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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, December 18, 2013

Alternative history #5

Scenario
A Lower Manhattan train station is built

Point of Departure
Early 20th century

Storyline A (assumes that Amtrak was formed)
No Amtrak trains have ever stopped at Fulton Street Station. Instead, passengers rely on seamless transfers between New Jersey Transit and Long Island Railroad trains, some of which also provide through service. It is due to this synergy that Penn Station is not overcrowded. In 2008, FSS got a grand steal when it lured Knicks/Rangers/Liberty owner James Dolan to relocate to the Lower Manhattan station after its overhaul.

Storyline B (assumes that a Ripley-like consolidation plan was implemented)
None of Manhattan’s stations were ever at risk of being demolished because Fulton Street isn’t as fancy as its Midtown rivals while the Ripley Plan allowed Penn and Grand Central to both find some serious non-rail uses that made their facilities useful between the 1960s and ‘90s. 

Both Storylines
The Fulton Street Station is the main station for the LIRR, DL&W and the Erie Railroad. Pennsylvania Railroad and New York Central send commuter trains down Manhattan to FSS. A Manhattan-Staten Island tunnel makes Staten Island more transit oriented. The Lackawanna and Erie jointly build the tunnel. 

The Baltimore & Ohio builds its own tunnel to FSS in 1925 to compete against the Pennsylvania Railroad (unlike the other railroads serving the station, the B&O’s tracks are stub-ended and are a level below because the B&O stops in Jersey City while the DL&W and Erie serve Hoboken). The B&O-PRR competition along the Northeast Corridor means that the Atlantic Coast Line is able to sever connections with PRR in D.C. once the B&O is acquired in 1958 by the ACL. 


Today’s Likely Outcome
The Second Avenue Subway would be up and running because either Metro North or New York Central and PRR trains would have provided enough north-south service for western and central Manhattan, and city officials would have then had to worry about the eastern portion. The Staten Island tunnel would have eventually led to light rail being built on SI.



Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Tackling the Headlines 58

CAHSR gets treated like a yo-yo

Take: These recent moves are setbacks for the project, but the project will continue--just in a compressed amount of time.


Dallas-Houston HSR train could be running by 2020

Take: The idea that they could get this finished before the first leg of the California project is quite astonishing.


Rail fix on track for 2015 passenger service

Take #1: A parallel route to the current Vermonter should pave the way for the Montrealer's revival and the possibility of eventually having three or four frequencies between Springfield and St. Albans would really make the Knowledge Corridor live up to its name.

Take #2: This also comes with a bit of bad news: Amherst would be replaced by a bus. This is primarily due to the fact that the Central Corridor did not receive any TIGER funding earlier this year. It's also worth pointing out that the New London-Brattleboro corridor is still being negotiated between the CT DOT and the NECR while the MA DOT is conducting a feasibility study on the corridor. While it's possible for an NECR shuttle train between Amherst and Brattleboro to supersede the bus, who knows when the NECR would be able to start full service between Brattleboro and New London?

Take: Is this thing on? Okay, Florida DOT officials, this is yet another community that is expressing an interest in operating some type of passenger service. Governor Scott and ex-Governor Crist need to get this point: The DOT needs to stop dragging its feet and produce its own intercity rail system! 

The current DOT boss is waiting to see how successful the privately operated All Aboard Florida service is before committing to intrastate service. Instead of being completely reactive, Tallahassee needs to grow a spine before it has a mess on its hands--a series of disjointed or ill-timed commuter routes, spotty Amtrak service, and privately run FEC-AAF trains that skip small towns. 

I'm not saying that that Amtrak should operate this system. If anything, Amtrak should only operate the East Coast route between Jacksonville and Miami as the "local stops" alternative to All Aboard Florida's initial service and northern extension that will end up as "express services." Florida has been innovative before, and it should be innovative once again. Contact Richard Branson, Bombardier, and the AIPRO and let them bid for the other corridors (including the "suspended" leg of the Sunset Limited and the S-Line route Amtrak foolishly abandoned nine years ago).

Transit experts: Orange, Durham not ready for light rail

Take: These "experts" primarily focused on neighboring Wake County and only made a passing judgment on the other two counties. Durham and Orange Counties got their act together while Wake fell behind due to the Tea Party backlash of 2010. 

Advocating for better rail service

Take: Canada's clearly in worse shape than America. People here wonder what would happen if Amtrak only operated the Northeast Corridor and a few other routes. Via Rail Canada is the lab rat since it's primarily focusing on the Montreal-Toronto corridor. If residents along the affected portion of Via's recent cuts band together, then they could form a coalition so someone else can operate trains to their communities. Otherwise, the Wilner Plan would be more applicable (and appropriate) to Via Rail than Amtrak.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Alternative History #4

Scenario
Congress reluctantly decides to pay the 26 Class I railroads still running passenger trains rather than setting up Amtrak

Point of Departure
1970

Storyline
The funded routes get added frequencies over time--mostly after the Staggers Rail Act . That same 1980 law included a special provision that transferred corridors from the railroads to the states. Four years earlier, the Ford Administration ordered the USDOT to own the Northeast Corridor.

Today’s Likely Outcome
The only corridors anyone talks about are the long distance routes with multiple frequencies as the short distance routes are essentially nothing more than enhanced commuter rail routes that have been extended. There would have been little need for PRIIA because recent profits and enhancements to passenger service have drastically reduced the amount of subsidies Congress gives the Class I railroads.

Federal ownership results in the 457-mile Boston-to-Washington route means that improvements are done much faster. Tunnels, bridges, and tracks are rehabilitated and electrification are indications of what government can do.

Alternative History #3

Scenario
The Santa Fe and the Seaboard Coast Line join Southern, the Rio Grande, Rock Island and Georgia Railroad in holding out of Amtrak

Point of Departure
1971

Storyline

And Then There Were Two

Even as Southern and the Rio Grande join Amtrak, the ATSF and the renamed Seaboard System refuse to give in during the early 1980s. The two railroads continue to take pride in their passenger trains. CSX even names its subdivision for north-south routes after the Seaboard Air Line (later, east-west routes are part of the Chesapeake-Baltimore & Ohio Subdivision named after the C&O and B&O respectively).

