My Bio and This Blog's Purpose

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

HSR Announcement Coming Soon

Based on the Wall Street Journal article that the CAHSR blog picked up on, it looks like the feds have finally made up their minds on who will be receiving the high speed rail funds and will let it be know on Thursday. However, it won't stop me from weighing in before.

This is who I think is the most deserving of the stimulus funds:

1. Midwest/Ohio Hubs. Operators: Multiple. This is obvious since it's in the president's backyard, but it is a reflection of all the work the area has done throughout the years.

2. California. Operator: DB, SNCF, or Virgin Trains. They were the leaders until recently, when NIMBY backlash and the state's money woes slightly dented things for the Golden State.

3. Southeast. Operator: Amtrak for existing Piedmont and Newport News routes and for the planned D.C.-Charlotte route. Operators for other legs of the SEHSR system to be determined later. This area like the other two has done enormous work to be in a position to qualify for the money.

4. Cascades. Operator: Amtrak. This is another area that has used conventional rail to its advantage. It's a lesson for anyone jumping on Florida's bandwagon.

Everyone else not listed would have to wait for Round 2 because these four parts of the country are the only ones deserving of President Obama's stimulus money. If anyone thought Florida should be front and center, consider this latest bit of news from the Sunshine State. That's right, Amtrak is threatening to derail--no pun intended--the SunRail commuter project in central Florida. This is reason enough for the president to reconsider his plans and not give one penny to that state. If this is an effort by Amtrak president Joseph Boardman to bid for the HSR route in that state, it shows that Amtrak isn't as dedicated to rail system as it claimed in the stimulus application. If the move against SunRail ends up destroying the HSR project,  it will be a while before Florida even gets considered by the feds for a project this big. Either way, Boardman will end up destroying any good chance the state has to build a productive passenger rail system. 

With all that said, here's how I think where the funds will go based on who will get the most money:

1. Midwest                                                                                                                                                      

2. Florida                                                                                                                                                        

3. California                                                                                                                                                    

4. NEC (even though they were ineligible for stimulus funding, Amtrak still has enough buddies in Congress to back them up, and the vice president also plays a factor since he used to ride the train frequently)      

Round 2                                                                                                                                                          

5. Empire Corridor (because Boardman used to work in NY)                                                                 

6. SEHSR                                                                                                                                                        

7. Cascades                                                                                                                                                     

8. Keystone extension to Pittsburgh                                                                                                              

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Improving Rail Service in Florida--Part 2

Amtrak's Plans
Amtrak wants to expand service in Florida after previous stalled attempts, most notably, a failed expansion plan that was scrapped by Congress in 2002 when it barred Amtrak from adding routes. Based on one of the state's stimulus applications, the Silver Star and the Silver Meteor will be split in Jacksonville by October 2012. Four local Jacksonville-Miami trains would serve the east coast in a second phase.

Tampa's Current Routing
The biggest problem that I've had with Florida's current service is the nonsensical routing through Tampa. In 1994, the Palmetto was extended from Jacksonville to Tampa via Ocala. However, due to the following year's cutbacks, that route was eliminated. At that time, Amtrak split and merged the Silver Service trains in either Jacksonville or Auburndale. Once the Silver Palm was established to replace the Palmetto in 1996, the other two routes became Miami via Orlando only, and the Silver Palm traveled via Ocala to Tampa, then onward to Miami. The reason given for the backtracking through Tampa was that Amtrak wanted to serve Florida's east and west coasts without splitting up the trains. When the renamed Palmetto was cut back to Savannah in 2004, the Ocala's S-Line stops were replaced by a bus, and the Silver Star picked up the Tampa stop. Instead of going back and forth in central Florida, Amtrak had two golden opportunities to set up a standalone local Tampa-Miami train that would have made either the Silver Palm or Silver Star to terminate in Tampa without giving travelers headaches.

A Better Plan for Florida
Instead of loony routings and unrealistic HSR hopes, I have provided a logical alternative--in four phases--on how Florida should proceed with rail service that will be more productive in the end. Unless otherwise noted, the operator is assumed to be Amtrak Florida. I will also use the Jacksonville Union Terminal (JUT) as that city's primary station for all operators. Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa/St. Pete, and Miami would serve as hubs. The numbers on the maps are roundtrips.

a) This is partially based on Amtrak's plans. This assumes that Amtrak (terra cotta) serves both the existing station on Clifford Lane and a renovated Union Terminal in Jacksonville. The splitting and combining of trains would take place at the Clifford Lane station.

b) FEC Locals (golden yellow). This route would serve the east coast of the state and stop at additional locations that Amtrak would miss. Only Amtrak Florida trains would serve every station located along lines that provide both long-distance and local routes.

c) Cross-Florida Service (dark green). Upon Amtrak's Silver Service restructuring, Tampa travelers would have direct access to Miami and no longer worry about backtracking by Silver Service trains or having to be bused when those trains are subject to trackwork.

