My Bio and This Blog's Purpose

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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

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Historic Train Stations as Rail Hubs

When it comes to the future of passenger rail, the talk is usually about developing new intermodal transit centers for high speed rail. Most of these people give little notice to historic train stations. However, there is room for older train stations to function as their primary purpose. When Amtrak was formed, a lot of these stations were abandoned as the carrier decided to move to smaller facilities in some cities and was forced to consolidate operations under one roof in other cities. Most of these stations that were left out in the Amtrak era were fortunate enough to be declared as National Register of Historic Places landmarks.


What I'm proposing is something a bit different: While the historic stations can still serve as places for trains, their primary use will be for unconventional rail travel while providing lots of other types of (non-rail) business. Rather than having Amtrak or HSR as the focus, these stations will have public-private partnerships with host/regional/shortline railroads, tourist destinations, cruise companies and international travel as routes. This expansion of intercity rail travel will result in spreading the idea to other historic stations that don't currently have any train service or are currently limited to local and regional transportation.


I have provided a list of nine stations that meet the criteria:
Michigan Central Station
  • The Rundown: If it isn't demolished, this station will be the testing ground for unconventional rail travel  
  • Types of Services to be Provided: Auto Train, international service to Toronto, Special Themes, Cruise Trains
  • Standard Rail (Conventional or HSR) Availability: SNCF has proposed an Express HSR route to Chicago via Toledo and Fort Wayne. Rail Consortium's East and Central subdivisions would handle long-distance service to Florida
  • Possible Nonrail Uses: Private offices, hotel
Grand Central Terminal
  • The Rundown:This was once the proud home to elegant intercity travel but it has only served commuter trains since 1991 when Amtrak completed the West Side Connection, which allowed it to consolidate all of its trains at Penn Station. Housatonic Railroad will likely resume Berkshire Line service by 2016 when trains will continue to Danbury, CT on its way to Pittsfield, MA. The shortline railroad's presence could make Grand Central a premiere place to be to catch a train once again, albeit a different type of train travel than what is offered now
  • Types of Services to be Provided: Special themes, international and overnight trains to the Midwest and Canada, a southern extension of SNCRR Ski Train service, Cruise Fun Trains to the Finger Lakes District and Buffalo 
  • Standard Rail Availability: None besides Housatonic since Amtrak controls the Empire Corridor and the operator already has plans to use the James Farley Post Office to relieve overcrowding at Penn Station
  • Possible Nonrail Uses: GCT already has shopping centers and restaurants for Metro-North and subway passengers as well as tourists
Buffalo Central Terminal

  • The Rundown: The building has been abandoned since 1979 when Amtrak built Depew Station as the city's primary train station. There is currently a debate over whether HSR should stop here or at a new facility downtown. Due to the lack of commuter trains, BCT will be an alternate testing ground for specialty rail travel if MCS proves to be unusable
  • Types of Services to be Provided: Limited stop international trains to Ontario, western terminus of Cruise Fun Trains, Special Themes
  • Standard Rail Availability: HSR is possible but not probable
  • Possible Nonrail Uses: Hotel, restaurants, museum, offices


Main Street Station

  • The Rundown: The historic facility in downtown Richmond, VA was reopened to Amtrak service in 2003 after a 28-year hiatus. The now-defunct American Orient Express stopped at this location. Amtrak doesn't currently staff anyone here and management has decided that it will build a new station at Parham Road to replace the current Staples Mill Road facility as the city's primary station per its NEC Master Plan 
  • Types of Services to be Provided: Special Themes, Cruise Trains, Cruise Fun Trains
  • Standard Rail Availability: Corridor service to Norfolk, Roanoke and Bristol will augment current Northeast Regional Amtrak service and this will be a primary stop on the SEHSR route system
  • Possible Nonrail Uses: MSS currently has its upper floors occupied for private use, and it also rents out to private parties 


