Revving Up the Rails

States are ready to put up big bucks to speed up passenger rail service--if someone would just push freight trains out of the way.
by | March 2007

If a train leaves Charlotte, North Carolina, heading north to New York City, when won't it arrive?

It probably won't get there in 13 hours, even though that's what's listed on the Amtrak schedule. Last year, more than 80 percent of trains on this route arrived late. And the line's performance is not unique. One-third of Amtrak trains pulled into their destination stations behind schedule. The Coast Starlight--the train that runs between Seattle and Los Angeles--was the worst: It was on time for less than 4 percent of its trips. Shorter regional routes performed a bit better than the longer passenger-rail routes, but none scored above a 90-percent on-time record.

Making the trains run on time is a vexing problem. Rails' supporters, which include state governments that subsidize passenger trains, tout train service as a necessary transportation option with important implications for economic development. But it's an option that can live up to its potential only if the trains don't turn off ridership by being late. The problem is frustrating because the source of most of the tardiness is well known: Trains hauling freight delay their passenger-carrying counterparts. And the solution is something few want to hear: massive capital investment.


By global standards, passenger trains in the United States are painfully slow at best. While trains in Europe and Asia speed along at 150 to 200 mph, in this country, an Amtrak train can be outpaced by a lead-footed motorist. Most trains aren't authorized to go faster than 79 mph.

But if foreign passenger trains zip along like Ferraris and American ones lumber along like minivans, then freight trains putter around like golf carts. Trains carrying goods often creep along at 30 or 40 mph. After all, it doesn't matter whether a shipment of coal or grain arrives in 10 hours or 15. The extra cost of moving the goods quickly, including higher costs of maintaining the tracks, doesn't justify the expense.

In many places, the minivans are stuck behind the golf carts on the equivalent of a one-lane highway. The American railroad system is bound together in a tenuous public-private partnership. Private railroads, which are freight-oriented, own the vast majority of the track, requiring the publicly managed passenger trains to share space with slower freight trains. "On-time performance is slipping and continues to slip," says Frank Busalacchi, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, "because we all have these problems with freight rail."

This problem is coming to a head now because American freight rail is booming, having just completed its ninth consecutive year with record volume. This success represents a dramatic reversal for an industry that had spent decades downsizing. In an effort to stay profitable in the lean decades, the industry had been tearing up tracks and letting others fall into disrepair. Federal deregulation of freight rail in the early 1980s accelerated this process as rail companies consolidated and looked to cut costs.

Richard L. Beadles, who serves on Virginia's Rail Advisory Board, notes that railroads today are learning a lesson that any child playing with blocks already knows: It's much easier to destroy something than it is to rebuild it. "There was an appalling lack of planning and vision," he says.

Private railroads are now spending billions of dollars on improvements, but track maintenance and construction is so capital- intensive that it's a challenge just to keep up with the growing traffic. Maintenance is also a mixed blessing. Track work is necessary but compounds delays--and that's before any benefits are realized.

Officials from the private railway sector admit that, when making upgrades, their priority is to serve their investors who don't see any profit from improved passenger service. "It takes time to build capacity, and you have to make sure you're getting an adequate return on investment," says Tom White, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads. "We can't make investments that are primarily public service in nature."


Had this dilemma played out 15 years ago, state transportation officials might have shrugged and said intercity passenger rail was a federal responsibility. Today, however, more than a dozen states have a financial stake in intercity passenger rail, with California, Illinois, Maine, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wisconsin among the most active. They see passenger rail as a solution to a host of disparate problems, from congested highways to polluted air to economic stagnation.

Part of this shift is the embrace of a concept that's a dirty word in the private sector: redundancy. Roads, airports and now rail all face challenges with overcrowding. The operating theory is that none of them alone can get a growing population where it needs to go, so all are necessary pieces of the puzzle. Rail represents a way to move people from city center to city center (unlike air travel) and allow business travelers to work while in transit (which is difficult in a car). In an era of high gas prices, traffic jams and airport security delays, trains are often a more appealing way to travel than they were in decades past.

That's certainly what California has found. In 1990, Golden State voters used the ballot-measure process to provide state funding for passenger rail. One of the uses of that money was to start up service between Oakland and Sacramento, cities that are 80 miles apart and where passenger-rail service didn't exist. Last year, the route, known as the Capitol Corridor, expanded to 16 daily round trips, with seven of them continuing beyond Oakland to San Jose. Healthy ridership (more than 1.2 million passengers on the Capitol Corridor last year) has been possible only through a major investment, one that Amtrak, the federal government and freight railroads weren't and aren't willing to make. But California has pumped $1.7 billion from bonds into the Capitol Corridor and two other routes since 1990.

Regional corridors such as Oakland to Sacramento are the passenger- rail system's silver lining. They're the routes where ridership is growing, new daily trips are being added and revenue comes closest to meeting expenses. And, many of the most successful routes--Seattle to Portland, Oregon; Milwaukee to Chicago; Chicago to St. Louis; Harrisburg to Philadelphia; and California's Capitol Corridor--have been enabled by state money. These investments have been fueled by states' desire to augment service and by the need to step in where Amtrak, because of its perpetual funding crisis, will not. "Amtrak has an entire country to worry about," says Karen Rae, a deputy secretary in the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. Noting the faster and more numerous trips on the Keystone Service, from Harrisburg to Philadelphia, she added, "If this had been left to Amtrak, you would have seen minor improvements and half the service that we're providing."


