My Bio and This Blog's Purpose

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Year In Review--2012

1. Over the summer, passenger rail nearly took a massive step backwards until three toxic pieces of legislation were kept out of the final transportation bill

The deadliest of the three was Section 35601, which would have forced all non-Amtrak operators to be licensed by the Surface Transportation Board. Had the provision become law, it would have so disproportionately tilted the playing field in favor of Amtrak that it would have made the carrier once again a legislated monopoly

The September issue of Railfan & Railroad magazine outed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as the architect of the competition-killing licensing provision. Meanwhile, Senator Dick Durbin came up with Section 35207 as a supposed reaction to Representatives John Mica and Bill Shuster's failed attempt to hand the Northeast Corridor over to the USDOT. State DOTs were also upset about Section 35105, which would have let Amtrak control where newly built passenger cars built by states would go. The idea of Amtrak shuffling California Cars to the Southeast (and NC's renovated Heritage Cars [that Amtrak couldn't wait to get rid of] to the Midwest) shows how out of touch the company is because it's been slow to develop new cars on its own.

Prior to Frailey's first posting, NARP was the only group who even bothered weighing in on the three measures, and disappointingly, they supported the licensing provision. The silence from most of the rail community was deafening--and something that I will address in my next post.

All three provisions were nothing more than power grabs by Amtrak and its allies on Capitol Hill because the carrier has recently lost commuter contracts to other operators (there are also unsubstantiated rumors that the possibility of another company running the planned Chicago-Quad Cities-Omaha route was the real culprit for the three provisions). Rather than let Amtrak face competition, some Congresscritters are blindly wedded to a company that has told non-NEC states that they're mostly on their own. As a result, I commend Mica for preventing Amtrak from gaining an unfair advantage when it can probably let a few routes be operated by someone else.

2. The state of Oklahoma's negotiations with BNSF should be a template--maybe, even the template--of what other states should be doing in regards to PRIIA Section 209.

Instead of just bellyaching over how Amtrak service will come to an end next October, the states outside of the Northeast Corridor need to do their duty and find a carrier that can provide top level passenger service at the lowest cost possible since many of them are still struggling to balance their budgets. 

The Tulsa City Council's Advisory Committee was initially worried (go to pages 10-12) that BNSF would only allow Amtrak to operate the route since the Class I railroad owns the tracks between Sapulpa and the state capital. The committee did its homework by contacting the AIPRO, and one operator was ecstatic about the possibility of running trains there.

As long as passenger operators are allowed to compete on a level playing field, states will be able to fairly weigh the costs of operating a new route or adding frequencies on existing ones by more than one company. In 2009, Amtrak was criticized by some in the rail community for providing extremely high costs to run new service in places like Ohio. The national carrier should be on notice that if its costs are too high, states may turn to somebody who could run the trains at a lower cost (Tulsa got a lower estimate from the AIPRO member). 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Peach State Ramblings: Atlanta's Dilemma

Recently, there has been a lot of back and forth over whether Amtrak would do a back up move into the proposed Multi-Modal Passenger Terminal in downtown Atlanta (hint: the carrier is resistant to the idea). Within the last week, it has been revealed that Amtrak may move from its current location on Peachtree Street to a new site near Atlantic Station at the corner of 17th Street and Northside Drive--about a mile southwest of the current station. All parties--Amtrak, the state of Georgia, and Norfolk Southern--want a new station. 

There are many reasons why the three parties want Amtrak to leave Peachtree Station: 

  • The carrier wants to cut off/add cars on the Crescent but NS won't let them do it there
  • The current facility is overcrowded 
  • Parking is off-limits (passengers have to use a nearby Masonic temple because the parking lot has been condemned)
  • Peachtree Station was opened in 1918 by Southern Railway as a suburban station (it became the last station standing in 1972 when Terminal Station was demolished and Georgia Railroad moved its station to its freight yard)
  • NS trains have to stop whenever Amtrak is at the station since there are only two mainline tracks and a third track to nowhere
  • The costs of bringing the current facility up to ADA standards far outweigh the benefits
  • The elevator is small and slow while the stairs are steep

Atlantic Station vs the MMPT
For once, Amtrak has shown the willingness to take the initiative outside of the Northeast Corridor. Development will be around the new station as Atlantic Station demonstrates. Greyhound and possible mass transit could complement Amtrak. However, there is just one problem: While passengers could transfer to downtown trains at a proposed suburban station in Doraville, Amtrak passengers would not be able to connect with other routes, assuming that they will be operated by someone else.

Meanwhile in downtown Atlanta, the MMPT (120 acres vs over 12 for the new Amtrak station) would host SEHSR to Charlotte and Jacksonville, Gulf Coast routes, a future revival of the Nancy Hanks route to Savannah, proposed commuter rail routes, streetcars, MARTA, and bus service.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Tackling the Headlines 45

Service could be returning to BC

Service on Vancouver Island has been inactive for months due to bad tracks.
Take: Given Via's recent moves, letting the new owner operate the route is not a bad idea at all.

Oh, Wanderu

The startup company has enlisted former Greyhound and Priceline executives as advisers.
Take: The bus thing is fine but they should wait until there are more rail operators because the only state where this idea would work is New York in interlining Amtrak with Saratoga & North Creek at Saratoga Springs.

Virgin Trains to operate West Coast Line until 2014

A new deal was just inked.
Take: Even more evidence that the British government messed up the allocation of this route big time.

