By Matthew Cameron
Matt made a good point over the weekend about the need for Amtrak to put its unfortunately meager budget to wiser use than purchasing expensive, soon-to-be-outdated locomotives. Looking at the issue more broadly, though, the Transportation Department is perhaps the guiltier party because it has failed to address the major underlying issue that is preventing Amtrak as well as various regional commuter rail services from becoming maximally efficient. Specifically, these passenger rail operations are beholden to the powerful freight rail companies that own the vast majority of railroad tracks throughout the United States.
This is problematic for a number of reasons. It means that passenger rail trains can’t travel as rapidly or frequently as they otherwise would because they have to share the tracks with freight trains. The fact that freight rail takes precedence over passenger rail also means delays for the latter service are more common than they should be. Finally, passenger trains have to adhere to stringent federal safety guidelines that are meant to protect passengers from collisions with freight trains. As Amtrak’s latest purchase shows, this drives up the cost of acquiring new cars and locomotives relative to what it would be if passenger trains didn’t have to comply with these regulations.
Rather than continuing to pay for these overpriced passenger trains that will still get second-class treatment on freight-owned rail lines, the Transportation Department could support the construction of dedicated passenger rail tracks in certain high-volume areas. The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation’s 2008 Statewide Rail Plan (PDF), for example, estimates it would cost about $5 million to $6 million per mile to construct an additional set of tracks along the 110-mile Richmond-Washington corridor, which would amount to roughly the same amount of money that DOT is loaning to Amtrak. Although it doesn’t include the hefty cost of land acquisition, it could draw matching funds from the state and eventually produce the infrastructure needed to support decent passenger rail service.