My Bio and This Blog's Purpose

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Hoosier State bidding is complete

Corridor Capital narrowly beat out Iowa Pacific to be the new contractor of the Hoosier State. Contractor, not operator! That is important because Amtrak will continue to run the train so that's a bit of a bummer for any of us who want to see multiple operators running passenger service.

The tentative plan is for the Hoosier State to be moved to another timeslot. If that happens, then we will be talking about at least one additional frequency that will become multiple--adding to an already untenable situation in Chicago. As Corridor Capital's James Coston once said: "Chicago Union Station is beyond obsolete. It has crowd-control and user-friendliness problems that are on the brink of becoming public-safety and public-health problems." This is another reason why I believe that Indiana only got its feet wet as opposed to taking the full plunge that could still happen out west with the Cascades. I have advocated that major cities like Chicago use their other major train stations for more than just commuter service for several years because as more states and companies express interest in providing additional service, primary stations that are currently home to Amtrak will become overcrowded and competitors will need to find other places to serve their passengers.

As to where this will leave Amtrak, it will have some extra Horizon Cars left over. With Indiana using equipment from Railplan International, it should be easier for neighboring Illinois to use the Horizons for the revived Black Hawk route next year. Assuming that the Hoosier State no longer runs on the same timeslot as the Cardinal, Amtrak would have to either:

  1. operate #50 an hour earlier out of Chicago so it can arrive into Indianapolis at 22:00. This would allow the operator enough time to cut off the excess cars (#51 is currently in Indy from 4:57 to 6:00) and recover a bit before the eastbound train continues on its current schedule east of Indianapolis
  2. continue to run trains on #850 and #851's current times. The only difference is that the two trains would be taken out of the reservations system as these would now be nonstop between the two cities 
  3. operate #50 an hour later at all stops

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Tackling the Headlines 65

Critics target $58M state deal for Amtrak rail cars
Take: The brouhaha over which type of cars should be used is much better than whether any new cars should be used at all (*ahem* Wisconsin). Hopefully, the idled Talgos will not go the way of the Turboliners. The loser should be offering their service to Indiana for expanded Hoosier State service.

Leaders Break Ground On New Niagara Falls Train Station
Take: The new station will look much better than the existing one. It will also be a great welcome for Canadian travelers.

More delays for the D.C. Streetcar
Take: What a mess! I know that the nation's capital hasn't had any streetcars since 1962, but D.C. residents may end up with limited streetcar service due to the extremely high amount of incompetence.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Let's Rescue the Northeast Corridor

Fred Frailey hit the nail on the head about the Northeast Corridor in the May issue of Trains Magazine: The answer is in front of us! I will now dissect Frailey's best quotes.

Acquiring the Boston-Washington railroad in 1976 saddled Amtrak with a monster...Revenues fund only a small part of the line's capital needs and Congress punts ever year. The result? The line is steadily deteriorating.

When it comes to lack of congressional funding, what does one expect? Congress's refusal only demonstrates that a new way is needed to fund passenger rail infrastructure--pronto. 

The Ford Administration did a real disservice to passenger rail by not letting the USDOT own the 457-mile line. Given how much of a financial money pit the NEC is, now is the time to let Amtrak worry about running the trains while letting someone else fix the tracks and replace obsolete bridges and tunnels.

Investment banker Ignacio Jayanti, formerly of J.P. Morgan and now president of Corsair Capital, a private equity firm, outlined the essential elements of this approach in 2011 before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. As he explained it, Congress would divide Amtrak into two government-owned parts.

This proposal is exactly what Amtrak needed in 2011--and still needs today--but the main problem was that the issue was muddied from the very beginning as the vast majority of the rail community yelled "privatization" at any idea that would have stripped Amtrak of owning the corridor. Even though Rep. Mica did propose a fully privatized Northeast Corridor, no one really paid attention to Jayanti's common sense compromise. 

Enabling legislation would mandate the Surface Transportation Board to award a 50-year lease to a company to manage the infrastructure. It would be financed by $2.5 billion of capital that the management company would raise a $25 billion RRIF loan, a low-interest program administered by the Federal Railroad Administration.