Tucson’s airport wants in on the action

The airport is really adamant about being included in the state's plan.
Take: As an era of modal cooperation takes hold, rail-airport links will become more vital than ever.

Tackling the Headlines 44

The Maple Leaf will continue to run

After much worrying about Canadian National's plan to abandon a bridge in Niagara Falls, the NFBC will now own the bridge, the Maple Leaf should continue running.

Take: Hopefully, this move will lead to more innovative services.

Revived service to Roanoke by 2018?

Leaders want the service, but funding is an obstacle--not to mention that Virginia will have to deal with the fallout of PRIIA Section 209, which may or not result in the popular and profitable Lynchburg service having to be subsidized.  

Take: The sooner the service can be reinstated, the better.

Additional Vermont service by 2017

The Green Mountain State plans to provide train service to Burlington via Rutland in five years.

Take: Yet another proactive state.

No HSR in FL? No problem

A regional planning group in the Tampa area is exploring the possibility of having commuter service along the I-4 corridor between Orlando and Tampa--by extending SunRail.

Take #1: Whether the end result is truly an extended SunRail route or a Tampa area commuter route that merely connects to SunRail, this innovative thinking may lead to a Florida-wide passenger system that provides Floridians an alternative to crowded Amtrak trains and the upcoming All Aboard Florida service that will skip smaller cities.

Take #2: An extended SunRail should be the template that produces a statewide system for other states because existing tracks would be used, and there would be supporting commuter rail lines in heavily populated areas. I'm thinkg about a statewide SunRail system that is subdivided into Intercity and Commuter/Regional services.

Take #3: This move would solve the "Orlando problem" surrounding AAF's route. As it stands now, FEC's passenger outfit would serve the airport rather than downtown. However, SunRail plans to provide a connection to the airport. The WCFMPO proposal would negate any need by AAF to extend northward into town since this mega SunRail route would already do the trick.

Take #4: Since we are likely talking about existing tracks between Orlando and Tampa, it is very possible that the old Lakeland station could be reopened for commuter use since AAF would more than likely use the pathway that was intended for the failed FL HSR project.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Rail and the 2012 Election Part 2

PRIIA Section 209

Whether we get meaningful reform or no reform at all will be determined by this time in 2016 but a more imminent issue will affect the world of intercity rail: How will states pay for corridors? This particular section of the 2008 law mandates that all non-NEC corridors will have to be paid full cost by the states by next October.

The horror stories have slowly trickled out. So far, the fretting has come from areas that either have gotten a free ride from Amtrak or routes that are considered to be part of the Amtrak system. I have to openly wonder if the rail community or states ever paid attention to this provision. Instead of whining about having to pay up next fall, states ought to look at the competition provision that allows them to bid their routes to other operators. If they do this, then it may cost less for someone else to run the service.

FRA reform

Neither Obama nor Romney brought it up during the presidential campaign but reforming the FRA is imperative during the president's second term. If Mica hasn't already brought it up in the last 20 months, then he needs to during one his last three hearings during the lame duck session because the Federal Railroad Administration is broken.

Let me count the ways on how the agency's become burdensome:

  • The Greenbrier Express fiasco
  • Drama with Talgo dating back to the turn of the millennium
  • Playing favorites when it comes to states selecting railcars

If Caltrain can get a waiver and successfully demonstrate that lighter equipment can make it here in America, why can't the FRA get with the program and curb the requirement that trains have to resemble tanks?

Some railfans have defended the agency's actions--some have even used 9/11 to justify the bulky equipment--but Stephen Smith, Paul Druce, Drunk Engineer, and Alon Levy have all refuted such nonsense. If the White House and Congress fail to change the FRA's methods, we will continue to have mediocre to poor rail service with oversized vehicles.

The rail community's strategy

Now is the time to not just support Amtrak but to embrace all companies who want to provide intercity service in America. Since high speed rail is at best on hold, the focus should be on rebuilding our intercity rail system (i.e., the long-distance routes), making sure that corridors are operated at the lowest cost possible since many states continue to face budget deficits, and being open to entrepreneurial approaches.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Rail and the 2012 Election Part 1

Rail-related referenda

The good

This was a mixed bag. Here in NC, Orange County passed a transit sales tax. Among the things approved will be a new Amtrak station in Hillsborough and the county's commitment to light commuter rail projects. This means that two-thirds of the Triangle are committed to developing a mass transit system of buses and trains. Wake County is a holdout due to conservative, anti-transit commissioners maintaining a 4-3 majority.

Residents in Virginia Beach want the Tide to be extended from Norfolk to their city. It's now up to the Virginia Beach City Council to approve an extension of the light rail route.

Heavy rail survives after a candidate favoring the Honolulu project wins.

The not-so-good

Anything from California requiring a sales tax increase took a beating. Both items fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to become law.

High speed rail

The divergent results in Congress--Republicans adding seats in the House and Democrats adding seats in the Senate--means HSR will be in a holding pattern until 2015 or '17 which means absolutely no funding whatsoever. Outside of California and the Northeast Corridor, advocates will have to hope that more private companies like JR Central and XpressWest step up to the plate to provide European-style rail service.

The overall impact on rail

At the state level

Minnesota's legislature flips to the Democratic-Farmer Labor Party while the GOP adds seats in Wisconsin. The overall verdict? The Gopher State will be picking up the entire bill for the planned daytime Chicago-St. Paul route while the rest of the Midwest prays like crazy that Scott Walker is pink slipped in two years.

