My Bio and This Blog's Purpose

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Revolting Against Amtrak

Two months ago, Stacey Mortenson of the San Joaquin JPA spilled the beans to Congress on how Amtrak overcharges state-supported routes--namely, her San Joaquin service. I'm pretty sure that Herzog would do a much better job operating the San Joaquins than Amtrak. Also, the SJ JPA plans on rerouting the trains to serve multiple parts of Sacramento. I really hope that Mortenson can pull off the transfer and even if this just a negotiating ploy, it would further show Amtrak's Northeastern-centric managment and board that California's JPAs are not fooling around--after all, the state's three JPAs were the only agencies that refused to go along with Amtrak Corporate's boneheaded moves to eliminate discounts in 2018.

Last month, a rail advocate told a Pennsylvania House committee that the commonwealth could do a better and cheaper job operating intercity rail than Amtrak. Whatever happens in Harrisburg, it's mandatory that there is at the very least a restoration of a second frequency between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh.

Despite Richard Anderson's bluster, this is the clearest sign that Amtrak's "valued state partners" are getting fed up with an agency that only cares about the Northeast Corridor and is only interested in shaking down the states for money while refusing to expand or provide new equipment.

That said, the states should have rebelled against Amtrak during the Section 209 fight seven years ago. California needed to be the guinea pig for private operators getting into corridor service, not Indiana. A state with three distinct corridors would have made it much more appealing to other state DOTs to ditch Amtrak instead of the only state to have a less than daily corridor service.

The dustup with the San Joaquins and Pennsylvania may very well prove what Amtrak critic M.E. Singer has said about PRIIA: That the 2008 law is the problem an may need to be repealed or reformed.

Outside of the box thinking is needed now more than ever because a continued reliance on Amtrak instead of turning to AIPRO members or Virgin Trains will squash any hopes of a passenger rail renaissance. States with limited or no corridor service need to pay attention to what's happening on both coasts so they can know what to avoid if they want to expand their routes.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

A wasted decade

Around this time a decade ago, the passenger rail community was gearing up for President Obama's announcement of high speed rail funding and it looked like a renaissance was upon us. Rather than the sky being the limit, here's what actually happened:

  • The infamous Tea Party backlash that resulted in Wisconsin (Hiawatha extension to Madison), Ohio (3C Route) and Florida (Express HSR Tampa-Orlando-Miami route) returning their stimulus money to the feds
  • A trade group composed of Amtrak's commuter competitors being formed but ignored by the press and blacked out among most rail activists
  • A failed attempt by Senators Dick Durbin and Harry Reid to drive private operators out of the commuter business
  • A successful power play by Joe Boardman, the NEC congressional slate and NARP that kept the Northeast Corridor from being rehabbed based on a clever yet deceitful PR campaign
  • The Hoosier State being eliminated
  • The loss of the Silver Star diner
  • No advocacy for the long distance routes from the people who matter the most
  • Congress passing another rail reform bill but failing to enforce competition provisions
  • Amtrak stripping ticketing and checked baggage from numerous stations throughout the country
  • An ex-airline executive currently runs Amtrak and has alienated almost everyone with his moves

The status quo has prevailed and there has been little progress in the 10 years since. The vast majority of rail advocates have exposed themselves as little more than a bunch of Amtrak shills. As far as NARP, its name change is pretty much an indication that it is taking a step backward.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Colorado news

State House Speaker opposes Front Range Rail

If Becker is betting the future of transportation on autonomous vehicles, she is deluding herself. Furthermore, if anyone in the Colorado legislature is looking to Anderson et al to come to the rescue, then, they need to look at how the Boardman Administration dragged out the Southwest Chief issue.

Inside the box thinking is going to render intercity rail in Colorado stillborn.



