By Noel T. Braymer
Going back to the earliest days of railroad service, railroads were legally treated as utilities and not as a typical business. Utilities are natural monopolies. What that means is it is not practical for a town to have 3 or 4 water systems, natural gas pipelines, electrical suppliers and cable companies all with separate infrastructure competing for the same limited number of customers. But because utilities don’t have competition to control prices and quality of service, they are usually regulated to some degree to protect the public from unreasonable prices and poor service. In the past it was regulations that often required providing passenger rail service at a loss that railroads didn’t like. Today there is increasing interest in communities around the Country for improved and expanded rail passenger services. This will likely only happen with agreements with the railroads to at least share their rights of way and in some cases their tracks. But for some railroads there is little incentive to cooperate any more than they have too.
Most businesses are open to the public. There are laws against businesses refusing to serve paying customers which have been affirmed by the Supreme Court. The public have an expectation that they should be able to use the railroads for public use. A major reason the railroads don’t want passenger service is passenger trains generally run faster than freight trains. This causes problems mixing services with different speeds because unlike freeways with many lanes to get around slower vehicles, railroads would need extra tracks which are expensive to own and maintain to allow trains to pass each other. In the past railroads did run more freight and passenger trains than they do today. But since the 1980’s the railroads have torn out much of the infrastructure needed to do that to save money. Today’s freight trains are much longer than in the past so more freight is carried with fewer trains than in the past. Railroads differ, but the BNSF is willing to consider improvements on their railroad for passenger service if they get paid for it. The BNSF is willing to allow more passenger trains on its mainline between Fullerton and Los Angeles. But this depends on the amount of triple tracking that is built so passenger trains can be run and able to bypass freight trains. This is a slow process since before more triple tracking can be built, new grade separations are needed before more trains are run to prevent traffic backups at the grade crossings. In less than ten years we should see all remaining grade crossing grade separated which will allow 4 tracks on the BNSF between Los Angeles and Fullerton with 2 separate tracks each for passengers and for freights.
The Union Pacific is generally not interested in having more passengers service on its tracks. The rational choice for California High Speed Rail would have been to share the UP right of way through the San Joaquin Valley which would have been the fastest, cheapest and easiest route to build. But the UP was hostile to the idea and many of the problems with starting work for High Speed Rail in the San Joaquin Valley stem from the need to use sections of the BNSF and buy land for new alignments without help from the UP. Now that it looks like the High Speed Rail project is here to stay the UP cooperates on construction for High Speed Rail which crosses their rights of way. Just in California there are many places that want more rail passenger service if the UP would allowed it. But this will need track improvements in many cases which funding hasn’t been secured.
What is needed for expanding rail passenger service is a working relationship between public agencies and the private railroads. We can see such a relationship between the UP and the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority. The Capitol Corridor trains operated by Amtrak are managed locally by the Joint Powers Authority. At the start up of Capitol Corridor service the State negotiated a trackage rights agreement with the then railroad owner the Southern Pacific. After the Union Pacific bought out the Southern Pacific, the UP was legally bound to accept the trackage rights on their tracks by the Capitol Corridor service. The Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority has worked hard to maintain a good relationship with the UP. This has included paying the UP extra money to maintain their tracks used by Capitol Corridor trains to a higher standard than needed for freight service. This has allowed reductions in running times for the Capitol Corridor trains and increased ridership while improving on time performance of the trains. The UP has benefited with a better maintained railroad which improves their rail operations and from the extra money it gets from the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Agency.
Currently the CSX railroad is claiming it will costs billions of dollars for passenger trains to operate on time if Amtrak service is extended along the Gulf Coast between New Orleans and Orlando. The basis of this claim are several railroad draw bridges along the Gulf Coast which shipping has the right of way when passing through these bridges forcing trains to stop. Not much detailed data has been presented so far to back up these claims. The Federal Railroad Administrations has studied the viability of reestablishing passenger service along the coast and found that start up service would need $118 million dollars in track improvements. The new CEO of CSX, Hunter Harrison has a record as a railroad CEO of slashing costs and payrolls while increasing railroad profits. This is why he was brought to the CSX. It is likely that Mr. Harrison doesn’t want the bother of adding more passenger train service on the CSX. If he must run more passenger trains he will ask top dollars to be made to do so.
The future of decent rail passenger service in much of this country will depend on access to the rights of ways and in many cases the tracks of the railroads. Since the railroads where built before most major development after the end of the 19th Century, building new rights of way from scratch will be mostly impossible today. But the railroads have a reasonable expectation that passenger service will not cost them any money due to delays or accidents from passenger service. Not only would the railroads want to be paid more by Amtrak for use of their tracks, they would want track improvements to avoid conflicts between passenger and freight trains which affect their freight customers before allowing more passenger rail service.
Governments: local, state and federal are all in the transportation infrastructure business. Since the 1970’s governments have been deferring maintenance on much of their transportation infrastructure. Spending money to share and improve the railroads to avoid building new roads and airports which are largely impossible to do now, would be a bargain. There are many ways on the Federal side to improve freight roads to handle passenger trains. Besides grant money, use of tax breaks and tax credits would be an incentive to accept and upgrade their railroads for more passenger service. Both sides will need to understand each others problems and seek to find mutually acceptable solutions. But the fact is rights of way for transportation are valuable and irreplaceable. We will need to get the most use out of what we have now in the future.