Setting the record straight on rail service benefits

Guest Opinion By Dave Strohmaier And Jim Matthews
Sunday, December 5, 2021
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Dave Strohmaier

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Jim Matthews

The Rail Passengers Association and the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority take strong exception to Mark Meyer’s guest column published in the Nov. 21 issue of the Ranger-Review attacking our work to begin examining the potential economic benefits of restoring passenger rail service through southern Montana. His criticisms reflect neither an understanding of Rail Passengers’ modeling tools, capacities, and process, nor an appreciation of the scope of work to which all parties agreed (which was a joint effort between Rail Passengers, the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, and Montana State University’s Western Transportation Institute). Instead, he seems determined not only to misunderstand and to mischaracterize the process and the results, but to spread his misunderstanding to the greater public.

Mr. Meyer contends that the Rail Passengers Association’s Research Note should include the level of detail associated with a NEPA Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) or perhaps a full-scale Operations Analysis like those railroads prepare in advance of new service. Both would be worthy endeavors. Indeed, they will be required before any North Coast Hiawatha restoration were to proceed. It is unrealistic, however, to advance to those stages without at least an initial assessment to characterize the potential economic benefits of a notional new service to see if there’s enough promise to justify further work. That is precisely what Rail Passengers’ Research Note has done, concluding that significant economic benefits could accrue to the states served if service is restored – more than $200 million each year, at a minimum.

His assertion that smaller communities can’t generate large numbers of passenger trips is off-base and not supported by the facts on the ground, or the passengers in the seats. There is a good and simple reason the ridership numbers in small communities will appear proportionately greater than those in large communities. Residents of small towns will find the passenger train to be an attractive option, particularly in winter, to secure health care and other goods and services only available in the larger cities. However, residents of large communities already have local access to those facilities and amenities and don’t need to travel by rail to access them. What Mr. Meyer finds puzzling and a source of criticism is, in fact, entirely sensible and one of the main reasons passenger rail has proven so essential to rural communities. It is also a phenomenon Rail Passengers has been monitoring for many years, underpinning many of the strongest arguments for investment in rail around the U.S.

As an example, there are some 40 Amtrak destinations around the country in which there are enough trips relative to the population so that the trips equal at least half (or nearly half) of the population within 25 miles of that station. Many of those stations actually produce at least as many trips as there are residents, and 15 of those communities produce more trips than residents. A handful produce twice or even three times as many trips as residents.

Chemult, Ore., produces 3.42 times as many trips as residents within 25 miles of the station. Williams Junction, Ariz., produces 2.36 times as many trips as residents within the catchment area. Stanley, N.D., produces nearly a third more trips than residents. And, of course, here in Montana, Malta produces nearly as many trips as residents and Cut Bank produces enough trips for more than half of all residents. Raton, N.M., produces 1.12 times as many trips as residents. In fact, of those 40 destinations, 28 serve populations of 250,000 or fewer, and 22 serve populations of less than 100,000. And yet taken together, those 40 stations generate enough passenger trips to equal some three-quarters of the total population served.

The Rail Passengers Association and Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority stand unequivocally behind the results reported in the Research Note on potential North Coast service restoration. The study methodology was developed with PhD experts credentialed in transportation planning, network analysis and pedestrian studies. Moreover, the Rail Passengers’ model is consciously not an operations analysis nor an EIS, because these kinds of studies and tools already exist. It is, instead, an assessment of broad community-level benefits from a given level of service, with the interaction of community-benefits variables modeled and developed through a careful and extensive literature review. This kind of broad socio-economic benefits assessment was generally unavailable to policymakers before Rail Passengers began publishing work using this model in 2018.

We eagerly await the next phase of this project, in which we can work to examine specific cities and towns for stations, to assess the network effects from connections to other modes of transportation at stations, and to begin to characterize the detailed investments that might be needed to launch new service on whatever route is eventually chosen. This is not a substitute for an operations analysis or NEPA EIS, but a complement to informed policymaking by those who will decide on the levels of investment required.

Dave Strohmaier is the chairman of the BSPRA and a Missoula County Commission. Jim Matthews is the preseident and CEO of the Rail Passenger Association.