June 12, 2024 - TRA Newswire - A fourth and final working group meeting of the Federal Railroad Administration's Amtrak Long-DIstance Passenger Rail Study wrapped up today in Dallas, highlighting 15 potential routes to link cities and towns across the country.

The FRA study, which was required under the Infrastructure Law, will now be finalized and a report delivered to Congress later this year. FRA officials cautioned that it is only the first step in a long process to bring back passenger rail service to many underserved cities and communities in Texas and around the country that have been without train service for over half a century.

Texas would be a major beneficiary of increased conventional long-distance passenger rail service with more than half of the 15 proposed routes originating in the state and would make the Dallas-Fort Worth market a significant hub for cross-country rail passengers. Under the vision, service would also be increased to daily from tri-weekly on the Sunset Limited, which roughly follows the growing I-10 corridor through South Texas. 

With potential new service originating or passing through the Dallas-Fort Worth region, there would be an increase from one daily long-distance train, the Texas Eagle, to five new overnight trains. That equates to a 257% increase in direct connections to other towns and cities across the country from present service. 

The FRA team unveiled how the 15 routes would be prioritized, based on metrics of complexity, benefits and costs.

Three of the top 4 routes that made the cut originate in Texas. Those are Houston-New York; Dallas/Fort Worth-New York and Houston to Denver. 

Here's how the metrics determined the top contenders: Complexity, weighed at 40%, would involve the number of host railroads involved and track improvements required. Benefits, weighed at 50%, include new long distance cities served, connectivity demand and shared improvements with stations and segments as well as access to colleges, medical centers and tribal lands. The final 10% weight was for the continuing operational and maintenance costs by route mile and does not include capital costs.  

The study specifically focused on regular Amtrak service that mainly operates on freight railroads and did not include high-speed rail projects.  In February, the FRA put out a draft map that showed conceptual routes, or what the agency calls a Proposed Network of Preferred Routes. 

Arun Rao, Director of Network Development for Amtrak, said "we stand ready to help a coalition that want this study to be the foundation of an increase in passenger rail service. "

The FRA was tasked with looking at three sets of criteria for determining any future expansion of passenger trains. Those were routes that were previously discontinued since the formation of Amtrak in 1971, trains that operate less than seven days a week, and to evaluate any new routes that would be beneficial to underserved areas.

So far the federal rail agency has received over 47,000 comments in a 5 week period regarding the study, which shows an amazing amount of support for long-distance passenger rail. 

The public benefits of increased train service include reaching more rural areas that are underserved by surface and air modes, access to more educational facilities for student travel, medical centers for those in need of treatment, military installations, and national parks. 

Katie List, FRA Lead on the Long-Distance Service Study, said that less than 10% Amtrak of travelers go from end to end. List pointed out that the majority of passengers originate and end their journey at various intermediate stations, unlike airlines that only fly point to point. 

There are things that this vision is not, according to List. It is not a national rail plan and does not create new corridors that require greenfield construction. It does point out estimated capital costs that include infrastructure needs to implement routes like Class 4 track, signals, positive train control, stations and vehicles.

Expansion of the tri-weekly Sunset Limited would require an additional 4 trainsets, according to the study. It would include a return to Phoenix, the largest U.S. city with no intercity passenger rail service. 

A proposed Minneapolis-St Paul train through the I-35 corridor would terminate at San Antonio. On this iteration of the study, Laredo was not included as an end point. Texas Rail Advocates President Peter LeCody, who attended the meeting, pointed out that the Mexican government is studying the feasibility of passenger rail service between Monterrey and the border at Laredo and the FRA team needs to relook at this since Laredo was included in the I-35 Texas Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study, which TxDOT and the FRA completed five years ago.

The FRA announced that Little Rock, Arkansas, which is not on a preferred potential route, generated some 100 comments on the study. There were also a number of public comments received in support of Tulsa, which does appear on the map.

Amtrak's Arun likened the expansion of long-distance service to the federal government asking a question, some 89 years ago. "Did only some parts of the U.S. deserve a service that was available in only some places? Should we tell people sorry but you need to move where service is and that it will never get to where you are? That service was electricity and now nearly everyone who wants to be on the grid is on it."

Arun said that Congress has the power to expand the Amtrak network. "It won't be easy, quick, or cheap but at Amtrak we're looking forward to finding how it is possible." 

The long-distance study is a first step in a long process that could have a 15+ year timeline. Next steps include a service development plan for each route, then project development including construction and finally operation of the route. Cooperation with Class 1 and Short Line railroads will be essential in moving this forward. 

Based upon the public input on the long-distance study, the FRA is also looking at the possibility of establishing a long-distance public committee that would supply an overview of current and future Amtrak service. 

When the study is finalized, the public will be able to view it on this website: https://fralongdistancerailstudy.org/