DOT High-Speed Rail Intercity Rail

FRA Preliminary Rail Plan: No Plan at All

» A wait until summer 2010 before a clearer elucidation of national priorities, despite the fact that stimulus rail grants will appropriated this winter.

You’ve got to give it to the Federal Railroad Administration: it’s doing as much as possible to avoid pissing anyone off.

Though it’s been a full year since the U.S. government enacted the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA) and six months since the Department of Transportation released information about its high-speed rail strategy, the FRA has managed to put together a 41-page Preliminary National Rail Plan with virtually no planning included. And that’s a big mistake.

Here’s the situation: state rail agencies have submitted applications for more than $50 billion in improvement projects. California’s citizens have approved almost $10 billion to build a 220 mph statewide train in that state, but need a federal commitment. China and virtually every other industrialized country continue to invest huge sums in serious, though-out projects of national interest.

The FRA responds with the minimalist Preliminary National Rail Plan, which is supposed to “lay the groundwork” for a final National Rail Plan due sometime next year. The report released today suggests that planners consider both freight and passenger rail, establish “projects of national significance,” “propose financing mechanisms” with the goals of increasing safety, improving the livability of communities, reducing fuel use, and expanding economic competitiveness. The final Plan “will set forth a methodology that can more accurately determine what capacity is needed and where intermodal connections need to be improved.”

But as today’s report itself admits, the Preliminary Plan “generally does not offer specific recommendations,” and that’s the crux of the problem. The United States needs to get serious about high-speed rail: we have run out of time for these generalities. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood will award some eight billion dollars of funds to rail projects in a few months, but he will have no objective, realistic criteria by which to judge and compare the projects — at least publicly. This lack of process transparency is exactly the way to turn a promising investment program into something many politicians will be able to get away with calling a boondoggle.

Admittedly, the FRA has been put in somewhat of a predicament by the language of 2008’s PRIIA, which required the DOT to write this rail plan in the first place. That bill demands that the FRA “coordinate the States’ plans into a blueprint for an efficient national system, thereby meeting both regional and national goals.” In the grand tradition of U.S. federalism, we’re somehow expected to get a national plan out of a mess — and a whole bunch of conflicted interests.

Instead of moving forward with definitive statements about where investment should go — a national rail plan — the FRA will spend the next few months in meetings, hoping to convince states to update their own proposals, to coordinate, to make steps before Washington gets involved. Only then will the National Rail Plan be released; just how vague will it be?

I remain convinced that if the federal government is using its funds to develop a nationwide rail network, it must be sincere about establishing long-term objectives — not based on nebulous “goals” that everyone shares, but rather on addressing specific demands for new rail investment. Which corridors should be prioritized? Where should the fastest train services be implemented? What kind of funding responsibility will states play in the process?

Of course we’re at the beginning of this decades-long investment program, but the FRA’s unwillingness to be explicit is incredibly frustrating. Other countries do not scrupulously avoid making long-term plans. That’s why their infrastructure systems are more advanced and better maintained.

The FRA is not incompetent. Nor is it incapable of putting together a serious proposal. It just doesn’t want to seem like it’s giving preferential treatment to some areas over others. But any project of this magnitude — a national rail network — will require sacrifice. Not everyone will get rail service.

The map below shows the projects being planned for rail service improvements nationwide — it’s a sad demonstration of what happens when states, regions, and the federal government aren’t talking with one another, and when they lack an overall goal. Today’s report does nothing to clarify the situation.

US Rail Plans Map

Image above: Proposed U.S. rail investments, from the Preliminary National Rail Plan

High-Speed Rail Intercity Rail Midwest High-Speed Rail

Southeast Minnesota Angles for Rail Link through Rochester

Linking Southeast Minnesota to the Midwest Rail Network

» But the fastest route would stop at the city’s airport rather than downtown.

Though state of Minnesota has not been the most active advocate of new rail connections, a faster connection between the Twin Cities and Chicago has been an ubiquitous component of proposals for high-speed rail in the Midwest. The corridor’s termini are set in stone, but its exact route is not. Whereas existing Amtrak service runs along the Mississippi River from La Crosse, Wisconsin to St. Paul, residents of Rochester and the surrounding areas are pushing for the improved line to run through southeast Minnesota. A new study demonstrates the advantages of such a detour, but its lack of connection through downtown Rochester could ultimately prove to be a major limitation.

The Southeast Minnesota Rail Alliance report compares several different routes through the state, including the 130-mile existing corridor that parallels the river and a new 170-mile line that would extend west of La Crosse, through Rochester, and then north to the Twin Cities. The latter route’s primary advantage is that it would connect to the rail link the 100,000-person population of Rochester; it is the state’s third-largest city and a major employment center, notably as a result of the presence of the Mayo Clinic. The population of areas within 20 miles of the Rochester route is roughly twice as high as that of areas near the river line, not counting the Twin Cities.

Including Rochester would undoubtedly increase ridership on any rail line since the river route reaches no cities of significant population for the entire distance between Winona and St. Paul. With 110 mph diesel train operation, the Rochester route would move 5.5 million people a year, versus 5.1 million on the river line, according to the study; both would enjoy higher fare revenues than operation costs. These estimates seem unreasonable considering other Amtrak corridors: the Keystone route between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, which already offers 110 mph electric operation, only attracts about a million riders a year and is 50% subsidized.

