Building California’s passenger rail future

By Frank Busalacchi –Travelers across America and throughout California are voting in record numbers for expanded passenger-rail service in the United States. These “votes” are coming in the form of record passenger-rail ridership. Amtrak ridership increased in fiscal year 2005 to 25,374,998, marking the third straight year of passenger gains for the national intercity passenger railroad, despite service disruptions that included major hurricanes in the South and repair work that impacted Acela Express service in the Northeast. Gains in passenger rail travel are occurring in all parts of the country.

California is one of those states seeing impressive gains in ridership. A total of 4.9 million passengers boarded Amtrak trains in California in 2005, compared with 4.6 million in 2004 — a 5 percent increase in one year. California has the second largest number of rail passengers in America, closely behind New York, where 5.1 million passengers traveled by rail last year. California is home to the nation’s second, third and fifth busiest rail corridors in the nation. Only the Northeast corridor is busier.

Ridership in California is growing at an even faster clip in 2006. Total passengers riding Amtrak trains in the January to March quarter of 2006 rose by 10 percent over the same period in 2005. Although the overall picture is improving, it is not free of challenges. Chronic lateness on the Coast Starlight is a continuing problem. Ironically, it is the simultaneous increase in both passenger and freight traffic that is causing this chronic lateness. The demand for rail service is rising, and there is a solution: Increased investment in our rail infrastructure by the federal government and the state.

What do these ridership numbers mean? Americans are struggling with worsening highway and airline congestion, even as fuel prices rise. In the post-Sept. 11 environment, travelers are wary of a system that depends so heavily on airline travel. Thursday’s thwarted terrorist attack by British authorities once again stresses the importance of passenger rail service. If the airlines have to be grounded — even for a day — because of terrorist attacks, the trains suddenly become a vitally important alternate form of transportation. That was the case on Sept. 11, 2001, when hundreds of thousands of travelers had to shift their travel from air to rail.

Everyone from business travelers to older citizens are looking for options that won’t cost them more time or money. In short, Americans want transportation alternatives, with rail playing a significant role. The States for Passenger Rail Coalition, which I chair, was founded in 2000 just as we started to see passenger demands for expanded rail service increasing. Today, there are 27 states represented from all parts of the country and we will continue to make the case for strong state-federal partnerships to expand our nation’s passenger rail network. California is one of the newest members of the coalition, and we are very pleased to count California in our growing list of member states. California has invested heavily in its passenger rail system — $1.8 billion in investments since 1976. Much of that investment also benefits the freight railroads, and helps alleviate congestion on our highways.

I believe we owe the traveling public the transportation choices they demand, as evidenced by their increasing use of rail. But improved passenger rail service will not come without a strong commitment by the federal government to fund passenger rail.

For too many years, passenger rail service in America has been hamstrung by the year-to-year funding decisions of Congress. This unpredictable funding process has varied with the shifting political winds. This is no way to run a railroad! It makes future planning extremely difficult.

The States for Passenger Rail Coalition is calling on Congress to provide a dedicated source of capital funding for passenger rail, just as Congress does for highways and aviation. We support federal legislation that gives passenger rail the same 80/20 federal-state funding split that the highways enjoy. It is time to level the playing field for all forms of passenger transportation. I recently traveled to Spain to tour their passenger-rail system. It is fast and reliable — trains will travel between Madrid and Barcelona at 217 miles per hour. This is happening in a country with a gross domestic product similar to Korea’s and Mexico’s. The key in Spain, as in most European nations, is that passenger-rail development receives strong government funding support.

Many Americans return from Europe every year and ask this question: “Why can’t an advanced nation like the United States have first-class, high-speed rail travel such as what the Europeans enjoy?” The answer is simple. If Washington policy-makers would cease bickering over Amtrak and follow their own advice to provide a dedicated source of capital funding, we could have the same level of service Europeans enjoy. Prudent oversight and accountability are essential for any undertaking of this scale but it is crucial to our economic security and to future generations that we make progress now.

Over the coming year, the States for Passenger Rail Coalition will work hard to support a dedicated source of capital funding for American’s passenger-rail system. We can no longer allow passenger rail to lurch along on unpredictable annual appropriations. We can provide Americans with the level of service they seek and for which they vote as they step aboard passenger trains in record numbers.


Frank Busalacchi chairs the States for Passenger Rail Coalition (www.s4prc.org), and is secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (this commentary also appeared in major newspapers around the country)

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