In the past few years, interest in American passenger rail, including commuter rail, has intensified due to the convergence of a range of factors. Growing cities have found their road systems increasingly clogged. Even Interstate highways in urban areas often become parking lots when traffic exceeds capacity and a single minor accident causes mile-long backups.
Both the ever-increasing cost of oil and environmental concerns, including both pollution and greenhouse gases, have contributed to the re-examination of rail as a more efficient and cleaner means of moving people.
And passenger trains are suddenly fashionable. Just look at the number of television commercials, selling products or services unrelated to train travel, that either use modern trains as their settings or show them in the background. Even automobile ads now include high-speed train images.
Last year, several heavyweight studies and conferences have looked at America’s railroad map and seen the possibilities for additional long-distance passenger routes and additional commuter services in urban areas.
To which, the major railroads, both individually and collectively, have said, “Not so fast.”
The railroad perspective
“Piggy-backing on privately owned and operated freight railroad assets will give America a third-rate passenger system,” Edward R. Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads (AAR), the trade group for large railroads, said in response to one of these reports.
“Successful passenger rail systems — like those in Europe and Japan — rely on publicly funded track and [that is] almost exclusively dedicated to passenger rail,” the AAR president said.
To understand the AAR’s position, you have to look at how America’s railroads have fared in recent years.
Freight railroads saw a major upsurge in traffic toward the end of the 20th century — and suddenly found themselves short of the infrastructure they needed to handle that traffic. While railroads continue to handle a wide range of goods, two types of traffic particularly contributed to increased demands: America’s increasing demand for foreign-made goods, transported in long strings of intermodal container trains, and the need for more energy, handled in long unit coal trains going to power plants.
Additional factors include the recent boom in ethanol production, which, due to its chemical characteristics, is not suited for movement in pipelines, and therefore needs to be moved in railroad tank cars or tanker trucks, with railcars being the more efficient means for hauling large quantities.
For much of the early part of the 20th century, America’s railroads were either in decline or struggling to survive in a regulatory climate that made it difficult to adjust to changing economic conditions. Up through the 1970s and 1980s, major railroads abandoned or sold off lines. To economize on track maintenance costs (and property taxes), some multi-track lines had one or more tracks removed.
In a few cases new lines were built and existing lines received major upgrades — but these were clearly the exception to the overall industry trends.
So, when, after deregulation in the 1980s and unanticipated traffic growth toward the end of the 20th century, most railroads found themselves short of infrastructure — and struggling to maintain what they had, as the existing infrastructure was subjected to increased wear and tear.
In late 2007, a study commissioned by the AAR found that these railroads needed an additional $148 billion in infrastructure to meet current and anticipated demands and that railroads could only meet some of those costs, with the rest having to come from public funding.
In many countries around the world, railroad infrastructure is seen as an investment in the economy, just as are highways and airports. In most of those countries, the major railroads are either government owned or operated or run by government-supported corporations.
In the United States, however, railroads were always private industries. And, they have fought fiercely to remain that way. In fact, for most of the 20th century, most larger railroads would have rejected public funding for fear that accepting such funds would diminish their decision-making ability.