In New Hampshire, the GOP lost the House and nearly lost the Senate. This could lead to the state to  participate in funding an MBTA extension to Concord and the planned Boston-Montreal route. 

Funding for the rest of the SEHSR system could be in a tough spot after the GOP won a veto-proof majority in the state House (the NC Senate was already veto-proof after the '10 election). Last year, the legislature was able to prevent the NCDOT from receiving federal funds without its approval.


At the federal level, bargaining will be the name of the game. Either the status quo will be maintained and we get no meaningful passenger rail reform or Congress and the president are able to give a bit to end 41+ years of mediocre rail service that has led to America being a laggard. Personally, I want to see the Democrats drop their competition-averse stance and realize that maintaining a monopoly is a detriment to passenger rail. Competitors are chomping to operate routes  and they should not be riddled with ridiculous burdens nor should they be ridiculed for wanting to take on Amtrak (I will address regulations in my next post). On the other hand, I want the Republicans to realize that government has to play some role in regulating passenger rail and that some funding for rail service will have to come from D.C.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Tackling the Headlines 43

Trains could be returning to St. Louis Union Station after all

Incoming ownership group Lodging Hospitality Management thinks that excursion trains and a transportation museum will end the historic facility's woes. 

Take: In addition to what I mentioned here and here, intercity service could result in trains to Springfield with extensions to Tulsa and Oklahoma City.

All Aboard Florida reveals a mock-up of its cars

Take: Looks nice to me.

Iowa Pacific and Adirondack Scenic Railroad join forces

The two entities plan on providing overnight train service between New York City and Lake Placid via the old New York Central Adirondack Route. A potential roadblock consists of locals who want to turn the stretch of tracks between Big Moose Lake and Sarnac into a snowmobile trail.

Take: This could be more expensive than what the average person can afford but it could lead to a more affordable alternative later on. Hopefully, the NIMBYs are put in their place because once a stretch of rail is gone, it's gone forever.

Friday, October 12, 2012

A New Model For American Passenger Rail

This article is yet another call for passenger rail reform. It was published several months ago in a newsletter and eventually republished by RailPAC. 

More and more people are coming to the realization that the current approach to passenger rail is broken and. This is one of the most potent calls for reform from the rail community, and a major advocacy group is being asked to support a proposal to dismantle Amtrak as we know it. If RailPAC backs this and Spotswood's plan gains lots of traction at the national level, NARP will be in a lot of trouble—as will Amtrak. So, does anyone still have an issue with my proposed rail consortium now?

I will now respond to the eight quotes that caught my eye the most: 
It is time for America to have two intercity rail passenger operators: The current Amtrak in the eight-state/District of Columbia Northeast Corridor and a brand-new passenger corporation providing a high level of services for the remaining forty-two states.
At first glance, it seemed as though only two operators would be possible but as I continued reading the article, this was clearly not the case.
To any impartial follower of the national rail passenger scene, it’s clear that unless a prompt order is made for new long-distance passengers cars, the national service will wither away within a decade or two. That’s how long the present roster of coaches, sleeping cars and diners have before being hauled off to the scrap heap. Given the huge lead time in ordering any new equipment, the current delay by Amtrak management to address this critical need is appalling.
Given Amtrak’s attitude about long distance trains lately, someone else needs to operate them. 
It’s time to dissolve Amtrak. It’s very name “Amtrak” has developed in the public such a negative, bureaucratic connotation that it should become the latest “fallen flag.” Why else does Amtrak in the East focus on the weird word “Acela” to describe their premier service.
This once again proves my point that I’m one of the very few pro-reform people who isn't calling for Amtrak to go away.
One involves transforming the present National Railroad Passenger Corporation into a new, slimmed down entity. Either remaining in the public sector which much state involvement, or as a taxpayer assisted but private enterprise run corporation, this new NORTHEAST RAIL would be allocated the sole responsibility of perfecting a southern New England -Middle Atlantic passenger service stretching from Boston south to Richmond, Virginia. If the Northeast Corridor is privatized, there is little doubt that the needed management staff will be lean.
Many advocates pooh-poohed any NEC-National System split in ’02. Given how much interest passenger rail has gotten with various companies wanting to operate routes, these activists cannot hold onto that view today.
Its purpose will be to assume responsibly for all aspects of a new independent passenger railroad. That entity will operate and secure financing for all long-distance and corridor services in America west and south of the Appalachians. It should combine some aspects of public funding with the actual service operated by private operators on a line-by-line basis.
Letting private companies operate trains could be the way to go since non-NEC residents already feel left out by Amtrak’s management when it comes to expansion plans.
The name AMERICAN RAIL signifies a fresh start and new direction. It should have its headquarters anywhere but Washington. Chicago, the traditional hub for western and mid-American rail passenger services, would be a fine location as would St. Louis or even Denver. With its own separate board of directors, with new management and working with new private sector operators, AMERICAN RAIL would not compete with NORTHEAST RAIL but serve as its national connection.
The Class I railroads will have to get on board. If they object to this proposal, the White House and Congress should tell all seven railroads in no uncertain terms that they will be running the trains since Amtrak would no longer exist and the feds would be playing a reduced role.
With innovation the watchword, AMERICAN RAIL should lead to way to new routes and more frequencies all in new passenger cars and locomotives operated by a freshly recruited and trained staff equipped with a private sector-style customer-first approach. Is there risk of failure? Yes, but right now the risk of the ultimate demise of Amtrak’s long-distance service seems assured.
Given how anemic the long distance system currently is, all overnight routes must be daily, frequencies at least doubled, with the heavily used routes having a four frequency minimum, and branch routes are also a must.
An essential early step is to secure bipartisan sponsors in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives to serve as our proponents. It’s naive to think that Amtrak’s current board and senior management will not oppose this move. Substantial bipartisan Congressional and Administration support is essential if this proposal is to be taken seriously. Just getting the debate off the ground is not an easy task. We can’t do it with just the old friends of passenger rail. Simultaneously, we need to expand by adding others, e.g., Republicans and the business community, who have in recent years opposed or indifferent to passenger rail, but were supportive in the past.
As they say, if your current allies are stuck in their old ways, it’s time to get new allies. The bottom line is that the rail community has to broaden its horizons.

