For more than 150 years the rail network has been a critical component of the U.S. transportation system and economy. Today it carries approximately one-third of U.S. exports and delivers five million tons of freight and approximately 85,000 passengers each day. The private freight rail industry owns the vast majority of the nation’s rail infrastructure, and continues to make significant capital investment — $27.1 billion in 2015 — to ensure the network’s good condition. U.S. rail still faces clear challenges, most notably in passenger rail, which faces the dual problems of aging infrastructure and insufficient funding.
The U.S. rail network is comprised of nearly 140,000 miles of track and over 100,000 bridges. The system can be divided into two categories: private freight railroads and intercity passenger rail, operated almost exclusively by Amtrak.
Through both public and private investment, funding for freight and passenger rail has been growing over the past five years. But despite this increase in funding, the amount needed to maintain, modernize, and expand capacity has not been met.
Rail accidents and derailments are down nearly 50% over the last decade. Railroads have been reconfiguring highway-rail crossings to separate the two and improve safety. While fewer people are being killed or sustaining injuries in highway-rail crossing incidents, 237 people were killed and 991 people were injured in 2015. To further improve safety and reduce accidents associated with operator error, like the 2015 Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia which cost eight lives, the federal government has required the installation of positive train control (PTC) by 2018. PTC is a signal technology designed to prevent collisions and ensure safe operating speeds and will be required for all lines carrying passengers.
At the state and regional level, rail should be a part of multimodal strategic plans and capital investment programs that supports a role for both freight and passenger rail.
Support a regulatory and financial environment that encourages continued private investment in the nation’s freight railroad system.
Use innovative financing methods like revenue bonds and tax exempt financing at the state and local levels, public-private partnerships, and state infrastructure banks to increase funding for freight and passenger rail.
Develop state-level short line assistance programs with low-interest loans and grants to modernize these rail lines to permit 286,000 pound loads and increase allowable speeds, continue the federal Railroad Track Maintenance Tax Credit.
Establish a federal rail trust fund to fund rail improvements, including matching provisions to encourage participation by states as well as private companies.
Improve passenger rail in dense corridor markets in a balanced investment program with air, bus, and automobile travel.