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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 17, 2017

The Obama Legacy on Rail & the Next Four Years

Looking Back
In a matter of days, the POTUS who was the friendliest towards Amtrak will be leaving office and along with will be carrier's #1 fan, Vice President Biden. The stimulus funding was a much needed boost, but it should have only been the beginning as passenger rail has been underfunded and undermined for decades. In retrospect, all of the HSR portion of the stimulus money should have been allocated to California, and on the Amtrak front, Obama should have appointed Biden to assist the rail company.

Two other things about the Obama Administration that I lament are: 1) overcompensation and 2) Buy America. When I talk about overcompensation, I'm talking about Obama being too friendly towards Amtrak to the point that he awarded 97.4 percent of the stimulus projects to the national carrier. The competition portions in PRIIA should have been enforced. As for Buy America, the FRA has been the biggest barrier to moving forward by forcing commuter and intercity carriers to adhere to those provisions and to build heavy railcars. This country needs more railcar manufacturers so we don't end up with fiascoes like Nippon-Sharyo's Midwestern car order. I just don't think the way the current path is the way for diverse railcars.

Looking Ahead
Rail advocates may be fretting the next four years since Congress and the White House are in the hands of the same party that has historically shown hostility towards Amtrak. 

If some of their fears come to pass, then, most of them should take a look in the mirror because they didn't take my Grand Bargain advice after the collapse of the Florida HSR project and two Midwestern governors returning stimulus money to the White House (as well as Rick Scott). 

As far as being advocates for all rail carriers is concerned, what I've seen from most of these people isn't promising so far. Other than some praise for Brightline, the attitude towards other non-Amtrak carriers has ranged from skepticism to outright hostility. Their silence (and NARP's support) towards a 2012 Senate measure that would have driven other companies out of the U.S. market is an indicator that they should not be picking sides unless they want to be on the outside looking in whenever the rail renaissance happens.

On the other hand, a Congress and president who have far less faith in government's role could be a boon for independent operators. For starters, the True Believers have to get used to the fact that Amtrak is not going get anywhere close to a quarter of the $117 billion it says it needs for a brand new Northeast Corridor.

Some Consistency Please
In any case, the Trump Administration and Congress need to get the message that the passenger rail model as it's currently set up is broken and needs to be fixed because this stasis that has been in place since 1971 cannot continue. 
Consider what former Amtrak Reform Council Board member Bruce Chapman once said
The Bush folks knew we needed reform, but couldn’t deliver it, and wouldn’t fund the transition to a public-private partnership. The Obama people are prepared to spend plenty, but not to reform the system.
The previous president realized that the passenger rail model was broken beyond repair but was unwilling to fix it beyond talking about privatizing Amtrak. The current president spent tens of billions of stimulus and TIGER grant money so Amtrak could basically get a facelift (the CAHSR project and future NECR conventional service being the only non-Amtrak intercity routes to be funded) while paying no attention to Virgin or JR East on the HSR front nor to AIPRO members on the conventional rail front.

The bottom line is that we now need leadership in Washington to realize that both the public and private sectors are needed to boost passenger rail to the next level--from surviving to thriving, from just Amtrak to a number of different operators providing their special spin on service. Like I have said in the past, there are some routes that would be better off operated by someone other than Amtrak.

Trump, Shuster, and company need to realize that a separation of operations from infrastructure can be done while Amtrak apologists need to realize that efforts like AIRNet-21 will result in a separate public owner of infrastructure along the NEC, which would allow Amtrak to run its trains without worrying about the costs of tracks and bridges along the 457-mile route.