Some extra food for thought: Spotswood's proposal may produce an interesting situation in that it could provide independent operators the opportunity to challenge the official routes planned by authorities like MWHSR.

Here are some potential examples:
  • Alternative Chicago-Milwaukee service via the Chicago & North Western route. Such a route would make up for the failure of the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter route 
  • New Upstate New York service serves Grand Central Terminal and downtown Albany
  • An extended Pere Marquette by a new company provides a Chicago-Detroit alternative to the Wolverines for western Michigan residents
  • The state of Florida leases S-Line passenger service to an independent entity to provide alternative Jacksonville-Miami service—setting a three-way fight with Amtrak and FEC’s All Aboard Florida

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Tackling the Headlines 42

Network Rail abandons deal with First Group

Take: That didn't take long at all.

Caltrain gets money to electrify

Take: The sooner the better.

All Aboard Ohio pushing Columbus-Chicago route

Take: I just stumbled onto this story on a forum even though it's really two months old.

Light rail coming to LAX

Take: The airport was the reason why no train has been able to directly stop there.

Random thoughts #8

  1. The train station boom is picking up. For once, it's nice to be discussing building up massive train stations rather than demolishing them.
  2. The sad tale of Turbo Trains from north of the border shows how different things should have been. It's worth noting that during the 1960s and '70s, Canadian National was controlled by the Ottawa government. Had the government taken the appropriate steps to own the tracks, perhaps, Canadians would be enjoying high speed rail today.
  3. The Wall Street Journal recently presided over a debate discussing the future direction of passenger rail. Even though I tend to side with Mr. Orksi over Mr. Schank, the latter made this interesting point that most rail message board people ought to take note of:"There is no inherent reason why Amtrak, a quasigovernmental agency, should have a monopoly on operating intercity passenger rail in this country. There could be benefits to inviting private operators and competition into our rail system, as evidenced by the deregulation of the trucking, rail and airline industries." Bottom line: The status quo does not work anymore.
  4. On Stephen Smith's analysis of comparing Britain and Japan's privatization plans, I will yield to him but I still have concerns about how a privatized Amtrak would look like under Romney--namely, that a government monopoly being replaced by a private monopoly. How are these other operators supposed to get a foot in the door if a Romney presidency and a Mica & Shuster-led Congress aren't going to force the Class I railroads back into carrying passengers? If Amtrak is going to be privatized without any possibility of the host railroads giving back their stock, then, independent operators must be allowed to buy pieces of a privatized Amtrak to encourage competition and to give passengers the best bang for their buck
  5. Finally, message board geeks, tell NARP and Midwest High Speed Rail that long-distance trains no longer have a purpose the next time you advocate a bunch of disconnected high speed corridors and confuse that for "progress"

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Tackling the Headlines 41

Despite evidence to the contrary, Keolis loses MD bid based on lie

Governor Martin O'Malley caved in to money hungry lawyers. Bombardier will operate the MARC diesel CSX is giving up.
Take: Sad to see that another state was too chicken to call the lawyers on their b.s. It is also worth noting that when CSX first wanted out two years ago, only Amtrak and Keolis submitted bids but Amtrak withdrew its bid on liability grounds (the Class I was forced to operate the trains after the Holocaust issue first came up). This time around, Amtrak pulled out after losing the Caltrain contract, and the number of competitors was down to three as Veolia joined Keolis and Bombardier.

Cocoa wants FEC station

The city of Cocoa wants a station but the Class II railroad deems the area too small.
Take: Hey Cocoa, there's always the proposed Amtrak service. Just be glad that you guys will have two passenger entities passing through by the end of the decade. Other municipalities are desperate for just one operator to stop in their towns.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Random thoughts #7

1. More All Aboard Florida info
Every hour in each direction between 0600 and 2100
Possible locations for the intermediate stops

2. Interesting interview with a member of XpressWest. All that is missing is the final extension to Los Angeles.

3. Given the potential makeup of the White House and Congress next year, the approach by TCHSR may be the only way to go

Tackling the Headlines 40

The plot thickens in Britain 

Take: If the First Group bid is allowed to proceed, the UK had better hope that the company doesn't fall into financial dismay. Otherwise, the Cameron Cabinet will have a major egg on its face.

Norfolk service and prices set

There will be a temporary facility in place until next spring because of a disagreement over the design.
Take: This still doesn't answer what will happen once the permanent facility is up and running in regards to an actual ticket agent being  placed there.

An Express HSR route in Illinois? It's not where you think

The tracks would be alongside I-90 between O'Hare Airport and Rockford.
Take: If the state actually goes through with the plan, the logical thing is extending that bad boy up to Madison where it could meet with the future MWHSR system and an extended Zip Rail.