The “greenfield” route proposed by the Southeastern Minnesota Rail Alliance would run through Rochester Airport instead of downtown Rochester. This is clearly a decision meant to ensure fast speeds along the entirety of the route and to avoid community opposition to fast trains in Rochester’s urban areas, but it has the negative consequence of limiting potential ridership to and from this detour’s major destination! It also mistakenly assumes that a large number of people will take the train to and from the Rochester Airport when the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport offers far more air service and it could be linked to the project just as easily.

Nonetheless, the argument for a Rochester corridor over the river line is strong. Despite the former route’s longer distance, it would cost only $973 million to construct, compared to the $834 million needed to upgrade the latter corridor, not enough of a difference to justify choosing the cheaper, less effective line. The river route would need 150 miles of new track to handle six round trips a day. It would be quicker to take a train between St. Paul and La Crosse via Rochester — 2h00 versus 2h11 along the river and 2h57 today — because the new link would be far less curvy. The river line includes some 176 curves, requiring a 90 mph speed limit along most of the line — even after improvements.

The other major advantage of the Rochester route is that it would allow for 220 mph operation in the long term, whereas the river route would be unable to ever offer such speeds. With electric trains, travel between St. Paul and La Crosse could be completed in just 1h13 via Rochester; upgrades of the connection through Wisconsin to Chicago would whittle down trip times to just four hours from the Twin Cities (it takes eight hours today). Fast service would cost two billion dollars but make up the difference by attracting nine million riders by 2030, according to the Rail Alliance.

Intercity Rail Philadelphia

Learning from the Keystone Corridor

» We can expect modest jumps in ridership after investing in relatively minor rail line upgrades.

In 2006, Amtrak and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation completed work on improvements to the Keystone Corridor, which runs 104 miles from Philadelphia to Harrisburg. The $145 million project increased top speeds to 110 mph and allowed for full electric operation, making it possible to run trains reliably from New York’s Penn Station. The line now offers 14 weekday round trips between Harrisburg and Philadelphia and 1h35 trip times between the city centers on express trains (compared with two hours previously), with local routes making the journey in up to 1h55. The improvements on the Keystone demonstrate the small gains that can be garnered from making rail services more time competitive.

The upgrades to the route have allowed Amtrak to increase passenger totals significantly over the past two years. Though Keystone ridership has been on the rise since 2003, its 20% growth in 2007 and 2008 vastly outpaced that of the Amtrak system as a whole. Overall, the corridor attracted 1.2 million people in 2008, compared with 400,000 in 1998; it now represents 4% of total U.S. intercity rail ridership, compared to 2% ten years ago. It is reasonable to assume that the increase in number of users is a reflection of the improved services provided after the renovation.

Keystone Corridor Recent Ridership Trends

In addition, the uptick in ridership and the switch to electric operation have provided a number of benefits, namely an increase in revenues and a decline in per-passenger government subsidies. Fare revenue increased from about $2.4 million in 2005 to $7.2 million last year. Subsidies decreased from about 27¢ per passenger mile in 2005 to about 20¢ in 2008. This is clear evidence of the benefits of rail investment — as more people take advantage of a line, Amtrak is able to save money per passenger mile.

Keystone Corridor Recent Performance

According to the 1995 American Travel Survey, the most recent data available, travel between the Philadelphia and Harrisburg metro areas was the 17th highest of all metro pairs in the U.S. — with slightly less travel than between Boston and New York! Travel between Harrisburg and Washington and New York was relatively high was well. This should be a well-used train line. But Keystone remains a subsidized train: last year, the state of Pennsylvania provided almost as much in operations aid to the line as passengers contributed in fares. Despite the capital investment, this train line will never reach a fare/passenger volume equilibrium that will allow it to be profitable.

Keystone’s example, though relevant to other corridors, is somewhat of an exception. The investments made in 2005 and 2006 on catenary upgrades and track replacement were made in the context of an already high-quality line. The corridor between Harrisburg and Philadelphia is owned by Amtrak, and electrification along the whole line was in place by the end of the 1930s. Though the corridor was once fully four-tracked, it continues to offer at least two tracks along its entire route.

There are few rail corridors in the U.S. that offer similar conditions today. Confounding matters, most are owned by freight railroads, making improvements a difficult process. As a result, the $145 million spent by the State of Pennsylvania on the project would likely buy fewer improvements in other states.

Even so, the experience with the Keystone Line is indicative of the kind of ridership improvements we’ll get with other 110 mph “high-speed” investments being proposed for places like Illinois or the Southwest. In other words, there might be a doubling of ridership over ten years, but no huge mode shift. Unlike true high-speed rail operating at speeds upwards of 200 mph, trains traveling at 110 mph maximum can hardly compete with automobiles. Driving between Philadelphia and Harrisburg takes about two hours — from origin to destination. If the Keystone train, operating as an express, takes an hour and a half in train travel alone, there is no overall time advantage for the train: this is a major hindrance to increasing ridership. A true high-speed train, operating at an average speed of 130 mph, would cover the distance between the cities in 48 minutes and attract enough ridership to make the line operationally profitable.

Nonetheless, it is clear that even minor investments such as those completed in Pennsylvania do improve conditions for riders, make train travel more effective, and reduce subsidies per passenger.