My Bio and This Blog's Purpose

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  • Offered free amenities when Corridor Capital was yanked and then rescinded them after five months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.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Scaling back

It's time for another overhaul. Last month, Google+ was shuttered four months ahead of schedule due to another bug that was noticed in November. 

What now?
Given that G+ was the social media platform for me, it's a deep loss. Rather than getting lost on Facebook with its politics and the overall echo chamber, I have migrated to Diaspora. If you're so inclined, this is my page over there. I have also decided to take my advocacy over to Diaspora as well. This now means that my Tumblr will become a photos only page.

What about the blog?
I am taking a step back on this forum as blogging itself has lost its buzz and also because I have a lot of things going on in my personal life. My posts will be more like special attractions--for instance, I have reversed course and my next Tackling the Headlines column will be the last.

Passenger rail has moved at a snail's pace over the last few years as states have added the last of stimulus based corridor service and the current administration in D.C. has talked the talk about China having faster trains than us but has taken steps to defund Amtrak and revoke CAHSR money. 

Meanwhile, new Amtrak management is doing more damage than anything that might come out of the White House. Its CEO refuses to talk to the media and alienates just about everybody by continuing Boardman era practices of destaffing stations and also new stuff by eliminating charter service for example. The states are no closer to being innovative and continue with their inside the box thinking while continuing to ignore other operators who could provide better service than Amtrak offers. Also, where are all those new cars?

Virgin Trains USA may be a bright spot but we are now 13 months removed from the Saratoga & North Creek folding, meaning that we still have not had more than one privately operated passenger carrier at the same time since both the Georgia Railroad and the Rio Grande ceased services in April of 1983. Oh, did I mention that the only semblance of direct competition with Amtrak is a commuter route between Springfield, MA and New Haven, CT?


Tuesday, December 11, 2018

2018 Midterms and Rail

Here are my rapid fire responses to the midterms and their impact on passenger rail.

West Coast
CA: The incoming governor may shift which segments of CAHSR get built next. When it comes to the main opponents of the project, two out of the three are gone—Valadao and Denham lost their House races but McCarthy will become the new House Minority Leader.

Southwest
NM: Here’s to hoping that Michelle Lujan Grisham is vastly more pro-rail than her predecessor.

Midwest
MN: Maybe the second Chicago-Twin Cities frequency will accelerate now.
WI: Governor No Train is finally ousted and he lost based on a rule that he created that prevented a recount by a certain margin. Serves him right.
IA: Kim Reynolds holding onto the governor’s mansion and soon to be serving a full term means that a Quad Cities-Omaha extension will be off the table for at least another four years.
IL: Once the Quad Cities route gets up and running, the question is which route will be next on the agenda. The Black Hawk revival? Rockford service? Something else?
OH: Oh dear, Mike DeWine had the most ambiguous position out of the four gubernatorial candidates in regards to transit needs, which may mean the status quo in Columbus.

Southeast
AL: Earlier this year, Kay Ivey passed on providing money to reviving the Mobile-New Orleans Gulf Coast Limited route. That seemed to conclude a spat between the governor and the Southern Rail Commission but a couple of weeks later, advocates pressed forward with building a new station in Mobile. Ivey got elected to a full term but is less inclined to even support any type of passenger rail than her predecessor, who at least explored the possibility of a PPP before an impeachment threat forced him to step down.
GA: As to what the new governor will do in advancing passenger rail, your guess is as good as mine. If anything, Georgians may be better off hoping that Sir Richard’s venture serves the Atlanta-Charlotte market in the interim.
FL: It will be up to the public to push Ron DeSantis to implement a statewide rail system to connect Floridians. Over the past six or so years, region after region has expressed its interest in reviving rail service in some capacity. Now is the time to not only provide a system but to also prove that a state can develop on without Amtrak. Don’t just leave everything to Brightline/Virgin.
NC: Roy Cooper can now veto rail-unfriendly legislation, which would be a sigh of relief for mass transit.

Northeast
CT: We shall see if the new governor is more open to funding the Housatonic and New England Central routes now that the Hartford Line is finally up and running. 
MA: Conversely, we’ll also see if Charlie Baker and the legislature are able to produce any new routes in the Bay State.
ME: Hopefully, the Pine Tree State will move out of its neutral position and develop more routes.

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