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Eight Principles for Establishing a U.S. Passenger Rail System

May 18, 2020

By FK Plous

If the United States is to have a modern passenger-rail system, advocates will have to agree on a program of ideas and efforts likely to lead to its successful establishment.  A historical review of the nation’s successful highway and civil-aviation programs can provide clues to which principles are likely to work.  

History shows that all successful U.S. transportation programs are:

  • focused on infrastructure
  • federally planned and financed and national in scope
  • supported by major business interests—a passenger-train buildup cannot be achieved without the full participation of the freight railroads.
  • triggered by a perceived emergency

A key conclusion that advocates thus far have been unwilling to face:

A strong passenger-rail system in the United States must have the full cooperation of the Class 1 railroads. Instead of confronting the railroads, passenger-train advocates must seek opportunities to collaborate with the railroads on programs that enable both passenger and freight trains to play larger roles in the U.S. economy.

The following represents a review of the key elements of existing U.S. transportation programs with some suggestions about how the lessons learned from those programs and others worldwide might influence establishment of a passenger-rail program.

Principle 1: All U.S. transportation programs are infrastructure programs.

Advances in transportation vehicles—better automobiles, trains and airliners—are useless without an appropriate infrastructure. If the vehicles become more advanced than the infrastructure required to support them, the full benefits of the new technology will not be realized.

  • Cheap, mass-produced automobiles first became available in the U.S. in 1908, but their owners, and the national economy, were unable to realize the potential of these cars until the first stretches of modern intercity highways were completed in the early 1920s. Federal highways transformed automobiles from a rich man’s toy into the common-man’s mobility.

  • Fast, comfortable, reasonably priced airline service began to proliferate starting with the close of World War II, but the airline industry was plagued with fatal mid-air collisions and landing accidents because the U.S. lacked a modern civil-aviation infrastructure—airports and air-traffic control technologies—to manage the growing traffic  The arrival of jet travel in the mid-1950s only aggravated the problem.  Despite surging demand for travel on the bigger, faster new jets, the airline industry did not become safe or financially successful until well after Congress created the Federal Aviation Agency (later Administration) in 1958 and began building a safe civil-aviation infrastructure of high-capacity all-weather airports and networked radar and computer systems that tracked all civilian and military traffic electronically from origin to destination.  (Even then, it was not until airline service and fares were deregulated in 1979 that air-travel growth began to explode toward this technology’s full potential.)

  • The modern era of high-speed train travel was foreshadowed in 1954 when a French National Railroad electric locomotive pulled three coaches at a speed of 151 miles per hour over a short stretch of mainline test track.  But the commercial potential of high-speed rail was not successfully realized until 10 years later when the Japanese opened the 320-mile New Trunk Line (Shin Kan Sen) between Tokyo and Osaka.  It was not the new “bullet trains,” but the New Trunk Line—the advanced infrastructure over which they ran at 130 miles per hour--that made high-speed rail a practical and popular travel choice.  Although the New Trunk Line has since been turned over to private owners, only government initiative and capital could have built it.

The lesson for passenger rail: Any serious improvement in U.S. passenger-rail service will depend on a major advance in railroad infrastructure planned and financed by the federal government. 

While, newer, faster or more glamorous rolling stock will yield a small improvement in ridership, growth will not be sustained without additional track capacity permitting higher speeds, higher frequencies, absolute all-weather reliability, networked operations offering closely schedule connections at hubs, and modern, convenient, comfortable, accessible stations designed to function as the core of Train Oriented Real Estate Developments.  New ownership/control formats, such as privatization, will have no effect on outcomes absent a massive federally financed buildout of modern infrastructure.

Advocates must focus like a laser on the infrastructure question and make it clear to their members, the media and Congress why infrastructure is so important (and what kinds of infrastructure are needed).

Depending on location and existing levels of freight traffic, infrastructure improvement must include not only additional tracks configured for higher speeds but also selective track realignments, flying junctions, grade-crossing closures, replacement of busier grade crossings with grade separations and construction of new high-speed lines.

Principle 2: All successful infrastructure programs are federal.