La Salle Street Station, Millennium Station & Oglivie Transportation Center

  • The Rundown: The Chicago Trio are all homes to METRA commuter rail and Millennium station also provides South Shore service. All three stations should be given consideration by MWHSR leaders but the best that they can do is come up with an OTC-Union Station merger and develop new HSR-only stations while they leave the other two as METRA-only stations. While SNCF is conjuring up Union Station and O'Hare Airport as stops for Express HSR, Millennium is home base to the city's only two all-electric routes and is begging to be used
  • Types of Services to be Provided: Special Themes and Cruise Trains at all three locations, international service to Winnipeg via OTC and to Toronto via LSS
  • Standard Rail Availability: If someone other than Amtrak can break through, then LSS and OTC are available for Emerging and Regional HSR routes and certain long-distance routes while some of SNCF's competitors like DB could use Millennium Station for Express HSR routes
  • Possible Nonrail Uses: The Chicago Stock Exchange high rise shares LSS with METRA, Millennium Station also serves as a shopping center, and OTC is host to multiple amenities like shops and restaurants


St. Louis Union Station

  • The Rundown: Amtrak moved out in 1978 after rail travel was drastically reduced. Seven years later, the station was renovated as a multi-use facility
  • Types of Services to be Provided: Auto Train, Special Themes, Cruise Trains
  • Standard Rail Availability: This could be the Express HSR hub as well as a place for non-Amtrak intercity service
  • Possible Nonrail Uses: Currently a mixture of a Marriott, restaurants and shops



Phoenix Union Station

  • The Rundown: The last regularly scheduled train pulled out in 1996. Buses then served the location until the Maricopa station's opening led Amtrak to sever the bus connection in 2001. Sprint has occupied the building since 2006 but regional leaders hope to provide intercity and commuter service
  • Types of Services to be Provided: Special Themes would be a likely choice while Auto Train and a revived Fun Trains could also assist
  • Standard Rail Availability: At first, PHXUS will serve as a hub for all types of passenger rail, but once a new multi-use facility at Sky Harbor Airport opens up, Union Station will be limited to commuter trains and passenger trains serving southern Arizona
  • Possible Nonrail Uses: Once Sky Harbor replaces it as Phoenix's main rail hub, Union Station could become a place to gather and meet for conferences

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Have We Lost Our Way?

I ask that question because lots of people in the rail community have seemingly lost their minds over the recent news regarding the Mica-Shuster plan to transfer Northeast Corridor ownership from Amtrak to the USDOT as well as intercity rail competition. 


First of all, contrary to all of the mainstream media reports, the proposed legislation is not to privatize Amtrak, just to strip the carrier from owning the NEC. I have provided good reasons why Mica-Shuster is long overdue here and over at the Transport Politic


Second, the NEC is one of only a few short-distance routes that is not state-subsidized. Eventually, the transit agencies will have to pay their fair share for using parts of the 457-mile route. 


Third, what happens in the Northeast will have no ripple effect on commuter routes operated by Amtrak, so I find this report to be pretty laughable.


Don't Get It Twisted
As good as the NEC divestment plan sounds, it should have applied to all railroads because owning all that infrastructure is a financial drag. In exchange for a nonprofit track maintenance organization jointly owned by the USDOT and a private firm, all railroads would pay an annual access fee as a way of keeping infrastructure in a state of good repair


For hauling freight, it may be based on mileage per Gil Carmichael's Interstate II vision (e.g., a freight train that moves goods 3,000 miles is assessed a 75 cents/mile tax). 


Meanwhile on the passenger front, the passenger entity would be charged for extra roundtrips. For long-distance routes, the threshold will be six trains a day so any additional roundtrips would be assessed a sensible fee for the extra trains. On the corridor side, the states and the high speed authorities will set a specific number of roundtrips once a service is initiated on non-Express HSR routes. For example, the MWHSRA wants to provide 16 trains between Chicago and Cleveland. If the trains prove to be extremely popular, the operator will add more frequencies. Perhaps, a 1% surcharge in addition to the operator's annual access fee could be the answer.