The Seaboard Subdivision's effectiveness and BNSF's passenger expansion plans in the late 00's lead to some of the other Class I railroads to seriously ponder reentering the passenger business. 

Because neither BNSF nor CSX abandons routes where passenger service is prevalent, lower priority routes are handled differently. BNSF gives the Raton Pass and Mountain Range Routes to a coalition headed by Genesee & Wyoming (the move was first proposed by the acquired Rail America in 2010) and the Association of Independent Passenger Rail Operators, which outbid Iowa Pacific Holdings in late 2012 (the deal also includes a route that stretches between Denver and Albuquerque).


The Southeast Becomes a Rail Leader

The Southeast Rail Coalition is formed in the late 1980s to promote expanded passenger rail in the region. The pact is composed of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. The basis for the SERC stemmed from the S-Line not having enough daylight trains between Richmond and Jacksonville rather than CSX's coincidental plans on making the A-Line its primary north-south route. It's due to this arrangement that certain small towns along the S-Line continue to have train service today.


Amtrak's Role in the South

The Floridian is reinstated in the 1980s by Graham Claytor because he realizes that Midwestern travelers need a route to the Sunshine State. The route is different, though: Chicago-Cincinnati-Atlanta-Savannah-Jacksonville-Tampa/Miami (a second roundtrip was added in 1989 but was eliminated in 1997 as a victim of the Mercer Cuts, and a 2009 feasibility study to restore the second frequency goes nowhere). Amtrak's services in Virginia and the Auto Train exist as they do in our timeline except that the Cardinal is daily because enough equipment is available. Amtrak also has a daytime Chicago-Nashville route.


Another Path For the Carolinian

The Carolinian is launched in 1984 but connects with a re-timed Colonial in Richmond instead of the Palmetto. During the hiatus, a disagreement erupts over routing. When it restarts in 1990, the Carolinian is composed of two Raleigh-Asheville frequencies with one of them splitting in Salisbury to continue to Charlotte. Another restructuring in 1995 leads to the Charlotte leg being renamed the Piedmont and its own frequency.


Stations

Raleigh: The Carolinian (both incarnations--backup moves were done when the train went all the way to Boston) has served the Southern Railway depot on West Cabarrus Street from the outset while CSX trains continue to serve the Semart Street station. However, a unified station only began construction this year after years of disagreements among the rail operators, SERC's SEHSR leaders and the city over things like station location and size (CSX decided to move to another location because it cost much more to modernize the SAL location when it had already expanded it twice).

Richmond: Amtrak builds Staples Mill Road Station and only stops there. CSX trains stop at the Broad Street Station, which is a major hub. Main Street Station is home to various non-rail business uses and is also a historic landmark.

Atlanta: Amtrak left the Peachtree Station in the early 1990s for a new location on 17th Street that serves both the Crescent and the Floridian. For a while, a special stop for the Floridian was located north of town. Today, CSX, SERC and SEHSR trains stop at a downtown location near the old Terminal Station that is being expanded for multimodal use.

Jacksonville: Amtrak is the only occupant of the Clifford Lane station in Jacksonville as other operators serve the Union Terminal. 

Orlando: An Amshack is built on Sand Lake Road in the '70s. During Sunrail construction, passengers temporarily use the Sanford Auto Train terminal. The new Sand Lake Road Station is large enough to accompany Sunrail as well as Amtrak.

Tampa-St. Pete: The St. Petersburg ACL station's days are numbered as CSX and FL DOT are in the process of building a downtown multimodal center to provide expanded access. Meanwhile, Amtrak opted to terminate a portion of the Floridian at Tampa Union Station, which was the only station in the state that was jointly shared by it and the SCL/Seaboard System/CSX between 1974 and the recent rail revival.

Miami: The old SAL station was used by CSX and FL DOT until the Miami Intermodal Center opened in 2008 (Amtrak used its current station as in OTL). Due to frequent communication by the state and the host railroad, there were no platform or traffic issues with the trains entering or exiting the station (a bridge with NW 25th Street over the tracks was built). Today, all operators except All Aboard Florida stop at the station near the airport.

Other Florida cities: Amtrak stops at Sanford Sunrail, Alamonte Springs, Starke, Bushnell, Lake Worth, downtown Lakeland, and all Tri-Rail stations except Delray Beach. Okeechobee is only served by FL DOT trains.

Galesburg, IL: Amtrak serves the S. Seminary Street station for the California Zephyr and the Carl Sandburg/Illinois Zephyr routes while BNSF still stops at the N. Broad Street station because there is no rerouting for any trains following the merger between the Santa Fe and Burlington Northern.

Today’s Likely Outcome
Norfolk Southern is largely responsible for Section 214 of PRIIA being much tougher in favor of competition because its management team envied BNSF and CSX for running viable passenger trains during the mid-2000s.  

NCDOT won stimulus funding for Charlotte Gateway Station and SEHSR in 2009. Gateway Station recently celebrated its first year anniversary.

Competitive bidding leads to Amtrak operating fewer routes outside of the Northeast and even being challenged by CSX--which promotes Grand Central Terminal heavily--on the Empire Corridor.

After Amtrak couldn't give CSX a concrete answer on when it would resume service on the New Orleans-Orlando portion of the Sunset Limited, the host railroad took it upon itself to restore the missing link in 2007. Today, the route is daily and extends to Miami, leading to an A-Line frequency being rerouted to the S-Line by FL DOT (local Pensacola-Jacksonville runs were added in 2009 and this past January).

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Alternative History #2

Scenario
Railroads adopt the Ripley Plan--or are forced to accept regional consolidation

Point of Departure
1920-70

Storyline
A new bill passes Congress in 1925 to lift the most burdensome regulations.The Transportation Act of 1920 meant that tracks were obliged to carry heavy volume without much attention to replacement or maintenance. However, the 1925 bill puts the ICC in a position to make sure that the tracks are well-maintained (this is later transferred to the USDOT). In 1933, regional consolidation is mandated by both Congress and the new Roosevelt Administration in an effort to encourage further efficiency.


