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Rail News Home Passenger Rail

June 2008

Rail News: Passenger Rail

Transit rail’s transition

By Angela Cotey, Associate Editor

The hula hoop was introduced. A gallon of gas cost 25 cents. The average cost of a new home was $12,750. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was created. My dad was born. The United States was in the midst of a severe recession and the transit-rail industry was in a downward spiral. The year: 1958.

It was a time of transition in the passenger-rail industry. The streetcar systems that for the past 50 years had helped shape development in most U.S. cities were being converted into cheaper-to-operate (and much less popular) bus systems. As more and more people began to purchase automobiles, transit-rail ridership quickly plummeted. Large freight railroads, many of which operated passenger-rail service, were filing for service abandonment or bankruptcy. And building a new commuter-rail or streetcar line? It was almost unheard of.

“It was a depressing period — then, and continuing for the next 20 years, really,” says American Public Transportation Association President William Millar, who joined the association in 1996 after serving the Port Authority of Allegheny County for almost 20 years, including 13 as executive director.

That’s no longer the case. Today’s transit headlines of record ridership, multi-billion-dollar expansion programs and new rail services are evidence that the passenger-rail industry is experiencing its own “rail renaissance.”

“We’ve seen a dramatic rebirth of an industry that, frankly, in 1958 when your magazine was founded, had pretty well been given up for dead,” says Millar.

During the past 50 years, various pieces of legislation, and changing economic and environmental factors have helped shape the passenger-rail industry as we know it today. Although it’s impossible to retrace every transit rail- related event that’s taken place, what follows is an account of the major milestones that, for better or worse, have had an impact on the industry.

Automobile aftereffects

After peaking in 1946, transit-rail ridership began a steep decline that continued into 1958 and well beyond as the United States entered the “automobile age” and began constructing the interstate highway system.

“The automobile became the symbol of freedom for the growing middle class and it took passengers away from trains,” says Amtrak spokesperson Cliff Black, who’s been with the national intercity passenger railroad the past 27 years. “The passenger services never made money, but the loss margin was bearable because it was a form of transportation that was necessary and expected. The automobile explosion cut very deeply into the bottom line.”

As the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) puts it: “For its future ground transportation needs, the United States was making a major investment in new roadways — but in very little else. In fact, the federal government was almost taking an indifferent attitude toward any kind of alternative transportation,” according to “The Beginnings of Federal Assistance for Public Transit,” which is posted on the FTA’s Web site.

For example, Congress passed a law in 1958 that removed any control state governments had over petitions filed by freight railroads to abandon local passenger services. As a result, several commuter-rail services were shut down.

“Many historians cite this law as the single most important factor in the emergence of a new program of federal financial assistance for mass transportation,” according to the FTA.

That new federal assistance came in 1961, when President John F. Kennedy signed The Omnibus Housing Act, which included $50 million for loans and $25 million in outright grants for mass transit demonstration projects.

“That literally was the beginning of the modern era,” says Millar.

The following year, Kennedy called for establishing a federal transit capital assistance program, saying, “Our national welfare requires the provision of good urban transportation, with the properly balanced use of private vehicles and modern mass transport to help shape as well as serve urban growth,” according to the FTA.

In response to Kennedy’s request — and the success of the 1961 demonstration program — legislators passed the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964, which provided $375 million over three years in capital grants for transit programs. The legislation also established several critical concepts still used today: area-wide planning, federal aid requiring non-federal match money, and the continuing, cooperative and comprehensive (“Three-C”) planning process.

“At this time, we began to see a conversion of private assets to public-controlled assets,” says Millar. “This program was used to replace rail fleets around the country, and although ridership continued to fall until about 1973, this was the beginning of the turnaround.”

Public transit garnered even more support with the passage of the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1970, the first long-term commitment of federal transportation funds, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) “Urban Transportation Planning in the United States: An Historical Overview: Fifth Edition.” The legislation authorized $3.1 billion in capital grants for mass transportation projects.

