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. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Tackling the Headlines 84: New Amtrak CEO

Last Friday, the Amtrak Board surprised everybody by announcing that former Norfolk Southern CEO Wick Moorman will succeed Joe Boardman on September 1--a month early.

The People Who Were Passed Over

Various magazine issues speculated as to who could replace Boardman presented various names earlier this year. In the May issue of Trains, AAF's Gene Skoropowski gave Don Phillips a list of four railroad leaders who were in their 30s or 40s. In the following issue, Phillips looked at former Amtrak veterans Al Engel and Richard Phelps--both of whom left Amtrak in 2011 (it is worth noting that in that same June issue, the Amtrak Board ignored Boardman's handpicked search firm/successor).

In the Second Quarter issue of Passenger Train Journal, NARP CEO Jim Mathews warned about the dangers of an NEC-centric board could have on the next president's agenda. The magazine reported that the Amtrak Board also ignored suggestions from the States for Passenger Rail Coalition.

As Jim Wrinn said, Amtrak was on time for once. When Tom Downs was replaced, the Board named George Warrington as the interim president and didn't remove his name when challengers stepped up. The result? Amtrak almost went bankrupt due to his all-in focus on the Acelas. It took the Board a year to transition from David Gunn to Andrew Kummant. Then, after Kummant left, Boardman, fresh off of his FRA duties, was appointed as the interim boss for over a year before the Board removed the interim tag. Until last Friday, it looked as though the Board would appoint yet another temporary person who would become the permanent head.

My Prediction vs Actual Outcome

I thought for sure that the Board would pick someone who would continue along the same path of taking the states for granted and still be in reactionary mode in the wake of competition. As far as Moorman goes, he falls outside of the names listed by magazines and rail experts only because he initially told everyone that he was going to just enjoy his retirement.

Amtrak's Path Forward

The operator is in need of fresh blood. The last railroader to run Amtrak--Andrew Kummant--was a low-level Union Pacific leader and had a very uneventful two-year tenure. Amtrak is staring at a future where: 

  1. All Aboard Florida's Brightline is about to resume the era of private passenger service. A successful run may mean that Florida's leaders implent their version of a California-like system without even talking to Amtrak
  2. Regional and shortline railroads are either providing intercity services or are planning to
  3. A trade group representing Amtrak's commuter competitors is chomping at the feet of "America's Railroad" to grab intercity contracts of state-supported corridors and overnight routes courtesy of the FAST Act (and PRIIA before it)
  4. Congressional pull alone may not be enough for Amtrak to maintain its near monopoly on passenger routes. Ironically, the tipping point may have been the Senate's failed attempt to drive private competitors out of the business in the spring of 2012
  5. The states themselves may be tired of paying high prices to keep Amtrak as the contractor of their routes when they have budgets to balance and expansion is met by the national operator by endless studies to nowhere. Indiana may have gotten the ball rolling by contracting the Hoosier State to Iowa Pacific, but there will be a state or group of states that will completely break away from Amtrak

What It Means for Competitors

With a former Class I executive running Amtrak, it may or may not be a bit more difficult for AIPRO members and others to get existing routes away from the national operator but time will tell. However, I will say this: It's very unlikely that Mr. Moorman will be as combative towards other operators. If anything, the new Amtrak CEO may decide on his own just which routes are worth keeping in the Amtrak system and which ones would be better off in the hands of someone else.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Tackling the Headlines 83

Niagara Falls, NY opens new station, but no trains stop there
Take: It's likely that this scenario could play out in other places in the future, quite possibly in Jacksonville. After all, it has already played out this way in Atlanta where Amtrak refused to even consider relocating downtown.

Forgotten subway
Take: It's an insight to how far Cincinnati has been left in the dust.

No quick fixes for aging transit systems
Take: It's all about the public will. It's well past time that everybody pays attention to infrastructure issues and demands elected officials to properly fund infrastructure.

Talgos: From Wisconsin to Michigan to California
Take: This is a smart move given everything that has happened over the last year. Michigan was unable to close the deal for the trainsets Scott Walker walked away from the Madison extension and a desperate need for extra cars given that Nippon-Sharyo has jeopardized the stimulus-funded double decker car order.

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!