Reforming Rail Will Be Hard, Not Easy and Will Take Steps, Not a Leap
My take is that nobody ever said that reforming passenger rail would be easy. Everyone should have known that there would be difficulties ahead. PRIIA Sections 214 and 502 are supposed to supersede the Association of American Railroads' stance of only wanting Amtrak on their rails (after all, other companies have been eligible to operate intercity routes since 1997). 


The midterms were about the worst thing to happen to railfans because the new-found confidence that was on display in '09 and last year has quickly reverted to survival mode. While we can't do anything about the election results, the focus on the big picture was something that was controllable. When all of the talk about the stimulus funds was taking place, I was one of only a few people who warned the community to not take their eyes off of the ball ("Enjoy the distribution of HSR stimulus grants but make sure that competition guidelines are enforced for long-distance routes"). Not only did few people pay attention to PRIIA guidelines, but they seemed surprised that it was brought back up in March. Given the applications from other passenger entities and the distribution of the ARRA grants, there was a huge disconnect.


In essence, Republicans and free marketers like Mica need to recognize that no major project is even possible without government planning. Also, the feds must fund the development of vast projects like the Interstate Highway System and reforming  America's crumbling infrastructure. 


On the other side of the aisle, Democrats and True Believers have to realize that government has to eventually give way to the private sector in certain areas. Operating trains is definitely one of those areas. The days of Amtrak having sole control of passenger matters in the U.S. are winding down. It may also benefit the Boardman Administration to give up some of their routes, especially certain state-supported routes and overnight routes to its potential rivals. There are builders (they're really the 21st century successors to Pullman) ready to produce new equipment so Amtrak won't burden itself with rehashes of the same designs because the carrier's competitors will switch it up with various manufacturers. 

Monday, June 13, 2011

More random thoughts

  1. For the Amtrak president to make his anti-long-distance trains statements is one thing, but for people in the rail community (mainly those on message boards) to utter the same propaganda is sickening. For the latter group to dismiss the importance of routes like the Empire Builder not only shows that they're out of touch with common Americans, but it also demonstrates that they can do as much harm to the National System as opponents of passenger rail. Furthermore, these phony advocates reinforce some of the worst stereotypes, namely that rail advocates treat passenger service as a transit operation rather than a business and that they are a bunch of elitists who only care about big cities. That kind of propaganda has absolutely no place in today's discussion on train travel because a train travel revival is not a liberal-conservative issue even though the discussion is endlessly presented as a two-sided showdown as True Believers (endless subsidies for Amtrak) vs the "drill, baby, drill" crowd. People in rural states need travel options just as people in major cities do and to take away overnight trains just because they aren't fast as TGVs and Shinkansens means those residents are deprived of an alternative to driving their cars in the middle of nowhere.
  2. Last year, Marcus Garnet wrote this spectacular blog entry for Progressive Railroading where he spelled out the benefits of sleepers on Via Rail's Ocean. The overall point was that a market for long distance travel not only exists but with the proper kind of marketing, overnight trains can prosper in a world of discount airlines, superhighways, and the instant gratification mentality that currently demands "high speed rail or bust." Another thing that benefits long-distance trains is the aging baby boomer population, which was brought up by Ole Amundsen, go to the third to last comment. Graham Claytor's administration showed that long-distance routes were marketable. That is something that has been lost on everybody who has succeeded him. Of course, it helped that Claytor was the president of a private railroad before he ran Amtrak.
  3. For all of those people who continue to dismiss the hosts resuming passenger service, my point in various articles was that any transition would be difficult but not impossible. Enforcement of PRIIA Section 214, evolving business plans by the big boy railroads, possible congressional legislation easing liability caps and other laws that render the AAR's stance that only Amtrak is allowed on its tracks moot could all result in the Class Is resuming passenger service sooner than anyone thinks
  4. The recent URPA article on the business side of passenger rail is, to say the least, thought-provoking. The author brought up some good points, but I just don't see Republicans as champions of a passenger rail renaissance as long they continue to be controlled by the anti-train Tea Party caucus. Maybe, a new party would be able to take care of things, but we're talking about four or six years from now.
  5. The Hill recently published articles by Representatives Bill Shuster of PA and Nick Rahall of WV. Since I've already tackled Shuster's view, I will only deal with Rahall's. The WV congressman has bought Joe Boardman's line about the long-distance trains being money losers. He's already off to a bad start. Then, he repeats the old tired line about why Amtrak was created in the first place and shows pessimism for the host railroads' interest in reviving passenger service. Rahall fails to think about the big picture and does not take into account the fact that Washington has abdicated its duty to set up a bidding process for all routes under PRIIA. As for this comment:
Two years ago, the U.S. Department of Transportation invited proposals from private companies to develop high-speed rail in the United States. Not one single proposal was submitted by the private sector for developing high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor. Not a one.

