FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS LISTED IN ORDER
LONG ANSEWER: The top speed for Amtrak trains along the Empire Corridor is 110-mph on two sections of mainline through the Capital District. This includes 17 miles of track from the Albany-Rensselaer Rail Station south to MP 124 at Stuyvesant, 10 miles north of Hudson, NY. There is another 8 miles of 110-mph track between Albany and Schenectady, after the West Albany Hill and CSX Freight Yard. Also, just west of Schenectady to Hoffmans, where Amtrak's Hudson Line merges with the former West Shore Line (CSX Selkirk Subdivision) to form the mainline (Mohawk and subdivisions) to Buffalo, there is 9 miles of 100-mph track.
West of Amsterdam the top speed on CSX mainline is 79-mph, but in Buffalo it falls to 60-mph for the 28 miles of the CSX Niagara Branch from the Larkin District just east of Buffalo-Exchange Street to the Niagara Falls Rail Station. South of Stuyvesant through Poughkeepsie to Cold Spring the top speed is 90-mph, with a short 8-mile segment of 95-mph between Poughkeepsie and Rhinecliff. South of Cold Spring through to New York City the top speed on Metro-North’s Hudson Line is 80 to 70-mph, with 60-mph on Amtrak’s Empire Connection from the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge south along the westside of Manhattan to Penn Station.
Overall speed is determined by several factors, the first being the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) system of classification for track quality. The higher the quality of construction in conjunction with the frequency of regular maintenance and inspections the higher the Class of Track and the legally authorized top potential speed. Potential speed because there are other factors that determined the top speed for any mile of track – including curvature, grades, and permanent speed restrictions like some interlockings (crossover switches), bridges, tunnels, and stations. Historically signaling and train control also play a role, for speeds higher than 79-mph more advance forms are required, although the widespread installation of Positive Train Control (PTC) makes this a moot point on most mainlines.
A good example of all these factors at play in determining top track speeds is Amtrak’s Hudson Line from Poughkeepsie to Hoffmans, as the limiting factor is NOT track class, given that if possible Amtrak would prefer to run at 110-mph as much as possible to reduce travel times. The sections of 100 and 110-mph track are places were the mainline is straight enough to permit such speeds. South of Rensselaer speeds of 90-mph are due to curvature of the serpentine tracks as they run along the east bank of the Hudson River.
Running west of Rensselaer there is several tight 25-mph curves, 15-mph across the Livingston Ave rotating swing bridge, and then a 40-mph climb up the serpentine tracks of the 1.75 percent grade of the West Albany Hill, the mainline crossing the little Patroon Creek several times in the forested glen of the Tivoli Nature Preserve. The speed increases to 90-mph as the tracks pass the CSX West Albany Yard, cross Central Avenue, then curving to parallel the I-90 till crossing Fuller Road and passing under the I-87 where the speed jumps to 110-mph over the straight and flat track past the pine barrens to Schenectady, were the speed drops as the mainline curves and descends into downtown Schenectady.
Other limits on speed include the fact that Amtrak travels over the tracks of freight “host” railroads which have little need for high speed trains. For secondary mainlines Class 3 Track which allows for 40-mph speed for freight trains fulfills the needs of the freight railroads, limiting passenger speeds to 60-mph. For this reason Amtrak’s services north of Schenectady to Montreal and Vermont and east of Rensselaer to Boston travel at top speeds only up 60-mph.
Some major main mainlines owned by the freight railroads do have higher speeds. Because the CSX mainline between Buffalo and Hoffmans carries a lot of high priority intermodal (containers and piggyback trailers) the freight railroad maintains it at Class 4 track,, allowing for 60-mph freight trains and 79-mph passenger trains. Across the nation there are several example of state goverments and Amtrak providing fininicial supprt to freight railroads to increase passenger train speeds to 90 (Class 5 track) and 110-mph (Class 6 track).
For very high-speed track with passenger train speeds above 110-mph, complete grade separation is mandated by FRA regulations, meaning no at-grade level crossings of the tracks by streets and highways. This significantly increase costs of upgrading or constructing tracks for high speed passenger service, as all roads must pass over or under the tracks. And then there is the practical operating limit of 125-mph for diesel locomotives. These last two factors are why 110-mph is the top speed for Amtrak trains outside the electrified and grade-separated BosWash Northeast Corridor where electric intercity and commuter trains run up to 130-mph, with the high-speed Acela trainsets reaching speeds of 160-mph.
LONG ANSEWER: Nationwide most of Amtrak’s network of corridor and long-distance trains run over tracks owned, maintained, and dispatched by freight railroads. And this is true of Amtrak in New York State too, where west of Hoffmans (Schenectady County border) Empire Corridor trains run over the tracks of CSX Transportation. North of Schenectady the Adirondack to Montreal and Ethan Allen Express to Vermont run over the tracks of Canadian Pacific to the US-Canadian border. North of the border the Adirondack runs over the tracks of Canadian National (CN) to Montreal Central Station. East of Whitehall, NY to Rutland and Burlington the Ethan Allen runs over the tracks of the Vermont Rail System. These freight railroads are the “Host Railroads” for these Amtrak services.
However, unlike most Amtrak services nationwide the Empire Corridor also includes a large amount of track owned directly by Amtrak and the state-owned commuter railroad Metro-North. Amtrak controls and maintains about 93 miles of mainline track from Poughkeepsie to Hoffmans that it leases long-term from CSX. Metro-North owns the 74 miles of tracks south of Poughkeepsie to Grand Central Terminal.
Amtrak owns the tracks of the Empire Connection from Spuyten Duyvil in the Bronx, down the westside of Manhattan, to Penn Station in Midtown. Amtrak also owns the tunnels under the Hudson and East River, and the Sunnyside Yard in Queens where Empire Corridor trains undergo cleaning, stocking of café cars, and are stored and turned for return trips to Upstate NY. Penn Station and the Sunnyside Yard are part of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (NEC), the tracks south to Washington being owned by Amtrak while hosting the trains of several regional commuter railroads and some freight trains. North to Boston ownership of the NEC is divided in segments between Metro-North, Amtrak, and the MBTA, the Boston commuter railroad.
The Hudson Line was once part of New York Central mainline from New York to Chicago, but in the decades since it has been divided between Metro-North and Amtrak because passengers make most of the daily train traffic. Freight trains however do also run with CSX and Canadian Pacific having trackage rights south to yards and freight facilities in the Bronx. West of Schenectady freight traffic dominates with the former New York Central mainline being owned by CSX, most freight to Metro New York traveling down its River Subdivision on the west shore of the Hudson to New Jersey.
There is friction between Amtrak and its host railroads concerning the timekeeping of Amtrak trains. Legally since its creation when in return for relieving the private railroads of their intercity passenger rail public service obligations the federal government mandated that passenger trains have priority over freight trains. However, in practice this has not always been true, with numerous unnecessary delays of Amtrak trains being attributed to the freight host railroads.
Conversely there is the opinion among freight railroads that Amtrak is a mandated burden for which they are not fully compensated. This the costs incurred by hosting passenger trains include delays to freight trains and maintaining infrastructure beyond what is necessary to handle freight traffic alone. Amtrak has issued an annual “Host Railroad Report Card” while over the past decade the obligations of the host railroads is legally and legislatively at the federal level. The Federal Railroad Administration is near finalizing (as of spring 2020) the rulemaking setting forth Metrics and Minimum Standards for Intercity Passenger Rail Service.
However the relationship between Amtrak and the host freight railroad are not always strained, the Vermont Rail System has a very good relationship with Amtrak as part of a public-private partnership to upgrade the State of Vermont’s rail system for both better passenger and freight service. Unlike the major “Class 1” national systems of CSX or Canadian Pacific, the “Class 2” regional Vermont Rail System operates over track that it owns and track which the state government owns but the private railroad maintains and operates over as part of a long-term franchise.
