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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

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Tackling the Headlines 5

The FRA's overbearing
The Federal Railroad Administration first attempted to demonstrate its manhood by threatening to impose excruciating penalties on host railroads in the future if passenger trains get delayed, following much needed upgrades. Now, it's getting into conflicts with states. Here in the Southeast and over in the Northwest, the sticking point is that the hosts will practically lose the right to use their own tracks once Amtrak service expands.

North Carolina's DOT has already reached agreements with Norfolk Southern and North Carolina Railroad to make sure that passenger service enhancements protect freight operations while Virginia has done the same thing with CSX. Instead of green-lighting the deals, the federal agency rejected both agreements by claiming that they weren't strict enough. The two Class Is don't want to be subject to punitive sanctions for delays due to expanded freight service that they'll likely see in the coming years.

On the other side of the country, Washington wants to add tracks, upgrade signals, and get a new trainset. That state and BNSF had already agreed on service standards like how long of a delay is acceptable, only to have the feds reject the agreement for--you guessed it--not being harsh enough on Warren Buffett's railroad. The FRA and Amtrak want delay reports filed by Amtrak conductors to be the file of record in the Evergreen State. WSDOT and BNSF want to use the Class I's delay reporting data. A billion dollars of HSR grants is on the line as the two sides continue to be deadlocked.

All three states have historically had good relationships with Amtrak, so, this has to feel like a punch in the gut at best and a stab in the back at worst. I am reminded of what went on in central Florida over a year ago with SunRail as the national carrier used liability concerns to hold up the 61-mile line for almost all of 2010. If the feds dig in their heels, it is not outside the realm of possibility to see NC, VA and WA reconsider their relationships with Amtrak and turn to other operators who may be more than happy to set a foothold in America.

No gray areas (part 2)
  • Following a much-criticized Amtrak report on the Pioneer, Seattle-based Cascadia Center does its own analysis in September 2009. The reaction to the independent report? Mostly skepticism or silence from the bulk of the rail community
  • Representatives John Mica and Bill Shuster point out the lack of competition and are met with derision from railfans
  • URPA constantly brings up the matrix theory as a way of promoting rail travel and is virtually ignored
  • At the end of 2009, a letter circulates among more than 30 state passenger rail associations. In it, the letter called for Amtrak to end its complacency in the wake of the Obama Administration's friendly tone toward passenger rail. At the time, less than six associations had signed the letter. I doubt that the number has increased significantly in the last 14 months

What these four stories have in common is that the bulk of the rail community have failed miserably to think outside of the box. NARP was skeptical because Cascadia tapped Union Pacific as the potential operator. What NARP failed to take into consideration was that a possible partnership with the host and Cascadia could actually lead to someone else operating the train in the same manner that the late Ski Train was (Cascadia doing a partnership with UP where a third company like Keolis operates the train but the host gets compensated). When it comes to equipment issues, it's a problem that could easily be corrected by the independent operator placing an order to U.S. Railcar when the time is right.

Seventy-six of the 78 grant winners listed Amtrak as the operator--in other words, every non-Express HSR route will be operated by Amtrak, not exactly promoting the spirit of competition. While the two congressmen were talking about the Northeast Corridor, other companies should have been given the right to bid openly on existing and new routes that are in the 79-110 MPH range. While there should be public involvement in the planning of rail routes, private operators should play a role in running passenger trains. Yet, talk to most railfans, and the reaction is mostly fear or outright opposition to the idea. If the de facto monopoly remains in place, then it and the lack of action on the letter will show that most of these advocacy groups have a blind allegiance to Amtrak.

In a time in which companies from France and Japan have already drafted proposals oh how they'd run trains around densely populated segments, the mindset to back Amtrak no matter what does nothing to advance the future of passenger rail travel. Bottom line: there is no reason why the FRA should have given 97.4% of the stimulus money to Amtrak when it ruled that the carrier's main line (the NEC) was ineligible for that $8.5 billion for HSR!

