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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, December 21, 2011

The Year In Review Part 4


6. The group (alongside the Cascadia Center) that first blasted Amtrak's 2009 report on reviving the Pioneer has hired an assistant professor from Mississippi State to do an independent analysis on the Pioneer's potential.

7. A study that would provide train service between Oklahoma City and Kansas City is blasted by an advocacy group in the southern Plains.

8. The city of Tallahassee has come out in favor of restoring Amtrak service to their city.

The aforementioned stories are all tied in together because these communities demonstrate that they want passenger service more than Amtrak is willing to give them. The residents and others along the Pioneer route have been the most proactive. The PRO and the Cascadia Center have provided their own solutions (an honorable mention goes to the people who live along the North Coast Hiawatha route).

What is interesting about the OKC-KC route restoration is that the group blasting Amtrak is leader who has at times been aligned with True Believers. It's bad for Amtrak when this group starts calling the railroad out on the study that discourages new service.

Florida, alongside Ohio, is the exact opposite of the West because it hasn't done anything to counter any flawed information that the carrier may have provided. Also, Representative Corrine Brown didn't help when she (through her spokesman) bought the line that other states would have to pay up to revive the missing link of the Sunset Limited. That is not true nor should it be allowed since the Sunset Limited is a national route. Residents along the Gulf Coast should be looking at private operators who could provide connecting service between New Orleans and Orlando. A new operator could not only rebuild the stations along the route, but it could also staff each and every one of them--something Amtrak didn't always do (only Pensacola was staffed between New Orleans and Jacksonville in 2005 as Tallahassee and Mobile had lost their agents)--not to mention, provide the building blocks to transform Jacksonville Union Terminal and the planned SunRail LYNX Station into real transportation hubs (I am assuming that Amtrak leadership would keep the new operator out of the Clifford Road and Sligh Boulevard locations).

The Year In Review Part 3

4. During the summer, rail advocacy group ESPA sided with CSX rather than the NY State DOT in a dispute over increased speeds of future Empire Service trains between Albany and Buffalo. The railroad wants passenger trains to top out at 90 mph while the state wants trains to go 110 mph.


The rail advocacy group is likely looking ahead to the 2013 deadline and wants to make sure that Albany is not holding the bill for costly upgrades. Taking baby steps may prove to be the best solution for NYSDOT because as long as feds are giving it money, incrementalism could eventually lead the state to upgrade Empire Service to Regional HSR status and allow for separate passenger tracks in the Upstate. Now, if someone can just convince how wrong CSX's CEO is on the money making potential of passenger rail...


5. A couple of big things happened in the state of Georgia. The first was Atlanta taking a step closer to having a new downtown station, and the second item was Armstrong Atlantic State University doing a feasibility study on reviving a Savannah-Macon-Atlanta train that would be a modern day Nancy Hanks train. The problems? 


If a privately operated Nancy Hanks III train takes off, it may be the only route to use the downtown facility until the Peach State gets serious about passenger rail. I say that because as long as Amtrak continues to operate the Crescent, it may punt on leaving Peachtree Station just like it apparently did with leaving Midway Station for Union Depot in St. Paul for years due to an issue over who would pay for maintenance. The difference is that two issues may come into play: 1) the national carrier once objected to backing into the MMPT even though it has done so in Tampa for the last 15 years for its Silver Service trains (a recent NARP newsletter said that Amtrak is resistant to relocating "because it would be impractical for the Crescent to serve such a station"); 2) track owner Norfolk Southern has rejected improvements to the Crescent in the city according to Rail PAC.


Another problem can also be found on the southeastern end of the planned Nancy Hanks III route in that AASU wants to revive train service to the old Central of Georgia depot, which is about three to four miles from the Amtrak (ex-ACL) station. The problem is that the CofG station currently lacks tracks so it may be a bit of a challenge to rebuild the tracks. Then again, it may be worth a shot to revive the tracks especially if the current Amtrak station is deemed to be too small to handle two operators and the city balks to build a new Union Station.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Year In Review Part 2

3. Three months ago, the FRA finally got around to enforcing Section 214 of PRIIA after two years of inaction. The 2008 law mandated that the federal agency enact the portion that would allow other carriers to operate up to two routes in place of Amtrak ONE YEAR after passage. What happened in 2009? My guess is that the agency likely got caught up in High Speed Rail Stimulus Mania. Even that should have been of no excuse because the FRA needed to follow the law if only to test out private operation of long-distance routes. The problem is that no one else in Washington--Reps Mica and Shuster excepted--seemed to pay any attention likely due to the Pilot Program being all about the "slow" (read, overnight) trains.