As the Interstate Highway System gets going in the early 1960s, the 21 regional railroads start merging. Prior to the effort to stay ahead of the taxpayer subsidized superhighways, the Class I railroads gradually formed seamless north-south and east-west systems by using gentlemen's agreements, but these systems became ironclad by 1966.

The Rail Deregulation Act of 1970 lifts the remaining burdens that were hung on the railroads a half century earlier. President Nixon also funds a selected number of intercity routes because completely nationalizing passenger service was deemed impractical. During this low point of rail travel, only the federally subsidized routes make any kind of a profit.

Today’s Likely Outcome

The Railroads Today

Twenty-one railroads are down to nine big railroads. As more states got interested in providing corridor service, the Class Is got Congress to pass the Rail and Corridor Reform Act of 1997, which transferred most short-distance routes less than 500 miles from the railroads to a state or group of states (in 2008, PRIIA increased the length to 750 miles to accompany the various regional pacts).

This was the ultimate win-win situation because the Class Is shed their money losing corridors and commuter routes to focus on their bread and butter, the overnight trains. Meanwhile, the states won because prior to the R&CRA, most of the overnight trains stopped in major metropolitan areas in the middle of the night--presumably to provide smaller cities and towns in less densely populated states with more marketable times.

Largely due to unconventional means, the railroads no longer need a subsidy from the federal government to make a profit.

The Big Picture

The commuter trains and corridors are run via contracts just as they are in our timeline. The corridors are given names of the Class I railroads that were absorbed into the major railroads (e.g. Pacific Northwest service between Vancouver, BC and Eugene is broken into the Spokane, Portland & Seattle and Oregon Electric routes respectively). The regional pacts are broken into the following: Northeast, Midwest, Southeast, South Central, West, and West Coast and are protected German-style.

Auto-Train Corporation still operates in the same time frame as it did in the official timeline, however, the Class I railroads didn't get serious about auto-ferrying service until gas prices shot up in 2005. Within three years, no fewer than five railroads have joined the Atlantic Coast Line in providing this type of service.

Historic stations in Jacksonville, Buffalo, Detroit, and Chicago are still serving trains today with some of them having new lives as Auto Rail USA terminals. Cleveland Union Terminal and St. Louis Union Station are complemented as shopping centers and hotels rather than having been converted for such uses.

Electrification is in vogue again as some railroads are now developing high speed systems. The New York Central completed its Water Level Route electrification three years ago while the Milwaukee Road's decision to remain electrified in 1974 serves it well as it strives to finish electrification to Seattle Union Station by year's end--nine months ahead of schedule.

Meanwhile, the other railroads have decided to separate freight and passenger trains by building an interstate rail system where the passenger lines will be electrified, double tracked and run with lighter equipment and the freight lines continue to operate as they normally do.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Tackling the Headlines 57

Southwest Chief latest

Earlier this week, Amtrak told New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas that in order to keep the Southwest Chief on the current Raton Pass Route, they have to pay up. BNSF doesn't want to pay to upgrade the route between a junction south of Albuquerque and Newton, KS. If nothing happens, Amtrak will reroute the Chief to serve destinations like Amarillo, TX and Wichita.

Take #1: This is extortion--plain and simple! Amtrak knows that it should not be forcing the states to pay for intercity service. It looks to me that Amtrak is doing to the Mountain States--and the Gulf States four years ago--what Union Pacific did to it in early 2009 with that preposterous $750 million ransom to convert the Sunset Limited to daily service.


Take #2: The possibility of the Southwest Chief being rerouted in 2016 is partially the feds' fault because they took an eternity to just follow Section 214 of PRIIA. I have been a strong advocate of this provision because Amtrak needed (and still needs) a strong kick in the pants. Long story short, the FRA should have forced bidding on the long distance routes so other companies could present their case to drastically improve the national train system over what we have today. The provision expired last month along with the rest of the 2008 law.


Take #3: If the FRA, the USDOT and anyone else in Washington really care about passenger train travel, this is the time to show the American public what they are made of. 


My recommendations are as follows: First, pass a brand new rail reauthorization bill that mandates a competitive process for the overnight trains. Second, either the FRA or the USDOT should take over the nearly 700-mile stretch of track and redevelop it over a long period of time. Finally, get the Association of Independent Passenger Rail Operators and the shortline/regional holding companies involved. Let the AIPRO entities or the shortlines carry people while the holding companies haul goods. 


What Amtrak then does with a rerouted Chief afterwards will be up to Boardman or his successor.



The Vegas X-Train waves the white flag

Las Vegas Railway Express, also known as the X-Train, has given up its efforts to provide service between Metro Los Angeles and Las Vegas. CEO Michael Barron is now pushing Amtrak to restore the Desert Wind route.

Take #1: Good luck with trying to get Amtrak to restore even the Los Angeles-Las Vegas portion of the route. There has been nothing but talk on that front since 1997. 


Take #2: And then there were two. Paul Druce covered Vegas X-Train's financial troubles in March and was more than vindicated.


Take #3: Like I said back in April, the Pullman Palace Car Company knows something that we don't know.



European competition part 1

Hong Kong-based MTR is expanding its services in Sweden as it goes from solely operating Stockholm's Metro to also competing against the national operator on the Stockholm-Goteborg route.

Take #1: Hey, even in an egalitarian society like Sweden, the government has no problem with letting others face off against its own operator. This should be a lesson for all of you True Believers who continue to fear or ignore independent operators.


Take #2: MTR Express's vehicles kind of fall in line with what happens when more than one company runs trains along any given route--lots of equipment creativity.



European competition part 2

Things have gotten nasty in Italy between state-owned Trenitalia and the Ferrari-owned NTV, which operates the Italo.

Take: Italy shows that any country that plans on providing competition needs to have a concrete plan in place. Since the government didn't do this, Trenitalia is resorting to monopolistic tactics and sabotage, and it also shows that as bad as Amtrak's complacency has been towards other operators, it's worse in Italy.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Alternative History #1

Scenario
Rather than monopolizing their respective regions, the southern railroads and the coastal titans join forces to keep the rivalry going

Point of Departure
The 1960s

Storyline A
Southern and SAL merge into Southern & Seaboard while the ACL and N&W become the Norfolk Coast Line. Both merged entities operate a handful of trains during rail's dark days. North Carolina's subsidization of the Carolinian (Charlotte-Greensboro-Raleigh Semart Street-Henderson-Petersburg-Richmond Main Street [S&S returned to Main Street in 1971, leaving NCL at Broad Street]-Washington) leads to a networked Southeastern Rail System by 2010 and serves as the template for how states provide intercity corridors. Virginia's subsidizes routes with both the S&S and the NCL. Both railroads own 50% of the RF&P when that railroad decides to hang it up in 1991.

