Will 2019 bring a rail policy breakthrough?

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Sunday, December 30, 2018

My biggest hope for American railroading in the coming year is something I’ve been holding out for ever since I became a railroad and rail passenger advocate. Perhaps, however, the current moment adds urgency to the need, and the political zeitgeist may open the door ever so slightly for it. What’s needed is a public policy breakthrough.

An Oklahoma City streetcar passes beneath the BNSF main line on E. Sheridan Avenue from Downtown into Bricktown as the consist of the Fort Worth-bound Amtrak Heartland Flyer receives passengers above on Dec. 15, 2018, the second day of revenue operation for the new streetcar system. All photos by Malcolm Kenton.
Over the past nearly five decades, Congress has managed to achieve a fairly broad consensus to provide just enough resources to sustain a skeletal national network of intercity passenger trains and to fund the majority of the costs of starting new and expanding existing rail transit systems. Republican presidents since Reagan have included zero funding for Amtrak and very meager, if any, funding for transit in the budgets they send to Congress. Yet every time the budget that Congress passes and the president signs (perhaps grudgingly) contains at least enough funding for Amtrak to limp along — often more — and more for transit than the president requested. But turning the support for maintaining the status quo in intercity passenger and modest expansion in rail transit into broad backing for major expansion on both fronts is a political leap that has remained elusive.

Given rail and transit’s relatively low profile on most politicians’, and most Americans’, political radar screens, the only way for a major rail expansion investment to succeed will be if it is ushered in as part of a larger package driven by a broader cause — a solution to a large problem of which rail is a part, albeit a significant one. Mitigating climate change and preparing for its effects while creating an economy that delivers broadly shared prosperity are the greatest über-causes of our time. 

In 2009, Congress passed the biggest ever public outlay for rail as part of the Recovery Act, which was aimed at solving the broader problem of boosting the economy and creating jobs to alleviate the Great Recession. The cause of creating and sustaining good-paying American jobs in many sectors, along with fighting climate change, must drive the next major outlay for American infrastructure.

A movement is afoot to make a broad climate change mitigation effort one of the top priorities of the incoming Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. Dubbed a “Green New Deal,” this proposed package is likely to include a significant appropriation for infrastructure that contributes to emissions reduction and resilience in the face of rising seas, increased drought and flooding, more rampant wildfires and more catastrophic storms — all of which are already present. The danger, however, is that the measure’s infrastructure component focuses only on technological tweaks like smarter electricity grids, electric and autonomous cars, etc. and not on the kind of transformation in the way Americans get around and move goods that is needed.

An aggressive ramp-up of electricity generation from renewable sources is a prerequisite for the mass electrification of the transportation sector. The rail transit sector is already there for the most part, so investing in its expansion is a no-brainer from a climate perspective. There should also be a goal of beginning to electrify the busiest stretches of main-line railroad that are not currently electrified. 

Passenges have brought bicycles on a sold-out rush-hour Brightline train from Miami to West Palm Beach on Oct. 19, 2018.
Until it becomes more cost-effective to run more trains on renewable energy — be it electrification or innovations like hydrogen-powered locomotives and multiple units — a climate-sensible transportation policy must include increasing railroad capacity, procuring a large quantity of passenger train equipment powered by the most fuel-efficient Diesel engines available for non-electrified routes, and building and rebuilding passenger stations (a segment of investment that is ideally suited to private-sector participation through real estate development and value capture).

Except in the minority of corridors where it makes sense to build new passenger-only railroads (such as where world-class high-speed rail makes sense, as in Texas and California), it is necessary to better use and build upon existing rail infrastructure, the vast majority of which is owned by freight carriers. Freight railroads have made abundantly clear that they’re willing to work with passenger carriers under certain conditions, as long as the passenger carrier brings enough money to the table to allow passenger trains to run reliably without impeding the fluid movement of the present or expected future volume of freight traffic. A climate-sensible infrastructure development program should include a significant pot of money that passenger train proponents can tap to pay such costs that are arrived at through hard-nosed, arms-length negotiation with host railroads.

Could 2019 be the year where rail and transit policy finally shift from preservation and modest growth to aggressive expansion? The answer to that depends in part on all of us who believe in rail’s potential and how willing we are to express the political will needed to make rail expansion an integral piece of the societal project to stabilize the climate and make the country more resilient to climate change’s impacts.

Disclaimer: Malcolm Kenton is a freelance contributor to Trains and an independent consultant specializing in writing, research and communications with a focus on passenger rail and transit. His clients include Herzog Transit Services, Inc. and the Association of Independent Passenger Rail Operators. He is also an avid and frequent train traveler. The views expressed in Observation Tower are solely his own and do not reflect the positions or business interests of any of his clients.

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