My Bio and This Blog's Purpose

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I'm here to spread my ideas on how passenger rail can be improved in America without telling the same stories most people in the rail community have told for over 43 years. I offer a different perspective on passenger rail because things need to change in a hurry given divided government in Washington and an interest from outsiders to operate intercity service.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

A Real Rail Agenda for the 114th Congress

As a new Congress begins its session, here are some areas it should tackle when it comes to passenger rail re-authorization:

State corridors and competition
I sincerely hope that Congress is serious about letting the states the freedom to select other operators. The new bill has to figure out how state corridors are handled, and there are two options: Uphold the Section 209 measures as laid out in the 2008 law or strike down the measures. 

If Congress decides to leave the provisions as they are, states should be allowed to have greater flexibility if they want to dump Amtrak so there won't be a repeat of the 2013 scarefests.

On the other hand, if the feds decide that funding state-supported trains is their responsibility, then, Congress has to look to Germany as an example on how to protect the states.

When it comes to bidding for passenger routes, Congress would be wise to consider setting up separate processes for corridors and long distance routes.

Northeast Corridor
The 2011 proposal that Ignacio Jayanti put forward to the 112th Congress was practical but got muddled by cries of "privatization." Having someone else fix up the crumbling infrastructure will solve the "Hudson River Tunnels will collapse in 20 years problem."

National outlook
Letting public and private entities compete against Amtrak should be a top priority for a Congress that purports to advocate smaller government. Grand bargaining could result in the the spinoff of NEC infrastructure from operations as mentioned above but could keep other operators off Amtrak's prized jewel while the national operator has to give up routes in other parts of the country.

Finally, Congress and the White House should lay the groundwork for a new national rail network because it would far more practical, connect far more parts of the country, and may cost much less money than having 10-15 separate, disjointed corridors.

Saturday, December 13, 2014


I don't even pretend to understand the minutiae of PRIIA Section 207 but the case that was recently discussed may in its own way alter the future of passenger rail. The thing is that I'm not sure if I'm supposed to side with the USDOT the way NARP has given that its friend of the court brief was the only one that supports the DOT's effort to overturn the Court of Appeals ruling.

The AIPRO filed its own friend of the court brief, asking the high court to uphold the appeals court ruling. The case could be made that keeping Section 207 of the 2008 law could actually be a bigger detriment to the future of passenger rail than striking it down.

Some excerpts from the brief:

A. The Provision Of Passenger-Rail Service
Is A Competitive Industry In Which
Amtrak Is But One Competitor. 
The first important move toward this new competitive
regime was Congress’s enactment of the
Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act of 1997, Pub.
L. No. 105–134, 111 Stat. 2570, which terminated 
Amtrak’s monopoly over intercity service.
Section 217 authorizes States to select “an
entity other than Amtrak to provide services
required for the operation of an intercity passenger
train route * * *.” PRIIA § 217, 49
U.S.C. § 24702 (note).
 Section 301(a) authorizes the Secretary of
Transportation to “make grants * * * to assist
in financing the capital costs of facilities,
infrastructure, and equipment necessary to
provide or improve intercity passenger rail
transportation.” PRIIA § 301(a), 49 U.S.C.
§ 24402(a)(1). A State that applies for a grant
must either “select[] the proposed operator of
its service competitively” or “provide written
justification to the Secretary showing why
the proposed operator is the best, taking into
account price and other factors, and that use
of the proposed operator will not unnecessarily
increase the cost of the project.” PRIIA
§ 301(b), 49 U.S.C. § 24402(b)(3). 
Section 214 directs the Federal Railroad Administration
to establish an Alternate Passenger
Rail Service Pilot Program, under
which “a rail carrier or rail carriers that own
infrastructure over which Amtrak operates
a[n] [intercity] passenger rail service route”
may “petition the Administration to be considered
as a passenger rail service provider
over that route in lieu of Amtrak * * *.” PRIIA
§ 214(a), 49 U.S.C. § 24711(a)(1) (emphasis

Translation: The days of only one company operating trains are over because Congress said so--twice. The best way for passenger rail to progress is to let each route be open for bidding.

B. Section 207 Unconstitutionally Delegates
To Amtrak Regulatory Authority Over
Amtrak’s Direct Competitors In The Passenger-Rail
1. Amtrak’s Section 207 standards expressly
apply to all intercity passenger trains, not
just to Amtrak’s trains. 
Adding to the unfairness is the fact that, although
Section 207 directs Amtrak and the FRA to
consult with certain other stakeholders in developing
the performance standards, the statute does not afford
even this limited right to Amtrak’s competitors
in the provision of passenger-rail service before permitting
Amtrak to impose regulations on them. See
PRIIA § 207(a), 49 U.S.C. § 24101 (note) (listing
stakeholders with consultation rights). Thus, when
Amtrak and the FRA initially proposed the Section
207 metrics and standards in March 2009 (see J.A.
11), they solicited comments from the stakeholder
groups specifically identified in the statute (see J.A.
75) but did not afford Amtrak’s competitors in the
passenger-rail industry any opportunity to comment—even
though these competitor passenger railroads
would be directly subject to the new regulatory

Translation: That the feds did not allow Amtrak's competitors to even comment on the metrics as laid out in PRIIA is disturbing. How was this any different than what the Senate attempted to do to private operators in 2012 (Hint: It's the same thing)?

