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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

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Year In Review Part 4


6. The group (alongside the Cascadia Center) that first blasted Amtrak's 2009 report on reviving the Pioneer has hired an assistant professor from Mississippi State to do an independent analysis on the Pioneer's potential.

7. A study that would provide train service between Oklahoma City and Kansas City is blasted by an advocacy group in the southern Plains.

8. The city of Tallahassee has come out in favor of restoring Amtrak service to their city.

The aforementioned stories are all tied in together because these communities demonstrate that they want passenger service more than Amtrak is willing to give them. The residents and others along the Pioneer route have been the most proactive. The PRO and the Cascadia Center have provided their own solutions (an honorable mention goes to the people who live along the North Coast Hiawatha route).

What is interesting about the OKC-KC route restoration is that the group blasting Amtrak is leader who has at times been aligned with True Believers. It's bad for Amtrak when this group starts calling the railroad out on the study that discourages new service.

Florida, alongside Ohio, is the exact opposite of the West because it hasn't done anything to counter any flawed information that the carrier may have provided. Also, Representative Corrine Brown didn't help when she (through her spokesman) bought the line that other states would have to pay up to revive the missing link of the Sunset Limited. That is not true nor should it be allowed since the Sunset Limited is a national route. Residents along the Gulf Coast should be looking at private operators who could provide connecting service between New Orleans and Orlando. A new operator could not only rebuild the stations along the route, but it could also staff each and every one of them--something Amtrak didn't always do (only Pensacola was staffed between New Orleans and Jacksonville in 2005 as Tallahassee and Mobile had lost their agents)--not to mention, provide the building blocks to transform Jacksonville Union Terminal and the planned SunRail LYNX Station into real transportation hubs (I am assuming that Amtrak leadership would keep the new operator out of the Clifford Road and Sligh Boulevard locations).

The Year In Review Part 3

4. During the summer, rail advocacy group ESPA sided with CSX rather than the NY State DOT in a dispute over increased speeds of future Empire Service trains between Albany and Buffalo. The railroad wants passenger trains to top out at 90 mph while the state wants trains to go 110 mph.


The rail advocacy group is likely looking ahead to the 2013 deadline and wants to make sure that Albany is not holding the bill for costly upgrades. Taking baby steps may prove to be the best solution for NYSDOT because as long as feds are giving it money, incrementalism could eventually lead the state to upgrade Empire Service to Regional HSR status and allow for separate passenger tracks in the Upstate. Now, if someone can just convince how wrong CSX's CEO is on the money making potential of passenger rail...


5. A couple of big things happened in the state of Georgia. The first was Atlanta taking a step closer to having a new downtown station, and the second item was Armstrong Atlantic State University doing a feasibility study on reviving a Savannah-Macon-Atlanta train that would be a modern day Nancy Hanks train. The problems? 


If a privately operated Nancy Hanks III train takes off, it may be the only route to use the downtown facility until the Peach State gets serious about passenger rail. I say that because as long as Amtrak continues to operate the Crescent, it may punt on leaving Peachtree Station just like it apparently did with leaving Midway Station for Union Depot in St. Paul for years due to an issue over who would pay for maintenance. The difference is that two issues may come into play: 1) the national carrier once objected to backing into the MMPT even though it has done so in Tampa for the last 15 years for its Silver Service trains (a recent NARP newsletter said that Amtrak is resistant to relocating "because it would be impractical for the Crescent to serve such a station"); 2) track owner Norfolk Southern has rejected improvements to the Crescent in the city according to Rail PAC.


Another problem can also be found on the southeastern end of the planned Nancy Hanks III route in that AASU wants to revive train service to the old Central of Georgia depot, which is about three to four miles from the Amtrak (ex-ACL) station. The problem is that the CofG station currently lacks tracks so it may be a bit of a challenge to rebuild the tracks. Then again, it may be worth a shot to revive the tracks especially if the current Amtrak station is deemed to be too small to handle two operators and the city balks to build a new Union Station.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Year In Review Part 2

3. Three months ago, the FRA finally got around to enforcing Section 214 of PRIIA after two years of inaction. The 2008 law mandated that the federal agency enact the portion that would allow other carriers to operate up to two routes in place of Amtrak ONE YEAR after passage. What happened in 2009? My guess is that the agency likely got caught up in High Speed Rail Stimulus Mania. Even that should have been of no excuse because the FRA needed to follow the law if only to test out private operation of long-distance routes. The problem is that no one else in Washington--Reps Mica and Shuster excepted--seemed to pay any attention likely due to the Pilot Program being all about the "slow" (read, overnight) trains.


Last week, the FRA issued a final set of rules that will go into effect on February 13. Among the entities making written inquires were the AIPRO (and its members separately), First Group (Greyhound's parent company and operator of trains in Britain) and a group representing Class II and Class III railroads. 


Even the reliably pro-Amtrak Trains Magazine discussed the Pilot Program in the Commentary section of its January 2012 issue. Fred Frailey quoted a Bloomberg article that stated that Veolia wants all three California corridors and two Chicago Hub routes. 


First thing, I gave this warning to the rail community to not forget about the long-distance trains when all the focus was on which states would get ARRA money for HSR. The feds delayed that process right around the time when they should have shifted their focus to implementing the Alternate Passenger Rail Service Pilot Program. Now, high speed rail is in shambles and who knows what is upon the overnight trains even though Amtrak's president has said nothing will happen to the National System.


