Public rail needs more, not less, money

The horrific Amtrak derailment earlier this year captured media attention for days for a good reason: It revealed some troubling things about public rail in the United States, and as more information unfolded, it became even more complicated. Aside from the deaths and injuries associated with the crash, which made it riveting enough for a public that loves blood, the crash provided a prime opportunity for attacking Amtrak and public rail in general, something that politicians particularly enjoy doing.

Sifting through evidence from the crash is an ongoing project, though it looks like the engineer may have made some poor choices in the operation of train, even with compounding factors like projectiles that likely hit the train. But in the days and weeks after the crash, arguments that Amtrak should be defunded or scrapped started to arise, and they were the wrong response.

Which is not to say that Amtrak isn’t in trouble. The company is haemorrhaging money, it’s having difficulty maintaining routes, it can barely keep trains going on time, and trains have been involved in a number of small collisions and incidents that didn’t attract media attention because they weren’t as significant as May’s crash. More and more of its trains are being replaced by a bussing system — getting across the nation by train is actually getting to be a bit of a challenge, and not just because it’s expensive and time consuming.

But this isn’t an argument to throw up our hands and give up on public rail. It’s an argument to restructure the way we handle public rail, and that restructuring is likely going to include more funding. Pouring money into the current system would be extremely unwise, but the United States needs to commit to public transit, and that means committing to a rail system, something it’s been reluctant to do for many decades. If the nation wants to make pleasant travel affordable for people to cut down on the number of cars on the road and keep planes — much less efficient — out of the sky, it needs to start getting with it on public rail.

One reason Amtrak is struggling so much is because of the large amount of single track rail in the US, and the lack of priority for passenger trains. These two compounding elements make it difficult for Amtrak to get around on the existing rail system, and that makes it difficult to offer a range of routes and keep trains running on time. That, in turn, challenges consumers, who would much rather take trains that run on time and get them where they need to go with minimal transfers, understandably.

Investing in retrofitting the rail system is a daunting proposition, but it’s critical. Single track rail is antiquated and there’s no reason we shouldn’t be providing more track to allow trains to run simultaneously — BART has the same problem in microcosm, and the issue was illustrated multiple times earlier this year with lengthy delays that could have been easily resolved if BART wasn’t single track. The transit agency could have run additional trains on a second track to get around issues like stalled trains and broken rails, but instead it was forced to entirely halt service, leading to massive backups throughout the system. (In some cases literally, with passengers reporting that BART resorted to running trains backwards along East Bay-Millbrae lines to get people out of San Francisco and back to the East Bay.)

Any time there’s a delay, obstacle, or problem on the track, Amtrak grinds to a halt. This is an especially big problem with freight trains. It may come as a surprise to learn this, but some 40 percent of ground freight in the US moves by train, not truck. Those trains have priority on available track, and some of them are extremely long, as anyone who has sat patiently (or impatiently) at a rail crossing knows. When a freight train is scheduled for a given length of track, Amtrak trains have to be shunted to wait for it to pass, which can cause delays of half an hour or more. Not really optimal for passengers.

While the United States invests in adding track, it also really needs to reconsider policies about train priorities. It’s ludicrous to shunt passenger trains when freight trains won’t suffer from brief delays to allow Amtrak and other passenger trains to go by. By and large, they have more flexible scheduling and it makes far more sense to set them aside; the small costs incurred by such delays would most definitely be offset by the benefits of having an actually functional passenger rail system.

The nation also needs to invest in the development of track and station extensions to more remote areas, which can be a costly problem. As seen in California with the debate over high speed rail, some corridors are more profitable than others, but those in rural and more far-flung regions still need access to the rail network. One illustration to a possible solution can be seen in Japan, where the shinkansen offers rapid transit and local trains along with slow shinkansen offer more regional travel — it’s a nation where people can travel readily by train among a range of communities and it’s actually functionally possible to not own a car. (The nation has also strongly disincentivised car ownership in the interests of reducing urban crowding and emissions, a wise decision in a small island country.)

These issues are the tip of the iceberg for a rail system operating with an aging fleet on poorly-laid routes without priority. We need more funding for Amtrak, and it needs to be intelligent funding. If we aren’t willing to sink resources into the problem, the continued push towards private transit won’t stop. People don’t want to take trains that arrive late and don’t take them where they want to go, and can you blame them? But does that mean we ought to give up on trains altogether? I think not.

Image: Amtrak, Don McCullough, Flickr