My Bio and This Blog's Purpose

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After 45 years, it's time for the rail community to advocate growth rather than just mere survival. My views are to nudge the discussion toward expanding the passenger rail network rather than just relying on one company to do everything. 

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Tackling the Headlines 82

Long distance competition at last?
On Wednesday, the FRA finally complied with Section 205 of the FAST Act and set the standards for bidding on long distance routes

TL;DR analysis: For once, the FRA is following the law on time. I want to see what the Ed Ellises and the AIPROs of the world do with overnight routes. 

Full analysis: Go to Tumblr.

More destaffings
Recently, Amtrak has been turning staffed stations into unstaffed stations. Now, Homewood, IL and Wolf Point, MT have been added.  

Take #1: I seriously wonder if Joe Boardman has enacted some kind of a scorched earth policy on his way out. The rash of destaffings and stripping the Silver Star of its dining cars come to mind as possible ways the lame duck Amtrak president is getting back at a lot of people. The latter act is also justification for the FRA's actions a couple of days ago.

Take #2: I am also getting tired of know it all railfans justifying small towns and suburban locations losing agents. Not everybody has access to technology and not everyone wants to handle computers. That mentality is exactly why so-called "flyover country" is in open rebellion against city folks. Instead of reducing staffed stations, a responsible company would be adding staffed stations.

Alabama rising?
Earlier this month, news broke that Corridor Capital was planning a regional rail system for Alabama and two other states and headquarters in Montgomery. As it turned out, Alabama media ran with this story big time. However, last Friday's NARP's newsletter poured cold water on exactly who was backing Corridor Capital's efforts. The Southern Rail Commission not only denied supporting CorrCap but also decided to stress how it was working with Amtrak among others.

Take #1: I had to reread the stories from the Alabama press and not once did I ever get any idea that CorrCap was even mentioned as an operator.

Take #2: A comment on the Trains Magazine page on the SRC's disavowal of CorrCap says it all: "So I guess if you are a private sector entity seeking improved passenger rail service the politicians don't want you." When I said that advocacy groups needed to adapt to a post-monopoly era rather than going all in with Amtrak, I didn't think that I'd have to also apply this to the states but given this development and Minnesota picking Amtrak to run the Northern Lights Express even though the planned second Chicago-Twin Cities frequency won't serve Minneapolis, I guess I have to.

Take #3: I wonder if NARP got into the SRC's ear and told them to distance themselves from Corridor Capital given how attached to Amtrak NARP really is.


Take #4: There is no excuse for the New Orleans-Orlando route to still be "suspended" after 10 1/2 years! If someone else can come along and get something going, that group should be commended not ridiculed the way CorrCap is now.

Take #5: Going back to Mr. Norton's comments in the Trains article, he's right on. The Floridian (1971-79), Gulf Breeze (1990-95), and the Gulf Coast Limited (1984-85 & 96-97) have all come and gone. If an entrepreneur is trying to provide a service that is absent and the only thing the current operator is doing is subjecting states to endless feasibility studies, sooner or later, the public will have to go with the person who is thinking outside of the box.

St. Louis Union Station excursions
Links can be found here, here, and here.

Take: Until non-Amtrak operators are allowed to run overnight trains and America gets serious about European-style high speed rail, this might be as good as it gets. But at least, Union Station is finally being used for its original purpose 38 years after Amtrak left.

Friday, May 27, 2016

A brighter future for an Upstate New York shortline

Recently, the Saratoga & North Creek's contract was extended for another five years, and local leaders are exploring the possibility of extending rail service 37 miles south to Albany-Rensselaer. An extension would not only allow passengers to have guaranteed connections between the S&NC and Amtrak--more likely to be Empire Service trains--but also a one seat ride from the capital to the North Country (this summer will mark the second year in a row that northbound connections will be impossible without an overnight stay in Saratoga).

If the extension is proven to be feasible, then, there could come a time where passengers traveling to or from destinations north of Saratoga Springs won't have to rely on an Upstate transfer between Amtrak and the S&NC at all because a fantasy could turn into a reality.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Tackling the Headlines 81

Denver opens its first commuter rail line
Just four hours ago, the University of Colorado A Line, which runs from Union Station to the airport, marks the first time since the last Rio Grande Zephyr pulled in on April 23, 1983 that Union Station will have more than one rail tenant in accordance to the FRA's 49 CFR 238/239 portion covering intercity and commuter trains.