Second, the Class I railroads are conspicuous in their absence from last Wednesday's rulemaking report. No interest, huh? Well, that won't stop other entities from tearing down the wall that is the current monopoly on intercity rail. Stan Feinsod's idea of independent operators running trains on rights of way based on the commuter rail model has merit and could come in handy if and when these companies outbid Amtrak for new and existing routes. A potential example would include parts of the Southeast where Amtrak runs trains but states could contract new routes to other companies where CSX or Norfolk Southern would handle the trains in a timely manner in return for proper compensation. The money would also take into account a state wanting to add frequencies if a route proves to be popular among riders.


Third, the FRA has to persuade Congress to extend the test period since it ends in October 2013. Given that things have gotten so bad in D.C. that everything has to be negotiated. In less than two years' time, the next Congress may just come to the realization that while it wants to minimize Amtrak's involvement, it will have to let other companies play a role in passenger rail. Since the FRA failed to do its job, it is imperative that Congress extend the deadline so other companies can show America that long-distance trains can be handled properly in private hands (the FRA's snail pace has discouraged some operators from participating because of the shortened window). 


Fourth, on the idea that a private entity would use Amtrak's equipment should not frighten anyone because such a move should be temporary. Once new rail car manufacturers pop up, the private entity would give the equipment back to Amtrak since it would be set up as a borrowing.


Finally, Congress should clarify the the Pilot Program and set up separate long-distance and corridor Pilot Programs that would provide open bidding for private competitors and Amtrak so there is no confusion and that a more realistic timeline is implemented.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Year In Review Part 1

I'm doing a wrapup of the year in rail the only way I know how--evaluating certain stories that I initially spent only a few paragraphs on, and I will also analyze other stories that I missed. 


1. After a yearlong evaluation, Housatonic Railroad executives gave a proposed Pittsfield-Danbury-Grand Central route the thumbs up.


This means that residents of northwestern Connecticut and western Massachusetts are one step closer to seeing revived passenger service. When that train finally gets going, Northeastern passengers will have not only their own railroad but also an (albeit longer) alternative between NYC and MA. This proposed route would produce a nice matrix for rural residents who need to catch an Amtrak train without having to go to New York. The Pittsfield Transportation Center would be the perfect place to transfer from a Berkshire Train to the Lake Shore Limited.


The bottom line is that it will be up to the regional and shortline railroads to beat the drum for private passenger service (I am not including the various independent entities like First Group or AIPRO members, only railroads that actually own infrastructure) because the Class I railroads are just like old-time corporations like Kodak that fail to adjust to technological changes. Given the news out of upstate New York, Saratoga & North Creek may be the template Housatonic and others follow to provide regional service while also providing connections to national routes. 


2. This commentary from RailPAC's Russ Jackson was informative and disturbing. It more or less deals with the dilemma of Amtrak's long-distance trains and it also cited this article from Trains Magazine's Fred Frailey that speculated how Amtrak could get rid of in reaction to Congress cutting its FY12 budget. 


Frailey was being kind because commuter trains were actually above long-distance trains in Amtrak's latest report. As for him not questioning Boardman's nonsense about the overnight trains bleeding Amtrak dry and that those trains are actually more beneficial to Amtrak's bottom line than shorter distance trains, I can only chalk it up to his publication being in the True Believer camp for decades.


For the people who actually want Amtrak to improve, it may be a case of too little, too late. On the touchy topic of Union Pacific demanding at least three quarters of a billion dollars for a daily Sunset Limited, it is an ABSOLUTE DISGRACE that Amtrak management has not even bothered to call the railroad on its B.S. or take the matter to the Surface Transportation Board. UP is getting away with extortion and Boardman is doing nothing to remedy that problem.


Since the Amtrak-host relationship has become frostier,Congress may have to step in sooner rather than later. Long-distance train travel is not going away--it just may have to be forced onto other companies by legislative force.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Tackling the Headlines 28

Bombardier to Amtrak: Upgrade your tracks
The maker of Amtrak's Acela cars has told the railroad that it should not be worried about adding new cars to the Boston-to-Washington line until tracks and signals are upgraded.


Take: Given that Amtrak is ordering new equipment for various Eastern routes, the company may want to look at its infrastructure to make sure none of its trains are adversely affected by it. In 2005 when the Acela trainsets were taken out of service for several months, Amtrak had the advantage of using Metroliner equipment. If any equipment has to be taken out of service  that advantage wouldn't be there because Amtrak stopped using Metroliners in October 2006.


Wait a little longer to plan that Frankfurt to London trip
As of right now, DB won't roll out Chunnel service until 2015 due to Siemens delaying delivering new equipment to the German operator.


Take: The only good news out of this is that competitor Eurostar will roll out service to Amsterdam, Cologne and Frankfurt earlier--in 2014. This bit of news on DB is coming off the heels of the German public still waiting for the privately run Hamburg-Cologne Express to turn a wheel.


