By Noel T. Braymer
The nation’s freight railroads have plenty of business now. In fact maybe it has too much business to handle current traffic, let alone future growth. This in turn has affected several long distance passenger trains, often causing them to be habitually late and making long distance rail passenger service less viable. For the freight railroads, passenger service is increasingly becoming a bothersome problem making little money for them. Many shippers are also affected and having trouble getting their products delivered on time to their customers.
The future of long distance rail passenger service depends on a healthy freight rail system as well as the co-operation of the freight railroads. What is needed to keep the railroads moving freight and passengers is funding to upgrade the tracks to handle growing traffic now and into the future. The big question to this need is who is going to pay for these improvements and why?
The railroads have been spending a great deal of money already on their railroads in recent history. But since they are in the profit making business, they are not interested in making improvements to their rail lines that don’t have a return on investment for their business. A major problem with running passenger trains today on the freight railroads is the freight railroads run much longer trains, carrying more cargo with fewer trains than in the past. This reduces the need and expense of extra sidings on the mostly single track freight rail lines. One little 10 car passenger train running late can easily tie up several freight trains, each miles long on the few sidings of many busy freight rail lines. Since the railroads don’t need more siding for their trains, they will ask why should they pay to build them?
Transportation drives the economy. Transportation is a major target in war to disable another country’s economy. There are many places in this country, both large and small that want improved transportation for their cities and towns to bring in jobs and economic growth. The secret to getting anything done politically, is to create the broadest level of support by having benefits for the most people. Improving transportation, including the railroads will do this.
When we look at the problems on the railroads now, we find bottlenecks in Chicago, Texas around Dallas and Fort Worth and around Los Angeles with heavy port traffic. There are also problems on the routes of the Empire Builder, Lake Shore,Capitol, San Francisco Zephyr and the Starlight. Any plans to expand Rail Passenger service to Pueblo, Colorado or to bring back routes such as for a Desert Wind or Pioneer will also require track improvements.
Upgrading rail lines with tax money will have clear benefits to the railroad companies,the shippers, passenger trains, the communities with or wanting more rail service and to the economy as a whole. Many problems we have today come from poor planning in the past which assumed the best days of railroading were in the past and railroad land was put to use for non railroad purposes. Sooner or later these problem areas and bottlenecks will have to be fixed or bypassed with new connections.
On the main lines the benefits of additional double tracking and sidings needed for passenger rail service is harder to see by the railroads. Certainly fewer conflicts between freight and passenger trains is desirable, but the railroads don’t want to pay for it. Clearly tax dollars in some form will be needed if we are to see expanded and faster long distance rail passenger service. How this is done through grants, tax breaks, tax credits or whatever is on open question. But the benefits of doing this will go beyond going to the railroads, and rail passengers, but also to many towns and cities across the Country wanting more rail service and to the economy as a whole.
Government spending on transportation infrastructure is considered by most economists as having the highest return on investment for the economy of any government spending. It brings in more money than it cost over the years to come. Government construction on freeways in the 50’s and 60’s had a major impact on economic growth back then. There aren’t many places left to build freeways, but plenty of places to improve railroads.
Without major track improvements, long distance rail passenger service in this country will continue to shrink and become irrelevant. Better rail service will be a boom for the economy to carry more goods and products faster and on time. Better freight and passenger service will serve more places and and people stimulating the economy to more places in the country. But things don’t look good now for the future, particularly for the long distance passenger trains. Without money for needed improvements and the support of local communities wanting better rail service the future of long distance passenger trains is not good..