Trains on Time

Passenger-only rails could help Amtrak get up to speed.

As fuel prices surge, so do the numbers of travelers booking trips on Amtrak, the nation's government-owned passenger rail corporation.

During the past spring and summer Amtrak has set all-time records for both its number of passengers carried and total revenue. While much of this increase can be attributed to traffic along the rail-rich Eastern seaboard, regional ridership is also on the upswing.

State and federal lawmakers have taken notice, and the perennially cash-strapped service will soon be getting a major financial infusion. This is welcome news, says Jim Noble, an associate professor of industrial engineering at MU and director of the University's Center for Engineering Logistics and Distribution.

In order for the current demand spike to become permanent, Noble says, Amtrak must overcome a perennial infrastructure deficit -- the lack of sufficient passenger-only track. More money is needed to make this happen. "In Europe, they have a significant amount of dedicated passenger railway. In the U.S., in most cases freight trains and passenger trains share lines," says Noble. Systems that combine freight with people, he adds, mean problems for passengers. "Long, heavy freight trains have a huge ‘ramp up' and ‘ramp down' time, and the number and length of existing sidings is many times insufficient. Often, the shorter passenger train, which can get into a siding quickly and easily, must wait to let the freight train rumble by."

As part of a study presented to the Missouri Department of Transportation and the Missouri House Transportation and Economic Development Committee earlier this year, Noble determined that more than half of Amtrak delays were caused by such "freight train interference." Another 15 percent were the fault of track condition speed restrictions. Delays from other passenger trains accounted for slightly less than 10 percent of delays.

Already Noble's findings are having an effect. In July, Governor Matt Blunt and the state legislature approved $5 million to build new sidings that will reduce freight interference bottlenecks. The state is also seeking an additional $5 million from federal officials. MoDOT director Pete Rahn says the "funding will lead to improved service, helping make Amtrak trains an even better travel alternative."

Noble agrees: "Good things are happening regarding rail in the US and Missouri."