tended to have more delays and problems.

    By contrast, the Silver Service operating on the CSX mainline through Virginia and North Carolina were fine, and with four trains a day were a relatively convenient way to travel between North Carolina and New York. Similarly, the ones operating on short lines in New England and New York (the Vermonter, the Adirondack and the Ethan Allan Express) have usually been on time.

    Currently, most of the freight railroads that these long-distance trains run on are single-track for long stretches. Many of these had two or four tracks (like the NY Central mainline through Western NY) or a parallel line that reduced conflicts. Many of them have old signaling systems, and jointed tracks which do not allow for significant speeds.

    In quite a few of these corridors, passenger trains could beat airline performance if they had enough money to rebuild the parallel trackage and/or bring it up to the standards of the Northeast Corridor. TGV-style high speed rail is nice, but not absolutely necessary.

  • Dave

    Good points all…and in addition to the LIRR third rail opposition let’s not forget the politically connected folks in Howard Beach.
    The monorail to JFK is in my opinion the silliest use of local funds ever. Instead of extending existing tracking work on the A to include a loop around Kennedy we build a separate monorail network that gives no one a one-seat ride to the JFK. Its relatively high usage only proves that there is demand out there for a rail connection to JFK. Could you imagine if the improved “train-to-the-plane” actually got you from midtown to the terminals in one ride?
    And yet there is still talk of another separate network to connect FiDi to JFK. What gives? Would increased subway runs on an expanded A-train netwotk be that disruptive to those in Howard Beach?

  • Eric

    Never mind the folks in Howard Beach — it’s none other than Bruce Ratner who may well be the biggest obstacle to the one-seat ride between Manhattan and JFK: Will Atlantic Yards Preclude the One Seat Ride to JFK?

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Di Prima Dave, its not a monorail that connects JFK and Jamaica and Howard Beach “A”, conventional guage track. When it was built there were plenty of people who said just that, and I was one. Regardless, the Port Authority paid for it by itself with Passenger Facility Surcharge monies. They would not integrate any of the service with the MTA. The airlines played a big role in it, they insisted that all the money be identified for airport related projects alone. The MTA was too big a stretch of institutional rivalry, intermodality be damned. So did a silly Giuliani jihad with Port Authority as I recall.

  • Amtrak’s long distance trains each year cost, as a portion of the Federal budget, approximately zero. Contrary to the nonsense put out by disgruntled former Amtrak employees and Libertarian no-government cranks, there is a need to connect all of America, not just high speed corridors, with transportation accessible to all.

    Selective statistical manipulation by oil-company shills such as the Reason Foundation and other paid enemies can’t disguise the fact that wherever investment is rail has been made — the Northeast Corridor, San Diego-LA, Eugene-Portland-Seattle — the public flocks to the trains.

    Is Amtrak perfect? No, and neither would you be if you were kicked in the gut every time you tried to speak.

    Enough Amtrak-bashing nonsense. Let’s build America, not tear it down

    Come to St. Louis January 28-29 and see how that might be done (www.nationalcorridors.org)

    Jim RePass
    NCI

  • paulb

    What’s the funding situation for the high speed European trains? Do they need a subsidy to operate? Or does government funding only go to capital costs? Do train operators eventually reimburse costs of construction and operation? Or do the trains make money?

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I’m not an expert, but from these two pages it looks like the subsidies for the TGV are very small. Apparently the main TGV lines were financed with bonds issued by the SNCF:

    http://www2.urbanisme.equipement.gouv.fr/cdu/datas/docs/ouvr18/part10.htm

    In this article from June, a Green Party spokesman argues that the French regional governments need to subsidize TGV operating costs in order to make the cost of taking the train competitive with driving – which implies that operating costs are not currently subsidized:

    http://www.lesechos.fr/info/transport/4586196.htm

  • Dave H.

    http://www.bts.gov/publications/transportation_statistics_annual_report/2006/html/chapter_02/table_d_06.html

    These stats are a little too vague to be much of use, but it shows Amtrak on-time performance since 1995. If I recall correctly, Amtrak is extremely lenient, considering a long-distance train on-time if it arrives no more than 1 hour late, and a short-distance train on-time if it arrives within 15 minutes.

  • Larry H

    During the year, I flew to Anchorage, Seattle and Florida. The pain experienced in the airports and flying with my knees up against the seat in front of me was senseless. I have taken the Sunset Lmt and the Coast LA-Seattle train. It has [again] become worth it to spend the extra two days traveling on the train, no matter the delays, than to spend 4-6 hours cramped in a plane where I can hardly move and the food situation is next to C-rations!

  • Sam

    Article in Business Week:
    Subways: The New Urban Status Symbol

    Also several blog posts on
    Cool Town Studios
    The Revitalist
    CEOs for Cities

  • If Amtrak is to continue as a government service, then it cannot continue to use private rails. It must have its own railroad routes, wherever possible. Whether this is accomplished by purchasing underused lines (not too many of those hanging around, actually), building new lines, or taking frieght lines through eminent domain, it must be done. Rails and signals would need to be upgraded, and old wood ties replaced with new concrete ones.

    Only then would Amtrak have the consistently reliable service that would give Americans confidence in taking a train again.

    I agree however, that regional service is where Amtrak has the best chance to be successful, rather long distance, cross-country routes. An 8 hour train from Los Angeles to San Francisco might be competitive with a 1 hour plane flight: by the time you get to the airport and back, you’re talking a total of 4 hours for your plane journey. 8 hours doesn’t look so bad at that point. And a 3 day train trip from Los Angeles to New York is just not going to compete with a 6 hour plane ride, especially if the ticket costs $200, and the train ticket costs $600.

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