Management & Operations

The people's choice

Posted on May 1, 2006

If you didn’t see it, a recent Harris Poll indicated that Americans would like to see an increasing proportion of passenger traffic going by rail. It’s pretty easy to see why rail is such a popular transportation mode with the American public: Trains help to take cars off the road, reducing traffic congestion and helping to clean the air. Buses accomplish the same task, of course. Costs are escalating
Constructing new rail lines and putting more railcars into service is an expensive endeavor, however. It has been made more challenging by the fact that commodities such as steel and concrete are rising in price due to China’s massive construction needs. As Senior Editor Janna Starcic details in her analysis of this year’s Top 50 Rail Projects (see story beginning on pg. 23), more than half of the projects on her list are being affected by rising costs. In some cases, those run-ups are creating delays in construction. Existing rail lines are also feeling the pressure of rising fuel costs. In some cases, rail operators are instituting fare hikes to recover some of their overhead. With fuel prices still on the rise, that situation could get worse before it gets better. It’s clear that transit is leading the charge as the most popular option for motorists who are willing to park their cars. That puts the burden of providing a high quality, cost-efficient rail service squarely on the shoulders of transit properties. Anything other than top-notch service could drive customers back into their cars and onto already gridlocked highways. Partnerships are key
To ensure that they’re providing the best possible service at the lowest possible cost, rail operators need to take advantage of opportunities to partner with the private sector. As you’ll see in Managing Editor Joey Campbell’s story on the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad (beginning on pg. 32), the privatization of the operations, management and maintenance of a public rail system can have strategic advantages. Since a new contract agreement was cemented in 2003 that puts the Boston-based system in the hands of three private partners, it has seen steady ridership growth and equaled an all-time high in on-time performance in March. But rail systems do not have to privatize their operations and management to squeeze the highest possible efficiency from their service. Whether they’re publicly or privately run, they need to work shoulder-to-shoulder with their vendors — rolling stock, signaling and communication, fare collection, track maintenance and security. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. Sometimes, however, a reminder that we should lean on our partners, and push them if necessary, can help to overcome any reluctance that might exist. With this great opportunity to convert motorists loyal to their cars into public transportation users loyal to the local bus or rail system, we need to fight as hard as we can to win the day.

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