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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 21, 2014

Dreams of Passenger Rail's Future

The title is from the December 2013 edition of Railfan & Railroad Magazine's Capitol Lines column written by Wes Vernon. The column was based on last year's Passenger Trains on Freight Railroads Conference where four panelists involved in the railroad industry gave their visions on the future of passenger rail in America. 

The panelists were railroad attorney John Heffner, All Aboard Florida's Gene Skoropowksi (formerly of California's Capitol Corridor), Iowa Pacific's Ed Ellis, and Amtrak VP for Governments and Corporate Communications Joe McHugh.

"More cohesion instead of the piecemeal routings here and there. The entire picture is likely less monolithic or under one entity known as Amtrak." (Heffner) 
Vernon interjected by suggesting that Amtrak remains "the 'spine' of intercity operations." Even with the failed attempt to leverage intercity and commuter rail back towards an Amtrak monopoly, "business as usual" can no longer be considered good enough for travelers.

Regarding PRIIA, Vernon looked at the possibility of states looking to private operators if they can't find alternative public funding, which in turn could lead Amtrak to using more of its equipment on longer routes. 

Once those PRIIA extensions that were signed last year expire, the states should make a serious effort to talk to other operators to reduce the cost of running their corridors. As far as the equipment goes, I have been a huge advocate of Amtrak keeping its equipment in the event states look elsewhere so that it can spread to other parts of the country.

Heffner says that there is no end to potential nationwide expansion, possibly a combination of Amtrak and non-Amtrak operators, some under contract to state or regional government agencies. It may be freight railroads, perhaps short lines or regionals deciding to just run their own passenger service. (Vernon)

There can be no end to expansion because America still has a skeletal system and other various other entities could be the key to reviving the national network.

The dream scenario leaves Amtrak as (again) the operator of most, if not all, long-distance trains. On the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak would remain the only operator other than the commuter lines. (Vernon)

A dream for who? Maybe that's a True Believer's dream scenario but as long as the current people (board and management alike) continue to run Amtrak, this is much closer to my Nightmare Scenario. President/CEO Joe Boardman and various board members have done nothing to advance long-distance trains. If anything, they're either willing to keep the status quo or see the long-distance network shrink by inaction. 

When Amtrak gets fresh blood who just won't have a dismissive attitude about expansion (i.e., always citing high costs and passing on adding routes) and is willing to consider Western passengers' needs by ordering new equipment, then will I believe that "America's Railroad" is committed to the nation as opposed to just one region.

Speaking of that one region, the NEC states' political bloc will likely use their clout to keep out anyone who may want to take on Amtrak.

Vernon cited how the shortlines are trying to get into the passenger business due to limited expansion opportunities for freight in the future.

The shortlines are proactive while the big boy railroads are reactive. The Class I railroads are focused on their specific needs and have to be goaded into dealing with passenger service (see Amtrak throwing in the towel on talking to CSX about converting the Cardinal to daily service as just one example).

The shortlines could also play the role of saviors when it comes to routes/segments/towns that are abandoned by Amtrak.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Tackling the Headlines 59

Increased Boston-to-Springfield passenger rail service may one day become a reality

Take: It would have helped if a) Amtrak hadn't eliminated its last Boston-based Inland route over nine years ago and b) if a second Albany-Boston frequency were already in place.

Troubling news out of Oklahoma

Apparently, the executive branch in Tulsa is dead set on making a fool out of me and anyone else who would like to see more private involvement in passenger rail. Even though trips for three Sapulpa-Oklahoma City runs are sold out, the efforts by Iowa Pacific and Stillwater Central to provide regular service may be for naught as the OKDOT wants to sell part of a state-owned route between the the two cities.

Take: If Oklahoma officials sell the line to BNSF and Wescott's worst nightmare comes to pass, then, it'll show how tome deaf the state really is.

Officials Discussing Texas-Mexico High-Speed Rail Line

Take: How about a regular, conventional route first?

Friday, January 10, 2014

Alternative history #6

Scenario
Los Angeles builds its subways much earlier, keeps its streetcars, and is actually the beacon for transit in America

Point of Departure
Throughout the 20th century

Storyline
The Kelker & DeLeuw Subway Plan is gradually rolled out in 1925 after voters narrowly ignore entrenched interests' opposition. Due to this type of forward thinking, 90% of the subway system is completed by the time mass transit is transferred from the private sector to the public in the 1960s.

Henry Huntington is forced to give up some of his streetcar routes to Southern Pacific so there'd be competition. When all streetcars are handed over to MTA, only the easternmost suburbs see buses supplant routes.

Joseph Strauss continues the Airtram idea is continued after George Rowan's death in 1936--but it's built after World War II. Meanwhile, the Carveyor was built in the 1960s. The People Mover is connected to MTA's plan to serve LAX, which is a lot more architecturally creative and has been the world's busiest airport since the 1984 Summer Olympics.

A reduced monorail system is built until former Mayor Antonio Villarogosa made completing it a part of his 30/10 plan for MTA in 2010.

Maglev right of way is in place between Ontario Airport and west Los Angeles but funding is still scarce.

Today’s Likely Outcome
The Subway Plan came to full fruition by the early 1980s--the delay was due to MTA wanting to "spread the wealth" with other transit modes. 

The entire streetcar system is nicknamed "Red Cars" in honor of Huntington's Pacific Electric. The Red Cars are very popular--even more popular than San Francisco's cable cars. L.A. is the only U.S. city where rail-based modeprovide more transit mileage than buses.

SP's Burbank Branch Line has served streetcars since 1938. Light rail, while a part of the MTA system, is primarily a suburban system.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Addendum: Circa 2016 BNSF Transcon vs Raton Pass Schedules

To follow up on the last post, I have provided some schedules that result in a win-win situation for everybody involved. The first one is of the Southwest Chief rerouted onto BNSF's Transcon Route.


