Finding the will to make a giant leap

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Wednesday, March 11, 2020

What will it take for the U.S. political climate to become favorable to the kind of massive federal outlay that is needed to truly bring our passenger train and rail transit systems into the 21st century, so that we can start to catch up with Western Europe, China and Japan? At this moment, with the stock market tanking, coronavirus fears gripping much of the public’s attention, and an administration and Senate that vary between indifference and hostility to rail investment, it’s hard to picture the stars coming into alignment for trains.

A 1300-series Whitcomb diesel locomotive, photographed in Portugal, date unknown. The Marshall Plan enabled many Western European railways to purchase this type of American-made locomotive as they rebuilt following World War II. Photo: Art Library Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian via Flickr.com.
Amtrak, other intercity passenger train operators, rail transit agencies and tourist railroads are all going to take a hit in patronage because of the virus, and many will incur additional expenses in fighting its spread and accommodating sick employees. Let’s just hope this hit isn’t fatal, that operators that find themselves hemmed in by declining revenues get the public assistance they need to avoid service cuts, and that COVID-19 comes under control in a matter of months, if not weeks. I, for one, am feeling well and am planning to go forward with my travel plans over the next two months, taking proper hygiene and rest precautions, unless flights, trains and events start being canceled en masse. 

I was all set to participate in the Rail Passengers Association’s annual Day on the Hill at the end of this month, joining with around 100 other concerned Americans to give voice to what we feel is the desire of the majority of our fellow citizens. Coronavirus concerns caused the event to be postponed till mid-May, but many visits with Congressional offices will instead take place via telephone or videoconference. 

The Association has been successful in the decade since the biggest domestic outlays for passenger rail in U.S. history were approved in 2009 (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and the fiscal 2010 appropriations law) at getting enough funds appropriated annually to keep Amtrak afloat and allow modest improvements, and to provide modest sums for competitive grant programs for states and local agencies for capital projects to benefit intercity rail and transit passengers. However, it has been a great challenge to get over the hump that separates the maintenance and slow improvement from a generational advancement — one that would put government support for rail (primarily passenger, but also freight) more on a par with that afforded highways and roads. What will it take to spur that big leap?

In the case of Western Europe, starting a little over 70 years ago, it took the ravages of a devastating war. The Marshall Plan’s U.S. taxpayer outlays to rebuild infrastructure across the Atlantic from 1948 to 1951 totaled $12.7 billion ($138.6 billion in today’s dollars). Railways were among the beneficiaries — they were able to acquire the latest technology and modernize to keep pace with the construction of competing expressways. 

It is unclear exactly what portion of that sum went directly or indirectly to railways, but even if just one percent of it benefitted rail, that is $1.38 billion in today’s dollars. It’s entirely possible that the value of European railways and rail transit systems’ gain from the Marshall Plan equals or exceeds that which the U.S. government has invested in rail domestically since 2009. Over the same period, from the end of World War II to 2009, hardly any federal dollars, and only small sums of state and local dollars, went to rail.

Residents of Bay St. Louis, Miss. gather to welcome the February 2016 Amtrak demonstration train and call for the return of regular train service to the Gulf Coast. Photo: Transportation for America.
Will it take a similar kind of emergency or cataclysmic global event, whether natural or human-caused (or a combination of both, in the case of climate change-fueled disasters), to generate the political will to truly advance American passenger rail? Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, but I’m afraid that only such an exigency would provide the necessary impetus. Short of that, the change may simply be generational — as Millennials and Gen Z-ers whose attitudes towards public transportation tend to be more favorable and who aren’t hemmed in by the comforts of the status quo, start to become society’s leaders, there may be a natural evolution towards a more sensible, balanced transportation policy.

One thing I know for certain is that I’ll continue to do my part, by advocating and by riding trains and transit regularly as part of my nearly car-free lifestyle. I’m also confident that, as time goes on and the many costs of automobile over-dependence become more clear, more people will join me, by voting with their feet and dollars as well as at the ballot box, for more and better trains.

Disclaimer: The author 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 also works with travel companies to help organize and promote charter train trips in the US, is an avid and frequent train traveler, and serves on the volunteer national advisory body of the Rail Passengers Association. The views expressed in Observation Tower are solely his own and do not necessarily reflect the positions or business interests of any of his clients or associations.

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