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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

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Year In Review--2012

1. Over the summer, passenger rail nearly took a massive step backwards until three toxic pieces of legislation were kept out of the final transportation bill

The deadliest of the three was Section 35601, which would have forced all non-Amtrak operators to be licensed by the Surface Transportation Board. Had the provision become law, it would have so disproportionately tilted the playing field in favor of Amtrak that it would have made the carrier once again a legislated monopoly

The September issue of Railfan & Railroad magazine outed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as the architect of the competition-killing licensing provision. Meanwhile, Senator Dick Durbin came up with Section 35207 as a supposed reaction to Representatives John Mica and Bill Shuster's failed attempt to hand the Northeast Corridor over to the USDOT. State DOTs were also upset about Section 35105, which would have let Amtrak control where newly built passenger cars built by states would go. The idea of Amtrak shuffling California Cars to the Southeast (and NC's renovated Heritage Cars [that Amtrak couldn't wait to get rid of] to the Midwest) shows how out of touch the company is because it's been slow to develop new cars on its own.

Prior to Frailey's first posting, NARP was the only group who even bothered weighing in on the three measures, and disappointingly, they supported the licensing provision. The silence from most of the rail community was deafening--and something that I will address in my next post.

All three provisions were nothing more than power grabs by Amtrak and its allies on Capitol Hill because the carrier has recently lost commuter contracts to other operators (there are also unsubstantiated rumors that the possibility of another company running the planned Chicago-Quad Cities-Omaha route was the real culprit for the three provisions). Rather than let Amtrak face competition, some Congresscritters are blindly wedded to a company that has told non-NEC states that they're mostly on their own. As a result, I commend Mica for preventing Amtrak from gaining an unfair advantage when it can probably let a few routes be operated by someone else.

2. The state of Oklahoma's negotiations with BNSF should be a template--maybe, even the template--of what other states should be doing in regards to PRIIA Section 209.

Instead of just bellyaching over how Amtrak service will come to an end next October, the states outside of the Northeast Corridor need to do their duty and find a carrier that can provide top level passenger service at the lowest cost possible since many of them are still struggling to balance their budgets. 

The Tulsa City Council's Advisory Committee was initially worried (go to pages 10-12) that BNSF would only allow Amtrak to operate the route since the Class I railroad owns the tracks between Sapulpa and the state capital. The committee did its homework by contacting the AIPRO, and one operator was ecstatic about the possibility of running trains there.

As long as passenger operators are allowed to compete on a level playing field, states will be able to fairly weigh the costs of operating a new route or adding frequencies on existing ones by more than one company. In 2009, Amtrak was criticized by some in the rail community for providing extremely high costs to run new service in places like Ohio. The national carrier should be on notice that if its costs are too high, states may turn to somebody who could run the trains at a lower cost (Tulsa got a lower estimate from the AIPRO member). 


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Peach State Ramblings: Atlanta's Dilemma

Recently, there has been a lot of back and forth over whether Amtrak would do a back up move into the proposed Multi-Modal Passenger Terminal in downtown Atlanta (hint: the carrier is resistant to the idea). Within the last week, it has been revealed that Amtrak may move from its current location on Peachtree Street to a new site near Atlantic Station at the corner of 17th Street and Northside Drive--about a mile southwest of the current station. All parties--Amtrak, the state of Georgia, and Norfolk Southern--want a new station. 

There are many reasons why the three parties want Amtrak to leave Peachtree Station: 

  • The carrier wants to cut off/add cars on the Crescent but NS won't let them do it there
  • The current facility is overcrowded 
  • Parking is off-limits (passengers have to use a nearby Masonic temple because the parking lot has been condemned)
  • Peachtree Station was opened in 1918 by Southern Railway as a suburban station (it became the last station standing in 1972 when Terminal Station was demolished and Georgia Railroad moved its station to its freight yard)
  • NS trains have to stop whenever Amtrak is at the station since there are only two mainline tracks and a third track to nowhere
  • The costs of bringing the current facility up to ADA standards far outweigh the benefits
  • The elevator is small and slow while the stairs are steep

Atlantic Station vs the MMPT
For once, Amtrak has shown the willingness to take the initiative outside of the Northeast Corridor. Development will be around the new station as Atlantic Station demonstrates. Greyhound and possible mass transit could complement Amtrak. However, there is just one problem: While passengers could transfer to downtown trains at a proposed suburban station in Doraville, Amtrak passengers would not be able to connect with other routes, assuming that they will be operated by someone else.

Meanwhile in downtown Atlanta, the MMPT (120 acres vs over 12 for the new Amtrak station) would host SEHSR to Charlotte and Jacksonville, Gulf Coast routes, a future revival of the Nancy Hanks route to Savannah, proposed commuter rail routes, streetcars, MARTA, and bus service.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Tackling the Headlines 45


Service could be returning to BC

Service on Vancouver Island has been inactive for months due to bad tracks.
Take: Given Via's recent moves, letting the new owner operate the route is not a bad idea at all.

Oh, Wanderu

The startup company has enlisted former Greyhound and Priceline executives as advisers.
Take: The bus thing is fine but they should wait until there are more rail operators because the only state where this idea would work is New York in interlining Amtrak with Saratoga & North Creek at Saratoga Springs.

Virgin Trains to operate West Coast Line until 2014

A new deal was just inked.
Take: Even more evidence that the British government messed up the allocation of this route big time.

Tucson’s airport wants in on the action

The airport is really adamant about being included in the state's plan.
Take: As an era of modal cooperation takes hold, rail-airport links will become more vital than ever.

Tackling the Headlines 44



The Maple Leaf will continue to run

After much worrying about Canadian National's plan to abandon a bridge in Niagara Falls, the NFBC will now own the bridge, the Maple Leaf should continue running.

Take: Hopefully, this move will lead to more innovative services.

Revived service to Roanoke by 2018?

Leaders want the service, but funding is an obstacle--not to mention that Virginia will have to deal with the fallout of PRIIA Section 209, which may or not result in the popular and profitable Lynchburg service having to be subsidized.  

Take: The sooner the service can be reinstated, the better.

Additional Vermont service by 2017

The Green Mountain State plans to provide train service to Burlington via Rutland in five years.

Take: Yet another proactive state.


No HSR in FL? No problem

A regional planning group in the Tampa area is exploring the possibility of having commuter service along the I-4 corridor between Orlando and Tampa--by extending SunRail.

Take #1: Whether the end result is truly an extended SunRail route or a Tampa area commuter route that merely connects to SunRail, this innovative thinking may lead to a Florida-wide passenger system that provides Floridians an alternative to crowded Amtrak trains and the upcoming All Aboard Florida service that will skip smaller cities.

Take #2: An extended SunRail should be the template that produces a statewide system for other states because existing tracks would be used, and there would be supporting commuter rail lines in heavily populated areas. I'm thinkg about a statewide SunRail system that is subdivided into Intercity and Commuter/Regional services.

Take #3: This move would solve the "Orlando problem" surrounding AAF's route. As it stands now, FEC's passenger outfit would serve the airport rather than downtown. However, SunRail plans to provide a connection to the airport. The WCFMPO proposal would negate any need by AAF to extend northward into town since this mega SunRail route would already do the trick.

Take #4: Since we are likely talking about existing tracks between Orlando and Tampa, it is very possible that the old Lakeland station could be reopened for commuter use since AAF would more than likely use the pathway that was intended for the failed FL HSR project.