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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, 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 Bangert's "memory lane" reference makes passenger sound like an outdated mode of travel when it has, in fact, made a bit of a comeback.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.