State of Intercity Passenger Rail Discussed at Rail Subcommittee Hearing

Written by Carolina Worrell, Senior Editor
From Left to Right: Andy Daly, Senior Director of Passenger Operations, CSX Railroad; Stacey Mortensen, Executive Director, San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority (SJJPA); Lee Ohanian, Senior Fellow (adjunct), Hoover Institution; and Kirk Watson, Mayor, City of Austin, Texas.

From Left to Right: Andy Daly, Senior Director of Passenger Operations, CSX; Stacey Mortensen, Executive Director, San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority (SJJPA); Lee Ohanian, Senior Fellow (adjunct), Hoover Institution; and Kirk Watson, Mayor, City of Austin, Texas.

Four witnesses on Nov. 29 discussed the state of intercity passenger rail at a hearing of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials.

The hearing, entitled, “Getting on the Right Track: Navigating the Future of Intercity Passenger Rail in America,” included remarks from Andy Daly, Senior Director of Passenger Operations, CSX; Stacey Mortensen, Executive Director, San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority (SJJPA); Lee Ohanian, Senior Fellow (adjunct), Hoover Institution; and Kirk Watson, Mayor, City of Austin, Tex., who focused on how to develop this mode in a way that is “safe, efficient, cost effective, and that meets the demands of consumers.”

“Investments and innovation in our rail infrastructure are essential to building a robust and competitive American transportation system,” said Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee Chairman Troy Nehls (R-Tex.) in his opening remarks at the hearing. “We must ensure that federal policies and spending are balanced with a realistic analysis of consumer demand for passenger rail and best use of taxpayer dollars. Encouraging competition, removing burdensome government obstacles, focusing on areas of high demand, and involving the private sector have proven effective ways of managing intercity passenger rail, and today we will hear from witnesses about those promising efforts.”

Following are excerpts from the four witnesses’ testimonies.

Andy Daly, Senior Director of Passenger Operations, CSX

“When working with Amtrak or other passenger rail operators, CSX endeavors to create a safe, well-planned, cost-effective, and transparent partnership,” stated Daly. “On average, we host a quarter of Amtrak’s train-miles in the United States. Amtrak runs 5.5 million train-miles on CSX per year. On average, 59 Amtrak trains operate on our tracks daily. The volume of Amtrak trains, together with the 159 trains operating on CSX by commuter rail providers like VRE, MARC and MBTA, makes us among the most passenger-intensive freight railroads in the United States. Thanks to the hard work of many at CSX, in 2022, CSX achieved its best Contract On-Time Performance in our history of hosting Amtrak service. We closed out the year with 94.8% on-time performance, which was a 2% improvement over the prior year. This year (2023) is shaping up to be our second-best year as Contract OTP is currently at 94.3%. Since 2019, CSX’s Contract OTP has been above 90%, and CSX has been able to reduce Amtrak delays per 10,000 miles by 23% since 2018.”

“Thanks to the hard work of many at CSX, we have good relations with each of these passenger rail partners and their various operators. We recognize Amtrak, at the direction of Congress, has focused on customer on-time performance (Customer OTP) to gauge the quality of customers’ ridership experience on a service route level,” Daly continued. “Every Amtrak route that involves CSX operates on track used by at least one other railroad, and sometimes as many as five other railroads. CSX focuses on meeting its contractual on-time performance (Contract OTP) standards as it is a measure of CSX’s individual performance as a host and is the negotiated service metric between CSX and Amtrak.

Daly went on to cite “four pillars” that CSX looks at when discussing passenger rail expansion or new opportunities:

  • “Safety: The addition of new passenger service cannot impact the safety of the line for our customers, employees, existing passenger/commuter service, or surrounding communities.
  • “Capacity: There must be adequate capacity to meet our current and future customer needs.
  • “Compensation: CSX must be fairly compensated for the use of our infrastructure as well as maintenance costs.
  • Liability: CSX cannot take on addition liability when additional passenger service is brought onto our freight corridor.”

