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.
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.
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.
. . . 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.