Storyline B
Atlantic Southern and Seaboard & Western are the merged railroads. The Atlantic Southern builds a line parallel to I-95 when the Seaboard & Western buys the RF&P. Both the ASR and the S&W stay out of Amtrak and produce long distance corridors via their redevelopment plans.

Both Storylines
Both merged railroads continue to be competitive with each other in Florida--and there are no track abandonments or reductions that affect passenger traffic. However, the FL DOT was a bit upset with the railroads in the 1990s because there weren't enough day trains. A compromise was worked out in 1996 to provide corridor service to fill in the missing gaps.

The Chessie System is absorbed into Conrail in 1990, resulting in three Class I railroads in the Eastern U.S. today.

Today’s Likely Outcome
Amtrak is reduced to one route in Virginia--a daily New York-Chicago Cardinal--and has no presence in Florida, Georgia or the Carolinas due to the efficiency and commitment of the railroads. The FL DOT picked up the tab for Sunset East route after Hurricane Katrina. Herzog worked out a deal to operate the service. As for high speed service in Florida, it is never brought up after the Florida Rail System trains began operation in late 1997.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Social networking

I have joined Google Plus. Anyone who has an account or plans to get one, here's my page. Over there, I plan to:
  • Expand on blog posts. I will provide additional input on my posts if I feel that the topic is very important.
  • Provide more personal views on rail topics. I also plan to provide my ideas on how passenger rail in America can be made better.
  • Deal with news as it breaks. This could save me from posting others' blog entries and providing too little of an opinion. I will also deal with more local issues like streetcars and light rail--areas I have given little or no coverage.
  • React to other viewpoints. If there is anyone who defends the status quo, I plan to refute it if the circumstances warrant me to do so.
  • Provide random thoughts on issues that are too short for posts. This will allow me to retire the random thoughts blog entries as I have sometimes waited weeks to provide my opinion on stories that fade out of the public's view.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Section 209

On Tuesday, Indiana became the 19th and final state agency to reach an agreement with Amtrak to pay more to keep the Hoosier State running. 

The provision in the 2008 law known as PRIIA Section 209 was the source of consternation for many state agencies and rail advocacy groups alike but it allows all states operating routes shorter than 750 miles to pay their fair share. Up until this month, Michigan and New York didn't have to pay a penny for Wolverines or Empire Service because Amtrak deemed both corridors as part of its system.

Time to Rant

Throughout the year, I have been keeping tabs on how the states would handle the October 1 deadline, and it appears to me that the states took it much better than the people who are supposed to represent train travel or the media.

This is what I read:
·         Washington State seriously considered cutting Cascades #513 & #516 back to Bellingham nearly two years after those two trains kept the Vancouver, BC portion that was tantamount to pulling teeth with the BC government in 2010 and ‘11
·         Conflicting reports during the last two weeks in August over whether the PA DOT had actually reached a deal with Amtrak to keep the Pennsylvanian running
·         Newspaper article after newspaper article detailing how all of these routes would go away on October 1 if the state in question didn't reach an agreement with Amtrak
·         Most members of the rail community acting like it was Amtrak or bust when actual options are available for most of the state agencies—i.e. any corridor that’s outside of the Wolverine and Empire Corridors

Outside of Indiana’s Hoosier State, all of this worrying was unnecessary and shows how wedded to Amtrak most members of the rail community really are when they should be advocating improved passenger service with as many entities the U.S. can bear.

The October Trains Magazine article went into detail about Section 209, but Bob Johnston also neglected to mention the possibility of competitors scooping in and replacing Amtrak as the operator of choice in these states. As a matter of fact, the AIPRO has spent the better part of the last 2 ½ years trying to get anyone who cares about train travel to listen and any politician in D.C. to pay attention to Section 214, which allows competition. As a matter of fact, one of its members expressed an interest in running California and Midwest routes. 

Johnston then went on to mention that as of July, none of the states had signed a contract with Amtrak for the new fiscal year (that number went up to seven a month ago  and up to 16 two weeks ago). Based on that Trains article, an Amtrak critic was right when he predicted the huge price increases for states that continue to contract their services out to Amtrak—which turned out to be all of them. 

California paid an extra $19 million for all three of its routes while Virginia’s Lynchburg extension of the Northeast Corridor went from making a surplus to “providing a significant subsidy” to Amtrak (as Johnston pointed out). I’m pretty sure that Veolia would have been able to save the Golden State tens of millions (nine figure savings=profit) if someone in Sacramento had taken the initiative to speak to the independent operator. As for VA, I’m at a loss for words since its (now former) money making route is attached to Amtrak’s spine (aka the Northeast Corridor).

In the end, the states played it safe rather than being bold—no one wanted to be the first state to dump Amtrak in favor of another operator. Perhaps, this is based on what happened to one of them a decade ago. 

Based on the states agreeing to stick with the status quo, additional frequencies and extended service will likely be subject to controversial Amtrak feasibility studies which will be time consuming and result in the states forking out even more money to the national carrier. The chief problem will be with the state DOTs who may get tired of spending lots of money to Amtrak and begin looking elsewhere if the economy doesn't pick up.

Ironically, states with sparse passenger train service or none at all may end up as the big winners because they have a template of what to expect from Amtrak so they could then choose to lease their routes out to independent operators as the demand grows. Ten years from now, All Aboard Florida could be such a success that the FL DOT provides corridor service with an AIPRO member or another non-Amtrak entity while historic leaders like Washington and Oregon could stagnate or become laggards due to them paying extra to Amtrak and those costs busting their states' budgets.

