By Noel T. Braymer
The Colorado State Senate recently voted for a report to be finished by the end of this year on the feasibility of rail passenger service between Trinidad, Colorado in the south of the State to Cheyenne Wyoming just north of the State Line. This would use existing railroads that parallel the I-25 Freeway which runs north and south of Denver along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. It would be written by many of the same people which were responsible for getting Amtrak to commit to rerouting the Southwest Chief to Pueblo. The bill for this report is expected to be passed by the legislature. Final plans have not been announced about future rail service on this route. But this could include a section of the Southwest Chief to Denver. Ideally this would include connections to the California Zephyr in Denver and connections to the westbound Chief from Chicago. Such a service could besides opening more service for most of the population of Colorado, but also to California, Arizona and New Mexico on Amtrak.
Now all we need to do is find enough equipment for this and other worthwhile Long Distance Rail project under consideration. Recently Amtrak President Moorman has reaffirmed Amtrak’s commitment for restarting daily service between New Orleans and Florida. There is increased grassroots support in rural America for increased Long Distance Rail Passenger service. But Amtrak has no plans to buy new and more Long Distance equipment that will be needed to expand service. This is especially true of buying more Superliner style Bi-Level cars which are the most economically productive equipment used the Western Long Distance routes. Grassroots local political action is the most likely way we will get expanded rail passenger service and the equipment that will be needed to run more trains.
We will need a plan to acquire more needed equipment. To get a good deal, we will need large orders. But the chances of getting a grant for this equipment from Congress is unlikely. It is more likely that Congress would be more open to a deal leasing new equipment which would create tax credit opportunities for leasing companies financing such a large equipment order. Amtrak, or a private operator of a long distance passenger rail route will need revenue from increased ridership to make payments for an equipment lease. Leasing is the way most transportation businesses get their equipment.
This brings up the mandate from Congress that Amtrak allow private operators to run service on at least 3 Long Distance Amtrak routes in the near future. Nothing new has been heard of this plan. I don’t know if private operation of Long Distance service would include service on a new route or extension of service on an existing one. A private operator generally would want to serve a market with the most route miles, since this would generate the most passenger miles which is usually the best producer of revenues with the lowest overhead cost per mile. Here is just a short list based on local support of likely new services for Long Distance Trains. This would include extending the City of New Orleans along the Gulf Coast to Orlando Florida. Splitting a section of the Southwest Chief at Pueblo to Denver and even Cheyenne. Creating daily service for both the Cardinal and Sunset. Extending the Heartland Flyer to Kansas creating a connection to both west and east bound Southwest Chiefs. A second Coast Starlight train for overnight service between Southern and Northern California, connections to the California Zephyr and extended to Vancouver B.C. As well as a section of the Crescent to Dallas/Fort Worth all part of phase one.
So, where are we going to get the equipment to run these new Long Distance Trains? Recently attempts to build passenger cars that meet FRA crash standards hasn’t gone well. Amtrak’s latest order for low level long distance cars was delivered years late. Several states in the Midwest and California placed a joint order for 130 bi-level cars based on equipment used in California. This order is at least 2 year late and cars have not yet gone into production. The car builder has yet to build a prototype that can meet FRA crash standards. The Federal grant for this project must be spent by September of this year or the funding will be cancelled.
There isn’t a great deal of rail car construction in this country. Most rail car building is for transit rail. Siemens is finishing up rail car and locomotive production for the Brightline train project in Florida, on time and on budget. Siemens could build more Brightline equipment for Amtrak, but for Long Distance service bi-level equipment would be more productive. Siemens,or any other international rail car builder could build bi-level or any other type of rail car in this country. But this would require designing something which meets FRA regulations for rail passenger cars in this country. That is a rather small market in the world of rail passenger service.
Many people have suggested that the FRA grant waivers on their crash standards for rail passenger cars. This is already being done for High Speed Rail requirements by the FRA. Rail equipment built overseas is often lighter than FRA requirements would allow. FRA crash standards are based on greater structural strength to prevent rail cars from being crushed in a crash. Outside of the US rail car designs are more like modern automobiles which absorb the energy of a crash by being designed to be crushed. In crash tests performed by the FRA the amount of damage in a crash was much less with energy absorption, than with current FRA style equipment.
It is up to Congress to find solutions to make it possible to run new and more rail passenger service in the country. If the service is good, people will ride trains. Rail service not only can make traveling better in many travel markets. Just as important it is a boast for local economies. The Brightline service expected to start soon in Florida will likely operate at a profit.The private company behind Brightline is a commercial property developer which owns a railroad. It has been for over a 100 years. The real money for this company behind Brightline is the new developments around the Brightline Stations, not from carry passengers. Just in Southern California with the growth in rail passenger service between Los Angeles and San Diego over the last 40 year has seen major new developments around many of the local train stations. This can be seen in particular around San Diego, Oceanside, and Fullerton. This has also brought about major new growth around Los Angeles Union Station. Major redevelopment and improvements in and around Los Angeles Union Station are now transforming the area. We are seeing much the same happening on other rail routes in California.