Should American freight/passenger rail go their separate ways?

Calling for separate if not equal passenger- and freight-train-operating platforms

amtrak-train-kandelAs a person who pays close attention to railroad happenings, in particular to those in the U.S. and those proposed or planned high-speed-rail systems here as well as those under consideration, those under construction and those built and operating systems elsewhere, I know when I smell a rat.

I’ve been reading where Amtrak – America’s national passenger rail carrier – has been suffering delays, resulting, in fact, in a 74 percent on-time performance rating overall, that is, during fiscal year 2014 which began Oct. 1, 2013.

I can say unequivocally that much of the delay is outside of Amtrak’s direct control. Keep in mind that a good number of Amtrak trains are dispatched by non-Amtrak railroad personnel. The reason for this is that on lines where the national passenger rail carrier is the tenant these trains fall under the dispatching jurisdiction of host railroad dispatch employees. Amtrak trains, I would presume to be the case, were once given operating priority over freight trains on freight rail lines where America’s passenger train operates. But, according to what I read in one source, a recent court ruling has resulted in this no longer being true.

The delay itself can have a ripple effect: lower ridership and consequently lower revenue, not to mention, potentially, a scaling back of passenger train service at best, and outright annulment of such service at worst. I hold firm and fast to the notion that this is not what Amtrak or America needs or wants, especially right now when the company has been experiencing record ridership volumes.

To be fair, some of the delay can be attributed to inclement winter weather. But winter is long gone and the chronic less-than-stellar on-time performance rating remains.

Delay affecting Amtrak trains can be found both on and off its own network of rails. In fact, on Amtrak’s very own Northeast Corridor – the Boston to D.C. service lane – the story is much the same, according to the same unnamed source referenced above.

TrainNow, y’all may be asking yourselves what any of this has to do with air quality. Think of it this way: when a diesel-locomotive-hauled train in single-track territory is dispatcher-directed into, say, for example, a passing siding to allow a higher-priority train roll on past, the locomotive(s) on the stopped train in question are typically not shut off during times of waiting. The locomotive(s), even in idle mode, still produce exhaust. The longer the wait, the more exhaust emitted into the air. Therefore, the key to reducing that “added” and, yes, “unnecessary” pollution is in minimizing the “unwanted” delay which means optimizing operations.

So you know, nowhere in my reading related to this issue lately has anyone suggested dedicated railroad rights-of-way as a means to fill the bill, the sole purpose of which would be to provide passenger trains an unencumbered platform on which to operate. Maybe I’m expecting a lot considering that in this and most countries private passenger- and goods-movement vehicles share roadway space. Maybe a rethink of this approach is in order, and not just as applied to roadway use but in terms of railroad usage too.

Oh, and incidentally, I mentioned in chatting with friends just this week in fact, that, if anything, one would think the freight railroads would, to use railroad jargon, be all aboard.

What’s more, and as it relates, you’d think freight railroads that host passenger trains would prefer not to have to deal with them. After all, it was half-a-century ago that the U.S. freight railroad industry by and large begged to be relieved of its passenger-carrying responsibility. In so doing, freed-up track space would enable freight railroads to concentrate on the thing they do best – run freight trains.

America deserves better: separate if not equal passenger- and freight-train-operating platforms. Not only is it high time, it’s about time!

– Alan Kandel