» If Congress finds the funds, more trains could extend through Montana, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, and British Columbia.
The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act passed by Congress last year mandated that Amtrak study investment in four long-distance train corridors, in addition to demanding that the FRA write a National Rail Plan. The reports, released Friday, paint the picture of a company excited about the expansion of rail service into new areas but paralyzed by insufficient government subsidies.
Each of the corridors considered — two through the Western half of the U.S., one into Canada, and another through Pennsylvania — currently lacks reliable, frequent train service. But none of the proposed improvements will be able to make up their operating costs, so either Amtrak will have to find additional long-term aid from federal and state governments in addition to the initial necessary capital upgrades, or it will be incapable of funding the lines. The reports, submitted to Congress, have no immediate consequence, but they will certainly spur the interest of legislators who want to bring new rail service to their congressional districts — but will have to find the money to do so first.
Amtrak Service to Vancouver during and after the 2010 Olympics
With the 2010 Winter Olympics taking place in British Columbia in a few months, Amtrak was asked to consider how best to ensure adequate service to and from Vancouver during the event. The study suggests having trains depart the Canadian city later in the evening to allow Washington State residents to attend more events during the day, but it does not propose the addition of any new midday trains, at least in the short term.
One major impediment to expansion of rail service is the required customs and immigration procedures at the U.S.-Canada border, which requires trains to wait at least 15 minutes. The facility can only handle one train at a time; more trains would increase the likelihood of route overlapping and additional delays. As a result, Amtrak proposes that Congress pays for $500,000 in upgrades at the Vancouver station to allow pre-clearance inspections of U.S.-bound passengers there. This would eliminate the mid-journey delay and reduce journey times.
North Coast Hiawatha Route Renewal
This route was last operated by Amtrak in 1979 but was abandoned because of a lack of adequate funding. The Amtrak study, however, suggests providing new service to the northernmost sections of the lower 48, traveling through North Dakota, Montana, and Idaho, on the way between Chicago and Seattle, paralleling existing Empire Builder service. Notably, it would allow direct Amtrak service to Helena, Montana and expand access to the Twin Cities and Fargo.
Amtrak predicts relatively high ridership for this route — roughly 350,000 annual passengers depending on the exact routing. The rail company would suffer a net loss of $39 million a year with the line’s implementation, including the reduction in number of people expected to take Empire Builder trains. Overall, Amtrak expects a higher than average 58% farebox recovery ratio, which as the table below demonstrates, would be the forth highest in the country for long-distance routes. Even so, the net loss would still have to be offset by some kind of subsidy.
Any additional service would require up to one billion dollars in capital costs, a difficult figure for this rural corridor with no commitment from the states served for funding help. Track and station upgrades would cost $700 million, a number that would include the upgrades of some 17 stations that currently lack platforms; new trains would total more than $300 million. The second estimate would include six trains and 54 passenger cars required to provide daily two-way service along this massively long route. Service implementation could take 48 to 60 months… if the congressional delegation from the affected states comes together to fund the system.
Pennsylvanian Corridor Expansion
The most important element of Amtrak’s report on service to Pennsylvania endorses the expansion of rail service between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. Currently, Pennsylvanian Corridor trains only make one round-trip between Pittsburgh and New York City a day, but Amtrak would expand the line to two a day taking the nine-hour trip. Recent growth of ridership on the Keystone Corridor between Harrisburg and Philadelphia as a result of service improvements and expansion suggests that there is plenty of demand for better rail service in Pennsylvania.
New service, including an additional Keystone train at night, would cost $7 million a year, but would do nothing to ameliorate the currently depressing rail conditions west of Harriburg. Today, taking the train between there and Pittsburgh requires 5h30, compared to 3h30 driving and 4h15 on Greyhound. Slow speeds make it incredibly difficult to encourage more people to take the train.
That said, the study does mention the possibility of studying new high-speed service to Pittsburgh, with eight to ten trains a day operating at speeds of up to 150 mph. Such service, however, would require a new right-of-way or at least new tracks, and it’s unlikely in the next few decades.
The report also negates the possibility of more train stops at Princeton Junction and Cornwall Heights, both of which are located on the Northeast Corridor. Adding those two destinations to more Northeast Regional Trains would add six to eight minutes to travel times, attract few new passengers, and reduce the performance of corridor trains. The study concludes that SEPTA and New Jersey Transit already provide enough commuter service to both places.
A new stop at Rockwood, Pennsylvania along the Capitol Limited service between Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh is encouraged.
Pioneer Route Reinitiation
Service between Chicago and Seattle is already provided by the Empire Builder and would be expanded by the North Coast Hiawatha route mentioned above. However, the recreation of the Pioneer Route, which was canceled in 1997, would add a third daily service between the cities. The corridor, pictured at the top of this post, could be routed in several different ways, potentially serving Salt Lake City or cities in southern Wyoming.
Corridor capital upgrades would cost between $300 and 500 million according to estimates by track owner Union Pacific, and the train would only attract about 100,000 annual daily riders, leading to a 20-30% farebox recovery ratio, putting its performance at the bottom of long-distance services offered by Amtrak. Not surprising for a route that will take 27 hours to traverse the West and take quite a detour-filled route between Chicago and Seattle. The advantages of the line, though, would come in its offering of daily trains to areas that are currently isolated from any mode of non-automobile transportation in rural Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon.
Images above: from the respective Amtrak reports