The Real Issue is the Track

What do a high-speed rail promoter, the owner of a grain elevator in Kansas, a discount retailer in the Southeast and a Great Plains resident who needs to get to the big city twice a year have in common?

All are spending more than they should by driving or shipping by truck.

The core problem is that privately owned railroads will not provide sufficient track capacity needed to provide the dependable, time-competitive services the country needs.

Often, Amtrak’s overnight trains emerge as the scapegoat. High-speed rail supporters claim that they could put the meager resources devoted to the long distance trains to better use. Railroads lament the track capacity taken from their core business.

Rather than fighting over whose train is better than whose, railroad supporters need to unify around the common need: a program to build robust railroad infrastructure.

Throughout the stalemate over the future of Amtrak and the overnight trains, few have tried to understand who the overnight trains serve, how much they cost and what can be done to make them better. As result, this loud and emotional debate is proceeding with very little data.

But lack of information hasn’t stopped the critics. They still think the solution is cutbacks, even though cutbacks have never worked.

The first cutback was the massive abandonment on Amtrak’s first day, May 1, 1971. In one fell swoop the nation lost 60% of its passenger trains, savaging corridor service in the Midwest.

1979 saw another round of cutbacks nationwide, with no appreciable change to Amtrak’s financial condition. In the early 1990’s, Amtrak tried cutting frequency from seven trains a week to just three. Revenues decreased, but costs did not.

Just as ridership was beginning to recover from that setback, Amtrak launched an ill-conceived program to add freight cars to the trains. This strategy simultaneously drove away passengers and caused operating costs to skyrocket.

The failure of the freight program prompted the Association to take a deeper look into the issue of passenger train costs.

We came to an interesting conclusion. Despite all the setbacks, the long distance trains that run on adequate track are strong performers.

The longer routes, for the most part, had higher average passenger loadings and better cost recovery ratios than most corridor trains. It also became apparent that the trains could perform even better by simply attracting more passengers with an improved product.

Attracting more passengers would take three simple steps: adding seats to match demand, adding a daily frequency on most routes and improving on-time performance.

This strategy would require federal funding for additional passenger cars and additional operating support but would result in a much greater value per taxpayer dollar.Another important observation was that the poor performers operate on inadequate track. For example, the Sunset Limited operates on a route that has not grown to meet the growing trade between China and the American Southeast.

For the most part, the trackwork needed to improve the overnight trains is the same trackwork needed to meet the growing demand for freight capacity. In most cases, the very same projects will be needed to build corridors.

Rather than fighting over whose train is better than whose, railroad supporters need to unify around the common need: a program to build robust railroad infrastructure. Changing a century of disinvestment in railroads will be difficult enough without creating divisions between natural allies.

The first step towards a stronger coalition is to stop treating long-distance trains as a scapegoat.That requires challenging forty-year-old assumptions about how trains function.