Neither the nation’s highway nor civil-aviation program achieved liftoff until all interested parties agreed—some reluctantly--that state, local and private efforts alone—or even together--could not do the job.  Not only federal funding, but federal planning and leadership, are essential to building a coherent and effective infrastructure system over which fast, frequent, reliable passenger trains can be operated on a networked basis permitting seamless transfers among bullet trains, high-speed corridor trains, long-distance overnight trains and regional commuter trains.  

The federal government was essential to the creation of the highway and airways infrastructures not only because it alone had the resources to fund them, but because federal leadership was essential to making the systems equally useful and equally accessible to all areas of the nation and to all classes of travelers and shippers.

Unless a campaign for new rail infrastructure adheres to the federalist principle it is unlikely to receive congressional support.  Congress does not like to fund regional “experiments” or programs it believes will benefit only certain geographic areas, certain segments of the population or certain business interests.  Currently, legislators from states congenial to passenger trains secure support for their rail programs and projects by agreeing to support pet programs sought by colleagues from “non-passenger-train states.”  But log-rolling strategies have limited scope.  The slow, sparse, unreliable and fragmented U.S. passenger-train service of today will not evolve into an effective passenger-rail program unless good trains serve all states and all routes are linked into a national network through regional hubs offering conveniently scheduled connections. No more fragmentation!

Principle 3: All successful federal infrastructure programs are national.

Advocates must not be misled by critics claiming passenger rail does not “fit’ or cannot be “financially justified” in all states.  The nature of the federal highway and civil-aviation infrastructure programs is that all states get something even if some of the infrastructure facilities cannot meet a threshold standard of utilization.  

Some airports built with federal funds see only one or two daily commercial feeder flights.  Some have lost their commercial service.  The federal government continues to fund them.

Thousands of miles of federally financed highways remain open even though they serve sparsely populated districts with daily vehicle counts well below the minimum technically needed to justify the miles of asphalt they use.  

This is what it means to be part of a federal republic: Everybody gets access.  A federally financed and planned system of rail improvements must follow the same principle. In the words of former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, “It’s national or nothing.”

Principle 4: America launches new transportation infrastructure programs only in an emergency.
  • Support for the first Federal Aid Highway Act grew steadily in the years prior to World War I but did not win congressional approval until the privately owned rail system broke down under the strain of carrying wartime military traffic to the East Coast ports.  Late trains, misrouted shipments and shortages of motive power and rolling stock convinced an alarmed Congress that the nation needed a publicly owned alternative to the privately controlled railroad industry: a national system of highways (and a buildup of the Inland Waterways network as well).
  • Congress’s decision in 1958 to create a Federal Aviation Agency and build a modern, computerized, federally operated Air Traffic Control system came only after a series of airline disasters that climaxed (but did not end)  with the June 30, 1956, collision of two large airliners over the Grand Canyon, killing all 128 passengers and crew.  The Eisenhower administration, which had opposed federal traffic control on grounds of expense, ultimately capitulated in the face of public alarm and industry anxiety.
  • President Eisenhower’s relentless campaign for a $20-billion, 20-year, 42,000-mile Interstate Highway program came about largely because of Ike’s own “personal emergency.”  In researching his book Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life, author Tom Lewis discovered memoranda in the Eisenhower Presidential Library showing that Ike feared the Depression might resume while he was president and that if he did not have an ongoing public-works project to assure long-term full employment he would go into the history books as “Herbert Hoover II” and the Republican Party would go out of business.

Goaded by his personal emergency, Eisenhower ruined his health and ignored other pressing issues—including airways safety and traffic control—to get his Interstate highway program approved.

What kind of “emergency” is likely to come to the rescue of the American passenger-rail movement?  

The most likely candidate is the silent emergency currently unfolding in the freight-railroad industry.  While the Class 1s are not exactly on the brink of failure, they are plagued by a persistent loss of traffic that dates from well before the coronavirus emergency.  Their response so far has been confined to cost reduction through better supply-chain management.  No strategy for attracting new or higher-margin business has emerged because doing so would require a massive capital investment in additional track, higher speeds, flyover junctions, advanced signaling, electrification and grade-crossing elimination that only the federal government can supply.  The Class 1 railroads are stuck between the disappearing world of conventional railroading and the dynamic new railroad industry that they cannot finance by themselves.

