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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

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Tackling the Headlines 46

For now, very limited Amtrak-Maine Eastern connections 

As it was reported in the February issue of Trains Magazine, connection and funding issues have put a dent in the Downeaster's extension to Brunswick. The preliminary plan by MERR is to cut the number of roundtrips in half from two to one, keep the train overnight in Brunswick, and to connect the afternoon westbound train from Rockland with Downeaster #688/698. MERR's director of operations Gordon Page told Bob Johnston "We have to be careful not to cannibalize our excursion product." The 30-minute rule has been cited as a likely reason for the potential lack of connections between the two railroads.

When it comes to funding, the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority applied for federal grants to leverage state bond money for a shop and for an enclosed three track layover building in a little used railyard near Brunswick, but was unsuccessful on both counts. As a result, the authority is still in search of a funding source.

Take: Oy vey!


Massachusetts is serious about additional trains

Governor Deval Patrick wants to beef up the Bay State's passenger service (go to page 19). He wants the following funded:


Take: At least Patrick's a proactive governor. There's a lot to like about the plan because the governor is getting other railroads involved. However, New England Central Railway's Central Corridor Route was omitted. This route will serve Palmer (where it will connect with the Inland services), Millers Falls and Amherst (which will lose Amtrak service next year).


Lynchburg yesterday, Norfolk today, Roanoke tomorrow

Outgoing Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell wants to extend the Lynchburg route west to Roanoke.

Take: This is essentially building the Trans Dominion Express in increments.


Saturday, January 12, 2013

Rail Community, This Is A Crucial Year

The headline is spot on because 2013 potentially marks a turning point for passenger rail. 

First, as several provisions of PRIIA run out, Congress may have to either roll them over as part of extensions, or they'll have to pass a brand new rail bill and given how difficult it was to pass a transportation bill for three years, it would be up to the rail community to press Congress to pass something by the end of this year.

Second, there is Section 209 in 2008's rail reform bill which will see states picking up 100% of the tab for routes that are less than 750 miles long. 

Third, the fact that neither house of Congress flipped last year provides an opportunity for a more sensible passenger rail policy. The main reason is that the strength of the rail antagonistic Tea Party has been diminished.


Grand Bargaining Is the Key

As we have seen with the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling debates in the last 18 months, nothing will get done in D.C. as long as both chambers of Congress are in the hands of different parties without some serious compromising. 

Passenger rail policy is the same way because there are two diametrically opposing viewpoints that have muddied up reform: Rail advocates who want Congress to give unlimited money to Amtrak vs think tanks who believe in full-on privatization or that shutting down Amtrak without a reasonable alternative is rational. Anyone who's read my past entries already knows that both extremist alternatives are way off target. If you are reading my blog for the first time, I dismiss the first viewpoint because passenger rail has grown in the last three decades to the point that it is no longer plausible to give billions to a passenger operator that has already said that its future is in the Northeast while telling other regions that they are on their own. I shoot down the second viewpoint because Americans' love affair with car is over and the airlines are doing everything they can to make airline travel as unpleasant as possible. As a result, I advocate a mix of public and private ideas and revitalizing the intercity network before going full-on with HSR.


What Type of Bargaining Will We Have?

What happens with passenger rail's future will depend on Congress's actions and railfans' approach. 

The Dream Scenario will result in members of both parties being open to competition after listening to other companies propose their ideas for making passenger rail better in the U.S. Ideally, current legislation would allow competitors to bid on Amtrak routes outside of the Northeast, but if the rules are proven obsolete, then, a new law would rectify that problem. 

You say, "but what about the Class I railroads, they won't allow other companies on their rails?" Congress will have to address that issue by allaying their fears. If worst comes to worst, then, passenger routes outside of areas where Amtrak owns the tracks would be operated by a mix of the Big Seven and independent operators.

Rail advocacy groups can help out the cause by pushing forth this well-thought out vision for intercity rail nationally.

The Nightmare Scenario would happen if enough non-NEC Democrats take the True Believer bait and team up with Tea Partiers and other anti-rail Republicans to effectively block independent operators from establishing a foothold in America. The end result would be the preservation of the monopoly in passenger rail. Such a move would then lead to future Amtrak management pulling the company back into a state of complacency after being forced to get better in the wake of PRIIA.


A Primer For Advocates

The bottom line is that unless the Democrats regain the House next year and hold onto the White House in 2016, there will be no high speed rail funding in the foreseeable future. Increased passenger rail frequencies, expansion, and incremental speed upgrades should be  rail advocates' main focus in the meanwhile.

Another thing is that the various independent and private operators who have popped up in the last four years are not going away, so in the wake of the AIPRO being formed and various Class II and Class III railroads planning their own services, the advocacy groups will show their true colors: Will they adapt to a post-monopoly era or will they go all in with Amtrak? When I use the phrase “going all in,” I mean that some of the groups having strong allegiances to Amtrak may launch disinformation campaigns not unlike the ones that opportunistic lawyers used against SNCF/Keolis in the name of the Holocaust.


The groups that can adapt will be rewarded by history for reviving American passenger rail travel. On the other hand, the groups that side with the True Believers are the ones who will be left out in the cold. 

If rail advocates are caught choosing favorites (i.e., preserving the near monopoly), the AIPRO and other independent operators could tell them and their groups to take a hike while setting up their own organizations to promote rail travel—which would include the pro-competition advocacy groups.