House subcommittee hearing points to need for passenger, freight railroads to get along

Amtrak operates the San Joaquins service in California’s San Joaquin Valley. The trains run on freight railroads’ track.

By Julie Sneider, Senior Editor 

A House subcommittee hearing held this week on the future of intercity passenger rail highlighted the need for passenger and freight railroads to better collaborate if passenger-rail service is to expand to U.S. regions where it’s not now available. 

The Nov. 29 Subcommittee on Railroads Pipelines and Hazardous Materials hearing focused on how to develop intercity passenger rail in a way that is “safe, efficient, cost effective and that meets the demands of the consumers,” according to the opening statement of subcommittee Chair Troy Nehls (R-Texas). The statements, questions and discussion between subcommittee members and witnesses touched on how federal policies and taxpayer investment should influence the future development of intercity passenger rail, including high-speed service.  

Among the rail-industry witnesses testifying were Andy Daly, senior director of passenger operations at CSX, and Stacey Mortenson, executive director of the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority (SJJPA), which manages Amtrak’s San Joaquins route and commuter-rail service in California’s San Joaquin Corridor.  

Also contributing to the hearing via a letter was Ian Jefferies, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads. 

CSX: Four things to consider before more passenger trains roll 

Daly — a fourth-generation railroader who has worked for CSX for 23 years, the last six in his current role — talked about how CSX works with Amtrak and commuter railroads to allow passenger trains to operate on CSX tracks. He’s the point person on all the performance and contractual relationships CSX has with Amtrak and other passenger-rail operators on CSX’s 20,000-mile network.  

Currently, CSX hosts a quarter of Amtrak’s U.S. train miles, with 59 Amtrak trains running on CSX tracks daily, he said. Meanwhile, CSX works with commuter railroads — including Virginia Railway Express, Maryland’s MARC system and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.  

CSX’s relations with its passenger-rail partners and their operators are “good,” Daly said. He described CSX’s efforts to help ensure Amtrak trains get to where they’re going on time, despite heavy traffic on CSX’s rail lines. In 2022, CSX logged a record 94.8% contract on-time performance (OTP), up 2% over the previous year.  

When discussing potential passenger-rail expansions, CSX considers four priorities or “pillars,” Daly said. They are: 

• Safety. New passenger service can’t affect the safety of CSX customers, employees, existing passenger/commuter service or surrounding communities. 

• Capacity. It must be adequate to meet CSX’s current and future customers’ needs. 

• Compensation. CSX must be fairly compensated for the use of its infrastructure and maintenance costs. 

• Liability. CSX won’t take on additional liability when additional passenger service is brought onto its freight corridor. 

A 2021 agreement between CSX, Virginia and Amtrak illustrates how sticking to those points can pave the way for new or enhanced passenger-rail service, Daly said. In this case, a series of construction projects included in the agreement are underway between Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Virginia. The projects will “result in a significant expansion of VRE and Amtrak services while also preserving our ability to meet current and future demand,” he said. 

And since CSX acquired the Pan Am Railroad operated throughout New England, it is working with the New England Passenger Rail Authority on several projects to improve rail-service reliability and pave the way for an increase in the Downeaster passenger-rail service. CSX is also participating in planning with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to pursue passenger-rail expansion between Boston and Springfield, he added. 

“We are optimistic about our ability to partner with those in passenger rail services where it makes sense and where we can plan ahead,” Daly testified. 

One size doesn’t fit all  

In her testimony, Mortensen asked the lawmakers to have a “new way of thinking” about expanding state-supported Amtrak services in the future because “one size does not fit all.” 

California is home to the nation’s largest state-supported, Amtrak-operated intercity passenger-rail network: The Pacific Surfliner, Capitol Corridor and the San Joaquins intercity routes make up the top three highest ridership services in the United States outside of the Northeast Corridor. As state-supported routes, the services’ operating and capital costs are covered fully by passengers and state taxpayers, Mortensen noted. 

In 2021, advocacy for the three routes was consolidated into a coalition known as CIRCLE (California’s Intercity Rail Corridors Linking Everyone), which is focused on uniting policymakers and partner agencies on the need to preserve passenger-rail service. 

“These discussions continue to include strong partnerships with the Federal Railroad Administration, Amtrak, Class I railroads and labor groups,” she testified. “We also encourage innovation and flexibility in service delivery as the expectations in California and throughout the nation clearly dictate that one size does not fit all.” 

Both the San Joaquins and the 25-year-old Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) commuter-rail trains operate on Class I tracks, she noted. 

“We’ve learned over this time that to be successful with these [Class I] partners, we need to understand the freight business goals, we need to commit to funding capacity improvements that move both freight and passenger trains, and we need to learn to co-exist.” 

The two host railroads — Union Pacific Railroad and BNSF Railway Co. — “have been consistent allies in the planning process for more service,” she said. 

A key aspect to maintaining relationships with the freight railroads is collaborative governance between the elected boards that oversee ACE and San Joaquins services. Those boards share one staff, which oversees passenger-rail operations and capital needs, as well as negotiations with the Class Is. A shared governance streamlines decision-making and can more quickly adapt to changing conditions, she noted. 

“I think the [freight] railroads appreciate this approach, because it recognizes that accommodating passenger-rail service on their lines can be difficult, and we work in good faith to accomplish those goals,” Mortensen testified. 

But at the national level, there’s legislation and processes that can set back “hard-earned gains” at the local level, she said. Sometimes, service expansion efforts that are nationalized “are plagued with prolonged delivery times and centralized decision-making,” which slows planning already underway at local or regional levels, she noted. 

“These national processes are geared toward national expediency, which sometimes Congress does ask Amtrak to achieve — but it comes at the cost of protecting and preserving the service for the passengers that rely on them,” Mortensen told the committee. “The people who truly pay for the service don't understand the labyrinths that we have to go through to get new trains. They just want to get on board and take their trip.” 

There are a few bright spots, including some emerging models now under discussion between California, FRA, Amtrak and the host railroads, Mortensen said. She called on subcommittee members to allow regional and local decision-making over intercity passenger-rail service and its potential expansion. 

AAR: Consider both sides’ challenges 

Meanwhile, in his letter to the subcommittee, AAR’s Jefferies noted that mutual success for the nation’s passenger and freight railroads requires cooperation among the stakeholders and recognition of the railroads’ challenges. 

“Policymakers should continue to balance the country’s needs to move both people and goods safely and efficiently,” he wrote. 

As expansion of intercity passenger rail is considered, freight railroads must be included in the planning process to ensure their safety and capacity needs are considered. Also, freight railroads should not be expected to bear the cost of infrastructure upgrades needed to accommodate more passenger trains.  

Moreover, the federal requirement that Amtrak trains be given preference over freight trains on shared rail lines “does not mean delays to Amtrak trains will never happen,” Jefferies wrote. 

“Just as traveling in an HOV highway lane does not guarantee a motorist will not experience traffic, Amtrak could experience delays due to weather, unexpectedly high freight volumes, or other issues that are unavoidable and beyond the freight railroad’s reasonable control,” Jefferies’ letter stated, in an apparent reference to Amtrak’s complaints that freight railroads often are the culprit when Amtrak trains run late. 

“Having safe, effective passenger railroads alongside safe, productive freight railroads remains our shared goal. Freight railroads look forward to working with policymakers and other stakeholders to achieve it. I am confident that, together, freight railroads and Amtrak can work together in ways that benefit all parties,” Jefferies’ letter concluded.