Last week, the FRA issued a final set of rules that will go into effect on February 13. Among the entities making written inquires were the AIPRO (and its members separately), First Group (Greyhound's parent company and operator of trains in Britain) and a group representing Class II and Class III railroads. 


Even the reliably pro-Amtrak Trains Magazine discussed the Pilot Program in the Commentary section of its January 2012 issue. Fred Frailey quoted a Bloomberg article that stated that Veolia wants all three California corridors and two Chicago Hub routes. 


First thing, I gave this warning to the rail community to not forget about the long-distance trains when all the focus was on which states would get ARRA money for HSR. The feds delayed that process right around the time when they should have shifted their focus to implementing the Alternate Passenger Rail Service Pilot Program. Now, high speed rail is in shambles and who knows what is upon the overnight trains even though Amtrak's president has said nothing will happen to the National System.


Second, the Class I railroads are conspicuous in their absence from last Wednesday's rulemaking report. No interest, huh? Well, that won't stop other entities from tearing down the wall that is the current monopoly on intercity rail. Stan Feinsod's idea of independent operators running trains on rights of way based on the commuter rail model has merit and could come in handy if and when these companies outbid Amtrak for new and existing routes. A potential example would include parts of the Southeast where Amtrak runs trains but states could contract new routes to other companies where CSX or Norfolk Southern would handle the trains in a timely manner in return for proper compensation. The money would also take into account a state wanting to add frequencies if a route proves to be popular among riders.


Third, the FRA has to persuade Congress to extend the test period since it ends in October 2013. Given that things have gotten so bad in D.C. that everything has to be negotiated. In less than two years' time, the next Congress may just come to the realization that while it wants to minimize Amtrak's involvement, it will have to let other companies play a role in passenger rail. Since the FRA failed to do its job, it is imperative that Congress extend the deadline so other companies can show America that long-distance trains can be handled properly in private hands (the FRA's snail pace has discouraged some operators from participating because of the shortened window). 


Fourth, on the idea that a private entity would use Amtrak's equipment should not frighten anyone because such a move should be temporary. Once new rail car manufacturers pop up, the private entity would give the equipment back to Amtrak since it would be set up as a borrowing.


Finally, Congress should clarify the the Pilot Program and set up separate long-distance and corridor Pilot Programs that would provide open bidding for private competitors and Amtrak so there is no confusion and that a more realistic timeline is implemented.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Year In Review Part 1

I'm doing a wrapup of the year in rail the only way I know how--evaluating certain stories that I initially spent only a few paragraphs on, and I will also analyze other stories that I missed. 


1. After a yearlong evaluation, Housatonic Railroad executives gave a proposed Pittsfield-Danbury-Grand Central route the thumbs up.


This means that residents of northwestern Connecticut and western Massachusetts are one step closer to seeing revived passenger service. When that train finally gets going, Northeastern passengers will have not only their own railroad but also an (albeit longer) alternative between NYC and MA. This proposed route would produce a nice matrix for rural residents who need to catch an Amtrak train without having to go to New York. The Pittsfield Transportation Center would be the perfect place to transfer from a Berkshire Train to the Lake Shore Limited.


The bottom line is that it will be up to the regional and shortline railroads to beat the drum for private passenger service (I am not including the various independent entities like First Group or AIPRO members, only railroads that actually own infrastructure) because the Class I railroads are just like old-time corporations like Kodak that fail to adjust to technological changes. Given the news out of upstate New York, Saratoga & North Creek may be the template Housatonic and others follow to provide regional service while also providing connections to national routes. 


2. This commentary from RailPAC's Russ Jackson was informative and disturbing. It more or less deals with the dilemma of Amtrak's long-distance trains and it also cited this article from Trains Magazine's Fred Frailey that speculated how Amtrak could get rid of in reaction to Congress cutting its FY12 budget. 


