By Noel T. Braymer
With the creation of Amtrak we saw a low point in rail passenger service in this Country. With Amtrak came the greatest loss of rail passenger service in a single day in American history. Amtrak was created in part to save the most critical services which had the best chance of surviving. To help the freight railroads many passenger routes lost service as part of the deal to get the cooperation of the railroads to allow Amtrak on their tracks. Since 1971 when Amtrak was formed it has often seemed there have been more setbacks than progress. But there have been successes, and the best ones start small. California is the model for this. There are now 12 round trips between San Diego and Los Angeles with 5 of those trains also going to Santa Barbara and 2 of those trains going to San Luis Obispo.
In the mid 1970’s Amtrak ran only 3 round trips a day between San Diego and Los Angeles. Shortly thereafter the State of California paid to add first one, them by 1979 three additional round trips between San Diego and Los Angeles. The result was ridership tripled and revenues greatly improved. In less than 30 years not only did Amtrak service grow in Southern California, but so did service in the San Joaquin Valley and between San Jose and Sacramento as well as commuter service between San Jose and San Francisco. All of this was done with small, incremental improvements of service and low cost service extensions often taking advantage of under use of existing equipment and tracks.
Similar improvements can be made, and are being proposed for more of Amtrak. This is particularly true of the Long Distance trains. Much of this progress is being done at the grass roots level. For many communities across the county one of the few available forms of transportation are Amtrak’s Long Distance trains. There is strong support in many of these communities for more and better Amtrak service. What many of these local communities have been able to do is to get Amtrak to stop at their towns as well as add bus connections so more people in the region also have connections to Amtrak. One train that we are seeing plans to improve service is the Southwest Chief.
It wasn’t that long ago that it looked like Amtrak would have to reroute the Southwest Chief through Texas and out of most of New Mexico, all of Colorado and much of Kansas. The problem was the route through the Raton Pass was a minor branch line for the BNSF. It wasn’t worth it to the BNSF to maintain this branch line to the levels to operate passenger trains at passenger speeds and comfort. This energized local officials in these 3 states to raise Federal and local funding to replace the ancient bolted rail on the Raton Pass line with new welded rail to improve service. For these states and the Southwest Chief this was only the beginning.
During this time, a major leader in keeping the Chief on its historic route was the city of Pueblo, Colorado. Now the Chief doesn’t go to Pueblo, but that city wants to change that. The region in Colorado that did the most to keep the Chief in the state was Pueblo. Amtrak has agreed to operate a connecting service to the Chief between La Junta, Colorado to Pueblo. Pueblo was able to get the Colorado Legislature to create the Front Range Passenger Rail Commission. Its job is to oversee the track work in Colorado and the future connection to the Southwest Chief between Pueblo and La Junta. This commission is also tasked with developing a second service which will connect with the Chief at Trinidad, Colorado to Pueblo, Denver and as far north as Fort Collins. The City of Cheyenne, Wyoming is now also asking that this future service also be extended north of Fort Collins to Cheyenne.
The City of Wichita, Kansas really wants rail passenger service. The closest Wichita is now to this goal is a bus connection between Oklahoma City with the Heartland Flyer to Newton, Kansas with connections to the Southwest Chief. Despite service mostly in the late evenings and early mornings, this bus is often full. There is a good chance that the Heartland Flyer will be extended to Newton, Kansas. This can be done with the existing Heartland Flyer equipment and the BNSF is open to allowing this service on their tracks. This project is a classic win-win service which will increase revenues more than incremental costs and open service to more markets.
Over 10 years ago after Hurricane Katrina the extension of the tri-weekly Sunset Limited east of New Orleans along the Gulf Coast to Orlando, Florida was shut down because of hurricane damage. The CSX repaired the damage years ago, but Amtrak never bothered to restart service on the Gulf Coast. This in part was behind the creation of the Southern Rail Commission which is made up of the states along the Gulf Coast. The primary goal of the Southern Rail Commission is to extend the daily City of New Orleans along the Gulf Coast to Florida. Orlando is the most promising destination for an extended City of New Orleans. After years of work has come the running of Amtrak test trains on the CSX and sources of revenue were found to extend the City of New Orleans. Then the CSX said NO to more passenger trains on their railroad.
