Getting Back on Track: Intercity Passenger Rail
December 1, 2023|Sohail Husain
On Wednesday, November 29, the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials met to discuss issues regarding the future of intercity passenger rail in the United States. The subcommittee called on a panel of four witnesses to provide insights on various challenges and impacts of intercity passenger rail to ensure passenger rail remains a robust, safe, efficient, and reliable mode of travel.
List of Witnesses:
- Mr. Andy Daly, Senior Director of Passenger Operations, CSX Railroad
- Ms. Stacey Mortensen, Executive Director, San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority
- Mr. Lee Ohanian, Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution
- Hon. Kirk Watson, Mayor, City of Austin, Texas
This hearing comes at a time of meaningful investments in passenger rail across the United States. The Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act (IIJA) of 2021 provided $66 billion in rail funding and authorized Congress to provide up to $36 billion more over five years. The national passenger rail carrier, Amtrak, received $22 billion in long-sought advance capital funding from the IIJA, and the railroad has utilized the increased investments for new and improved passenger services, and new and improved rail infrastructure and equipment. This is all part of Amtrak’s “Connect Us” vision to improve its network over the next 15 years.
Federal funding and support for rail transportation comes through various federal grant programs including the Federal State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail program, the Corridor Identification and Development program, and the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) program.
In his opening remarks, ranking member Donald Payne (D-NJ) noted the role of the IIJA in providing the platform for enabling Amtrak and local governments to focus on sustainable long-term projects that seek to improve the transportation network, especially for areas like the Northeast Corridor, which received $16.4 billion through the Federal State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail program. He noted concerns about rail funding cuts within the Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development legislation. Additionally, Payne voiced concerns over rail safety, citing a recent CSX derailment in Kentucky.
Subcommittee chair Troy Nehls (R-TX) voiced the need for balanced federal spending and investment in a system that is safe, efficient, cost-effective, and matches demand. He pointed to the high-speed rail project in California as a failure to account for costs, land use, red tape, and low demand. He encouraged a discussion on how Congress can provide oversight and improve the passenger rail environment through fewer obstacles and private sector involvement.
High speed rail is only part of the larger intercity passenger rail space. Intercity passenger rail includes commuter rail, state-supported conventional rail, and long-distance services, in addition to high-speed rail. High-speed rail projects in California, Texas, and Florida are indeed popular talking points. But during this moment of increased passenger rail investment, there are a growing number of valuable and impactful rail projects outside of the “high-speed rail” conversation. North Carolina is involved with planning regional connections between Raleigh and Richmond and in the Piedmont Corridor connecting the Research Triangle, Greensboro, and Charlotte. Virginia’s proposed track infrastructure projects over the Potomac and near Springfield will alleviate freight and passenger rail congestion. Illinois has plans for station improvements in Chicago and expanded services across the region. Funding from the CRISI grant program is going towards reviving passenger rail along the Gulf Coast between New Orleans, Louisiana and Mobile, Alabama.
The thought-provoking discussion during the hearing covered many topics including community impacts of intercity passenger rail, concerns over high-speed rail, public versus private sector involvement, and the role of partnerships in passenger rail.
Community Impacts of Intercity Passenger Rail
Quality of Life and Travel
In her opening statement, Mortensen noted that passenger rail service along the San Joaquin Corridor is critical. Household income is low in parts of the region and people rely on passenger rail service, which is sometimes the only option for travel. She noted that a one size fits all approach does not work for providing essential and quality passenger rail to the people who need it. In response to Rep. Valerie Foushee (D-NC) who inquired about lessons in expanding services, Mortensen encouraged listening to people on the ground and being flexible with changing attitudes.
As one of the fastest- growing metropolitan areas in a fast-growing region, Watson noted that Austin and the Texas Triangle are the “lowest hanging fruit” for improving passenger rail service. Doing so will support the continued growth of the region and improve lives by reducing congestion and reducing travel times between all major cities and smaller towns in the Texas triangle.
In response to questions from Rep. Payne, Watson noted that improved intercity passenger rail would benefit the tens of thousands of people to travel between Bexar and Travis counties, where San Antonio and Austin are located, respectively. He also highlighted that passenger rail also connects smaller towns, which he emphasized as vital for the state’s economy and quality of life.
Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA) asked about the workforce involved in large infrastructure projects. In response, Watson noted that there is a need to increase the number of people in infrastructure-related careers, highlighted in a recent workforce mobility study presented by Workforce Solutions Capital Area and local officials at the “Moving Forward: Mobility and Infrastructure Workforce Summit” in October.
In response to questions from Rep. Tom Kean Jr. (R-NJ) on federal investments, Watson posited that federal investments, if spent right, can address on-time performance, and improve stations to be places that provide quality services to people.
Watson echoed the benefit of connecting communities between large cities in response to questions from Rep. Henry Johnson (D-GA) about intercity rail in Texas a model for other places and Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (D-IL) on the impact on Texas communities. Watson noted that passenger rail creates a redundancy of travel options for communities and people that otherwise would not have travel options.
Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL) noted that among the issues of intercity passenger rail, safety is critical. Rep. Wilson emphasized the value of grade crossing improvements to ensure that intercity rail operations and the people it serves can coexist. As noted by the representative, federal programs such as CRISI have supported safety improvement projects, providing critical support to ensure safe operations of passenger rail.
Rep. Pete Stauber (R-MN) voiced concerns about crime on passenger rail, inquiring into what makes passenger rail vulnerable to crime. The representative pointed to crime levels within the Metro transit light rail system in Minneapolis as an example. Daly noted that isolated or poorly lit stations are space for increased crime. Daly noted that the question is better suited for a passenger carrier like Amtrak, not CSX. Poorly lit areas can be potential places for crime but are not exclusive to railroad stations.
Rep. Wilson emphasized the role of intercity passenger rail in reducing congestion and carbon emissions. Watson echoed a similar sentiment in response to representatives Johnson and Garcia, noting that intercity passenger rail can serve as a model to reduce emissions bringing Texas closer to reaching sustainable climate goals.
Rep. John Duarte (R-CA) inquired about the carbon impact of high-speed rail construction and the necessary ridership amount to offset the carbon emissions from rail construction projects. Ohanian noted that California’s contributions to global emissions are less than one percent, and the CA high-speed rail project would reduce emissions by 1.5 percent. However, he noted the emissions reduction is from operations and does not include emissions from construction.
High Speed Rail Concerns
High speed rail was in the hot seat during the discussion, with several committee members and witnesses addressing concerns with the economic and societal value of high-speed rail, specifically considering the high-speed rail project in California.
In his opening statement, Ohanian noted several challenges for CA high-speed rail (HSR), including the delayed timeline and higher cost of $128 billion compared to the initial $33 billion cost of the project. Ohanian noted that there was little clarity in the project plan, lack of clear risk mitigation strategies, ridership forecasts, or cost allocations. He urged that large projects should have a clear business plan that itemizes risks and builds in future costs.
Several representatives expressed their concerns over the reality and viability of CA HSR, and several witnesses highlighted lessons from the HSR experience in CA. Ohanian noted several times that in the preliminary stages of this kind of project, acknowledging risks is fundamentally important. Including a realistic and clear risk assessment and mitigation strategy is key for large projects to ensure that any issues along the way can be predicted and addressed. For some, that clarity of risks was not present in the initial stages of CA HSR, and an atmosphere of uncertainty and unclear strategies left much to be desired in the project.
Mortensen echoed the importance of risk assessment and mitigation in response to a question from chair Nehls on the lessons learned from HSR.
Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-CA) was among the strongest critics of the CA HSR in the room. Rep. LaMalfa noted that the cost of the project has dramatically increased and put into the question the future of HSR in CA. Mortensen cited the need to take a step back and reassess, noting that while there is extreme pressure to keep moving forward, taking a step back can allow the state to observe what changes may need to happen. Rep. LaMalfa also expressed concern over the stretch of track between Bakersfield and Merced, and in response, Ohanian suggested that the $35 billion for that segment could better be served for other infrastructure needs such as water security.
Additionally, LaMalfa expressed concerns that the time saved by HSR over Amtrak services in the region may not justify the expensive investment in a high-speed rail project. Mortensen noted that the high-speed project would be a dedicated corridor without grade crossings, posing a benefit over other services.
Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA) pushed back on the criticisms of HSR, noting the success of Brightline, and the strong presence of intercity passenger rail along the Northeast Corridor. Rep. Moulton suggested that the alternative to CA HSR would be thousands of additional highway miles and dozens of airport gates, which would do nothing for the communities between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Public or Private Sector?
The concerns over high-speed rail projects pointed to a key debate over the role of the public versus private sector in intercity passenger rail. In recent years, the private sector has returned to the world of passenger rail, most notably in Florida with Brightline services connecting Miami with Orlando. Plans for Brightline service in the west connecting Las Vegas to Los Angeles are in the works as well. Chair Nehls inquired about the nature of Brightline’s ability to provide passenger service. Ohanian in his response noted that the private sector is best suited for identifying minimal risk projects and areas with high demand, creating an environment for success. Ohanian suggested the same recommendation in response to Rep. Stauber’s question on what congress can do to avoid over-budget projects and invest money wisely.
Ohanian added to the conversation in response to a question from Rep. Eric Burlison (R-MO), suggesting the private sector can find areas with demand and that would provide a return on investment, whereas government may not be able to do so.
Responding to Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), Watson pointed out that among the lessons learned from HSR, all rail systems at some point will end up requiring some public assistance. Watson added that highways and airports are examples of transportation infrastructure with public sector involvement.
Rep. Larsen cited the IIJA as an opportunity to create true partnerships with the private sector and asked for recommendations on how to judge the efforts of a public private partnership. Ohanian suggested evaluating P3 based on construction costs, demand identification, delay costs, and ridership intensity.
Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA) highlighted that the public-private partnership may not always work. He noted later that Brightline’s acquisition of its right-of-way was different than CA HSR and that building the project along I-5, for example, would have resulted in a different cost.
Role of Partnerships and Cooperation
The world of intercity passenger rail includes many players, from different governments to the Class 1 railroads. Much of the passenger services in the United States use privately owned Class 1 railroad trackage. As a class 1 railroad, CSX works with Amtrak and commuter railroads to provide 94 percent on-time performance, according to Daly’s opening statement. Working collaboratively, according to Daly, is essential in respecting the demands of freight and passenger rail.
Mortensen emphasized the importance of coexisting with class 1 railroads, given their clear presence in the rail network. She later noted the importance of a dialogue between railroads, 3rd parties and state/federal partners to ensure successful passenger rail service.
Daly noted several examples of partnerships between CSX and government agencies in Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia. The ability to provide Tri Rail commuter service in South Florida, repurpose the S-Line in North Carolina, and improve track infrastructure between Washington DC and Richmond in Virginia come from a strong partnership between CSX and partner states, where CSX and those states work closely and collaboratively to keep service on track.
One concern Daly highlighted was the risk of introducing passenger services at the cost of freight services. An additional 200-person train may remove 200 cars from the highway, but may push freight rail service to the highway, adding additional trucks to the road. Daly therefore emphasized the need for a balanced approach and strong partnerships.
Responding to an inquiry from Rep. Wilson on the importance of inter-governmental cooperation, Watson added that bipartisan and inter-governmental cooperation is paramount. Texas applying to the Corridor Identification Program allows local governments in the Texas triangle to work directly with the state department of transportation on intercity passenger rail projects.
Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR) voiced concerns over the permitting process and inquired about the importance of permit reform for rail projects. The witnesses spoke of the importance of permitting reform and the increased costs associated with the permitting process.
Rep. Brandon Williams (R-NY) asked about metrics that should be used to inform passenger rail decision making. Watson posited that one can look to North Carolina and Virginia for metrics, including population density, population growth, and demographics. Rep. Williams voiced interest in understanding why rail projects on the west coast seem to struggle compared to rail projects on the east coast.
Rep. Babin expressed concerns about the relationship between remote work and passenger rail. The representative inquired about the future of transit given the sizeable portion of the population working remotely. Ohanian noted that the concerns are reasonable, and that the substantial number of remote workers has implications for commuter rail. However, Watson later added that there is still a need for traveling, highlighting that highways remain congested, which suggests the existing demand for travel.
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