A private operator wants to complete RTD's B Line

Given the route's issues, it wouldn't hurt at all to let Rocky Mountain Rail try it out.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

The end of the Hoosier State

Amidst much scrutiny, the final Hoosier State left Chicago on June 30. In late April, the Indiana General Assembly slashed $3 million a year (total $6 million until 2021) set aside for Trains #850 and #851 following Governor Eric Holcomb's own exclusion of the train route in his budget.

Thus ends a six-year debacle that started when Indiana balked at PRIIA Section 209 requirements. I will analyze the big players' roles starting with...

...Amtrak

  • Management reportedly told ex-CEO Joseph Boardman to not pursue CSX on making the Cardinal daily
  • Responsible for Section 209 in the first place
  • Delayed handing the Hoosier State over to Corridor Capital
  • Offered free amenities when Corridor Capital was yanked and then rescinded them after five months
  • Briefly provided Business Class after IPH pulled out


Indiana

  • Was the only state to hold out of Section 209 payments
  • Conducted a bidding process for the Hoosier State
  • Passed on Herzog, who wanted to operate the train in favor of contracting out the route while keeping Amtrak crews
  • Almost sabotaged the route before partial private service even began
  • Made no effort to upgrade the route to daily
  • State officials at best merely tolerated the route while it was the cities who exhibited far more interest in it
  • Imposed onerous requirements that made it impossible for IPH to operate the Hoosier State at a profit


Corridor Capital

  • Had the cars to operate the route
  • Maybe not much the expertise
  • Had to deal with a saboteur


Iowa Pacific

  • Had the equipment and made good use of it on the Hoosier State
  • Also made the best of its limited situation
  • Ran out of money in 2017


D.C.

  • The FRA attempted to classify states as rail carriers in early 2015
  • Congress had the power to enforce PRIIA and FAST Act provisions encouraging private sector competition but did nothing
Railfans

  • Most of them hated the idea of anyone other than Amtrak even touching this route from the beginning
  • Rejoiced when Corridor Capital was booted and when IPH handed the Hoosier State back to Amtrak


The final verdicts
Thumbs down to Amtrak: If it wanted to, it could have made either the Cardinal or the Hoosier State daily. That it made such a fuss about keeping the train when others made bids on it says a lot about management and its culture. Yet another part of the country has been ceded to a startup bus company.

Thumbs down to the state of Indiana: Misstep after misstep led to the route's demise and state officials botching things. It is worth noting that all alternatives to Chicago-Indianapolis are either circuitous or they no longer exist.

Thumbs in the middle to Corridor Capital: It never got to prove itself. Hopefully that changes with the planned Eau Claire-Twin Cities route.

Thumbs up to Iowa Pacific: It was able make the best out of a bad situation. Unlike middle mangers in D.C. and Chicago, you can't deny the passion that Ed Ellis had for providing more than decent services on the Hoosier State.

Thumbs down to D.C. politicians: First, the executive branch under Obama cooked up a harebrained idea of making states rail carriers. If the intention was to prevent the states from selecting AIPRO members or any other non-Amtrak operator, then, mission accomplished. The attempted power play just set passenger rail back another 5-10 years when we couldn't afford to waste any more time.

Next, the legislative branch. Congress has no excuses because it has heard from enough experts so it needed to make sure that anyone bidding on existing Amtrak routes had a fair shake. Instead, state departments are more scared and even more risk averse all because our so-called leaders were willing to sit on their hands while a previously tolerated status quo could now lead to intercity rail crumbling from within.

Thumbs down to railfans: Their attitude over the nation's only non-daily corridor service vindicates everything I said  5 1/2 years ago.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Gulf Coast Service: The Latest

Recently, part of the Sunset East Route between Pensacola and Jacksonville was sold by CSX to RailUSA-owned Florida Gulf & Atlantic Railroad.

Just when railfans were trying to figure out what the sale meant for the odds of passenger service being restored, Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker announced that service will return to the western portion of the Sunset East Route between New Orleans and Mobile.