On URPA, I'll just say this: There have been times that I have disagreed with the tone and diction of some of their contributors, but the company is usually spot on and its businesslike approach to intercity rail is sorely needed in the overall discussion when most advocates are in a perpetual pledge drive mindset (ala PBS and NPR). Just like the Republicans on one side of the aisle, the rail community is in danger of drifting in a direction where it only contains ironclad ideas that leave no room for compromise.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Tackling the Headlines 4

No gray areas (Part 1)
Transportation policy was the last refuge for bipartisanship until recently. Now, the GOP is showing how embedded to oil and highway interests it is. In the House, it recently proposed the elimination of Amtrak and high speed rail funding. Three governors have returned or will return stimulus money to the president as they cite everything from wanting to spend money on roads to having no faith in the private sector. While I don't expect the anti-rail measures to go anywhere in D.C., I do find it very disturbing that politicians like Rick Scott purport to want private involvement in rail and then turn around and prevent other rail companies from even participating in HSR bidding after some of them had promised to pay for the entire cost of the FLHSR system.

Three months ago, I said that if the GOP wanted to prove that it had a better plan for rail that it would invite private and foreign operators to operate statewide trains at Amtrak's peril. The recent developments tell me that the elephants are not interested in doing that or even doing public-private partnerships, making Representatives John Mica and Bill Shuster glaring exceptions.

A new way to fund Amtrak?
Last week, Bloomberg reported that Amtrak subsidies may become a part of transportation funding in the future. The gist is that President Obama wants railroad money to go into a new transportation trust fund, which would end direct operating subsidies to Amtrak.

The perception is that the Administration's move could lead to competitive bidding for federally funded corridors (e.g., RENFE winning the rights to run the Hiawathas). Personally, that is how competition should have been done under PRIIA passage and ARRA funding in the first place! The Administration dropped the ball by reducing private competitors to California and Florida since those two corridors had the only planned Express HSR corridors in the country. If bidding were opened up to corridors outside of the Northeast (and maybe the Wolverine and Empire Service routes), we could have seen the Spanish rail operator upgrade Hiawatha service on its own to the point where it was understood that extensions to Madison and the Twin Cities were only natural rather than what we saw in the Badger State. No one can tell me that if Virgin or SNCF were in charge of 79 MPH Cleveland service that the line wouldn't have seen speeds increase to the point where a separate right of way would have been created to handle 150-200 MPH service, and extensions into Detroit and Pittsburgh. That more than what's going on now, would and should have been the way to create high speed rail in America because corridor and long-distance spines are needed instead of just what almost happened in Florida where an 84-mile route would have been created out of thin air, providing little or no connections.

The latest on the DesertXpress
As it turns out, the DesertXpress is going to seek federal assistance after all. Wow, just wow.

Amtrak to O'Hare?
Illinois governor Pat Quinn has asked Amtrak to study the feasibility of stopping at O'Hare Airport. Can someone tell the gov that he's about a year-and-a-half late and a million dollars short? Where was he at when the French carrier first brought it up? Even more, where the heck was the Tribune when SNCF proposed its vision for the Midwestern system?

A possible new player in the Northeast
Housatonic Railroad is continuing a study that could see the shortline railroad operate passenger service between Pittsfield, MA and Danbury, CT with an extension to Grand Central Terminal. If it gets to New York, Metro North crews would have to relieve Housatonic crews at Danbury. The articles also mentioned stations having to be renovated as well as the possibility of partial electrification vs full electrification. Who says that American ingenuity is dead?

On the possibility of GCT extension, a Housatonic train pulling into one of the Northeast's most fabled train stations might lead to some luster being restored there as it would be the first intercity operator to stop there in over two decades. Why do I bring it up? It only takes one operator to begin a revival. As I mentioned last spring, unconventional train travel could be a part of Grand Central Terminal's future. International travel and specially themed trains to popular destinations could be a long-term strategy.

Iowa Pacific Holdings has several subsidiaries that provide passenger service out West. One can only wonder how long it'll take before this positive attitude trickles up from the Class III level to the Class Is because if it ever does, then Joseph Boardman had better watch his back.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Waiting on a Train review

A few months ago, I was able to read Waiting on a Train by James McCommons, and I was thoroughly impressed with the knowledge that the author had on train travel. There were three topics that piqued my interest the most--nationalization, train stations being built or restored but abandoned by Amtrak, and Norfolk Southern's interest in passenger service.