Daly also cited examples of P3s (public-private partnerships) involving CSX and state authorities that benefit freight and passenger. In Virginia, “freight rail, passenger rail, and governmental stakeholders found a solution to balance these various transportation priorities,” Daly said. “In 2019, CSX signed a rail agreement selling Virginia 384 miles of CSX right-of-way and 223 miles of track in freight rail corridors paralleling I-95, I-64, and I-85. The Commonwealth purchased half of the CSX corridor between Washington, D.C. and Petersburg, Va., and all of the CSX owned right-of-way between Petersburg and Ridgeway, N.C., and agreed to build new capacity on the entire corridor. As Virginia officials testified last Congress before this Committee, this rail line purchase cost less than adding a lane to the highway. The plan currently being implemented will separate passenger and freight rail into parallel corridors, while preserving access for both during maintenance or other incidents that render a track temporarily inoperable. This way, freight and passenger rail operators can support one another and avoid frequent conflicts that can arise on shared-use track. The agreement also preserves freight access to CSX’s customers—now and in the future—on either side of the corridor.

Stacey Mortensen, Executive Director, San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority (SJJPA)

“Today, I am asking you to consider thinking about the state-supported Amtrak services in a different way going forward because in the new vision for expanded passenger rail throughout the country, one size does not fit all,” stated Mortensen. “California is home to the nation’s largest state-supported intercity passenger rail network operated by Amtrak. The Pacific Surfliner, Capitol Corridor and San Joaquins intercity services make up the top three highest-ridership services in the United States outside of the Northeast Corridor. Even in the post-COVID environment that has crippled most transit and passenger rail services, these three routes carried more than 3.2 million riders this past year, which accounts for nearly 40% of all state-supported passenger trips. And by ‘state-supported,’ I must emphasize that this means our passengers and our state taxpayers fully cover the entire operating and capital costs for the service. We do not receive any annual federal funding.

“California’s intercity rail system connects the major populated areas of San Diego, Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo, Bakersfield, Stockton, Oakland, San Jose, and Sacramento. Additionally, our extensive thruway bus services provide connections to an additional 122 destinations throughout the state. Over the past four decades, California has invested nearly $8 billion in improving its intercity passenger rail network. Our state maintains a proven track record of planning, delivering, and expanding both passenger rail and freight rail projects. We owe much of our success to sustained advocacy in Sacramento and the consistent state funding support of our rail programs by our state legislature and state rail staff.”

Mortensen went on to give an overview of the San Joaquins service, which is overseen by SJJPA, as well as the Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) commuter rail service.

In closing, Mortensen stated, “Having experienced both the failure of what I call the national one size fits all policy and the success managing regional service with a localized decision-making model, we have clearly seen what a path forward looks like for successful intercity passenger rail policy. This experience informs us that now is the right time and place to rectify the efforts to build passenger rail service that is demanded of us for the future, and I ask that the members of this Subcommittee be supportive of this effort. I suspect that other services across the country have shared similar experiences. My hope is that our advocacy will lead to an outcome that will provide us all with the flexibility to right size and customize the appropriate path forward for each unique route, something that is impossible today. In short, rightsizing today will allow us to get it right tomorrow.”

Lee Ohanian, Senior Fellow (adjunct), Hoover Institution

The focus of Ohanian’s testimony was on the country’s existing and future investments in high-speed rail (HSR).

“The goal of HSR is laudable: Provide an alternative transportation mode that offers a combination of transportation time, cost, and convenience that is competitive with auto and air travel,” stated Ohanian. “However, implementing HSR has been challenging in the U.S. in terms of cost and construction delays, both of which reflect the large number of risks that can accompany large-scale projects. I will discuss these challenges with a focus on California’s problematic experience with building an HSR system, an experience that provides key implications and cautionary evidence for other HSR investments.”

Ohanian went on to discuss the problems California is facing in building its HSR project, citing the “importance of identifying and accounting for risk and uncertainty; the importance of third-party project evaluations; understanding the cost discrepancy between the U.S. and other countries; and the potential of private sector HSR projects.”