Let the Irish build CAHSR? It may be a good idea, actually


Take: I wasn't quite sure how to interpret it at first, but the California project will need all the help that it can get especially if any talk of nixing the project via referendum takes steam. Perhaps, Irish workers could work alongside Chinese, Japanese and Korean entities who are interested in operating the state's fast train system. If such a plan happened, then the Authority may have to let multiple companies run the trains.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Tackling the Headlines 27

Regional HSR service between Detroit and Chicago by 2015 or 2016
An upgrade is being done on the Wolverine route that will allow faster Amtrak service. To get to that point, however, construction will contribute to more delays.

Take: Short term pain for long term convenience is never a bad tradeoff. Also, with the state of Michigan owning the tracks between Kalamazoo and Dearborn, the upgrades can be done rather quickly since Norfolk Southern never really cared about this particular rail line anyway.

Attention California: DO NOT LET A REVOTE HAPPEN
This poll says it all: Two out of three Californians want a revote on the project and three out of five voters would oppose funding the 800-mile line between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Take: As soon as the $98.5 million figure was released, the vultures--HSR opponents--jumped on this as a reason to have a revote. Now, while nothing is official at this time, this has disaster written all over it. There have been two votes on HSR in California--in 1996 and 2008.

A third vote in perilous economic times would be deadly for the entire concept of European-style high speed rail in this country. The old saying of what happens in California spreads nationally would be in place and future anti-fast train backlash would make the trio of governors returning stimulus money to the president look really mild. Like I said last month, it's time for the Authority to reorganize its system to better coordinate with the existing conventional rail system before the whole thing collapses.

Rick Scott's caught fibbing (part 2)
It now appears that the Florida governor did not even want to meet with any of the foreign operators bidding for that state's now-buried high speed project.

Take: Given this revelation from C.C. Dockery, this is all anyone needs to know about Scott and why his approval ratings have gone into the toilet. If he survives a Republican primary in 2014, he might as well not even show up to the election because he'll be dead meat by then. Scott relied on a Reason Foundation's slanted report that squashed HSR. Given that some of the foreign operators were willing to spend their own money on the route, Scott's cavalier attitude in refusing to let Virgin and others make their case to do so means that he is really a petroleum industry puppet. Now, JR Central has moved on to Texas because of Scott's actions.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Tackling the Headlines 26

Federal regulations stifle would-be private operator
A luxury rail operator has been derailed by the FRA--no pun intended--due to onerous regulations. The Greenbrier Express was supposed to have begun operations next July from Washington, D.C. to the Greenbrier Resort in WV.

Take: The FRA’s slogan should be "We are the #1 Barrier to Innovation" since it continues to require passenger operators to use bulky cars that don't stand up to snuff in crashes. Not only do liability guidelines need to be overhauled but the entire Federal Railroad Administration has to be as well.


Minnesota news
The existing Empire Builder route via La Crosse, WI has been selected as the choice for the Twin Cities-Chicago Regional HSR route. Also, the MNDOT will begin developing the Zip Line Corridor between the Twin Cities and Rochester.


Take: For the Regional route, it sounds like it was a case of playing it safe after neighboring Wisconsin pulled the plug on the Milwaukee to Madison Hiawatha extension. The move upset northern Wisconsin residents who had hoped that the route would stop via Eau Claire. These fine folks should enter into a PPP with SNCF or anyone else interested in running trains to their part of the state. The fact that the route will skip WI's capital city is nonsensical, but again that's due to Governor No Train.


As for southeastern Minnesota, the Express route should serve as the beginning rather than a be all-end all. MN officials would be wise to extend Zip Rail eastward to Winona--or even to Madison--as part of a route matrix connecting Zip Rail with the Amtrak and MWHSR systems.


No HSR funding for FY 2012
It's official: The heralded HSIPR Program will get no money from now until next fall.


Take #1: High speed rail is now 0-for-3 this year in regards to funding. As a result, it is time to pull the plug on any region that is planning to operate trains below 110 mph being a part of a national HSR network. In other words, only the Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, California and the Northwest can support anything that remotely meets the Obama Administration's definition of Regional HSR. Other states should leave the fast train planning to the professionals and focus on building a good conventional network that will gradually lead to 110 mph service.


Also, I am disappointed that neither the Administration nor the Senate had enough courage to tell the oil-aligned Tea Party where to go. If a high speed rail network was supposed to be a part of 44's legacy, then, he should have put up much more of a fight at some point earlier. In addition to this week's final outcome, HSR funding was sacrificed during the government shutdown showdown in March and the debt ceiling deal in the summer.


Take #2: The headline is quite misleading because when it comes to funding, we are really talking about not funding HSR until FY 2014--two years from now...if that early. Given the electorate's dysfunctional mood, absolutely nothing is a slam dunk regarding next year's elections. Also, no one in his or her right mind should expect Congress to do anything next fall because they will all be focused on the elections.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Integrating California's Rail Network


Cooperation Is Key
When it comes to the possible use of San Joaquin trains on the HSR route: There’s right way to integrate Amtrak service with high speed service—and a wrong way. The new passenger-only right of way should not be used as a replacement for existing San Joaquin service since several stops would be missed. Instead, the HSR ROW should serve as an extension of the San Joaquins southward to Los Angeles and San Diego since Caltrans has been blocked from using the Tehachapi Pass by Union Pacific for at least a decade.

The engine switching in Bakersfield and Los Angeles would be worth it since Californians would have another travel option between the Central Valley and Southern California. The Central Valley route would also serve as America’s first rail highway as long-distance trains would also use the passenger-only path for a new Los Angeles-Seattle route as well as revivals of Midwestern bound routes like the San Francisco Chief.