The public investment of federal and state money that has been made over the past decade in track and signaling of the Vermont Rail System is allowing for the expansion of the state supported Amtrak service while allowing for larger and heavier freight cars to be hauled, creating a more efficient and profitable freight service. Similar the Commonwealth of Virginia has worked well with CSX and Norfolk Southern to improve and expand it’s state support Amtrak services, finding ways of harmonious cooperation that befits all parties.
The National Railroad Passenger Corporation is quasi-public corporation created by the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970 to take over intercity passenger rail service from the private railroads, with service beginning on May 1st, 1971 under the brand name “Amtrak” serving 43 states with a total of 21 routes. The name Amtrak comes from a combination of “American” and “track. The federal government owns all the corporation’s preferred stock, with the company’s board members nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate, serving 5-year terms, and appointing the president of the passenger railroad company.
In the decades after WWII passenger rail ridership and revenue had gone into a steep decline due to the competition of private automobiles and airlines which benefited from the rapid expansion of highway and airport infrastructure that was heavily subsidized by local, state and federal governments. Amtrak was designed to relieve the struggling private railroad industry of their public obligation to carry passengers by turning operations selected by USDOT as viable for ongoing support and future investment. Freed from the financial burden of passenger trains the railroads were free to focus on developing profitable freight business, aided by the deregulation of freight rates by the Staggers Rail Act of 1980. Obligated by federal law to support the operation of Amtrak passenger trains over their rail lines at reasonable rate of financial compensation for these access rights, the freight railroads in May 1971 turned over most of their passenger rail equipment to Amtrak.
Today Amtrak operates a national networking consisting of the “National Network” of long-distance overnight trains (like the NYC-Boston-Chicago Lake Shore Limited) that are federally supported; regional corridor trains (like the NYC-Niagara Falls Empire Service) that sponsored by state governments (PRIIA Section 209); and the BosWash ‘Northeast Corridor’ where Amtrak owns and manages the only electrified high-speed mainline in North America, with the Acela Express reaching speeds of 160-mph. Overall Amtrak serves more than 500 destinations in 46 states and three Canadian provinces, operating more than 300 trains daily over 21,400 miles of track. At the close of FY 2019, the company had more than 18,600 employees. For the fifth year in a row, Amtrak was included on Forbes magazine’s list of “America’s Best Employers.”
In the year before the COVID-19 Pandemic in Fiscal Year 2019 Amtrak stated that it had delivered its best operating performance in company history. It posted record GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) revenue of $3.5 billion, an increase of 3.4 percent over FY 2018; adjusted operating earnings of ($29.4 million) were the best to date and an 82.8 percent improvement over the prior year. Capital investment of $1.6 billion was 10.2 percent higher than FY 2018. Amtrak recovered 99.1% of operating costs in FY 2019 with ticket sales, payments from state partners and agencies, and other operating revenue. For FY 2019 the US Congress appropriated $2 billion for Amtrak, of which $1.3 billion was for the National Network and $650 million for the Northeast Corridor.
During FY 2019, Amtrak customers took a record 32.5 million trips. On an average day, customers made nearly 89,100 trips on more than 300 Amtrak trains. When included among U.S. airlines, Amtrak ranks seventh in domestic passengers carried (Oct. 2018-Sept. 2019). In the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak has a strong position in many markets that were previously dominated by air carriers. Amtrak carried more than three times as many riders between Washington, D.C., and New York City as all the airlines combined, with 18.8 million trips being made by Amtrak customers on the NEC.
Amtrak and the Empire Corridor
In New York State under a lease with CSX Transportation, Amtrak operates, maintains and dispatches approximately 94 route-miles of the Hudson Line—also known as the Empire Corridor—in New York state between Poughkeepsie and Hoffmans (near Schenectady). Amtrak also owns several of the rail stations across New York State, with others owned by regional transit agencies and local government. Amtrak owns the major maintenance facility at Rensselaer just north of the Albany-Rensselaer Rail Station (owned by the CDTA) which maintains the equipment (locomotives and coaches) of the pool assigned to the Empire Corridor. Amtrak also owns and operates 363 route-miles of the 457-routemile Northeast Corridor (NEC) spine between Washington and Boston. Amtrak is the landlord of New York City’s Penn Station – the busiest rail station in North America serving more than 600,000 passengers per weekday as of 2019 – and has the Sunnyside Yard in Queens, NY where Empire Corridor trains are serviced between trips. Under a PRIIA Section 209 contract New York State through NYSDOT paid Amtrak $44.33 million in the FY 2018-19 for operating costs not covered by ticket sales and capital investment in track and equipment.
LONG ANSWER: The primary source of funding for Empire Corridor – including the Empire Service, Maple Leaf, Adirondack, and Ethan Allen Express – trains is the ticket revenue from passengers. However, ticket recovery alone is not enough, a public subsidy is necessary to make up the annual difference between revenues and operating costs, plus capital invested in rollingstock and infrastructure.
For example, in FY 2018 the Empire Service and Maple Leaf carried 1,517,194 passengers between New York City and Niagara Falls bringing a ticket revenue of $77,613,510 on expenses of $99,127,365; a revenue-to-cost ratio of 80%. Overall Amtrak has steadily over the past decade 2011-2020 improved its revenue-to-cost ratio and some Amtrak corridor services do earn more in ticket revenue then their operating costs, including the Northeast Corridor and Virginia services.
Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 mandated that state governments underwrite the operating and capital costs of Amtrak services operated on corridors of less than 750 miles in length or designated as high-speed corridors by the Secretary of Transportation. Since the mandate took effect on October 16, 2013 the New York State Budget has annually provided about $40 million in operating and capital funding for the Empire Corridor, with the amount in the FY 2018-19 totaling $44.33M.
New York State also under Section 209 pays for the New York-Montreal Adirondack and in partnership with Vermont the Ethan Allen Express. New York State started paying for the Adirondack in 1974 under Section 403(b) of the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970, which allowed states to enter in partnership with Amtrak to begin new rail services under contract, with the state government footing two-thirds of any associated losses.
Many states started new Amtrak corridor services under Section 403b, and PRIIA Section 2009 brought all the pre-Amtrak corridor services – including the Empire Service and Maple Leaf – outside the BosWash Northeast Corridor under state sponsorship. The long-distance network of overnight trains including the New York-Boston-Chicago Lake Shore Limited remain under Amtrak’s financial umbrella, funded by annual federal grants to Amtrak.
Much has been made over the years of the profitability, or lack thereof of Amtrak, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation. From time-to-time Amtrak has been on a glidepath to profitability, only to see such pronouncements disappear in a flood of red ink. However, in FY 2019 Amtrak almost broke even on its operations, with a national record ridership of 32.5 million passengers while posting a $30 million operating loss; its Northeast Corridor services (Acela and Regionals) earning $334 million in operating profit. However, Amtrak’s operating profit includes Section 209 payments made by states to Amtrak for their corridor services.
The operating profit of the Northeast Corridor is also in the face of between a $30 billion to $40 billion backlog of investments on infrastructure, including the Gateway Program of new and rebuilt tunnels under the Hudson River into New York Penn Station. A full modernization and expansion of the Northeast Corridor will require many tens of billions in federal backing. Still revenues from the NEC has allowed Amtrak to finance acquiring new second-generation Acela trainsets now being built in Hornell NY by Alstom. The new Acela service will be faster and have a higher frequency of service with longer trains, all of which should greatly boost ridership and revenues.
HGH SPEED RAIL is a nebulous term with definitions that have changed over time while also varying between nations and government agencies. Its best to think of intercity passenger rail services and construction projects existing on a spectrum between a low level of service and investment to a high level of service and investment, that specific rail services/projects fall within.
On the low end you have the once daily 5-car Amtrak train that has a top speed of 60-mph while averaging 40-mph. On the other end you have the Japanese Shinkansen with 16-car trains running every 5-minutes at 200-mph. In between you have Higher Speed Rail/Semi-High Speed Rail/Higher Performance Rail services/projects like the Virgins USA Brightline service in Florida. Is Brightline a “High Speed Rail” project because it includes a section of new 125-mph track? Or is it a “Higher Speed Rail” project because most of the Miami-Orlando route is over existing upgrade railroad right-of-way with a top speed of 110-mph?
