The Public Benefits of Passenger Trains

By Kay Chase, Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers

September, 2007

 The transportation system in the U.S. is facing daunting challenges which demand new solutions – solutions that include greater reliance on rail to move both people and goods.

 The challenges include increasing highway congestion, cancellations and delays at airports, rising fuel costs, greenhouse gas emissions, and, particularly in Michigan, an aging population and inadequate financial resources for highway maintenance and construction. All of these are making travel more time consuming, costly, polluting, and dangerous.

 In the period 1990-2001, vehicle travel on Michigan interstate highways increased 33%, while lane miles increased only 3% (TRIP, page 3). Highway traffic is expected to increase another 40% by 2026 if no new capacity is added. This will result in congested conditions on two-thirds of the state’s urban interstates and one-third of the rural interstates (TRIP, page 5).

 Michigan faces two additional challenges: (1) an aging population, and (2) severe financial constraints that are hampering maintenance of the existing system, let alone allowing for future road expansion.

 A report prepared in 2006 for the Michigan Department of Transportation states “The dominant socioeconomic change in Michigan is expected to be the increase in aging and retired populations.”     (SocioecTR, page 30)

 Consequently, MDOT predicts a tripling of highway fatalities among persons 65 or older in the next 25 years if present trends continue.     (SafetyTR, page 20)

 On the subject of safety, it is worth noting that “There has not been a single passenger death, other than from natural causes, on a Michigan train since Amtrak’s inception.” (personal communication, John DeLora, Executive Director of the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers).

 It is not unreasonable to assume that commuter and passenger trains will assume a greater role in Michigan’s future transportation system. The state of Michigan, along with other states throughout the Midwest, appears ready to place greater reliance on off-highway solutions to meet future transportation needs.

 The recently completed Michigan State Long Range Transportation Plan (MichSLRP)    foresees a revenue gap that will hamper both maintenance and repair of existing roads and bridges and the ability to add new capacity to the system. With nearly 60% of the state’s interstate highways in fair condition or worse – and with the looming bankruptcy of the Federal Highway Trust Fund – the need for new solutions is critical.

 The State Long Range Plan proposes investing “in all transportation modes” and acknowledges the need for “adding new capital . . . expanding transit and rail passenger service.”  (MichSLRP “Preferred Vision”, p.18)

 Because travel by rail is safe, energy efficient, cost effective, and convenient, it seems clear that the state’s rail system offers the greatest potential for meeting future travel needs, given the challenges outlined above.

 The transportation sector accounts for nearly a third of U.S. energy consumption. Cars and light trucks account for 60% of U.S. energy consumption, domestic air carriers 7%, Class I freight railroads 2%, and commuter- and intercity-rail a tiny 0.2%.     (ORNL, Table 2.6)

 On the basis on energy consumed per passenger mile, passenger rail (Amtrak) is 27% more efficient than cars, 57% more efficient than light trucks, and 43% more efficient than certified route airlines.

                       Transportation Mode        Btu per passenger mile

                       Personal trucks                         4,329

                      Certified air route                     3.959

                      Cars                                          3,496

                      Intercity rail (Amtrak)              2,760

                           Source: Transportation Energy Data Book, Edition 26 (2007), Table 2.12

 Technical improvements in equipment and changes in operating procedures have allowed Amtrak to cut its fuel use 10% over the period 2004-2006 – even while carrying more people on more trains (AMTRK-1).

 Despite these efficiencies, rising fuel prices added $43 million to operating expenses over the period. This fact highlights the need for excellent track and signal maintenance and efficient dispatching to avoid fuel-wasting delays while enroute.

 Growing concern with greenhouse gas emissions and the implications for global climate change make it likely that carbon will be regulated in the near future. Because the transportation sector accounts for almost a third of U.S. energy use, the highest share recorded since 1970  (ORNL, Table 2.1), and a third of the carbon dioxide emissions (ORNL, Table 11.4), the need for fundamental change is clear.

 Passenger train travel, being more fuel efficient on a per passenger mile basis, will emit far less carbon dioxide.