If they want to grow, the Class 1s will have to make some sort of deal with the federal government, and admission of fast passenger trains to their new infrastructure will be part of the price.  

Such an outcome, however, need not be deemed a “capitulation” by the railroads.  A superior infrastructure will enable the railroads to carry lucrative new lines of freight for which their existing low-speed infrastructure is not adapted.  Collaboration with the federal government on a modern passenger-rail infrastructure can make the railroads winners in the freight business as well, particularly at a time when on-line shopping has made merchandise delivery a lucrative new industry.

Principle 5: It’s not about Amtrak.

Amtrak has blocked the sun for 47 years because it is the only intercity passenger-rail service in the nation, leading critics to mistakenly identify Amtrak’s problems as the problem.  The real problem is the lack of a modern, high-performance, high-capacity passenger-train infrastructure.  Until such an infrastructure is built and commissioned, neither Amtrak nor any imaginable alternate player will be capable of providing high-quality rail passenger service.  Once that infrastructure is opened, any number of players will be able to do it, and the federal government and the states will then be able to award operating franchises to the most qualified applicants (and not necessarily exclusive franchises; several nationalized systems in Europe allow competing operators to provide train service on the same route).

Principle 6. Begin with the end in mind.

Steven Covey’s best-selling book, The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, names vision as the first act essential to success.  Successful people, he writes, “Begin with the end in mind.”  That means they start by envisioning the end product of their efforts—the way things will look and work when the effort is completed and successful—and then work backward from the end-state vision to determine the steps necessary to start it, cultivate it and bring it to completion.  Think about what you want first—and then plan the steps that will get you there.

Failure to begin with the end in mind leads to a fatiguing cycle of projects without progress—plan after plan and project after project as a succession of random attempts and experiments that fail to jell into a definitive accomplishment.

Highway supporters learned this lesson the hard way:  They began agitating for paved roads during the 1880s but failed to secure congressional support until 1916 because they could not decide who exactly the highways should be for:

  • The first backers sought only “farm-to-market” roads that would “get the farmer out of the mud” and enable farmers to deliver loads of grain to railroad grain elevators.  Even though the U.S. was still largely a rural nation, Congress did not see farm roads as a national cause and failed to act.
  • Next came a movement for “post roads” to assure speedy delivery of the U.S. mail to rural recipients.  Again, Congress found postal delivery inadequate as the sole justification for an expensive new road system.
  • A third highway interest group later emerged: urban car owners who wanted an intercity highway network so they could use cars for business travel to distant cities as well as for leisure and tourism (an effort actively denounced by many farmers who viewed this sort of highway program as a subsidy to urban elites).
  • One group even argued for a “national” highway system linking all state capitals (as if an Indianapolis-Lansing highway had more utility than a highway linking Chicago with Detroit).

Failure of advocates to coalesce around a single, realistic, comprehensive goal delayed the emergence of a federal highway program for three decades.  Ultimately, only strong planning and organization by a new organ of the federal government—the Bureau of Public Roads--reconciled all the regional and factional interests to create a truly national highway system that served all personal, commercial and governmental purposes.  (And even with all highway advocates pulling for the first time in the same direction, it still required the World War I railroad collapse to persuade Congress at last to pass a highway bill.)

After World War II, advocates of modern, federally funded airports and a uniform, federally managed air-traffic control system also lost valuable time by failing to identify a national interest superior to the parochial interests that fragmented what should have been a solid pro-aviation political bloc.

  • Private pilots saw no need for big commercial airports because their airplanes were small, and they balked at federal air-traffic control because they believed equipping their planes with radios would put them under federal “surveillance” and take away their “freedom of the skies.”
  • Air Force and Navy aircraft reported to their own controllers who were not in contact with civilian controllers, causing several fatal crashes between commercial airliners and military aircraft whose crews did not know civilian airliners were in their vicinity.  Citing “national security,” the military continued to balk at joining the civil system in a common air-traffic control network until the continuing loss of life embarrassed the parties into a compromise.
  • The Eisenhower administration claimed civil aviation was not a federal responsibility and that the cities could fund the airports themselves while the cash-poor airlines—several still on federal subsidy—could build their own air-traffic control system.

