U.S.: Amtrak will have competition on both existing and new routes as Congress has mandated

Amtrak’s traditional, full-size, eastbound Capitol Limited operating on former Baltimore & Ohio, now CSX, tracks on a cloudy day in West Virginia. This route of just over 750 miles qualifies as a route which could one day see an Amtrak competitor also operating a train between Washington, D.C. and Chicago.
Jim Coston, Executive Chairman of Corridor Rail Development Corporation

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.

ABOVE and BELOW: Northern Pacific’s famed Vista-Dome North Coast Limited at a station stop in 1969 and Amtrak’s version, the North Coast Hiawatha at Bozeman Pass in 1973. The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority in Montana is working smartly and diligently to restore this route from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest through Southern Montana. In addition to basic transportation, this scenic route will likely draw competition to be the new operator because of its potential as a “train is a destination” scenario similar to VIA Rail Canada’s Canadian between Vancouver and Toronto. Ultimately, it’s not impossible to imagine more than one operator running competing trains on this route.

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.

Amtrak is a tenant at Newark, New Jersey’s Pennsylvania Station, owned by New Jersey Transit.

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.

Amtrak’s former Pioneer at a station stop in La Grande, Oregon. Between 1977 and 1997, La Grande was a stop along the former route of the Pioneer between Chicago, Salt Lake City, Portland and Seattle. The 1930-built station still exists, and is used by Union Pacific as offices. Restoring the route of the Pioneer would bring another potential route known for its beauty and scenery and another “the train is the destination” service, similar to VIA Rail Canada’s Canadian and the Rocky Mountaineer,
The famed New York Central 20th Century Limited at Buffalo, New York on its final run in 1967. For decades, New York Central operated the heavily patronized, luxury 20th Century Limited and sister trains between New York City and Chicago. Amtrak today provides the Lake Shore Limited on the same route, but at a more leisurely pace. The example of the 20th Century Limited could serve as an ideal example of a competitive new night train service between two of America’s major cities, providing good meal and overnight hotel service to a clientele which chooses to avoid the myriad of complications of airports and flying.
A 1956 view of the Hi-Level fleet lounge car on Santa Fe’s luxury coach El Capitan service between Chicago and Los Angeles via Kansas City. This highly popular train with America’s first bi-level long distance passenger cars operated the same route as Santa Fe’s Super Chief and Chief trains. Santa Fe competed with itself through its extensive fleet of trains radiating from Chicago and Los Angeles and other terminals along its route network, achieving financial economy by “sweating” station and coach yard assets which served multiple trains while being used to their full potential. These El Capitan lounge cars in the Amtrak era would go on to be the much-sought-after Pacific Parlour Cars on the Coast Starlight between Los Angeles and Seattle. Corridor Rail Development Corporation can provide updated and renovated versions of these cars for new routes and services.
Amtrak’s San Francisco Zephyr on a cold winter’s day in 1975 before the train was renamed the California Zephyr. This highly popular route most likely could support the existing California Zephyr and a competing train from another operator.

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.

File illustration.

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.

New Jersey Transit has an extensive heavy-rail network beyond the tracks it pays Amtrak to use on the Northeast Corridor. NJT employees operate and maintain its trains.

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.

Metra and Amtrak trains share a platform at Chicago Union Station in 2017.

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.

Bombardier Transportation is the operator of the SunRail commuter service in Central Florida. SunRail and Amtrak share former CSX/Atlantic Coast Line tracks between DeLand and Poinciana, with Orlando and Winter Park being major intermediate stations. The two railroads share a number of stations along the route.

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.

A Brightline train ready for departure from the purpose-built MiamiCentral Station. One of the successes of Brightline is the proven-successful combination of real estate and passenger trains to produce profits.

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?”

A somewhat weary-appearing Amtrak locomotive at the Newport News, Virginia station in 2000.

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.

Please share with others