Happening Now

Long-Distance Study: A Great Start, Despite Gaps

June 21, 2024

By Jim Mathews / President & CEO

Last week in Nashville, the Federal Railroad Administration and its consultant team wrapped up a nearly two-year study of how best to restore long-distance passenger rail service lost over the past 50 years, outlining a list of 15 priority routes for Congress to consider moving on to the next analysis phase and formally endorsing the return of daily service to Amtrak’s Cardinal and Sunset Limited routes.

Among the 15 winning routes, topping the FRA priority list was Houston to New York City, followed by a Chicago-Miami connection that fulfills a lot of calls for restoring the Floridian. Apart from a daily Cardinal and Sunset, FRA’s report will assume the North Coast Hiawatha relaunch as a priority because it has already been advanced into the next development stage in FRA’s Corridor ID program.

As an Association, we’re still digesting all of the data provided, but while overall we’re pleased with study’s validation that long-distance routes matter and have value, we think it fell short in a few very important ways. We’ll be providing detailed suggestions and alternatives to FRA during the next few weeks. Even so, the rail advocacy community is notoriously bad at “taking the win,” and we believe that while there are improvements needed there remains much in this study to applaud and support.

A report like this will inevitably thrill some while disappointing or even enraging others. We have already seen a lot of public criticism of this effort – some reasonable and justified, and still some other critiques which we actually share. Then there’s some which is just mindlessly shrill and disconnected from the policy aims which animated the study’s origins.

There were a few obvious “quick wins” for rapid and relatively low-cost restoration of long-distance service in a few markets which did not seem to make the final cut. It was good to see public benefits assessments included prominently in the criteria for assessing preferred routes...but it was disheartening to learn that none of the financial and economic measures of those public benefits went into the ranking methodology. The environmental benefits were included as a specific public benefit but, again, the financial benefits of improving environmental performance were not calculated – a glaring gap, in our view.

Congress was very clear in its instructions to FRA, essentially writing into law the scope of work of the study. The goal was to give Congress a prioritized list of the best long-distance routes to add to our nation’s existing passenger-rail network, and to make a formal recommendation on whether to make today’s three-times-per-week trains – the Cardinal and the Sunset Limited – into daily services.

FRA told attendees at the study’s fourth and final round of regional workshops around the country last week that the final report will definitively recommend that both the Cardinal and the Sunset run at least once per day in each direction every day of the week.

That’s a big win all by itself, as those who have been working for decades on the Cardinal and the Sunset can attest: FRA validating that those two trains make no sense to operate at only three trains per week is an important victory.

FRA also noted that the public outpouring around this study process was unprecedented. In just the five-week period beginning in February after the team released the draft map of all 15 selected preferred routes, the team received tens of thousands of supportive comments and substantive suggestions and input.

The volume of comments was so overwhelming that the team had to use artificial-intelligence tools to comb through them and categorize them, as well as to suss out form letters, bot-generated comments, or orchestrated cut-and-paste inputs. The team was left with 47,000 genuine authenticated public comments, and 99 percent of them were supportive of the effort. Just under a quarter were generically supportive of passenger-rail investment overall without reference to the study’s topics or routes.

Since the study process kicked off in early 2023, FRA hosted 24 all-day workshops with stakeholders in towns big and small all over the country. Rail Passengers’ professional staff has been bringing your voice to every single one. I personally attended 20 of them, including the final session last week in Nashville. Several of your elected volunteer leaders joined us too, but they were not alone. In fact, more than 200 organizations around the country sent representatives to these workshops, including local rail advocates, state and county transportation planners and engineers, freight railroad reps, and tribal leaders.

They all spent an entire day poring through data amassed by the consultant team, reviewing and critiquing the team’s assessments of capital, or demographics, or county characteristics, and later pinning virtual Post-It notes directly on the draft map as it took shape right before our eyes. That was a lot of sustained input from a varied group of stakeholders, not just a bunch of railfans drawing up fantasy maps in a back room.

A lot of criticism I’ve seen about this effort seems focused on the report’s lack of comprehensive capital-cost estimates, or details around alignments, or required track capacity upgrades. In my view, those kinds of critiques are unfair because this study was never meant to assess any of those things in a comprehensive way. Those kinds of details are meant to underpin a service development plan or project development plan. The purpose of this work to find and prioritize routes worth sending on to those next phases – and FRA identified 15 that are worthwhile enough to study harder.

At the same time, that doesn’t mean a lot of detailed work did not go into producing this report. Far from it. FRA and the consultant team spent a lot of time between last summer and early this year iterating dozens of route combinations, and segments and services that were NOT worth pursuing didn’t find their way onto the final list of preferred routes unveiled in February.

The team then took each of the preferred new routes and ranked them according to how complex they would be to start, how well they satisfy congressional direction to improve lives in rural areas or in poorer parts of the country or on tribal lands. They also looked at an order of magnitude assessment of how much it might cost to get these new routes rolling. Easier, less costly, more shared infrastructure, more benefits? Higher up the list. And so on.

Here's how it shook out:

Top priority was Houston to New York City via New Orleans, Mobile, Montgomery and Atlanta and then on up to Chattanooga, Roanoke, Lynchburg, Lorton, DC, Philly, and then finishing up in New York City. That route would serve nearly 6 million new riders without access today, including 1.2 million in rural towns who have few or no good choices today, along with nine major medical centers, 65 universities and colleges, including 23 historically black colleges, plus 27 military installations, too.

Chicago to Miami came in a very close second with around $3 billion in initial passenger focused capital needed, and operating costs as low as $78 million a year. It would serve 6.6 million more people including 72 universities and 18 historically black colleges and more than a million poor rural residents.

Rounding out the list, in order:
Dallas Fort Worth to New York
Denver to Houston
Los Angeles to Denver
Phoenix to Minneapolis Saint Paul
San Antonio to Minneapolis Saint Paul
San Francisco to Dallas
Detroit to New Orleans
Dallas to Atlanta
Denver to Minneapolis Saint Paul
Dallas to Miami
Seattle to Denver and
El Paso to Billings.

This long-distance study is exciting, bold, and potentially transformational. We need to do everything we can to ensure that Congress embraces its conclusions and sets the stage for multi-year commitments to growth. But the study also could take too long to deliver real gains to Americans who have been waiting patiently for decades to see improvements. We need more short-term, practical route investments to show how it can be done quickly and well. That means doing a few routes now where it can make sense, along the lines of bringing back the Broadway Limited or connecting New Orleans to St. Louis.

Even so, we should be saying “Yes And,” instead of “Yes But.”

We don’t need to choose. Of course it will be hard, and expensive, and complex. So was rural electrification, or the 46,000-mile, $200 billion Interstate Highway System, or deploying the GPS satellites that give us all better maps on the phones in our pockets than the Apollo astronauts used to get to the Moon. Our job now, as advocates and as your professional staff, will be to make sure Congress embraces this bold vision while also recognizing that we need investments now to make today’s network better.