The road ahead for passenger rail

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, November 22, 2010

The outline of the next couple of years for passenger trains is now pretty clear. What I’m about to say will go down like unwanted medicine for most of you, so I’ll deliver the bad news quickly.
There will be no money. Governments, both state and federal, are close to broke. People are starting to sense that what happened to Greece and Ireland could happen here, too, in a few years. I can almost feel the reaction beneath my feet. Did you know that the personal savings rate, once almost zilch, has risen sharply the past two years? Like people, governments are starting to wake up, too.
This doesn’t augur well for President Obama’s program for funding high speed rail projects. Getting more money appropriated will be extremely difficult. Possibly, high speed capital grants rejected by such states as Wisconsin and Ohio can be redirected to places like Illinois, which has a very ambitious but expensive plan to speed up the Chicago-St. Louis corridor. But another infusion of fresh money? I don’t think so.
Amtrak faces the same starvation diet it has spent most of its 40-year life on. But there is hope. John Mica, the Florida Republican who will chair the U.S. House transportation committee again after four years in the minority, is a strange duck. He is supportive of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, whose Amfleet cars beg to be retired, but not so much the long-distance routes. Obama’s high speed grants ignored the Northeast Corridor, so to the degree there’s any money for passenger rail, some may find its way there. But forget expansion of the system. You can probably forget a daily Sunset Limited, too, because any agreement between Amtrak and Union Pacific will require some capital infusion to UP, and it won’t be forthcoming from Congress.
Oh, and need I remind you that come 2015, states will have to fully fund operating deficits of all trains outside of Boston-Washington whose routes are less than 700 miles? The subsidies will be some degree greater than what states provide now. Were this provision of the 2008 congressional legislation effective the first of next year, you could probably just kiss Amtrak as you know it now goodbye.
Let me leave you with some candy: Broke governments can’t fix highways faster than trucks are tearing them up. Once they get past the huge hump of funding and installing Positive Train Control on more than 70,000 route miles, freight railroads will have the money they need to keep expanding capacity. The result should be a continuation of the significant shift of domestic trucking from highway to rail. — Fred W. Frailey

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