Modern Passenger Trains: A National Necessity
(Revised December 2003; Revised NARP Mission Statement [after conclusion] May 2007)
Analysis & Recommendations
“Federal investment to modernize the nation’s rail system will return substantial
public benefits in a relatively short time. Investment in rail will
add needed transportation capacity, provide high quality transportation
choices, stimulate significant technological advances, increase energy efficiency,
save human lives and reduce the negative impact that the growing
demand for transportation has on air quality and the environment.”
America is at a critical juncture in shaping its future transportation system. The conventional approach continues reliance on highways and airways. The bolder and wiser approach upgrades the nation’s existing rail system to modern 21st Century standards.
Federal investment to modernize the nation’s rail system will return substantial public benefits
in a relatively short time. This investment will produce new transportation capacity, additional transportation choices and reduce the negative impact that our growing demand for transportation has on the environment.
The National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) actively participated in the formation of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak), which prevented the collapse and total loss of the nation’s rail passenger system. Today, more than thirty-five years later, the crisis continues. This report summarizes our analysis of the issues and outlines our recommendations for addressing this challenge.
Even though public use of Amtrak’s existing trains is high, lack of adequate capital funding over three decades has greatly limited its ability to satisfy the nation’s growing demand for transportation. Capital starvation has restricted the expansion of capacity; precluded improvement of jointuse (passenger and freight) rail infrastructure; and limited service expansion in most areas of the country. Public use of rail has not grown as rapidly as highway and air travel, both of which have received large public investment. Experience shows that the public will choose trains when public funding makes good service available at attractive fares. Rail’s future contribution depends on a balanced transportation policy that will help rail achieve its full potential, not on one that seeks only to reduce further, or eliminate entirely, federal support of intercity rail service.
Many factors prevent rail from realizing its full potential for moving people and freight:
-The American rail industry falls largely outside the public policy framework for transportation. While all other modes involve substantial public-private partnerships, railroads have existed since there inception almost entirely in the private sector. Historically they have defended their independence and, until recently, resisted opportunities to form such partnerships. As a result, public officials typically view rail as a responsibility of the private rather than the public sector, even though rail offers significant public benefits.
-Rail has no federal agency comparable to those that promote and fund all other modes. The
use of a business rather than a public agency model for rail has hobbled modernization of the
nation’s rail system.
-The Federal Government routinely funds the capital and operating costs of the highway, air,
waterway and transit systems but does not provide similar support to the nation’s rail system.
-Intercity rail has never received the funding needed to expand capacity and improve service as demand increased. Growth went to other modes by default.
-The route network is so skeletal that the number of city pair markets rail serves is very limited. Train frequency in most areas of the country is too low to be truly competitive.
-The rail infrastructure, mostly privately owned, no longer has the capacity to operate passenger trains with competitive reliability, speed and frequency. The private railroads have no incentives to improve passenger service and are having difficulty funding capital improvements for their own freight service.
-Last, but perhaps most important, the intercity rail program has never had a long-term vision for a national system that would justify higher funding.
Strategies for a Better System
NARP believes that an integrated intercity rail passenger system will generate significant and growing public use. We have based our recommendations for creating this system on seven key strategies:
-Stabilize and increase funding for rail. Remove current artificial constraints that limit access to federal funding. Allow states to decide the best way to use federal formula grant funds, including the option of intercity passenger rail. Intercity rail passenger service is the only category of service currently prohibited from using these funds.
-Design a system that connects all significant metropolitan areas and serves all major travel
routes. Most of this system can use existing freight routes although some high frequency short haul services may require new rights-of-way to be competitive.
-Focus on public need and benefit not financial profit. Employ reasonable business “best practices” to ensure cost effective operation.
-Provide incentives to states to develop regional services that supplement the National System. Federal funding formulas for state sponsored services should mirror those for highway and air, including the proportion of local matching funds.
-Establish farebox recovery goals consistent with mass market pricing. High volume usage
achieves economies of scale and drives down unit costs.
