The Grid and Gateway proposition


I don't set out to be negative (honestly!) and I've never wished to concentrate upon what I conclude may be wrong in the world of railroading while ignoring possible solutions. No matter how badly things may be going, it's not right or fair to continually pick on others if I'm unwilling to share a few of my own proposals in a public forum.

Regarding the design and implementation of new and restored passenger services, I have developed several ideas which revolve around a central proposition I believe to be the most logical and cost-effective way of reintroducing the concept of intercity train travel to our modern society.

I call this the Grid and Gateway system, mainly because the phrase is so descriptive - and because I've always enjoyed alliterations!

I began working on this plan during the waning days of the 20th century, first offering a basic outline to railway passenger supporters through a post on the All-Aboard electronic mailing list (now part of Yahoo! Groups) in the year 2000. An article entitled "Wordplay and Passenger Trains" appeared in the January 2001 edition of the Western Rail Passenger Review and was subsequently picked up by various advocacy organisations, including the Arizona Rail Passenger Association, the Southwest Railroad Historical Society and MobilityDallas.

Eventually, the National Association of Railroad Passengers embraced this general notion. With my permission, NARP adopted the phrase "Grid and Gateway" (occasionally hyphenated thusly: "grid-and-gateway") to use in conjunction with the release of their 40th anniversary "Vision for the Future" proposal in 2007. Groups such as the Kentucky Public Transportation Association and the North Carolina Alliance for Transportation Reform endorsed the scheme.

Unfortunately, my recommendation of a Grid and Gateway system has never really captured the public's imagination. Maybe it sounds too technical. I certainly wouldn't hesitate to re-brand the overall strategy, presuming a satisfactory marketing term could be developed. In the meantime, High Speed Rail and Higher Speed Rail (followed, naturally, by Almost High Speed Rail and Nearly Sort-of High Speed Rail) have commanded centre stage.

Oh, well. "What's in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet." I sincerely appreciate Shakespeare's genius, and would like to think my idea might retain some sort of "that dear perfection" by any other name.

I feel that might be the case. After all, I'm not necessarily original; I just know a bit about history and have been blessed with a (usually) reliable ability to accurately judge a good plan. Ofttimes, it is only a predisposition to be supportive of rail-based initiatives which undermines my objectivity!

The Grid and Gateway is simply a modern day adaptation of what once was - and what, with the proper support (both by the general public and our industry), could be once again. It also builds upon the work of the late Dr. Adrian Herzog of the United Rail Passenger Alliance. URPA's Route Matrix theory (another barely marketable designation!), based upon Dr. Herzog's brilliant work, is a classic example of the beauty of pure and straightforward mathematical logic, as appiled to our transport mode of choice.

Today, we often hear of airline-styled hub-and-spoke services as an approach worth emulating in the railway passenger field - especially when discussing tomorrow's systems; however, historically, it was quite unusual to see a hub-and-spoke operational pattern in the railroad world outside of local city streetcar lines and a handful of interurban roads.

Instead, common carriers perfected another routine which served (and could once again serve) the public much more efficiently, exploiting the train’s strong points and accepting its limitations. Rather than forcing customers to rely upon hub-and-spoke traffic configurations, long distance trains were run as part of a grid-type route matrix, interchanging passengers not only at their terminal points, but also at certain intermediate stations. The places where these interchange points were located became collectively known as "Gateway Cities". These gateways, from Cincinnati and Denver to Manly, Iowa and Effingham, Illinois, provided railroad travelers, many times by way of true "Union Station" facilities, the opportunity to transfer from one train - and one company - to another.

The railroad’s proven "grid-and-gateway" pattern is infinitely more logical for today’s passenger train operators to have as a guide. If long distance trains are to truly work as a viable means of public transport - and they can indeed do so - then a railroad-minded scheme must needs be applied to their operation, which demands the traditional Grid and Gateway approach!

In lieu of high-dollar, new-from-the-ground-up corridors designed to impersonate earth-bound airlines, railway passenger services of the next generation must be reliant upon existing infrastructure, remain operationally self-sufficient (or effectively so) and share guideway space with other (commuter/intermodal/freight) traffic. They need to be planned and executed in order to offer a viable alternative to the de-facto monopolies inherent in today’s travel world (due to the United States’s lack of an overriding energy/environmental/transportation policy).

It is also imperative that we embrace a multiple number of inter-corridor, long distance routes as an integral part of any railway system developed for the North American continent. That's the only possible way to achieve a fair and equitable distribution of transportation services.

