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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, March 30, 2011

Tackling the Headlines 7

Washington State beats Washington, D.C.
After the standoff, WSDOT prevailed over the FRA. Hopefully, this is the beginning of reasonable liability guidelines.

Good news, bad news in North Carolina
The former is that the Old North State is no longer battling the feds. An agreement will allow for track improvements and additional trains among other things. However, there are now Republican legislators in the General Assembly who want to prohibit those funds from being used. This should and will get vetoed, and it should be pointed out to these highway-loving politicians that it costs more to build a bridge than it will to build a credible rail system.

Amtrak's increased focus on the Northeast Corridor
Recently, Amtrak president Joseph Boardman let it be known that his company will be primarily focused on the NEC. At least now, management is openly admitting it rather than leading the rest of the nation on. If the carrier is going to shift its focus to the area where it owns the most tracks and is the most successful, then it will have to change its focus on being a national carrier.


Here's what I mean: As long as Amtrak is going to primarily focus on the line between Washington and Boston, then it will have to give up many other routes. As it is now, the company is already looking to the future where it envisions an Express route roughly parallel to its existing line. This would also mean that by 2040, only the host railroads, Rail Consortium, and PPPs would be "national" entities as Amtrak would basically be a bi-coastal company with several Chicago Hub routes and a few overnight routes while private entities and transit agencies would fill the remaining void.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Thoughts on the March 11 House Meeting on Private Sector Involvement

Last Friday, the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials held a hearing on the private sector's role in passenger rail operation. Representatives Mica and Shuster pointed out that Section 214 of PRIIA allows the current owners of rail infrastructure to operate up to two existing passenger routes and Section 502 provides a PPP opportunity for developing high speed rail.

In the case of the former, almost nobody has paid any attention to the long-distance routes because all of the focus has been on HSR. Had the feds done their job, then certain routes would have been already leased out to states or private operators in October 2009. Residents in the Gulf between New Orleans and Orlando are still waiting for the return of train service to their area but Amtrak management continues to drag its feet by either offering up excuses like it did in its 2009 report or by forcing states to pay for intercity service. If the Sunset were leased out like I proposed last fall with this schedule, then we would be somewhere. True Believer advocates always point out that the Association of American Railroads only wants Amtrak on its rails. The problem is that no one has come up with a logical proposal to make things better for entities like Virgin and Herzog. This is where Congress needs to step up and eliminate idiotic liability guidelines and compensate the railroads for having non-Amtrak operators on its rails.

As for Section 502, over 100 companies submitted applications for HSR projects with eight of them having legs to stand on. Sometime between December 2008 and January 2010, this was lost on the feds because the FRA gave Amtrak 76 of the 78 grants, which was at best baffling because the Administration didn't allow the Northeast Corridor to apply for any of the $8 billion that was passed in the 2009 stimulus bill.

Representative Corrine Brown was visibly upset over Rick Scott's scuttling of FLHSR, and she was the most skeptical among everyone that the private sector could deliver. The subcommittee should have called on Stan Feinsod and John Broadley more often because Feinsod never got to explain the German model and Broadley had some good ideas that are worth exploring. Too much focus has been on what the Brits did wrong in breaking up British Rail, too little on what they did right, and almost none on how the Germans have been successful with limited competition. The problem with Broadley's solutions is that Edward Wytkind and the unions represent a roadblock to any meaningful progress since some of them fear of an Amtrak breakup.

The biggest thing that I got out the hearing is that Democrats remain skeptical of private sector (hosts and others) involvement even though it can provide better service, innovation, and additional routes while Republicans remain skeptical of Amtrak even though it's better off being a predominantly Northeastern organization. As long as the parties stick to their positions, passenger rail will continue to suffer even as gas reaches $4/gallon.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Discussions on Private Operators and Competition

Check out these two websites because they each represent interesting viewpoints that could shape the future of rail travel in America : Cascadia Prospectus on controlled competition and the Transport Politic on private involvement in intercity rail as Reps. Mica and Shuster weigh in on the latter topic via a hearing. My comments can be found in both articles. Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Tackling the Headlines 6

High speed rail is dead in Florida (at least I think it is this time)
Last Friday, the Florida Supreme Court dealt the fatal blow to the 84-mile project when it ruled that Governor Rick Scott was allowed to return the $2.4 billion of stimulus money to the feds. Two state senators had argued that Scott made an unconstitutional move in unilaterally rejecting the money.

The ruling means that the Sunshine State is now 0-for-4 in its attempt to launch high speed rail. In 1984, the Florida HSR Commission was launched, but the state was later forced to sell development rights to raise capital. In 1995, the Florida HSR Authority was launched with the Florida Overland eXpress proposed. Upon taking office 12 years ago, Jeb Bush killed FOX. Voters passed a constitutional amendment the following year but it was overturned four years after that when Bush persuaded voters that it was too costly to operate the fast train. Now, this.


As a Transport Politic poster pointed out last month, the unintended consequence of Scott's decision actually benefits Amtrak because it had no chance of winning the contract to operate the Tampa-Orlando route even with its partnership with SNCF and the French carrier's apology in late January (never mind that there was some controversy about the controversy) because it was going up against heavyweights like Virgin and JR Central. As for the other Express HSR route, Amtrak also has no chance of winning the California contract because it is outmanned by the Asians who are clawing over each other to pay for the whole project--100%. So, by killing the FL project, Rick Scott may have inadvertently helped preserve Amtrak's near monopoly in the U.S!


My take is that while I'm miffed that the foreign firms weren't given the chance to fully fund the FL project, I'd rather see the route scuttled than it being built without providing any real access to other transportation modes. Tampa proposed a multimodal center that was supposed to connect HSR with local transportation and Greyhound, but even that was flawed due to the lack of connection or coordination with Amtrak. Second, the route's eastern terminus was Orlando International Airport, which is at least 30 minutes south of downtown--not exactly providing locals the best access. What's even worse was the lack of connections that HSR would have had with Amtrak, Sunrail, and local transportation in the area. Third, as I've said before, the lack of a decent conventional rail system should have prevented it from receiving funding (I've also said that the FEC reroute of a Silver Service train should have been given priority by the Obama Administration grantwise). Finally, if the route was so important to Florida, it should have been a Miami-Orlando segment and then Orlando-St. Petersburg, and I would have developed a triangle to allow certain trains to only serve the Airport and Disney area stations while other trains terminated in Orlando proper. It was only politics that allowed the Tampa-Orlando segment to be first. Getting a route right takes precedence over just getting a train out.


More Florida silliness
Fresh off killing high speed rail, Scott selectively looked at profitability and losses as the measuring point for whether a rail project is feasible after the Palm asked him about the possibility of Amtrak running trains along the state's east coast.


Given his holdup of SunRail and his anti-Tri-Rail comments, anybody who cares enough about producing intercity rail travel in Florida has to pretty much wait until 2015. Given that the state needs a practical alternative to crowded interstates, toll roads, and sky high gas prices, Floridians are all but doomed for a while.