These gains, however, are cause for hope rather than elation. Rail still represents only a tiny fraction of intercity trips in the United States. Many transportation officials don't think that's because Americans are inherently in love with driving but rather because trains in this country are slow and unreliable. "It's where you have an appointment and end up being an hour late," says Busalacchi, who is also chairman of States for Passenger Rail. "That's where people get disenchanted and go right back to the automobile."

While the problem is intensified on longer routes, it exists on regional ones, too. For example, Amtrak's Cascade is a mid-length route from Eugene, Oregon, to Vancouver, British Columbia, and includes the important Portland-to-Seattle corridor. Only 48 percent of Cascade trains arrived on time last year. Freight traffic was the biggest source of delays--even though federal law stipulates that Amtrak trains be given priority over their freight counterparts.

Faced with the freight-delay problem, states have a couple of imperfect options. One is to offer the freight railways incentives-- bonuses if they clear out of the way enough to let passenger trains run on time. Wisconsin has been using such incentives to get the Hiawatha--the Milwaukee-to- Chicago route--running on time. In 2006, Hiawatha had the best on-time performance of any intercity passenger line. Maine also uses the bonus approach to help get its Downeaster, the route from Boston to Portland, to the station on time. Currently, it is an early on-time leader for this year.

But the inducements don't always work. Amtrak has been offering its own incentives to the private railroad companies but the freight lines have left tens of millions of dollars on the table as the passenger trains that run on their tracks have continued to be delayed. Part of the reason that these payments don't work is that the dollars involved aren't enough to influence multibillion-dollar companies.

But there are other fundamental reasons why the bonus approach doesn't work. Incentives are based on a premise that if freight railroad operators just tried a little bit harder, the passenger trains would be able to run on time. However, with the tracks overcrowded and regular maintenance necessary, delays are inevitable. Slowly, the passenger-rail community is realizing that, despite some horror stories to the contrary, their freight counterparts might be doing the best they can. "We have come to grips with the reality that the freight railroads are not out to make life difficult for Amtrak," says Cliff Black, an Amtrak spokesman. "The tracks are congested."

This congestion can be solved with fewer trains or with more tracks. Rail officials across the country talk of turning single track into double track and double track into triple, creating more parallel lines so that the faster passenger trains can pass their freight counterparts more easily. Their wish list includes new or expanded sidings--places where slower trains can pull over to let faster ones speed by. Some sidings are too short to accommodate today's longer freight trains.

But building and expanding rail service to offset rail congestion would require much bigger investments than states are making today. For example, Busalacchi longs to start up passenger service between Milwaukee and Madison, but the cost for that 80-mile project is pegged at $400 million. That kind of price tag raises the question of whether intercity rail warrants that sort of investment. The answer may be "no," unless the trains get faster.


There are two keys to getting people to ride the trains: price competitiveness and time competitiveness. With regard to the latter, it's often faster to drive regional corridors--barring traffic jams-- even if the trains run on time. High-speed rail would change that and state rail officials are starting to move in that direction.

Fifteen years ago, the federal Department of Transportation designated five high-speed rail corridors around the country. "What that meant was, 'Bless you, go forward and do good things with your own money,'" says Patrick Simmons, director of the rail division of the North Carolina Department of Transportation. When North Carolina got around to studying its high-speed corridor--running from Washington, D.C., to Richmond, Raleigh and Charlotte--it discovered something unusual for a public transportation project: The projected annual revenues exceed operating expenses. North Carolina and Virginia are now moving forward on a project that would have trains moving at 110 mph; they are conducting environmental impact studies that will be required to secure federal funds.

California's high-speed-rail proposal is even more ambitious: It would run trains at twice the North Carolina corridor's speed, whisking passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in a little over two-and-a-half hours. Supporters hope to place a measure on the 2008 ballot to supply funding for this project.

Pennsylvania is ahead of them both, having just begun running trains at up to 110 mph on the Keystone Service last fall. The project required $145.5 million in track upgrades, with costs split between the state, Amtrak and the Federal Transit Administration. With those upgrades complete, the 100-mile trip takes just over an hour and a half, slightly faster than by car. Rae says her state had two factors working for it in starting the high-speed service: First, Amtrak owns the tracks on the Keystone Service--it doesn't on most corridors. Second, the route has very little freight traffic.

Just as the tenuous freight-passenger relationship hinders present intercity train travel, it imperils its future, too. Rae's previous job was as the top rail official in Virginia. In many ways, the Richmond-to-Washington, D.C., corridor is similar to Harrisburg-to- Philadelphia: Both connect a major metropolis to a smaller capital city that is 100 miles away. But Rae says that hooking up Richmond and Washington with high-speed rail is a much tougher task and therefore more expensive. The cost of high-speed on the Charlotte-to-Washington, D.C., line, will be billions of dollars, not the millions for the Keystone Service. Don't even ask about California's high-speed project. It comes with a $40 billion price tag, which is why Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced in January that he opposed the rail ballot measure and preferred to focus on roads.

With no hope for help from private freight-bound railroads and limited funding of their own, state rail officials are looking to an institution that hasn't been known for its financial largesse for passenger rail: the U.S. Congress. What they're shooting for is legislation that, besides funding Amtrak at much more generous levels, would also provide matching funds at the same formula as highways--80 percent of the cost of capital rail projects. This legislation passed the Senate last session on a 93-to-6 vote but never went any further. The bill has been reintroduced, but until something happens in Washington, states, much like the passengers aboard the trains, are left waiting.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman | Former Staff Writer |