Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Major attack launched on long distance trains, and this is for real

A few months ago, an Arkansas congressman by the name of John Boozman raised a few eyebrows by suggesting that Amtrak contributed to pollution. His theory, absurd as it may sound, is that freight trains have to come to a complete halt every time an Amtrak train comes on the scene. This theory is back and being promoted by one of the elitist supposedly conservative think tanks known as the Heartland Institute.

This is absolutely for real. Every sensible American who is concerned about highway and airport congestion, not to mention pollution, should be very afraid. There is a proposed bit of legislation floating around that would effectively end Amtrak’s ability to operate all long distance trains.

State and national policymakers are missing an important part of the solution to reducing traffic gridlock: putting more trucks on trains, according to the author of a soon-to-be-released report from The Heartland Institute.

“If we could get more work that trucks are doing onto rails, that would be good from a traffic congestion perspective,” said Wendell Cox, a senior fellow of The Heartland Institute and principal of Wendell Cox Consultancy, an international public policy firm that specializes in transportation issues.

Cox is putting the finishing touches on “Solving the Freight Rail Transportation Bottleneck,” a report describing how the nation could increase the capacity of the freight rail industry without unfairly or unduly burdening taxpayers or others who do not directly benefit from freight rail services. The report will be available in the fall.

This book is a frontal and desperate attack to deliver a final fatal blow to the Amtrak long distance service. The full release is here. Get this.

Much of the freight rail bottleneck problem can be linked to how passenger and freight rail systems are treated. Federal law requires freight lines to give priority to passenger trains, Cox noted. This slows the movement of goods by freight in favor of passenger trains, which account for less than 1 percent of passenger travel nationally.

“Rail and local transit do a good job of taking people to a few places like downtown Chicago,” Cox said, “carrying more than one-half of work trips. But if you look at Schaumburg [a suburb northwest of Chicago], that is the state’s second-largest employment area, and larger than downtown Portland or San Diego. Less than 0.5 percent of workers get to Schaumburg by rail.

“I’ve been concerned that the operation of passenger trains interferes so much with the efficiency of freight rail that it does more harm than good,” Cox said. “People must understand that it may sound good from a theoretical stance to force railroads to take more passenger trains, but the number of people who would be moved from cars to trains would be virtually nil, and the diminished competitiveness of the railroads would divert more freight to crowd the already crowded highways.”

Because freight rail lines linking cities hundreds of miles apart already exist, there is great potential to develop higher-speed freight trains and increase freight rail capacity, according to Cox. Truck trailers could be loaded onto trains and hauled nearer their final destination, playing to the strength of freight rail to haul large volumes of material over long distances, and the strength of trucks to drive to wherever the final destination may be.

The result would be fewer highway miles occupied by tractor-trailer rigs–and more room on the roads.
Priority Limits

Cox recommends minimizing traffic congestion by making it possible for railroads to concentrate their resources on freight movements. His recommendations include federal legislation to relieve the freight railroad industry of its burden to give priority to Amtrak passenger service, and to allow the railroads to charge Amtrak fully allocated costs for their use of infrastructure.

Any expansion of passenger rail service on freight rail infrastructure should be allowed only upon an administrative law finding that the additional passenger trains will have no detrimental effect on the competitiveness of the freight railroad system or the corridor involved, Cox said.

While intelligent people who closely follow transportation issues closely know well that this is a bunch of absolute desperate lies dreamed up by the operating railroads to finally relive themselves from the legal obligation of running passenger rail service, this kind of thing might sound good to the uninformed and uncritical listener.

We need to get out front on this right now and turn this horrifying pack of misrepresentations into an opportunity to tell a positive story about the beenfits of rail transportation. Obviously, we need the help of informed transportation specialists to help the rest of us combat this bunch of greedy nonsense.

And let’s not accidentally make Mr. Cox into some sort of guru in advance of his book’s publication. He will do the conservative radio tour and get tossed a bunch of embarrassingly weak softball questions by adoring uninformed hosts and compliant callers. This is an alternative universe into which no light will ever penetrate. It is most important to get out in front of this in mainstream media.

One reason this big push is happening is a realization that movements such as the Midwest High Speed Rail Association are gaining momentum and that the American transportation technology is a full hundred years behind. In this case, the railroads are taking the sentimental nostalgic position of stubbornly clinging to a world which has passed them by.

