Railroad's mixed signals

The National Association of Railroad Passengers, the country's largest train and transit advocacy group, issued a warning last month that deserves to be repeated here. The final numbers on Amtrak's ridership and revenue in fiscal 2014 are in, and the railroad did record-breaking business over the past year. But the failure to invest sufficiently in the nation's railroad system is threatening to grind Amtrak trains to a slow crawl.

That may be a familiar circumstance with Amtrak, surely mile-for-mile the most neglected form of passenger transportation in the United States. But it's getting worse and worse. Not just because of an insufficient investment in Amtrak-owned tracks in the Northeast but also because of neglect of the nation's heavily-traveled freight lines, which Amtrak shares, and it's grown particularly bad in the Midwest.


Here's what the numbers show. In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, Amtrak reported 30.9 million riders (a new record) and earned $2.2 billion in ticket revenue (not only a record but a 4 percent gain from the previous year). Northeast ridership did especially well, rising 3.3 percent, but so did many other Eastern routes like the Capitol Limited, the Adirondack and the Auto Train to Florida.

What didn't turn out so well was on-time performance. Ridership dropped on some long-distance lines because of delays as long as 12 hours and service that is more likely to be late than on time. Passenger trains often get stuck waiting for freight trains, and when demand for freight is growing, like it is right now, the congestion only gets worse. In a reviving economy, the system is reaching capacity, and increased oil production out of western shale fields in the U.S. and Canadian oil sands has contributed to the gridlock, as have coal exports to China.

This circumstance of too many trains on too little track isn't just a problem for passenger service. It's an inconvenience for businesses that rely on freight carriers, too, including farmers trying to get their crops to market. But while an automaker may be able to handle a few hours of delay getting an order of minivans to New York, someone who is scheduled to arrive for a business meeting in Chicago or a wedding or bar mitzvah in Toledo is not so fortunate.

The only remedy is to invest more in track and other infrastructure, but that takes time. Carriers are investing $26 billion in freight lines this year, according to the Association of American Railroads. Yet more is needed with support not just from private freight companies but from state and federal governments as well.

This month's election results don't bode well for that effort, however. Republicans are generally loath to spend more on Amtrak, perceiving tax dollars spent on the passenger railroad as a wasteful "subsidy" while never offering the same criticism of roads, bridges, airports and other forms of transportation infrastructure that are paid for by taxpayers, too. Long-distance Amtrak routes tend to be their top target, but cutting them would be devastating to numerous small towns across the country and leave people with no practical public transit alternative the next time a 9/11 or similar crisis shuts down air travel.

The situation with the Northeast Corridor is only slightly better. The routes from Washington, D.C. to Boston may be Amtrak's greatest financial success, but the corridor needs an estimated $151 billion investment to remain viable. Too many choke points like the aging tunnels in Baltimore and under the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey are disasters waiting to happen. And compared to trains in Europe and the Far East, Amtrak's best Acela Express trains are still relatively pokey with the highest potential speed of 150 mph but average speeds closer to 70 mph.

Passenger rail needs a predictable, consistent and adequate level of funding, or it will cease to be a viable alternative. A moribund Amtrak would be a loss, not only for businesses and individuals who rely on it but for the nation's congested highway network, which will be forced to make up the difference. Rail is more cost-effective, energy-efficient and environmentally sound than putting more cars on the roads. The sooner the next Congress recognizes that fact, the sooner the nation's ailing rail system — and Amtrak's future — can be remedied.