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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, December 12, 2015

Boardman's pending exit

Earlier this week, Amtrak president Joe Boardman dropped a bombshell: He will be retiring next September.


Don Phillips Was Right

It's too bad that Boardman doesn't leave any sooner because his tenure wasn't a matter of missed opportunities. Rather, it reeked of blown opportunities. The 2009-10 period was a time that Amtrak could have shown the public that it was ready to be the undisputed leader in American passenger railroading when European and Asian operators were not only showing interest in running trains here in this country but also had their own plans as well. 

Instead of being proactive, Boardman sent a letter to congressional leaders wanting to impose burdens on Amtrak's "state partners" when it came to liability issues in an effort to enact a high speed rail monopoly. 

The appropriate response to Virgin, SNCF, JR Central et al would have been for Amtrak to tell the public just what its expansion plans were. Even the often vilified George Warrington lined out a proposal of the even more vilified Mail and Express expansion plan. Where was Amtrak's plan? The evaluations of every single long distance route as mandated by PRIIA seemed to be a result of Amtrak management doing the bare minimum, and none of those feasibility studies resulted in suspended or discontinued routes being restored. Part of that is due to Congresscritters failing to call Amtrak on its bluff (I'm looking at you, Representative Corrine Brown). Outside groups had to conduct their own studies--and unsurprisingly, they called the national operator's bean counters on their b.s. 


Whither the National Network

Besides the controversial feasibility studies, "America's Railroad" has done little to improve the long distance network. First, Boardman refused to take Union Pacific to the Surface Transportation Board in 2009 when that railroad claimed that it would cost Amtrak $750 million to convert the Sunset Limited to daily status. Had he shown some guts, then, the STB would have likely have told UP to stop that act of extortion because everything lined up for passenger rail back then. 

Second, Joe Boardman is the reason why the Cardinal is still triweekly. He could have been more assertive on converting #50 & #51 to daily status but he chose not to.

Third, he has constantly thrown the long distance trains under the bus by yapping about how much money they lose rather than trying to make them better.

Fourth, he is only replacing equipment rather than adding equipment for the Eastern routes. It's obvious what a real visionary would do. Not to mention, the Viewliner II equipment is running into its own delays.

Fifth, the Western routes are outta sight outta mind by management in D.C.(i.e. no new equipment coming), and the Southwest Chief situation was Amtrak's own brand of extortion.

Finally, the current experiment in which the Silver Star is running without a dining car until May is making people in the rail community wonder whether it is more of a permanent, long term strategy. Cutting back on amenities when Amtrak has had record ridership over the last few years and when the much beleaguered overnights are often sold out will alienate casual riders.


Amtrak and the States: Unrequited Love

Another thing about Amtrak's "valued state partners," is that it's more of a one-way street than people imagine. Amtrak management knew that Section 209 of PRIIA allowed the states the option to pick other operators and it pulled out all the stops to keep every one of its 19 routes in its possession. The Senate tried in vain during the spring of 2012 to help out Amtrak by attaching provisions that would have not only all but kept independent operators out of the intercity market also driven them out of the commuter world as well.

Had there not been all of the hand wringing throughout 2013, maybe Indiana would not be on its own island and other states would have seen their costs go down.

Speaking of Indiana, the way Amtrak handled the Hoosier State handover was a disgrace. Of course, Amtrak could have avoided that whole crisis by converting the Cardinal to a daily route but failing that, the situation is reflective of the company's philosophy as a whole.

The first half of 2010 should have been a time for the operator to reevaluate just which state routes were valuable and which ones were expendable and let other operators bid on the latter group. Had management on Massachusetts Avenue done that, perhaps, Amtrak equipment would have been freed up to to be used in Amtrak-friendly territory.


The Likely Next Step

Boardman was supposed to be a temporary appointment seven years ago after the unremarkable tenure of former Union Pacific underling Andrew Kummant but the Amtrak Board removed the interim tag in mid-2010 for its own reasons.

Nine months is more than enough time for the board to select a permanent president and CEO, no excuses.

Honestly, though, I don't see anybody with any real vision being appointed to succeed Boardman. If the Amtrak Board of Directors couldn't select a visionary person when all signs pointed to a strongly pro-passenger rail environment, then, I can't see the BOD doing it next year when Congress is more hostile and the White House may become Amtrak-hostile in 2017. 