The catch is right there: Only the CSX portion of the Sunset East is involved. It would be up to FG&A to restore the easternmost portion and even then, there would still be a gap between Mobile and Pensacola because neither Alabama nor Florida has shown an interest in restoring passenger service. If only the affected states (Louisiana, which is also paying for the restored service, is the fourth state involved) had actually talked to SNCF, that portion of the country would already have some kind of passenger service. After all, it was Virgin's interest in a Charlotte-Atlanta route for example that forced Amtrak to look at that same area for expansion earlier this year. Had SNCF tapped Keolis to run the 620-mile route, it may have motivated Amtrak management to at least restore the Sunset Limited or produce an entirely new route.

So, what we'll end up with is a third incarnation of the Gulf Coast Limited--the first one ran in the mid 1980s and the second one ran in from mid 1996 to mid 1997. The second version didn't even operate on a flipped schedule vis-à-vis the Sunset Limited--Train #24 operated about two hours earlier than #2 while #23 operated 2-3 hours earlier than #1. That said, an opportunity arises where dueling roundtrips could provide consistent ridership. Not to mention, a revived Gulf Breeze that is extended to the Crescent City should also be on the table after 2021.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Tackling the Headlines 100: The Finale

NOTE: The Hoosier State situation will be covered in a future article

Sweden and Night Trains
The Scandinavian country is doing something that was endangered just four years ago: Entering the European overnight market. This is an example of the government backing up its green agenda.

The funding portion would be like the government seeking an alternative operator to run a long distance route.

Amtrak's strategy
Over the last three months or so, Amtrak has made it clear that it doesn't really care about its originally mandated mission to provide a national system, and its leaders are emphasizing corridors instead. 

Given that Charlotte-Atlanta is on the railroad's radar, it should be clear that Amtrak is on the defensive since Virgin Trains already announced its plans for the same route six months ago. A few years ago, this route was complexly off the radar of "America's Railroad" and it was little more than a long-term thing planned by NCDOT and GADOT.

The thing is, Amtrak's record with the corridors it currently has is mostly lacking and the railroad has taken next to no initiative so this idea of focusing on corridors is typical of a reactive organization. When Richard Branson took over Brightline and announced its plans to develop corridors and even challenge Amtrak in its backyard, it was reminiscent of Joe Boardman's response to foreign entities submitting their bids to operate high speed rail a decade ago. 

Boardman got a reprieve as the 2010 elections curtailed HSR fever but Richard Anderson is unlikely to be as lucky because of how unpopular he already is among the rail public for his passenger-hostile approach. 

Detroit studies the obvious
A decade after members of the City Council recommended demolishing MCS, the Motor City's leaders are studying restoring passenger service to its crown jewel. However, it doesn't necessarily have to have Amtrak trains stopping there. A Chicago-Toronto HSR route could be set up either privately or like Eurostar.

Toledo may be taking rail into its own hands
A consultant has clearly been paying attention to Florida when he was tasked with tackling the feasibility of a Toledo-Ann Arbor/Detroit route. Linking Toledo with Southeast Michigan will be something that requires innovative thinking because the historical default partners are completely unreliable

The Ohio DOT is likely to continue putting highways above passenger rail even if the new governor isn't as bad on the latter as his predecessor. Meanwhile, Amtrak would give this T-shaped route the same treatment that it gave the 3C Route that it studied a decade ago. Also, any feasibility study done by Amtrak will result in exorbitant costs.

Clearing up the CAHSR mess
Whatever the new governor's motives, at least someone from the Authority clarified what's going on in Sacramento.

The future of UK rail franchising
Great Britain's rail operators want an independent body overseeing the network. If the railroads get their way on commuter routes, then it would be like the German model in a way--and it'd allow them to focus on intercity routes. I mean what's good for the goose (London) is good for the gander (Liverpool, Manchester, etc.), right?

Virgin being forced out in Britain
It looks like Sir Branson may flourish here while unraveling on his side of the Atlantic. His and Stagecoach's joint bid was disqualified over pension issues. Obviously a complex issue and it would be a shame if an innovative operator were driven out of its homeland.