Nationalization
Page 45 cited some people who have suggested nationalizing dispatching while others advocated taking over the infrastructure and charging railroads to use the tracks.

On this issue, I would be in favor of a government-controlled rail station authority to handle train stations with multiple operators. Most U.S. airports are already operated this way--with government entities or government-created airport authorities. Recently, the California High Speed Rail Authority and the L.A. County MTA announced that they will put up $30 million to buy Union Station from a private company that currently owns it. Those two entities should create a rail station/transportation authority, the first in the nation, so it can handle local and regional transit and Metrolink. Also, with the potential of six intercity rail operators--Amtrak, DesertXpress, Z Train, X Train, Desert Lightning and Virgin Trains--stopping at the station, the authority would maintain the station, leaving the rail companies to only worry about their passengers.

All that work for nothing
Mineola, TX lobbied Amtrak for a stop since it had 100,000 people, colleges, and was near to Tyler. The station opened in April 1996, but five months later, the Downs administration had targeted the Texas Eagle for elimination. Fortunately, a group of mayors was able to save the route the following year with help from Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (175). Meridian, MS's Union Station was being renovated when Crescent service was reduced to triweely status south of Atlanta. A coalition of mayors along the affected portions of the route got Senator Trent Lott to remind Downs that Amtrak was important to small communities. Even though the Amtrak president was dismissive, the Crescent reverted back to daily service in May 1997 (246-47).

These two stories tend to back up some Amtrak critics who have contended that the national carrier leaves smaller communities high and dry. Usually, the scenario involves these towns building new station or restoring old ones so Amtrak can stop there while at other times several towns will get a state to establish a new route. The usual end result is that during a crisis, the carrier will cite disagreements with the state, or as in the examples listed above, an idiotic marketing strategy like the Mercer Plan.

Norfolk Southern's passenger strategy
Craig Lewis did an analysis of the Class I railroad running passenger trains, over the objections of the operating department. Lewis told them that he would rather have the host running the trains rather than someone else have total control on its property. While he saw operation as "a business opportunity," Lewis set two conditions: 1) NS wouldn't market the service or depend on the farebox for revenues and 2) the Class I would run the trains while the passenger entity like a state would pay for the infrastructure to accommodate the trains (221).

Hypothetically, this applies to both commuter and intercity rail. When it comes to the latter, NS would bid for an existing route. If the route is like the Crescent, then the host railroad could talk to a transit agency or an international carrier and contract the route out to them. The contracted carrier would then handle all duties--station agents, conductors/crew chief, promoting the route (this part would also apply to commuter agencies). If the route in question is more like the Lake Shore Limited, then the rail consortium idea kicks in.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Tackling the Headlines 3

SNCF's mea culpa
After months of ducking the press, SNCF was finally forced to apologize for its role in the Holocaust last month. Various people on this side of the Atlantic had sued the operator for shipping Jews to Nazi death camps. The move now allows SNCF to bid on HSR routes in Florida and California, even though some groups are still pushing for full-scale reparations.

On the high speed rail front, this means that Amtrak is back in the running for the Tampa-Orlando route since it and the French carrier are part of the same group with Becthel and the operating rights are anybody's to win. Out west, the company is still in the running for the San Francisco-Los Angeles route but may find itself greatly outmanned by the likes of the Chinese and Japan's JR East, who have promised to throw money at the state in order to operate the 800-mile route. As a result, SNCF may have to build Express routes in other areas of the country like the Midwest or Texas--areas that either got stimulus money for Regional HSR or didn't get money at all.

Congress
Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, the GOP is doing its best to keep America addicted to oil. The less said, the better.

Florida quandary
Down in the Sunshine State's capital, Governor Rick Scott has put both Sunrail, the commuter rail line that will serve Orlando and the surrounding area, and the state's high speed rail project on hold. It now seems that the new governor may be in the pockets of the highway lobby.

He wants for the private companies to pay for the entire HSR route even though Florida is supposed to pay for 10 percent of it. As for Sunrail, it's anybody's guess as to why the governor is putting that project on hold. Sunrail has been delayed long enough, and it's time for that train to get rolling. After all, Sunrail could be the kind of thing that leads to conventional corridor service that will someday feed into the Amtrak and HSR networks.