Inter-city rail in North America is often far below the standards of other developed nations. In many parts of the continent, notably those outside of the Eastern Seaboard and select other hubs, rail service simply isn’t a competitive alternative to driving or flying. The Montreal-New York corridor, spanning two major metropolitan areas across a distance of 381 miles, is an excellent case study of the current issues with rail services across North America, and brings to light some potential solutions. Evidence of the problems is not hard to find—the train currently takes almost 11 hours (when on schedule), substantially longer than taking the bus or driving.
The push for faster rail in the United States has been led most recently by President Obama, who proposed a multi-billion dollar investment in high-speed rail corridors across the U.S. last term. Of these plans, the only current development of true high-speed rail—defined as trains reaching over 150 miles per hour—is a California effort planned to connect San Francisco to Los Angeles. That project, constantly plagued by threats to future funding, is fast turning into a typical boondoggle. While the Obama plan favoured a Boston-Montreal route, over the years there have also been discussions of varying seriousness between New York and Quebec about a high speed rail plan. Ignoring the fact that such plans are far from the main political agenda in either jurisdiction, a better case could be made for spending the money now on improvements to the current basic speed infrastructure.
The current Montreal-New York train, the Amtrak Adirondack service, has had an “on-time performance” of slightly over 75 per cent over the past year, meaning that the train has failed to reach either end of the route within 10 minutes of the scheduled arrival time about a quarter of the time. Even though the U.S. and Canadian customs inspections, which generally take an hour to 90 minutes, are actually not the largest cause of delays, they are the ones most obvious to a casual traveler. Shaving that hour-plus off the trip would require pre-clearance facilities on either side of the border, where passengers are inspected by customs officials before boarding the train or after exiting. There was an initiative from several U.S. senators to bring such facilities to Montreal’s Central Station last year, but little has been heard from the project since.
The other and much bigger causes of delay, train interference, and track and signal issues, are less specific to the international nature of the route. As with most of Amtrak’s services, the trackage of the Adirondack is owned almost entirely by other companies, save for a short section along the West Side of Manhattan. The New York-Albany section of the route is largely owned by the Metro North commuter railroad and freight operator CSX, while the section between Albany and Montreal—generally more problematic in terms of delays—is owned by Canadian Pacific and Canadian National. Amtrak runs on these sections via agreements with the host railroads, and they often give short shrift to less profitable passenger trains when there is a scheduling conflict. Last year, CP Rail was among the worst of Amtrak’s host railroads in terms of both interference delays, and delays caused by “slow orders,” or reductions in speed on a section of rail below the designed speed limit.
Reducing these delays would require increasing track capacity and making repairs to the sections of track currently subject to these “slow orders.” While the idea of high speed rail as has been seen in Europe and Japan carries the sort of appeal that more basic changes do not, the key to improving American and Canadian rail travel is to first make it competitive with driving on speed and price. Routes that have accomplished this, including the New York-Albany service, have seen substantial improvements in ridership over the years.