d) The Sunset Limited has been transferred to my hypothetical consortium's Transcontinental Subdivision (olive green) and would be moved to a new Marietta station in the western part of Jacksonville. All Rail Consortium routes would use the planned downtown LYNX Sunrail Station as its Orlando location.

e) The Flamingo and the Ponce De Leon (violet; Rail Consortium East) would provide Midwest travelers direct access to the Sunshine State for the first time since 1979. The Flamingo would travel via Chicago, Pittsburgh, D.C., Charleston, Orlando and Miami. The latter route would travel via the same cities except its termini would be Detroit and Tampa, and it would stop in Raleigh (S-Line) instead of Charleston (A-Line).

f) To provide Panhandle travelers an alternative to the Sunset Limited, a Houston-New Orleans-Orlando Gulf Wind route (red; Rail Consortium Central) would operate as a complement, and both trains would serve the JUT by this time.

g) A-Line Locals (brown). These trains would relieve the long-distance trains from overcrowding. The Orlando-South stop is the planned Sunrail Sand Lake Road station.

h) S-Line Locals (tan). For the first time since 2004, passenger service would return to this rail line. The Miami segment would run along restored CSX tracks. To sweeten up the pot, there might be some dedicated tracks for intercity trains.

i) SEHSR (blue; operators TBD) would be implemented alongside expanded Amtrak service and RCE's emergence. Only Amtrak would skip the Callahan stop north of Jacksonville. The Atlanta route would be via Jesup while the Raleigh route would serve Savannah.

Additional Frequencies: Amtrak would add two more roundtrips. These trains would supplement the Silver Service routes and would be extended to maximize ridership. The Orange Blossom would be a companion to the Silver Star and would be extended to Boston via Hartford while the Champion would provide Silver Meteor and Palmetto travelers a third option along the A-Line in the Carolinas. The Champion's northern terminus would be Montreal, essentially picking up where the Montrealer left off in 1995 and providing Northeastern travelers an alternative to the Adirondack and Vermonter. One more roundtrip would be added to the FEC Local while two would be added to the Cross-Florida route.

j) Once the tracks are repaired in certain parts of the country, RCC would add service to provide Midwest-Florida travelers an alternative to RCE.The Floridian (Chicago-Nashville-Birmingham-Jacksonville-Daytona Beach-Miami), South Wind (Chicago-Cincinnati-Atlanta-Jacksonville-Orlando-Tampa), Southland (Detroit-Cincinnati-Atlanta-Jacksonville-Ocala-Miami), and Royal Palm (Cleveland-Cincinnati-Atlanta-Jacksonville-Ocala-Miami) will attract more riders from the Midwest.

k) Amtrak Florida would begin providing local Panhandle service (peach) and would serve additional stops since the train would be at a more marketable time of the day as opposed to the Sunset Limited and Gulf Wind.

l) It would only be then that FLHSR (orange; Japan Central) would implement Stage 1 due to increased demand for travel in three of the state's four hubs. I have gone ahead and put the Japanese in charge of the system because they want to build a system in this country, and they--not the FL taxpayers--would pick up the tab.

Additional Frequencies: RCT (Sunset) and RCC (Gulf Wind) would extend their respective east-west routes to Tampa. Up to four Cross-Florida roundtrips would be extended to St.Petersburg. Amtrak Florida would add one more roundtrip to the FEC Locals, three more to the Cross-Florida route, and four more each to the A and S Lines.

m) Amtrak Florida expands to other markets like Venice (pink) and Naples (via Jacksonville [light blue] and via Tampa [light green]).

n) Stage 2 of FLHSR is implemented. Japan Central extends the route from Orlando Airport to Miami on one end and from the Tampa Intermodal Center to the St. Petersburg Intermodal Center on the other end.

Additional Frequencies: Amtrak expands to serve additional markets like Charlotte and Indianapolis via the Crescent and Cardinal routes. Amtrak Florida adds a Panhandle roundtrip. RCC adds service to and from St. Louis and Kansas City. Japan Central doubles frequencies on its Tampa-Orlando stretch.

As for additional RCE routes and Auto Train-related service, that will be determined at a later date.

Inspiration and sources
URPA's This Week at Amtrak April 18, 2008 and August 28, 2009 editions (for providing better ideas like local service than the flawed HSR plan)
Trains Magazine December 2009 pgs. 52-53 (for the names of Florida trains of yesteryear)
SunRail (for an alternative location should another operator run long-distance trains in central Florida)
Florida DOT's stimulus application

Monday, January 18, 2010

Improving Rail Service in Florida--Part 1

There is a vested interest in providing Florida with top-notch passenger service since it is a tourist hotbed. Everybody--from Amtrak, to the French, to the Koreans--wants in on the action, whether it's high-speed or conventional service. 