During the summer, I read this story from Public Transit that brought up the concept. Most people missed this article as it has not been brought up since. The author’s (Michael Setty) primary argument is that the state’s current HSR plan is way too thin and limited to justify its costs and that the design philosophy doesn’t permit interoperability to or from existing rail lines. The French built brand new 220 mph TGV lines in undeveloped rural areas, which bypassed intermediate towns.  Existing routes were upgraded to obtain HSR entry in most urban areas. Setty criticized the CAHSR route for disrupting existing communities and farms and for being extremely disruptive since it’s mostly along new ROW.

Networked Transit is a customer needs-driven approach rather than something that’s centered on technology. Each and every transit mode is considered for its place in an overall network/system. Switzerland—the mastermind behind Networked Transit--was used as an example with three different types of train service (Regional, Interregional, Intercity), buses, and walking. Under Setty’s scenario, for example, just one online ticket would cover a 14 hour trip from Crescent City to Twentynine Palms with local and regional buses, extended Amtrak California services, and an HSR train.

Networked Transit has resulted in Switzerland having Europe’s highest per capita rail and transit ridership. Most of France’s TGV routes operate along preexisting routes. Setty then concludes that the Golden State resembles the Swiss more than the French because its population is widely spread out and that extensive, coordinated connecting services are required if HSR is to be successful statewide.

Where the Concept Was On Point
Innovation is the key to any prospering system and Setty has completely overhauled CA’s planned system. It would be of great significance to point out that this concept is really dealing with three types of intercity rail—HSR, conventional rail handled by the Amtrak California system, and intercity rail that travels to other states regardless of operator—as well as various local rail in the metropolitan areas upon the implementation of Networked Transit.

There has been a recent uproar over CAHSR reviving the Grapevine Alignment because it would bypass Palmdale. The Networked Transit Plan would remedy that problem by allowing the DesertXpress to serve the Antelope Valley, providing passengers from Las Vegas a one seat ride to L.A. without having to rely on a CAHSR train.

Two brand new alignments that impressed me the most were the Los Angeles-San Bernardino-Victorville and Sacramento-South Lake Tahoe-Reno routes. In the case of the former, all other HSR companies could hypothetically use the route as an alternative to the Antelope Valley segment. As for the latter, the medium speed option would be parallel to U.S. 50 and would serve as an alternative to stretching the Capitols (which would be extended to Grass Valley instead) to Nevada and having to put up with UP’s resistance. Long-distance alternatives to the California Zephyr could utilize this route to serve tourist areas of western NV.

Overhauling parts of its system based on the Networked Transit concept would help the Authority to cut astronomical costs that could prevent the system from being built and doom future aspects of HSR in the U.S. This is very important because the Authority and the route have both come under immense criticism throughout the year.

Where the Concept Missed the Mark
The Tehachapi Pass would permanently be off limits to passenger trains if Grapevine Route is implemented. This is a very scenic part of CA.

Also, north of Bakersfield, the HSR route would continue to utilize I-5, bypassing stops between Fresno and Sacramento. Under the Networked Transit plan, the planned HSR stretch would be downgraded to electrified 110 mph Regional HSR service along some stretches. The problem is that the feds were strict about the Merced-Fresno segment being the first one built. I’d like to see PT trying to explain bypassing both cities in favor of a 220 mph segment to the west to the Authority.

Another problem with the NT plan is that San Jose would also lose out on fast train service—a forced transfer at Fremont being the only contact with high speed service.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Tackling the Headlines 25

Rail improvements north of the border

Via Rail Canada is focusing on improving speed and travel times. Providing High speed rail service? Not so much.

Take: Canada’s passenger rail system was gutted in 1990 and routes and frequencies have not returned to that year’s levels so Via Rail has to add more frequencies and get back to that year's levels before serious HSR can be considered. Also, a PPP should be used for HSR if it’s to be implemented.

Using some logic on the Left Coast
A new plan would electrify Caltrain.

Take:  It makes sense because you can only build up to a point in metropolitan areas like the Bay Area. The plan will fall in line with how most countries built their HSR systems—build new ROWs in rural areas but share tracks with existing passenger services in urban locales. Caltrain should be electrified by now, so this project should help with that endeavor.

Transaction complete
61-mile stretch of track is now in the hands of the state of Florida in anticipation for SunRail service.

Take: This is what a public-private partnership should look like.

Lone Star State wants $15 mil from feds for route
Texas officials want money but they don’t even know if they’ll even get anything from the HSIPR Program.

Take:  The article stated that the state’s funding request has nothing to do with JR Central’s efforts to privately build a 200+ mph route between Dallas and Houston. How coincidental given that Texas wants public money for HSR service when it should be focusing on restoring passenger service to the existing Dallas-Houston segment that hosted part of the Texas Eagle from 1989 to 1995. How can that be done, you ask? It’s simple; state officials should consult a private operator to run the route, thereby cutting out the middleman that is Amtrak. Perhaps, Union Pacific would be more receptive to the new entity than to Amtrak. Also, more passenger service along the Texas Triangle would also be more productive than chasing that $15 million when a private entity could save taxpayers money by building fast train service with its own money.

New Delaware service?
A study is looking to provide new service in downstate Delaware and east Maryland.

