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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, 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.