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With a new administration in D.C., it's time to think outside of the box because passenger rail's survival just may depend on it

Monday, May 3, 2010

Specialty Rail Travel

Current Amtrak management has expressed little to no interest in expanding the National System (aka the real backbone of passenger rail). The recent route studies covering the restoration of Sunset Limited service east of New Orleans and route revivals of the Pioneer and North Coast Hiawatha have led to some organizations to publicly criticize the national carrier. As a matter of fact, the Seattle-based Cascadia Center for Regional Development is open to letting a private operator run the Pioneer. If more CCRDs pop up to blast other flawed Amtrak reports, we could easily see private involvement.

Think it's a silly idea? There at least three good reasons why the private sector would want another shot at running passenger trains:

1) The hosts may want more control over the route (it is not at all outside the realm of possibility to think that Warren Buffett could use a privatized BNSF to run passenger service in the near future)

2) Various companies domestically and internationally currently bidding for high speed rail routes. If these companies lose to Amtrak or to each other during the bidding process, long distance routes could be a part of a business plan

3) Someone else wants to run trains for special purposes

As MBA student Jon Fostik pointed out, there are ways that intercity rail travel could be promoted in an era of multiple operators. I have divided his suggestions--and mine--into two categories:

Enhanced Intercity Rail Service
Fostik's Autorail USA should be part of my planned Rail Consortium  or service could otherwise be handled by the host railroads. Complementing Amtrak's eastern-based Lorton-Sanford route would offer even more options for automobile riders who want to carry their vehicles on the train to their destinations. Untapped markets are Midwest-Florida (which in fairness, was covered by the original Auto Train Corporation in the 1970s), the Southwest, and National Parks. Unlike Auto Train Corp's tenure, the time is ripe given that we had $4/gallon gas prices in late summer 2008 and that we may see gas go well past the $3 mark by the time summer's here.

International travel is another area that could be covered by another company. I hereby propose Railroad International Lines as a company that can be set up as a multiple-entity partnership involving the governments of the U.S., Canada and Mexico, the host railroads, Via Rail Canada, and an independent organization that actually operates the trains. All customs issues would be handled at the stations and would only apply to passengers who are traveling outside of the country. What it means is that there would be no busing cross the border to catch a train an hour later as there would be an agreement to handle inspection costs.

As a stater, RRIL would start out of Detroit and serve Toronto via Port Huron, Sarnia and Kitchener, Toronto via Windsor and New York via Windsor and Buffalo with a possible westward extension to Chicago. For the most part, RRIL would serve existing Amtrak and Via Rail stations but RRIL could set up separate facilities if the situation warrants it. However, in the cases of Detroit, Chicago, and New York (and possibly, Buffalo), either historic or alternate stations would be served. Initially, there would be limited stops along these routes, but once the trains prove to be popular enough, stops can be added. Future expansion would result in a Chicago-Winnipeg route, and Mexican destinations would be part of a long-range plan once things have improved in that country.

Themed Rail Travel
Fostik brought up an organization he called American Special Trains that would serve certain areas that are not currently served by Amtrak and even brought up partnerships with the states and/or Amtrak. I would differ with him where the hypothetical organization would have nothing to do with Amtrak.

An entrepreneurial person could stand out by providing special themes and/or special cars to really sell the public on train travel. The unofficial theme could be "Train travel for people who don't ride trains." This company would also specialize in catering to markets and routes that haven't been utilized since the Dark Ages of the 1960s as well as routes that were recently discontinued by Amtrak (the Desert Wind, Pioneer and Three Rivers all come to mind). In North Carolina, an Asheville-New York train would utilize the old Southern Railway route via Winston-Salem and would be an example of old markets being reintroduced to rail as no trains have served the city in four decades and a direct route would alleviate fears of a commuter rail connection to SEHSR in Greensboro possibly being canceled due to low demand for mass transit. The same thing could go for service along other routes like the old South Wind route via Evansville, IN. If speed is an issue that causes Rail Consortium Central to utilize Indianapolis and Nashville as stops for its Chicago-Florida route, the owners of AST might negotiate a lengthy agreement with the hosts. In this scenario, CSX would allow AST to operate on the slow route in western Indiana, but travelers would be notified about it by the latter group and primarily ride the train for scenery along the route. Who says that all trains need to be 200 mph speeding bullets?

Cruise Trains are something that I've pondered on and off for a few years but didn't think much about them outside of Alaska Railroad's partnership with Holland America Line. Like Fostik, I truly think that Florida is an obviously easy choice. Even though he brought up Disney when he replied to my posting and mainly focused on Carnival, this business plan could extend to any cruise line that uses a port in the Lower 48. Even more, the cruise industry can work with the hosts and have the hosts haul specially marked trains with the cruises' logos to the ports. Just like the previous idea, the cruise companies would provide special themes to their passengers between the train station and the port of call. This would also be a case of providing train service for people who don't ride trains.

An Interesting Tie-In
Something that few people have pondered is how new life can be breathed into Detroit's beleaguered Michigan Central Station. My solution is to provide intercity, themed and high speed rail services at the historic location. Last fall, SNCF mentioned in its letter to the FRA that it likes historic train stations as its facilities, so, they'd get first dibs on the place. Rail Consortium's East and Central Subdivisions would provide intercity service alongside Auto Train-like routes being operated by the consortium or the hosts. RRIL would operate here with its passengers receiving special attention. Special themed trains operated by private companies and cruise trains partnered with host railroads would then follow.

Amtrak and whoever operates the Detroit-Columbus portion of the Ohio Rail Hub would stop at Amtrak's current location. Transfers between Express HSR and the Wolverines/Ohio Hub trains would be made at the Detroit airport. Those transfers and shuttle transfers between the two Motor City train stations concerning passengers traveling with Amtrak/Ohio Hub operator and SNCF/Consortium/AST/RRIL/Cruise Trains/Hosts would be handled by state officials affiliated with MWHSR.