Take:  After the smoke clears with many private operators winning routes, this new service would actually be a smart move by Amtrak.

Atlanta is going to get a new station
On Halloween, Georgia’s DOT signed a deal with a private firm to build a brand new train station in downtown Atlanta that will also provide service for mass transit (MARTA, streetcars, buses) and intercity buses.

Take: I agree with Creative Loafing that Terminal Station like the original Penn Station in NYC should have never been demolished. This new facility will also allow for high speed service. The intercity entities can use the new station to turn around certain cars and to also put on double decker cars for transcontinental routes.




Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tackling the Headlines 24


Mica gives up on spinning off NEC
So the uproar worked. Just today, the House Transportation Committee chairman waved the white flag on spinning off the 457-mile line to the USDOT.

Take: Too bad since Amtrak will continue to be saddled with the infrastructure costs along the Boston-to-Washington route. It also shows how difficult it is to wrest away the rights of the line from Amtrak to USDOT. Thanks, Ford Administration. I also think that with Mica's about face, we can forget about any competitors along the route, so, shortline and regional railroads are likely to be the only alternatives to Amtrak in the northeastern United States.

CAHSR's costs almost triple vs 2008 estimates
Ninety-eight and a half billion dollars?!? Yep, that's the latest cost estimate for the planned San Francisco-Los Angeles route, with full completion pushed back to 2033!

Take: While I still support the project, there are a lot of things that the Authority is doing wrong. First, is the lack of blending with Caltrain in the Bay Area. There is no reason for separate rights of way in San Jose when the HSR route should be sharing the tracks with an electrified Caltrain. 

Second, as Drunk Engineer and Mulad have pointed out, these viaducts invite urban blight. I mean, there's no reason why there should be a viaduct that is FOUR TIMES AS TALL as the Caltrain bridge near the San Jose train station. 

Finally, as people openly question whether this project should be built, the Authority has to take costs into account. Building 60 foot viaducts burns--rather than saves--money. Why no one with any pull listens to more rational people like Clem is baffling to this East Coaster. With most people in a cost-cutting mood, this project is in jeopardy of being a missed opportunity. The Authority should fire the firm that is responsible for advocating the South Bay blight.

A screwup in Maine
Because of a delay in the maintenance facility in Brunswick, Amtrak will only extend two of its Downeasters from Portland to the new northern terminus next fall.

Take: Oh, boy. With NIMBYs and cost issues, the southbound runs are in a tighter time span than the northbound. The lack of evening southbound and morning northbound trips will initially make the extension a bit unmarketable. The problem needs to be fixed ASAP.


Monday, October 31, 2011

Tackling the Headlines 23


Take: It’s a good move and a precursor to what the future could look like in northern California. I don’t have an opinion either way on the Altamont vs. Pacheco Pass options, but if costs continue to bleed the CAHSRA dry, then it should strongly consider moving their route onto the Altamont alignment.

Take: This is a way of preserving rail corridors along rural parts of this country. It's criminal to me that a stretch of what used to be the Panama Limited's route is in danger of being abandoned. Mississippi leaders should take the next step in buying the corridor.

Then, they should restore the route so a mix of freight and passenger services could use the route. On the freight side, a shortline or regional could do what Grenada didn't--make a profit. Regarding passenger use, a mix of excursion and unconventional passenger services should be strongly considered. The excursion runs could cover only the areas that are in danger of losing rail service or more parts of the route. For passenger services, Special Themes and limited stop Cruise Trains would run between New Orleans and Chicago's Millennium Station along the Grenada Railway line between Jackson and Memphis. The Fun Trains route would be from New Orleans to Memphis and back. 

The state, of course, would have to work out track agreements with Canadian National.

Take: Out west, the saga of whether BNSF will abandon its line between Newton, KS and Albuquerque, NM continues. However, the RP/SWC Coalition has been formed to react to any potential abandonment. If small communities are to keep rail service, groups like the RP/SWCC need to make their voices heard. Should Amtrak and the Class I railroads have no use for questioned segments, then, it's up to these groups and legislatures like the one in the Magnolia State to contact Class II or Class III railroads and private passenger operators to run these routes.

Take: Whatever rocks SFRTA's boat on selecting Tri-Rail over FEC. Anyway, it's something that is sorely needed. I just hope that this move does not put Tri-Rail into the kind of financial trouble Caltrain has had to deal with recently.

Take: Get it moving so Capitols can be extended eastward.

Take: Hopefully, this will put the state one step closer in achieving Regional HSR. On the other hand, the move could be a blow to SNCR, who might have future plans for southward expansion.

Take: Eventually, I'm thinking that the Thruway buses will either be limited to Virginia Beach or even ended. The next step that VA needs to do besides adding frequencies is to add a Suffolk stop. The South Hampton Roads area is too big for train service to not be spread around.

Take: That was quicker than I thought. Let’s just hope that the Hawkeye State eventually gets around to implementing new rail service.





Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Tackling the Headlines 22




Take: While it'll be quite sad to see him go assuming that President Obama wins a second term, the Transportation Secretary is to be commended for his role in getting high speed rail off the ground and for standing up to anti-train politicians in recent months. The executive branch should find a person who is just as committed to advancing rail travel in America.

