A Moment Half-A-Century in the Making
March 3, 2023
By Jim Mathews/President & CEO
For the past 45 years, every time a Federal agency or Amtrak “studied” a long-distance route, a cutback followed shortly thereafter. The Floridian. The Gulf Breeze. The Pioneer. The North Coast Hiawatha. The Hilltopper. But this time, it really IS different.
The first round of Federal Railroad Administration long-distance study workshops has wrapped up, and I can cheerfully report that most everyone in every workshop was genuinely committed to carrying out what our Association asked Congress to demand in this study – restoring and adding Amtrak services to “link and serve large and small communities as part of a regional rail network; advance the economic and social well-being of rural areas of the United States; provide enhanced connectivity for the national long-distance passenger rail system; and reflect public engagement and local and regional support for restored passenger rail service.”
Everyone in America who cares about passenger rail is rolling up their sleeves to help FRA develop and finalize recommendations due to Congress in November for how best to restore previous long-distance services and possibly how to launch new ones.
Even though we helped to write the section of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that brought this effort to life, we weren’t the only ones in the workshop. My informal count suggests 175 outside entities took part in the first round. There were 46 state- and county-level departments of transportation, 11 individual municipalities, all six Class I freight railroads, 26 grassroots rail advocates (including us at Rail Passengers), 59 Metropolitan Planning Organizations, or MPOs, 19 government authorities (including rail operating authorities and transit authorities), and three Native American tribes.
There were six workshops in the first round, spread around the U.S., and key Rail Passengers Association staff attended every one of them. I personally attended five of the six. There are three more rounds of workshops yet to do, 18 sessions in all. Our job in every one of these workshops is simple: make the case for new or expanded long-distance service with data, facts, and hard evidence.
The study is geared towards growth and expansion, not cutbacks. Moreover, at least three individual FRA leaders made a point of underscoring during the sessions that the process is intended to grow services and not to cut them. FRA Administrator Amit Bose emphasized that during his opening remarks at the Jackson, Miss., workshop, and his staff leaders echoed it elsewhere.
Our overarching position in these sessions is that long-distance train routes form the foundation of the national passenger train network, with unique characteristics allowing them to connect congested urban areas and bring economically viable mobility to rural areas and small towns. A lot of these places are becoming more isolated from major cities as regional airline and intercity bus service disappears, and Congress underscored this when it laid out the terms for this study work.
In the workshops, we argued that FRA and Amtrak should focus on, one, filling gaps in the current network to create a grid and gateway system; two, adding frequencies to allow daytime service to all stations; three, buying high-performance equipment suitable for overnight and longer distance trips, and; four, making track improvements that increase reliability and decrease trip times.
We found that most attendees shared our views. There was broad agreement on offering more than one train per day in each direction on long-distance routes, on making more interconnections among Amtrak routes, adding north-south service in the middle of the U.S. and east-west service on the coasts, and on eliminating barriers to passengers who want to take long-distance trains.
FRA's study leaders will be presenting some of the workshop highlights and ways you can get involved during our upcoming RailNation:DC meeting in Alexandria, VA. If you want it straight from the study team, attend RailNation:DC!
But if you can't make it to DC, the study team has set up a way for the general public to get all the materials we used during our workshop sessions and promised us that they would read “every word” from those who want to comment. During each workshop, the study leaders presented us reams of data and background, 145 slides in all. After lunch, all of us used that data to answer questions about which factors should be used to rank particular routes, and what kinds of new services should be added.
So now it’s your turn. Visit https://fralongdistancerailstudy.org/meeting-materials/ to see and download all of those materials. Download everything, read what has already been presented, and then see if you can fill in the gaps.
My advice? Offer specific, constructive feedback. Answer the key questions the study must answer for Congress, so that your input will be more likely to be considered.
1. Are there state or local initiatives (like Front Range rail or Big Sky) that could inform potential new or restored Long-Distance services?
2. What previously discontinued Long-Distance services should we consider and why?
3. What new routes or communities do you want to extend Long-Distance service to and why?
4. In thinking about existing Long-Distance routes – what new frequencies and service changes
should we consider?
You can send your answers and observations via email to [email protected]. You should also send us at the Association a copy of what you send to the study team. Send it to [email protected]. I’d love nothing more than a big stack of additional comments to bring with me to the next round of workshops this Spring.
"The support from the Rail Passengers Association, and from all of you individually, has been incredibly important to Amtrak throughout our history and especially so during the last trying year."
Bill Flynn, Amtrak CEO
April 19, 2021, speaking to attendees at the Rail Passengers Virtual Spring Advocacy Conference