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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, August 17, 2011

Addendum: The German solution

In an almost perfect symmetry five months ago, the German model of controlled competition was discussed just ahead of a congressional meeting on the private sector's role in passenger rail. However, I'll keep this post limited to how corridor services could be improved (the quotes are from the first link). Sprucing up regional train service requires focus in two areas: equipment modernization and amenities.


Equipment modernization
Across the board there has been a modernization of equipment. In 2002 more than 1,000 new rail cars were put into service on the regional lines. New investment volume for rolling stock alone amounts to 11 billion dollars.

Given today’s equipment, a lot is to be desired as most Eastern routes continue to use equipment that was groundbreaking in 1969 and Midwestern states can’t wait to get rid of Horizon cars that apparently became obsolete quickly. States could follow NC, which rehabilitated Heritage cars and use former GO Transit engines for Piedmont service or they could follow WA’s lead by ordering equipment from manufacturers. 

As an act of further goodwill, some states that have long-distance routes on corridors could assist in providing a boost if long-distance trains are significantly late. An example of this type of substitution took place in NC last June when the southbound Carolinian was delayed for hours after a CSX worker was fatally struck by a freight train in VA. NCDOT used Piedmont equipment to operate an on-time train between Raleigh and Charlotte. Of course, this would only apply to corridors where the long-distance train does not have a discharge/receive only policy in place.






Amenities
Many innovative services have been introduced: Internet access on regional trains; regional gourmet food services and taxi/rental cars as a part of the basic train ticket.

In the fall of 2005, Amtrak briefly contracted food service out to Subway for Empire Service trains, months after management deep-sixed on board food. However, the deal was short-lived since there were union issues that were not properly handled beforehand (sandwiches, snacks, and beverages are available on a limited number of Empire Service trains).

The failed experiment aside, states should do more experimenting with food and other amenities. Piedmont trains have snack and soda vending machines for passengers but other trains could have regionally-based foods like Kansas City barbecue on Missouri River Runner trains for example.

In other areas, regional goodies could also be provided for passengers traveling on a corridor train as well as a ticket that provides a seamless transfer between operators and/or train stations in the same city. Train-bus connections could also work in the same manner as train-taxi/rental car manner in that the train ticket would be a one-size-fits-all approach. 
Passengers would not have to worry about paying multiple times regarding their connections.

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