Another Florida community flirting with commuter rail

It's now Polk County's turn.
Take: How long will Tallahassee hold out as community after community looks to rail? If I'm Rick Scott and want to save my job in 2014, I would take the first steps to forming a Florida Intercity Rail System. The orange lines infuriate me because Florida's so-called rail activists sat by and watched CSX abandon portions of the old Seaboard route. While it could be possible for rail service to be reinstated as Jacksonville is proposing for its own commuter system, the inaction was horrible.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Hi / Zeph / 400: "Amtrak 90" plan

Hi / Zeph / 400: "Amtrak 90" plan: I just came across an interesting report called " Amtrak 90 " put together back in 1982 which proposed a new route structure.   It is a much...

The funny thing is, this plan can still be implemented--it'll just be over 30 years behind schedule and with Amtrak being a side player rather than the whole focus, barring a change in management philosophy. The non-NEC states may move forward with other operators and Congress passes yet another passenger rail act that forces the return of privately run overnight trains.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Tackling the Headlines 39

Virgin loses vital West Coast route to rival
Last week, a shock was sent across the UK as Virgin Trains lost the London-Glasgow/Edinburgh contract to rival First Group. The route also serves Manchester, Liverpool, and Birmingham. The transition from Virgin to First Group will take place on December 9 and will last until 2026. 

Sir Richard Branson has threatened to pull Virgin Trains out of the UK rail scene, and there is real fear among Britons that the quality of the West Coast Main Line may deteriorate (rising prices, lost jobs, First Group possibly spending too much for the franchise). The West Coast Main Line is Virgin's only route in Britain, and the company is credited for repairing the battered line so much is at stake if First Group messes up the route.

Take: If Branson leaves the UK market, he should come to the U.S. pronto to help rebuild our country's passenger rail system. Even though Rick Scott railroaded (no pun intended by the way) him in Florida, Branson should recommit to building a Los Angeles-Las Vegas HSR route and operate slower train routes as well (coming to think of it, Sir Richard should develop corridor service in a state like Florida or even provide seasonal Florida-Midwest service). The only thing is that Branson wouldn't join the Association of Independent Passenger Rail Operators since--you guessed it--First Group became a member earlier this year.

Ontario government pulls plug on ONR service
The government of Ontario is canceling intercity service between Toronto and Cochrane on September 28. Ontario Northland passengers will be forced to ride...buses while freight service is also going away. The only silver lining is that the winter excursion train will continue to run. Mind you, the province is run by the Liberal Party, not the federal Conservative government whose Cabinet will be responsible for slashing Via Rail service.

Take: Canada is shaping up to be a tale of contrasts with the United States. In the 1970s, both countries gave up on private passenger service but the Great White North's executive branch has funded trains rather than the legislative one. As this country turns back to passenger trains, Canada's leaders are heading in the opposite direction. If passenger train travel is to survive north of the border, then it makes sense to hand intercity service back to the private railroads and subsidize the companies to run the trains.

Meeting to restore Gulf Coast service
There was a meeting in Mobile last week to discuss the future of train service on the Gulf Coast. The mayors of Birmingham, Montgomery and Mobile (the last of whom who cited the controversial 2009 Sunset Limited study) are clamoring for a return of train service.  Much of the focus was on re-implementing the Birmingham-Mobile Gulf Breeze. 

Take #1: Regarding the regional aspect of the service, here's some advice for the three mayors: 
1) the revived Gulf Breeze service should be extended to New Orleans
2) there should be a branch route that follows the old Atlanta & West Point/Western Railway of Alabama route to Atlanta
3) this effort and the aforementioned two items sure as heck beat any unrealistic high speed rail corridors that never stood a chance of being funded by the feds

Take #2: It was interesting that representatives for Amtrak and SNCF were there. While the French operator's American mouthpiece didn't speak, this could be a foreshadowing for the future of Gulf Coast service. Think about it, the American operator should be put on notice for its inaction. Ever since CSX repaired the old Louisville & Nashville line in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama in 2006, Amtrak's management has dragged its feet on restoring any type of service between New Orleans and Orlando.

After all, that '09 study was pessimistic even though two logical alternatives were offered in extending the City of New Orleans or a standalone Gulf Wind (the real logical option is to make the Sunset Limited daily at least east of New Orleans until Union Pacific cleans up its act). 

The bottom line is that if Amtrak is unwilling to unsuspend the missing link, it is time for someone else to operate the service between New Orleans and Orlando! What better way for SNCF/Keolis to make a splash in the U.S. to provide connections to not only the national system but to regional systems as well? 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Tackling the Headlines 38

FEC study: Green light to operate trains

Take: That was done in no time. Now, that's how you do a feasibility study. Congratulations, FEC, and I hope to take one of your trains in three years' time. As for the Miami-Cocoa overlap in which FEC (initial segment to Orlando) and Amtrak (Miami-Jacksonville service via Silver Service split) trains will operate, the Class II is planning to develop separate stations in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, and Orlando. As a result, travelers will be need to be careful to identify the stations along the line.

Feds give a grant to Housatonic for final study

If all goes well, the Berkshires will see train service between 2017 and 2020. Grand Central needs as much quality train service as possible. I also liked how the article mentions that the station at the route's northern terminus could be upgraded to handle more trains.

Take: After all of the backlash, the Class III perseveres.