Please feel free to contribute to this thread in the “comments” section.
Some thoughts which might be conversation starters.

  • America’s railroads have been built as the result of a public-private partnership which explicitly envisioned providing transportation services for freight and people.
  • Amtrak was created in 1972 in order to relieve operating railroad companies of “labor protection” and Railroad Retirement benefits costs in addition to the operating expenses of passenger trains.
  • State and local governments have made generous grants to railroads which have resulted in the creation of companies that enjoy vast profits and hold sizable assets.
  • The real cause of rail congestion is the wholesale abandonment of necessary mainline infrastructure.
  • It is illogical to blame the tiny and insignificant fleet of passenger trains for congestion, especially when the most impacted freight corridor handles the Sunset Limited, a train which operates only three days a week. The complete abandonment of that train would have ZERO effect on Union Pacific bottlenecks.
  • Rail congestion is caused by inadequate infrastructure. Most businesses are expected to build their own facilities. (Union Pacific net income $1.74 Billion. Source:Capital IQ, Yahoo Finance)
  • Amtrak does not receive “priority” dispatching. Again, the Sunset is frequently so late at final destinations that it is not even the correct day of the week. Amtrak trains frequently wait “in the hole” for hours while a parade of freight trains pass by.

It is not enough to respond. This is an opportunity to tell the good news. Conventional long distance trains:

  • Serve “corridors.” For example, Minneapolis – Chicago on the Empire Builder or Omaha – Denver on the Zephyr.
  • Provide necessary transportation to communities without airports, or limited air service.
  • Allow one to continue forward movement while sleeping.
  • Provide an economically reasonable transportation choice for families and students.
  • Provide necessary feeder service to shorter corridors.

Although TFA does not necessarily take the NARP positions, it might be a good idea to state your thoughts in light of the NARP 40th Anniversary “Vision” plan. Here is the link to that. Oklahoma and Kansas folks may use the Heartland Flyer as your vehicle. There is also a wealth of information in “The Ohio Hub.” These and other initiatives to enhance conventional tail service are on the right hand column.

As you contact your elected representatives, some of these thoughts might be worth including in a well written personal letter. The Senate likely will focus this week. on appropriations bills for FY2008 — including the Transportation Appropriations Bill

Smart folks like you can think of many more objective positive contributions of conventional long distance trains, so let us hear them.

Some tips on advocating.

  • No nostalgia, or discussion of personal illnesses. Never mention that you were employed by a railroad, unless your experience is recent and relates directly to the fact case you are developing. Opponents will presume that you are a pass riding freeloader.
  • Avoid referring to operating lines as “freight railroads.” This language tends to legitimize the industry’s anti-Amtrak position
  • Make your argument in the light of general good, not your personal convenience.
  • Allow for the possibility that the “host” railroads deserve to be compensated for operating passenger trains.
  • Emphasize that we are not advocating European style HSR.
  • Point out rail’s place as a part of a transportation system that includes highways and air.
  • Avoid all rail travel descriptions that might tend to depict Amtrak as elitist or providing luxury service.

I am sure you can add to that list, so feel free to “comment.” There is so much more that needs to be said about this, but we must be proactive.

Always turn negatives into positives.

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy

3 Responses

  1. David Yetter says:

    Someone’s not seeing past there own nose. Train engines today are more green than a few years ago. Would you like steam engines to come back?? I don’t think you do. More people are starting to ride the rail than ever before. We need these intercity passenger trains, or would you like to see more grayhound busses out on the highway to bulch desiel smoke and jam the roads. If I travel I’d rather go by rail here in the USA than wait 2-3 hours for my flight, then get on the plane, wait another 1-2 hours to take off. To me thats not fun!! I think someone does’t know how a dispatcher works to keep trains moving regardless if it’s passenger or frieght. They don’t set trains in siding for there health, they want to keep these moving, and they do a good job of it to. Some say they know transportation, they only know what they read in a book, they haven’t really got there hands wet by being in the field, from trucking companys, railroads. airfrieght, and ocean frieght. When someone behind a desk thinks they can run the transportation of this country, that will be a sad day for America.

