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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, October 3, 2012

Random thoughts #8

  1. The train station boom is picking up. For once, it's nice to be discussing building up massive train stations rather than demolishing them.
  2. The sad tale of Turbo Trains from north of the border shows how different things should have been. It's worth noting that during the 1960s and '70s, Canadian National was controlled by the Ottawa government. Had the government taken the appropriate steps to own the tracks, perhaps, Canadians would be enjoying high speed rail today.
  3. The Wall Street Journal recently presided over a debate discussing the future direction of passenger rail. Even though I tend to side with Mr. Orksi over Mr. Schank, the latter made this interesting point that most rail message board people ought to take note of:"There is no inherent reason why Amtrak, a quasigovernmental agency, should have a monopoly on operating intercity passenger rail in this country. There could be benefits to inviting private operators and competition into our rail system, as evidenced by the deregulation of the trucking, rail and airline industries." Bottom line: The status quo does not work anymore.
  4. On Stephen Smith's analysis of comparing Britain and Japan's privatization plans, I will yield to him but I still have concerns about how a privatized Amtrak would look like under Romney--namely, that a government monopoly being replaced by a private monopoly. How are these other operators supposed to get a foot in the door if a Romney presidency and a Mica & Shuster-led Congress aren't going to force the Class I railroads back into carrying passengers? If Amtrak is going to be privatized without any possibility of the host railroads giving back their stock, then, independent operators must be allowed to buy pieces of a privatized Amtrak to encourage competition and to give passengers the best bang for their buck
  5. Finally, message board geeks, tell NARP and Midwest High Speed Rail that long-distance trains no longer have a purpose the next time you advocate a bunch of disconnected high speed corridors and confuse that for "progress"


  1. If labor rules were rationalized and the FRA instituted rational crash safety rules, I don't think the Class I's would be so averse to passenger rail service. (After all, the freight railroads are in the business of making money, not the business of hauling freight. If passengers make money, then they'll haul them too!)

    The FEC has more rational labor rules because of its postwar strike, and has decided to get back into passenger service even without FRA reform.

    Combine the two and I think you'd see a lot of interest among private freight carriers in running passenger service – either on their own, or allowing trackage rights to other companies. (Though my bias towards integrated railroads leads me to believe they'd run them themselves, with occasional open access/track sharing agreements, as in Japan.)

    I also think you'd see a lot more time-sensitive, faster, intermodal freight – the kind that competes with trucks, and not just bulk chemicals, crops, and natural resources – but that's a whole 'nuther topic that I'm not as confident about.

    As for private monopolies, I think this is inevitable with any vertically-integrated railroad. And I think there's enough competition from buses, cars, and trains to prevent really hardcore monopolistic behavior by railroads. (After all, passenger rail service is, for all intents and purposes, currently nonexistent outside of one or two markets…a monopoly would be a step up!)

  2. On FRA reform: It is vital since the bulky cars are proven to be an impediment. Rail advocates must make the case to Congress and the White House that the current FRA rules are onerous since neither presidential candidate has even made this an issue. If the barriers are removed then we could perhaps see the 21st century's version of Pullman.

    On labor rules: I know next to nothing about them except for the fact that Amtrak's unions went almost a decade without a contract--which in itself has me on board.