Both the European Union and the International Union of Railways defines High Speed Rail in part as passenger rail services/systems with (1) trains traveling at speeds of 125-mph or more in upgraded existing track or (2) or trains traveling at speeds of 155 mph on dedicated newly built track. The International Union of Railways however also states that they… deliberately used the word "definition" in the plural because there is no single standard definition of high speed rail; nor even a standard usage of the term. The definitions vary according to the criteria used since high speed rail corresponds to a complex reality. Instead the UIC would like people to think in the terms of HSR as being a highly sophisticated rail transport system or system encompassing and combining… a complex reality involving various technical aspects such as infrastructure, rolling stock and operations and then cross-sectoral issues such as financial, commercial, managerial and training aspects.
There is no definitive definition for high speed rail in America either. In the 19904 High Speed Rail was officially defined by the US Government in ‘Title 49 U.S. Code Part D - HIGH-SPEED RAIL’ as referring… to means all forms of non-highway ground transportation that run on rails or electromagnetic guideways providing transportation service which is reasonably expected to reach sustained speeds of more than 125 miles per hour; and made available to members of the general public as passengers, but does not include rapid transit operations within an urban area that are not connected to the general rail system of transportation (§ 26105 – Definitions).
Then in 2008 High Speed Rail was redefined in reference to high-speed rail corridor development as… intercity passenger rail service that is reasonably expected to reach speeds of at least 110 miles per hour. Then there is the “federal railway-highway crossing hazard elimination in high speed rail corridors program” enacted as part of the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) defining HSR as corridors…where railroad speeds of 90 miles or more per hour are occurring or can reasonably be expected to occur in the future.
Pragmatically the USDOT has defined High Speed Rail in terms of the service being offered and marketed by stating that HSR services should be… time-competitive with air and/or auto for travel markets in the approximate range of 100 to 500 miles. Under this definition how a potential traveler evaluates elements like the overall trip time and convenience of rail compare to other transport modes is the key factoring in determining what is and is not HSR. If the train is slower than driving and runs only once or twice a day, then it is not high speed by any definition.
Taking in to account the broad spectrum of intercity passenger rail services — from 60-mph once a day diesel Amtrak trains on freight tracks to every 5-minutes 200-mph Bullet Trains on new electric railways — a new third label has been carved out for improved passenger rail services over upgraded tracks that fall between conventional passenger service and very high speed rail, so called Higher Speed Rail (HrSR), Semi-High Speed Rail, and High Performance Rail intercity passenger rail services.
In fact many High Speed Rail services like the French TGV operate over a "Blended System" of new-built dedicated very high speed track and existing upgraded track shared with conventional passenger and freight trains. For high speed services like the French TGV and German ICE this strategy of heavily utizing upgraded track reduced construction costs while allowing farther flung cities with populations too small to justify expensive new infrastucture to still be served by high qualty rail service. The TGV also uses existing tracks and stations to reach city centers – including Paris – saving billions in construction costs. The California High Speed Rail Project has adopted a blended plan of utizing upgrade commuter rail tracks for its San Francisco-San Jose and Los Angeles-Anaheim segments, while running at 200-mph on new dedicated track through the Central Valley between San Jose and Los Angeles.
The poster child of such services is the previously metioned privately led Virgin Trains USA Brightline planned service in Florida between Miami and Orlando. As of 2020 service is already underway between Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach; with construction underway on the remain portion to Orlando International Airport. The $4 billion project utilizes the existing right-of-way of the freight hauling Florida East Coast Railway from a new downtown Miami Central Station north to Cocoa Beach, with upgraded infrastructure allowing for hourly 110-mph express passenger trains. From Cocoa to Orlando a new 125-mph line is being built on surplus highway right-of-way. Once complete the Virgin Brightline trains will make the Miami-Orlando run in 3 hours, average speed about 75-mph; with planned extensions to Disney World and Tampa.
In its mix of modified European technology and operations on upgraded American railroad infrastructure makes Brightline – along with Amtrak’s BosWash Northeast Corridor – a paradigm for the future of many existing and potential intercity passenger rail corridor services in North America. Higher Speed/High Performance Rail offers an affordable mid-level model of infrastructure investment between existing Amtrak corridor services and the very high-speed, but very-expensive projects like the California High Speed Rail and Texas Central Railway projects now underway.
The long, disheartening decline of passenger rail in the U.S. may be turning around, thanks in part to the ambitious efforts of a new high-speed train service in Florida called Brightline (soon to renamed Virgin Trains, connecting Miami to Orlando on fast, luxurious new trains. But can this service survive long enough to convince Americans to take trains more often?
Steel Rails, Crossties, Tie Plates, Spikes, Ballast, and the Subgrade Foundation
ABOVE RIGHT: A cross-section of the railroad track structure from a WWII-era print magazine advertisement for the Pennsylvania Railroad. ABOVE LEFT: Construction of a new second mainline track at CP 33 (Mile Post/Control Point 33) in Saratoga Springs, NY (Dec 2012) on the Canadian Pacific mainline that hosts Amtrak’s Adirondack and Ethan Allen trains. The right-of-way has been expanded and the subgrade fully prepared for the laying of the new track and then ballasting. The work was funded by the High Speed Rail Program of the federal "stimulus" American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
Railroad track is the is the structure of the “guideway” of the steel rails, fasteners, railroad crossties, ballast, and the underlying subgrade; that provides a fixed and solid low-friction surface capable of support the great weight of moving guided vehicles, the locomotives and cars of a railroad train. In British parlance the railway track is part of the “permanent way” that also includes other infrastructure like bridges and signal towers.
Standard railroad track consists of two flat bottom steel rails that lie on wooden or concrete crossties (also called sleepers in British English) laid across crushed stone ballast place atop a subgrade formation layer of compacted sand, cinders, or stone dust. The purpose of the ballast and subgrade is to make sure that the foundation of the track structure is well drained with the load of heavy trains evenly supported. Sometimes a layer of waterproof fabric will be included, or the subgrade will be paved with asphalt. A modern alternative to ballasted track is concrete slab track where the rails are rigidly fastened to concrete sleepers set within a thick concrete roadbed. Slab track is primarily used for some urban transit and high-speed railways. For curves on the mainline the track will usually be superelevated – like the banking found on highways – with the outer rail set a few inches higher than the inner rail, allowing for higher but safe and comfortable speeds around curves for fast passenger trains.
The steel rails used today are the result of two centuries of development from the earliest American railroads using short sections of timber rails with thin iron strapped on top to the heavy continuously welded steel rails used today. Today in North America the “Flanged T Rail” is used, the steel rail having the profile of an asymmetric I-beam with a broad flat BASE connected by the thin vertical WEB with a narrow thickset HEAD. The interaction between the steel rails and the flanged wheels of trains takes place on a small section of the rail called the tread, this being the smooth shiny top of rails you see on actively used track.
The distance between the inside of the rails is called the “track gauge” and it is of vital importance that within minute tolerances the gauge be maintained to a set distance for the comfortable and safe operation of trains. The vast majority of railroads in North America utilize “Standard Gauge” where the distance inside the rails is 4 feet 8½ inches, a set distance that evolved from the original coalmine railways in Britain of the early 19th Century. Standard Gauge is also widely used in Europe and many new high-speed railways around the world. Other track gauges in use around the world including “Broad Gauges” like the 5½ feet in India and “Narrow Gauges” like the 3½ feet used in Japan’s non-high-speed railways.
