Passenger rail progress: Consensus on what; not so much on how

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Thursday, November 30, 2017

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the trade group representing the nation’s transit agencies along with their contractors and suppliers, held its annual High-Speed Rail Policy Forum yesterday here in Washington, D.C. The event featured wide-ranging seminars and spirited discussions on all the issues that hamper the growth and improvement of passenger rail in the U.S., not just true high-speed rail. The most active debate centered around how to achieve greater reliability for intercity passenger trains using freight railroads. Other topics discussed are summarized in a roundup at the bottom of this post.

Eastbound Amtrak California Zephyr passes through Gold Run, Calif., in the Sierra Nevada, on Union Pacific rails on Oct. 30, 2010. Photo by Patrick Dirden /
There was general agreement among the industry stakeholders present that all passenger rail supporters need to be united in advocacy for more equitable funding,  and to allow existing funding sources, including the Highway Trust Fund, the flexibility to support multimodal solutions. Discussions leading toward the next surface transportation authorization, to take effect after the 2021 expiration of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, will begin in 2018. But significant disagreement was aired over the details and approaches to solving complex and vexing challenges like on-time performance (OTP).

In light of recent court defeats for Amtrak, about which I have written here, we can expect the passenger carrier’s new leadership to come up with a retooled strategy in 2018, said its Vice President of Government Affairs and Corporate Communications, Caroline Decker. 

Union Pacific Senior Counsel John Brennan III said that freight railroads are doing everything they can move Amtrak trains efficiently, short of giving passenger trains absolute priority, which he doubts railroads will ever do. “But without more money, [Amtrak] won’t get the capacity improvements to run trains even close to on-time,” he cautioned.

Brennan revealed that the punctuality standard written into his railroad’s contract with Amtrak (the specific details Amtrak’s pacts with its host railroads are confidential) is considerably lower than Amtrak’s standard. Amtrak considers a short-distance train to be on-time if it reaches its endpoint within 30 minutes of schedule, and a long-distance train is punctual if it reaches its terminus within one hour of schedule. He said that while Amtrak’s overall endpoint OTP on routes using UP trackage is 72%, it is around 92% of the level stipulated in the contract, and that state-supported routes on UP tracks are achieving 93% of contracted OTP, but only 62% endpoint OTP.

When it comes to what he’d like to see Amtrak do to help its cause, Brennan said that while he doesn’t expect the government-owned carrier to be able to pay the full market price for the kind of service it wants from host railroads, he would like to see Amtrak “give us a siding here and there” and cooperate on capacity expansion projects with public and private funding. 

Amtrak Senior Director for Host Railroads Jay Fox said that having a legal ceiling on the prices host railroads can charge to carry its trains allows it to afford to run the long-distance routes, but added that Amtrak gets better treatment from hosts on routes where state sponsors have negotiated service outcome agreements in exchange for infrastructure investments, like the Chicago-St. Louis corridor and California’s Capitol Corridor. 

A Manassas-bound VRE train boards at Crystal City station in Arlington, Va. -- close to the Pentagon -- on April 13, 2012. Photo by Elvert Barnes /
Doug Allen, President of the highly successful Virginia Railway Express commuter rail system, considers OTP much more important than speed and does everything possible to structure VRE’s operation to run fluidly and minimize station dwell time. He noted that APTA, representing commuter rail authorities, declined to take Amtrak’s side in the legal battle because a stringent all-stations OTP standard could have forced host railroads to sidetrack commuter trains in shared territory the same as freights in order to give Amtrak trains priority.

At the end of the lively back-and-forth over OTP, Amtrak and its backers summarized their position as being that passengers deserve federal protection of trains’ punctuality because passenger rail is a public benefit — “a return on our investment as taxpayers and citizens,” in Fox’s words — rather than primarily a moneymaking operation. Panel moderator Ken Sislak, of engineering consultancy AECOM, argued that host railroad’s obligation to Amtrak originates in 1970, when the government relieved railroads of the burden of carrying passengers by creating Amtrak. 

Brennan countered that host railroads would like to work with Amtrak, but that pursuing more litigation would hurt Amtrak as it is losing in the courts. “To keep the heavy hand of government micromanaging the system is [a losing proposition], but if we had private agreements like we do with the state of Illinois, the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority and others, we would deliver value to both passengers and [the shippers and consumers who depend on our freight service].” Statutory preference for Amtrak is not needed as it only creates hostility and non-Amtrak operators (contracted to run commuter railroads) do well without it, argued Ray Chambers, Executive Director of a trade group representing those independent contract operators.

