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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, 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.

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