All of this inside the box thinking by True Believers and state DOTs cannot hide the fact that the old one size fits all, solo entity model is crumbling and it’s best that they come to terms with multiple entities—just like how trains are operated in places like the UK, Germany, Sweden and Japan. The pendulum has swung back in this direction because people are once again demanding top notch train travel. I will say that I am one of the very few people in the reform Amtrak camp who opposes the company being abolished, so if anyone thinks that I am harsh to the company, check out almost anyone else who wants an end to the passenger rail monopoly and you will quickly realize that I am being quite generous with my statements calling the company out on its complacency.

What Now?

Now that the federal government has yet again averted a major crisis, Congress needs to work on a rail reauthorization bill that not only encourages competition but mandates it. I would suggest that separate bidding procedures are set up for corridors and long distance service so there is no confusion on which routes are up for bid whatsoever.


In any case, these new operating agreements could turn out to be nothing more than one to three year extensions which could allow states to talk to other operators and subsequently ink deals with them. Older members of Amtrak’s management team are genuinely afraid of other operators running existing routes because there’s the potential for a domino effect that could lead to Amtrak only operating Midwest and Northeast routes outside of the National System (i.e. the long distance routes). Once these operating agreements expire over the next three years, the next Amtrak president will need to figure out which (non-NEC) routes it should focus on and which routes would be better off with someone else.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Tackling the Headlines 56

Mexico to tender $7.4 billion in passenger train projects in 2014
Take: They're getting serious. Hopefully, the political situation will improve enough to provide connecting train service to the U.S.

The Adirondack Scenic Railroad saga takes an ugly turn
Take: When it comes to the fight to just preserve the tracks on the right of way, it is way beyond preposterous that a loud group of people who are having a hard time masking their hatred of trains. The sabotaging of the railroad's property and locomotive show how low some northern New Yorkers are willing to go just to turn perfect rail pathway into a trail very few people will use.

Bad news for anyone who hates passenger rail competition
Take: While the Labour Party could very well return to the topic of re-nationalizing passenger rail in the future, they aren't going to touch it when Brits have other more important topics on their minds. Mr. Lodge points out how the arguments True Believers use are very misleading. America would be wise to learn from Britain's mistakes once Congress finally gets around to addressing passenger competition as part of a new rail bill.

Passenger excursions along a part of the old Seaboard route
Take: If these excursions prove to be a hit, then, it could lead to something much bigger.

More All Aboard Florida news
Take #1: Now, it's time for the construction to get started, and hopefully, I will be one of AAF's first passengers in two years' time.

Take #2: Tampa officials need to understand that Jacksonville is naturally on the FEC route and that it only makes sense for AAF to look northward not westward once the trains are up and running. However, that doesn't mean that Tampa shouldn't get a look from the fledgling passenger entity. Perhaps, there will be some commuter option that eventually stretches into St. Petersburg as part of a future deal to provide that area with intercity service. Of course, there is always the possibility that state of Florida gets off its high horse and provides California-style corridor service that may not require AAF at all.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Principle of Mediocrity

One of the biggest things holding passenger rail advocates back is a Principle of Mediocrity mindset where rail advocates are forever stuck in a 1970s mindset where passenger trains are always one step away from vanishing forever.

Exhibit A was Evan Stair's mind-numbing defense of the way Amtrak does business and NARP's passiveness while falsely suggesting that URPA has no solutions when in fact its spokespeople have provided plenty of solutions that are routinely ignored by the mainstream media (if some of these regional and state rail advocacy groups had actually forced Amtrak to adopt the "matrix theory," then the company may have more than a skeletal system today).

Exhibit B: The profit question will be left to the private operators, but is worth noting that other systems in the world do make money, so the mantra of "passenger rail isn't/can't be/won't be profitable" is absolutely false. Yet any talk about profitability and private operations will lead back to Wall Street CEOs who were rewarded for ruining their companies by getting huge raises. Such incidents are only indicative of those companies who don't really care about their customers because responsible companies do not allow their leaders to do greedy things. In other words, profit and private operators are not dirty words at all.

Exhibit C is the numerous people in the rail community who either incapable or unwilling to realize that running trains are part of a business and not a political guinea pig. The main reason why Amtrak was created was due to the federal government first placing burdens on the railroads during WWI and never lifting said burdens after that war ended. The famous 1959 Trains Magazine article "Who Shot the Passenger Train" further spells this out. If the burdensome regulations had been lifted by the end of WWII, the impact of the Interstate Highway System and airline travel may have been less damaging to both the freight and passenger industries.

Exhibit D: It's one thing for someone over the age of 40 to bemoan over lost routes but for anyone under that age to do it and not produce any type of solution is beyond ridiculous. The older people get a pass because of things like NARP's battle with Amtrak.

The bottom line is that the rail community has had a survivor mindset since the late 1960s. As a matter of fact, 2009 and 2010 were the only two years of the Amtrak era where rail advocates were in a real expansionist mindset due to the stimulus-fueled HSR chase (when Graham Claytor ran Amtrak, he had to deal with fiercely anti-Amtrak Reagan and Bush 41, who merely tolerated him). Even though we don't expect to see any European-style high speed rail outside of California, there is genuine interest in passenger rail by entities other than Amtrak.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Tackling the Headlines 55

More curveballs in the Pine Tree State

Just when it looked as though passenger rail was entering a stage of stagnancy in Maine, these reports seemed to contradict previous stories.

Take: Two, count 'em, two operators who want to provide Montreal service are not waiting for D.C. to hand out more money to passenger rail. Given that they would operate at opposite ends of the day means that Northern New England travelers will have a really interesting choice that doesn't even involve the federally designated Boston-Montreal HSR corridor that will serve the heart of New Hampshire.

Raleigh gets $10 million federal grant to help build Union Station

Take: It's better than nothing--and the Amshack idea that was floating around early summer.

Orange Blossom Express update

It seems that Orlando's other commuter train service will take longer to launch.

Take: I thought that the railroad responsible for eventually dispatching the trains would have its ducks in a row.

Rail advocacy in Ontario

Three areas in Ontario--the northern, eastern (operating as one) and southwestern regions--that have seen passenger service reduced or eliminated have developed advocacy groups to promote increased train travel.

Take: This is a good idea given the negative impact of Canadian train service at the national and provincial levels over the last 15 months.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Hoosier State Debate: Who's Right?