2. Amtrak’s Section 207 standards may trigger
STB investigations and enforcement actions
against Amtrak’s competitors.
Section 213 of the PRIIA provides for investigation
and enforcement actions by the STB any time
that “any intercity passenger train”—not solely those
operated by Amtrak—fails to achieve 80 percent ontime
performance or fails to meet the Section 207
service-quality standards for two consecutive quarters.
PRIIA § 213(a), 49 U.S.C. § 24308(f)(1).

Translation: The idea that other operators could be penalized by the STB for delays even if they were caused by Amtrak is akin to some of the battles that took place in Florida earlier this decade when SunRail was held up due to liability provisions Amtrak initially found objectionable.

Final thoughts

  • The dueling briefs by NARP and the AIPRO could actually be a clash of the past vs the future since the former posits itself as an advocacy organization while the latter is a trade group for other passenger carriers in the same manner that Airlines for America is for the airline industry
  • The USDOT's attorney did its side no favors with the way he argued its case--even sympathetic justices were a bit perplexed
  • We will find out next June just what SCOTUS will do
  • Eventually, the new Congress will have to redraft the metrics in order to avoid a repeat in the future

Friday, December 12, 2014

Tackling the Headlines 73

Via Rail eyeing private capital to build its own dedicated rail lines
Take: Well, after almost four decades, Canada's operator is actually showing a sign of progress.

From tomorrow on, high-speed rail will take you from Shanghai to Guangzhou in 7 hours!
Take: Thirty-two routes? Meanwhile, it seemingly takes an eternity for just one conventional rail line to be launched on this side of the Pacific.

Trains, buses and automobiles: Passenger rail coming next year
Take: The ball's in the FRA's court now.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Yet another twist in the Hoosier State saga

As it now turns out, that former "executive" of Corridor Capital had no connections to the company and was a saboteur. Indiana has a lot of eggs on its face for its role in sabotaging CorrCap's efforts to operate the Hoosier State. As far as Amtrak goes, this is more evidence that it is trying to pull a Herzog with the Hoosier State.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Phillips vs Boardman

Everybody seems to have an opinion on the November Trains Magazine article but the M.O. from various message boards have painted columnist Don Phillips as "bitter" because the Amtrak president wouldn't grant him an interview.
But the facts are this:

  1. Joseph Boardman has done very little to advance the long distance trains. During a 2011 congressional hearing, he threw those routes under the proverbial bus (no pun intended).
  2. Instead of embracing a bill to relieve Amtrak of its biggest albatross, he "rallied the troops" by denouncing a plan to transfer the Northeast Corridor from Amtrak to another government entity as "privatization." Over three years later, Boardman's now whining about how the Hudson River Tunnels only have 20 years left when he could have easily embraced Jayanti's proposal.
  3. None of the recommendations as mandated by PRIIA to improve long distance trains have been followed. This shouldn't have happened, especially with someone of Brian Rosenwald's stature trying to follow the '08 law.
  4. Boardman's unwillingness to call the host railroads' bluff was way beyond disturbing. Seven hundred fifty million dollars to operate a daily Sunset Limited? Stalled negotiations with CSX over a daily Cardinal? "Never mind" seemed to be Boardman's M.O. A true leader would have been front and center, and had that failed, I would have then taken my case to the STB.
  5. Sure he ordered new equipment for the eastern long distance trains, but what about their western counterparts?
  6. A true leader would have never allowed himself to be caught flat-footed the way Boardman was in 2009 when European and Asian operators--public and private--openly expressed interest to operate high speed trains here.
  7. As a followup, where were Amtrak's expansion plans when other operators began expressing interest in running trains during Stimulus Mania and in 2011 when a group representing Amtrak's commuter competitors was formed to take on "America's Railroad?" The feasibility studies for three long distance routes and the stillborn 3C corridor service were all examples of Amtrak management discouraging restoring or implementing service.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Tackling the Headlines 72

The news just gets weirder and weirder out of Indiana

Earlier this month, the INDOT canceled its contract with Corridor Capital without any explanation. The second thing that happened was that Corridor Capital responded to the termination by more or less making Indiana look incompetent.Then, INDOT talked to runner up Iowa Pacific about taking over the Hoosier State. Now, a former executive of Corridor Capital says that the contractor was unprepared and didn't receive any support from its investors.

