America has the world’s best railroads for moving freight and some of the worst for moving people — the trains slicing through Pittsburgh epitomize that truth.
Amtrak, which runs only three passenger trains a day out of Pittsburgh, filed a federal complaint last week saying Norfolk Southern freight trains aren’t getting out of the way between here and Chicago, as federal law requires.
Norfolk Southern says it’s investing millions of dollars to ease congestion on that route, and that construction is one reason Amtrak’s Capitol Limited was on time on less than 3 percent of its runs between July and September.
Incredibly, despite chronic delays, ridership on the extraordinarily limited Capitol Limited hit a record high in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. Almost 236,000 riders took the train that runs daily each way between Washington and Chicago, with a stop here. Coach seats for Pittsburgh’s midnight train to Chi-Town this pre-Thanksgiving Tuesday are sold out.
That’s of a piece with the overall boom in Amtrak rides, which have soared from 20.9 million in 2000 to more than 30.9 million in fiscal 2014.
With airlines dumping short flights, millennials less concerned about speed than they are comfort and Wi-Fi access, and baby boomers not so keen for the long drives of their youth, it’s not hard to understand the passenger train boom. It’s just hard to see from Pittsburgh.
More than 6 million people get on and off Amtrak trains in Pennsylvania, but two-thirds of those rides start or end in Philadelphia. Most heading west get no farther than Harrisburg. Why? Trains are fast and frequent on a dedicated, electrified line in eastern Pennsylvania, but they poke along with the freights from Harrisburg to Chicago.
I reached Pittsburgh’s own Henry Posner III in Germany to talk about the disparities. Mr. Posner chairs the Railroad Development Corp. and invests in everything from the freight-hauling Iowa Interstate Railroad to the Hamburg-Köln Express in Germany.
He wouldn’t comment directly on the Amtrak-Norfolk Southern flap but said it’s no easier to legislate one’s way out of train delays than airline delays.
The cultural and infrastructural divide between U.S. and European rail is wide, he said. Europeans tell Mr. Posner they envy America’s rail freight system, which moves about 40 percent of our goods. American tourists, in turn, become infatuated with train travel in Europe, only to return to the “dismal joke of a station’’ that is Amtrak in Pittsburgh and too many other places to name.
Most American cities don’t have good public transport of any kind, he noted. Take Oakland, Pennsylvania’s third-largest employment center, conspicuously lacking in light rail.
There’s hope American culture may be changing, though. Mr. Posner said he rode a commuter train into Fort Worth from its airport recently. If Texans are riding trains, somebody should notify Ripley.
Every form of transportation is subsidized by state, federal or local dollars in some way, and that includes car travel. Those weren’t volunteers digging out the roads around Buffalo this past week so locals could get back to driving alone in a car like good Americans. But spending on Amtrak seems to be the one transportation subsidy Congress doesn’t like. So if congestion on hybrid freight-passenger routes is to ease, freight railroads must take the lead.
The Association of American Railroads says the industry sinks about $1 billion every two weeks into either upgrading the rail network or hiring thousands of new workers. They’re investing largely because shipments of oil have soared to about a million barrels a day and they still have grain, goods and coal to ship. Coal still represents about 40 percent of tonnage, which should surprise no Western Pennsylvanian who’s ever been near the tracks.
A major Norfolk Southern construction project east of Elkhart, Ind., will continue to cause delays of one to four hours into mid-December, the company reported, which only makes a traditional bottleneck worse. Chicago’s not just Pittsburgh riders’ top destination; six of the nation’s seven biggest railroads converge there and 1,300 freight and passenger trains travel through the city each day.
Mr. Posner advised patience.
“As a frequent Amtrak rider,’’ he said, “I can see investment going on outside the window. That’s not going to happen overnight. For perspective, just look how screwed up our highways and airlines are.”
At least a late train beats a late airplane. Two hours in the cafe car beats one on the tarmac.
Brian O’Neill: email@example.com or 412-263-1947.
A video posted by Ethan Magoc (@ethanmagoc) on Sep 9, 2014 at 7:05am PDT