Recently, I stumbled unto a debate over the future of the Hoosier State in regards to the PRIIA Section 209 provision that forces states to pick up the tab for routes that are less than 750 miles long. The Lafayette Journal-Courier column is calling for a more proactive role while the NARP Blog response says that playing defense is a better ploy.

Journal-Courier
If Lafayette has to sit through one more wistful trip down memory lane about passenger rail, dripping with images of porters, whistle-stops and relatives waving farewell at the station with their handkerchiefs, we’re all going to lose it.
Mr. Bangert's "memory lane" reference makes passenger sound like an outdated mode of travel when it has, in fact, made a bit of a comeback.

Don’t pound the lectern demanding some dusty right to passenger rail. Get in there and pound the table for better service. His upshot: Simply subsidize the Hoosier State in its current condition, and it will fail; improve the Hoosier State, and people will ride.
State Senator Hershman is right on with his remarks that just retaining the Hoosier State in its current condition is a recipe for failure. After all, Train #850 has an unmarketable time for Purdue University students.

Troy Woodruff, INDOT chief of state...blistered the federal mandate passed in 2008, calling Amtrak’s business model a loser and repeatedly indicated his unwillingness to touch an annual payment of $80 for every one of the 36,669 passengers who rode the Hoosier State during the most recent fiscal year.
IN DOT should have done its homework on the PRIIA provision because if it had, then, it would have consulted another operator to see how much cheaper that company could operate the Hoosier State.

But he did allow that INDOT would be willing to pay a slice, if local governments and others were willing to chip in, too. While INDOT and Amtrak stared each other down to see which would blink first, a handful of mayors of cities along the Hoosier State route wanted to know two things:
• If you’re asking us to contribute, how much?
• And if we contribute, what’s being done to make service better? In other words: What are we getting for our money?
Although I'm neutral on the idea of municipalities funding corridor routes, this could be a future funding mechanism.
He also said increasing the number of trains on the Hoosier State line is open for discussion, too.
When it comes to Magliari's statement on possibly adding frequencies on the route, this is such a no-brainer given this schedule from 1994.

Available Wi-Fi on the trains. Some sort of food service, even if that meant a grab-and-go setup. Partnering with a shuttle service in Chicago for seamless transfers to airports. (“Anecdotally, what we’re seeing are a lot of Purdue students using the train out of Lafayette, many presumably to fly out of Chicago,” Hershman said. “Wouldn’t you pay for an easier way to O’Hare from Union Station?”)
In addition to Hershman's suggestions, All Aboard Ohio was unto something with its recommendations in adding more Hoosier State trains and extending them to Cincinnati. The only quibble is that I would change two of the trains to a single Louisville roundtrip with the possibility of a further extension to Nashville. This move would help establish a Chicago-Louisville service early on as the MWHSR project progresses.

NARP Blog
 [I]t’s the simple fact that if the Hoosier State disappears, it becomes ten times more difficult to get better service on this important part of the Chicago Hub passenger train network.
The mantra of "once it's gone, it's difficult to get it back" has been demonstrated in the Gulf Coast with the eastern link of the Sunset Limited and in the inland West with the Pioneer and North Coast Hiawatha.

However, as train advocates have learned the hard way time and again, once you lose a passenger train service, there are many expensive hurdles to clear before it can be restored. As imperfect as it is, the existing Hoosier State serves as a necessary baseline off of which to build a quicker, more convenient and attractive train service.

This is squarely on Amtrak management for its botched handling of converting the Cardinal into a daily train.

That will continue to be the case even if the Hoosier State remains as-is, and even if it disappears, students will still use the tri-weekly Cardinal to get to and from Chicago. 

In the short term, it'd be in Amtrak's best interest to either make the Cardinal daily northwest of Indianapolis or move the Hoosier State to more favorable times for students.

All the improvements that the train’s riders and supporters seek will only come to pass if INDOT is willing to work with Amtrak as a partner, like the state DOT’s in neighboring Michigan and Illinois have done with great success.  Such a partnership can only be formed with maintaining the Hoosier State as its centerpiece. Once a partnership is established, INDOT will have the ability to do things like add food service and install WiFi on the trains.
Given the provisions in Section 209, the INDOT could still accomplish the things Kenton mentioned if it seeks a different operator.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

SPUD and Unconventional Passenger Service

A couple of summers ago, Mike "Mulad" Hicks brought up the possibility of specialty passenger rail at the historic St. Paul Union Depot. Quite frankly, I agree with him because even with a second Empire Builder frequency between Chicago and St. Cloud, the planned Regional HSR route between Chicago and St. Paul, and Zip Rail, the facility could still use more passenger trains in the future. 

This picture shows that multiple platforms could be built to support other types of rail. I will now look at the various ways unconventional passenger rail could serve SPUD and the Midwest:

  • Auto Train: This could be a terminus for passengers who want to take their cars to places like Wisconsin Dells and other tourist destinations, or it could be a stop where passengers can load and unload their cars and board without being required to have a car. An example would be South Dakota with Badlands National Forest and Black Hills National Park. The route would start at O'Hare and then serve a limited number of stops along the way before reaching SPUD. Afterwards, the train would head southwest towards Mankato, then head west to SD, where it would end in Rapid City near those aforementioned tourist destinations.

  • International Service: Winnipeg service would actually start at the Oglivie Transportation Center and serve Eau Clare along the C&NW route. Meanwhile, future service to Alberta would actually start at SPUD as another way of connecting passengers of the U.S. and Canada.

  • Special Themes: These trains would primarily traverse parts of the Midwest that have not seen passenger rail service since the '60s or '70s. 

  • Cruise & Cruise Fun Trains: Due to proximity issues, neither one met the standard for service at SPUD.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Random thoughts #14


  1. This map is a special track from Jacksonville Union Terminal to the former Atlantic Coast Line route. This will come in handy should Florida wise up and start corridor service.
  2. Possible sites for a new station in D.C. Seven billion dollars to overhaul a historic station is still a lot of money even if it is a fraction of what Amtrak is telling everyone it'll cost to overhaul the Northeast Corridor and build a brand new HSR line between Washington and Boston. Also, if intercity rail is opened up to other companies, not all of them may want to have anything to do with Union Station.
  3. Given that the Knowledge Corridor is being rebuilt, the Berkshires route is being advanced by movers and shakers, it's now time to get the Central Corridor going. MA Governor Deval Patrick has promoted the first two routes, he should join his counterpart in CT and back the latter route as well.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Tackling the Headlines 54

NYC City Council tells MSG to get out--in 2023

Late last month, Big Apple lawmakers finally weighed in on the touchy topic of separating Penn Station and Madison Square Garden.