Passenger-rail advocates must demand strong federal leadership in defining the purpose and shape of the coming passenger-rail system.  Advocates should stop petitioning “their” congressman for a grant to improve train service in a single state or region and begin approaching the entire Congress for a massive federally financed national infrastructure program like those that gave us modern auto and air travel.

Principle 7. No federal transportation-infrastructure program has ever been developed without the active collaboration of at least one major private industry.

Highway advocates labored fruitlessly for decades until the leader of the Bureau of Public Roads organized the auto manufacturers, the auto-parts industry, the rubber industry, the manufacturers of road-building machinery and the petroleum, asphalt and cement industries into a strong pro-highway coalition—the “Road Gang”--contributing not just to congressional campaigns and jawboning candidates but drafting model language for proposed highway legislation.

Similarly, the early advocates for civil-aviation reform had little effect on Congress until they were joined by the civil-engineering contractors seeking to build airports and the electronics companies such as Raytheon, RCA, IBM and others developing the new radar, navigation and computer technologies needed to build a high-volume air-traffic control system that would pinpoint the location of every aircraft and guide it safely to its destination regardless of weather or conflicting aircraft movements.  These industries, along with the airlines themselves, identified the lawmakers congenial to their agenda and began providing them with both campaign funds and suggested language for legislation.

Principle 8. Congress must establish a new organ at the U.S. Department of Transportation to plan and manage the new passenger-rail infrastructure program.

When the movement for better roads broke out, the federal government had no authority to fund or build roads and no organ capable of planning a highway system.  All it had was an Office of Road Information with a tiny staff that sent out brochures about road construction.  Before any road planning or construction could go forward, Congress had to upgrade the ORI to the Bureau of Public Roads (in 1915), fund it with a budget big enough to build a 42,000-mile network and staff it with engineers, planners and bureaucrats who knew how to coordinate 48 state road programs into a single national effort.  

When air travel spun into a major safety crisis in the 1950s, Congress replaced the old and inadequate Civil Aeronautics Administration in the Commerce Department with a new, independent Federal Aviation Agency (now “Administration”) trained, funded and staffed to complete giant airport projects and to train a vast cadre of professional air-traffic controllers to man the new radar and computer systems needed to direct traffic.  A nationwide buildup in high-performance passenger-rail will require that Congress first establish and fund a new Federal Railroad Infrastructure Administration reporting directly to the Secretary of Transportation.  A new and bigger bureaucracy must be created by Congress to configure the new passenger-rail map and get its infrastructure built so that it advances the interests of travelers, freight shippers and the railroad industry.

Conclusion: It’s time to sit down with the railroads

Rail advocates too must prepare to invite industry into their alliance, just as highway and civil-aviation advocates did before them.  But unlike the road and civil-aviation movements, the movement for modern passenger trains desperately needs the cooperation of one industry far more than any of the others: the Class 1 railroad industry.

Why the Class 1s are critical.

While the manufacturers of passenger trains and the builders of rail infrastructure undoubtedly are important in bringing about a strong passenger-rail infrastructure program, nothing is likely to happen without buy-in from the U.S. railroad industry itself, because Class 1 right of way is essential to developing high-performance passenger rail infrastructure.  While a few modern passenger-rail enterprises such as Brightline and Texas Central will be able to secure private funding, they represent special situations unlikely to be duplicated in the rest of the nation.  Likewise, the California High Speed Rail System, to be built by the largest and richest state in the Union entirely within its own borders, does not represent a concept easily transferable to poorer states, or to regions where the passenger-rail routes must cross state lines.  Historically, it is federal programs that are used to transcend the geographic and fiscal differences between states.  The late Merrill Travis, chief of the Illinois Department of Transportation’s passenger-rail bureau, liked to say, “It’s easier for the federal government to build a highway from coast to coast than for two states to build a bridge over a river between them.”

Thus, for financial, political and geographic reasons, most of the nation’s new passenger-rail infrastructure will have to follow existing main-line alignments belonging to the Class 1 railroad industry.  This means that any federal infrastructure program supporting a modern passenger rail system will have to include a mechanism that will appeal to the interests of the Class 1s.  To win support, such legislation must:

  • Preserve the railroads’ investment in their rights of way and if possible, enhance its value.
  • Preserve the railroads’ ownership of their rights of way (except where segments of new alignment are built on property not currently owned by the railroads).
  • Preserve the railroads’ monopoly of freight service on their tracks.
  • Encourage the railroads to use the improved passenger-train tracks to operate new types of lightweight, express merchandise trains that cannot find “slots” on conventional rail alignments.
  • Permit railroads to buy into Train Oriented Real Estate Developments around the new stations built for the passenger trains.

