Is a Passenger Rail Resnnaisance at Hand?

Could the era of intercity rail passenger service development that many advocates have dreamed about finally be at hand? Is there a passenger rail renaissance just around the corner?

There is much reason for rail passenger advocates to be optimistic these days. Last fall Congress approved the Rail Safety Improvement Act, which included authorization for Amtrak funding of more than $13 billion over the next five years. True, an authorization is not the same thing as an appropriation. Yet it has been a long time since Congress authorized Amtrak funding for more than a year.

The economic stimulus bill contained $8 billion to be spent on passenger rail development while President Barack Obama proposed in his first budget another $5 billion in grants to states for high-speed rail development. Other parts of the stimulus package are also expected to benefit rail development.

While many presidents have paid lip service to rail passenger service, Obama seems to have a genuine interest in it. He many times has expressed admiration for the high-speed rail systems of Western Europe.

Amtrak may be a major beneficiary of this fledging renewal of passenger rail development. The National Association of Railroad passengers recently observed on its web site that “[Amtrak President Joe] Boardman may be in the unusual position of heading Amtrak at a time when funding for passenger trains is a question of not how many millions of dollars but how many billions—between the passenger rail reauthorization and the stimulus bill, Amtrak stands to receive more than $3 billion in funding, more than double the funding levels it usually receives.”

So what can rail passengers advocates expect in the coming months and years? Opportunity is knocking and many are more than willing to answer the door. The media and cyberspace worlds are chock full of accounts of plans and proposals for all manner of upgrades, renovations and new routes and trains that passenger rail advocates and state transportation officials want to see come to fruition.

Some of these ideas are pretty solid and have been subject to extensive published studies. Others are more fanciful than realistic. Even in a best case scenario it will take years for new passenger cars and locomotives to be built and placed into service. It will take years for tracks to be rebuilt in order to achieve higher speeds and better operating conditions.

It will take even longer for new systems to be planned, built and opened. No doubt there is going to be a lot of NIMBY opposition to true high-speed rail in America.

For rail passenger advocates, these are not ordinary times. Nonetheless, it is still not clear that a passenger rail renaissance is beginning to unfold. A lot of things still need to happen and many of them are subject to the vagaries of a political system that has never embraced intercity rail passenger service as anything other than a novelty.

We should not underestimate the value of having a president who favors rail development and is willing to spend public money on it. Yet I wonder how much Obama really understands about how expensive the high-speed rail systems that he admires are going to
be. Does he grasp what needs to be done to create such systems in the United States? Will he be willing to spend the political capital needed to win the fights? Will he be around long enough to win the war?

Much of the money that is being allocated toward rail development these days is being done in the name of economic stimulus. Presumably, the economy will recover in the next couple of years and the need for and political support of economic stimulus will
wane, a victim of bailout and stimulus fatigue.

As it is, many voices in Washington and elsewhere are sounding the alarm that the government is spending too much money on stimulus. They can be expected to continue to seek to reign in government spending and it is not likely that they are going to grant passenger rail development an exception.

The political climate favoring passenger rail development may cool about the time that the projects now in the germination stage reach full bloom. If that happens, the future funding of high-speed rail, Amtrak and other things rail related will be thrown into doubt
if not outright throttled.

A lot of public officials continue to believe that spending money on intercity rail development is wasteful. They are not going to go away, not going to stop speaking out about “pork barrel” spending and not going to cease applying the pressure that has kept Amtrak funding under tight wraps all these years.

There is no evidence that those who favor high building and airport development have curtailed their appetites for public money for their own development interests. If anything the desire and need for highway and aviation development is growing.

And there is only going to be so much money to go around. There is so much pent up desire for new and expanded rail service that some desires are going to go unfulfilled and some rail passenger advocates are going to come away from this rennaisance bitterly disappointed if not disillusioned. There just is not enough money and political will to make everyone’s wishes come true.

Still, if you care at all about passenger trains, these days are ones to be savored. A lot is going to happen, some of it good, some of it not so good. It remains to be seen if this is the springtime of rail passenger development or one of spells in the middle of October
when it warms up enough to make you think that it is summer again and freezing temperatures promise to return the next day.

Whatever the case, it promises to be an interesting ride. When was the last time we could say that?

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