Happening Now

All Weather Transportation?

February 4, 2019

Snow rarely stops trains, but funding problems always do.

By Abe Zumwalt

Airport’s Closed and the highway’s packed,
But Amtrak’s running, and that’s a fact

- “Snowstorm Boogie” , Garrison Keillor & Pat Donohue

...at least, until recently, and it represents a missed opportunity. Trains are the closest thing we have to all-weather ground transportation, yet they are not recognized in United States transportation policy for it, nor are they funded appropriately because of it. This needs to change.

Last April, Rail Passengers’ Member Brian Nelson found himself driving through heavy snow from Minneapolis to make his connecting train in Chicago, to get to DC in time for the annual Rail Passengers' spring meeting. His normal ride, Amtrak’s Empire Builder had been cancelled because of the weather. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, which owns the majority of the Empire Builder’s route, was operating through the seven-to-twelve-inch snowstorm normally; it was otherwise a routine occurrence for railroading along the nation’s northern tier. It was the kind of weather that the Empire Builder has been slicing through for decades, some of the very conditions that make the sole passenger train in Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, and Idaho an attractive choice. It was a needless erosion of the train's value statement.

There was a time in the mid-twentieth century when private passenger railroads flaunted their resilience in stormy weather. Pullman advertised “rain or shine” service, and the New York Central emphasized that “you go, weather or no” when you chose the train. To be fair, these ads were talking about a different world. Railroads still had hundreds of thousands of employees literally walking the tracks to insure they were clear, even when conditions were beyond unsafe. These are jobs that railroads are no longer willing to pay for, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration probably would not regulate. However, historical precedent still shows the potential of the mode, and modern American railroading still fends off weather impressively in comparison to the nation's highway system. Trains often beat road and air traffic even when delayed significantly. This is because rail transportation is inherently resilient.

The modern-day equivalent to yesterday’s big claims exists, but is abroad. Echoing the promises from American railroads of the past, in China the high speed rail network was designed specifically to regularly operate in inclement weather. This includes dipping down to negative forty degrees farenheit while crossing Himalayan mountains to Tibet! That said, the resilience of rail is still more than visible stateside.

In 2014 only two inches of snow paralyzed the city of Atlanta, trapping commuters in over a million cars stuck on the city’s massive beltways. Seven people died, and thousands of children spent the night in their classrooms and on school busses. Nearly everything broke down in the face of a mild winter storm. Everything, that is, save for the region’s anemically funded Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority trains. MARTA worked its small service area flawlessly when nothing else did, and has since proved to be a popular option during southern snowstorms since, operating at crush capacity. It’s also worthy to note that while a large ballot measure to expand MARTA’s coverage failed in 2012, measures subsequent to the 2014 storm have passed.

Seattle is another city where driving is dangerous in winter weather, given very hilly topography and reliably wet snow. Regional transit agency Sound Transit has in the past gone as far as advertising the fact that its Sounder Commuter Trains are reliable and safe in snow. The agency also works to keep its light rail system operational in ice and snow, which has proven to be a great benefit, as well a very effective form of advertising the value of rail transportation:

Seattle and Atlanta are reaping the rewards of what is at this point an external benefit; weather resilience was not initially part of what MARTA or Sound Transit were created to accomplish. Amtrak, with its cancellations as of late, could even be seen as rejecting this inherent benefit of the mode. However, resilience is a strength that can and should be used proactively as a benefit of rail systems, in terms of advocating for them, and in terms of planned system operation and funding. There is a giant value in being able to operate an alternative transportation system when natural events strike, that is too often appreciated only after the fact.

In 1989 the Loma Prieta earthquake closed most access across the San Francisco Bay: Bay Area Rapid Transit tunnels were down and its famous bridges were rendered impassable pending lengthy repairs. However, the small fleet of ferries that ply the bay, carrying perhaps one percent of trips on a normal day, came to the region’s rescue in the weeks after the event. In the 1990’s, the Water Transportation Authority grew the system on the premise that a stronger ferry system would perform even better during the next inevitable event. In the late 2000’s, facing political pressure against its funding, the authority was renamed the Water Emergency Transportation Authority framing this importance. While emergency response is still central to its purpose, regular system expansion is also in the works given broad public support. When the bridges and tunnels are down, the ferries will be there. WETA is living evidence that resilience is in itself captivating motivation to fund transit investments.

When more routine weather events render roads and airports impaired, we should be able to lean on our nation’s rail transit systems and intercity passenger trains in the same way. Even in a piece outlining the not inconsiderable challenges of operating trains in snow and ice, the conclusion states that ”railways are usually the most reliable form of land transport when winter gets serious.” That alone merits consideration for Amtrak’s upcoming reauthorization – and is worthy of inclusion into the direct mission of most passenger rail and transit systems.

On a final note, our friends over at the Midwest High Speed Rail Association in Chicago were inspired by Amtrak’s most recent winter cancellation – and they've put out a call to action that’s a must-sign if riding trains in the snow sounds better than fighting traffic in the same conditions. Our passenger rail networks can and should operate despite most weather – and they should be funded appropriately to do so.

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