This is not an opinion I formed lightly. It has come from my experiences traveling internationally and witnessing first hand how the United States is clearly behind in rail travel. I am also always reluctant to postulate that our federal government is better or smarter at providing a service than privateers (see: Parcel Delivery). But there are some areas where government standards can improve efficiency and safety (see: FAA & Air Travel – minus the boondoggles that are TSA & DHS).
By having the track rights under federal control, it relieves freight carriers of their property. I say relieve because at the moment they pay property tax on their right-of-ways. Instead it would be better served to have them pay a usage tax, or something similar, rather than retaining ownership. The reason being is the rail network vastly needs up an upgrade.
Freight carriers seem to have no interest in improving the network, only their bottom dollar – which rarely involves speed improvements as freight trains are already the most efficient means of transporting goods. It’s an understandable position given the railroad freight carriers have to maintain their vehicles and the road itself – whereas over-the-road freight carriers pay for their vehicles, but only a tiny fraction of the fuel taxes actually cover what it costs to maintain our highways. But I digress…
Back on the railroad, if the feds owned all of the track, the usage tax paid by the freight carriers could be apportioned to track improvement, so the system is constantly and consistently being upgraded.
In the current state, the track owners run the dispatching services. A federal network, could be run similarly to our airspace: using federal rail dispatches in local areas with common safety and communication standards. This would once again put passenger services as top priority. Along with speed improvements, freight carriers would probably not see an effective increase in trip time even if sided by a dispatcher to give right-of-way to a passenger train. The current norm is for the passenger train to be sided to give right of way to the track-owning freight carrier (even though the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1971 requires the opposite).
The current normal rail speed of 79mph is simply not good enough to lure me (and most others) away from the automobile. For a trip from St. Paul to Chicago, I can get there in 6 hours by car. Amtrak at 79mph, once you factor in all the stops, is 8hrs – if there are no additional delays. Upping the entire route to 110mph should get the train to Chicago in just under 6 hours… plus I could read, eat, and otherwise relax the whole way. Now there’s a good argument to consider my options.
Now let’s consider the automobile. They are becoming more efficient, and if we all drove Priuses we might achieve a higher efficiency than a train, but probably not on a long freeway haul like the St. Paul to Chicago example. One thing that is definitely not increasing is maximum freeway speed. Even with improvements in vehicle crash safety I don’t think I will see an increase in freeway speed beyond 75-80mph in my lifetime. Until driverless cars become the norm, there are just too many safety factors to consider. Trains on the other hand can be made safe to operate well above these speeds. Through the magic of right-of-way, they can be made to have very regular, predictable schedules as well.
We once had the greatest railroad network in the world, but the current owners are satisfied with the status-quo. It’s about time we recognize the opportunity we have to raise the bar, give travelers an option to ride on what can again become the greatest rail network in the world.