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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, 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.

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