That is PATENTLY FALSE! First of all, the Northeast Corridor was not eligible for stimulus funding until the Florida Supreme Court upheld Rick Scott's right to kill his state's HSR project and the Obama Administration gave Amtrak the go-ahead to submit the NEC for ARRA money. Second, if the Congressman from West Virginia had been paying attention almost 27 months ago, he would have seen this article where Virgin Trains expressed an interest in running the NEC. A Korean Consortium, and Peter Pan also expressed explicit interest in the NEC while First Group America showed an interest in operating any corridor in this country.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Tackling the Headlines 13

Two former governors take a stand for future passenger rail service
In my home state, ex-governors Jim Martin and Jim Hunt finally spoke up for rail.

Take: Not only was it timely, but it is something that the General Assembly has to take into account before taking an anti-rail stance just for the sake of opposing the Obama Administration and backing oil-funded think tanks. North Carolina has one of the best--if not the best--rail programs in the country, so it makes no sense for the legislature to ruin a good thing.

Another Orlando commuter train route?
While everyone in central Florida waits for Governor Rick Scott to make a decision on SunRail, a long-forgotten commuter rail project called the Orange Blossom Express is apparently a go. This route will be two routes--the primary route will go northwest to Tavares and a spur route will branch off in northern Orlando and continue to Winter Park. U.S. Railcar will pick up where Colorado Railcar left off and supply the vehicles for this service. If all goes to plan, the new service will be in place by 2013.

Take: It's surprising that this project has been in the works since 2002. I guess this is what persistence looks like plus friends in high places (Rep. Mica is a big supporter, and the spur line would serve his hometown). I say, this is a very good idea because the OBE would complement SunRail and be a precursor to a statewide Florida intercity rail system that might have to rely more on the private sector.

Michigan Central Station restoration
In a case of better late than never, Detroit's Michigan Central Station is finally being fixed up by its owner. Old windows are being replaced and asbestos is being removed from the building.

Take: Saying that this is long overdue is an understatement. Rather, it is extremely inexcusable that Mr. Moroun let the 98-year-old building deteriorate to the point that the City Council wanted to use stimulus funds to demolish the station two years ago. Now that these little steps are taking place, perhaps, there is hope that MCS will regain much of its former luster and provide unconventional rail travel alongside SNCF's proposed Express HSR service.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Overnight sleeper service on corridor trains

The title of the post may sound absurd, but with the right kind of promotion, a late night train could possibly be an attraction for travelers on a route that is less than 750 miles long. Amtrak used to have sleepers on Trains #66 and #67 when they were known as the Night Owl.