Take: Once all of the RTD commuter lines are up and running, the next steps taken should be as follows:
1. Provide a regional (read, intercity) rail system that serves Cheyenne, Ogden, Colorado Springs, Salt Lake City, Pueblo, and Albuquerque
2. Congress has to force Title XI Subtitle C Section 205 of the FAST Act to allow overnight competition which may be better for the Mile High City than the regional system in the long term

Amtrak discontinuing its timetables
Take #1: If the company were actually serious about expansion, it wouldn't be doing this. If those in Washington were serious about providing competition to Amtrak, the company wouldn't be doing this.

Take #2: Now, if other states follow Indiana's lead or break away from Amtrak altogether combined with even limited long distance competition, these entities (likely AIPRO members, regional/shortline railroads, and some foreign operators) could develop their own timetable. Thanks to the Saratoga & North Creek, such a timetable independent of Amtrak could already be developed since that railroad connects to Amtrak in upstate New York.

NYC MTA leaves the APTA
Take: This is big. If more of the major systems follow, then, the APTA could be reduced to representing small and midsized transit agencies.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Winter Magazine Rants and Raves

Iron and Fire: Iowa Pacific's Ed Ellis (4th Quarter 2015)
The Passenger Train Journal article covered a slew of topics with Ellis but largely talked about the Hoosier State.The author of the PTJ article seemed to lament the fact that Iowa Pacific and Amtrak managed to just coexist rather than cooperate when it comes to the Hoosier State and the Cardinal. The testings and cancellations of the Hoosier State were just two things covered. The major thing that I paid attention to was how Amtrak handled itself on November 23. The westbound Cardinal lost more than 5 1/2 hours in Indianapolis due to a locomotive that ran out of fuel. Amtrak said that the loco wasn't properly fueled in D.C. when #51 switched from electric to diesel but rather than loaning an engine from IP, it decided to wait for a CSX engine. Since IP equipment was attached to #51, the Hoosier State for that evening out of Chicago was also affected While Ellis may not see IP as a rival to Amtrak, someone at Amtrak's headquarters in D.C. surely does--even if it isn't the outgoing CEO himself.

Towards the end of the article, the planned Rutland-Burlington service in Vermont was mentioned and Ellis told PTJ that he was keeping a close eye just in case that state puts the operation of the route up for bidding. It would be water cooler material if Vermont contracts trains service to not one but two operators.

Finally, Ellis is right on by saying that the focus on high speed rail "is totally misplaced" and that there should be hourly service.

Maine Eastern Finale (Railfan & Railroad, February)
As it turns out, the circumstances surrounding the demise of the Maine Eastern excursions are even worse than I feared. ME DOT spokesman Ted Talbot told the Portland Press Herald that the state had no interest in subsidizing any new passenger service

So rather than either extending the Downeaster to Rockland or the DOT dropping the ball, the state went out of its way to curtail summer service to an area not served by Amtrak. Paul LePage is even worse than Scott Walker because at least the latter wants to add frequencies between Chicago and Milwaukee. The Pine Tree State's Tea Party executive isn't even interested in expanding the Downeaster by either mileage or frequency. It may very well turn out to be a blown opportunity because if a Democrat succeeds LePage in three years,the new governor may only be focused on extending Downeaster service to Rockland and Augusta and pay no attention what I proposed almost four years ago.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Tackling the Headlines 80

Be prepared to pack your own lunch on the Silver Star
To the surprise of absolutely no one, the dining car on the Silver Star is gone for good.
Take: Once Amtrak announced that the dining car would be taken off of #91 & #92, the only two responses I had were 1) how long it would take for Amtrak to make the so-called "experiment" permanent and 2) it was yet another instance of Joe Boardman being all too willing to throw the long distance trains under the bus while being all too unwilling to stand up to John Mica.

Some sad news from Mississippi
Former FRA chairman Gil Carmichael passed away Sunday.
Take: Carmichael was the person who advocated Interstate 2.0, which makes a lot more sense than what we were subjected to 6-7 years ago with everybody from Portland, OR to Portland, ME jumping on the high speed rail bandwagon.

Eau Claire update
A coalition is pondering the likes of Iowa Pacific operating service to the Twin Cities if and when that route gets up and running.
Take: There we go with that entrepreneurial spirit! I like the way they are thinking!

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Boardman's pending exit

Earlier this week, Amtrak president Joe Boardman dropped a bombshell: He will be retiring next September.


Don Phillips Was Right

It's too bad that Boardman doesn't leave any sooner because his tenure wasn't a matter of missed opportunities. Rather, it reeked of blown opportunities. The 2009-10 period was a time that Amtrak could have shown the public that it was ready to be the undisputed leader in American passenger railroading when European and Asian operators were not only showing interest in running trains here in this country but also had their own plans as well. 

Instead of being proactive, Boardman sent a letter to congressional leaders wanting to impose burdens on Amtrak's "state partners" when it came to liability issues in an effort to enact a high speed rail monopoly. 