Everyone is always complaining about the decrepit state of Amtrak's crown jewel but yet they either have no solutions or want those same unwilling feds to give the national operator hundreds of billions. A government-owned infrastructure company will be able to solve the problems with various Northeastern tunnels like the ones in Baltimore.

Just over a month ago, Amtrak's own boss said that the Hudson River tunnels had up to 20 years left. If we want to be a great nation once again, now is the time to be proactive rather than reactive. Europeans on the British Isles and the continent have handled the separation of infrastructure quite well, and it's time that the northeastern United States follows suit before it has a major disaster on its hands not unlike the Twin Cities seven years ago.

Instead of arguing of whether to build a tunnel through Penn Station or a so-called "tunnel to Macy's basement," the rail community has to have an honest discussion of NEC funding because Amtrak's 38-year ownership has been its #1 detriment, and given the politics in New Jersey (with New Jersey Transit proposing a dead-end tunnel to Manhattan [maybe as George Warrington's way of getting back at Amtrak] and Governor Christie cancelling plans to build said tunnel four summers ago), letting another federal government organization would eventually lead to better rail service and give the nation the high speed service everybody desires at a much lower cost.

If this is such a great idea, you're probably thinking, why hasn't Congress embraced it? The reason, I suspect, is that people hate change. Amtrak likes to control the NEC. Unions feel comfortable with the status quo. Politicians don't want to stick their necks out.

Frailey is spot on again. Amtrak and its various advocates have the harebrained mindset that if it doesn't own the NEC, then the company won't be a real railroad. When it comes to any rail reform, the unions have shown to be not only complacent but also impeding progress because Jayanti's idea would result in everybody in keeping their jobs should the separation go into effect. I'd also argue that both Amtrak and the new infrastructure owner would add jobs since the railroad and the NEC owner would need newer people to help the experienced workers at both entities.

As the 457-mile line slowly crumbles, it's time that someone on Capitol Hill or from the White House steps up to revive the Jayanti proposal before Amtrak's opponents legislate the agency out of existence--or there is a total meltdown on the NEC.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Unlocking Land Value to Fund Passenger Rail

In the April issue of Railway Age, Parallel Infrastructure CEO Frank Chechile brought up the Passenger Rail Working Group presenting to Congress a plan for a national intercity system all the way back in 2007. The fact that there was a committee should be a sign to all passenger rail critics that there is a bright future for rail--in spite of the heavy price tag.

It only makes sense because neither Congress nor the White House has the stomach to raise the gas tax from 18.4 cents/gallon where it's been for almost 21 years. The highway infrastructure is crumbling and yet Congress fiddles while Rome burns. Meanwhile, the friendly skies became the unfriendly skies years ago as going to the airport now equals hassle for most people--not to mention, the loss of many amenities on flights.

Since Washington is unreliable in terms of funding, rail operators will have to be very creative. Train stations and their surrounding areas will be the key to passenger rail's success moving forward. All Aboard Florida is already taking a page out of the Japanese playbook with its plans for its Miami station.

Now, there will be some people in the rail community who will bemoan train stations resembling malls, but Washington Union Station is an extreme example of a facility that isn't thought of as a train station first. Whether anyone knows it or not, it has been intimated that one of the reasons why the original Penn Station in New York City fell in 1963 was due to a lack of non-rail uses.

By finding multiple uses for train stations, future rail operators can safeguard themselves against the next downturn in passenger rail--decades, maybe a century, from now.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Friends of the Eastern Flyer updates

It's good news-bad news in the Sooner State:

The good

The OK DOT selected Watco to operate the Oklahoma City-Tulsa rail line last month. As a result, Iowa Pacific will provide train service between the two areas, possibly as early as November. Initially, there will be shuttle buses that will serve the two cities, but actual train service to OKC and the capital could happen if the pilot project is successful.

The bad

The Tulsa-OKC study continues to be evaluated. It seems as if the state is determined to commit death by feasibility study for this particular corridor, which shouldn't take two years to complete.