Yet another feasibility study--this one from Indiana

Take: Given past talk about how anti-rail Hoosier State politicians are, this one just came out of left field. The interesting thing is that there is zero mention of Amtrak in the study. Upon further review, this should be of no surprise since Amtrak left the city in 1990.

Amtrak to redo its own feasibility study on Treasure Coast service
Cities are in various planning stages, funding from Tallahassee is an apparent issue, and Amtrak needs to update its numbers. The earliest launch date has now been pushed back to 2015-16.

Take: I am willing to bet with anybody that FEC will extend its All Aboard Florida service to Jacksonville before Amtrak is able to get a single train on the East Coast line. Funding issues could come up at the state, federal level, or both and Amtrak could have a new president in the next 3-5 years who could change course.

Amtrak-Trinity Railway Express conflict could force Texas to return stimulus money

Take: The liability issue rears its ugly head again. Texas didn't really get that much stimulus money in 2009 because its governor rejected it. My guess is that Amtrak is waiting for the TIGER II money dedicated to relieve Tower 55 congestion so it can have use new tracks on the UP line between Dallas and Fort Worth. Another problem is that Amtrak has $200 million in liability insurance while TRE is limited to $250,000.

Referendum to repeal CAHSR withdrawn, lawsuits may be new strategy by foes

Take: It's great news-potentially bad news. Once construction on the first segment begins, the lawsuits may become moot.

Southern Oregonians want passenger service to be restored

Take: Someone needs to urge the CORP to realize the potential to provide local residents alternative transportation.

A new station in Petersburg, VA?
The state is clearly doing the one-for-all-all-for-one routine here: Either both stations will be in Ettrick or everything will be moved to downtown Petersburg.

Take: Sigh, I guess that's the nature of working with an operator that isn't willing to place more than one station in a metropolitan area on a consistent basis. I have no objections about the DRPT building a separate high speed rail station right next to the existing Amtrak station, but it's the mentality that is irking me.

Instead of quotes like these
[A]reas with populations comparable to the Tri-Cities region "typically have only one train station. Richmond is a rarity because it has Main Street and Staples Mill (stations), even though they don't offer the same level of service at both locations.
the state should be more creative and use a downtown Petersburg station as a facility for special passengers who value their time. Another use for a downtown station could provide passengers who will travel on east-west services in the future easy access.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Tackling the Headlines 37

Cost to upgrade the Northeast Corridor? A whole lotta money!
Take: Just imagine what could be done with the National System with $151 billion.

Take: Hopefully, someone from G&W actually has a clue that operating passenger service that connects with  Amtrak and other shortline railroads is a business plan worth having.

Take: After numerous false starts, the Hamburg-Cologne Express began running. Could ventures like the HKX and Italo work in North America? They could in the United States but a lot of strings would have to be pulled. As for Canada, it may have no choice but to rely on such private ventures as long as Via Rail's management is more interested in plotting the railroad's suicide.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

CAHSR survives Assembly scare

Two weeks ago, the California Assembly narrowly gave the green light for construction to start on the HSR route. Like I previously said, this was the real hurdle--not some referendum to repeal CAHSR in 2014. In order to alleviate all controversies surrounding the I-5 vs Tehachapi alignments, the route should be split up in a way that I-5 is preserved to be a future Express route while the Tehachapi can eventually become a 125-220 mph expressway for passenger trains.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Reason & Rail: USPS OIG suggests moving back to rail

Reason & Rail: USPS OIG suggests moving back to rail

Quite frankly, this would be a very good idea that's long overdue but I wonder if UPS and Fed Ex would beat them to the punch and make an already (virtually) insolvent USPS's efforts moot. I also agree with Mr. Druce that this should be off limits to Amtrak. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Tackling the Headlines 36

Via Rail cuts
Here is the official press release spun by the carrier as "modernization."

Take #1: Canadians are going to find out just how reduced their travel options will be.

Take #2: This should serve as a cautionary tale to anybody who agrees with President Obama's effort to move Amtrak funding from the legislative branch to the executive branch (which was contemplated last year, but never carried out). From Day 1 in Canada, Via Rail has been in the hands of the Prime Minister's Cabinet. So, if a Cabinet member or the PM himself decides that Via Rail needs to whack routes, the agency will do it. After all, Via has never fully returned to pre-1990 levels, and will be significantly below those levels with its pending actions. Think about it, if Obama had moved Amtrak funding (or pursues it during a second term), who's to say that his successor wouldn't move to zero out Amtrak?

Transportation bill highlights and lowlights
As a followup to what I previously published, a compromise was reached after it looked as though extensions would continue until next year when the makeup of Congress and the White House would have settled what direction America's transportation policy would take.

The Good
  • All anti-competitive measures that would have prevented practically all non-Amtrak operators from starting up intercity service in America and would have forced AIPRO operators to essentially give up their contracts were shot down
  • States will continue to have control over where and how their equipment will be used
  • The Alaska Railroad will continue to host passenger service after a Senate proposal went by the wayside
The Bad
Take #1: All of the watering down could have been prevented if Congress had passed a transportation bill in 2009 when the pro-transit forces had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

Take #2: Shame on the Senate for attempting to heavily tilt the field in favor of one carrier and for its pettiness towards a railroad that makes money and provides an essential service for Alaskans.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Tackling the Headlines 35

The DesertXpress is now XpressWest
Last month, DesertXpress renamed itself XpressWest and announced that the route would be extended from Victorville to Palmdale.

