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The U.S. rail network is comprised of nearly 140,000 miles of track and over 100,000 bridges. The system can be divided into two categories: private freight railroads and intercity passenger rail, operated almost exclusively by Amtrak.

Freight Rail

U.S. freight railroads are categorized into three classes based on the distance served and earnings: seven large Class I railroads, 21 regional/Class II railroads, and 547 short line/Class III railroads. In 2015, U.S. freight railroad volume was nearly twice what it was in 1980, even though the network’s overall reach has declined. Class I railroads shed nearly 30% of their rail miles between 1990 and 2013, with many portions becoming short lines or abandoned. Class I railroads operate approximately 95,000 rail miles, regional railroads operate approximately 10,000 miles, and short line railroads operate approximately 33,000 miles. Capacity across the Class I network today is generally sufficient to meet current needs, but demand for rail is expected to grow as road congestion and demand for goods continue to increase. Recently, the Class I railroads have increased carrying capacity through the operation of double stack containers and heavier carloads.

Freight railroads, as owners of the infrastructure, are responsible for the condition of the majority of the nation’s track, bridges, and connections at ports and intermodal facilities, and proactively maintain, replace, and upgrade systems though maintenance and capital programs. Changes in freight cargo trends in recent years have necessitated changes in the network. Coal, the most commonly transported bulk product by rail, has experienced a decline, while intermodal traffic has experienced substantial growth, requiring investment in connections to ports and truck transfer facilities. Freight railroads continue to upgrade their networks to support additional demand with greater capacity, added efficiency, and improved safety. This has required the rebuilding of bridges, tunnels, track, and signal systems.

Federal forecasts predict an approximately 40% increase in U.S. freight shipments, including by rail, by 2040. To prepare for the future, the U.S. Department of Transportation worked with the transportation industry to draft the first National Freight Strategic Plan, to address impediments to the efficient flow of goods in support of the nation’s economy. The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act requires the strategic plan be completed by 2017 and be updated every five years.

Passenger Rail

Amtrak operates a 21,356-mile network in over 500 communities, which served 31.3 million passengers in 2016. The system can be divided into two categories: the Northeast Corridor (NEC), running from Boston to Washington, D.C., and the “national network” of 15 interstate routes. Amtrak owns and operates the majority of the NEC’s track—363 out of 457 miles—as well as 260 miles of track outside the NEC, including 18 tunnels and 1,414 bridges. Eight commuter railroads and four freight railroads operate on the NEC. (For more information on commuter rail, see the Transit chapter.) More than 90% of Amtrak’s network, and almost all of the “national network,” runs on tracks owned by freight railroads and, to a lesser extent, commuter railroads, and Amtrak pays the infrastructure owner for its use. As a result, Amtrak relies on freight railroad maintenance and system support to deliver quality, timely service.

Including the commuter railroads that operate on the NEC, there are approximately 750,000 passenger trips on the NEC each day and the corridor accounts for over half of Amtrak’s daily ridership. The NEC is the busiest railroad in North America with approximately 2,200 trains operating over some portion of its network every day. It is highly capacity-constrained, creating service challenges for both Amtrak as well as commuter and freight railroads that operate on the corridor. Capacity is generally sufficient in other parts of Amtrak’s network, with states supporting service expansions particularly on the West Coast and the connections to the NEC. Recently there has been a renewed national interest in expanding passenger rail service. High-speed passenger rail project planning is underway in several areas, including California, Florida, the Chicago-area, and Texas.

While safe to operate, much of the NEC’s infrastructure is beyond its useful life, increasing maintenance costs and reducing system reliability. The average age of major NEC backlog projects is 111 years, including 10 moveable bridges, three sets of tunnels, and one viaduct. Upgrades and repairs to basic infrastructure items like signals, power systems, and tracks, as well as service improvement projects to add capacity, are needed to meet growth in the northeastern economy and related travel demand. The condition of the NEC continues to deteriorate while projects are on hold pending funding. Amtrak has been left with little choice but to be reactive to maintenance issues due to inadequate funding.

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