Other topics discussed at the APTA forum:

A Harz-Berlin-Express (HEX) diesel multiple unit train operated by Transdev, now the second biggest passenger carrier in Germany, passes through Werder an der Havel station in Brandenburg, Germany on Deutsche Bahn rails on Oct. 11, 2013. Photo by Ludmilla Nemka /
Competition in intercity passenger rail — Carsten Puls, president of the U.S. consulting and engineering branch of German rail infrastructure owner and operator Deutsche Bahn, proclaimed that his company has improved because of the competition introduced in the German rail industry introduced in 1994. That year, legislation took effect requiring DB to grant access to its tracks at prescribed rates to other companies to run both passenger and freight services. Now, 150 operators, along with DB itself, run trains over DB infrastructure, and passenger-kilometers have increased by 95% and freight metric ton-kilometers have gone up 65% since 1994. Having to compete with these firms forced DB “out of our complacency zone,” according to Puls. DB’s passenger operation division also had to retool after the German government permitted competition from intercity bus companies for the first time in 2015.

Charles Hogue, government affairs director for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division, said that rail labor will continue to support legislation and regulations facilitating competition — and any others that would lead to expanded and improved passenger train service — as long as they include language protecting existing employees.

Other Amtrak goals — Decker announced her company’s target to break even between operating revenues and costs in fiscal year 2019 (starting Oct. 1, 2018). As part of new leadership’s strategic focus on customer service, “we will struggle unless we look at the passenger’s entire journey,” incorporating first- and last-mile connections into the packages we offer, she said.

California’s revised State Rail Plan — The new plan, which will soon be available for public comment, focuses on customer experience as much as network growth and connectivity in laying out a vision for 2040. It will propose a single point of sale for nearly all ground transportation services in the state, with well-timed connections between trains, buses and other first- and last-mile connections, based on the Swiss model, said California State Transportation Agency (Caltrans) Deputy Secretary Chad Edison. 

Edison noted that the remarkable diversity of funding sources that voters and legislators at the state and county levels have enacted means that California has a better chance than most of the country to actually bring projects to fruition. “We’re prepared to go it on our own without federal support,” one of Edison’s Caltrans colleagues said. A planned decrease in operating & maintenance costs per train-mile and seat-mile would come in part from an increase in the distance traveled by each trainset. 

In a later panel, Masroor Hasan of U.K.-based consultancy Steer Davies Gleave discussed two private ventures that are developing alongside the public California High Speed Rail Authority: XpressWest (which is still raising the capital needed to build a high-speed line between southern California and Las Vegas) and High Desert Connection (a private consortium looking to build a high-speed line to connect XpressWest at Victorville with California High Speed Rail at Palmdale so that the two could share track and access each other’s stations).

Progress in the Midwest — Over a dozen projects funded by fiscal year 2009 and 2010 federal grants have been completed in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, including track improvements, added capacity, bridge replacements and station upgrades and overhauls, as well as planning and preliminary engineering/environmental work for new services. “It’s encouraging that states are [continuing to plan and start projects where they are able] without waiting for more federal funds,” said Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission Chair Beth McCluskey, a senior official at the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Five of the initial TGV high-speed train fleet on display at Paris's Gare de Lyon in their debut year of 1981. Photo by SNCF.
French and Japanese high-speed rail history lessons — I learned from Christophe Keseljevic, who claims to have been involved in French passenger rail development since the age of 17, that getting France’s TGV off the ground in the 1970s was a much bigger political battle than I had realized. Over the course of nearly two decades, pro-rail forces overcame the same array of anti-rail forces that has held sway in the US, including road, oil and aerospace interests, backed by major newspaper editorial boards, the Ministry of Finance, many Chambers of Commerce and even ecologists. Once the first TGV line (Paris-Lyon) was proven to be successful, public skepticism turned to support, and now the only opposition to further TGV expansion is generally NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) in nature. 

There was much less opposition to the construction of the Shinkansen in Japan in the 1950s, and the process of transforming the Japanese National Railways into independent infrastructure owners and three separate operating companies in the early 1980s seems remarkably orderly, based on the presentation given by Masahiro “Mark” Nakayama, who manages the Washington office of the Central Japan Railway Company.

TOD and Value Capture — Three major new or revitalized train stations, one complete and two underway, have recouped a chunk of their construction costs through value capture: Denver Union Station (recovered about one fifth of its construction costs through a special tax district, tax increment financing and the sale of nearby Regional Transit District property), San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center (a $7 billion project that got a $125 million naming rights deal with, and New York’s Moynihan Station (whose financing depends on leasing parts of the building for office, hotel and retail space). This from a presentation by Sasha Page of infrastructure finance advisory firm IMG Rebel in Washington, D.C.

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