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With a new administration in D.C., it's time to think outside of the box because passenger rail's survival just may depend on it

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Type of Rail Reform That's Needed

It’s almost time for Congress to take up the next rail reauthorization bill. Here are my recommendations:

State-Supported Trains
Congress should make it much easier for states to select other operators by mandating a competitive bidding process. The interest is clearly there, and these two 2011 stories expressed the Association of Independent Passenger Rail Operators’ interest in running corridors. However, the hysteria surrounding PRIIA Section 209 got in the way. 

Regarding point #8 that NARP laid out in its vision for the reauthorization bill, if Congress enacts this, then, these 18 states operating 19 corridors will continue paying high costs to Amtrak and leave them vulnerable to shifting political climates (see WI and OH when it comes to conventional rail--never mind what FL did to high speed rail). These corridors shouldn't just be about Amtrak because there are routes that would be better off operated by someone else.
I would much rather see the states divided into nine regions (mostly based on regional pacts like MWHSR) and being protected the way German state routes are. 

Long Distance Routes
Since the Federal Railway Administration failed to do its job with Section 214, it’s up to Congress to permit some type of competition. As a matter of fact, Congress should force the FRA to conduct a pilot program that allows an overnight route to be leased out to another entity for five years (this route would get enough money to make it profitable). Congress should also make it much easier for private organizations to partner with the hosts because if Amtrak is unwilling to add sufficient equipment or routes to expand the national system, someone else must be given a shot.

Needed: A National Rail Network
It has been three years since President Obama’s effort at building a national HSR network collapsed. In its place, calls for “high performance rail” have surfaced. 

In that vein, the federal government should conduct a study on how much it would cost to upgrade the national network via Interstate II (Exhibits A & B) and rail highways (Exhibits C & D).

Ideally, existing overnight routes would be linked to each other and to former routes and segments that were abandoned by Amtrak and the fallen flags of old. This type of overhaul may not be as flashy as a nationwide high speed rail network, but it would be less costly, connect more travelers, and serve more people.

A Remedy for the Southwest Chief
Speaking of a national intercity rail network, the feds should begin the process of building one by having the FRA or the USDOT take over the 700-mile stretch of the Raton Pass Route between Newton, KS and Albuquerque, NM in 2016. Whatever agency controls the route would then upgrade the tracks and have an open bidding process where freight and passenger entities would be selected to provide service to customers and residents in KS, CO and NM. Based on space, the Raton Pass Route would be at least double tracked throughout and even have separate freight and passenger rights of way.

The shortline company or independent operator that replaces the Southwest Chief should then be allowed to provide connections in Newton to Amtrak and Belen, NM to Amtrak and Rail Runner trains. It goes without saying that this new entity would also have more than one frequency along its route and that Amtrak would then reroute the Southwest Chief onto BNSF’s Transcontinental Route.  

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