Now is the time to strike.  The industry is in trouble:  Class 1s may need passenger rail as badly as passenger rail needs the Class 1s—Historically, America’s privately owned railroads have resisted all attempts to increase the number of passenger trains on their tracks and have accepted federal infrastructure funding only with strong reservations and strict conditions.

That situation may at last be subject to change because 49 years after Amtrak relieved the railroads of their passenger trains and 29 years after Congress deregulated their ratemaking practices, the railroads again are facing a crisis: During the biggest peacetime economic boom in American history, the U.S. railroads began losing traffic, with both conventional carloads and intermodal lifts drifting steadily downward starting in early 2019.  Despite intense economic pressures on the motor-carrier industry, trucks continued to take business away from the railroads.  So far, none of the Class 1s has disclosed a strategy for recovering this business or growing the top line over time.  The industry’s focus has shifted almost entirely toward further cost reductions—the “operating ratio--” and no initiatives to secure “high-rated” merchandise shipments have emerged.

This failure to develop a growth strategy suggests the U.S. railroad industry has “hit a wall” in its efforts to grow.  New business—and particularly high-margin merchandise freight business—cannot be attracted unless the railroads can improve both their over-the-road speeds and their service reliability, both of which require increases in infrastructure quantity and quality that cannot be financed by the private capital markets on which U.S. rail carriers historically have relied.  

Only large amounts of sovereign capital—federal funding--can address the railroad infrastructure crisis, and the price of obtaining this capital must be the industry’s willingness to embrace the movement of fast, frequent intercity passenger trains as one of its principal lines of business.

Next Steps
  • The initiative currently lies with the advocates.  Discreet, carefully structured overtures toward the Class 1 railroad industry must begin immediately.  Advocates should reach out to friendly legislators, governors and mayors to explain the program and ask for their assistance in reaching out to the railroads.
  • Hearings must be held by the appropriate committees in both chambers of Congress, with testimony from the passenger-rail advocacy community, the Class 1 railroads, the short lines, the commuter-rail authorities, state departments of transportation, mayors and governors, chambers of commerce, economic-development authorities, port authorities and key industrial figures with a stake in better transportation.  The railroads also must appear to explain their position and make sure Congress does not ignore the crucial needs of the freight-railroad industry in its effort to build up the nation’s passenger-rail infrastructure.
  • Model legislative language should be suggested, and advocates and the rail industry must start collaborating on creating it.

What cannot be emphasized too strongly is the fundamental fact that no American program of transportation-infrastructure improvements has succeeded without the full commitment and intimate collaboration of private industry, and if such a program is proposed for passenger rail the one industry whose collaboration is absolutely essential is the politically sensitive yet politically powerful Class 1 railroad industry.  

Without the Class 1s’ full cooperation, further effort toward a federally funded passenger-rail infrastructure is likely to be futile.  With buy-in from the railroads, the campaign for advanced passenger rail in the U.S. finally will move forward.

With the railroads’ cooperation, progress toward a mutually acceptable program of legislation could accelerate dramatically because the rail industry is among most effective lobbying interests in Congress.  Rail advocates need to approach the industry and Congress together and start assembling a mutually beneficial wish list that includes big rewards for the rail industry.

Advocates also should pursue active collaboration with the railroad industry's labor unions.  Building the new high-speed infrastructure would generate thousands of well paying jobs in the construction industry, while the introduction of nationwide high-speed passenger-train service would ignite the largest increase in railroad operating employment since the outbreak of World War II.  The rail industry, the construction industry and the construction unions together would create a lobbying alliance far more powerful than anything ever assembled by passenger-rail advocates alone.

If the rail industry and passenger-rail advocates can collaborate effectively, both will benefit, and the U.S. economy will get the advanced transportation needed to drive the nation’s next century of growth.  If the industry’s current hostility toward passenger trains is allowed to persist, nothing will change.

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