“Your committee provides important stewardship over our existing transportation networks and their future evolution,” concluded Ohanian. “The goal of our future transportation investments is to provide cost-effective transportation enhancements that are highly valued by U.S. households and businesses alike, enhancements that will significantly reduce the costs of moving people and goods across our country and between our cities. These investments have historically played a key role in facilitating America’s economic growth, investments ranging from the roads, turnpikes, railroads and canals of the 1800s, to the more recent interstate highway and airport investments.

“Congress has a remarkable historical record in identifying fundamentally needed transportation infrastructure and facilitating the efficient construction of that infrastructure. Your record reflects the guiding principles of identifying investments that will deliver the greatest benefits, at reasonable costs. The investments cited here changed the face of the American economy. It is unlikely, however, that HSR will have nearly the same impact as any of these earlier investments. Indeed, California’s record in trying to create a statewide HSR system provides important evidence for what can go wrong.

“This does not mean that HSR can’t play an important role in targeted areas where high consumer and/or business demand exists for HSR, and where construction costs can be reduced to levels much lower than they are today. Partnering strategically with the private sector appears to offer the greatest promise in realizing the benefits of HSR, as the private sector is maximally incentivized to identify routes where HSR can make the greatest impact, and to create HSR in the most efficient way.”

Kirk Watson, Mayor, City of Austin, Texas

“At the broadest level, I am eager to do anything I can to support improved intercity passenger rail in Texas,” stated Watson. “Texas and its cities are leading the nation in growth, and we desperately need to improve multimodal mobility between the cities and metropolitan areas that are the bedrock of our state’s thriving economy.”

“Austin is carrying out a multibillion-dollar investment in transportation infrastructure, including in our rapidly growing airport and, working with TXDOT and Texas local governments, we are investing tens of billions of dollars more in highways, local roads, and transit such as a voter approved rail system,” Watson continued. “However, at the end of the day, the laws of physics make it a simple fact that the highways and airports connecting Texas cities cannot keep up with the demands of our state’s economy and the mobility needs of its people. That is why I am glad federal agencies, Amtrak, TXDOT, and Texas cities and counties are looking to improve intercity passenger rail service in Texas, and more specifically on the Texas Triangle. These potential investments will provide an attractive and convenient option for travel between Texas cities. Just as or even more importantly, I firmly believe they will lay the foundation for future service expansion and improvements.”

Watson’s testimony focused on six primary topics:

  • “IIJA’s intercity passenger rail investments.
  • “National and state plans for improving intercity passenger rail.
  • “The need to invest in a multimodal transportation system connecting the cities of the Texas Triangle.
  • “TXDOT and local government efforts to leverage items 2 and 3 above.
  • “The importance of intercity passenger rail on-time performance.
  • “The impact of the pandemic on transportation, how we can adapt, and the lessons it provides.”

“The rural Texas of myth and popular imagination is a Texas I love.” Watson concluded. “It is a core part of our history, culture and identity. However, the Texas of 2023 is an urban and suburban state with a diverse, modern economy centered on the Texas Triangle. As an elected official, I am duty bound to focus on the mobility needs of the real-world Texas of 2023 and beyond. That is why I am pleased that IIJA provides historic levels of investment in intercity passenger rail, that federal agencies, TXDOT, and Amtrak are looking at investments in the Texas Triangle, that the Federal Railroad Administration is moving forward with its Corridor ID Program, and that state and local officials in Texas are working together to leverage both to finally bring increased and improved intercity passenger rail to the Texas Triangle. If we can work in a bipartisan, intergovernmental manner and succeed, we will provide immediate benefits to Texans and the Texas economy. Just as or even more importantly, I firmly believe it will lay the foundation for future service expansion and improvements that will allow our state and its cities and metropolitan areas to be one of the most dynamic and successful places in the nation and the world.”

The testimonies of the four witnesses are available to download in full below:

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