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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

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.