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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, November 10, 2012

Rail and the 2012 Election Part 2

PRIIA Section 209

Whether we get meaningful reform or no reform at all will be determined by this time in 2016 but a more imminent issue will affect the world of intercity rail: How will states pay for corridors? This particular section of the 2008 law mandates that all non-NEC corridors will have to be paid full cost by the states by next October.

The horror stories have slowly trickled out. So far, the fretting has come from areas that either have gotten a free ride from Amtrak or routes that are considered to be part of the Amtrak system. I have to openly wonder if the rail community or states ever paid attention to this provision. Instead of whining about having to pay up next fall, states ought to look at the competition provision that allows them to bid their routes to other operators. If they do this, then it may cost less for someone else to run the service.

FRA reform

Neither Obama nor Romney brought it up during the presidential campaign but reforming the FRA is imperative during the president's second term. If Mica hasn't already brought it up in the last 20 months, then he needs to during one his last three hearings during the lame duck session because the Federal Railroad Administration is broken.

Let me count the ways on how the agency's become burdensome:

  • The Greenbrier Express fiasco
  • Drama with Talgo dating back to the turn of the millennium
  • Playing favorites when it comes to states selecting railcars

If Caltrain can get a waiver and successfully demonstrate that lighter equipment can make it here in America, why can't the FRA get with the program and curb the requirement that trains have to resemble tanks?

Some railfans have defended the agency's actions--some have even used 9/11 to justify the bulky equipment--but Stephen Smith, Paul Druce, Drunk Engineer, and Alon Levy have all refuted such nonsense. If the White House and Congress fail to change the FRA's methods, we will continue to have mediocre to poor rail service with oversized vehicles.

The rail community's strategy

Now is the time to not just support Amtrak but to embrace all companies who want to provide intercity service in America. Since high speed rail is at best on hold, the focus should be on rebuilding our intercity rail system (i.e., the long-distance routes), making sure that corridors are operated at the lowest cost possible since many states continue to face budget deficits, and being open to entrepreneurial approaches.

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