“Until the passage of this act, federal funds for mass transportation had been limited. It was difficult to plan and implement a program of mass transportation projects over several years because of the uncertainty of future funding,” according to the USDOT.

Intercity rail revival

In the meantime, freight railroads continued to file for passenger-service abandonment with the Interstate Commerce Commission, and intercity passenger trains faced “what appeared to be a certain death,” says Black.

So, in 1970, Congress and President Richard Nixon signed off on the Rail Passenger Service Act, which provided federal funding to preserve intercity passenger-rail service. The following year, Amtrak launched revenue service (see "Amtrak's survial story").

History was being made at the local level, too. In 1972, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) opened the country’s first computer-controlled heavy-rail system. Despite a growing indifference to public transit in much of the country, officials in the San Francisco Bay Area realized that after a 1940s post-war migration to the area and the subsequent automobile boom, transportation alternatives would be needed.

“If the Bay Area is to be preserved as a fine place to live and work, a regional rapid transit system is essential to prevent total dependence on automobiles and freeways,” said the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit Commission, which was charged with studying the region’s long-range transportation needs and recommending a solution, in a 1957 report.

The solution of choice: a heavy-rail system that would feature electric trains on grade-separated rights of way reaching speeds of 75 mph using automatic train-control technology.

Although BART successfully launched its new heavy-rail operation, transit rail in general still wasn’t garnering much attention at the national level. Then came the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973.

That October, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries halted oil shipments to the United States. The price of fuel shot up and controls were put in place to conserve energy and ration gasoline. Overnight, the need for alternative transportation sources received national attention and public transit was placed on many communities’ agendas.

Keeping the federal funds flowing

Some of those plans got a boost when Congress passed the National Mass Transportation Assistance Act of 1974, which extended the Urban Mass Transportation Act to include operating money as well as capital funds for transit projects — to the tune of $11.8 billion over a six-year period.

The federal transit program continued to grow until 1981, when the Reagan Administration entered the White House, says Millar.

“The Reagan Administration didn’t think public transit was a federal issue,” he says. “The rest of the ’80s were spent battling to keep the federal transit program alive in the face of hostility in the White House.”

Ironically, the administration approved what’s been one of the biggest sources of public transit revenue: the Federal Public Transportation Act of 1982, which provided that one cent of a five cents-per-gallon increase in the Highway Trust Fund motor fuels tax would be placed in a new Mass Transit Account for capital projects.

The Mass Transit Account has provided a steady stream of revenue and enabled the federal government to increase its investment in public transportation. The account was the key funding source of 1991’s Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA), which called for providing $31.5 billion in federal transit funding through FY1997.

“That bill also restructured the federal system in many ways and brought many new people to the planning table,” says Millar. “Public transit was often then put on regional planning agencies as full voting members.”

In addition, ISTEA included provisions to enable state and local officials to use a portion of their Highway Trust Fund money for transit instead of roads, and increased the federal matching share for transit capital grants to 80 percent.

The federal transportation program was again extended in 1998, with the passage of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), which increased public transportation funding authorizations up to 70 percent compared with ISTEA appropriation levels. The bill earmarked up to $41 billion for the six-year period, of which $36 billion was guaranteed. The bill also allowed agencies to use capital funds to cover preventive maintenance and ADA improvements.

In 2005, Congress approved TEA-21’s successor, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, or SAFETEA-LU. The bill provided a record level of federal transit investment — $52.6 billion — to be distributed between FY2004 and FY2009. The legislation also created several new programs, including a Small Starts program that includes funds for smaller New Starts projects.

Agencies have put the funding to good use.

“The federal program has enabled us to make some startling improvements in urban rail systems,” says Millar.

Case in point: Between 1970 and 2007, the number of heavy-rail systems in the U.S. increased from eight to 15; light-rail systems, from nine to 33, and commuter-rail systems, from 14 to 22, according to APTA.

