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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

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.


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