ABOVE RIGHT: In the foreground is the existing track of Amtrak’s Albany-Schenectady mainline (Morris Road grade crossing in June 2016) which utilizes spikes and tie plates to secure the rail to the wood crossties. The weight mark on the rail states that its weight is 132 lb/yd and was manufactured by Mittal USA in 2006. The new track in the background utilizes tie clips and bolt screws in place of the standard spikes of North American railroads. ABOVE LEFT: This photo of the Albany-Schenectady mainline (New Karner Road overpass, June 2016) shows the existing track utilizing spikes and wood ties, the new track behind the old track using concrete crossties and tie clips. The Albany-Schenectady 2nd Track Project was funded by the High Speed Rail Program of the federal "stimulus" American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
The steel rails rest on steel tie plates (also called base plates) that are flat bottom with on its top surface two shoulders that fit against the edges of the base of the rail. The rails and tie plates are anchored to wooden ties usually with steel spikes – sometimes bolt screws and tie clips, concrete ties utilizing various clips instead of the common railroad spike of wood ties. Individual sections of steel rails are connected by long horizontal steel fish plates (also called a joint bar) that fit between the top and bottom of each side of the rail and are bolted together. The traditional clickety-clack of railroad travel comes from the train wheels basing over the joints of the rails. However most mainline railroads in America today use welded rail, where lengths of rail hundreds of feet long are manufactured, transported, and then laid onto the ties, being welded together end-to-end into one continuous steel rail miles long.
Standard steel rails are classified in North America by the weight of a rail in pounds per length in yards, this important measurement being the primary determination of rail strength and therefore the axle loads and speeds of the trains it can effectively carry when in service, supporting with minimal wear and tear of the pounding traffic of heavy trains for decades. Common rail weights today of mainline track are 115-pound, 130-pound, and 140-pound per yard. Every rail has at regular distance along its length a weight mark setting forth its weight in yards, its date of manufacture, and the manufacturer.
Railroad track on the mainline and heavily used sidetracks need to regularly undergo maintenance and inspection. Maintenance includes: grinding down the steel rails to eliminate any microscopic cracks that might later grow to cause the rail to break; replacing worn-out ties; cleaning and replacement of the ballast; tightening and lubricating the moving components of track switches; and spraying herbicide to prevent weeds and cutting back vegetation. Once manual intensive work, modern machinery has allowed track maintenance to be done with fewer workers. Specialized inspection cars can, while running over the track at speed, use modern scientific sensors and computers to identify and analyze problems with the track structure that need to be addressed. A temporary speed restriction will often be emplaced till a problem can be fixed by the maintenance track gang.
ABOVE: A view looking south at the interlocking plant at CP 33 on the Canadian Mainline (D&H Mainline) of the Canadian Pacific Railway in Saratoga Springs. Here at the interlocking there are four switches allowing two crossovers, so that trains traveling in both directions can diverge over to the other mainline track. The green-red-red aspect on the signal mast to the right indicates “clear” to the oncoming train – the train can pass the signal at the maximum authorized speed for this section of track. The red-red-red aspect on the left is a “stop” and is lit by default even when no train is approaching the signal.
Like when driving an automobile on a highway with the intersections and traffic lights, on a railroad there are correspondingly interlockings (intersections) and signaling (traffic lights) which determine the routes trains take and the speed they travel at during their journeys. Unlike automobiles but like airliners, the traffic of trains over the railroad’s mainlines are controlled by predetermined timetables and in real-time by dispatchers at centralized traffic control centers.
ABOVE: Like highways, railroads too have signage informing the engineer of a train on various actions required to safely transit a section of track. LEFT: Looking south down the Candian Mainline in Ballston Lake at a northbound Amtrak train can be seen on the left side of the track first the 'whistle board' for the White Beach Rd crossing and a 'milepost board' marking MP 26. In the distance is the signal mast at MP 26.6 which has a yellow "R" board mounted to the signal mast, which modifies the signaling aspect by allowing a train to pass a red signal aspect without stopping, but reducing to a very low "restricted" speed where the train can stop within half the visual distance, should another train be spotted. RIGHT: Railroads also have speed boards to mark locations where line speeds fall at permanent speed restrictions including sharp curves. Here in Ballston Lake on the Canadian Mainline just north of a sharp curve this speed board instructs southbound passenger trains to drop speed from 60 to 50 mph and freight trains to reduce speed to 40 mph.
Railroad Signaling has advanced with technology, but still applies technology and techniques developed and employed during the 19th Century. The first railroad signaling utilized flags, candles, lanterns, and a ball signal device, where the color and height of a ball on pole mounted rope and pulley communicated to the engineer how to proceed. A white “highball” signaled that there was a clear track ahead, authorizing a train to proceed past a station at the maximum authorized speed. A white ball at half-mast indicated that the train should stop at the next station. A white ball at the bottom indicated that a train had to halt and await instructions. A black ball indicated that there was a train ahead that had been delayed. Eventually mechanical semaphores became the standard form of signaling; the semaphore signal consisting of wooden or metal arm/blade that by pivoting at different angles would provide signaling indications. The moving arm was supplemented by a spectacle holding colored glass lenses that by moving in front of an oil and late electric lamp provided indications at night.
In the early 20th Century the development of powerful yet energy efficient electric lights that in bright sunlight could be seen for thousands of feet, allowed for semaphores to be entirely replaced by color lights. Like a highway traffic light for railroads: the color “green” is the aspect for proceeding at normal track speed; a “yellow” is a caution aspect requiring a train to slow to medium speed and be prepared to stop at the next signal; and a “red” aspect is either an absolute “stop” at an interlocking or at a permissive “stop and proceed at restricted (slow) speed” for blocks covering sections of mainline track without interlocking switches or the tracks of other rail lines crossing over at a grade-level diamond junction. On the mainline in blocks without interlockings switches or level junctions with other rail lines there is usually just a single head on the signal mast. However, for high trafficked blocks and blocks approaching an interlocking of switches there will be two or three heads, allowing for the combination of two or three lights to be displayed, providing the engineer (train driver) more detailed information and instruction about the blocks ahead that they are entering; information such as diverging move to another track or advice regarding a train they are following several miles ahead.
For example if a train is set to change from one mainline track over to another at an interlocking, the “distant signal” at the end of the “approach block” two miles before the interlocking will display a yellow over green “approach medium” aspect, with the home signal right before the interlocking displaying a red over green over red “medium clear” aspect; the two signals informing the engineer that he needs to slow his train down to medium speed (30-mph) to cross over to another track at the interlocking, which after his train has cleared the crossover switches he can then accelerate his train back to normal track speed. Other combinations of lights and signage attached to the signal mast will display other aspects providing different instructions to locomotive crews.
To better control train traffic and reduce the possibility of a collision railroads in the 19th Century started to divide their mainlines into “blocks” between fixed geographic points – usually a manned station, but sometimes a remote location – where only one train at a time could be authorized occupy the block till it was clear. At first a detailed railroad rulebook and fixed printed timetables initially determining scheduled operation through blocks, being then supplemented with mechanical signaling and printed train orders issued by station masters and dispatchers. The application of telegraphy to this system in the 1840s was a great safety and communication enhancement – allowing dispatchers at a main station to issue orders through station employees to train crews when it was necessary to override the printed timetable due to trains being delayed by foul weather or mechanical failure. With the development of railroad interlocking plants in the post-Civil War eras, the signaling and setting of many key switches on busy mainlines were mechanically combined and placed under the control of signalmen stationed at where there were crossover switches, diverging switches, and diamond junctions between blocks.
ABOVE: The New York Central Railroad was an early adopter in the 1880-90s of the British-style of ‘controlled manual interlocking’ in the United States, installing on its mainline the Sykes system of ‘lock and block’ where the working of the semaphore signals and switches of the interlocking required the simultaneous concerted action of personal in two adjacent towers. In the 20th Century the New York Central would replace controlled manual blocking with automatic block signaling, new pneumatic and electrically operated interlocking plants, and then Centralized Traffic Control dispatching starting in the late 1920s.
