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With a new administration in D.C., it's time to think outside of the box because passenger rail's survival just may depend on it

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

Addendum: Amtrak's Hostility to Its Partners and Passengers

Here are some more links that relate to the previous article:
Boardman's letter to Railway Age
Amtrak vs Metra, Chicago Union Station
Amtrak station destaffings: 1 2 3
Anderson's stance on long distance trains: 1 2
M.E. Singer on Amtrak's treatment of state supported routes: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3
Amtrak's cutback on food on certain routes

Rescuing the Passenger Train From Amtrak

Consequently, it has become the greatest of ironies that the passenger train, which was purported to be saved by Amtrak, now has to be saved from Amtrak. Daniel Carleton, This Week at Amtrak 9/8/11

It is clear that Amtrak is no longer the tool to keep passenger trains going in the United States. Over the last several months, "America's Railroad" has made the passenger experience more and more unpleasant. M.E. Singer lays out why Amtrak's woes are institutional rather than financial. 

Boardman's rebuttal to Anderson's cuts

So, the former CEO has issues with what the current one is doing and even a onetime Boardman critic has backed him.The problem with all of the Boardman praise is that he's the one who started the cutbacks at Amtrak in the first place. In 2015, the first series of station destaffings occurred when nobody was even talking about the idea of Boardman retiring. On top of that, he imposed airline-like baggage policies and began the process for shutting down Quik-Trak ticket machines--a process that has been delayed to 2019. The worst part of the Boardman Era was the fact that he squandered a golden opportunity to make passenger trains thrive in this country.

It didn't have to be this way

It is ironic and perverse, that our greatest hope for high speed rail is to not destroy or eliminate, but to force Amtrak to competitively bid on services with other prospective providers. Transit Sleuth responding to me, 11/8/11
Never mind high speed rail, we can't even get Congress or the President to force Amtrak to bid for long distance or state-supported routes as not one but two rail re-authorizations mandate the organization to.

Let's face it, Sections 209 and 214 of PRIIA and the FAST Act should have been enforced by Congress. If that had happened, then Brightline's amenities would have been the norm rather than the exception.

European countries are introducing competition with little resistance outside of France and Finland and yet it's a dirty word here. The status quo cannot be allowed to continue because after 47 years, the pendulum has swung back in favor of expanded passenger service. It's Amtrak management that has resisted expansion outside of the Northeast.

The bulk of the rail community: Just as bad as the Amtrak Board

I would take the status quo compared to the damage the Republicans are about to inflict.
That is a paraphrase of a quote that I saw on a transit forum after the Tea Party fused 2010 midterm wave. That quote is exactly the attitude the bulk of railfans have exhibited over the last seven years. By acting as though Amtrak is the be all end all to U.S. passenger passenger rail and ignoring others who want to shake up the industry, this batch of rent seekers in the railfan community has done everyone a grave disservice.

By going all in with Amtrak, here are the ways that most in the rail community are worse than useless:

  • These advocates were silent on the Senate's failed power grab six springs ago. 
  • They added nothing of substance when states were ironing out Section 209 requirements and they were just as silent as 18 of the 19 state agencies (the Capitol Corridor split from Caltrans earlier this decade) who never even explored the idea of selecting another operator
  • I saw with my very eyes as these rent seekers and True Believers threw a major hissy fit at the one state agency that did pick someone else (Corridor Capital in mid-2014) as a contractor, were gleeful when that bid fell apart (fall '14), threw another fit when another entity (Iowa Pacific) was selected as the contractor, and finally celebrated the day the Hoosier State reverted back to full Amtrak control after the private contractor pointed out that the raw deal it got

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Goodbye TIGER, hello BUILD

The grant program that aided many passenger rail projects and helped to build train stations is being replaced by a program that is tilted towards rural projects.

The only thing that is shocking is that it took this long for the TIGER name to disappear.