Live from the Third Rail investigates the thin service offered by many commuter rail operators, and discovers what regular readers of Cold Spring Shops have long known, namely that the freight railroads have hived off a great deal of capacity and are now clogged with freight trains, particularly coal trains and container loads of goods from the Pacific Rim.
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.
The passenger train operators could renegotiate the contracts with the freight railroads that own the tracks, so as to make it more profitable to run the passenger trains on time. Currently, however, the railroads might hold-up the passenger train operators for payments far in excess of the benefits of the faster service, or tell the operators to go away, or some combination of both. (The latest print edition of Trains notes that Amtrak's Chicago-Los Angeles via El Paso is at risk of both having part of its route further downgraded account light traffic and part of its route jammed with freight trains. The Chicago-Los Angeles via Kansas City and Albuquerque also faces both problems.)

Live from the Third Rail notes the following policy options.
So here's what's left:

  • Build new tracks. This is very expensive and an eminent domain nightmare 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.
  • There is one further possibility: bring back the discipline of moving hot trains. The steam-era railroads understood how to do that.

    SECOND SECTION: Eminent domain nightmare? Perhaps. On the other hand, perhaps it is time to consider those new truck-only tollways -- with freight railroads in the median -- as a way to provide additional freight handling capability and to free up road and rail space for passengers. And, pace Transport Blog, it does not have to be the case that without eminent domain -- compulsory purchase in the U.K. -- there would be no railroads. Many of the interurbans and a few of the more speculative railroads acquired their rights of way and easements by voluntary purchase, often sweetened with shares of stock.

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