Take: By nearly unanimously voting to give MSG the door, the city is telling the world that it is committed to building a world-class train station. The vote also means that we will never hear about using an abandoned post office again.

Private carriers interested in passenger service in Maine

Even though things are pretty static in the Pine Tree State now, it may not remain that way for long.

Take: These private carriers just may be the boost that's needed to get frequent train service going in the state.

Out west, they are also looking forward

Meanwhile on the other end of the country, Montanans are not giving up their efforts to have the North Coast Hiawatha restored. Nearly four years ago, a group was formed in response to Amtrak's study and like the groups who responded to the Pioneer study, they vehemently disagreed with the results.

Take: Rail activists and Montana politicians should not only continue to push for restoring the route, but they should also be talking to members of the AIPRO to see how much less it would cost to run the service and to see if their members could use the old CNW route between Chicago and Milwaukee.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

An open letter to Joseph Boardman

Dear Mr. Boardman,

Now that you have been given an extra two years, here's some advice for you: Amtrak needs to have a concrete plan for future routes and should display such routes on its system map. Ridership is up and more people are traveling but seats are sold out and there's a serious lack of equipment. 

What is your focus? That is, will you continue to provide lip service to routes outside of the Northeast, Wolverine, and Lincoln corridors? If the NEC is truly your future, Amtrak should go to Congress, the FRA, and the STB to put some of your other routes up for bidding.

Speaking of other operators, Mr. Boardman, you yourself know that other passenger entities are waiting in the wings to outbid Amtrak on existing and future routes. Rather than relying on your congressional buddies to unfairly tilt the playing field in your company's favor, provide Congress, the states, President Obama, and riders compelling reasons why Amtrak is better than AIPRO members, Virgin, and other carriers.

The next time you conduct a route study, call the host railroads on their bluff, and for goodness sake, don't throw your own employees under the bus when the going gets tough. There is no reason why the Cardinal shouldn't be a daily train. There is no reason why Panhandle residents should be without train service for almost eight years now. Speaking of the Sunset Limited, either restore the eastern link or allow another operator to conduct daily service between New Orleans and Orlando because the drama has dragged on long enough. When it comes to the Southwest Chief, fight to keep the train on its current route between Newton, KS and Gallup, NM.



Sincerely,



The Rail Enthusiast

Tackling the Headlines 53

Feds redlight XpressWest loan

Take: It now looks as though the company will either have to raise the money on its own or look elsewhere for the remaining funds.

Bidders for Scottish sleeper service

Contrary to what I feared last year, there is still interest in the service. Current holder First Group is facing a challenge from DB-owned Arriva and Australian-based Serco.

Take: This is great, and it would be nice if all three operators could open up shop in this country because they might be able to provide expanded overnight service that is sorely lacking.

Eau Clare residents remember train service

Take: I had no idea that the CNW ended service along the route that soon. It's no wonder that the city's residents took the MNDOT's decision to skip Eau Clare as a part of the planned Chicago-St. Paul Regional HSR route so hard over 1 1/2 years ago while the WIDOT just stood by. But then, again, what to do when your own governor refuses to think beyond the Hiawathas?

Unions picketing Amtrak Board member

Take: Just about the only thing that I know is that Amtrak employees were without a contract from 1999 to 2008. Negotiating for three years? What kind of contract was signed in the first place? This conflict had better not lead to a strike. The idea that Amtrak wants to destroy its unions is just laughable.

Planning the next leg of SEHSR is (finally) underway

In late spring, hearings were held to determine the routing for the Charlotte Atlanta leg of the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor.

Take: I am very partial to the NS option merely because the existing Crescent route is a template that can be used to provide corridor service later on. Also, a daytime New York-Atlanta route as well as various other long distance branches serving Montgomery, Mobile, Dallas, and Los Angeles could give Upstate South Carolinans a plethora of options. Both the I-85 and the Greenfield options would be useful for future Express service. The CSX Augusta option is better off with conventional SC-GA and long distance services.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Tackling the Headlines 52

X-Train news

Here's a report on where in Vegas the train will stop and here's the latest info on when it will launch

Take: It seems that Paul Druce and X-Train rival Pullman Palace were unto something earlier this year because this entity officially known as Las Vegas Railway Express Inc. is setting itself up to be a stillborn project.

Railroads expected to fall short of PTC deadline

Take: This is what happens when Congress passes a measure and expects the railroads to pay for it.

Over in the UK, hardcore Labourites are calling for the revival of British Rail

While the controversy may be over one rail line, the end game is about driving all of the franchises out of business.

Take: This news would probably be joy to the ears of True Believers and other people opposed to Amtrak competition and would supposedly be "proof" that the British experiment failed. However, the problem is that the government's botched privatization has gotten all of the attention rather than the fixes that it made and the franchises that have actually succeeded

Friday, June 21, 2013

Random thoughts #13


  1. Cap'n Transit makes some good points on why long distance trains are still needed. Anyone in the rail community who wants to get rid of the national network at best has no understanding of how connectivity works  and at worst demonstrates elitism. The moment that the overnight routes are eliminated, small-town communities will lose yet another means of travel and will be forced to drive hundreds of miles to their destinations. The fact is, Greyhound continues cutting service to small towns and niche bus operators like Megabus are not picking up the slack because they cater to major cities and universities. As far as air travel, forget it because Congress wants to reduce or eliminate subsidies for service to small airports altogether.
  2. There's a way for Amtrak to completely avoid having to serve any All Aboard Florida stations between West Palm Beach and Miami and this map is a perspective from a southbound Silver Service train. There are some in the rail community who are devising ways for Amtrak to serve stations on the FEC line but the problem is that the national carrier is usually resistant to have two stations in the same town and given that all four cities are on separate lines the entire time, there is the possibility that Amtrak would not staff anyone at the FEC stations, so that whole approach would be counterproductive.
  3. When it comes to the rail station-real estate relationship, it can work for all kinds of passenger rail as the Housatonic Railroad is also devising a plan to make its stations stand out by providing things like coffee shops, newsstands, rental cars and Zipcars. Japan's JR West builds shopping centers and department stores and is Housatonic's likely model.
  4. To answer Eric Jaffe's question, it all comes back to the feds. If someone in D.C. can get the clue that the current way of doing things is broken, then we could see more private involvement in passenger rail.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Tackling the Headlines 51

Via strike averted
Take: Really good news for Canadians as the summer season is about to get into full gear.

