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, September 13, 2016

Tackling the Headlines 86: The All-Amtrak Edition

What Gulf Coast hurdles?
Take: Yet another reason why an independent operator, not Amtrak should be running the New Orleans-Orlando route.

Amtrak considering eliminating QuikTrak machines
Take: What other boneheaded moves did the outgoing Boardman Administration saddle the public with that we don't yet know?

Late Saturday Hiawathas to continue
Take: The company's thinking outside of the box for a change.

Court denies Amtrak a role in setting OTP standards
Take: Hopefully, this is the end and the USDOT balks on appealing to the Supreme Court because in the wake of other passenger operators expressing their issues with the feds' pro-Amtrak bias.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Tackling the Headlines 85

Politico's coverage of the FRA's Pilot Program hearing

Take: On the private companies' concern that the FRA is rigging the process in Amtrak's favor, it would not surprise me if it is.The FRA has been nothing but vague to this point and has gone out of its way to impose arbitrary barriers on non-Amtrak operators.

TTD to FRA: Amtrak, Not Private Entities, Should Run National Passenger Rail System

TTD Secretary-Treasurer Larry Willis, appearing at the Agency’s public hearing, emphasized that Amtrak and its experienced employees are in the best position to provide inter-city passenger rail - “not private entities that seek to turn a profit by lowering labor costs or cutting and eroding service.”
Take # 1: Tell that to the folks in Britain and continental Europe.
“The idea that a private entity can come in and provide more efficient service at a lower cost than Amtrak simply because it is a private entity is a myth,” Willis said. “Too often, private sector business models in the rail industry contemplate downgrading existing service, avoiding obligations under rail labor statutes, or undercutting collective bargaining agreements. The FRA must ensure that the pilot program shuts the door to this misguided model.”
Take #2: Somebody ought to tell Mr. Willis that Amtrak has already done that with the downgrades to the Silver Star and the City of New Orleans so for him to accuse other operators of downgrading service is laughable and is deflecting Amtrak's deficiencies. For instance after Amtrak lost the Virginia Railway Express contract, it was Keolis that added special events for VRE's riders.

Take #3: As I said in early 2014,

If [the unions] are opposed to non-Amtrak operators, then they are in effect opposed to more jobs.
That is the bottom line. It's Willis and Ed Wytkind who are depriving others of jobs, not the AIPRO members or Ed Ellis, and they are doing so because they are afraid of having to adjust to a world of multiple operators who may in due time provide superior service to Amtrak.

Fragmenting Long-Distance Passenger Trains?

Railfan & Railroad, August

NEC a different matter 

  • Not only is the NEC huge but the region but the region's congressional delegation would block any effort by AIPRO members to compete against Amtrak
  • Maybe when the folks in D.C. get serious about infrastructure, then, we'll see Amtrak face competition in its home region. Until then, I wish the LEO Express people good luck because they'll need it
  • By avoiding the NEC, Chambers is sticking to what he knows since the bulk of the AIPRO's commuter contracts are outside of Amtrak-friendly Northeast and Chicagoland territories
  • By opening the overnight routes up to competition, we'd finally be able to find out the truth about the financial condition of the routes
Cutting a deal?
  • By capping the subsidy at 90 percent, the FAST Act is actually doing all potential Amtrak competitors a favor because these newcomers will be hungry and eager to demonstrate that the long distance train of the future is better off without Amtrak

Amtrak--another shot at the target
  • "America's Railroad" may get the chance to counterbid but it'd be wise to figure out just which three routes it can do without

Role of Class Is
  • As far as the major railroads go, Sections 209 & 214 of PRIIA as well as Section 205 of the FAST Act supersede their long-held Amtrak-only stance
  • If the major railroads (continue) flout(ing) the laws, then Congress will have to play hardball: Allow non-Amtrak operators who fairly get contracts for state-supported or overnight routes on your rails or you'll be in charge of every intercity route outside of the Northeast--and in the process, reducing Amtrak to an NEC-only entity
Who bids?
  • To me, it's simple: A partnership between independent and Class I railroads--shades of my rail consortium

Another thorny complaint
  • Vernon discusses how the major railroads have griped about how Amtrak has never paid them market rates for access on their tracks. As it turns out, a fellow AIPRO member Stan Feinsod advocated a scenario in which other operators would use the commuter model in order to access fright tracks
  • In the event the AIPRO is able to see its vision happen, then perhaps we could actually see some of its members revive and actively push for the restoration of service along routs Amtrak abandoned
High mountains to climb

  • As far as the RRIF loan scenario goes, whatever it takes

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The New Passenger Paradigm

Railway Age, July

Initial takeaway: Rail activists would be keen to read and reread the first sentence on what really led to the creation of Amtrak so they can stop spewing their defeatist nonsense whenever someone tries to propose out of the box ways to expand passenger travel in this country.

Third paragraph: Herzog was prescient and took notes before anyone on Capitol Hill even drafted PRIIA. Even though the AIPRO is small, it should say something that its members have the bulk of commuter rail contracts when a couple of decades ago, Amtrak had a near monopoly outside of the Northeast and Chicago.

Fourth paragraph: This expert nails it: The status quo cannot be maintained after 45 years when multiple operators have expressed interest in running intercity trains.

Fifth paragraph: The New Passenger Paradigm matches up with the late Gil Carmichael's Interstate II and my rail highway concepts.

Sixth paragraph: Based on what Mr. Chambers is saying, all that's needed is for the feds to actually enforce the laws and end the stasis once and for all. After all, when the time came to enforce the Pilot Program in accordance to PRIIA guidelines, the FRA waited a full two years to do so and by that time, there were too many loose ends that the old program just withered away despite immense interest. Another thing is to make sure that the feds do not play favorites--i.e., rig the process to maintain Amtrak's near monopoly (the 2012 near miss comes to mind).

Second column: Regarding the push for new legislation, somebody has to do it because the resident rent seekers sure won't. When it comes to Section 301 not being enforced, one can only look at the executive branch and ask: What happened, President Obama, USDOT, FRA? Was it in any way retaliation to some states returning stimulus money? Was the lack of enforcement actually stimulus related?

If the feds had followed the German model, we would already have: 1) states having greater flexibility to select operators and set their own standards and 2) Amtrak having a surplus amount of equipment due to it experiencing the same type of contract losses of its intercity routes that it's had with its commuter service. The next president and Congress would be very wise to adopt AIPRO's statutes. The second proposed statute would be an excellent way to make money. JR West does this now and Brightline and Housatonic plan on turning their station areas into prime real estate.

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.