The appropriate response to Virgin, SNCF, JR Central et al would have been for Amtrak to tell the public just what its expansion plans were. Even the often vilified George Warrington lined out a proposal of the even more vilified Mail and Express expansion plan. Where was Amtrak's plan? The evaluations of every single long distance route as mandated by PRIIA seemed to be a result of Amtrak management doing the bare minimum, and none of those feasibility studies resulted in suspended or discontinued routes being restored. Part of that is due to Congresscritters failing to call Amtrak on its bluff (I'm looking at you, Representative Corrine Brown). Outside groups had to conduct their own studies--and unsurprisingly, they called the national operator's bean counters on their b.s. 


Whither the National Network

Besides the controversial feasibility studies, "America's Railroad" has done little to improve the long distance network. First, Boardman refused to take Union Pacific to the Surface Transportation Board in 2009 when that railroad claimed that it would cost Amtrak $750 million to convert the Sunset Limited to daily status. Had he shown some guts, then, the STB would have likely have told UP to stop that act of extortion because everything lined up for passenger rail back then. 

Second, Joe Boardman is the reason why the Cardinal is still triweekly. He could have been more assertive on converting #50 & #51 to daily status but he chose not to.

Third, he has constantly thrown the long distance trains under the bus by yapping about how much money they lose rather than trying to make them better.

Fourth, he is only replacing equipment rather than adding equipment for the Eastern routes. It's obvious what a real visionary would do. Not to mention, the Viewliner II equipment is running into its own delays.

Fifth, the Western routes are outta sight outta mind by management in D.C.(i.e. no new equipment coming), and the Southwest Chief situation was Amtrak's own brand of extortion.

Finally, the current experiment in which the Silver Star is running without a dining car until May is making people in the rail community wonder whether it is more of a permanent, long term strategy. Cutting back on amenities when Amtrak has had record ridership over the last few years and when the much beleaguered overnights are often sold out will alienate casual riders.


Amtrak and the States: Unrequited Love

Another thing about Amtrak's "valued state partners," is that it's more of a one-way street than people imagine. Amtrak management knew that Section 209 of PRIIA allowed the states the option to pick other operators and it pulled out all the stops to keep every one of its 19 routes in its possession. The Senate tried in vain during the spring of 2012 to help out Amtrak by attaching provisions that would have not only all but kept independent operators out of the intercity market also driven them out of the commuter world as well.

Had there not been all of the hand wringing throughout 2013, maybe Indiana would not be on its own island and other states would have seen their costs go down.

Speaking of Indiana, the way Amtrak handled the Hoosier State handover was a disgrace. Of course, Amtrak could have avoided that whole crisis by converting the Cardinal to a daily route but failing that, the situation is reflective of the company's philosophy as a whole.

The first half of 2010 should have been a time for the operator to reevaluate just which state routes were valuable and which ones were expendable and let other operators bid on the latter group. Had management on Massachusetts Avenue done that, perhaps, Amtrak equipment would have been freed up to to be used in Amtrak-friendly territory.


The Likely Next Step

Boardman was supposed to be a temporary appointment seven years ago after the unremarkable tenure of former Union Pacific underling Andrew Kummant but the Amtrak Board removed the interim tag in mid-2010 for its own reasons.

Nine months is more than enough time for the board to select a permanent president and CEO, no excuses.

Honestly, though, I don't see anybody with any real vision being appointed to succeed Boardman. If the Amtrak Board of Directors couldn't select a visionary person when all signs pointed to a strongly pro-passenger rail environment, then, I can't see the BOD doing it next year when Congress is more hostile and the White House may become Amtrak-hostile in 2017. 

If anything, the next Amtrak president may be more of a political appointment in the veins of Sarah Feinberg being confirmed as the FRA chief despite having no rail experience and who had recently been Facebook's director of corporate and strategic communications.

I really hope that Congress enforces the provision in the FAST ACT that mandates competitive bidding on a long distance route and that states are allowed greater liberty when it comes to letting other operators run their routes.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Tackling the Headlines 79

Return of Vancouver Island service
Take: Even though service is likely a year away from being restored, this is a bit of good news for residents who have had nothing for a few years.

Beef up Via Rail or build HSR in Canada?
Take: Givne that political winds have shifted in Ottawa, it's definitely a good discussion to be had.

NM finds out that it can't dump the Rail Runner
Take: Good. Now, opponents should just deal with it.

Another Amshack bites the dust
Take: There's a reason why people call these stations Amshacks in the first place: It's not a complimentary term. As passenger rail travel continues to add ridership, the Amshacks all of a sudden point to a forgettable, bygone era. Good riddance to such atrocities as the new Rochester station will open in 2017.