3
Amtrak
4
15:00
Chicago                          CT
15:15
22:45
Kansas City
7:43
0:29
Topeka
5:18
2:45
Newton
2:59
3:40
Wichita
2:09
4:30
Wellington, KS
1:19
5:53
Alva, OK
23:35
7:09
Woodward, OK
22:21
9:23
Pampa, TX
19:59
10:30
Amarillo, TX
19:08
10:50
18:48
11:37
Hereford, TX                CT
17:54
11:40
Clovis, NM                   MT
15:58
F13:42
Vaughn, NM
F13:53
15:52
Belen, NM
12:08
16:02
11:58
21:21
Flagstaff                         MT
6:35
3:03
Barstow                          PT
22:50
4:56
San Bernardino
19:53
7:39
Los Angeles                   PT
18:09


The times between Newton and Belen are based on the Santa Fe's San Francisco Chief in 1965.

The second batch of schedules are what could happen if the residents along the affected portion of the Southwest Chief are able to talk to another operator like a shortline or an independent operator. Instead of one train a day in each direction, there will be at least three frequencies because residents between Hutchinson and Albuquerque could also start building the foundation of a Rocky Mountain rail system by proposing Newton-La Junta-Denver and Albuquerque-Trinidad-Denver services and localized Raton Pass runs that would serve fewer cities at more marketable times.


1001
1003
1005
Rocky Mountain Rail
1002
1004
1006
2:45
10:45
18:45
Newton                                               CT
18:55
2:55
10:55
3:20
11:20
19:20
Hutchinson, KS
18:19
2:19
10:19
5:25
13:25
21:25
Dodge City, KS
16:27
0:27
8:27
6:21
14:21
22:21
Garden City, KS                               CT
15:17
23:17
7:17
6:59
14:59
22:59
Lamar, CO                                        MT
12:40
20:40
4:40
8:15
16:15
0:15
La Junta, CO
11:41
19:41
3:41
8:20
16:20
0:20
11:36
19:36
3:36
9:40
17:40
1:40
Trinidad, CO
9:39
17:39
1:39
10:46
18:46
2:46
Raton, NM
8:40
16:40
0:40
12:28
20:28
4:28
Las Vegas, NM
6:53
14:53
22:53
14:14
22:14
6:14
Lamy, NM
5:07
13:07
21:07
16:00
24:00
8:00
Albuquerque
3:47
11:47
19:47
16:40
0:40
8:40
Belen                                                   MT
3:07
11:07
19:07


I have cut the dwell times in La Junta and Albuquerque to five minutes. As far connections go, #3 to #1001 and #1004 to #4 are guaranteed for anyone traveling between Chicago and Albuquerque. Anyone who wants to travel to Arizona and points west could use #1005, a local Raton Pass run, or a Denver-Albuquerque/Rail Runner combo.


Friday, January 3, 2014

The Type of Rail Reform That's Needed

It’s almost time for Congress to take up the next rail reauthorization bill. Here are my recommendations:

State-Supported Trains
Congress should make it much easier for states to select other operators by mandating a competitive bidding process. The interest is clearly there, and these two 2011 stories expressed the Association of Independent Passenger Rail Operators’ interest in running corridors. However, the hysteria surrounding PRIIA Section 209 got in the way. 

Regarding point #8 that NARP laid out in its vision for the reauthorization bill, if Congress enacts this, then, these 18 states operating 19 corridors will continue paying high costs to Amtrak and leave them vulnerable to shifting political climates (see WI and OH when it comes to conventional rail--never mind what FL did to high speed rail). These corridors shouldn't just be about Amtrak because there are routes that would be better off operated by someone else.
I would much rather see the states divided into nine regions (mostly based on regional pacts like MWHSR) and being protected the way German state routes are. 

Long Distance Routes
Since the Federal Railway Administration failed to do its job with Section 214, it’s up to Congress to permit some type of competition. As a matter of fact, Congress should force the FRA to conduct a pilot program that allows an overnight route to be leased out to another entity for five years (this route would get enough money to make it profitable). Congress should also make it much easier for private organizations to partner with the hosts because if Amtrak is unwilling to add sufficient equipment or routes to expand the national system, someone else must be given a shot.

Needed: A National Rail Network
It has been three years since President Obama’s effort at building a national HSR network collapsed. In its place, calls for “high performance rail” have surfaced. 

In that vein, the federal government should conduct a study on how much it would cost to upgrade the national network via Interstate II (Exhibits A & B) and rail highways (Exhibits C & D).

Ideally, existing overnight routes would be linked to each other and to former routes and segments that were abandoned by Amtrak and the fallen flags of old. This type of overhaul may not be as flashy as a nationwide high speed rail network, but it would be less costly, connect more travelers, and serve more people.

A Remedy for the Southwest Chief
Speaking of a national intercity rail network, the feds should begin the process of building one by having the FRA or the USDOT take over the 700-mile stretch of the Raton Pass Route between Newton, KS and Albuquerque, NM in 2016. Whatever agency controls the route would then upgrade the tracks and have an open bidding process where freight and passenger entities would be selected to provide service to customers and residents in KS, CO and NM. Based on space, the Raton Pass Route would be at least double tracked throughout and even have separate freight and passenger rights of way.

The shortline company or independent operator that replaces the Southwest Chief should then be allowed to provide connections in Newton to Amtrak and Belen, NM to Amtrak and Rail Runner trains. It goes without saying that this new entity would also have more than one frequency along its route and that Amtrak would then reroute the Southwest Chief onto BNSF’s Transcontinental Route.