Passenger train study: Great potential – costs + politics = no service

on Thursday, July 16, 2015

If you want to know why rail passenger service in this country never seems to gain traction, a recent study done by Amtrak for a second train on the Chicago-Twin Cities route should give you the answer.

The study explored four route possibilities but settled on the 411-mile route from St. Paul Union Depot to Chicago was considered the most practical. Trains would leave St. Paul and Chicago daily. Each would consist of a locomotive, two bi-level Superliner type coaches, a bi-level snack coach, and a cab car coach accommodating as many as 270 passengers. The equipment would either be purchased new at a cost of approximately $46 million, or use existing Amtrak equipment, which would eliminate that cost.

At first blush, it seems the study prepared for the Minnesota and Wisconsin state transportation departments and the city of La Crosse, Wis., has everything going for it. There already is daily Amtrak service on the route, the Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder, so you don’t need to build new stations or platforms (except a second one at the Milwaukee Airport Station, the study says). It also seems obvious that the trains would better utilize existing assets: if for example, you have a station agent in La Crosse, they could now handle two trains instead of one, at no extra cost.

Then there is the need: the study reveals that more than 150,000 passengers a year would be expected to use the new service. At least eastbound from St. Paul, it would offer a reliable alternative for the perennially late Empire Builder arriving from the West Coast, which has been seeing its ridership drop as its timekeeping became unreliable. Adding a second train would help revive this market, and, as passenger rail advocates know, the more frequencies you can offer on a route, the more ridership trends upward.

Yes, this looks like a no-brainer. But then come the details: according to the different scenarios in the study, $95 million to as much as $175 million in railroad improvements will be needed to implement the service (not counting the $46.4 million for equipment purchases, if needed). The trains will require about $6.6 million a year in state-financed subsidies to cover operations – which in the scheme of things isn’t that bad for a route more than 400 miles long.

Next are more studies, after which the document optimistically declares “If the states decide to implement the service and secure funds for operating support, the next steps following completion of environmental clearance and service development planning would be to apply for federal funding for capital improvements and secure matching funds. If federal funding is secured, this would be followed by final design and construction.” Notice all the “ifs” in this paragraph.

While more studies will hone in on the costs in more detail, with the kinds of costs outlined in this first study, the bottom-line for this highly logical, needed service is that it is going nowhere. You might as well take the study and the ones to follow and throw them in the trashcan, for the trains will never see the light of day under these conditions.

I’m all for railroads, in this instance mainly Canadian Pacific, being adequately compensated for running passenger trains on their lines. And if this route had no existing service, the $95 to $175 million might make more sense. But seriously, that kind of money to add two four-car, one diesel trains on an existing Amtrak route? Granted, the railroad is different from the 1970s and early 1980s when there were two Amtrak trains on the route: the Milwaukee Road was double track from Chicago to the Twin Cities. CP reduced it to single track CTC from just west of Milwaukee to Hastings, Minn., in the 1990s. Still, it’s not exactly a route that can’t handle two more Amtrak trains a day. So while railroads should certainly be paid to make some upgrades for more sidings and lengthening existing ones, the millions the study says will be needed seem way out of whack.

But those high prices are not really the railroads fault. One railroad manager told me because of provisions in the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, that when railroads contemplate additional passenger service today they must consider how they are going to keep those trains on time, all the time. To do so, they “gold plate” any study on rail passenger service, including everything but the kitchen sink to make sure they can run those trains on time without interfering with freight service. The result is a huge run up in infrastructure cost estimates as compared to the past.

There is another factor at play, and probably the biggest one of all: politics. Love it or hate it, conservative politicians largely control the U.S. today. Some see the need for rail passenger service, but most don’t because of the cost of what they see as an expensive government program, and a belief that if passenger trains can’t make money so the private sector can run them, they are not needed. That attitude can turn on a dime with one election, just ask passenger rail advocates in Wisconsin and Illinois after the elections in 2010 and 2014.

So, politics being what it is, where are you going to get the $95 to $175 million for infrastructure and the money for equipment? The study says if the states agree to move ahead with the service, they will seek federal funding. Yet, as Trains readers know, there really isn’t a fund for passenger rail improvements like there is for highways – even though there should be. About the closest you can get is the TIGER grant program, but the amount for that keeps being reduced – and it is a highly competitive program. You could also try to land a Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing loan – but it has to be paid back.

Even if you get money to prepare the route and buy equipment, you now have to somehow convince the leaders of three states, two of which are led by conservative governors, to pony up money every year to run a passenger train. Good luck with that.

Today we do a lot of passenger train studies about new routes and frequencies, but seldom do they come to fruition. We used to be a country known for taking action and for big bold ideas, but now we have turned inward, and seem incapable of anything more than doing those studies and not disturbing the status quo. It should not be this hard to add two four-car trains to an existing route, but we have made it so. Heck, as much as rail advocates bemoan the lack of money for rail, even the highways aren’t getting the money needed to keep our roads in good repair.

So rail passenger service will have to compete for a diminished pot of money for transportation, and given our predilection for roads over rail, that will be a tough nut to crack. Lisa Weik, a commissioner for Washington County in Minnesota, which the train would pass through, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune she thinks the long list of transportation deficiencies in Minnesota will discourage action on the proposal in the North Star State. “I don’t see this going anywhere, even if it takes several years,” Weik said. “I think the voters, the taxpayers, would say there are too many transportation projects, too many crumbling roads and bridges that are fracture-critical, too many safety concerns in the state of Minnesota to be talking about cost-sharing with Amtrak.”

The final round of studies on the proposal will finish up by the fall of 2016. By then my son will be entering his second year of college in Winona, Minn., a city along this route. He plans to ride the Empire Builder frequently between our home in the Twin Cities and college. I hope I’m wrong, but my guess is that unless something changes drastically in our country’s attitude (maybe the millennial generation will wake us up), his children will be entering college before we see another passenger train between Chicago and the Twin Cities. And that’s too bad.

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