By James E. Coston, Executive Chairman, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; March 8, 2023
Congress has spoken, and given specific instructions about the future of passenger trains in the United States.
Amtrak will remain the nation’s primary passenger train operator. However, Amtrak alone will not determine what future passenger train routes will be created and operated. Congress empowered the Federal Railroad Administration to create a new plan for routes, either resurrecting discontinued routes or creating entirely new routes.
There are currently at least five major companies capable of, and ready to, operate regional or long distance/inter-city passenger trains, plus one fully integrated passenger train development company.
Congress said after the FRA determines which routes are viable for a number of reasons, then Congress will decide which routes to fund and how to fund them. Amtrak may choose to participate in this process by suggesting routes, but will not have a final say in the matter.
Essentially, Amtrak is about to have serious competition, with its primary banker – the federal government – working with Amtrak’s competitors on new routes or (and, this is a really interesting part) competition on existing long distance/inter-regional routes.
And, remember, it was a Democratic-controlled congress which created and enacted this plan. Why is that important? Because it signals support for this plan and the future of viable passenger rail is America is bi-partisan. The party line on both sides of the aisle, former impenetrable barriers, have been overcome. Now, everyone has come to understand on a national level the value of passenger trains.
Will politics still come into play at some point? Absolutely, because this is a function of the federal government. But, the way Congress established this process it appears to be as fair as possible to all parties concerned, including Amtrak.
Amtrak doesn’t stand to lose anything in this process, other than the ability to by default create national passenger rail policy. Amtrak will still have its annual subsidies when needed, and Amtrak will still have the ability to order new rolling stock. Amtrak will still have special privileges, such as being a part of the federal government and not having to pay local or state taxes, such as sales taxes and property taxes. Amtrak will still have access to the benefits of the government pool of vehicles through the GSA Fleet program when company cars are needed, and much, much more.
Amtrak’s ability to have statutory legal access to every two streaks of rust called railroad tracks anywhere in America will remain in place.
The biggest change some see will be Amtrak having to share stations with competitors. That is already the case in many major cities and especially along the Northeast Corridor where Amtrak already shares stations with commuter railroads.
Glancing through the Great American Stations website, it’s surprising to some how many of Amtrak’s stations are not company-owned, but Amtrak is only a tenant. Some stations are already owned by the cities and towns they serve, some are still owned by host railroads, and many are owned by commuter railroads willing to share space and expenses with Amtrak.
Sharing stations is not a new idea; cities and towns large and small for much more than a century-and-a-half have enjoyed the convenience and high success of union stations.
The FRA is in the midst of gathering public and professional opinion on a new route structure, with a specific focus of routes more than 750 miles long. They have the budget and the authority to conduct something far beyond the typical passenger train route study. Some of the best minds of the FRA are working on this, and they are dedicated to their task. We may not have seen such a dedicated group to expanding and moving passenger rail forward since the original working group which created Amtrak over half a century ago.
Importantly, this is a national effort, aimed at the entire country, not just the Northeast Corridor or other favored area. The limits are the Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, Canadian border and the Mexican border and Gulf of Mexico. Everything inside those limits is fair game for consideration and planning.
Not since the days of the Amtrak Reform Council from 1998 to 2002 (of which I was honored to be a presidentially-appointed member) has there been such a deep dive into passenger rail in the United States. And, as the FRA clearly and unambiguously says, the current study is strictly about the expansion of long distance/inter-regional passenger rail and does not include short Northeast Corridor routes or state-subsidized routes.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) of 2021 requires the FRA to conduct a study to evaluate the restoration of daily intercity rail passenger service along any Amtrak long distance routes that have been discontinued and any long distance route that occur on a non-daily basis.
Additionally, routes which existed the last, best days of before Amtrak, when private carriers operated their own passenger trains and were not included in the original Amtrak route plan are also part of the study, as well as potential new routes.
For those toiling in the vineyards of passenger rail for the last half century, the potential of this FRA study is the equivalent of a child in a candy store with a fifty dollar bill in their hand. But, the good news is, the child in the candy store has an appropriate parent watching over them and guiding them to the wisest choices.
From the moment this effort was announced in 2022, there have been automatic nay sayers, forecasting this will just be another study that in the end will be gathering dust on a shelf for decades to come.
That is an understandable attitude considering all of the background of the last 50 years. The huge difference is this effort is completely divorced from Amtrak’s current or future control. Congress laid down markers and they are being followed. Money has already been designated for route expansion plans, separate from monies dedicated to Amtrak. Amtrak can look and suggest, but Amtrak cannot control the outcomes.
