My Bio and This Blog's Purpose

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.

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