Traffic Growth

Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) traffic growth

The justification for the High Speed Rail project is growth in rail traffic. With that in mind the recent publication of the document Rail Safety by the FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) provides some useful insights.


The chart below shows the growth in Amtrak traffic from the year 2000 to 2014. It has gone from 22 million to 32 million — a 45% increase, roughly 3% per annum. This is not a dramatic figure, but it is greater than the growth in the overall economy.

Growth in Amtrak traffic


The next chart shows the growth for intermodal (containers). It shows 3.1 million units in 1980, rising to 11 million units in 2003 — a growth rate of 11% per annum. Since then the number of units carried has been about constant.

Growth in intermodal traffic


We took a look at the change in coal traffic in our February 2016 post Freight Traffic. The chart for the last three years is shown below.

To quote,

. . . coal traffic by rail in the United States decreased by 15% during 2015; from January 2015 to January 2016 it is down 31%. It is questionable if coal traffic will return to its earlier levels given environmental pressures and the economics of natural gas.



Based on the above data sets we can arrive at the following tentative conclusions.

  • Amtrak ridership is growing at 3% per annum. The growth rate appears to be quite steady.
  • Coal tonnage has fallen dramatically in the last few years and is not likely to ever return to its previous levels.
  • Intermodal traffic grew dramatically in the 1980-2005 period but has since flattened out. Given the overall decline in world economic activity it is likely that it will remain flat for the foreseeable future.

All of the above data is for nation-wide traffic. Regarding the traffic through Ashland, the following information can be added:

  • We have around 75 trains per day.
  • Of these about 17% are passenger.
  • The small growth in passenger traffic, and the relatively small number of passenger trains compared to freight, indicate that there will be little, if any, growth in the number of trains in the coming years.
  • Subjective observation suggests that the amount of traffic in the last few years has been steady, at best, and may actually be declining, thus supporting the above conclusion.


There seems to be little justification for spending large amounts of public funds for a small and rather dubious projected increase in rail traffic along our corridor.

2 thoughts on “Traffic Growth

  1. I live on the tracks and often observe the Amtrack trains. Most seem to be much less than half filled. Therefore, if ridership is low, then a 3% increase can obviously be absorbed with existing trains for quire sometime.


    1. I received the following comment from someone with many years of both passenger and freight experience. I am posting it with his permission.

      The problem is that projects of this type are long-term in nature. They are not based on short-term gain or loss projections. Rail traffic is cyclical. It will ebb and flow, but the need for additional capacity is based on what needs are projected to be twenty or thirty years from now, regardless of what may occur within the next five to ten years.

      Likewise, the cost of building today will be substantially less based on present day dollars, even with cost overruns. As an example, CSX decided to replace their Quantico Creek double track bridge with a single track span in 1990. The project was costed at $3-million. A double track bridge would have cost $5-million. CSX said that they were suffering excess capacity and that additionally, they intended to remove the second track between Fredericksburg and Richmond. Common sense prevailed thankfully, and the route remained double tracked. We are now attempting to add a third track. Again, short-term projections err proportionately compared to long-term consideration.

      Interest rates presently are at all-time lows, only adding to the attractiveness of taking action now. Federal funds are presently available that may not be offered if we defer applying.

      And the Quantico span? A double track span was built in the early 2000s at a cost of $12-million, bring the total cost of the bridge replacement to $15-million.

      To say that we need to do nothing now is tantamount to waiting until your house has been broken into before purchasing s security system. Unfortunately, this is what a majority of homeowners do.

      Shall we wait until rail traffic spikes, vehicular volume is gridlocked and businesses in town suffer before we deem it time to take action? I hope not.

      Let’s be honest; we are trying to find reasons–excuses, to be honest–to put off the inevitable. The high or higher speed rail initiative is going to happen. It is to us what the interstate highway project was to those living in the 1950s. We have committed to being a partner in the link between the northeast and southeast. The Boston to Miami project is not going to politely halt at the fringes of Ashland. The longer we procrastinate and defy reality, the worse the consequences are going to be. How many times have most of us lived to rue a decision logic dictated we should have made differently?


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