In America, Passenger Trains get no respect

By RailPAC Director and Review Editor Noel T. Braymer — One of my favorite TV shows is “Mythbusters” on the Discovery Channel. A group of eccentric but technically qualified people put “urban legends” and “common wisdom” to the test to see if they can be true. An example of this is the “fact” that “if you throw a penny off the Empire State Building, it would kill a person if it hit them on the ground.” We’ve all heard this; is it true? No, pennies lacks both the mass and terminal velocity to do much damage no matter how high you drop them. Simple physics, but most people accept the “common wisdom.”

There is much about passenger trains that people “know” which is wrong, but often gets repeated in the media. Much of this “wisdom” comes from the American railroad industry. For most of the 20th Century the railroads were struggling to survive. The railroads at this time were one of the most regulated industries in America, and passenger service even more so. What was true even 100 years ago was that freight always had the lion’s share of the railroad’s business. Passenger service was usually seen as a “public need” or a burden that came with being given a regulated monopoly. In order to get permission from the government to abandon passenger service, railroads became masters of creating on paper massive losses from running passenger trains.

The railroad industry retains an antipathy towards passenger service. In terms of gross sales, Amtrak is a very small part of the railroad’s business. The railroads complain they don’t get enough money running passenger trains and lose money by operating them. Besides the railroads often complain that passenger trains are a hassle and disrupt their freight service.

Is this all true? Do passenger trains have to be a money losing business in America? When you compare a typical 5,000 plus ton freight train to a 500 to 800 ton passenger train in terms of gross sales, Amtrak’s business doesn’t look like much. But with Amtrak, the railroad isn’t paying for crews, equipment, terminal costs, fuel etc. Passenger trains don’t cause anywhere near the wear on tracks as freight traffic. Should the railroads get more money from passenger trains? A healthy passenger service that runs on time and is well maintained with longer trains and larger passenger loads would be able to pay more to the railroads.

What advantages does passenger service have for the freight railroads? In the past public opposition to passenger service cut-backs gave the railroads public relations headaches they felt they could live without. For the public, rail service is passenger service. Increasingly the railroads will need public support for major capital projects, which will need some government funding. Railroads are increasingly finding themselves in a time sensitive business. In the past much of rail freight was bulk items that were not time sensitive. Passenger service was a hassle because people expected the railroad to follow a timetable. But in this day of “just in time” shipments and with fuel costs driving more shippers to divert traffic from trucks to rail, the timetable will become increasingly important.

To run trains on time, you need the right track infrastructure. This is expensive. To get public funding you need public support, which mean the public needs to see a public benefit to win tax dollars. On a fast, high capacity railroad, a passenger train should seem no different than a hot shot freight to the dispatcher; they all need to run on time. Passenger trains will never be the biggest customer on the nation’s railroads. But they can be a good customer for the railroads. With large capital investments, successful industries do everything to get as much use of their capital and limit down time as much as possible. The railroads need mainlines they don’t have to worry about pushing paying customers away. And they will want to run as many trains, passenger or freight on as possible.

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