FRA unveils Corridor ID and Development programme: news and analysis

Amtrak’s Last Southbound Floridian departs Nashville, Tennessee, October 6, 1979. Portions of the long-distance train route have since been abandoned, but restoration of service to Nashville may proceed favorably under new corridor development criteria announced by the Federal Railroad Administration . (Bob Johnson)

WASHINGTON — Last week, the Federal Railroad Administration met a deadline set by lawmakers to establish a $1.8 billion Corridor Identification and Development Program, characterized by the agency as “a formal framework to guide the future development of intercity passenger rail transport throughout the country”.

However, additional details of the request must be released before it is possible to formally request federal financial support for the bipartisan infrastructure act.

The program seeks to identify routes with financial support

The document published in the Federal Register, available hereemphasizes that the program is only intended to identify – not build – routes sponsored by an entity willing to provide at least 20% matching to obtain federal funding.

Weed covered railway track with rusty rails leading into woods
The old abandoned Seaboard track in Norlina, North Carolina, seen in 2007, is on the road from Richmond, Virginia to Raleigh, North Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia attempted to rehabilitate. The route could be a prime candidate for corridor investment. (Bob Johnson)

The process begins with online “Expressions of Interest” by “Eligible Entities” for federal regulations website. These comments can be viewed publicly. But the agency does not plan to release “detailed information on the procedures and background of the Corridor ID program” and “a notice requesting proposals for participation” until the last quarter of 2022.

Entities eligible to express interest vary widely and include:

—Amtrak;

— Regional passenger railway authorities;

— States, groups of States, inter-State pacts, political subdivisions of a State and land-use planning bodies;

— federally recognized Indian tribes;

— Other public entities, as determined by the Secretary of Transportation.

Eligible routes apparently only exclude those over 750 miles long never operated by Amtrak. Are included :

— New or improved routes of less than 750 miles;

— Any Amtrak route that has already been closed;

— Increase in the frequency of service of a long-distance intercity passenger rail line.

The selection criteria include 14 elements

Masked people waiting for the train
Empire Builder Deputy Chief Shane Johnson scans tickets during a stop in Williston, ND on October 21, 2020. Rural benefit is one of the criteria for judging potential corridor service (Bob Johnson)

The Transportation Secretary “must take into account” 14 factors when deciding which routes the agency will continue to explore, the document says. But it does not rank the importance of each, except presumably that entities offering more substantial local correspondence will be considered more favorably. Of the 14:

— Identification in regional or national railway plans;

— Projected needs in terms of traffic, revenues and financing;

— Competitiveness of journey times with other modes of transport;

— Non-federal funding committed or planned for capital assets and operations;

— Benefits for rural communities;

— Connection of at least two of the 100 most populated metropolitan areas;

— Interest shown by a passenger rail operator.

Once routes are selected, the FRA will work with entities to create a service development plan, with timelines based on the capital investments needed to ensure a route’s viability. But scoping is only the first step in qualifying a finite slate of projects for the $36 billion available over five years under the federal-state partnership category of the bipartisan infrastructure act.

The FRA says it intends the program to become “the primary vehicle for directing federal financial support and technical assistance toward the development of proposals for new or improved intercity passenger rail service in the United States,” but notes, “it will only encompass pre-construction development of selected corridors – which may include planning, environmental review, preliminary engineering and other corridor development activities.

Analysis: disconnections and opportunities

In a corporate statement released last week, Amtrak said showing interest in FRA “is a simple, efficient and free way for states and local groups to take the first step and bring trains to more of people in their home states and across America.”

Unfortunately, the program relies on requirements for state financial support and on the demarcations between regions and long distances established in the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA).

While this framework may have served Amtrak well because it was compensated for running trains based on the costs it establishes, the traveling public suffered.

Passenger train with several baggage cars at the curve of the rear towers
The Missouri River Runner, with additional baggage cars to meet an axle count requirement for signals, passes the closed tower that once governed train movements at Union Station in St. Louis on April 28, 2022. A second daily round trip on the route was abandoned due to insufficient public funding. (Bob Johnson)

Because state support is only committed for each budget cycle, and therefore subject to political considerations at the time, states like Indiana and Missouri have withdrawn funding from services under 750 miles like the Hoosier State and a second Missouri River Runner round trip, respectively. Elsewhere, regional operators have insisted on reworking PRIIA cost-sharing formulas.

Meanwhile, Amtrak’s intercity network, which receives no state money, has seen investments in capacity, equipment maintenance and onboard amenities such as lounge space and catering. atrophy under the cost-cutting priorities of its current board and management.

While the document says frequency increases on long-distance routes, or resuscitation of those who have been interrupted, can be considered, this may require outside counsel. After two PRIIA Section 210 studies written by Amtrak in 2010 suggested that daily departures would improve the operational efficiency of its three-weekly service Cardinal and Limited sunsetthe company made no attempt to negotiate capital investment requirements with any of the host railways.

An intriguing possibility under the new legislation is that some states or communities could pursue the launch of a second Lake Shore Limited on a reverse schedule – a service offering service at convenient times where the train currently runs in the middle of the night – as a cost-effective way to increase frequencies. Recent efforts by Montana’s Big Sky Passenger Authority to run trains on the route of the Hiawatha North Coast, abandoned in 1979, could also get a boost [see “BNSF joins agency seeking to restore passenger service in southern Montana,” Trains News Wire, May 16, 2022]. It’s unclear whether North Dakota and Minnesota should sign on to improve the proposal.

Many “ConnectsUS” corridors that Amtrak expects to develop, whether on existing long-distance routes or not, will require a steady stream of funding long after Bipartisan Infrastructure Act funds run out.

Congestion on the Norfolk Southern Mainline through Hammond, Ind., delayed this westbound Lake Shore Limited over 3 hours on October 6, 2014. A study of a separate passenger-only route through the area found was killed due to funding issues. (Bob Johnson)

When Michigan and the FRA faced the same situation after a draft environmental impact statement offered a choice of passenger-only routes south of Lake Michigan between Porter, Ind., and Chicago, they didn’t. did not want to continue because no source of funding was apparent at the start. end of 2018. If instead a final EIA had been completed, the project would likely be “shovel ready” to receive federal funds today.

Not addressed so far: How the agency will assess the possibility of a non-Amtrak operator, when only Amtrak benefits from a federally imposed $295 million per incident liability cap.

Depending on the weighting of its selection criteria, FRA has the opportunity to take a leading position in prioritizing national corridors and networks when evaluating proposals. The undisputed leaders will be the states and operating authorities who have had the persistent foresight to secure a local match and complete the engineering plans. Those who don’t will be at a disadvantage.

Mere “expressions of interest” will not suffice.

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