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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, April 27, 2013

Ideas for Improved Michigan Train Service

This article says that a new Detroit River tunnel could start construction next year. From what the article and the official website about the project have to say about the project, there is absolutely nothing that would preclude passenger trains from using the tunnel. If anything, the Continental Rail Gateway could actually encourage passenger service as trains to and from Buffalo and Toronto could just as easily use the existing tunnel without a hitch.

A Plan Like This Could Use Some New Players
Speaking of international service, it wouldn't be necessary for either Amtrak or Via Rail to run these trains--as a matter of fact, other companies would be tapped to run Detroit-Windsor services instead. Amtrak built a facility in the city's New Center section in 1994, which would force the carrier to back up to the Detroit River Tunnel or to skip the city altogether. As for Via, the Canadian operator has cut back service on the Toronto-Windsor corridor. A Eurostar or Thalys-like service would remedy the problem.

The State's Role
The Midwest Regional Rail Initiative plan has the Pere Marquette rerouted to serve Kalamazoo, turn west to serve Grand Rapids, and then end in Holland. Should that happen, then, the MIDOT should hand the current Chicago-Grand Rapids route over to another operator like First Group or Veolia, rename the route the Spartan Corridor in honor of the state's other big public university (think about it: Wolverines vs Spartans leaving the gridiron and hardwood for the rails with travelers winning as a result), extend the route to Detroit, and change the stations at each endpoint. There would have to be at least four or five frequencies for the rebranded Spartans in order for the trains to compete with the Amtrak trains.

LaSalle Street Station would be a perfect place for the new operator to compete against
Amtrak because it wouldn't have to deal with the congestion of Union Station. At the other end, a temporary station could be built near Michigan Central Station until the historic facility is once again ready for public use. 


The Spartan trains would then use the Detroit River Tunnels to go east to Buffalo or northeast to Toronto as a way for the new operator to produce more revenue and ridership. In the future, SNCF would use the tunnels for Express service between Chicago and Toronto.

What About Other Cities in the Wolverine State?
When it comes to Detroit-Wynadotte-Monroe-Toledo service, it is a natural, but, it would require a backup move at a wye just west of MCS. Would Amtrak want to operate a glorified commuter route that is only 58-miles long--two miles longer than the Lake Cities route that ran two decades ago--and would also require a backup move near the New Center Station? I think not. Even a Port Huron-Toledo route that serves either Detroit station would be too short. Maybe, the airport would be an alternative for Amtrak or a northwestern stop for the Spartan Corridor operator.

As for other cities in Michigan, the MIDOT should turn to the state's various regional and shortline railroads to operate services. These trains would easily connect to Amtrak and Spartan Corridor trains in the same way that the Saratoga & North Creek trains do with the Adirondack and Ethan Allen Express at Saratoga Springs.

A Macro View of Amtrak's Equipment Issues

From a March 25 Trains Magazine News Wire story: 
WASHINGTON - The long-distance passenger train appears to face a junction between continued federal operation and some form of state or regional operation. Rumors now abound about the long-distance train, as well as when-or if-Amtrak will order any new bi-level long-distance passenger cars to replace or supplement the aging Superliner fleet.
Much of Amtrak's current long-distance car fleet is soldiering on well into its third decade of service. The original orders of Amfleet and Superliner cars were designed and delivered in the late 1970s. The second batch of Amfleet II cars came in the early 1980s and the Superliner II cars arrive in the mid-1990s. Amtrak's newest long-distance passenger cars are the single-level Viewliner sleeping cars, delivered throughout 1996.
Derailments have thinned the passenger car fleet, particularly the Superliners, limiting Amtrak's capacity. With its current fleet, Amtrak is often unable to add enough cars to meet demand at peak travel periods, especially with sleeping cars.
Steven Kulm, Amtrak's director of media relations, tells Trains News Wire,"While we continue to work on an updated fleet plan, we don't presently have a target date for its release." Kulm adds, "This is, in part, because the updated plan is being written to better align with the Amtrak Strategic Plan with a focus on the needs of the new business lines and the long-distance business 
line, in particular, still in development.

Kulm continues, "In addition, [President Joe] Boardman has long argued long distance trains are a particular responsibility of the federal government and we are eager to see how Congress addresses long-distance equipment capitalization in the reauthorization. So, with no present funding, an updated fleet plan awaiting specific input from the long distance business line, and pending reauthorization, a date for ordering new bi-level long distance cars has not been identified."
Other Amtrak sources have estimated that an updated five-year plan will be out yet this spring. Any order of any new long-distance equipment, particularly bi-level, is much less certain.
Is it not Amtrak’s responsibility to rebuild the cars that they already have? Don't get me wrong, Amtrak needs new equipment, but, they also need to rebuild the cars that have been taken out of service and expand its routes. If the agency would just restore its existing fleet, then, it would solve its problems with equipment shortages and route frequencies.

