As I marched in my cap and gown to receive my college diploma 35 years ago I asked my best friend, standing next to me, to summarize what we had been taught the previous four years in three words or less.
“Europe is better,” he responded, without missing a beat.
Our professors—nearly every one of whom I came to have great respect and affection for—frequently informed us that Europe’s literature, architecture, city planning, social mores, health care, social safety net, and cuisine were all superior to what we had in the United States.
And, of course, everyone of those professors who had studied in Europe invariably told us about the superiority of the continent’s rail system, which allowed people to cheaply and easily travel throughout the continent, unlike in the U.S.
The city where I attended college—Rock Island—begat the name of one of the iconic rail lines of the 20th century, making the absence of passenger rail particularly galling to them.
Amtrak hopes to change that: The transportation bill signed by President Biden last year provided $66 billion for the railroad, and it has been exploring ways to expand its routes across the country.
I would love to see it move to improve its service on the Northeast Corridor, where it services a number of heavily-populated communities that are relatively close to one another (one of which I reside in), which is the sweet spot for passenger rail.
However, Amtrak’s intent is to devote much of its windfall to expand service where it doesn’t currently exist, and where demand for it is—not coincidentally—slight. For instance, one of the new routes being considered—and one of the most controversial—would go between Mobile, Alabama to New Orleans.
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The problem with developing new routes isn’t just that these invariably cost a lot of money to service relatively few people: it’s that they unavoidably impose costs on the rest of the economy. Virtually none of the passenger train travel in the U.S. outside of the Northeast Corridor occurs on dedicated rail lines. Instead, they cadge space from freight railroads.
However, borrowing space on a freight railroad isn’t costless by any means. Railroads spend a great deal of resources in an attempt to schedule their trains so that they are using their rail lines as efficiently as possible, which means maximizing capacity. In fact, the railroads have been getting push back from politicians who say they don’t like the fact that railroads are running longer trains than ever before, to increase the throughput of their rail lines. Politicians object because longer trains can mean fewer engineers.
Inserting a passenger rail train onto a rail line means that the freight railroad will need to reduce how many goods it transports over its tracks to make room for Amtrak’s trains. This could make economic sense if the passenger trains are running sold-out cars and Amtrak’s payments to the railroad to use their line sufficiently paid the railroads for their lost business, but neither applies to the proposed Mobile to New Orleans run.
A recently-published study I wrote with Mike Gorman, a railroad logistics expert and a professor at the University of Dayton, noted that proposals to mandate that other railroads be allowed to run their cars on another railroad’s tracks impose significant costs on that railroad in terms of increased congestion, delayed delivery of goods, and diminished network capacity. That holds true whether it’s freight trains and passenger trains being imposed on a railroad.
I didn’t mind enduring a modicum of Europhilia from people I respected greatly and to whom I owe a lot, but the idea that we need to replicate their rail system is absurd. Passenger rail works best when serving densely populated areas relatively close to one another, which aptly describes Europe but not the U.S. For less densely populated communities at some distance from one another, rail makes little sense, especially when we have functional airports in nearly every city.
Creating new rail routes in these places to compete with air travel and automobiles—but that are slower and more expensive—represents a waste of government subsidies that can be better used elsewhere, and it also imposes unneeded costs on freight rail at a time when our supply chain is more frayed than ever.