Railroad Interlocking is an arrangement of switch and signaling appliances interconnected in a fail-safe way so that their movements must succeed each other in proper sequence, preventing conflicting movements by trains through the interlocking plant, reducing the chance of human error. Railroad switches – also called turnouts and points – are the mechanical installations that allow trains to switch between two separate tracks. The switch includes a pair of movable linked tapering rails – known as the points, switch, or point blades – lying between the outer diverging stock rails that remain fixed. By moving the point blades laterally – by electric motors for a modern interlocking switch – into one of two positions, an oncoming train can be directed by the point blades toward a straight or diverging path.
Initially during the Victorian Era interlocking was entirely mechanical; controlled manually from a nearby lineside building called an interlocking tower or signaling box. Inside the tower – usually on a second floor with a clear view of the tracks – signalers manipulating large levers in a mechanical frame (think frame as in mainframe computers) that set the switches and signals for the oncoming traffic of trains. Telegraphic communication and electric repeaters allowed the towers to communicate with one another, with the aspects of the signals beyond the view of the tower personnel being displayed. The interlocking lever frames of two adjacent towers could also be interconnected required the concerted effort of the personnel of both towers working in harmony, ensuring that the proper separation of trains and setting of train paths through the switches and signaling overseen by two separate towers. The manual blocking by station and interlocking personnel was very labor intensive and therefore expensive, which in America with its long mainlines through rural countryside, limited the application of blocking – leading to long blocks of 5 to 15 miles between manned stations and interlockings or the use of strict timetable and train orders instead of block signaling – so called “dark territory”. In comparison Britain with its busy mainlines could justify economically (and for safety as mandated by law in 1889) having short blocks with signaling boxes every few miles, allowing for more trains per hour to operate. The solution came with the invention of the track circuit and automatic signaling in the 1870s, though it took several decades for this technology to replace manual blocking.
ABOVE: A southbound Amtrak train passes the signal mast at MP 26.6 on the Canadian Mainline in Ballston Lake north of Schenectady. Note how the signal aspect changes from a green-red “clear” to a red-over-red “stop and proceed” aspect which requires a train to first stop and then proceed at a speed where it can stop at half the visual distance the engineer can see, should another train be spotted. Because the southbound signal at MP 26.6 is one signaling block (2 miles) north of the interlocking at CP 24 where there is a diverging route to the Canadian Pacific/Pan Am Southern rail line to Mechanicville. To leave the mainline by passing through the switch at the interlocking on the diverging tracks curving east to the Mechanicville line, a southbound train has to first slow down to a medium approach speed of 30 miles over the 2 miles leading up the interlocking. BELOW: At MP 26.6 you can see the insulated joint of the two steel rails that divide and isolated the electric current of the track circuits of the two adjacent blocks.
Automatic Block Signaling
Automatic Block Signaling (ABS) dispenses with the need for signals to be set manually by railroad personnel from an interlocking tower or station. Instead, the presence of a train within a block is determined automatically by track circuits. With a track circuit an electric current is run along the rails within a block, separated by the adjoining blocks by non-conduction isolated rail joints. A relay coil completes an electrical circuit when the block section is unoccupied, with the signal showing a “green-clear” aspect. When a train enters the block, it short-circuits the current in the rails, de-energizing the relay, automatically changing the signaling aspect from a “green-clear” to a “red-stop”. For maintenance and energy savings ABS signals are only lit when a train is in one of the adjoining blocks. Should something mechanically fail, the signaling system is fail-safe in design by having the default single be the red-stop signal. If the failure is the electric bulb or power, then under the railroad’s rule book requires a train to stop. A track circuit will also be short-circuited by a broken rail, leading again to a red-stop aspect.
By eliminating the need for human oversight and intervention, ABS allowed American railroads to increase capacity of their mainlines by allowing blocks to be shorten to the distance necessary for a heavy freight train or fast passenger to safely brake and stop, the average signaling block on a mainline in North America becoming about two miles in length. Track circuits were also adopted to provide automatic grade crossing warning lights and gates. This replaced in urban cities manned crossings with flagmen waving flags, lanterns, or lowering manual gates to warn street traffic of approaching trains. It also for rural crossings to have increase safety with the automatic lights and gates, above the white crossbucks railroad crossing sign and the whistling of a oncoming train.
ABOVE RIGHT: Signalman Jack Springer at the New York Central's OW Tower near the Tappan Zee Bridge on what is now Metro-North's Hudson Line (Photo curtesy of John Springer). LEFT: The old interlocking tower at Croton-Harmon south of the current Metro-North station. Today the interlocking and signaling of Metro-North Railroad is handled remotely by dispatchers (through computer consoles from its Operations Control Center located within the upper floors of the Grand Central Terminal complex.
Centralized Traffic Control
Centralized Traffic Control (CTC) is the management of trains by dispatchers from a centralized location. The march of technology into and through the 20th Century led to the application of more sophisticated interlocking installations that allowed for fewer people to control them from ever greater distances, the first CTC systems were introduced starting in the 1920s. Today with solid-state digital technology interlocking plants are controlled from centralized locations through computers – yet both the mechanical parts and computer programing are still designed to be fail-safe so that operators cannot align a train route through an interlocking plant that will cause a derailment or collision. With a CTC installation a mainline “railroad subdivision” – a geographical trackage area of fifty to a hundred miles under one timetable – could eliminate most to all its manned interlocking towers at the “control points” whose switches and signaling is controlled remotely by a small staff at a central dispatching office. An iconic feature of these mid-20th Century CTC dispatching centers were the electromechanical control and display machines, featuring a big panel board that included a long diagram of many miles of tracks, lights showing signaling aspects and the location of trains, and the switches, nobs, and buttons that controlled the interlockings. The advent of two-way radios in the cab of locomotives after WWII allowed dispatchers to communicate directly with train crews.
Modern rail dispatching centers with their computers and display monitors resemble those of air traffic controllers, with regional and national dispatching centers for the individual railroads overseeing the operations covering hundred and many thousands of miles of track. The large “Class One” freight railroad CSX has a dispatching center in Jacksonville, Florida that controls its entire national system, while Union Pacific runs its entire system from a dispatching center in Omaha, Nebraska. Other Class One freight railroads including Norfolk Southern, the smaller regional “Class Two” freight railroads, and some commuter railroads like Metro-North, have regional or divisional/subdivisional dispatching centers. For example, the dispatching of train movements between New York City and Philadelphia over Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor are handled from a control center located within Penn Station in New York City; with Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor have two other control centers in Boston and Wilmington, Delaware.
SHORT ANSEWER: Positive Train Control (PTC) systems are signaling and train control technologies designed to automatically stop a train before certain accidents related to human error occur.
Positive Train Control is the ultimate in modern signaling and train control, its widespread adoption on railroad mainlines carrying a large number of passenger trains or dangerous freight was mandated by the US Congress in the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA) after a terrible commuter-freight train head on collision in 2008 at Chatsworth, California. The four primary functions of PTC are: train separation/collision avoidance; line speed enforcement; temporary speed restrictions; and rail worker wayside safety. PTC can be a standalone system that completely replaces older signaling systems, but in the USA it's primarily being installed as an overlay of the existing signaling system.
For example, Amtrak and Metro-North for the Northeast Corridor and Hudson Line the PTC system Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System (ACSES) is an overlay of the older Cab Signaling System (1930s), Automatic Train Control (1950s), and the lineside signaling of color lights. The combination of CSS and ATC accomplishes most of the goals of PTC, and a more comprehensive installation of ATC would have prevented both the December 2013 Spuyten Duyvil and May 2015 Philadelphia deadly train derailments. Amtrak and Metro-North had installed ATC to prevent collisions, but not over-speeds of permeant speed restrictions like curves. After both incidents where speeding trains derailed at a curve, both railroads following emergancy orders from the Federal Railroad Adminstration (FRA) had within weeks had solved the lack of ATC speed enforcement, while quickly expanded their existing limited ATC installation to cover ALL permanent speed restrictions.