Five of the major companies qualified today to operate new routes are already carrying 80 million passengers a year (as of 2019) on 250,000 train terminal departures, which averages out to 685 trains a day. That is compared to Amtrak, which in 2019 carried 32.5 million passengers and had roughly 113,000 trains, averaging 300+ train terminal departures a day.
Those five companies, all major companies and mostly part of huge international passenger train operators carrying billions of people worldwide are Herzog Transit Services, Keolis Commuter Services, Transdev North America, RATP Dev USA and Bombardier Transportation.
Additionally, other major regional carriers, such as New Jersey Transit and Metra in Chicago have their own in-house operating and maintenance departments employing thousands of engineers, conductors and everyone else it takes to run a railroad.
It’s notable that Chicago Union Station, Amtrak’s Midwest hub and the eastern terminal for all of Amtrak’s transcontinental trains except the Sunset Limited, is wholly owned and operated by Amtrak, but its tenant, Metra, is the largest user of the station.
Taking a deep dive into American passenger rail in 2023 shows that while the perception that Amtrak is the unchallenged passenger rail carrier, in reality, it’s not. Amtrak is one of many passenger rail carriers, all of which are dedicated to moving passenger rail forward in our current decade.
Add privately-owned Brightline in Florida and soon-to-be in Southern California and Nevada to the list of other highly qualified passenger rail companies operating in the United States. Starting service in 2017 between Miami and West Palm Beach in Florida, and, in a matter of a few months from now expanding into a new terminal in Orlando International Airport, Brightline has already carried over two million passengers, including the period when it shut down completely for a period during the pandemic.
This year, when the new Orlando terminal opens and full service between Orlando and MiamiCentral Station begins, Brightline will operate 16 roundtrips a day between Central Florida and South Florida, whisking passengers along at speeds ranging from 79 mph to 125 mph, depending on the stretch of track. Just this week, while testing new track between Orlando International Airport and the connection with Florida East Coast Railway track in Cocoa, a Brightline test train reached 130 mph, making it the fastest train in Florida and the Southeast.
Brightline in the west will be an all-electrified, new railroad with all-new right-of-way from Las Vegas to Southern California where it will connect with the extensive and successful Metrolink regional commuter rail network for a final trip into Los Angeles Union Station.
Helping the process of new passenger trains and routes is Corridor Rail Development Corporation, North America’s only full-integrated passenger train development company.
It’s the same as being a real estate developer, but more fun.
A passenger train development company helps and creates plans for new passenger trains and new routes, with everything from the fleets of equipment at our disposal to extensive planning and ultimately identifying financing. If there is an area of expertise needed and not available in-house, CRDC knows where to find the best experts in their field. CRDC maintains relationships throughout the railroad industry and government on all levels, which can cut years of effort out of the process of developing new routes.
Unlike others in the passenger train development industry, CRDC has fleets of stainless steel passenger railcars we modernize and rebuild, then make them available for sponsors of new train routes. This eliminates years of waiting for new equipment; modernized and rebuilt stainless steel cars, essentially bringing them to Age Zero, can be available in terms of months instead of multiple years, all with a warranty.
For too long, the process or starting new passenger train routes has automatically considered to be a near-decades-long process. That process can be shortened considerably when the right process is put into place.
A hallmark of new route development in the minds of many has been the avowed reluctance of host railroads to allow new passenger trains onto their tracks. Many of their complaints and hesitations have been legitimate.
Now, something different has happened. For perhaps the first time ever, instead of demanding private railroads share their private property with passenger trains at rates so low they are a minor blip on the railroads’ financial statements, the question is first being asked, “what are your needs, especially in terms of train mile haulage costs, to run a new passenger train?”
Many old-timers are agog at this notion that private, host railroads may be willing to operate passenger trains on their tracks. If, somehow, a passenger train is a valid way to earn a reasonable rate of return on their infrastructure and associated costs, then railroad corporate managers welcome passenger trains because they are net earners, not net losers.
It’s all in the approach and optimal final outcome for all parties concerned.
America was built by the railroads, and today’s railroads are still a vital part of our nation’s economy. Many have thought passenger trains are passee, but the reality is, passenger trains are poised to make a comeback in a major way. It’s time to join the process.
Note: All photographs and illustrations are from a combination of Wikimedia Commons and internet images.