Tuesday, April 05, 2011

This Week in Amtrak

Train #306 heading into Springfield from St. L...Image via Wikipedia
This Week at Amtrak Vol. 8 No. 6
Volume 8, Number 6

From the Editors…

There is a lot of talk these days of “passenger rail.” This week we attempt to separate reality from hyperbole.

The Definition of Success; The Price of the Definition

“What is the value added?” or similar questions are asked whenever any enterprise considers expansion, upgrade or reorganization. In principle it is a simple exercise; will future generations see this investment of time and resources as valuable or worthless? In the mania that has defined passenger railroading for the second decade of the 21st Century, one fact has become crystal clear, and that is that very few can accurately define what the value added is for passenger trains.

This is not to say that those promoting new trains are doing so out of shear ignorance or malfeasance. Many of these efforts are well meant. This past February, the Administration called upon Congress for a $53 billion down payment on high-speed rail for the country to enhance mobility and create work-fare. The goal was to provide access to fast trains for 80 percent of the country in 20 years. The general response was “Would you like fries with that?” More recently, two actors from a period-piece cable television drama performed, in character, a skit promoting the virtues of high-speed trains. The idea, if not the allure, of sleek, fast, sexy transportation seems positive and for good reason, because it is; however, the path from the trains of today and the trains of tomorrow is not as straight, short, or simple as one would be led to believe.

All around this great land of ours there are mixed signals as to the future of new passenger trains, let alone improvement of those extant. Passenger rail went from a Washington missive to center stage in many regional elections. As a result, planned projects in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida came to naught. In California, plans are moving forward to build a high-speed railroad as far out in the country as possible so as not to attract any attention. As a result of the many rejections, once-ostracized states of the Northeast are now allowed to bid for the now unwanted Federal dollars to improve Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.

Despite these false starts, there has been meaningful progress on many fronts for the augmentation of passenger trains. In just the last month, Washington State received its grant of $590 million for improvements between Portland, Oregon, and Seattle. In North Carolina, $461 million was received for upgrades to its Raleigh-to-Charlotte route. And in Illinois, $685 million was realized to continue improvements from Chicago to St. Louis, Missouri. Some $1.736 billion of taxpayer monies have been doled out for worthwhile projects around the country.

It is still early in the decade, but a definite trend has started to take shape regarding the future of domestic passenger trains. At one end of the spectrum, the assumed silver bullet [train] which was to herald the new era of national HSR transportation was nixed in Florida. It would have run on an independent right-of-way with no direct connection to the rest of the National system. The “3C” service cancelled in Ohio was not HSR but rather an upgrade of existing freight-only trackage, most of which has not seen passenger trains for four decades. Even with the blessing of the current owners, the enhanced track was not going to be of too much benefit to freight, as Cincinnati to Cleveland via Columbus is not a natural through-freight corridor. The stalled extension of Hiawatha service from Milwaukee to Madison, Wisconsin, also not true HSR, did plan to make use of an existing passenger route as far as Watertown. From there, a nearly-abandoned freight line would have been completely rebuilt for passenger speeds. West of Watertown, the line sees minimal traffic currently handled by a short line.

The successes seen in Washington, Illinois, and North Carolina are another matter, altogether. What do they have in common?

All are pre-existing state-supported services. Washington started daily service in 1994 using trainsets made by Talgo. The Chicago-to-St. Louis service has existed in many guises since the beginning of Amtrak, and was once home to the French-made Turbo trains. (With Talgo reportedly relocating to Illinois, perhaps the Lincoln service will see yet another iteration of exotic equipment.) North Carolina’s intrastate train service started in 1995 and utilizes its own fleet of equipment.

All are on track owned (or operated) by freight railroads. The track in Washington State is a major corridor for BNSF, linking the Pacific Northwest with Canada. Even so, they have proven time and again to be willing partners with the local authority for operating the Cascade services. In Illinois, the line between St. Louis and Chicago is Union Pacific’s shortest route between the two cities. North Carolina’s Piedmont trains utilize Norfolk Southern’s main line from Greensboro to Charlotte. This track is currently undergoing capacity expansion as part of the Crescent Corridor initiative.

All currently host long-distance Amtrak trains. In Washington State the route of the Cascades is also part of the route for the Coast Starlight. The Illinois Lincoln service also hosts the daily Texas Eagle, while North Carolina’s Piedmont shares the same track with the Crescent between Greensboro and Charlotte.

In Washington, overall track capacity will increase with completion of the Point Defiance bypass. This bypass will obviate a single track tunnel and will be used by the Cascades, local commuter, as well as long-distance trains. Union Pacific plans for increased freight traffic on the Illinois line once upgrades are complete. North Carolina will add 28 miles of double track between Charlotte and Greensboro, part of the aforementioned Crescent Corridor. The planned enhancements for all three of these routes not only aid the regional and freight trains, but also increase the viability of long-distance trains; it is like getting three for the price of one. Now that is value added!

There is virtually no end to the possible public/private synergies around the country. In Virginia, passenger service will be returned to Norfolk (using State funds). The line from Norfolk to Petersburg is the Eastern end of Norfolk Southern’s recently upgraded Heartland Corridor connecting tidewater to the Midwest. Recently, the state of Missouri applied for Federal high-speed money to increase speeds between St. Louis and Kansas City. This is the route of the State-supported Missouri River Runner, and operates over the tracks of Union Pacific. Another plan under consideration is a daily train connecting Dallas to Eastern Texas. Currently, the daily Texas Eagle runs between Marshall and Dallas; westbound in the morning, eastbound in the evening. A counterpart train would run on opposite schedules with a possible extension to Shreveport, Louisiana. This would necessitate capacity expansion on the 150-mile route also owned by Union Pacific. Enhanced service between Oakland, California and Reno, Nevada is also a possibility. Currently, the route between Oakland and Auburn sees daily service as part of California’s Capitol Corridor, including the daily California Zephyr. Pushing the corridor past Auburn to Reno, 118 miles, may require capacity expansion over famed Donner Pass; predominantly re-laying much of the second track removed prior to Union Pacific’s accession of the route in 1996.

As the nation continues to adjust from the economic correction of the last few years it is evident we are a people defined as “risk averse.” Houses are not selling even though there are those who should be able to afford such. The numerous vacant automobile dealerships that now dot the landscape are further evidence of our new-found fiscal conservatism. The progress being seen in Washington, Illinois, and North Carolina demonstrate the public will to invest in the “tried and true,” where return on investment may be easily calculated and expedited.

Of all the trains run by Amtrak, it is the long-distance fleet which has garnered consistently increasing passenger loadings despite the downturn of the economy. To those inured by the high-speed-rail mentality sweeping the nation, these “slow trains” do not fit the prepackaged ideal; however, it must be understood that no high-speed train anywhere on earth was built without something predicating it. It must also be recognized that the United States has been limping along on a skeletal passenger rail network for four decades. If there is to be a true high-speed rail network, it must be preceded by a true conventional rail network.

The simple if painful truth is that a legitimate high-speed train is not a few years or even a decade away. A genuine network of meaningful passenger trains will have to be reestablished before going any further. This is a process that could conceivably take at least a generation, and no decree of imperious immediacy can change this. The latter half of the 20th Century was defined by America’s embrace of the automobile. This did not happen overnight. The return to rail-based transportation will also be a long-term transition; perhaps too long to satisfy those overly concerned about their legacy in the annals of history.
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