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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). 

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