Gooze Views

Peter Galuszka


Forget Passenger Rail


Norfolk Southern's CEO provides clarity regarding the high cost of infrastructure and the lack of political will to pay for it. So much for the dreamy-eyed fantasies of those pricey consultants.   


For Charles W. Moorman, it was a moment of truth. When the president and CEO of rail giant Norfolk Southern spoke at The World Affairs Council of Greater Richmond early this month, question after question popped up about what, if anything, a profitable freight hauler like NS could do to boost passenger rail. After all, passenger rail service is seen by many as the no-brainer panacea for severe car traffic congestion and pollution.


Trying to be diplomatic, Moorman dodged and weaved. Virginia, he said, has always been good to the Norfolk- based railroad, which runs more than 21,000 miles of track in 22 eastern states and Canada. “North Carolina,” he allowed, “brings money to the table to add trains.” California likewise has spent millions for one of the best regional rail passenger service in the country.


Yet the questions kept coming. Finally, Moorman laid it on the line. Bringing passenger service to any appreciable level beyond Amtrak would require tremendous infrastructure costs. “There isn’t the political will to do it,” he said. And, freight carriers like NS owe it to their shareholders to stay profitable with what they do best.


Finally, a moment of clarity, I thought, since I was the one who asked the question. It might not be what many people want to hear, but Moorman should be saluted for his honesty.


Why? Every consultant that comes down the pike cites improving high speed rail as a panacea for ills of all sorts. There are dreamy plans for gleaming new locomotives whisking people from Washington to Richmond and points south, conjuring up images of the old purple and aluminum Atlantic Coast Line streamliners with their sloped-nosed E-6 diesels. Or, the bright, citrus-colored Seaboard Air Line ones, such as the “Orange Blossom Special.” New liners could fly down former Southern Railway lines from D.C. to Charlotte and Atlanta, following the famous route of the crack green and cream liveried Southern Crescent passenger speedster.


Want the latest in passenger rail delusions? Check out the report that Dallas consultant James Crupi prepared for Richmond economic development authorities and so-called business “leaders” at a cost of $150,000. Crupi calls for a “dedicated high speed passenger rail system that connects Richmond International Airport and the city of Richmond with Washington/Dulles International Airport.” The rail link would “capture” a major international and freight airport while turning Richmond’s airport into the fourth D.C.-area air terminal.


Crupi sees this new rail link whisking commuters lightning-fast (an hour one way) from their lucrative defense and government jobs in the D.C. area to better and more affordable housing in the Richmond area. The line would create a new military-industrial job crescent from Tysons Corner all the way down to Ft. Lee near Petersburg. Crupi did not hazard a cost estimate for the line.


Gee, what kind of loco (motive) weed do they smoke down there in Dallas? Virginia is a state ripped apart by dogmatic, anti-tax Republicans who can barely fund even routine transportation projects. The Virginia Department of Transportation budget’s is becoming mostly maintenance. The state has turned to highly controversial regional tax authorities to try and build road projects in clogged Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.


True, the state does help the beneficial Virginia Railway Express serving Northern Virginia commuters, but there’s no way that the state will fund anywhere close to the money needed to put in any of the fantasy passenger rail projects. Nationally, only about 13 states help fund intra-state rail service, including North Carolina and California. The collective price tag was about $345 million annually in 2003.


At the World Affairs Council address, Moorman declined to estimate what any of the intra-state rail projects in Virginia might cost. In some ways, it’s unfair to ask him. Most of the best potential passenger routes are in the purview of CSX, NS’s arch rival. CSX had been based in Richmond until it skeedadled down to Florida after CEO John Snow split for D.C. to become Treasury Secretary. Amtrak regularly blames CSX for its constant delays on Virginia lines. 


To get an idea of just how costly rail infrastructure improvements are, consider that NS’s capital budget is on the order of $1.4 billion – far above what total state rail spending is for passenger service. Moorman estimates that it will cost $150 billion nationwide to handle freight rail upgrades needed to handle new business flowing in from the booming global economy.


Just one NS project which has already been covered in Bacon's Rebellion would cost $2 to $3 billion. Called the “Crescent,” NS wants to upgrade rail lines that roughly follow Interstate 81 and on, linking what Moorman calls “Austin to Boston.” Another leg would link the I-81 corridor with Memphis, a major east-west transshipping point. Moorman says the project might take a million truck loads off the highways annually, which may be a good thing for Virginia motorists on truck-clogged and safety-challenged I-81.


NS also is heavily investing in another route called the “Heartland” that would improve container shipments from Hampton Roads to Columbus, Ohio and the Midwest. Doing so involves adding double tracks and making mountain tunnels higher so more efficient double-stacked trains can move through.


For Virginia, one of the major drivers is the explosion of imports arriving at Hampton Roads, which Moorman notes has exceptional qualities. Trade from places such as China is so brisk that Danish carrier Maersk recently opening the most expensive port facility ever in the U.S. Federal funding seems likely to turn the old dredge spoil site of Craney Island into a mammoth new container facility.


Moorman says the U.S. must keep up with emerging economic giants such as China and India, which plan enormous transport improvements. He notes he recently visited an island about 20 miles off Shanghai that was being dynamited to make one great container terminal that would have the capacity of the entire Norfolk area. That’s what emerging economies are doing. If U.S. East Coast ports, including those in Virginia, want a piece of the coming action, they’ll have to keep coming up with big money as the railroads must.


Too bad such big questions have to be answered by such little people, particularly the anti-tax zealots in the state’s Republican Party, many of whom live in the distant past and can’t comprehend how the global economy is changing equations. As for passenger rail, forget it.


-- December 10, 2007

















Peter Galuszka is a veteran journalist living in Chesterfield County. View his profile here.


(Photo credit: Maria Galuszka.)