 For a trip of 280 miles, roughly the distance between Chicago and Detroit, one standard 5-car passenger train carrying 300 passengers will emit 19.5 tons less CO2 than 191 automobiles carrying an equivalent number of passengers and almost 13 tons less CO2 than the two airplanes needed to carry the same number of passengers (adapted from GHG spreadsheet developed by ELPC).

 gal.fuel useda  x  CO2 factorb  =  CO2 emissions per vehicle

CO2 emissions per vehicle  x  no.vehicles to move 300 people  =  lbs. CO2

 Intercity Train (diesel)  –  a 5-car train will move 310 people

(281c x 1.75)  x  22.384 = 11,007  x  1 = 11,007 lbs  or  5.5 tons CO2

 Automobile  –  at 1.57 passengers per automobile, 191 vehicles needed to move 300

(279 / 20.8)  x 19.594  =  263  x  191  =  50,199 lbs.  or  25 tons CO2

 Air  –  a Boeing 737-700 seats149 in all economy configuration

(0.9 hr.  x 970)  x  21.095  =  18, 415.935  x  2  =  36,832 lbs.  or  18.4 tons CO2

 a based on Amtrak 1.75 gals/train mile est.; 20.8 mpg fleet average for automobiles; Air Transport Action Group est. of 970 gal jet fuel/flight hour

CO2 factor calculated by Energy Information Administration

 Aside from the substantial savings in fuel use and harmful emissions, train travel has some less obvious, but important, advantages over air travel. Train stations are typically located in downtown areas, thus saving the time and fuel needed to drive to airports many miles from the urban center. In addition, trains serve many smaller communities that have no commercial air service, bringing people to jobs, shopping and education facilities.

 In summary, passenger rail offers a number of public benefits, among them:

  • Time- and cost-effectiveness
  • Safety
  • Fuel efficiency
  • Fewer harmful emissions

 Americans are responding by riding the trains in record numbers and demanding faster and more frequent trains. A recent Harris poll asked “Who should have an increasing share of passenger transportation?” 44% of respondents said passenger trains should have an increasing share, with commuter trains a close second at 35%. A mere 11% favored an increasing share for cars. Movement of goods by freight rail was favored by 63%. Asked about their priorities for future passenger transportation, 47% said safety was their first concern, 44% said energy efficiency, while only 29% rated cost as a priority.      (Harris)

 Investment of public dollars at all levels has spurred economic development in urban centers. Rising fuel costs and concerns with greenhouse gas emissions demand expansion of the transportation system to include greater reliance on trains – passenger, commuter and freight – to move people and goods.

 Continued success will require a mutually beneficial partnership with the freight railroad industry, an industry that offers many of the same public benefits.

 In conclusion, passenger trains offer substantial public benefits that include safety, convenience, and cost-effectiveness, while lowering emissions of greenhouse gases

 Improving trip times and increasing the number of trains on corridors connecting the nation’s downtown business centers can significantly improve regional transportation, often at a fraction of the cost of expanding highway or airport capacity. Many states have focused on rail corridor development as a critical element of improving access to city centers. With modest funding, these corridors could be able to better manage growing highway congestion and provide important environmental, economic and transportation benefits.

  — Amtrak Government Affairs “Corridor & State Trains”, February 2007

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AMTRK-1      “Energy Efficient Travel”, June 2006


AMTRK-2      Amtrak Fact Sheet, FY 2006 “State of Michigan”


AMTRK-3      Amtrak Government Affairs “Corridor and State Trains” (Feb. 2007)


ELPC            Environmental Law & Policy Center, Chicago IL


Harris          The Harris Poll #14, February 8, 2006


TRIP            Michigan Report, “Saving Lives, Time, and Money” (June 2006)


MichSLRP     Michigan State Long Range Plan


MWRRI-1     Midwest Regional Rail System, “Benefiting Michigan’s Economy”


MWRRI-2     Midwest Regional Rail System, Executive Report (September, 2004)


ORNL           Transportation Energy Data Book: Edition 26 (2007), published by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Center for Transportation Analysis


SafetyTR      Highway Safety Technical Report (MDOT 2006)

SocioecTR    Socioeconomics Technical Report (MDOT 2006)