Wilting in the heat

August 11, 2002

SEE IF YOU CAN find the common thread here:

During the heat wave just passed, afternoon trains on MARC's Camden line were forced to poke along at 40 mph, while a few miles away the same agency's Penn Line trains were chugging along at 70.

Virginia Railway Express commuter trains out of Washington also had to slow down to 40 mph, until they reached Manassas, at which point they moved back up to the usual 60.

FOR THE RECORD - An Aug. 11 editorial should have said the Norfolk Southern rail line begins in Alexandria, Va. The Sun regrets the error.

Amtrak trains in New York state galloped up the Hudson until they reached Poughkeepsie; farther north, they had to forget their scheduled 90 mph run and settle for 40 instead -- making the trip to Albany in five hours instead of 2 1/2 .

What did they all have in common? CSX.

Fast trains still ran fast last week -- except on the tracks of the big Eastern railroad. Spooked by the derailment of the Capitol Limited in Kensington last month, CSX began imposing stringent speed limits whenever the temperature got above 90. Norfolk Southern, which runs the Virginia trains south of Manassas, did not. Amtrak, which owns the Penn Line, did not. Metro North, which controls the Hudson River tracks below Poughkeepsie, did not. But CSX, which happens to be unusually hostile to passenger trains, did.

It would be extremely foolish to criticize CSX for being safety-conscious. But the point is this: It is not technologically impossible to run a railroad in hot weather. But it requires a level of track maintenance and inspection that CSX apparently is unable or unwilling to provide. And so the passengers, and the passenger system, suffer -- because, as the heat showed, Amtrak and the commuter agencies don't really have control over their own trains.

The heat slowdowns are a symptom of a much larger problem. America's rail service is divided against itself. The freight railroads run passenger trains with varying degrees of distaste. Amtrak especially suffers. The freight companies argue that Amtrak doesn't pay them enough, and they are probably right. The result is a bare minimum of service for a bare minimum of cost.

The question is how to get the railroads' attention. How can they be induced to "re-engage" in the passenger business? Amtrak desperately needs an overhaul, and with Congress set to map out a new future for the company in the coming year, this is the time to address those questions.

One ideal is not hard to imagine: Making certain plums available to those railroads that are willing to cooperate. A more appealing fee structure would be one step. But a bigger, and bolder, plan would direct public investment into private rights of way.

It would be a retreat from the free-market ideal. But it would be cheaper than highway construction. It would mean that the railroads would have to cede some of their cherished independence, and the major companies have mixed feelings about that. It would give public agencies the clout to run passenger service in a way that makes sense. And, by the way, if handled right it would also mean better freight service, too.

Some states, including Maryland, have already nibbled at this idea, without putting too much of a dent in the recalcitrance of CSX. All the more reason, then, for the federal government to hammer out a nationwide, far-reaching agreement. With that in hand, this country might just get the trains moving again -- even during heat waves.

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