-Encourage innovation and efficiency by introducing competition for resources.
-Provide incentives to the freight railroads to increase track capacity, install state-of-the-art
train control systems and raise the speeds on routes used by both passenger and freight trains.
NARP urges Congress to make passenger rail service an important and immediate federal transportation priority. Under our proposal, Amtrak would continue to play a major role in delivering intercity rail service. The federal government would continue to have primary responsibility for funding interstate services but its role in oversight and planning would be dramatically restructured. States would assume a larger role in the development of regional services and infrastructure. By restructuring the way the Federal Government plans, funds and oversees intercity rail services, Congress will create a more productive, responsive and cost efficient intercity rail passenger system.
Congress should take two actions to start this restructuring:
1. Rebuild Amtrak
Amtrak is a vital resource that offers the most logical platform on which to build a more comprehensive national system. Without a significant increase in federal funding, however, Amtrak’s ability to continue even its current service will be severely compromised. While such an outcome might be applauded by its critics, Amtrak’s continued stagnation and possible dissolution would make it far more difficult – if not impossible – to develop new regional corridor services much less to reestablish an integrated national passenger rail system in the future. We recommend that Congress take seven actions to rebuild Amtrak:
-Stabilize existing routes and services.
-Provide essential funding to put Amtrak’s physical plant and rolling stock in a state of good
-Adopt new performance measures – similar to those now used for commuter rail – that stress growth in passenger miles and set realistic farebox recovery goals.
-Replace annual lump sum grants to Amtrak with funding based on multi-year plans and budgets. Fund capital, maintenance and operating support separately.
-Authorize new funding sources to supplement annual appropriations.
-Continue Amtrak control of the Northeast Corridor (NEC).
-Remove NEC infrastructure costs from Amtrak’s budget and fund them outside of annual appropriations process.
2. Restructure Federal Planning, Funding and Oversight
The development of modern passenger rail service requires far more than just restructuring Amtrak. It requires a massive restructuring of Federal transportation policy. A modern intercity rail system depends on Congress creating three things:
-A vision for an intercity rail network that connects all regions and metropolitan areas and serves all important transportation routes, similar to the one adopted for the Eisenhower Interstate and Defense Highway system in 1956.
This design would:
-A funding mechanism to provide sufficient resources to implement the vision.
NARP recommends the establishment of a Rail Trust Fund – similar to the trust funds used so
effectively to finance the capital and operating costs of the highway and air systems – so that
intercity rail will no longer be entirely dependent on annual appropriations. User fees alone will not provide sufficient funds. The federal government will have to “prime the pump” by earmarking other revenue streams for rail. The Federal Government should fund 100% of national system services and 80% of state sponsored regional services. States would control
infrastructure development using federal guidelines and fund their 20% share in whatever way they chose.
-Public agencies to implement the vision and to provide the same discipline and scrutiny applied to other public programs.
At the federal level, Congress should establish an agency that would perform the same core
functions for rail that the Federal aviation and highway administrations do for their respective
modes – promotion, planning, funding and oversight. This agency would translate the general
vision outlined by Congress into specific actions.
At the state level, Congress should provide incentives to develop regional agencies to plan,
fund and oversee state-sponsored services. State DOT’s frequently do not have much experience with rail. Specialized agencies focused entirely on specific routes would help address this problem. NARP encourages Congress to evaluate the Joint Powers Authority (JPA) that California has pioneered so successfully in managing the Capitol Corridor service. The JPA concept gives a small, highly focused group of entrepreneurial managers the responsibility for managing a specific task and the funding authority needed to accomplish it.
NARP urges Congress to consider these concepts in developing legislation that will lead to the
creation of a modern intercity passenger train system that can meet the nation’s growing transportation needs in the 21st century. If there has been any past reluctance to adopt bold visions and provide adequate funding, the American public’s embrace of new and improved rail service should provide reassurance that there is broad-based support for making passenger rail a significant component of our nation’s transportation system. The time to act is now.