Brunswick-Rockland line's future to be decided soon
Take #1: This is a bit troubling and unfortunate for Maine Eastern. I hope that the passenger requirement remains in place if another operator runs service between the two cities.

Take #2: Depending on who gets the 59-mile line, the ME DOT should partner the new freight operator (not named Pan Am Railways) with an independent passenger entity. The problem with this model is that it would be better off being done with regional routes or in a large state like Texas (and it's something that Congress may want to consider).

Take #3: This brings me to my final point on this topic, if a shortline holding company like Iowa Pacific or Watco bids, then, there would be no need for the previous scenario to take place since the new railroad would simply take over for Maine Eastern. Otherwise, it just makes sense if the Pan Am-Amtrak partnership is further extended east.

Miami's airport station further delayed
Take: This is what a lack of communication can do to a grand project. Besides costs, All Aboard Florida's plan to build a downtown station may force Central Station to take a backseat--even if corridor service and/or additional Amtrak trains call it home.

All Aboard Florida clears another hurdle
Take: Good to see that the controversy with the Mormon Church is behind AAF. The real final hurdle is finding a way to enter Orlando International Airport.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Tackling the Headlines 50

Iowa lawmakers leave Amtrak at Moline station
Take: Regarding the last paragraph by the Quad City Times's editoral board, it's called selective ignorance. The Iowa legislature and Governor Terry Branstad know exactly what they are doing--they either hate trains or they don't want Amtrak running the route (pretty much the former).

Take: From a state that doesn't get it to one that does. Bravo to the Gopher State for stepping up.

Take #1: Advice to Zip Rail: the more frequencies the better! 

Take #2: By the time this thing turns a wheel, hopefully, other routes will be in service.

Take #1: Oh, it's getting serious now! In its own way, Lodging Hospitality Management has decided to get the ball rolling on specialty rail travel. The nationwide push could serve as a template that combines unconventional rail travel with historic stations.

Take#2: Today, charter and excursion services. Tomorrow, Express HSR service and private intercity routes.

Take: This is on the GADOT more than it is on Norfolk Southern because the Peach State talked about commuter rail from the late '90s until the middle of the last decade without any trains operating. Given recent news of Amtrak wanting to remain in north Atlanta once it moves out of its cramped station, a central location is essential for any SEHSR service that will serve Macon and Jacksonville and for a revived Nancy Hanks route that just might be privately operated. In essence, this is a bluffing tactic by the Class I carrier, and it is up to the state of Georgia to get serious about passenger rail before it gets left behind.

Take: The hard part is for the city is actually sticking to that 2028 deadline. There should be no excuses from either the city or Madison Square Garden once the extension runs out. Period.

Take: I feel your pain, Canadian travelers. Via Rail brought this upon itself when its management decided to cut and slash routes in the name of "modernization."

Friday, May 17, 2013

Random thoughts #12


  1. As it turns out, there was a plan to move Madison Square Garden to the Farley Post Office. The problems? The Great Recession and a lack of foresight by the city's government derailed those plans. However, the city must revive that idea once the grace period is over. It will be for the good of everyone involved because the time for having Penn Station and MSG joined at the hip is over.
  2. This story hints that the Orange Blossom Express could be on the way. The "other" Orlando-area commuter rail project made headlines 23 months ago but quickly disappeared once SunRail got the thumbs up from Florida's governor. Hopefully, the TIGER funding can accelerate the OBE going into service.
  3. Had things gone differently, Los Angeles would have been known as a transit-friendly haven (look at all of the proposed rail technologies!) instead of being best known as America's most autocentric city and biggest air quality nightmare. Its planned subway--the 1925 plan, not Metro's best efforts at playing catch up--could have rivaled NYC's today had it not been for the constant lack of foresight.
  4. In order to even have marginal rail service, Canadians will have to get outraged. The slashing of Via service by the Harper cabinet and the lack of reaction by the public at large should actually make the people of Australia and New Zealand happy that their countries won't have the least advanced passenger rail service among all industrialized nations.
  5. Buffalo-Niagara Falls commuter service is not only overdue but could serve as a lifeline. Commuter rail can not only connect all three of the city's stations, but it can connect with Ontario's GO Transit.
  6. I finally get an answer to a lingering question: Norfolk will have a ticket agent once its new station opens up.
  7. As a followup to a previous story, the XpressWest people are now having money troubles, putting them in company with Las Vegas Railway Express.
  8. Three months ago, I got into a scuffle over the feasibility of the Coast Daylight using Caltrain tracks between San Jose and San Francisco. I provided some practical solutions and yet, no one seemed to even think broadly. Now, I will pick up here where I left off in February. First, the engine switchover at San Jose's Diridon Station shouldn't be a problem--this is already done in D.C.--and even if it were, diesel and electric trains share the tracks in big European cities. Second, the speed issue makes these people wanting to block the Daylight really snobbish, not unlike the "let's get rid of the long distance trains" crowd. At a time when the Bay Area could use more intercity trains, restricting the SJ-SF stretch to only Caltrain and HSR is absolutely dumb planning. In addition to Coast service, there is a private operator that has its eyes on providing future Santa Cruz-San Francisco service. Finally, Amtrak does not need to provide additional San Francisco-Los Angeles train service should the Daylight prove to be successful. As a matter of fact, I recommend that Herzog operate the additional frequencies since its subsidiary currently runs Caltrain. How will this get pulled off? Simple, Caltrans needs to lease a portion of the Coast Route.