Much of North America’s rail passenger growth is occurring in urban rail systems. Two Greater Cleveland RTA Blue Line trains pass in July 2013 at the Lynnfield station.
If you focus on Amtrak, it might seem that passenger rail in North America is in jeopardy.
Amtrak faces a multitude of woes including falling ridership on some routes due to delays caused by freight train congestion and a new Congress that may be more hostile to funding the nation’s rail passenger network.
But if you take into account city rail systems, the rail passenger outlook in North America is much brighter than it might appear.
In an analysis published by Railway Age, the magazine reported that not only are North American rail systems growing, but so is the scope of those rail networks along with the size of their fleets.
That has resulted in strong competition among suppliers to meet the needs of those systems. In fact, the magazine reported, the number of global equipment suppliers seeking to cash in on the growth of North American rail systems is expanding, too.
That includes suppliers from China that have been courting the North American markets.
“The numbers counter pessimistic claims that North America’s rail renaissance had run its course in 2014,” the magazine observed. “Indeed, 2014 saw several huge orders for new equipment that added to a backlog of healthy equipment orders from previous years, judging by the numbers of Railway Age’s 2015 Passenger Railcar Outlook.”
The order books of rail car manufactures are filling up with orders from coast to coast, including orders from BART in the San Francisco Bay area and the Boston-based MBTA system.
New urban rail systems are being established in cities where no rail transit systems now exist. In some instances, city governments have gone forward with plans to establish rail systems without a corresponding or outside “agency” or even “authority” to do so.
That triggered grumbling by some old line transit systems about the manner in which the Federal Transit Administration has been encouraging these city government efforts.
How widespread are these efforts by cities to start laying rail and running streetcars and light rail transit systems?
A short list of cities eyeing streetcar purchases and/or new systems includes Anaheim and Santa Ana, Calif., Miami and Miami Beach, as well as St. Augustine, Fla., Grand Rapids, Mich., Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., Winston-Salem, N.C., Providence, R.I., and El Paso, Texas. On the brink of coming to fruition are systems in Oklahoma City, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Milwaukee.
Rails are being laid in Charlotte, N.C., and in Detroit. In Ohio, the Cincinnati streetcar system is under construction, having survived efforts by the newly-elected mayor to kill the project.
Some proposed city rail systems are likely to fall victim to NIMBY opposition and/or forces trying to kill rail transit for ideological reasons.
Rail systems are expensive and opponents have seized on that with a vengeance in seeking to scuttle proposed streetcar and light rail systems.
Anti-rail forces succeeded in killing a streetcar project in San Antonio and Tampa Bay voters rejected an effort to create a light rail transit system. The St. Louis Loop trolley project may be the next to fall by the wayside.
Much media attention was also paid to the challenges facing three rail projects in the Washington, D.C., area.
This included a pair of proposed streetcar proposals that died in Arlington, Va., the threatened status of the Purple Line light rail transit project spanning two Maryland counties northeast of Washington, and the District’s slow-to-open streetcar line on H Street.
Railway Age said that media accounts cited these examples and concluded that that U.S. urban rail transit growth had peaked.
“But such setbacks failed to encompass the full breadth of U.S. rail passenger progress,” the magazine said, noting that even as San Antonio’s streetcar plan faltered the project in El Paso continues to move ahead.
Urban rail projects as well as intercity and high-speed rail projects continue to face the challenge of obtaining federal funding.
The FY 2015 budget approved by Congress reduced TIGER spending from $600 million to $500 million. That means stiffer competition for those dollars.
The budget bill also funded Amtrak at levels comparable to what it received in FY 2014. Railway Age termed that a modest victory given how much flack Amtrak has taken over its long-distance trains.
Amtrak will be seeking to order new high-speed trains this year to upgrade its Northeast Corridor service.
Funding for passenger rail equipment also continues to come from state governments and regional compacts.
Last year California and some Midwest states added to their order with car builder Nippon Sharyo by adding 45 bi-level intercity cars to an existing 130-car order.
California will add 11 cars to its initial 42-car order while the Midwest states will boost their 88-car order by 34 cars.
With so much interest in passenger rail equipment, Railway Age observed that the days have ended when “build it new” was the only option for suppliers to North American passenger rail entities.
Suppliers are finding a brisk market for retrofitting existing rail cars while also building new equipment for transit agencies that will work alongside the existing fleets.
Such is the approach being taken by Kawasaki Heavy Rail Industries. It will build up to 440 R-188 cars at a factory in Yonkers, N.Y., for use in New York City. But Kawasaki will also be retrofitting numerous R-142 cars that have been in operation for several years.
Kinkisharyo will deliver 35 “mid-section” light rail transit cars to New Jersey Transit for use with existing rolling stock on the Newark Light Rail and Hudson-Bergen Light Rail lines. This will enable N.J. Transit to increase capacity on those routes.
Earlier, Kinkisharyo used a similar approach for Dallas Area Rapid Transit’s enhancement of its existing light rail transit fleet.
There remain, of course, plenty of new car orders to be had. Bombardier continues to work on building 300 new R-179 subway cars for MTA New York City Transit. It also won a BART add-on order of 365 rapid transit cars.
China’s CNS Changchun landed a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority contract to supply 284 rapid transit cars for Boston’s “T” system.
A bid is expected this year by at least one Chinese firm, likely in a joint venture, to manufacture high speed rail trains for California.