Increasing Passenger Rail Service Could Make Traffic Even Congestion Worse

Published November 1, 2007

Not a single congressional session passes without calls for an expansion of Amtrak or other passenger train service. Members of Congress, bureaucrats, and the powerful rail builder/rail fan lobby claim more passenger trains could significantly reduce automobile traffic by attracting people from their cars.

Unfortunately, passenger train advocates have things backwards. Passenger trains do not reduce traffic congestion. In fact, a material expansion of passenger train service could increase traffic congestion and impose economic losses.

Passenger Trains Worsen Congestion

In a study forthcoming from The Heartland Institute, I find there is no case in which an expansion of passenger train service has resulted in a material or sustainable reduction in traffic congestion. This is because passenger trains reduce the competitiveness of freight trains, resulting in the diversion of cargo from trains to trucks, thus increasing traffic congestion.

Reducing traffic congestion should be an economic priority. A strong body of research shows traffic congestion reduces economic growth, increases product prices, and increases poverty by making it more difficult for lower-income workers to get to and from work in urban areas.

Passenger rail fans look to the shiny trains of Europe and Japan and wonder why they don’t exist in the United States. They overlook that the more intense (and highly subsidized) passenger train service in Europe and Japan leaves little room for freight trains. As a result, much of the freight that would move by train in the United States is moved by trucks on European and Japanese roadways, making traffic congestion considerably worse.

Freight Trains Cut Traffic

There is no doubt that greater use of freight trains–not passenger trains–could reduce traffic congestion.

America’s trains have never carried more freight than they do today. Trains continue to carry more freight than the nation’s large and growing truck fleet, measured in ton miles.

Moreover, during the past 35 years freight trains have nearly maintained their market share despite the expansion of the interstate highway system, which has facilitated truck commerce.

The situation is the opposite in passenger train-intensive Japan and Western Europe. Freight trains have lost 60 percent of their market in Western Europe and 80 percent in Japan. Freight train volumes have fallen in actual ton miles. It is not unusual for there to be virtual parades of trucks along the freeways of Western Europe as a result.

Passenger Declines Help Freight

A big reason for U.S. freight rail’s success has been the decline of passenger train ridership.

Passenger trains often receive priority on the tracks they use. Many rail lines are single track, which means passing can occur only at sidings, where one train stops and waits for the other to approach and pass. Even where there is double tracking, passing can occur only where there are crossover connections between the two tracks.

The priority given to passenger trains means delays for freight trains as they make way for passenger trains.

But between 1950 and the establishment of Amtrak in the early 1970s, passenger train volumes declined more than 90 percent. As a result, freight train operating speeds were able to increase, and freight operations became more reliable and competitive.

Freight Volumes Double

In the past 35 years, freight rail has more than doubled in volume. These gains could not have been made without clearing the track of so many incompatible passenger train services. It may not be obvious, but passenger and freight rail are entirely different businesses, as the contrast between the U.S. and Western Europe markets clearly demonstrates.

One can only imagine what urban traffic congestion would be like today if America had followed the same direction as Western Europe and Japan and stressed (and subsidized) large passenger train networks instead of allowing the market to determine the best use of rail infrastructure.

Virtually anything that is carried by rail can be carried by truck. Trucking is a useful and successful industry. Regrettably, public policy largely ignores freight movements and has tended to limit the expansion of highways in the vain hope that rising traffic congestion would push people to switch from cars to mass transit and trains.

People Stay in Cars

The hope is vain because even with traffic congestion most trips are faster by car. Mass transit and trains have not reduced traffic congestion because they do not meet the needs of most people. They probably never will.

Meanwhile, the growing volume of trucks means worsening urban traffic congestion. A truck takes, on average, the space of 3.5 cars on urban freeways.

Traffic congestion could become even worse. The collapse of the I-35 bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis could lead to more money being allocated to bridge rebuilding and less for urban freeway expansion.

Policymakers Must Choose

The reality is that no high-income nation has both a strong freight rail system and a strong passenger rail system. The only other high-income nations that have high freight rail market shares, Canada and Australia, have low levels of passenger rail service, like the United States.

Some lower-income nations, such as China and Russia, have substantial amounts of passenger rail service and retain high freight market shares, but automobile ownership in those countries remains comparatively low. That means passenger rail systems have a larger “captive” market that will gradually be lost as reliable personal transportation becomes more available, as has occurred in the United States, Western Europe, Japan, and the rest of the high-income world.

Because freight rail represents a public policy resource for reducing traffic congestion, my report recommends a mix of market- and government-based strategies to move freight volumes from road to rail.

Wendell Cox ([email protected]) is a senior fellow with The Heartland Institute, principal of Wendell Cox Consultancy in St. Louis, a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers in Paris, and was a member of the Amtrak Reform Council.