If anything, the next Amtrak president may be more of a political appointment in the veins of Sarah Feinberg being confirmed as the FRA chief despite having no rail experience and who had recently been Facebook's director of corporate and strategic communications.

I really hope that Congress enforces the provision in the FAST ACT that mandates competitive bidding on a long distance route and that states are allowed greater liberty when it comes to letting other operators run their routes.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Tackling the Headlines 79

Return of Vancouver Island service
Take: Even though service is likely a year away from being restored, this is a bit of good news for residents who have had nothing for a few years.

Beef up Via Rail or build HSR in Canada?
Take: Givne that political winds have shifted in Ottawa, it's definitely a good discussion to be had.

NM finds out that it can't dump the Rail Runner
Take: Good. Now, opponents should just deal with it.

Another Amshack bites the dust
Take: There's a reason why people call these stations Amshacks in the first place: It's not a complimentary term. As passenger rail travel continues to add ridership, the Amshacks all of a sudden point to a forgettable, bygone era. Good riddance to such atrocities as the new Rochester station will open in 2017.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Tackling the Headlines 78

XpressWest teams up with China
Take #1: Congratulations, I guess. No one on this side of the Pacific was willing to step up--Buy America rules, no funding for any type of HSR--so XpressWest had to do what it did.

Take #2: I'm pretty sure that once the line gets built that it'll only be an inevitability that CAHSR grants XpressWest trackage rights to Los Angeles.

Take: So much for letting local governments decide. If anybody is taking a step backwards, it's the General Assembly. Now that he's no longer Governor Pat McCrory's budget adviser, I seriously wonder if Art Pope is actually writing transportation policy for NC's legislative branch. After all, his John Locke Foundation has never had a kind word to say about any rail-related transit.

Take: At this point, a scaled-back approach is the only way to go because the money for 110 mph service isn't coming anytime soon. Just getting two or four trains at 79 mph to use the S-Line would do wonders for anyone who's had to use the Carolinian or the Silver Star along the congested A-Line.

Take #1: It's good to see that advocates in the area haven't given up on reviving service.

Take #2: Once again, it looks as though Minnesota will be doing the heavy lifting--until Scott Walker and his cronies leave office.

Take #3: Hopefully, implementation of this route will lead to a true rail system for the Badger State.

Take #4: Speaking of possible private operation: Somebody get Ed Ellis on Line 2...

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Tackling the Headlines 77

The future of Brunswick-Rockland service
Last week, the state of Maine decided to award the Brunswick-Rockland line to Central Maine & Quebec, and the new operator has no plans to operate passenger service. The two railroads were the only bidders on the state-owned line.

Upon losing the route, MERR owner Morristown & Erie put out a press release announcing that Halloween will be the last day for its excursions (Maine Eastern actually has it as October 25). Afterwards, M&E will receive the passenger equipment back in New Jersey to be used for excursions in that state.

Take: There has to be some kind of endgame here or the ME DOT really dropped the ball here. As some posters on Railroad.net have suggested, perhaps the move to dump Maine Eastern may very well coincide with extended Downeaster service to Rockland. 

I don't find it coincidental at all that Amtrak did a test run along the route last fall and all of a sudden, a number of railfans brought up the possibility of a Downeaster extension. For the last three-plus years, I have recommended that the state of Maine consult the Class II and Class III railroads and pay them to operate passenger service on the METRA model. Furthermore, if a Tea Party governor is relying on Amtrak to expand service in the Pine Tree State, then, it's very unlikely that a Democratic governor in 2019--given the typical political patterns--will think outside of the box by utilizing my suggestion, let alone inviting AIPRO members to run expanded service in Maine in lieu of Amtrak.

L.A. Metro rebranding
The people behind the Los Angeles mass transit system will dump colors in favor of letters by 2024.

Take: I don't know about this because it screams West Coast knockoff of New York's MTA subway lines.

NEC extension?
I stumbled onto this under the radar story a couple of days ago.

Take: When rail advocates talk about extending the Northeast Corridor south to Richmond, what Mr. Wilner mentioned is not what they have in mind.  It looks like the only thing the Senate has learned from its 2012 debacle is to make sure that absolutely no one say anything that could be seen as granting Amtrak special favors. Why does the Senate believe that Amtrak can manage extra trackage when most of the NEC is wear and tear from decades of neglect by the former Pennsylvania and Penn Central Railroads and Amtrak is constantly begging Congress for cash? So Donald Trump can build a hotel and casino next to an expanded Union Station? If this is more about a power play to get back at Keolis for winning the VRE contract as some suggest, then the U.S. Senate would be doing a disservice to Virginia riders.

