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August 30, 2004

Hobos 1, Commuters 0

Suburban commuters often complain that while they are served by rail service into the center city, there are far too few trains running far too infrequently. Why risk missing the 10:05 last train home on the MARC between Washington and Baltimore? Why would you bother paying higher fares on the Virginia Railway Express when your station gets only seven trains per direction per day and the sluggers are waiting in the parking lot? They have it even worse in Seattle, where the Sounder train runs but once a day. At that level of service, it's about as viable a commuter service as an asteroid.

It would appear that the U.S. rail network is fundamentally underutilized, with most tracks empty most of the time.

Well, it turns out that our rails are stretched to the brink at the moment, so much so that there is barely any room left for passenger service. Trade in raw materials and manufactured goods with booming economies such has China has driven the need for trains and trucks to get goods from port to market, with predictable tie-ups. The congestion is getting in the way of profitable service in North Carolina:

"One of Amtrak's worst performers is the Carolinian, which passes through Raleigh on its way from Charlotte to New York. During the same 10-month period, the Carolinian's on-time performance was only 30 percent. Its delays are blamed mostly on freight congestion in Virginia."

It's hard to underestimate the severity of this problem for Amtrak and the commuter lines. People don't take the trains because they're both slow and infrequent, both of which are freight-related (or freight-worsened) problems.

If trains could run at the speeds they were designed to operate, they could pose a real challenge to low-fare airlines, especially with business-related day-trips and short-notice excursions. But since it's more profitable to run freight, passenger service gets cut. Unlike trucking companies, railroads can speed up their own traffic by Is this unfair? Not really, since the companies who own the track would be negligent in their responsibility to their shareholders if they didn't try to maximize profits.

Theoretically, if the government nationalized the tracks, they could allocate use based on a variety of factors, including traffic reduction. But that's not going to happen, since Congress would never allow it, and experience in other nations has shown separating track and train owners is a very, very bad idea.

So here's what's left:

  • Build new tracks. This is very expensive and an eminent domain nighmare of the highest order anywhere you have enough riders to build new tracks.
  • Add more tracks on existing lines. They're doing this in some places already, along with upgrading signaling. It costs less money, but doesn't improve service as much.
  • Improve trucking. All over the country, ideas for truck-only highways, bridges and tunnels are being considered as a way to move trucks away from the gridlock. As a secondary result, you'd think rail traffic would decrease, allowing for more room for passenger service. But track owners may still want to minimize Amtrak and commuter line runs out of a desire to increase their own flexibility, which has its own economic benefits.
  • Do nothing. Better stock up on the books on tape, because drive time radio isn't getting any better either.

    Post Author: rj3 | 02:30 PM | Link | TrackBacks

    In Britain we have the opposite problem, where freight is in danger of being squeezed out in favour of ever more intensive passenger services.

    The owner of one major intercity operator (GNER) publically states he wants freight to "go to hell".

    The problems on both sides of the Atlantic is that high speed passenger rail and freight don't coexist happily on the same route. Seems to me best solution is to segregate them as much as possible. A lot of freight (much of which is not particularly time sensitive) gets routed via some very circuituitious routes in order to avoid congested areas.

    Of course, with the shorter distances in Britain (the longest freight flow in the country is about 550 miles), we have the option to run much of the freight at night, when there aren't so many passenger trains about. With 3000 runs taking multiple days, American lines don't have this option.

    Posted by: Tim Hall at August 30, 2004 05:25 PM

    Your mention of the Sounder train reminds me of what happened when I pitched up in Boston on the train. Could I get a train to Wakefield after 9 in the evening? Hell, no. Is this a common thing I wonder?

    Posted by: Patrick Crozier at September 2, 2004 11:39 PM

    It's very common. Many commuter lines even run only one direction at a time, meaning reverse commuters (or visitors) are shut out. It seems like our commuter train operators and your shop owners have a similar attitude towards long hours.

    Posted by: RJ at September 3, 2004 09:57 AM

    It's common not because the commuter train operators don't care or don't want to address the potential traffic, but because of the constraints put on them by the governmental entities that oversee their operations or the freight railways they operate on.

    Posted by: Mike Weyhrich at September 3, 2004 01:01 PM

    I live on Whidbey Island in Washington state. Right now I commute only once a week to Seattle where I work (I go home only on week-ends) but since I heard that Mukilteo was going to get a commuter station near the ferry, I decided to check into it. The prospects look pathetic. The ride from Mukilteo to Seattle would be just a little less than an hour and would cost me probably a lot more than I pay currently to go by bus in the same amount of time. Also there is one train that goes to Seattle in the morning and one that comes back at 5:13pm. Like someone mentioned above, tough luck if you miss the stupid train. What I don't understand is why in the h&ll it takes a freegin hour to go 25 miles? The train only stops once!. does the thing go 25 miles an hour? What about the high speed trains they have in japan, why can't they implement something like that here?

    Posted by: Paul Ulici at January 14, 2005 05:37 PM
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