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The New Passenger Paradigm is here: Amtrak must adapt or die

Friday, November 16, 2018

Tackling the Headlines 99: Brightline Rebrands Itself

Earlier today, this happened seemingly out of nowhere. The Brightline-Virgin partnership is yet another surprise in an autumn of surprises. The others are as follows:

  1. Brightline buying XpressWest 
  2. Brightline setting the stage for future service by submitting a proposal for Orlando-Tampa extension 
  3. Spanish operator RENFE being tapped by Texas Central to operate the Dallas-Houston Express HSR route 
  4. A shortline railroad expressing interest in providing intercity service from northeastern Pennsylvania to New York City

The Return of Sir Richard
Almost eight years after when it looked like Rick Scott--and a rapidly changing environment--had driven Virgin Trains out of the U.S., Sir Richard Branson comes roaring back.

I was wondering just how a Virgin Trains USA would look like. Now, I know. Also, in addition to the West Coast pickup, Sir Branson could very well be providing service to the underserved Charlotte-Atlanta market and the completely unserved 3C market in Ohio sooner than anyone thinks.

The New Passenger Paradigm Strikes Again
There have been times over the last two years where I have wondered if outside forces would stymie Ray Chambers's vision of a new paradigm. As it turns out, things sometimes move slower than advocates for change like.

What the rebranding means for Virgin Trains USA: Branson will now lay claim to having a national company. 

What the rebranding means for the public: For Florida, it means that untapped markets and the previously thought to be dead HSR route will be served while also being a real estate and hospitality entity. 

For California, it will make it easier for passengers to travel between Los Angeles and Las Vegas--and directly, too. 

For the Southeast, a high speed alternative to the once-a-day Crescent route along an express route while travelers don't have to put all of their eggs the southeastern states' basket. Virginia and North Carolina have it together for the first portion of the Southeast Corridor lined up. However, the latter's partnership with South Carolina and Georgia is shakier and trying to get additional frequencies on the existing Norfolk Southern route--never mind the CSX route for Raleigh to Jacksonville service--is rife with politics.

For Ohio, a chance to start anew after nearly four decades of false promises and a chance to provide an essential service to a part of a state that has been ignored.

What the rebranding means for the passenger industry: Three European entities are now in position to rewrite the passenger rail experience in America. DB (Germany) is locked to run Express routes in California, RENFE is going to run Express service in Texas, and the UK's Virgin is providing higher speed rail service to multiple states. Those who fail to adapt will be left by the wayside.

Google+ to be discontinued

On October 8, Google announced that it would be shutting down by the end of next August due to private user information being made public and low usage.

What it means for this blog:

  • The ban on cross-posting between G+ and the blog is lifted retroactively to October 9
  • The same also applies to Tumblr
  • I had planned on retiring my Tackling the Headlines feature after the 100th entry, but now, it will continue
  • Massive overhauls of the blog and Tumblr will occur early next year and will be completed by late summer 2019

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Tackling the Headlines 98

I'm doing something a bit different--rapid fire responses to recent topics:
One Big Take: It's nice and all that Amtrak is finally talking about replacing equipment that's nearly a half century old but, the company should have made it is main focus a couple of summers ago instead of replacing Acelas that are less than two decades old. The Southwest Chief situation is yet another reason for the private sector to jump in because Amtrak no longer cares about overnight travelers even though the demand is there. The CMRR is an ominous sign for the Adirondack Scenic Railroad and railroad advocates must be vigilant since the governor of New York is on the side of elitists. It's about time that both cities opened their new stations.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Alternative History #7

An agreement is reached between Florida East Coast management and employees, averting a strike

Point of Departure

Storyline A (Seaboard merges with Southern and the ACL merges with N&W)
Amtrak doesn’t serve Florida in 1971 since the three Class I railroads still do. Governor Lawton Chiles chooses corridor service over the high speed Florida Overland Express in 1996, effectively killing future efforts for high speed rail in the state. The Florida Rail System is formed the following year.

In 1993, the Norfolk Coast Line interlines its Gulf Wind route with Amtrak to provide true bicoastal service. A dozen years later, Amtrak withdrew its support citing unreliable Union Pacific timekeeping out west.

Today’s Likely Outcome

There are only modest changes to the schedules.  

The FEC became a subsidiary of Southern Railway long before the 1970s in the same way the LIRR is a subsidiary of the ACL (the FEC route officially became a Southern route in 1992). 

In 1997, Congress responded to growing state interest in corridor service by transferring routes that are less than 500 miles long to the states. It was at this point that the former FEC routes were handed over to the FL DOT. Eleven years later, Congress increased the corridor length to 750 miles in response to interstate pacts.

