America wants more Rail Passenger Service

By Noel T. Braymer

Back in November 4th of last year PARADE Magazine ran a story about Amtrak entitled “With high gas prices and airport delays, could we make our trains…A Better Way To Travel?” With this story PARADE Magazine ran a poll of its readers asking “Should America Invest more in Trains? In the December 9th issue PARADE published the results of this poll in which its responding readers replied an overwhelming 97% in favor of spending for more rail passenger service. While hardly a scientific finding, it does show there is a strong demand for rail passenger service nation wide. PARADE Magazine is about as Middle Amerincan as a publication can be and is in most Sunday newspapers around the country. It is no secret that letters in support of Amtrak often run second only for support of Social Security in Congressional Mailboxes.

In December a report written for Congress from the Passenger Rail Working Group recommended that up to 357 Billion dollars be spent over the next 40 years nationally to upgrade the railroads for improved passenger service. The plan is to use an 80% Federal 20% Local split similar to that for Highway projects. The reaction of the Railroads was less than enthusiastic. In a press release on December 6th Edward R. Hamberger, President and CEO of the Association of American Railroads said about the Passenger Rail Group Study “Successful passenger rail systems- like those in Europe and Japan- rely on publicly funded track and almost exclusively dedicated to passenger rail. We support the development of high-speed passenger rail systems like Europe and Japan, where dedicated, high-speed passenger rail corridors separate 200-mile-an-hour passenger trains from 50-mile-an hour freight trains. This report does the opposite- it rests the future of passenger service on the freight rail system. Piggy-backing on the privately owned and operated freight railroad assets will give America a third-rate passenger rail system… The report does not adequately emphasize that fact that freight railroads need more capacity, not less, to help absorb the huge increase in freight traffic predicted by the U.S. Department of Transportation and others…

The reality is only a minority of rail service in Europe or Japan goes anywhere near 200 miles per hour or needs fully dedicated rights of ways. RailPAC has long recognized the need for increased capacity of the freight railroads for future growth. RailPAC has long recognized the need for passenger service to pay its fair share of infrastucture costs when sharing tracks of the freight railroads. This arrangement has benefited the freight railroads in California with better infrastructure and expanded capacity on the rail lines shared with commuter and Amtrak trains.

An example of future government support of rail is the strong possibility that the California Transportation Commission will approve 300 million dollars this year in transportation bond money for the grade separation of Colton Crossing. Colton Crossing is where the mainlines of the BNSF and UP meet at grade near San Bernardino at Colton. This project will increase track capacity of both lines by eliminating one of the biggest bottlenecks in the country. It is not unreasonable to expect additional passenger use on these lines after public money was used to upgrade these tracks.

The reality of major capital improvements is that you want to maximize the use of such capital to justify spending so much money. A good example of this would be the ” Chunnel”, the rail tunnel under the English Channel connecting Britain with the rest of Europe. This tunnel runs at near capacity with trains running often every 3 minutes or so. This tunnel has mixed traffic with High Speed Passenger Trains, auto and truck ferry trains and freight trains! One lesson about the Chunnel and infrastructure: it isn’t very profitable. The Conservative British Government insisted that the Chunnel be built with private not public funds. Traffic is very heavy on the Chunnel; in fact there is talk of building a second tunnel. But it has not produced enough money to fully pay back the loans to build it. High Infrastucture costs have always been the bane of the Railroads and have always been the great drag on profits.

The issue that is often forgotten about rail service is that it is a system. Too often there are groups arguing that long distance trains take money away from corridor trains and so on. Long distance trains are the cash cows of Amtrak. Revenue is a function of passenger miles and long distance trains are great at generating passenger miles. Most of the places where major rail work is needed are in urban areas like Colton where construction costs are also the highest. This is where the demand for commuter and corridor trains are also the highest. High ridership corridor trains will never produce the revenue of long distance trains. But corridor trains will produce the political support that can get more projects built which will also benefit long distance  passenger trains and freight trains. A mix of transit, commuter, corridor and long distance trains working together is needed so people can really travel by train. Only when run as a system can we the the greatest efficiency and maximum use of scare capital.

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