Windy City choke point's days numbered
A big step was recently taken as ground was broken on a major component of the CREATE project. The Englewood Flyover will make things easier for Amtrak, METRA and Norfolk Southern trains to navigate a part of Chicago that once had its own suburban station.


Take: Anything that will end congestion gets big thumbs up from me. And to think that some politicians are oblivious to something that will benefit everyone.

Private operator running trains in France
The country that brought us the TGV will now see a private operator run a train on its tracks. Thello will run an overnight route between Paris and Venice with a stop in Milan. Passengers can transfer to Trenitalia trains once they are in Milan or Venice. The booking is done over the phone or online, and passengers can give their reservation numbers on the train.

Take: Even though the European Union has mandated the the national railroads open up their routes to competition, France is known as a country that has proudly embraced public ownership of SNCF. As far as ticketless travel goes, it seems that Thello is the rail equivalent of Megabus or one of the so-called "Chinatown buses." In any case, the whole thing is quite interesting.



Speaking of competition among European rail carriers, the national carriers are essentially the hurdles to anything meaningful. The author brought up the paradox of national carriers developing new services in other countries but not allow other companies--public or private--from setting up new services in their home countries. Due to the endless conflicts, a regulator group has been set up by the regulators of 15 EU member states. It is hoped that things will make it easier for private companies to run rail routes on the continent.

Take: The sooner that the EU can tell the national companies to cut out the silliness, the better. Furthermore, the fact that DB is the only company that has taken advantage of the EU's original intent of providing international services defeats the purpose of providing competition. If other agencies would mix domestic and international services, then, the EU mandate would work.

Canadian study
A study released Monday reveals that the Quebec City-Toronto portion of a corridor that is extended to Windsor not being viable for high speed service. To no one's surprise, Windsor politicians are up in arms over their region being considered financially infeasible. The kicker is that they provided their own solution in which the corridor is extended to Chicago. 

Take: The only country that has it worse than America on HSR is Canada. The X factor is the Prime Minister, who has remained silent on the report. Nobody seems to know what PM Harper has to say on train travel in general let alone high speed rail. At least the Windsor politicians are more forward thinking than their leader although, I'd like to see a Eurostar-like arrangement in the event that we once again have a Quebec City-Chicago corridor in which there's a joint operator running the trains.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Station Issues Part 4: The Future in Los Angeles

This article from RailPAC two months ago brought up something that I've been thinking about for a while: A second main train station will be needed in Los Angeles sooner or later. I have never been able to pinpoint exactly where such a facility would go but I'm glad someone has come up with something.


First, some background: There are currently 12 stub-end tracks and the four tracks that were taken out of service are being restored. Backing out of the station is a major issue for any train that doesn't terminate in L.A. Through tracks are also being built to handle future train traffic.


Mr. Braymer brings up the possibility of building a temporary station near First Street. This proposal would result in relocating through trains to the facility and passengers using the subway to transfer to Union Station.


From the way that I see it, a mini-station could be the beginning of a second main station as Metrolink's Cal State-Los Angeles stop is too small for any meaningful intercity service. The momentum to restore Tracks 13-16 could in time shift over to building a new permanent station in the city as a way of relieving overcrowding at LAUS. The sticking point could be whether to build a longer lasting building at the same site as a temporary station or somewhere else. No matter what, LACMTA would be crazy to not advocate such a plan and provide passengers seamless transfers between stations.


I can also think of two last reasons to build a new station in L.A.:

  1. Within the next 20-30 years, as many as seven intercity operators--Amtrak, the CAHSR operator (likely to be European or Asian), Virgin Trains (HSR to Las Vegas), Pullman Palace Car Company (to Las Vegas via Pomona), the X Train (to Las Vegas via Fullerton), Desert Lightning (HSR to Las Vegas and Phoenix via Palm Springs) and an extended DesertXpress--could make LAUS a logistical nightmare alongside Metrolink and LACMTA trains. Plus, who's to say that some of these companies or future operators would want to deal with crowding and space issues since LAUS is on the list of the National Register of Historic Places? The planning for a new station for anyone of these operators as well as others not listed has to begin now.
  2. For any Auto Train route, an operator will need open space. Currently, the only place that would be appropriate would be in the suburbs. A new Los Angeles station should be built with Auto Train accessibility in mind.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Tackling the Headlines 21

From the CAHSR Blog

Take: It was not that long ago that DesertXpress officials were crowing about how they were going to build the route without any federal money. Two and a half years later, they are singing a different tune. Unlike the skeptics, I have never had any problem with the train terminating in Victorville because I've been under the impression that the train would be extended to Los Angeles via Palmdale since DX officials have always cited environmental concerns. Rather, I am upset that the company has been unable to keep its pledge to fund the service entirely because the request falls into the hands of HSR opponents who do nothing but yell "boondoggle."

State examines a rail alternative to the I-10

Take: Arizona is a state that gets it--population growth that shows no sign of slowing down requires alternatives to widening interstate highways when gas will be even costlier in the years to come. As one of the things discussed in the state's rail plan, reestablishing direct Tucson-Phoenix route should be the first line of business. The report talks about the lack of ticket machines and decent amenities at the stations along the Southwest Chief's route. The solution is simple to me: Hire special employees to work at certain stations assuming that Amtrak operates an intrastate Arizona system. These workers would sell tickets for anyone using intrastate trains but anyone traveling via the Chief or the Sunset would have to use the Quik-Trak machines.