I'm looking to the Rockies and Florida specifically. The Denver-Salt Lake City route is too hilly to even be considered for high speed service. However, another long-distance route and a couple of regional routes should aid the existing California Zephyr. Meanwhile, Florida East Coast Railway could have a limited stop overnight roundtrip. Back in the 1950s, the railroad operated several nighttime trains between Jacksonville and Miami. A third likely candidate is the Coast Route between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Southern Pacific ran a bunch of routes between the two cities during the Golden Age. Even though it wouldn't match up to the planned HSR route via the Central Valley, travelers would have an alternative that would allow them to take it easy.

Over in the UK, First Group operates overnight sleepers via their First Great Western and Scotrail subsidiaries. On Scotrail's route, First Class riders get a single berth while Standard Class (the Brits' name for coach) get a double berth--bunk beds shared with other passengers. At 75 mph, the trains aren't high speed like other First Group's routes, but travelers aren't riding for speed.  In due time, Express HSR operators will likely follow China's model and operate overnight sleeper service.

First Group makes sleepers affordable, and with a marketing genius, its American counterpart or another operator can also provide the same level of service here. There would have to be some tweaking. First, the train's First Class component would have to include extra amenities for it to stand out. Second, a new name would have be to complied for the bulk of the passengers who wouldn't be traveling via First Class. Finally, the fares would either resemble today's Business Class fares or a hybrid between Business and Coach classes.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Future of the Northeast Corridor

Recently, the rail community has gone nuts over whether privatizing the Northeast Corridor is a good idea. On one side, unions and politicians representing the Mid-Atlantic states are opposed to it and scream bloody murder. On the other side, Representatives John Mica and
Bill Shuster want the 457-mile-line to be opened up to private competition.

This post will take all of the emotion out of the debate and explain why stripping ownership of the NEC from Amtrak is an excellent idea.

Unlike past efforts by the Amtrak Reform Council, no break up options of Amtrak are included. Instead, the Mica-Shuster plan will let a private company own the infrastructure. If anything needs to be done, the two congressmen should take a gigantic step and transfer all trackage from the railroads to a track maintenance organization (TMO), which would be a public-private partnership. The USDOT and a private infrastructure company would oversee the tracks. Just as blogger ant6n brought up in March, all railroads would pay track fees, which would be done on an annual basis. The railroads--Class Is, regional/shortline RRs, Amtrak, AIPRO members, other passenger carriers--will only have to focus on carrying people and goods. The TMO itself would most likely resemble a nonprofit like Britain's Network Rail

"Removing Amtrak as the owner would lead to the carrier losing out in the long run"
Not exactly true. There are already more commuter trains on the line than Amtrak trains right now. Even if Mica gets his wish and sees someone other than Amtrak on the line, the congressional delegation from MD to MA would make things difficult for the new operator.

"Amtrak wouldn't be a REAL railroad without owning the NEC"
This argument is very flimsy. As RailPAC's Noel Braymer points out:
  1. Amtrak lost $159 million in 1973 when the route was still in the hands of the bankrupt Penn Central
  2. In 1980, Amtrak's losses ballooned to over a billion dollars. This was four years after the Ford Administration scooped in to rescue the Northeastern Class I railroads from going under and rebranded them as Conrail. The feds transferred control of the corridor from private rail to Amtrak. Had the USDOT had the right of way, Amtrak wouldn't have been forced to stave off bankruptcy during George Warington's tenure
  3. Amtrak was never supposed to own any track rights
The truth is that owning rail infrastructure is just as costly as highway infrastructure. Rather than spending $117 billion on a brand-new NEC, Amtrak could focus on running their trains while the TMO would be able fix various defects at a far cheaper price and return the entire NEC to a state of good repair in the process. The biggest losers would be the commuter agencies because they have never paid a dime since Conrail's creation led to many of these companies becoming state-owned. If the end game means that Amtrak takes over these commuter agencies, then so be it. Since the bulk of Northeast Regionals and all of the Acelas are not state-supported, the commuter agencies would be forced to pay up for their commuter trains.