Many people are familiar with “Private Property” and “No Trespassing” signs by railroad tracks, signifying that the railroad company itself owns the track, whether it is freight or passenger or both. Sometimes this means another operating company must pay to use the trackage, which generally puts the owner at an advantage and the other company at a major disadvantage.
Americans like myself tend to feel jealous looking at passenger railways in Japan, Germany, France, China, Spain, and so on. These countries have an extensive, although cookie-cutter, high-speed rail network. Infrastructure and trains are modern, they run on time, are generally safe with less highway crossing incidents, and can get one almost anywhere within that country’s borders. But compared with passenger railroads around the world, America’s national rail corporation Amtrak is at a disadvantage. The only routes they own are the Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington and the Keystone Corridor from Philadelphia to Harrisburg, both of which are crumbling. All other routes served are owned by freight railroads. Because of this, the Northeast Corridor runs at a much higher on-time percentage of roughly 79% than most other routes which have an on-time record of roughly 35%. The numbers have only gotten worse, as Amtrak in July 2013 lost their right to penalize the freight railways for giving priority to freight trains and delaying passenger trains by typically hours.
A friend of mine rode the Lake Shore Limited last summer from New York to Chicago and back, and on the way out, he said it seemed like the dispatchers were doing all they can to prevent the train from getting to Chicago. This spills into another challenge of the American rail industry that mainly affects freight: heavy congestion in Chicago. This is the price of progress: more goods are carried but more congestion is created. The Windy City has rail lines approach it from nearly every angle possible, like rays of light or spokes of a bicycle wheel. It is said to take hours for a freight train to pass through Chicago, having to yield to hundreds of other trains. There have been numerous ideas to alleviate traffic such as flyovers to replace the many lines (often of different owners) which meet at-grade, but these projects cost billions of dollars. Adding passenger trains into the mix can only stress out more passengers, and this system of using another’s track while crossing many lines along the way hinders the quality of service for American passenger trains. This is pretty much the opposite of European or Japanese high-speed railways.
It sometimes takes amazing innovations in engineering to pull a business or industry out of a hole. When railroads were in their darkest hour in the 1970’s, the radical idea of nationalizing roadbed like the Interstate Highway System that was taking their competition away. Right-of-way was in poor shape, derailments were frequent, and business by rail was languishing. Radical ideas by the United States Congress were shared following the collapse of the Penn Central railroad, a “focusing event” that put the nation’s economy at risk by halting the movement of Penn Central’s trains, mentioned in the fifth chapter of Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies by John Kingdon. But through time, with ideas which usually were not radical, the American rail industry overcame their darkest moments. Today it’s pretty clear that between congestion, sharing of property, poor on-time percentage, and competition in the global economy, there are indeed some deep ruts to climb from, taking innovative minds to find what works best. Until the problems are overcome, there may just be another focusing event that receives national attention.
What all this basically means is that the rail transportation planners of tomorrow have some daunting challenges ahead.
Amtrak on-time percentage from 2013 to 2014: http://www.citylab.com/commute/2014/07/why-amtraks-on-time-performance-is-so-much-worse-this-year/374619/
Chicago rail congestion: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/05/05/us/untangling-a-rail-mess-in-chicago.html
Kingdon, J. (2011). Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies (Updated 2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Longman.