On high speed rail, it can be planned but I'd let the various private companies currently planning routes handle most of the work.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Tackling the Headlines 20

More shenanigans by the House to keep the oil addiction going
So, earlier this month, the House Transportation & Housing Subcommittee passed what NARP has penned the "kill Amtrak bill." This bill, if passed, would slash Amtrak's grants, prevent the national carrier from using operating grants to fund corridors, and eradicate the High Speed Rail Intercity Passenger Rail Program.


Take #1: How about someone showing some kind of spine for once? I mean, the Obama Administration and the Senate have already blinked twice on immediate funding for HSR--during the budget showdown in March (no funding for the remainder of FY 11) and again once the debt ceiling deal was settled mid-summer (no further funding until at least FY 13).


The Administration has to stand up for funding of the HSIPR Program or what I said five months ago only carries more weight: Either the president has to be fully committed to HSR or the entire program has to be curtailed in a way that only the five most rail-friendly regions get funding and everyone else has to get to the back of the line and produce conventional rail routes and depend on new long-distance routes! 


So, Mr. President, if you want to compromise with the House on an issue or two, it cannot be the HSIPR Program that you planned 2 1/2 years ago. Not any more.  


Take #2: If RailPAC's Russ Jackson is spot on about another aspect of the bill, then we are talking about something that's really unnecessary. As far as I'm concerned, if the House Subcommittee wants private sector involvement, then it should be enforcing Section 502 of PRIIA and let the states open up the bidding process to other companies.


The problem with one state depending on another
Iowa has now asked the feds to decouple it from a joint $230 million grant that it has with Illinois. The move would allow the latter to revive service to the Quad Cities while the Hawkeye State does a study to extend the route to Omaha.


Take: It's too early to figure out how Washington will respond, but this shows that if more states are to get involved in planning regional corridors, there must be some kind of protection so there isn't this type of flakiness in the event one state's government flips over like it did with Iowa.  

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Even more random thoughts


  1. According to the 1970 law that created it, Amtrak was forced to consolidate Chicago service into Union Station when it began operations on May 1, 1971. It took the operator 10 months to complete the process. Meanwhile, Amtrak had to maintain both Penn Station and GCT for two decades in New York until the Empire Connection was finished.
  2. A year and half ago, city officials in Raleigh were talking about building a new Union Station to consolidate Amtrak, Greyhound, light rail, commuter rail and regional bus services under one roof. More recently, city leaders have drastically scaled back plans for a new station in NC's capital city. While it is a big step down from last year's grand concept, it's more financially feasible. Plans to develop a "second downtown" in northeast Raleigh have been in the books for a decade. That plan is centered around a mall and shopping center and will take decades to come to fruition. A commuter rail station is planned near the area. The aha moment would be for future city planners to build two stations in Raleigh. The downtown station will be for Amtrak, SEHSR service, and local/regional transit while the northeastern station could serve as the home for SEHSR service to Jacksonville, non-Amtrak intercity service to the Midwest (the operator would allow passengers to transfer to/from SEHSR trains to Charlotte at the downtown location), and commuter trains.
  3. The Hamburg-Cologne Express has been delayed until the end of the year even though it recently revealed a mock-up of a car.
  4. Just as how big cities are the focus of corridor routes, a movement is needed to make small cities and towns the focus of transcontinental and various overnight routes.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Tackling the Headlines 19

The feds greenlight the Northern Lights Express
On Thursday, the FRA gave the approval for the NLX route between Minneapolis and Duluth. The train is expected to traverse the 155-mile line at 110 mph--Regional HSR status--on existing BNSF ROW. If things go as planned, the first train will leave Minneapolis's planned transit center near Target Field  in 2015. Once the train gets to Duluth, passengers will be able to transfer to the North Shore Scenic excursion train.

Take: I don't expect much of a problem with BNSF going along with the NLX since it is the friendliest of the Class I railroads, but you never know until everything has been settled given the close call here in NC with NS, another host considered to be friendly to passenger trains.

While the lack of a St. Paul Union Depot stop leaves a bit to be desired, the new station at Target Field could help Minneapolis to stand out on its own. While it would handle conventional rail travel, the Gopher State's largest city could find a way to tap into its rail past with the new facility and the new train. 

The Northern Lights Express would be the first train to serve eastern MN since Amtrak discontinued the North Star a quarter century ago. The real interesting thing about this intercity route is that as of right now, nobody knows exactly who will be running this train because Amtrak is not a slam dunk to operate it. If anything, the state may actually get BNSF to operate it, or it could set up some type of PPP via PRIIA Section 502.

A future pact may be in the works
Secret talks recently took place between Florida's DOT and Class II Florida East Coast Railway on handing over Tri-Rail operations over to the latter group. The move would allow Tri-Rail to use the FEC route for system expansion. Next year, private companies could be allowed to bid on the entire Tri-Rail system. While this article referred to the AIPRO members who could run the system in place of the state, Virgin Trains (not a member) was also part of the secret talks.

Take: Since Tri-Rail has been unable to obtain a consistent steam of funding, it may be wise for the state's DOT to hand over full operations to the private entity because by doing so, the new funding source could easily set up a extended rail system to complement the Mangonia Park-Miami system. 