Take: A great start and a way to dispel critics who claim that XpressWest is "a train to nowhere." Now, if they could only extend the route southward to Los Angeles, then everything would be complete

New owners to run landmark
St. Louis Union Station is about to change owners. The station has had mixed results--the Marriott thrives but the mall is hemorrhaging tenants--and the current owner faced lawsuits over a failed effort to expand the hotel.

Take: One can only hope that the new owners will be open to the idea of letting trains stop at St. Louis Union Station once again. STLUS should be a multi-function facility that includes train service. Given all of the changes that have taken place since 1978, the historic landmark should try a different tack in handling passenger service.

Commuter train service is a likely nonstarter since the plan is to use Gateway station for the two planned lines to Alton, IL and Pacific, MO. When Missouri is able to build a separate HSR route between St. Louis and Kansas City, that route should be allowed to connect to Express HSR routes to Chicago at STLUS. Once the politicians in D.C. and the Class I railroads get with the program, the station can provide other types of trains--including short excursions. Trains to Florida, the Northeast, and the West via the Consortium idea as well as specialty trains would complement HSR trains. As far as transfers go, the city and the state would jointly work out a free transfer that would likely result in passengers using Metrolink light rail since the two stations are only a minute away.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Sunshine State musings 2

The latest on FECI's venture
As it turns out, Florida East Coast is planning to stop at Orlando International Airport. My opinion is that the Class II shouldn't stop there. Instead, expand northward to downtown to either Church Street or the planned LYNX Station. That way, an alternative to the current Amtrak station can be provided once other services get going and the city's downtown will be a rail hub.

Guessing Amtrak’s Florida Ground Game
Now that Amtrak has settled liability insurance issues with the state of Florida, most of the pressure now shifts to the national carrier.

It could very well be possible that FECI actually gets its operation up and extends its service to Jacksonville before Amtrak gets around to East Coast service.

Assuming that Rick Scott gets religion on rail or is replaced by an avid supporter of passenger rail, the FL DOT could draft up a scenario that results in multiple entities for travelers in the state—Amtrak, FECI, and corridor service—for the first time since the ACL-SAL merger. With numerous companies around, Amtrak’s management should do the following to avoid falling behind:
1. Provide a flipped frequency for the Silver Star. This new train would leave their starting points 12-15 hours after #91 and #92 (this also assumes that enough new equipment is ordered for overnight service).
2. Terminate the Silver Star in Tampa. Passengers between Tampa and Miami would use Florida-based intercity trains.
3. Extend the Palmetto to Tampa via Ocala or provide a brand new train between Montreal and Miami on the Vermonter route.

However, the current president of Amtrak has reiterated that the company is generally more interested in maintaining what it has than expanding and adding revenue at a time that Congress is seeking to drastically cut how much money it gives to the company.

Also, if FL DOT builds up a California like intercity system, it could hand it off to other intercity operators (excluding the FEC portion), causing Amtrak to react negatively in the following fashion:
1. Future management (go here to see why I don’t think Joe Boardman will be around once this hypothetical Florida Rail System is up and running) decides to actually stay at its current Jacksonville location while FECI and others use Union Terminal as a transportation hub.
2. No changes are done to the Palmetto’s route.
3. Trains #91 and #97 are changed to only drop off passengers south of Jacksonville while Trains #92 and #98 only pick up passengers between Miami and Jacksonville.
4. If the Tampa dogleg is eliminated, Amtrak splits and combines the Silver Star at its Orlando station.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Random thoughts #6

  1. Hmm, what does it say about Amtrak’s premier train that passengers would rather use a long-distance train along the southern half of the Northeast Corridor? For starters, the ban on using long-distance trains for local travel between D.C. and NY Penn Station should be lifted. Second, consolidate some of the Northeast Regional trains (none of which offer First Class service) that are sparsely used and move the Amfleet equipment to regions that plan on adding rail service but don’t have new equipment in place.
  2. Perhaps, it was this story that got Amtrak to recognize all of the third party attendants who work at various stations. Prior to the recognition of certain NCDOT run stations between Wilson and Charlotte in the Fall/Winter 2010-11 issue, Amtrak only put a side note below the Carolinian/Piedmont schedule to let the public know that state employees worked there. Now, the carrier distinguishes stations that are run by states or independent volunteers from those stations that are truly unstaffed and unmanned.
  3. A private company in Pittsburgh may run commuter rail in the future. Notice that private railroads once operated commuter trains on their own. NS was an unwilling partner with local government, but AVR is stepping up to the point that it wants minimal government assistance. While every community is different, anything that will reduce startup costs and combats any skepticism from anti-transit forces is a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Tackling the Headlines 34

Well, it seemed important at the time...
Two stories that I won't be giving any more time to are based in California and Wisconsin.

Take: In the case of the former, it's good news-bad news. Good news in that the repeal CAHSR initiative won't be on this fall's ballot. Bad news in that enough signatures were collected for the repeal to be on the 2014 ballot! This means that the advocates for European-style high speed rail have to really step up their game so they aren't in for a rude awakening. 

When it comes to the Badger State, all I can say is: KICK WALKER OUT IN 2014! Given all of the drama surrounding the Talgo cars and the mentality from the governor and his allies that using leftover 22-year-old Horizon cars is a sound strategy, Wisconsin is bound to have second rate rail service as neighboring states upgrade their equipment and add new routes.

Santa Cruz branch line to get a new owner
Stop me if you've heard this one before: Iowa Pacific was tapped to operate the Santa Cruz Branch Line earlier this month. This comes off the shortline holding company beating out four other companies and the line's previous owner being locked in a bitter battle with Union Pacific.