  2. Sam Damon says:

    Sorry Mr. Lynch, but this press release which follows is worse. You covered the Arkansas angle elsewhere in the blog.

    Copied verbatim from a press release:

    “DOT 95-07 Contact:
    ((internal press contact information redacted))
    Monday, September 10, 2007

    U.S. Department of Transportation Names Six Interstate Routes as “Corridors of the Future” to Help Fight Traffic Congestion
    I-95, I-70, I-15, I-5, I-10, and I-69 selected

    The U.S. Department of Transportation today announced six interstate routes that will be the first to participate in a new federal initiative to develop multi-state corridors to help reduce congestion.

    “We are using a comprehensive approach to fighting congestion along these major interstate routes. What we are doing represents a real break from past approaches that have failed to address growing congestion along our busiest corridors,” said Deputy U.S. Secretary of Transportation Thomas J. Barrett.

    Today’s announcement follows a year-long competition to select a handful of interstate corridors from among the 38 applications received from public and private sector entities to join the Department’s “Corridors of the Future” program aimed at developing innovative national and regional approaches to reduce congestion and improve the efficiency of freight delivery. The selected corridors carry 22.7 percent of the nation’s daily interstate travel.

    The routes will receive the following funding amounts to implement their development plans: $21.8 million for I-95 from Florida to the Canadian border; $5 million for I-70 in Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio; $15 million for I-15 in Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California; $15 million for I-5 in California, Oregon, and Washington; $8.6 million for I-10 from California to Florida; and $800,000 for I-69 from Texas to Michigan.

    The proposals were selected for their potential to use public and private resources to reduce traffic congestion within the corridors and across the country. The concepts include building new roads and adding lanes to existing roads, building truck-only lanes and bypasses, and integrating real-time traffic technology like lane management that can match available capacity on roads to changing traffic demands.

    The Department and the states will now work to finalize formal agreements by spring 2008 that will detail the commitments of the federal, state, and local governments involved. These agreements will outline the anticipated role of the private sector as well as how the partners will handle the financing, planning, design, construction, and maintenance of the corridor.

    For more information on the selected corridors and the proposals, please visit “

  3. Never write off anything. Who knows, maybe a high tech catalytic steam engine could make a comeback. While I agree this is farfetched, all options should be explored. Trains are simply more economical, safer and least polluting that anything currently out there. Let’s get more right of ways back and lay more tracks. And while we’re at it we should create more bike trails that actually could take us to work.
    Recently I was listening to Wisconsin public radio and their guest was Rick Harnish, executive director, Midwest High Speed Rail Association. He said the “in the past train routinely exceeded 100MPH”. And the new rail system will only be able to travel about 110 MPH. Why can’t we keep up with Spain and France and almost anywhere else overseas? How did we let our government allow big corporations (oil, automobiles, air, etc.) to destroy our rail infrastructure with lobbyist’s propaganda? It is no secrets that automobiles are subsidized with parking lots, federal and state road funds and until recently, cheap fuel. In addition, the airlines and automobile makers are given huge cheap loans, breaks and subsidies. Now is the time to put it right.
    You don’t have to go too far in Wikipedia to find out about the “The Great American Streetcar Scandal”.
    “The Great American Streetcar Scandal is a conspiracy theory according to which streetcar systems throughout the United States were dismantled and replaced with buses in the mid-20th century as a result of illegal actions by a number of prominent companies, including National City Lines (NCL), a holding company owned in part by General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California and Phillips Petroleum.”
    “On April 9, 1947, nine corporations and seven individuals (constituting officers and directors of certain of the corporate defendants) were indicted in the Federal District Court of Southern California on two counts under the U.S. Sherman Antitrust Act. The charges, in summary, were conspiracy to acquire control of a number of transit companies to form a transportation monopoly, and conspiring to monopolize sales of buses and supplies to companies owned by the City Lines.”
    The result of the trial was a joke. In 1949, all the defendants were found guilty but only on the second count of “conspiring to monopolize the provision of parts and supplies to their subsidiary companies.” Here’s the punch line: “The companies were each fined $5,000, and the directors were each fined one dollar.” Wow I’ll bet that really hurt them. I’d never do it again if I were fined a whole dollar.
    Wake up and smell the corruption. It’s been around for a long time.

    John Eberhardt

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