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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, January 24, 2012

Amtrak takes (yet) another step in the wrong direction

There are two stories from RailPAC that actually confirm that: 1) Amtrak management simply does not get it and 2) the agency is in serious danger of being left behind once true competition begins.

The first one is from the group's president while the second one points out doublespeak from a national operator that contains Northeast-centric management. 

In regards to Paul Dyson's commentary, Joe Boardman clearly has one foot out the door since he is ripping his own staff while he refuses to go after Union Pacific. It also shows that the Amtrak boss has revealed himself for what he really is--a career bureaucrat who is angling for the next available government job. Given that Amtrak doesn't really care about expanding on its own (i.e., adding non-state supported routes to the National System), it's time for the company to retire the "America's Railroad" gimmick. Let's be honest: Boardman only began using it when SNCF and JR Central drew up their own plans and posed as real threats in 2009. Even though High Speed Rail Mania is over, Amtrak has to deal with the likes of Virgin, First Group, and various AIPRO members bidding for corridor and long-distance services.

If Amtrak senior management really cared about cutting the company's costs, someone over in D.C. would have figured out a way to put rehabbed Superliners in Beech Grove, IN back into service while also adding equipment to help out the western states. It's really sad that those states are forced to supply cars for long-distance trains because the national organization is unwilling to do so.

I applaud Dyson's advocating a breakup of Amtrak for at least getting a conversation going on how to break the monopoly. Proposing a breakup of Amtrak has been dormant since 2002 when Amtrak, Congress, the Bush Administration, and rail advocates completely ignored the recommendation from the Amtrak Reform Council. The rail unions are also a part of the problem since they were on the forefront in turning back any breakup plans then and again last year when the divestment of the NEC was seriously being discussed. Just separating the long-distance network from the Northeast Corridor would produce more jobs and let the non-NEC network grow. If the private competitors are stymied by legislation and/or the FRA, this would have to be the option of last resort because people are tired of being led by the nose of an organization that pretty much says that only passengers on a 457-mile line between Washington and Boston mean anything while they are screaming for better train service in their own communities. Personally, I still think that my consortium idea would be a better fit if we are to get a national rail network going again in this country.

Not only does NARP need to be called out but so do the various organizations that hate competition because they claim to want better train service but they throw their hands up when pressed for solutions and they tend to ignore anything that is outside of the scope of Amtrak when others provide ideas.

Regarding a conspiracy: I wonder if the real conspiracy was for the feds to gauge interest from foreign and independent operators, only to pull the rug when times got rough. Such a move would then lead to the current monopoly being preserved.

Here's what the public needs to know about Russ Jackson's commentary:
  • Amtrak's so-called "aggressive agenda" is virtually centered in the NEC (where else?) with a few bones thrown in for eastern long-distance and Cascade routes (10 of the 13 listed items were NEC first or NEC only)
  • Boardman's refusal to press UP on making the Sunset Limited daily is proof enough that this route needs to be transferred pronto and that Congress has to act by letting the private sector handle other long-distance routes. It also shows that the Amtrak president/CEO is unwilling to fight the big boy railroads when the hosts' price tags are exaggerated at best and full-out extortion at worst
  • Amtrak is not interested in expansion. If anyone wants to make a claim to that giving the agency more money will make things better, I have a rail tunnel to sell you. All or almost all of the non-NEC work is coming out the pockets of one state or another
  • “One of the things I learned in the transit business before I came to Amtrak is that as I added more trains during the peak hour my losses increased. Right now, the business model that exists for long-distance trains is that as you add trains your losses increase, and that is our policy direction coming from the administration and Congress, so Amtrak believes that is achieved by rebuilding the equipment we have.” As for that quote, I have this to say: If that is true, Mr. Boardman, then your company is clearly doing something wrong. What about that record ridership that you bragged about last fall? What about the fact that western trains like the Zephyr and the Builder are so packed that people are turned away during the summer? And your organization doesn't want to make all overnight trains daily? I'm sure that someone with a better business plan could--I don't know--find a way to make a profit and add frequencies along congested routes

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Tackling the Headlines 30

Norfolk service gets moved up
Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell has announced that an Amtrak extension from Richmond to Norfolk via Petersburg will be launched by the end of this year--10 months ahead of schedule!


Take: For once, an Amtrak service is scheduled to start ahead of schedule rather than behind. While it's long overdue, there are some flaws: neighboring Suffolk will be skipped as will Richmond's Main Street Station. Also, it is still undetermined if the station in Virginia's second-largest city will be staffed.