Take: While this will be the reverse of the Saratoga & North Creek (freight first, passenger second out west while IP rolled out the passenger service in New York first). Provided that everything goes well, the Bay Area could be well served by a multi-rail system that carries people (Amtrak, Caltrain, CAHSR, and Iowa Pacific all serving San Jose) by 2022. 

Also, a government organization is the one responsible for tapping the emerging shortline powerhouse. As a result, Ed Ellis and company will be the ones on the hook for any profit or loss. That's vital since Caltrain and others like it were in recent years struggling to keep service at current levels.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Tackling the Headlines 33

VA: Virginia Beach Firefighters Union Opposes Light Rail
Take: This is a really petulant move.

STB OKs reopening Adirondack rail route
Take: Congratulations to Saratoga & North Creek for establishing an additional foothold in upstate New York.

Texas State Railroad sold to Iowa Pacific
Take: Iowa Pacific could become a shortline powerhouse by the end of the decade.

Eurostar eyes 10 new destinations across Europe
Take: THAT is how the EU mandates for competition should look like--international travelers having an option between Eurostar and DB by 2017.

NC Railroad reaches agreement with CATS in Charlotte
Take: Hopefully, this will lead to bigger and better things for the NCRR--like operating commuter or intercity service one day.

Shining Waters Railway
Take: This may not have anything to do with the Canadian government's efforts to sell off parts of Via Rail to private parties, but someone north of the border is seriously thinking about providing passenger service to a part of Canada that lost service in the wake of the Mulroney Cuts 22 years ago. I just wish someone could restore the Atlantic in the eastern part of the country.

Amtrak outlook: Running between Chicago and Dubuque by 2015
Take: While other states waste time with flimsy research and returning rail money to President Obama, Illinois is producing a rail system. Other states may wind up with the state's leftovers of Amfleet and Horizon Cars once the new equipment makes its way to the Land of Lincoln.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Tackling the Headlines 32

Iowa releases study on Quad Cities-Omaha route
The state decided to blend two existing routes--the ex-Rock Island route with the route that the Southwest Chief, California Zephyr and the Illinois Zephyr/Carl Sandburg routes currently use. 

Take: Other than the Hawkeye State's blinking on providing train service right away the way their eastern neighbor plans to, the thing that irks me the most about the plan is a lack of creativity by both Des Moines and Springfield. The latter must have told the former that Amtrak would automatically be tapped to run the entire Chicago-Quad Cities-Omaha route. 

The thing about that is that if someone had shown enough creativity, the state governments could have selected another operator to run the brand new service. They should have used the ARRA provisions to produce the new Iowa service. As for Iowa's issues with the former Rock Island route not serving Union Station, it should have worked out something with its eastern neighbor to provide a guaranteed transfer between LaSalle Street Station and Union Station rather than having Illinois resort to building a new track just to move the train from one route to the other.

Moynihan Station poised to become a grand gateway
Take: Wake me up when there is real progress on this project.

U.S. pressures legislators on bullet train funds
Take: This is more of a threat than some movement to put this back on the ballot as part of an effort to repeal CAHSR.

ADOT studies 6 rail routes for Tucson-to-Phoenix line

Take: It is a bit of a start. I just hope the state gets around to implementing the service soon.

Comparing and contrasting

At the ASLRRA dinner gathering itself, I shared some time with Vermont Rail System's Ed Fitzgerald and Brent Brewer, and while we recapped numerous freight-related topics, the talk turned once more to passenger rail on short lines and regionals, which in Ed and Brent's view was one more business facet, since Vermont Railway hosts Amtrak's Ethan Allen, linking Rutland, Vt., and New York via Albany, N.Y. The business angle? Hopes and plans to extend the Ethan Allen to Burlington, Vermont Rail System's headquarters city.
I don't claim such interest or discussion began only this year. Last year, Reading & Northern President Wayne Michel made it clear "passenger rail" were not dirty words to him or his staff when it came to future business prospects; indeed, the Railway Age 2011 Regional Railroad of the Year operates its own passenger excursions as a marketing tool, and as a goodwill gesture, to its clientele and surrounding communities. It was more than willing to host a regional ("commuter") or intercity rail service, if the opportunity arose and the fiscal numbers fit.
And maybe that's the key. Passenger rail is, at long last, once again a business option, a business proposition, for the rail industry—as my colleague Editor-in-Chief Bill Vantuono likes to say, we are one industry

He also repeated the official stance of the railroads that the accepted operator of intercity passenger trains is Amtrak. He neither explained nor elaborated on this.
Many will take solace in the notion that the AAR has given its seeming endorsement to Amtrak as the sole operator of non-commuter trains in the country. As the conference wore on, however, it was clear that not all shared this opinion. 
Take: There has been a lot of talk about private operation and the Class Is' willingness--or lack thereof--to reenter the game. The regional and shortline railroads get it while the bulk of the major railroads are still stuck on the status quo like the Luddites they are slowly revealing themselves to be. We are supposed to see competitive bidding, but all we get is the AAR stalling to keep things the way they are without even recognizing the business aspects of even running one or two routes in regards to Section 214 of PRIIA. 

If the Forbes article from March has any merit to it, the Big Seven have to realize that they'll be on the hook for all of Amtrak's routes should they play a role in Amtrak's demise and then turn around and keep Virgin and AIPRO members off U.S. tracks.