As of last year, at least 23 Superliners had been scrapped, with at least another dozen sitting around and waiting to be scrapped. Meanwhile, Amtrak listed 429 active and 50 out of service Superliner cars (at least half of which will never be restored) on January 1 this year. This is an outrage! In the past, Amtrak management has said in the past that it wouldn't give its older equipment to other operators. To make matters even worse, the leadership out of D.C. made no effort to help the western long distance trains by failing to budget any money for those routes while it ordered new Viewliners for the eastern overnight routes and new equipment for the Northeast Corridor. 

Amtrak is essentially letting the long distance network shrink by inaction. Evidence is as follows: Boardman not disputing Union Pacific's high cost to make the Sunset Limited daily, other studies that come with hefty price tags to restore service, and being passive with other host railroads when it comes to improving service as part of PRIIA-mandated studies.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Random thoughts #11

1. Rosenberg (population 31,754) and Seguin (25,943) are the only two towns capable of supporting train service between Houston and San Antonio. Both were flag stops when Southern Pacific operated the Sunset and could support small stations since their populations have grown, and it's also a plus that Rosenberg is a suburb of Houston. These stops would be more for TXDOT service since Amtrak's westbound Sunset Limited passes by these two towns in the evening and may not even be the operator of a future Texas Triangle system. The other thing is that the private company that is proposing its own vision for the Texas Triangle would detour between Houston and San Antonio via Hempstead and Austin (pg. 22).

2. In the March issue of Trains Magazine, Don Phillips covered Pullman Palace Car Company's efforts to relaunch Southern California-Las Vegas train service. The following quote was very interesting: 


The refrigerator car service is to begin first, coordinated with the opening of a terminal for handling it: Railport Las Vegas, which is to have the capacity to handle sixty refrigerator cars daily, to capture a large part of the food and beverage needs of the city, now on trucks. The passenger service is to begin later, if...and here is the kicker...other planned operators cannot reach a financial deal on their services. Thus far two private proposals are the only "active" ones. 


This tells me that the PPCC people know something that we the public don't, and frankly, it would make sense given recent developments in the L.A.-L.V. market. First, Virgin Trains has been rather quiet on this route--and the whole U.S. market for that matter--in recent months. Second, the longshot Desert Lightning's website no longer works. Third, Amtrak only proposed--not committing to--restoring the Desert Wind in its 2010 PRIIA report (pg. 21). The major problems for the national carrier are equipment and money--or lack thereof.  

Therefore, this leaves the two other active operators: the Las Vegas Railway Express Inc. (aka, the X-Train) and Xpresswest. Both of these companies have run into their own problems in the last couple of months. Paul Druce covered the Vegas X-Train's major issues (the owners have to raise a lot of money by year's end; unrealistic expectations [I am being kind since Druce calls the X-Train "fraudulent"]) over a month ago.

When it comes to XpressWest, the feds have taken forever to decide whether the operator should even receive an FRA loan. Failed vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan and Senator Jeff Sessions played the "it costs too much" card last month when it urged outgoing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to turn down the request.

Therefore, out of the six potential Los Angeles area-Las Vegas operators, PPCC has the brightest future and may be the only one operating five years from now.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Tackling the Headlines 49


Take: This series of botches makes the entire concept of franchising look bad. True Believers and others competition-averse rail watchers are watching, and could use the British government's blunders as reasons to stifle competition on this side of the Atlantic. Given Amtrak management's stated goals to primarily focus on the Northeast Corridor in the long term and the upcoming PRIIA guidelines for states, travelers need more options, not less.

Take: Hopefully by 2016, Maine Eastern will have solved its financial issues so some guaranteed connectivity can be in place as part of a future Maine passenger rail system that provides seamless transfers between operators.

Take #1: That’s great and all, but what about Houston and College Station? As a matter of fact, the entire concept of the Texas Triangle is ignored when it should be part of the discussion. The Texas DOT should not be punting the Dallas-Houston segment to JR Central because the proposed 220 mph route will serve a different constituency. 

Take #2: Despite its shortcomings, the proposed Texas-Oklahoma plan seriously looks at expansion to cities that either lost Amtrak service in the carrier's early days or haven't had any passenger service since the 1960s. Since Texas politicians nowadays talk about how much of a hindrance the government is, this expansion of rail service is the perfect opportunity for them to use the private sector to its advantage if and when these routes are implemented. Finally, the long-term expansions to Mexico are a nice touch.