Take: At this point, I just don't know what to think. The fact that Indiana doesn't want added amenities is beyond puzzling. Perhaps, this wouldn't have happened if Iowa Pacific been awarded the contract from the beginning. This should be a lesson for Corridor Capital to be better prepared next time.

Mexican HSR deal is canceled 

While the rail community was caught up over the Hoosier State debacle and the midterm elections, the Mexican government canceled a high speed rail contract with a Chinese consortium when it was discovered that the person leading the group gave the Mexican president a mansion.

Take: Corruption knows no boundaries. Chalk this one as a blown opportunity for reviving passenger rail in Mexico.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Rail and the 2014 Midterms


Part 1

Only in the Sunshine State can up be down. Over the summer, Rachel Dovey and Fred Frailey talked about how backwards the rail picture was in the state--the Tea Party-backed incumbent governor Rick Scott backing the private All Aboard Florida against ex-governor Charlie Crist who clearly prefers the high speed project Scott scuttled.

Other actors in the AAF saga are Treasure Coast residents and politicians who have exhibited a nasty form of NIMBYism. It's like these people have never seen a train before. They chose to live near an area where a major railroad frequently runs trains so it's ridiculous for them to make all of those demands. I can't help but wonder if these residents are actually upset that after 14 years of unfulfilled promises Amtrak is still nowhere close to implementing East Coast service between Jacksonville and Miami. If Treasure Coast residents want someone to blame, they should be pointing the finger at the feds for not funding the route during stimulus mania. These alleged problems would have never come up if Amtrak were already running trains through the area.

Part 2

Now that Scott has been elected to a second term, All Aboard Florida should all but be in the clear to proceed so Treasure Coast residents need to get over themselves. It really is strange that the same governor who relied on a highly biased study to finish off an HSR project that operators like Virgin were ready to run could go down in history as the guy who restored Florida's status as a major passenger rail hub--albeit accidentally. 

As for Crist, it would have been next to impossible for him to have revived the Florida High Speed Rail route just due to the fact that he would've at best dealt with a House of Representatives who has zeroed out federal HSR funding ever since it flipped to the GOP four years ago. His adversarial stance towards AAF demonstrates the overall problem I have with most Democrats. The TC residents' resistance to private sector operators hurts passenger rail (a Metro Jacksonville moderator hit the nail on the head).

The biggest thing missing over the "which train project is better" debate is the fact that neither Crist nor Scott showed any interest in corridor service along existing routes. The way to have a robust system is to work with what you have. The infrastructure is in place so foresight and selecting operators committed to producing world class service are the only things needed.


The only way passenger rail is going to advance in the Buckeye State is for communities and advocacy groups to continue taking the lead since John Kasich is guaranteed to leave Columbus in 2019. Given the recent fiasco in Indiana over the operation of the Hoosier State, I hope that All Aboard Ohio and other groups have enough foresight to talk to other operators about the Hoosier Extension and the Columbus-Chicago routes especially if Amtrak's a no-go.

Mark Dayton and Scott Walker won their reelection campaigns as well but by single digits. Dayton's DOT will continue picking up the whole price tab for not only the feasibility studies of a second Chicago-St. Paul frequency but when the trains actually operate. 

When it comes to the new equipment for the Midwestern trains, IL and MI will get their share and give WI leftovers. If anything, the Hiawathas will consist mostly of leftover Horizon Cars. Any Badger State resident hoping for rail service hoping for rail service off of the Chicago-Milwaukee-La Crosse-St. Paul route had better pray that Ed Ellis not only turns the Varsity into a regular route but expands his shortline empire.

North Carolina

In Wake County, Democrats turned a 3-4 disadvantage on the Board of Commissioners into a 7-0 board. These results will make having a referendum on light rail easier. The trick will be convincing the voters to join its northwestern neighbors.

National Outlook

Barring a 2006-like backlash against right wing rule in D.C., HSR won't be getting a dime until 2023 at the earliest. Even though anti-HSR Californians will hold some powerful positions in the House and continue making life miserable for the CAHSR project, the nation's only Express HSR project to be funded with stimulus funds will rely on state and private sector financing until it begins service.

Amtrak will likely see its funding slashed--maybe even significantly--but the real question is whether the new Congress will allow real competition, which would be the national operator's primary threat. With both houses soon to be in the opposition's hands, the Grand Bargain should be front and center as the alternative to the now-myopic national HSR vision President Obama laid out 5 1/2 years ago. 

Noel Braymer's editorial on how Republicans are the only ones who can save the long distance trains may very well be tested now. In order to prove Amtrak's advocates wrong, the GOP should implement any one of the three suggestions Braymer laid out. Second, congressmen and women should talk to their constituents who are starving for more train service as well as advocacy groups who want more trains in their states but aren't relying on "America's Railroad."

TIGER grants will be phased out in all likelihood. The currently negotiated TIGER VII grants will be the last funds the Obama Administration gives out to rail operators of all stripes.