In the case of Florida, there should be a special agency set up for conventional train service. The hypothetical Amtrak Florida could combine the aspects of California and North Carolina, two other states which have their own state-supported routes and go out of their way to promote their trains. Through a special agreement with the national carrier, Amtrak Florida would have its own schedule for in-state travel (just like CA) and attendants at stations that don't currently have Amtrak agents (just like NC). Currently, North Carolina is the only state in the Union that has a special attendant agreement. What would be different from NC's setup is that at certain suburban stations and tourist towns, the FDOT attendants would be allowed to sell tickets for intrastate Florida trains (long-distance tickets would continue to be picked up via the Quik-Trak kiosk at these locations).

A lot has been said about Florida's past high-speed hopes. I do know this though, the state was once a hotbed for rail travel, and the fact that it has been whittled away to virtually nothing is a crying shame. There are some states that deserve to receive the HSR funds from the Obama Administration, but the Sunshine State is on the wrong side of that ledger.

Ever since at least the mid 1980s, the state has been on the high-speed bandwagon. Each time, it has seen its hopes of the fast train go up in smoke. In 1999, ex-Governor Jeb Bush killed the Florida Overland Express upon taking office. In November 2000, FL voters approved a constitutional amendment to mandate an HSR system, but that was repealed just four years later by the same voters who were convinced by Bush that it wasn't necessary. This is one reason why Florida should not receive any of the stimulus funds from D.C. How many times will state officials get to strike out?

Second, there is a lack of connectivity between Tampa and the Orlando area. Most people have pointed out that a new intermodal center in Tampa for local and regional transit doesn't make much sense for HSR when historic Union Station is nearby and rarely used despite renovation. In Lakeland, the planned HSR station is north of town vs the current downtown location of the Amtrak station. 

Third, instead of building a fast-speed system that would likely serve upscale travelers and tourists as its primary base, the state needs to reconsider and produce a consistent, medium-speed system that serves many Florida cities, and it must buy the tracks that were abandoned by CSX along the S-Line route in the central part of the state!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

It's Not Post-Amtrak, Just Something Better

In an effort to promote long-distance train travel, the federal government should set up a special consortium with the freight railroads. This would be based on Division B, Title II, Section 214 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, which says:

"Within 1 year after the date of enactment of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, the Federal Railroad Administration shall complete a rulemaking proceeding to develop a pilot program that--
`(1) permits a rail carrier or rail carriers that own infrastructure over which Amtrak operates a passenger rail service petition the Administration to be considered as a passenger rail service provider over that route in lieu of Amtrak."

The consortium would only operate certain long-distance routes that have multiple railroads along each route's stretch, and it would only apply to railroads that outbid Amtrak, since it would prevent the pre-Amtrak era practice of forcing passengers to change trains due to a route's host railroad changing hands. The host railroads would not be prevented from reinstating passenger service on their own tracks. Companies currently bidding for high speed rail routes could be also be a part of the consortium and would likely staff the stations. Daily service would be mandated on any route that is not seasonal in an effort to boost rail travel.

As for the consortium's setup, it would be subdivided four ways and each part would be operated as separate units.

  1. The Transcontinental Subdivision would handle coast-to-coast routes, and Midwest-West Coast routes.
  2. The Eastern Subdivision would handle long-distance routes that stop in Southern cities as well as Midwest-Florida routes that travel via Washington, D.C.
  3. The Central Subdivision would handle Northeast-Midwest routes, north-south routes between the Midwest and the South, Midwest-Florida routes via Southern cities, and east-west routes between the South and Florida.
  4. The Western Subdivision would handle routes between the Mountain West and the South and Mountain West-West Coast service.

As the first act of this proposal, Congress would transfer the troubled Sunset Limited route from Amtrak to the consortium's Transcontinental Subdivision. This way, the bi-coastal route would return to its Los Angeles-Orlando routing. The schedule would change so it wouldn't interfere with Amtrak's plans to convert the Texas Eagle to a daily route west of San Antonio. The Sunset's Jacksonville stop would also be moved to a suburban location in the western part of the city until Union Terminal is fit to serve trains once again, and it would stop in Phoenix and other towns along a restored route.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Equipment orders

Credit to Bruce Richardson for the latest update on HR 2847.

After taking a look at the proposed overhauling of Amtrak fleet, I have to wonder why anybody in the rail community would defend these moves. Doesn't Amtrak have wreck-damaged equipment in Bear, DE and Beech Grove, IN? The common sense thing is to put these cars back into service first, then, order new equipment. 

How is Amtrak supposed to grow when it is only replacing equipment? Plainly put, it can't! If NCDOT and Via Rail Canada can revamp equipment that's at least 50 years old, why can't the people on 60 Massachusetts Avenue? Furthermore, the House is playing the role of enabler by letting Amtrak junk its old equipment just for the sake of getting some new cars, so they are the main culprits in all of this.

Instead of trying to get rid of old equipment, Amtrak's management should try these steps instead:

  1. Come up with a real route expansion plan.
  2. Put all repaired cars back into service.
  3. Order new equipment.
  4. Add new routes and shift the older equipment onto these routes. The new equipment would be put on the more established routes.
  5. Order new equipment for the new routes with some extras left over for additional expansion. Some of the existing equipment would be kept as backup and emergency vehicles. The oldest cars would then be retired.