Today’s Likely Outcome

East Coast service is increased alongside Southern’s presence in Florida. There are two overnight frequencies along the route. Due to the increase in intrastate service, the railroads alter their schedules so that certain trains provide overnight service in Florida

Storyline C (the SCL holds out of joining Amtrak)
The Southeast Rail Coalition was formed in the late 1980s to expand passenger rail in Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida so passengers have more daytime options. 
FEC rebranded its overnight routes in 2001 as a premium, all-sleeper service. A few years later, other Class I railroads were so envious of CSX’s success that they got Congress to pass a provision in PRIIA that allows intercity competition against Amtrak.
The Miami Intermodal Center opened ten years ago and continues to serve Amtrak, CSX and FL DOT passenger trains.

Today’s Likely Outcome

Amtrak’s frequency remains as is, CSX promotes several routes to year-round status, the FEC has added another roundtrip, and the FL DOT system continues its expansion.

Storyline D (the FEC competes with Amtrak for Jacksonville-Miami passengers)
Throughout the 1970s, the FEC was very leery of interlining with Amtrak due to there being no other private railroads available. In the mid to late 1980s, FEC agreed to allow commuter service in South Florida as I-95 is being widened. About a decade later, Tri-Rail’s service between downtown Miami and Jupiter intrigues state officials so much that it explores similar service along the CSX route. The result was the 1998 launch of Amtrak Florida. With double decker cars in tow, the first routes the state launched were Orlando-Miami and Tampa-Miami. The state extended service to Jacksonville in 2000 along both the A and S Lines. A daytime Jacksonville-Pensacola route was launched in 2005, months before Hurricane Katrina suspended Sunset Limited service east of New Orleans.

At the turn of the millennium, Amtrak targeted Southwest Florida as a part of its short-lived Mail & Express expansion plan. In late 2004, the national carrier decided to pull out of the Tampa market rather than the S-Line once it terminated carrying mail (the Silver Star is put back on the route once the Palmetto is cut back to Savannah). Sunrail launched service in 2006 without any difficulties.

In the fall of 2011, FL DOT objected to the Section 209 PRIIA provisions and terminated its agreement with Amtrak two years later (this move made Indiana the second state to hold out of the PRIIA standards), opting to contract with Sunrail operator Bombardier at the beginning of 2014.

The FEC did a massive rebranding campaign in 2012: Local stops service became Coastal, night service became the Owl, and a new limited stop service was originally named All Aboard Florida (now known as Brightline) in advance of expansion to Tampa. 

Today’s Likely Outcome

The FEC opened new stations in Jacksonville, West Palm Beach, and Fort Lauderdale in 2014 with Miami Central replacing the old downtown location the following year. Service to Orlando Airport began two years ago while the extension to Tampa opened in time for the Memorial Day weekend last month. FEC now has over 40 frequencies around the clock as a result of the rebranding and expansion.

Divorcing itself from Amtrak has paid the FL DOT huge dividends as it rebranded the rail service as FLORail, added new frequencies, expanded to new cities, acquired new equipment, and taken over certain stations previously neglected by Amtrak. FLORail trains also serve the historic station in Jacksonville and the Miami Airport Station. The former was the result of FL DOT’s vision to relocate corridor trains and the latter happened because the state wanted to make things easier for airport travelers. One of FLORail’s biggest hits is the Panhandle route (a feasibility study on extending service to New Orleans is underway). Southwest Florida service to Venice and Naples is also in the works. 

As for Amtrak? Having its role reduced to being a bit player in the state, it decided to end service to smaller cities and to limit its southbound stops to discharge only and its northbound stops to receive only so no one can travel locally within Florida on Amtrak any more.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Tackling the Headlines 97

A new station for Petersburg, VA
Last month, the decision was made to place the new station in Colonial Heights.

Take #1: The decision goes back to what I said in 2012: A lack of creativity drove this move. There should be multiple stations in the Petersburg area. Yes, the Ettrick station is outdated, but the answer is not to restrict its replacement to one area especially when future east-west service would be best served by a downtown station.

Take #2: The Colonial Heights move does in fact have racial undertones to it. Plus, Colonial Heights residents don't even want the new station in the first place! You just gotta love government bureaucracy.

Take #3: Isn't this the same FRA that decided to place the southern terminus of the Dallas-Houston HSR route in Northwest Houston instead of downtown two years ago? Go figure.

California not happy with Amtrak
Take #1: Richard Anderson is clearly doing a very lousy job in his first six months as the sole CEO.

Take #2: Maybe, states like California should take the logical next step by ending its relationship with the national carrier.

When a station loses its staff
A first hand look at Cincinnati going from a staffed station to an unstaffed station.

Take: There's a lot of blame to go around. First, ex-CEO Joseph Boardman for not standing up to CSX when it was time to convert the Cardinal to a daily train. Second, Congress for not enforcing competition provisions in the 2008 and 2015 laws. Third, pencil pushers among Amtrak management who thought that destaffing stations was a good idea.

So, for all those people who are still defending the loss of ticket agents and checked baggage: WAKE UP!

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

A tale of two countries

JR West apologizes for a train leaving a central Japan station 25 seconds early.

VIA Rail apologizes for a train arriving into Vancouver 45 hours late.

Says it all, doesn't it?

Wednesday, May 23, 2018