For a "reasonable" (read: "minimal") financial commitment - tied to an esoteric understanding of railroad operations - a rebuilt, revitalized system of intercity passenger trains could once again exist; trains that would effectively serve a diverse passenger base with safe, comfortable, reliable, cost-effective transportation. The railway alternative, far from being outmoded and unnecessary, should be considered a foundational part of our total transportation network - a true 21st century solution to a contemporary need!

End of sermonette.

What I'd like to do, in an occasional series over the next couple of months, is delve into the Grid and Gateway concept and review a few of the reasons why it WOULD work - presuming our nation ever gets to the point where the reestablishment of a comprehensive network of efficient and saleable intercity passenger train services is an honest desire and not simply a campaign promise.

With your support, I will do so.



  • Thank you, Garl, for a straight forward positive proposal. Maybe with some carriers facing long term declines in coal shipments and shifting container traffic as the new Panama Canal influences shipping destinations,  "enlightened self-interest" will cause some lines to consider passenger alternatives as a revenue source? Do you remember, "If you have all day, ship REA" as Railway Express went into decline, only to be reborn in the form of FedEx?  Maybe something similar will occur to those in the freight shipping business for those goods not needing air speed or mega hub efficiency.  In any event, thanks for being positive!

  • Garl and others:  I apologize for being negative, but I think Garl misses or ignores a few important factors in his essay.  First, let's remember that Amtrak didn't magically appear on the scene because our society demanded it.  It was the lesser of evil solutions to the rapidly disappearing passenger train operated by railroads.  It was all Congress would accept, and Congress has been niggardly toward it for the past 40 years.

    Second, grid and gateway is just another approach to moving people (or freight) from where they are to where they are desired or want to be.  In my college days, a trip from Ithaca, NY, to Cleveland, Ohio, involved a train ticket, a taxi voucher to get you from the Lehigh Valley station ito the New York Central station in Buffalo, and a train ticket on the NYC to Cleveland.  Thanks to really cheap gasoline, a taxi was cheap and the railroad paid for it (actually, passengers paid for it in their ticket).  

    I don't think the hub-and-spoke concept works for railroads.  Airlines adopted it as a means of creating fortresses that other airlines could not assault.  Remember, airlines are supposed to be profitable and they occasionally do things that help make them so.  Railroads operate on a fixed right-of-way, which prevents them from being as adaptable as Garl's grid and gateway concept might demand.  As long as railroads continue to own their infrastructure, they will operate pretty much as they have been doing.  And unless someone can figure out how to run passenger service and actually earn a profit doing so, I wouldn't get my hopes too high that there will be a rebirth of passenger service.  Remember, it thrived to the degree that it did when the railroad effectively was the only game in town.  And it died when railroads no longer could afford to subsidize them with earnings from freight service.  Congress didn't create Amtrak because it loved passenger trains.  It did so as the alternative to having to nationalize the railroads if they continued to be saddled with passenger service losses.  Amtrak eliminated one-half of all U.S. passenger trains the day it was activated.  They're not coming back.  

    Also, look at our public debates.  We have education in crisis, health care at unsustainable costs, defense demands, etc., to the point where we begin to look like Greece trying to reduce government spending.  Transportation does not have a right to access the Treasury.  It has to compete for whatever it can persuade to give it.  In that scenario do you see Amtrak having funds to initiate service over a bunch of new routes - routes that couldn't compete or they would not have disappeared way back when?  Railroads manage quite well because they had the good sense to eliminate a lot of capacity that only was a financial drag, and they still do a more effective job than anything else at moving large volumes of freight repetitively.

  • Announcing the next US Secretary of Transportation for 2012:

    Garl B. Latham

    Present Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will remain active as a Rail-Booster & Promoter.

  • LaHood doesn't do that now.  Why should anyone be confident that he will in the future?

  • While I consider myself a passenger rail advocate, I support Larry's position but for different reasons.  In my opinion, we passenger rail advocates really have to get over the prospect related to the realization of a national network.  While this notion was intimated in the 2009 High Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail vision, it was later clarified to imply the need to develop key corridors in densely populated regions.  

    Developing "express" speed passenger rail corridors between large metropolitan areas with an existing efficient rapid transit network already in place represents a realistic cost-competitive alternative to addiing highway and airport capacity to those areas.

    "Express" HSR corridors necessarily include electrified grade-separated dedicated rights of way and rule out the prospect of sharing operations or even corridors with our freights.  

    It would be nice someday to ride a train with speeds of up to 180 mph between Dallas and Houston, but until such time as Houston develops its own efficient rapid transit system, farebox would likely not cover above rail O&M costs.  

    And while I do like Secretary Ray LaHood, the fact that he allows a certain lower ranking R to effectively act as the tail that wags the dog, leaves me feeling disillusioned.