The cloudy outlook for passenger rail in 2017
Wednesday, January 18, 2017
As reported in The Hill, new legislation to push Donald Trump's aggressive infrastructure plans is not expected to appear until after the first 100 days. During that time, it is proposed, the Republican-controlled Congress will be thinking about how to fund most of that infrastructure spending.
After tackling the up-front issues of healthcare and tax reform, it's difficult to believe Congress will be doing much thinking about passenger rail infrastructure early on. Nonetheless, it is imperative that Congress and President Trump look at the assets already in hand as far as funding rail infrastructure improvements.
Amtrak owns 725 miles of track right of way, millions of square feet of industrial, station and maintenance properties, and countless places on its property where commercial opportunities can be offered. Right of way can be used for everything from fiber optic lines to commodity pipe, commercial space for retail, service and even medical uses, and industrial locations for literally every imaginable kind of business venture.
Amtrak, in the past, has had a fairly laid-back policy of pairing with possible users of its property, the most conspicuous use of commercial space by outsiders being in the great terminals. That Amtrak is a tenant in many venues outside the Northeast and West, with the major exception being Chicago Union Station, does not help with the consistency that commercial space needs to catch the public's attention and increase lease values.
Nonetheless, private-sector infrastructure funding — as has been suggested by the incoming administration — requires that the investor see profit at the other end of the deal, and that profit could come from newly invigorated development of Amtrak properties.
The Federal Railroad Administration has its eye on some of these issues with pending ground rules for private-sector bidding on long-distance routes. In my opinion, it would behoove the new administration and the relatively new Amtrak president/CEO Wick Moorman to aggressively pursue monetizing idle spaces — and even whole trains if necessary — without waiting for Congress to decide on new infrastructure (and equipment) funding measures.
That said, what are the other things to look for with passenger rail in 2017?
Although nothing like freight railroads' fly-in-the-ointment reciprocal switching or open access is likely to impact passenger rail in the near term. Something akin to re-regulation might.
I'm referring to profitability mandates. Even casual observers of Amtrak's history are aware of the repeating legislative efforts to force Amtrak into a definition of profitability suitable for the political climate. Repeated Republican efforts to dump Amtrak entirely, or to force it to suffocate under the weight of profitability mandates, have held up Amtrak progress for years.
Though Trump does not have such a history with railroads, he is a businessman, and he is used to focusing on making money. Amtrak does not and probably will not make money any time in the next four years. It will fall to Moorman and passenger rail advocates to see that Trump realizes the money-making value of a comprehensive transportation system, including passenger rail, to American commerce and the economy, as opposed to just the negative profitability of Amtrak.
Another ongoing concern that affects passenger and freight railroads jointly is Positive Train Control, although PTC probably affects passenger rail more if we include the many commuter rail agencies that are falling under this mandate.
Because few passenger systems other than Amtrak and its several Northeast Corridor commuter partners interchange trains and equipment, the collective non-Amtrak passenger systems are likely to have a better time of achieving fully-functional PTC systems. Some have already claimed to have reached this plateau. I would look for more commuter rail and rapid transit to achieve complete PTC operation, at least in the minimal mandated form, during calendar 2017.
Environmentally, commuter rail systems are also in better positions to comply with any mandates involving locomotive emissions. The monumental commuter systems of the East and Midwest already have a reasonable percentage of electric lines.
While I do not see any of them coming on line with totally renewable power in 2017, I do see California and Texas as states where commuter rail could benefit from electrification and wind or solar power exclusivity. Look for movements in these areas during 2017.
Finally, in the passenger business, boardings and passenger-miles count, not carloads and ton-miles. (A bow, here, to those who think passenger-hours is a better metric.)
I do not foresee anything but a continuation in the trend toward more boardings and more miles, in 2017 and following years. However, one should watch for the newly-constituted (by the Trump administration) Surface Transportation Board's new standard for measuring Amtrak's on-time performance.
Passenger volume and performance should concern those of us who advocate passenger rail as a solution to clogged highways and airports. Some passenger rail systems are beyond the limit of their carrying capacity already.
I won't name them all here, but Chicago's Metra and the ever-car-short Amtrak are two examples. Both are currently capable of sustaining service without serious disruption during one-day or holiday peaks, but sustained increases of any substance threaten to destroy the performance metrics for both.
Large increases in ridership are not going to be possible without big budget increases and massive infrastructure improvements. PTC, indeed, will improve track capacity and allow closer spacing of trains, but there are still upper limits to track capacity. Furthermore, closer spacing of trains means more cars and locomotives, and the crews to operate them.
Added equipment can improve Amtrak's outlook in the short term — notice I said "added." If Amtrak just puts on new equipment and scraps the old, it won't help a bit.
Eventually, Amtrak needs to double or triple the frequency of trains on some routes. Daily needs to become twice-daily, every other day to become daily, and, in some cases, twice daily to become hourly or twice-hourly.
With Amtrak, I don't expect any of it to happen in 2017. It's a political transition year, and things can get started, but new trains and equipment are not likely to come fully on line until 2020, just as the nation is about to decide (again) whether we like the Trump administration or not.
That's an admittedly incomplete wrap-up for the space available here. Meanwhile, let's try not to think about the 2020 elections and meet here again in 2018 and see if things are, or are not, going as I see them. Until then, have a happy 2017!
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