Sadly, in the Philadelphia southbound trains were protected by ATC at the Frankford Junction 50-mph curve because they approached it from 110-mph territory, while northbound trains were only traveling at 80-mph. Had Amtrak’s Northeast Regional Train 188 entered the curve at 80-mph, it would not have derailed. But the engineer had seemed to lose situational awareness (from possible rock strike on cab by hoodlums) and then thinking he was passing Frankford Jct. was accelerating over 100-mph as the train entered the curve. Had ATC been installed for nortbound trains it would have braked the train before entering the curve and derailing. Going forward this and other curves on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor will be protected by both ATC and the ACSES postive train control system.
Most railroads had not installed Cab Signaling or Automatic Train Control by 2008 due to the financial cost of installation verse the safety benefit; and of course, this is why both Amtrak and Metro-North had failed to FULLY PROTECT their Northeastern rail lines with CSS, ATC, and ACSES, the lifesaving technology only being partially utilized. Positive Train Control was supposed to be cheaper, faster, and easier than the existing above systems because it utilized the latest digital, wireless, and satellite technology. Yet of course it proved to be otherwise, requiring well over a decade since the 2008 federal mandate to develop, test, install, more testing, and final deployment.
Amtrak for the Northeast Corridor is meeting the PTC requirement by fully expanding its existing Acela-era ACSES system, which Metro-North is also adopting. The freight railroad CSX is installing another PTC system called Communications-Based Train Management (CBTM). Because of the competing installations of different PTC systems, Amtrak locomotives that travel through the Northeast will be required to be equipped with multiple cab signaling and train control systems, as Amtrak trains frequently travel over different host railroads on their journeys.
Yes, but only briefly & sporadically in recent times...
Currently as of this writing (July 2020) there is NOT air service between the state capital and the second largest city in the state, the last Albany-Buffalo direct air service was offered for a few months in 2018 before the bankruptcy of the airline ended service. Before OneJet there had not been direct air service in 8 years.
OneJet was a small point-to-point airline that operated under the public charter arrangement but utilized normal passenger terminals and gates of the airports served. The airline utilized a fleet of regional and corporate twin-engine jet aircraft seating either 30 or 7 passengers. The airline offered two daily roundtrips with an 8:20am and 6:10pm Albany departures and 7:00am and 4:50pm departures from Buffalo. Travel time was one hour.
In the winter of 2020, it was reported in the Buffalo and Albany news media that Southern Airways Express was negotiating with the Buffalo-Niagara International Airport on starting a Buffalo-Albany service. The commuter airline would utilize a single-engine prop-engine Cessna Caravan seating 9 passengers.
Travel time today by personnel motorcar on the NYS Thruway is 4½ hours and 5 hours by Amtrak train. The Empire Corridor High Speed Rail DEIS study in several proposed alternatives laid out passenger rail travel times of 4½ hours, 4 hours, and 2¾ hours.
Historically, several airlines have provided direct service between Buffalo & Albany over the years, with the perhaps the famous being Mohawk Airlines, which flew the route from its begining in 1953, through the end of its life in 1972. Mohawk was based out the Oneida Country Airport, which served the Utica/Rome area.
Modern Passenger Rail from France to Taiwan
ABOVE: Postage stamps featuring the High Speed Rail services of Britain, France, and Taiwan
One flaw in the American character is an insular attitude, sometimes amounting to outright ignorance, of how things are done overseas in foreign lands — and this is true of American railroading too. North America has a long and proud railroading history with today the world's best rail freight system, yet our passenger rail system has not seen the same innovations in technology and operations undertaken overseas since WWII. Passenger rail systems in Europe and East Asia can provide North America with many examples of how passenger rail can be built, operated, managed, planned, and funded. By learning lessons from the long history of modern intercity passenger rail in nations like France, Britain, Sweden, Japan, and Taiwan, the United States can avoid pitfalls and adopted best practices that can tailored to the specific needs of our nation’s intercity transportation system.
Overseas in Europe many high-speed intercity services including the French TGV, German ICE, and Eurostar are profitable on a year-to-year basis; but like government investments in airports and highways, these services depend on public support for major infrastructure projects, usually with a mix of public and private capital for new high-speed railways. These passenger rail services are helped by the higher cost of driving due to high fuel taxes and highway tolls. For example, expressways (autoroutes) in France are mostly operated through concessions by private companies. The governments also have broad influence over competing motor coach and airline services through regulation.
In the European Union there has been an effort to separate train operations from the management of infrastructure by spinning off the infrastructure to a company separate from the national railways. This EU mandate is design to encouraged competition through “open access” where private companies are allowed operate new passenger rail services in competition with the national railways, with both the national train operator and open access operator paying track access fees to the infrastructure company.
This has been most effectively done in Sweden and in Italy. In Sweden during the 1980s the government spun off the infrastructure to the Swedish Transport Administration while the former national railway – SJ AG – became a train operating company, that today competes with three private train operators under competitive tendering for local rail service contracts. While some high-speed intercity services (like the famous X2000 tilt-train) are profitable, many regional and local services are not, and nationally owned SJ remains the dominant train operator. Today in Italy the Italian national railway’s high-speed Trenitalia service competed with the private high-speed train operator NTV. As of 2015, annual ridership was 55 million for Trenitalia and 9 million for NTV, for a combined record 64 million passengers.
However, in France and Germany while the national infrastructure and train operating companies were separated into new companies, both remain subsidiaries of the original mother companies, the publicly owned Deutsche Bahn (DB) in Germany and the French National Railwat (SNCF) in France. Private competition has not taken off, instead DB and SNCF seem to be expanding into each other’s home country, as well as overseas into the UK and USA.
Interestingly – similar to Amtrak running trains for states under PRIIA Section 209, in both Germany and France regional passenger services are operated under contract by DB and the SNCF for regional governments that sponsor these generally unprofitable but socially desirable services. In Germany these are DB Regio services while in France they are called Transport Express Regional (TER) services. These regional services have recently become a hot bed of motive power innovation as new zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell trainsets are now being introduced to replace diesel trains.
One downside of the EU’s railway privatization efforts is the near death of the overnight sleeper train, once a popular mode of long-distance travel on the Continent. These services, including DB’s City Night Line became squeezed by budget airlines, high speed trains, and increased operating costs due to the new fee structure of track access. Whereas in the past the national railways had run marginally profitable overnight trains to make use of surplus track capacity at night, now they had to pay their full allocated share of the track maintenance through track access fees, making them unprofitable.
Recently however the “flight shaming” movement led by environmental activists including Greta Thunberg has rejuvenated the idea of the overnight train in Europe, with the goal of cutting carbon emissions by replacing air travel with rail. The Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) taking advantage of the fall of DB City Night Line expanded its Nightjet branded overnight sleeper train service into Northern Europe. With a system now stretching from Rome to Brussels and Berlin, OBB’s Nightjet is seeing growing ridership as it moves to acquire new equipment. According to the New York Times passenger numbers have doubled since Nightjet began operating in 2016, with Nightjet carrying 1.4 million people on the service in 2018.
In the Post-War Era the British government nationalized its struggling private railways into a single state-owned company called British Rail, that was then privatized in 1994. Since the privatization Great Britain likely has had the most complex system of funding and organization. In place of a unified vertically integrated railway, Britain now has private train operating companies running franchise passenger services over tracks owned and maintained by the publicly owned Network Rail.
The private train operating companies pay Network Rail track access fees and the British Treasury for the right to run passenger franchises. The train operating companies don’t who their rollingstock (trainsets and locomotives) but lease them from rollingstock companies. The Treasury then makes payments to Network Rail for the capital costs of the franchise train services, and direct payments to the train operating companies running unprofitable, but socially desirable franchise services.
In the 1960s falling patronage and rising costs led to the closure of many rural stations and passenger services, leading to a public backlash. This led to the concept of the “social railway”, the commuter and rural passenger services that never could be profitable, but whose broader social benefits compared to buses justify continual government support. Some lines abandon by British Rail have since become heritage railways, the British equivalent of America’s tourist railroads.
