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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, September 20, 2011

Tackling the Headlines 20

More shenanigans by the House to keep the oil addiction going
So, earlier this month, the House Transportation & Housing Subcommittee passed what NARP has penned the "kill Amtrak bill." This bill, if passed, would slash Amtrak's grants, prevent the national carrier from using operating grants to fund corridors, and eradicate the High Speed Rail Intercity Passenger Rail Program.


Take #1: How about someone showing some kind of spine for once? I mean, the Obama Administration and the Senate have already blinked twice on immediate funding for HSR--during the budget showdown in March (no funding for the remainder of FY 11) and again once the debt ceiling deal was settled mid-summer (no further funding until at least FY 13).


The Administration has to stand up for funding of the HSIPR Program or what I said five months ago only carries more weight: Either the president has to be fully committed to HSR or the entire program has to be curtailed in a way that only the five most rail-friendly regions get funding and everyone else has to get to the back of the line and produce conventional rail routes and depend on new long-distance routes! 


So, Mr. President, if you want to compromise with the House on an issue or two, it cannot be the HSIPR Program that you planned 2 1/2 years ago. Not any more.  


Take #2: If RailPAC's Russ Jackson is spot on about another aspect of the bill, then we are talking about something that's really unnecessary. As far as I'm concerned, if the House Subcommittee wants private sector involvement, then it should be enforcing Section 502 of PRIIA and let the states open up the bidding process to other companies.


The problem with one state depending on another
Iowa has now asked the feds to decouple it from a joint $230 million grant that it has with Illinois. The move would allow the latter to revive service to the Quad Cities while the Hawkeye State does a study to extend the route to Omaha.


Take: It's too early to figure out how Washington will respond, but this shows that if more states are to get involved in planning regional corridors, there must be some kind of protection so there isn't this type of flakiness in the event one state's government flips over like it did with Iowa.  

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Even more random thoughts


  1. According to the 1970 law that created it, Amtrak was forced to consolidate Chicago service into Union Station when it began operations on May 1, 1971. It took the operator 10 months to complete the process. Meanwhile, Amtrak had to maintain both Penn Station and GCT for two decades in New York until the Empire Connection was finished.
  2. A year and half ago, city officials in Raleigh were talking about building a new Union Station to consolidate Amtrak, Greyhound, light rail, commuter rail and regional bus services under one roof. More recently, city leaders have drastically scaled back plans for a new station in NC's capital city. While it is a big step down from last year's grand concept, it's more financially feasible. Plans to develop a "second downtown" in northeast Raleigh have been in the books for a decade. That plan is centered around a mall and shopping center and will take decades to come to fruition. A commuter rail station is planned near the area. The aha moment would be for future city planners to build two stations in Raleigh. The downtown station will be for Amtrak, SEHSR service, and local/regional transit while the northeastern station could serve as the home for SEHSR service to Jacksonville, non-Amtrak intercity service to the Midwest (the operator would allow passengers to transfer to/from SEHSR trains to Charlotte at the downtown location), and commuter trains.
  3. The Hamburg-Cologne Express has been delayed until the end of the year even though it recently revealed a mock-up of a car.
  4. Just as how big cities are the focus of corridor routes, a movement is needed to make small cities and towns the focus of transcontinental and various overnight routes.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Tackling the Headlines 19

The feds greenlight the Northern Lights Express
On Thursday, the FRA gave the approval for the NLX route between Minneapolis and Duluth. The train is expected to traverse the 155-mile line at 110 mph--Regional HSR status--on existing BNSF ROW. If things go as planned, the first train will leave Minneapolis's planned transit center near Target Field  in 2015. Once the train gets to Duluth, passengers will be able to transfer to the North Shore Scenic excursion train.

Take: I don't expect much of a problem with BNSF going along with the NLX since it is the friendliest of the Class I railroads, but you never know until everything has been settled given the close call here in NC with NS, another host considered to be friendly to passenger trains.

While the lack of a St. Paul Union Depot stop leaves a bit to be desired, the new station at Target Field could help Minneapolis to stand out on its own. While it would handle conventional rail travel, the Gopher State's largest city could find a way to tap into its rail past with the new facility and the new train. 

The Northern Lights Express would be the first train to serve eastern MN since Amtrak discontinued the North Star a quarter century ago. The real interesting thing about this intercity route is that as of right now, nobody knows exactly who will be running this train because Amtrak is not a slam dunk to operate it. If anything, the state may actually get BNSF to operate it, or it could set up some type of PPP via PRIIA Section 502.

A future pact may be in the works
Secret talks recently took place between Florida's DOT and Class II Florida East Coast Railway on handing over Tri-Rail operations over to the latter group. The move would allow Tri-Rail to use the FEC route for system expansion. Next year, private companies could be allowed to bid on the entire Tri-Rail system. While this article referred to the AIPRO members who could run the system in place of the state, Virgin Trains (not a member) was also part of the secret talks.

Take: Since Tri-Rail has been unable to obtain a consistent steam of funding, it may be wise for the state's DOT to hand over full operations to the private entity because by doing so, the new funding source could easily set up a extended rail system to complement the Mangonia Park-Miami system. 

The other thing about the deal is that if the Sunshine State is all about the private sector, then Rick Scott or a pro-rail successor in Tallahassee should do all he can to shift as much of the financial burden from the state to the operator. With the recent resistance from some politicians along the FEC route in the news, it would be in FL's best interest to shift future passenger operations to either an AIPRO member or Virgin because there are two inevitable truths shaping up: 1) the public is clamoring for passenger service to be restored in east Florida and 2) Amtrak has had (at times unfairly, at other times, fairly) a negative connotation as the railroad that "can't get it done." This guarantee would mean that people would have their trains and the politicos would have a private carrier running the train.

Given these two stories, efforts by states to revamp their Amtrak service, and various small railroads planning or operating intercity service, NARP may want to reinstate the green lines for non-Amtrak routes when it updates its map in a couple of years.