Sunday, January 15, 2012

Passenger rail’s modal percentage potential: How high is up?

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What's passenger rail's potential modal split in the U.S.? That's something to ponder as rail transit gathers strength in an auto-dependent nation during the 21st century.

Even ardent pro-rail advocates probably hesitate to suggest rail's percentage of passenger trips could ever challenge the mode's glory days of the late 19th century, or even the heightened levels necessitated by World War II.

Nor is it a given that the U.S., or even U.S. cities, can quickly attain a rail transit (or auto-alternative) percentage equal to the likes of New York.

But flip that picture around: It's borderline preposterous for anti-rail partisans to hold secure to the notion that "auto uber alles" can continue unabated; assuming continued growing demand for energy (conventional or alternative), coupled with other energy needs (heat or cool one's home? Desalinate one's water supply?), can auto-dependence, even aided by electricity or batteries or other fuel options, really resume a growth trend only recently upset after a nearly uninterrupted 90-year ride ever upward?

Freight railroads, particularly the Class I's, have offered rosy scenarios of the money to be made from even modest modal share capture from over-the-road options. Passenger railroads don't make money, but they certainly could lose less with more potential customers and/or customer reach, be it Amtrak, regional ("commuter") railroads, or urban transit networks—even before the externalities favorable to rail (land use, economic development) get factored in.

But is there any optimal threshold? If so, what might that be? How might it vary from place to place, or even by time of day or year? Portland, Ore., shouldn't automatically be copied by Portland, Maine, obviously. Other useful non-auto modes, like the bicycle, will see their percentages rise as well (in the case of the bicycle, the resurgence has already begun).

Realists—or merely those more short-sighted, as I am – might say the question is premature, given U.S. passenger rail's struggle to reassert itself as a serious modal option. But it's no longer 1974, and as rail (freight and passenger) resumes a more visible role in the U.S. transport mix, the idea of what's ideal will, eventually, merit consideration.

Douglas John Bowen

Douglas John Bowen is Managing Editor of RAILWAY AGE. He also served as Editor of Intermodal Age from 1989 to 1991, and has held various positions at Inbound Logistics magazine, High Speed Transport News, The Journal of Commerce, and CNN/Money. Bowen began his journalism career at the Asbury Park Press, a New Jersey daily newspaper. A graduate of Rutgers University, Bowen resides in Hoboken, N.J. He served as president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) from 1987 to 2000 and again from 2004 to 2010, serving on the NJ-ARP board from 1984 until 2012; he remains a member of the statewide organization.