By M.E. Singer
Why the sound of crickets towards one critical component required to competently address our nation’s infrastructure deficiencies? For no valid reason, inter-city passenger rail corridor development continues to be missing within the context of the policy options to comprehensively approach our issue of re-building infrastructure.
Why would the well documented benefits of intercity passenger rail be neglected here, particularly given the increased demand for Midtown-Midtown mobility? Such a well planned rail infrastructure program would certainly be substantially less cost than a mile of interstate highway, or, another runway and apron. How do we continue to avoid “the elephant in the room” of airport gridlock due to so many flights serving markets under 500 miles; let alone the increased costs and reduced services to those places?
As evidenced in the Northeast Corridor, intercity rail has earned a well established position, offering schedule frequencies convenient to business and leisure travelers by what rail does best–serving numerous multi-market segments en route between Boston-Richmond. However, west of the Potomac, Amtrak has been politically and deliberately kept on a starvation funding diet inhibiting any bold planning to replicate fast, frequently scheduled rail to under-performing or ignored historical corridors.
Sufficient equipment to provide capacity to meet market demand has also been constrained, due to the lack of a consistent funding mechanism (as provided for air and highways) to facilitate long-term planning to achieve lower cost financing to acquire, or, even rehabilitate equipment. Not to be ignored, the long distance routes have been denied more than a daily frequency preventing any meaningful market development for serving the multi-market segments for tourism, leisure, and between small towns deprived of air and bus services. This lack of progress has only been exacerbated by an institutional managerial malaise in deference to Amtrak being previously run as a Politburo for political appointees, in disregard to services, skills, and support required by the system.
However, under its new CEO, Charles W. Moorman, who has a long history in successful railroad operations, Amtrak should have the “Carpe Diem” moment of opportunity as a new leadership team is put in place. Without losing anymore time to research vapid statistics, the template to energize lackluster or ignored rail corridor markets is now tested and available from California to be utilized.
Over the years, California, the model for an auto-centric state, has invested in true regional intercity rail through its Joint Powers Authorities (JPAs) responsible for the operations. As a result, we learned how the “Pacific Surfliners” have increased revenues and load factors when operating directly from San Diego to Santa Barbara/San Luis Obispo by running thru LA, instead of terminating there and requiring a transfer. As well, the “Capitol Corridor” operating from Sacramento-Emeryville (San Francisco) was extended to San Jose. The “San Joaquins” serving the Central Valley from Bakersfield/Fresno will eventually also be extended.
Key to what we have learned from the success of these JPAs is how the popularity of their rail services grew exponentially by extending and inter-connecting regions within networks of transportation resources. This significant point was achieved in parallel to acquiring new equipment and motive power, and increasing schedule frequencies.
Essential to embracing the economically viable concept of rail corridors requires a 21st century approach by federal, state, and municipal bodies to appreciate the fact that our Class 1 private freight railroads built, maintain, and own the infrastructure (and pay taxes on every mile of track and every building) that our intercity trains west of the Northeast must travel upon. Due to the difference between freight and passenger train speeds, the track and signaling, as well as grade crossings require costly adjustments for safety reasons. As neither Amtrak has the bank nor should the private railroads have such costs foisted upon them, this offers an opportune situation to achieve the true vision of P3–“Public-Private-Partnerships” to re-build our railway infrastructure to accommodate the pent up growth requirements of passenger services relying upon infrastructure built for freight.
As well, given the history of the rapid growth of TODs-“Transit Oriented Development” along the right-of-way of new streetcar, subway, and commuter rail lines, such economic opportunities could certainly be coupled to the P3 endeavors. We should remember how the transit and railway systems of Japan and Hong Kong derive higher revenues from their real estate operations at stations and en route than from carrying passengers; with such revenues utilized to support the rail operations.
Finally, to facilitate the obvious need to replace intercity rail equipment, Congress and the U.S. DOT must require the FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) to expeditiously revamp its outmoded safety requirements for the construction and operation of passenger trains. Europe has already proven they can operate their trains faster and safer by omitting these regulations that previously only encumbered their trains with more weight, making them actually less safe. Again, in reference to California, Caltrains which provides the commuter rail service from the Peninsula suburbs into San Francisco has already secured such waivers, enabling it to electrify the line and utilize new, proven equipment from Stadler Rail of Switzerland. Already in service between Oceanside-Escondido, CA are diesel multiple unit commuter trains on the “Sprinter” service built by Siemens.
When debating the priorities of infrastructure, we frequently hear references to the Marshall Plan of 1947, Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway Act of 1956, and even, the Moon program of 1962-1969. Let us not forget that throughout those times referenced, we enjoyed a vast network of intercity and long distance passenger trains connecting our cities, towns, and regions, operated by the private railroads. This convenient, fast mode of travel was destroyed when the federal treasury became an open spigot to finance-and maintain-the interstate highway program, airports (munis), and the air traffic control system. The privately-owned, heavily regulated and taxed railroads could not compete on such an un-level playing field, with their own taxes used as a public trough supporting competitors who have never paid any meaningful user fees.
For a national infrastructure program to succeed going forward a course correction is required in respect to this history when the federal government overtly picked winners and losers. Such a program must embrace the successful template for intercity rail providing real inter-connectivity between regions, as proven in California; the economic role of P3 to include the private railroads to re-build infrastructure to accommodate passenger rail; ideally, legislating meaningful user fees for the interstates (e.g., tolls, higher gas or mileage taxes) and the air traffic control program (e.g., cost per flight).
For this to succeed, we must push aside the single dimension of lobbyists who have perverted our political process so that we may successfully educate the public that Amtrak, commuter rail, subways, and streetcars are not the only recipients of subsidy, as all modes of transportation are subsidized by the taxpayer.