On the other hand, succeeding British governments from the sixties to the nineties pushed British Rail to run its intercity passenger and freight services at a profit. The result was British Rail becoming by the early 1990s the least subsidized national railway in Europe, despite extensive modernization, including running more high-speed trains then France with the TGV and Japan with its Bullet Trains. The Conservative government of Prime Minister John Major hoped to do better by privatizing the national railway.
The post-British Rail privatization scheme has had both its successes and failures. On the plus side the train operating companies – including Virgin Trains and First Group – have done a good job at marketing and expanding rail services, with intercity ridership more than doubling from 54 million in 1994/95 to 124 million in 2011/12. Scotland has been very successful in taking charge of its passenger rail services by creating ScotRail, a unified national franchise privately operated under contract and direct supervision by the Transport Scotland.
However, the overall government funding of the railways doubled in the first twenty years of privatization. British Rail was divided into over a hundred separate private companies, including initially Railtrack, a private and publicly traded company that owned the infrastructure of tracks and stations was created. After several deadly train wrecks due to poor maintenance, Railtrack went bankrupt, being nationalized into a new company called Network Rail. The outsourcing of infrastructure planning and maintenance during Railtrack led to a brain drain of institutional knowledge from British Rail that help led several major infrastructure projects to greatly overbudget and overtime well into Network Rail’s period of existence.
Ironically, some of the most profitable passenger services have been those operated directly by the government when private franchises failed. Franchise failure has been a continual problem, occuring when projected future revenues failed to meet the agreed upon fixed franchise payments to the British Treasury, causing the private train operating companies to withdraw from their contracts to avoid losses.
There are also complaints of poor connections and through ticketing between trains of the separate franchises, compared to the unified timetabling, ticketing, and fares of British Rail. Dissatisfaction with the railways is so high that bringing back British Rail through renationalization is a popular idea. However, despite political, media, and grassroots support, this seems unlikely to occur soon, although some argue that given how involved the Department of Transport is with the railway services – from Network Rail to the franchising model and then the financial support during the 2019 COVID-19 Pandemic – that that the rail system is essentially nationalized already, only in a haphazard fashion.
Instead the British Government looks like it will try to either improve the existing franchising system by including flexible in contractual terms concerning the franchise payments, allowing for longer-term franchises of over a decade, and improving the relationship between the private train operating companies and the public infrastructure company Network Rai by forming joint ventures. Or the goverment could switch to the concession model used by Transport for London (TfL) for its London Overground commuter rail service. Under the Department for Transport's intercity rail franchsing contract scheme the train operating company retains both fare income and risk while promising the goverment to meet certain set service performance and dividen franchise payment goals. With a concession “management contracts” the goverment sets fares and timetables while receiving the fare income directly, then paying the train operating company based on performance with penalties and bonuses.
Britain only has two overnight sleeper trains – the London-Penzance Cornish Night Riviera Express and the London-Scotland Caledonian Sleeper – but has avoided the survival problems seen in Europe. In the case of the Caledonian Sleeper is operated by a private company as part of the ScotRail franchise, with the Scottish government underwrites the service. Furthermore, the British government just funded the acquisition of new trainsets for the service from the Spanish rail manufacturer CAF, the builder of Amtrak’s new Viewliner baggage, sleeper, and dining cars in use on the New York-Boston-Chicago Lake Shore Limited.
In Japan, dense population and economic activity in tight geography as allowed some for-profit private railways to thrive in the age of the car. Also, as in Europe the cost of auto ownership in Japan is much higher than America, including gas prices and tolls on the privatized expressway system. Unlike the current British rail system, in Japan the passenger railways are mostly vertically integrated, with the same company owning, maintaining, and operating trains over the infrastructure. Diversifying into various businesses including real estate and hospitality also helps these private railways thrive.
Japan’s railways evolved from two entities, the private interurban railways that organically grew and merged into larger regional systems from the early 20th Century, and the former Japan National Railways (JNR) which was privatized in the 1980s. While JNR had successfully modernized the national railway system – including building the world’s first high-speed railway, the Shinkansen – it suffered from inefficient operations, lackluster management, labor problems, and being a source of pork barrel projects for the Diet (parliament), leading to a serious debt problem.
Seeing the commercial success of the independent private interurban railways, the Japanese government decided on a dramatic series of semi-privatization reforms to place the national rail system on a sustainable financial footing. This included taking politician’s hands out of the cookie jar that JNR had become, JNR being mandated by the Diet to build new railways into sparsely populated rural districts of influential Diet members.
The railway reform process overseen by the Japan Railway Construction, Transport and Technology Agency (JRTT), and the actions undertaken where similar to a combination of the Staggers Rail Act of 1980 which greatly reduce regulation of the American freight railroads and the US Government’s 2009 bailout of General Motors. The Japanese government divided JNR into six regional passenger railways and one national freight company, these new railways being part of the greater JR Group. Surplus assets like former freight yards were to be sold off to help pay off the massive inherited debt of JNR.
Three of the companies – JR East, JR Central, and JR West – serving the highly populated central island Kyushu were swiftly privatized, becoming publicly traded blue-chip companies. A dedicated trust fund – the Rail Stabilization Fund – was created to support passenger rail services in rural regions of the country, such as the northern island of Hokkaido. Due to their unprofitability JR Hokkaido and JR Shikoku remain to this day wards of the JRTT. Another problem is that the long period of long intrest rates in financial markets after 2008 Great Recession has reduce support from the Rail Stabilization Fund, leading to JR Hokkaido to threaten to cut rural services unless the Prefecture of Hokkaido provides additional finincial support.
However, in 2016 JR Kyushu executed its initial public offering having reach profitability by cutting costs, creating new tourist-oriented train services, starting a popular ferry service, building a new Shinkansen line, and diversifying into hotels, restaurants, drugstores, and bakeries. Non-railway operations account for roughly 60% of the company's sales and most of its profits.
Japan’s famed Shinkansen “Bullet Train” has also been financially extraordinarily successful since the first line it started service in 1964, the revenue from the Shinkansen being the foundation of the profitability of the private JR Group companies. The Shinkansen lines built before the 1980s privatization are directly owned by the JR Group railways that operate them.
As part of the 1980 reforms the construction of new Shinkansen lines undergo a careful planning process involving the JR Group railways, the central government, and local government. Project construction is funded by the local governments (1/3) and the central government (2/3), with the new line then being long-term leased from the JRTT to the JR Group company that will operate the new train services. Besides new Shinkansen lines the JRTT also helps finance other railway infrastructure in Japan.
To prevent building financially unviable railways, the government approves construction when the project satisfies the following criteria: (1) Stable financial resources are secured for the project; (3) The project is profitable with operating costs covered by the revenue from fares; (4) the investment is effective with the benefits greater than the costs; (5) the construction is agreed by the JR Group operator; and (6) there are consents of concerned local governments to terminating operations of parallel JR conventional lines that become superfluous.
The last criteria above refers to the third type of Japanese railway company, the third-sector operator. As part of the 1980s reforms the new JR Group railways could shed rail lines with light traffic and high costs, replacing trains with buses. However local governments were given the right to take over local rail operations by setting up a “third sector company” to operate the railway, with operating subsidies provided by the local government. While these services all require public support, there is a great incentive of railway management to reduce that support to a fiscally sustainable level for the local government while maximizing the broader economic benefits, leading to some highly creative marketing and tourist-oriented services and attractions.
Some of these third sector companies have taken over former JR mainlines. For example, the extension of the Tohoku Shinkansen led to the creation of the Iwate Galaxy Railway Line and Aoimori Railway Line. Another third sector railway example is the Sanriku Railway, which in 1984 took over several former JNR lines along Japan’s scenic rugged northeastern coast of Tohoku.