On the bright side, the state hopes to expand to three roundtrips between Norfolk and Boston in the long term. This would mean that Amtrak's first real expansion since the '90s.


Pennsylvania city wants station
The city of Coatesville is entering negotiations with Amtrak to acquire the historic station for future redevelopment. The current facility is not up to ADA standards and Amtrak closed the station more than two decades ago.


Take: The new station will take up to three years to be completed. It's hard to believe that the current station was built in 1885 by the Pennsylvania Railroad though! I just hope that Coatesville is far more successful in redeveloping the area around its own station than what Philadelphia had to put up with surrounding the North Philadelphia station.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Random thoughts #4


  1. File this one in the "too good to be true" folder. Seven months ago, I praised the virtues of Scotrail's sleepers. However, the London-Scotland trains are in jeopardy of going away by April of 2014 once First Group's contract is up. The Scottish government is more interested in producing intra-Scotland services. What a sad situation if this holds up.
  2. This explains a lot about NARP. The group used to be aggressive, but once that 1974 court ruling was issued, it has been relegated to being a cheerleader for Amtrak and posing only a token challenge whenever Amtrak management has decided to discontinue or truncate a route.
  3. As the state of Florida continues negotiating with Amtrak over rerouting a Silver Service train, some are aghast at the reroute's increasing costs. Contrary to what I said in October 2010, the Silver Star's Orlando section would continue to use the idiotic Tampa dogleg where Trains 91 and 92 backtrack before continuing on to Miami and Jacksonville respectively. The criticism is well-founded mainly because another major hangup is that Amtrak wants the same type of no-fault liability for operating on the FEC line that it unsuccessfully sought for SunRail two years ago. The state should just go ahead and hand the route to either FEC, Veolia, or Virgin--all of whom could run the trains at a much lower cost than Amtrak. The other plus is that another operator won't shove liability demands down Floridians' throats.
  4. There's finally some recognition that business as usual is a losing strategy. The problem is that most rail experts are trapped by inside-the-box thinking. Rather than imagining a world where Amtrak has to deal with a number of qualified competitors, these experts would rather preserve the current monopoly. I hate to break it to these folks, but Amtrak management has pretty much bet its future on the Northeast Corridor, so other states will be on their own to promote train travel because future Amtrak management won't do any promotions for them. As I have said, Amtrak would be better off losing more than a few routes so it can focus on its strengths and so someone else can properly promote state-supported and overnight routes. The True Believers' favorite fallback line of why Amtrak was formed in the first place no longer applies because independent operators are chomping at Amtrak's heels, shortlines are asserting themselves with plans to run passenger trains, and PRIIA deadlines are fast approaching.
  5. If I didn't know any better, I'd say that there's been a virtual blackout of AIPRO by the people who are supposed to be representing passenger rail's best interests. I have seen very little mention in Trains Magazine (and that was via Fred Frailey's blog). Meanwhile, Railfan & Railroad and NARP have not mentioned the organization at all. NARP has been one of Amtrak's biggest cheerleaders from Day 1 so it's not surprising that it and various message boards and state advocacy groups are ignoring an organization that represents Amtrak's commuter competitors. I don't expect anything from the mainstream media, so they're excluded from this conversation. However, I do expect that the two publications of record actually tell the public that alternatives to Amtrak are on the horizon.
  6. Birmingham, AL's Railroad Park could give NYC's High Line a run for its money.



Sunday, January 8, 2012

Tackling the Headlines 29

Scotland-London high-speed rail link to get go-ahead
Take: Given that last year was horrible for fast trains, this is a fresh start--too bad it's on the other side of the Atlantic. How far this battle will go is anyone's guess since PM David Cameron's own Conservative Party is threatening to stage a mutiny over the approval.


New station for Raleigh approved by city council
Take: This is only the first of many steps but something needs to be done to ensure that residents along an emerging rail hub are provided a quality station in the decades to come.


HSR Canada provided two links on the topic of private operators as car marker Ferrari is entering the passenger train business later this year. The Reuters article is a rundown of what Italians should expect while the Environmental Blog raises the pros and cons of private high speed trains.


Take: The tribulations of 2011 demonstrate that in some instances, it's best that the companies with Express HSR expertise lead the way in providing 150+ mph service while state governments concentrate in building a consistent corridor network. Texas could be the testing ground as JR Central is planning 200+ mph service while the state could then shift its resources to building up the Texas Triangle, South Central (along the Texas Eagle route to Little Rock), and Gulf Coast (Houston-New Orleans) as productive routes.