The other thing about the deal is that if the Sunshine State is all about the private sector, then Rick Scott or a pro-rail successor in Tallahassee should do all he can to shift as much of the financial burden from the state to the operator. With the recent resistance from some politicians along the FEC route in the news, it would be in FL's best interest to shift future passenger operations to either an AIPRO member or Virgin because there are two inevitable truths shaping up: 1) the public is clamoring for passenger service to be restored in east Florida and 2) Amtrak has had (at times unfairly, at other times, fairly) a negative connotation as the railroad that "can't get it done." This guarantee would mean that people would have their trains and the politicos would have a private carrier running the train.

Given these two stories, efforts by states to revamp their Amtrak service, and various small railroads planning or operating intercity service, NARP may want to reinstate the green lines for non-Amtrak routes when it updates its map in a couple of years.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Addendum: MY proposed FEC schedule

Note: This schedule is based on what I'd do, not anything else. I have no idea what's going on in Jacksonville other than an effort to reopen the historic Union Terminal to train traffic.

The FEC schedules are extensions of the previous post and the overnight sleepers entry.





SOUTHBOUND
READ DOWN
Local
1
Core
3
Core
5
Local
7
Core
9
Premium
11
Jacksonville Terminal
  6:15
9:15
12:15
15:15
18:15
A 0:15
South Jacksonville
  6:20
9:20
12:20
15:20
18:20
    0:20
St. Augustine
  6:50
9:52
12:52
15:50
18:52
    0:52
Bunnell
  7:18


16:18

F
Ormond Beach
  7:32


16:32

F
Daytona Beach
  7:46
10:42
13:42
16:46
19:42
    1:42
New Smyrna Beach
  8:06


17:06

F
Titusville
  8:39
11:18
14:18
17:39
20:18
    2:18
Cocoa Beach
  9:06
11:45
14:45
18:06
20:45
    2:45
Bonaventure
  9:21


18:21

F
Melbourne
  9:31
12:06
15:06
18:31
21:06
    3:06
Palm Bay
  9:36


18:36

F
Sebastian
10:06


19:06

F
Vero Beach
10:29
12:34
15:34
19:29
21:34
    3:34
Fort Pierce
10:44


19:44

F
Stuart
11:04
13:09
16:09
20:04
22:09
    4:09
Jupiter
11:34


20:34

F
West Palm Beach
12:15
13:57
16:57
21:15
22:57
    4:57
Lake Worth
12:29


21:29

F
Boynton Beach
12:42


21:42

F
Delray Beach
12:55
14:15
17:15
21:55
23:15
    5:15
Boca Raton
13:06


22:06

F
Deerfield Beach
13:11
14:27
17:27
22:11
23:27
    5:27
Pompano Beach
13:24


22:24

F
Fort Lauderdale
13:41
14:41
17:41
22:41
23:41
    5:41
Hollywood
13:54
14:54
17:54
22:54
23:54
    5:54
Miami
14:18
15:18
18:18
23:15
  0:15
 B 6:15





NORTHBOUND
READ DOWN
Local
2
Core
4
Core
6
Local
8
Core
10
Premium
12
Miami
  6:15
9:15
12:15
15:15
18:15
  A 0:15
Hollywood
  6:33
9:33
12:33
15:33
18:33
0:33
Fort Lauderdale
  6:47
9:47
12:47
15:47
18:47
0:47
Pompano Beach
  7:01


16:01

F
Deerfield Beach
  7:08
10:01
13:01
16:08
19:01
1:01
Boca Raton
  7:13


16:13

F
Delray Beach
  7:23
10:12
13:12
16:23
19:12
1:12
Boynton Beach
  7:30


16:30

F
Lake Worth
  7:43


16:43

F
West Palm Beach
  7:58
10:36
13:36
16:58
19:36
1:36
Jupiter
  8:18


17:18

F
Stuart
  8:41
11:15
14:15
17:41
20:15
2:15
Fort Pierce
  9:08
11:36
14:36
18:08
20:36
2:36
Vero Beach
  9:22
11:50
14:50
18:22
20:50
2:50
Sebastian
  9:40


18:40

F
Palm Bay
10:07


19:07

F
Melbourne
10:17
12:19
15:19
19:17
21:19
3:19
Bonaventure
10:27


19:27

F
Cocoa Beach
10:42
12:49
15:49
19:42
21:49
3:49
Titusville
10:59
13:06
16:06
19:59
22:06
4:06
New Smyrna Beach
11:32


20:32

F
Daytona Beach
12:02
13:42
16:42
21:02
22:42
4:42
Ormond Beach
12:30


21:30

F
Bunnell
12:48


21:48

F
St. Augustine
13:21
14:33
17:33
22:21
23:33
5:33
South Jacksonville
14:08
15:13
18:13
23:08
0:08
6:05
Jacksonville Terminal
14:18
15:18
18:18
23:13
0:13
  B 6:10



A—Sleepers open up at 22:45
B—Sleepers can be occupied until 7:45
F—Stops on signal to receive or discharge passengers

Station notes:
·         Stations between Jacksonville and Jupiter are served by FEC.
·         West Palm Beach, Delray Beach, Deerfield Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood and Miami are jointly served by Amtrak, FEC and Tri-Rail.
·         Lake Worth, Boynton Beach, Boca Raton and Pompano Beach are jointly served by FEC and Tri-Rail.