A good lesson in the pitfalls of relying too much on private financing is the Taiwan Shinkansen. The high-speed line was initially planned by the island’s government before being built by a private company – the Taiwan High Speed Rail Corporation – as a “build–operate–transfer” 35-year concession at the cost of US $17.82 billion. The decision not to have national railway – the Taiwan Railways Administration – but a private company (under concession with public support) differed from most other high-speed projects built that have been built by national railways in South Korea, China, Spain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco.
Opening in 2007 the 216-mile line connects the capital Taipei in the north with the southern industrial port city of Kaohsiung, its twelve stations reaching 90 percent of Taiwan’s population. With a top speed of 186-mph (300-kph), the 12-car Bullet Trains make 997 runs per week. The limited-stop express services make the run in 1 hour and 45 minutes. The new stadard gauge high-speed railway was built a good distance inland from the populated coastal strip of cities along the island's west coast and served by the existing Taiwan Railways Administration's existing double-track, electrified, narrow gauge, 80-mph mainline that hosts a mix traffic of intercity, commuter, and freight trains. Taking advantage of the rural land around the shiny new stations, a large scheme of transit-oriented development is being undertaken by the THSRC.
However, while the shiny new high-speed railway seemed a great success initial ridership and revenues failed to meet projections, causing a financial crisis for the Taiwan High Speed Rail Corporation due to high interest rates on the construction debt and the artificially high straight-line depreciation charges based on the 35-year length of the concession, opposed to the actual service lifespan of the infrastructure and equipment. To avoid bankruptcy the government orchestrated a bailout, changing the conditions of the concession including increasing the concession length to 70 years, and investing a billion US dollars into the company, increasing its 37 percent ownership stake in THSRC to 64 percent.
This initial financial failure was even though the first year in ridership was $15 million, which doubled to 30 million in 2008, and rose to 56 million in 2016. The THSRC became profitable in 2011. Ridership in 2019 was 67.4 million with an operating income of $1.4 billion USD net income of $173 million USD. A similar failure occurred in the UK where High Speed 1 built by a private company under concession with the British government to connect the Channel Tunnel with St. Pancras International Station had to be nationalized by the government due to its inability to finance its construction debt, only to be privatized a few years later, sold to a consortium of pension funds.
Overall, the public investment in passenger rail must be judge based on comparing the narrow financial costs of supporting the service to the broad social benefits of having rail service, including economic growth, energy independence, and environmental sustainability. While road and air have their benefits, they also have their negative externalities of congestion and pollution. These two transport modes also see beyond various dedicated tolls, taxes, and other user fees significant federal, state, and local investment of public tax dollars.
There is no one solution to organizing and funding passenger rail services. Many nations have done well modernizing intercity passenger services and building high-speed railways with state-owned railways, that in form and function are much like Amtrak or Metro-North in the USA. Japan National Railways, British Rail pioneered high speed rail in the sixties and seventies. Despite EU rail privatization policy, many European nations see their rail services dominated by the legacy state-owned railways, including SJ in Sweden, DB in Germany, and the SNCF in France.
The lesson from overseas is that private enterprise can play an important role in the modernization and expansion of intercity passenger rail services, bringing in expertise and motivation for aggressive marketing and efficient operations. High speed trains once up and running can for many city pairs bring in sufficient revenue to cover their operating costs and contribute significantly to paying off the startup investment construction costs of their infrastructure.
However, government leadership and public funding has usually proved indispensable in the successful completion of most high-speed rail projects and their stable financial operation. Placing too much of the debt burden on operating profits led to financial failure in the UK (High Speed 1) and Taiwan (Taiwan Shinkansen) for otherwise remarkably successful passenger rail projects. The formula utilized in France and Japan of a mix of private and public management and financing has proven the most stable way of building new railways as part of a public-private partnership.
You like ‘potato’ and I like ‘potahto’
You like ‘tomato’ and I like ‘tomahto’
Potato, potahto, Tomato, tomahto.
Let's call the whole thing off
—Lyrics from “Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" by George & Ira Gershwin
The words “railroad” and “railway” are interchangeable and mean the same thing and represent a slight difference in terminology between the United States of America and the rest of the English-speaking world including Canada. As Winston Churchill said, the British and their American cousins are: “two peoples separated by a common language”.
Beyond the word railway the British commonly use different words then Americans to describe the common parts of rail transport. For example: carriage instead passenger car or coach; goods wagon instead of freight car; bogie instead of truck; shunting instead of switching; trunk line instead of main line; sleeper instead of cross-tie; level crossing instead of grade crossing; and finally navvies instead gandy dancers. The last two words are both traditional slang terms for railroad construction and maintenance workers. The British word “navvy” was borrowed from canal workers and is short for navigational engineer, even though it refers to the manual laborers and not civil engineers who oversaw the design and construction. The American word “gandy dancer” refers to the “dancing motions” made by track workers working in unison with long metal bars called a gandy as a lever to keep the track in alignment.
Back to the origin of the words railway and railroad. Before the invention of the steam locomotive in England coal mines utilized primitive railways (think Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) where men or horses could push or pull carts of coal out of the mine to a storage area and transit point, for example a canal dock or seaport. These guideways utilize wood rails and were called “wagonways” and “tramways”. In the late 1700s as solid iron rails replaced wooden rails the colliery wagonways increasingly began to be called rail-ways and rail-roads.
Beginning about 1800 inventors began experimenting with steam engines that instead of being stationary – usually pumping out mines put sometimes hauling wagons with ropes or cables – could provide mobile locomotive power by being mounted on wheels. Combined with tracks such powered mechanical machines could haul a considerable amount of weight at a faster speed than a horse. Tinkering eventually created commercially viable steam locomotives by the mid-1820s.
In 1830 the Liverpool and Manchester Railway – built by the “father of railways” George Stephenson – opened for commercial service as a common carrier for both freight and passengers in England. As the first “inter-city” line connecting two major cities, the L&MR was first fully modern railway in that: it relied exclusively on mechanical steam power (no horses) from the start; it was the first to be fully timetabled; the first to be entirely double track throughout its length; the first to have a signaling system; and finally in a vote of confidence in the new transport system by the government, it was the first to carry the mail. It was soon followed by many other new trunk lines in Britain, which following the L&MR incorporated the word railway into their corporate name.
According to Michael Quinion the British etymologist and writer, a graduate of Cambridge University and formerly of the BBC who today now runs the linguistics website ‘World Wide Words”; both words where interchangeably used in Britain up to the 1830s when the word railway finally started to prevail in British English while railroad became the dominant term in American English.
The first common carrier railroads open in the United States at roughly the same time as those in the United Kingdom, including the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, where construction began on the July 4th 1828. The Mohawk & Hudson Railroad between Albany and Schenectady in Upstate New York was incorporated on April 17, 1826 and open for public service on August 9, 1831 utilizing the steam locomotive DeWitt Clinton. Initially it provided a short cut for Erie Canal passengers, allowing them to avoid the slow journey through the flights of locks in Cohoes where the Mohawk River empties into the Hudson. But by the 1850s it had been merged along with other railroads paralleling the canal from Albany to Buffalo into the mighty New York Central Railroad.
Around 1900 in the United States it was not uncommon to reserve the word railway for urban streetcar systems and electric interurbans for example Los Angeles’ famous “Red Car” system, the Pacific Electric Railway. However, this convention was far from universally accepted or practiced. Often railroad companies change their names from railroad to railway or vice versa when mergers, takeovers, or bankruptcy reorganizations required them to distinguish themselves from earlier companies. This occurred both to the transcontinental railroad Union Pacific and the South Shore Line, a Chicago area commuter line that is America’s last surviving interurban. Some mainline railroads like the Delaware & Hudson Railway (D&H) were always railways from their corporate founding.
To end with, the French word for railway is chemin de fer or “way of iron” and their national railway company the SNCF is thus the Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français or in strait English translation the Society National of Paths Iron of France. The Japanese word for railway is tetsudō and Swedish word is järnväg, both meaning literally “iron road”.