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It’s Labor Day weekend 2008...

The average retail price for regular gasoline is slowly sliding off its June peak of $4.10 a gallon, to be interrupted briefly when Hurricane Ike rattles the still-jittery petroleum markets. But even with this downward trend, the price volatility of the past year has fueled calls for alternate ways to move people and goods.


Passenger rail, particularly long-neglected and underutilized Amtrak, is suddenly thrust in the spotlight as a transportation mode whose time has come. Existing commuter rail services likewise experience a surge in ridership, while proposed new systems miraculously appear on urban and suburban planners’ drawing boards across the country.

There’s even talk of fast-tracking creation of a network of high-speed trains to whisk riders across longer distances in a matter of hours.  


Yes, passenger rail has reached its rendezvous with destiny. Or so it seems.


Fast-forward to Labor Day 2010....

The national average price for regular gas is hovering around $2.70. The prolonged economic slowdown has thinned crowds at commuter rail stations, while the much-heralded $8 billion “down-payment” on the National High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) program has yet to produce much in the way of actual construction.


Even the ridership projections of California’s $40 billion systemone of the marquee HSIPR projectshave come under fire. Long-term funding uncertainties have clouded the future of other programs that were basking in positive publicity little more than a year ago.


It might be easy to assume that passenger rail’s proverbial 15 minutes of fame really did come and go that quickly. But glowing reports from several Amtrak trial service expansions would suggest otherwise.


On the eve of its one-year anniversary in mid-August, ridership on a second Amtrak Cascades train between Seattle and Vancouver, BC, totaled more than 221,000, including a best-ever monthly total of nearly 25,000 trips in July. The original Cascades train has not suffered in the process, enjoying a 21 percent increase in ridership since 2009.


Across the continent in Virginia, the 10-month old experimental extension of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor Service to Lynchburg has so far carried more than 103,000 passengers2.5 times higher than expected first-year total. Those results spurred Amtrak to a trial run of Northeast Corridor trains to Richmond, which eagerly hopes to be included in future HSIPR allocations.


And in California, high summertime demand on the San Joaquin corridor, operated jointly with Caltrans, has necessitated the addition of extra cars and opens the door to a 2010 ridership total of more one million passengers for the first time.


These and other promising figures have Amtrak on pace to surpass its 2008 record of 28 million riders.


So while the perceived urgency for passenger rail service may have waned in the intervening 24 months, interest among prospective passengers is still there. Whenever debate does finally begin on a new surface transportation bill, current and aspiring legislators alike would do well to not make passenger rail funding decisions solely on the perceived merits/shortcomings of the flagship HSIPR program.


Americanized bullet trains may be no closer to reality than they were in 2008, but there appear to be many shorter, existing routes and extension possibilities where upgrades to tracks, switching and control systems, facilities, and rolling stock may be all that’s needed to make passenger rail a viable, profitable mobility option.


In other words, if you build itor at least offer it in the right locationspeople will come.