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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

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

1 comment:

  1. In other words, let's do some organizational rejiggering and privatization, without touching the FRA or the Railway Labor Act? Sounds a lot like Bush's plan, actually.