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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

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.

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