Marks, MS station to open
Back in 2000, the buzz was about the City of New Orleans stopping between Memphis and Greenwood, MS. For whatever reason, it looked as though the Marks stop was as dead as then-Amtrak president George Warrington's expansion plan but that was until this news item.

Take: Spring 2016, huh? In any case, it's about time.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Resolved: The Hoosier State

On Friday, the neverending Hoosier State saga finally came to a conclusion when it was announced that Iowa Pacific would take over Trains #850 and 851 effective August 2, and it has a two-year contract with the Indiana DOT that could be extended to 2021.

I could never get why Amtrak was trying so hard to keep a train that they had no concrete plan to improve, no did I get why the feds wanted to impose hurdle after hurdle for IP.

Now, it's up to other states to start thinking outside of the box and not rely so heavily on just one operator.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Overhaul

Over the last few months, I've wondered about where I should take the direction of this blog amid stories that blogging in general was obsolete due to advances in social media.

After a lot of reflection, I have decided to do a serious restructuring.


Here's a list of what's staying

  • Tackling the Headlines 
  • State and national news with intercity routes 
  • Maps 
  • Schedules 
  • Reactions to magazine articles

What's gone (i.e. what's shifted to social networks)

  • Random thoughts (Google+)
  • Specific news items (Google+)
  • Detailed analysis on a major topic as it relates to passenger rail (Tumblr)
  • Personal advocacy (Tumblr)
  • Interesting links and stories (Tumblr)

I have been posting entries on this blog for the last 66 months straight and I've been proud to do so but at the same time, if there's the chance that I'm not keeping up, then I won't be afraid to change things up. I will take some time off in the summer depending on how the Hoosier State situation plays itself out. 

Nothing new on this blog will appear on Tumblr and vice versa. Speaking of Tumblr, here's my new page.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Tower 55 reroute

The Texas Eagle's Tower 55 reroute from its current Union Pacific tracks to Trinity Railway Express tracks has been in the news recently

Reasons for the reroute
  • It saves time
  • No more backing move at Fort Worth
  • The projected TEX Rail could transform the Dallas-Fort Worth area into a rail hub

Reasons against the reroute
  • The effort to reroute Amtrak trains onto TRE tracks was purely political
  • Amtrak delays north of Dallas or south of Fort Worth thanks to Sunset Route misadventures could adversely affect TRE trains
  • Removing the Eagle from the UPRR tracks could permanently result in the loss of access for future intra-Texas rail service

My personal thoughts
Although I do favor the separation of passenger and freight rights of way, I generally tend to support it in wide open rural areas as opposed to the Dallas-Fort Worth megaplex, which has sprawling suburbs.

The liability issue is doubly tricky since the T will be picking up the tab without any support from its TRE partner DART after the Fort Worth agency agreed to assume liability for accidents that involve the Eagle along its tracks.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Some front office news from Indiana

Last Friday, the INDOT commissioner resigned. This was the guy that put the kibosh on Corridor Capital's efforts to be the vendor of the Hoosier State after the person who was responsible for awarding CorrCap the original contract fell ill.

I smell a possible scandal with Browning. In any case, his presence will not be missed since he was cool to the idea of even keeping the Hoosier around.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Tackling the Headlines 76

Tri-Rail rolls out service at Miami International Airport transit hub
Take: It's now up to Amtrak once the road work is complete.

Dallas’ new streetcar begins service between downtown, Oak Cliff
Take: Perhaps, the folks in the nation's capital ought to be taking notes on how it should properly plan a streetcar.

Railroad losing $1 million plus annually on Warren County line 
Take: The story points out how the tracks were unused for three decades and that Iowa Pacific had to rebuild them for Saratoga & North Creek. How anyone on message boards be gloating about S&NC unable to make a profit is upsetting to this writer.

Senate Bill Targeting Bullet Train Project Advances
Take: Chalking this one to ignorance and the Lone Star State's anti-auto alternatives attitude.

Portland-Eugene Cascades Service May Disappear
Take: If Oregon can't figure this one out, then passenger service just may be doomed.

