Posted by George Hamlin
on Wednesday, December 1, 2021

A century ago, transportation infrastructure in the U.S. was funded and built largely by private enterprises, particularly railroads. Think projects like Grand Central Terminal and Penn Station, both in New York City. Today, and particularly with respect to railroad passenger service, public money is generally employed (although there has been a recent exception in Florida, although it didn’t involve extensive new rights of way, at least in its initial iteration), when it can be obtained. As an example, consider the newly-opened Moynihan Train Hall in New York.

Pictured above is a private-enterprise example of significant investment in infrastructure for the benefit of freight traffic. What’s depicted here is the former Pennsylvania Railroad’s “Main Line” west of Philadelphia, at Whitford, Pennsylvania, on July 21, 2016. This portion of the former-PRR is now essentially a passenger railroad, used by SEPTA and Amtrak’s Keystone Service, plus the latter’s Pennsylvanian.

Above is the massive bridge carrying what was the Trenton cutoff freight line that allowed freight trains between Harrisburg and northern New Jersey and New York City to bypass both the congestion in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, as well as avoiding a number of speed and tonnage-reducing grades in the process.  Today, however, even freight traffic to and from Philadelphia itself now moves via Reading, Pennsylvania, effectively rendering the once-mighty infrastructure superfluous at this location. For that matter, one of the tracks on the lower level of this scene is gone now also.

According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation (Class 1 Railroad System Mileage and Ton-miles of Freight: 1960, 1965, 1970-2015), System mileage has gone down considerably since 1970, when it was 95% of the 1960 base; by 2015, it was less than half the figure for 1960, at 45%. Interestingly, by the year 2000, it had already declined to 48%. Not surprisingly, the greatest attrition was between 1980, at 79%, to 1990, when it reached 58%. This period, of course, was in the wake of the Staggers Act, in 1980.

Notwithstanding the reduction in track capacity, however, freight traffic, measured in ton-miles, has increased dramatically. In 1970, ton-miles were 134% of the figure for 1960; by 2015, this had increased to 305%, or three times the 1960 figure, and more than twice the 1970 figure. Coupled with the reduction in System mileage, what a productivity increase, in economic terms!

These figures help to frame some of the current debate between Amtrak and freight railroads, in terms of Amtrak expanding into areas not served currently. I won’t attempt to adjudicate which side is “correct” on these issues, but this suggests that this issue, overall, requires thoughtful analytical consideration, on a case-by-case basis.

It also suggests that for a true passenger train “renaissance” in the U.S., there likely will be a need for considerable investment in lots of real-live infrastructure, with very large funding required to accomplish the task. Taking a page out of the Brightline playbook, the restoration of previous multi-track main lines may be a good place to start; both the former New York Central and Pennsylvania properties probably have something to offer here. Silver lining for freight railroads: since short/medium-haul passenger service tends not to run overnight, this could be a capacity bonus for the freight railroad for one-third of each day.

Down the road, there may be a need for consideration of separation of passenger and freight trackage, or even new passenger-only rights-of-way, although I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that development in the near future. The “elephant in the room” will continue to be finding an entity to step up with a checkbook to make this happen.

On the other hand, needing to have more capacity for either passenger or freight railroads will be a relatively pleasant problem to have, compared with the dire straits of the passenger business in the 1960s, or the northeastern freight railroads in the seventies.

Photo by George W. Hamlin

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