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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? 

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