Friday, March 13, 2015

It's a draw

The Supreme Court delivered its ruling on Monday...just not on the Section 207 metrics. Instead, the high court ruled that Amtrak is a public organization.

I agree with those who say that SCOTUS punted and is setting up a much bigger battle later on. All of the buildup ends in a whimper. One would hope Congress will clarify the metrics in the upcoming rail bill but we'll see.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Is the end really near for the Hoosier State?

I'm still trying to rack my head over yesterday's jaw-breaking announcement that the Hoosier State will be discontinued after April 1. At first glance, the story seems straightforward, but upon another review, it becomes clearer that a cancellation isn't the issue but rather, an unnecessary power play from Washington.

I will dissect how the FRA's classification of states as rail carriers impacts the following organizations:


Indiana
While the state has badly botched the contract of the Hoosier State--see the Corridor Capital situation--I hesitate to blame the INDOT on this one. How in the world can Indiana be labeled as a rail carrier when the 196-mile stretch of the Hoosier is in the hands of multiple railroads with crappy tracks along the way?

Iowa Pacific

A quote from IP's Ed Ellis on Train Orders:


INDOT is working very hard to preserve this service, and I can assure you a lot of lawyer time has been spent trying to get FRA to back down from this. 
And there is no FRA guideline. There was no "Notice of Proposed Rulemaking." There was no comment period. There was no record of decision on the question of whether FRA can require a state to be a railroad. 


It's a shame that yet another contractor is getting the shaft. Just when a route is about to be covered by a vendor who really wants to improve the service, the rug is pulled from under them by the feds.


Amtrak

There's this gem from the Amtrak head honcho:


Daily Amtrak service to Indianapolis does not have to end in April. Amtrak has offered to continue to operate the train on a month-to-month basis.
Amtrak is ready, willing and able to continue to provide safe and reliable service using one of the proven models we’ve used in other states.
We have shown how the quality of the passenger experience can be improved by demonstrating modern Wi-Fi and business class seating. We have the expertise in working with the host railroads and have repeatedly offered to be the state’s and the communities’ partner in advancing plans to improve the travel time and the reliability of the service. 

He's really acting like the superhero here when in reality, his company has been desperate since June. Hello, that free stuff was done in an effort to keep the Hoosier State from going to Corridor Capital--and it worked. It looks like Amtrak is trying to preserve the Hoosier State status quo rather than improving the route, and it can't stand the idea of Trains #850 & #851 being Amtrak trains in name only.

FRA
The agency's blindsiding of Indiana was even more proof of what I said over three years ago: the FRA is the #1 barrier to innovation (want more examples? Then, go here). So, to tell me that the same agency that couldn't be bothered to enforce the Pilot Program requirement of PRIIA (aka Section 214) for other operators to operate an existing Amtrak route is now taking it upon itself enforce new regulations on any state that wants to replace Amtrak!

This looks like the folks in D.C. are determined to preserve the Amtrak monopoly because the real target is not Indiana, the real targets are Washington state and Oregon because there's a better chance that those two states could dump Amtrak in favor of another operator. If that happens, then California will look at it and wonder if that extra $19 million to "America's Railroad" was really worth it when it could have gone with an independent operator almost a year and a half ago. Since most people see the Golden State as the trendsetter, the dominoes would start falling for Amtrak if two of the three corridors--likely the Capitols and San Joaquins since the Surfliner Cars are primarily Amtrak-owned--were to go to other passenger operators.


There truly is something rotten in the state of Denmark when the states are not allowed to freely select other operators in an effort to improve their services. As a matter of fact, this overbearing by the Federal Railroad Administration is just the latest in recent memory. I have a list of their other idiotic actions here. And if what's happening to Indiana spreads to other states, then, it needs to be smacked down by Congress and the Supreme Court.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Tackling the Headlines 75

Passenger train service between Ann Arbor and Traverse City being discussed
Take: Should the study get the green light, the shortline operator should be tapped to run trains along the route.

Study to extend Keystone Service to Pittsburgh
There's a lively debate over at Trainorders concerning the cost.

Take: It is ridiculous that it should come anywhere close to $1 billion let alone $10 billion to just produce additional frequencies especially when host Norfolk Southern concluded a decade ago that it would only cost $140 million for two additional frequencies. One has to wonder what the previous administration in Harrisburg was up to with the extremely high cost of that feasibility study.