Frailey was being kind because commuter trains were actually above long-distance trains in Amtrak's latest report. As for him not questioning Boardman's nonsense about the overnight trains bleeding Amtrak dry and that those trains are actually more beneficial to Amtrak's bottom line than shorter distance trains, I can only chalk it up to his publication being in the True Believer camp for decades.


For the people who actually want Amtrak to improve, it may be a case of too little, too late. On the touchy topic of Union Pacific demanding at least three quarters of a billion dollars for a daily Sunset Limited, it is an ABSOLUTE DISGRACE that Amtrak management has not even bothered to call the railroad on its B.S. or take the matter to the Surface Transportation Board. UP is getting away with extortion and Boardman is doing nothing to remedy that problem.


Since the Amtrak-host relationship has become frostier,Congress may have to step in sooner rather than later. Long-distance train travel is not going away--it just may have to be forced onto other companies by legislative force.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Tackling the Headlines 28

Bombardier to Amtrak: Upgrade your tracks
The maker of Amtrak's Acela cars has told the railroad that it should not be worried about adding new cars to the Boston-to-Washington line until tracks and signals are upgraded.


Take: Given that Amtrak is ordering new equipment for various Eastern routes, the company may want to look at its infrastructure to make sure none of its trains are adversely affected by it. In 2005 when the Acela trainsets were taken out of service for several months, Amtrak had the advantage of using Metroliner equipment. If any equipment has to be taken out of service  that advantage wouldn't be there because Amtrak stopped using Metroliners in October 2006.


Wait a little longer to plan that Frankfurt to London trip
As of right now, DB won't roll out Chunnel service until 2015 due to Siemens delaying delivering new equipment to the German operator.


Take: The only good news out of this is that competitor Eurostar will roll out service to Amsterdam, Cologne and Frankfurt earlier--in 2014. This bit of news on DB is coming off the heels of the German public still waiting for the privately run Hamburg-Cologne Express to turn a wheel.


Let the Irish build CAHSR? It may be a good idea, actually


Take: I wasn't quite sure how to interpret it at first, but the California project will need all the help that it can get especially if any talk of nixing the project via referendum takes steam. Perhaps, Irish workers could work alongside Chinese, Japanese and Korean entities who are interested in operating the state's fast train system. If such a plan happened, then the Authority may have to let multiple companies run the trains.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Tackling the Headlines 27

Regional HSR service between Detroit and Chicago by 2015 or 2016
An upgrade is being done on the Wolverine route that will allow faster Amtrak service. To get to that point, however, construction will contribute to more delays.

Take: Short term pain for long term convenience is never a bad tradeoff. Also, with the state of Michigan owning the tracks between Kalamazoo and Dearborn, the upgrades can be done rather quickly since Norfolk Southern never really cared about this particular rail line anyway.

Attention California: DO NOT LET A REVOTE HAPPEN
This poll says it all: Two out of three Californians want a revote on the project and three out of five voters would oppose funding the 800-mile line between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Take: As soon as the $98.5 million figure was released, the vultures--HSR opponents--jumped on this as a reason to have a revote. Now, while nothing is official at this time, this has disaster written all over it. There have been two votes on HSR in California--in 1996 and 2008.

A third vote in perilous economic times would be deadly for the entire concept of European-style high speed rail in this country. The old saying of what happens in California spreads nationally would be in place and future anti-fast train backlash would make the trio of governors returning stimulus money to the president look really mild. Like I said last month, it's time for the Authority to reorganize its system to better coordinate with the existing conventional rail system before the whole thing collapses.

Rick Scott's caught fibbing (part 2)
It now appears that the Florida governor did not even want to meet with any of the foreign operators bidding for that state's now-buried high speed project.

Take: Given this revelation from C.C. Dockery, this is all anyone needs to know about Scott and why his approval ratings have gone into the toilet. If he survives a Republican primary in 2014, he might as well not even show up to the election because he'll be dead meat by then. Scott relied on a Reason Foundation's slanted report that squashed HSR. Given that some of the foreign operators were willing to spend their own money on the route, Scott's cavalier attitude in refusing to let Virgin and others make their case to do so means that he is really a petroleum industry puppet. Now, JR Central has moved on to Texas because of Scott's actions.