The CSX had recently hired Hunter Harrison as its CEO in the expectation that he would greatly increase corporate profits. Harrison had a reputation of doing this with massive cost cutting and service reductions. The last thing Harrison wanted was more Amtrak service. Instead of saving money, Harrison’s “cost cutting” created chaos in the CSX system and major delays for shippers, who were not happy with these delays. One thing the CSX and the UP have been doing lately is running fewer but much longer freight trains to save money. This has caused complaints by the towns on these major rail routes of these long trains blocking major roads for long periods of time. Among the railroads, the BNSF spends the most money on its infrastructure. The BNSF generally has the best operating railroads of the Class 1 railroads. What else does the BNSF do that is different than the CSX or UP?
The BNSF is not shy about asking for government money. Not long ago part of the route of the Empire Builder between Minnesota and North Dakota was flooded again. The BNSF told the local communities that unless money was found to raise the right of way above floor level, the line would be closed and the Empire Builder rerouted. The passenger service for these towns had a major economic impact and these towns didn’t want to lose it. So government money was found and the tracks were raised and these towns saved their rail passenger service.
This is much the same playbook that the BNSF used to get the money to upgrade the tracks between New Mexico and Kansas. While the railroads can get incentive money from Amtrak if their trains run on time on their railroads, the BNSF seems to get the lion’s share of this incentive money. The BNSF generally has the reputation as being the most “passenger friendly” railroad. But they also do their best to get what money Amtrak has to offer them. It helps that since the BNSF has the most money to invest in their infrastructure, they have less problems with the traffic on their lines.
Recently Metrolink, the regional rail passenger service in Southern California announced plans to operate trains most of the day on several of their routes every half hour or more by 2028. Los Angeles will be hosting the Olympics in the Summer of 2028. Currently Metrolink has service mostly during peak times and there are often gaps of hours in service most of the day. The key to doing this is local government will have to spend money to add tracks on the railroads. This process has already been underway for years. A key bottleneck is the double tracked mainline of the BNSF between Los Angeles and Fullerton. The main hold up to adding tracks on the BNSF is the need to grade separate the grade crossings first to avoid blocking grade crossing to long with more trains. After the last grade separation is built there will be 4 tracks between Los Angeles and Fullerton, with these 2 new tracks used only by passenger trains. This will include Amtrak, Metrolink and future High Speed Rail service sharing these tracks on the BNSF right of way. This will make possible running at least Metrolink service every 30 minutes or more between Laguna Niguel in southern Orange County to Los Angeles and out to Moorpark in Ventura County.
Fixing the bottleneck between Fullerton and Los Angeles will also make it possible to run trains every half hour between Los Angeles and Riverside. The BNSF mainline turns at Fullerton out to Riverside on its way to Chicago. For Metrolink to get any service between Fullerton and Riverside, it first had to build a third track to insure smooth operation with mixed traffic on the BNSF mainline. Once the 4 tracks are built between Los Angeles and Fullerton more Metrolink trains will be able to travel to Los Angeles from Riverside and Orange County.
A major factor in getting more passenger service, is for railroads to see passenger service service as a benefit and not as a problem for them. The BNSF learned this some time ago. Even the UP may be discovering this. The Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) service runs trains now between Stockton and San Jose. At the end of the legislative session this summer ACE received funding to extend service to Merced. To do this ACE will build their own track on the UP mainline in the San Joaquin Valley. This will keep passenger trains off of the UP tracks while the UP will be able to use this new track when there are no passenger trains using it. The San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission which oversees ACE, also oversees the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority which manages the San Joaquin Amtrak trains. The SJJPA is now planning to reroute and add more service to Sacramento on the San Joaquin trains. To do this San Joaquin trains would come off the UP mainline and use an underused branch line. The downside to this is there is no connection on this branch line to the Amtrak Sacramento Station. But adding more service on this line doesn’t seem to be a problem. ACE is thinking about running an hourly shuttle between Stockton and Sacramento in addition to the San Joaquin services. This would also provide connecting service to Sacramento to other ACE trains and San Joaquin trains to or from Oakland.
The railroads will respond to more passenger service if they are offered an incentive. If this means extra revenue and or helping them to pay to keep their infrastructure in tip top shape the railroads are increasingly becoming interested. Of course the railroads will gladly accept free money with no strings attached. So any deals with the railroads will need their guarantee that improved passenger service will be accepted by the railroads with tax money. But, if you can’t get the railroads on board you might as well pound sand if you want more rail passenger service.