Oklahoma’s Amtrak service facing funding shortfall
Take: Uh, what happened to the state and Texas possibly contracting this route to another operator? The hosts only want Amtrak on their rails argument is being used by a copout by Oklahoma.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Yet another Hoosier State extension for Amtrak

The only news out of Indiana is that the status quo will hold form for another two months:


Amtrak will continue to operate the Hoosier State train between Indianapolis and Chicago under an Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) contract extension through April 1, 2015. A previous extension expires on Jan. 31.
Remember all that free stuff? Amtrak has discontinued it.

Hoosier State Trains 850 and 851: AmtrakConnect Wi-Fi and Other Services Discontinued
Effective February 1, 2015
The AmtrakConnect® Wi-Fi, Business class seating and light refreshments will be discontinued on the Hoosier State, as scheduled, on February 1, 2015.
In October 2014, Amtrak announced its demonstration of Wi-Fi capabilities and other services aboard the Hoosier State through January 31, 2015. The State of Indiana has chosen not to fund the continuation of these services.
Funny for Amtrak to pin the blame on Indiana when it only implemented Business Class, Wi-Fi, and snacks when it looked like a done deal that it was going to lose most functions of the service. Now, that Corridor Capital has been kicked to the curb, it has acted like a true monopoly.

Tackling the Headlines 74

It's a tale of two proposed Miami passenger stations

The downtown location is about to begin construction while the airport hub continues to be delayed.

Take: All Aboard Florida will take much less time to complete its hub than the state of Florida will with its version. The miscommunication between "America's Railroad" and the Sunshine State and various money issues plays right into the hands of libertarians who want full-on privatization of passenger services.

New Cleveland intermodal center is on the way

This has been in the works for years but has been delayed due to cost.

Take: I'd like to wish city officials good luck since Union Terminal has only accepted electric trains throughout its history and hasn't had commuter service since 1977.

SNCF expresses interest in operating HSR in Texas

This bit of news is actually a reiteration of its plans over five years ago.

Take: If the French operator can actually launch this plan and keep the slimy lawyers at bay, then, this will provide Lone Star State passengers with alternative travel options and SNCF and Texas Central will provide their own type of matrix effect for high speed systems.

Minnesota getting serious about Zip Rail

There are some links in this story to get you going.

Take: I'll definitely be keeping an eye on this project as Gopher State officials are planning for the future--unlike some of their Midwestern neighbors.

Chinese proposing HSR in Canada?

The route would be between Toronto and Windsor.

Take: This is a long ways away--no matter who operates it--but another player has entered the game. Also, this route should be taken north along the Detroit River to link a potential Detroit-Chicago Express HSR route at a revamped Michigan Central Station so passenger can travel between T.O. and the Windy City either nonstop or with only one transfer in Motown.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

A Real Rail Agenda for the 114th Congress

As a new Congress begins its session, here are some areas it should tackle when it comes to passenger rail re-authorization:

State corridors and competition
I sincerely hope that Congress is serious about letting the states the freedom to select other operators. The new bill has to figure out how state corridors are handled, and there are two options: Uphold the Section 209 measures as laid out in the 2008 law or strike down the measures. 

If Congress decides to leave the provisions as they are, states should be allowed to have greater flexibility if they want to dump Amtrak so there won't be a repeat of the 2013 scarefests.

On the other hand, if the feds decide that funding state-supported trains is their responsibility, then, Congress has to look to Germany as an example on how to protect the states.

When it comes to bidding for passenger routes, Congress would be wise to consider setting up separate processes for corridors and long distance routes.

Northeast Corridor
The 2011 proposal that Ignacio Jayanti put forward to the 112th Congress was practical but got muddled by cries of "privatization." Having someone else fix up the crumbling infrastructure will solve the "Hudson River Tunnels will collapse in 20 years problem."

National outlook
Letting public and private entities compete against Amtrak should be a top priority for a Congress that purports to advocate smaller government. Grand bargaining could result in the the spinoff of NEC infrastructure from operations as mentioned above but could keep other operators off Amtrak's prized jewel while the national operator has to give up routes in other parts of the country.

Finally, Congress and the White House should lay the groundwork for a new national rail network because it would far more practical, connect far more parts of the country, and may cost much less money than having 10-15 separate, disjointed corridors.