Growth spurt

Those new systems opened gradually at first, from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) and Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority following in BART’s computer-controlled heavy-rail footsteps in the late ’70s and early ’80s, to San Diego Trolley launching service on the nation’s first modern light-rail system in 1981, to the Tri-County Commuter Rail Authority opening the country’s first completely new commuter-rail system in decades in 1989.

“We went from everyone getting out of rail to having these new starts come on line and that was part of the transition,” says South Florida Regional Transportation Authority Executive Director Joe Giulietti, who’s been in the freight- and passenger-rail industry for more than 35 years. “We were an industry in decline and suddenly there was tremendous growth.”

Several new systems opened in the 1990s, too, including southern California’s Metrolink, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s rail system, Seattle’s Sounder commuter-rail service, Virginia Railway Express, Dallas Area Rapid Transit’s light-rail service and the Trinity Railway Express commuter-rail line.

In the 2000s, new systems have been opening even more frequently — Minneapolis’ Hiawatha light-rail line, New Mexico’s Rail Runner Express commuter-rail system, Charlotte’s LYNX light-rail line and Utah Transit Authority’s new commuter-rail line, to name a few.

From the bottom up

Regardless of when the systems opened, they have one thing in common, says retired transit executive David Gunn, who during his more than 40-year railroad career held top management posts at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, MTA New York City Transit, WMATA, Toronto Transit Commission and Amtrak.

“These efforts were almost all local; they didn’t come from the top down,” he says. “It was a need that the average person could see and feel, and it changed itself into political action. It happened in different ways, in different times, in different locations — it’s a whole series of small steps and slow battles that have gotten the industry where it is today.”

But there have been plenty of bumps in the road in the past decade. While the 1990s featured strong transit growth, the period also posed some hard times because of the weak economy in the mid-1990s. Several transit agencies were forced to cut millions of dollars from their budgets and implement hiring freezes.

The 2000s brought a whole new set of hardships, starting with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. On that day, MTA New York City Transit and the Port Authority Trans-Hudson briefly shut down operations after attacks on the World Trade Center, then reopened to help evacuate people from the city. Meanwhile, WMATA continued operations after the attack on the Pentagon. Other nearby transit agencies lent a helping hand, too.

The terrorist attacks highlighted transit agencies’ ability to carry out emergency-response plans. But they also raised the question: Are our transit systems secure?

Agencies immediately went to work doing what they could to improve system security — removing trash cans from platforms, bumping up police patrols and conducting random security checks, and launching security-awareness public outreach campaigns.

But agencies didn’t have the funds to implement more capital-intensive security measurements, such as radio systems, security cameras and intrusion-detection systems. In a 2004 APTA survey, transit agencies cited $6 billion in security needs. To date, the industry has received less than $1 billion in security funds since 9/11, compared with more than $24 billion for the aviation industry.

Taking the good with the bad

Post-9/11, the 2002 recession took a toll on transit agencies, as ridership fell and budgets suffered from declining sales taxes. And budget woes continue today, as the weak U.S. economy again is placing a strain on transit revenue sources.

Nevertheless, the transit industry is enjoying some of its best years. Since 1995, public transit ridership has grown by 32 percent, and much of that increase has been on rail systems. In 2007, public transit ridership reached a modern-day record of 10.3 billion and, if year-to-date ridership figures hold, 2008 will be yet another milestone year.

All the more evidence that transit-rail has made quite a comeback from its 1950s decline. And all signs are pointing to a bright future ahead.

“Fifty years ago, transit wasn’t viewed as an essential service — it was almost, ‘We can’t live without it, but we don’t really know what to do with it because it’s the auto age,’” says Gunn. “Now, in most urban areas, transit is accepted as an essential part of the infrastructure, and it will become even more so with the price of fuel and supply of petroleum products.”


Browse articles on transit history passenger rail history rail ridership Amtrak Urban Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act ISTEA Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century TEA-21 Safe Accountable Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act SAFETEA-LU

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