Sunday, November 30, 2008

Crash Avoidance System Plays Havoc With SEPTA LRVs

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that crash-avoidance technology installed on SEPTA light rail lines is causing "chronic rush hour delays" despite spending $25 million and working for nearly a decade to de-bug the system. The technology is used to prevent rear-end collisions between light rail vehicles in a 2 1/2-mile tunnel running from Center City to the west side. But, it causes trains to run too slowly and results in backups.

Empire State Upgrades In Store

Amtrak trains running the Empire Corridor through New York State have a deserved reputation for delays and unsatisfactory accommodations. The Albany Times Union reports that could change for the better over the next two years as three lines using the corridor are put through Amtrak's route performance improvement program.

The lines being discussed are the Adirondack, between New York and Montreal; Empire Service, between New York, Albany-Rensselaer and Niagara Falls, and the Lake Shore Limited between New York, Chicago and Boston. One of the aims is to improve on-time performance, currently around 67 percent. Other ideas being discussed to increase ridership are restored food and beverage service on trains between New York and Albany-Rensselaer and improved car cleaning.

Amtrak has already restored through cars between Boston and Chicago on the Lake Shore in place of across-the-platform transfers at Albany-Rensselaer, and there are track improvements to alleviate bottlenecks in store there.

With Bush Out, is High-Speed In In Florida?

In 2000, Florida voters approved a ballot referendum calling for construction of a high-speed rail line linking Tampa, Orlando and Miami. Four years later, at the urging of then-Gov. Jeb Bush, voters did a 180 and passed another measure derailing the plan. Now with Jeb Bush out of the Florida state house and his brother, President George W. Bush, getting ready to leave the White House, the Sunshine State might take a second look at high-speed rail.

In recent weeks U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown , D-Jacksonville, and John Mica, R-Winter Park, have renewed calls for the rail line. They see it as tying in with President-elect Obama's economic stimulus plans, which emphasize transportation and environment-friendly projects.

While at this stage the notion of a Florida high-speed rail network is little more than an idea getting a fresh look, it is important to note the changes that have taken place since 2004.
  • Growing recognition that we must cut our dependency on carbon-based fuels, in part to avoid the environmental consequences of global warming.
  • A new progressive administration taking office in Washington.
  • Infrastructure investment is one of the key economic recovery strategies being adopted by the new administration.
  • California has said yes to high-speed rail, so Florida and other states don't want to be left behind.

Idea of the Day

The Long Island Rail Road pension scandal has made the national news. I'd love to see authorities recoup past payments and use the money to help defray the MTA's pending 23 percent fare hike.

Economy Delays Provo Train

Railway Gazette International reports that economic conditions have led the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) to postpone opening of the FrontRunner regional rail line between Salt Lake City and Provo until 2013. It had been scheduled to begin service in mid-2012. However, two TRAX light rail lines will now open earlier than planned: a line to Salt Lake City International Airport will go into service in 2013, one year earlier than planned, and a route to Draper will open in early 2012, two years ahead of schedule. FrontRunner service between Salt Lake City and Ogden began last May.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Doomed Detroit Depot

Detroit's Michigan Central Station was one of America's greatest train stations as well as one of the Motor City's grandest structures. In its heyday, it served crack trains of the New York Central, Baltimore & Ohio and Canadian Pacific railroads, among them the Ambassador, Cincinattian, Detroiter, Mercury and Twilight Limited.

Like most other urban terminals, Michigan Central's fortunes declined with the waning of passenger rail service during the 1950s and 1960s. When Amtrak began operations in 1971, it fielded only two daily departures to Chicago. Finally, in 1988, Amtrak gave up and exited for a new, smaller facility.

But Michigan Central did not share in the good fortune of depots in other large midwestern cities. While union stations in St. Louis, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Cincinnati were successfully converted to other uses and, in the latter three cases, still provide scaled-down passenger rail facilities, Michigan Central's last 20 years have been a gradual descent into hell. A collection of photographs by Joe Braun documents the extent of the deterioration.

It's a sad sight and not for the feint of heart. Seeing Joe's photos was disturbing for me because I have long held a warm spot in my heart for Michigan Central because it bookended my first overnight train trip, aboard New York Central's Wolverine, to attend my cousin's Bar Mitzvah in 1960. Even at the tender age of six, it seemed a majestic place that served as a fitting counterpoint to New York's Grand Central Terminal, where I had left the night before.

As Joe points out in his essay, Michigan Central was hurt by its location, a few miles south of downtown Detroit, and the lack of adequate parking. But its real enemy was the city it served, Detroit, the home of the industry that nearly killed passenger rail and caused severe harm to virtually every American city.

As everyone knows, the Big Three motor vehicle manufacturers - GM, Ford and Chrysler - are headquartered in Detroit or its suburbs. These companies were the engine that drove not only Detroit's economy, but also that of the the entire state of Michigan and, indeed, a good segment of the U.S. economy.

Americans flocked to automobiles, especially after World War II, and as they did passenger rail travel declined markedly. Consumer-friendly mortgage practices made home ownership a realizable dream for members of the growing middle class. Developers purchased farmland on the outskirts of cities and built tract houses upon it. Suburbia was born, and soon after superhighways, shopping malls and office parks followed.

New living and transportation patterns came, too. In cities that did not have strong public transportation, the movement of businesses to the suburbs became particularly acute. They lacked the infrastructure to handle the influx of tens of thousands of automobiles coming into downtown areas on a daily basis. Businesses realized they could move out to the suburbs where land was cheaper. They erected new corporate headquarters that spread out over several acres on plots containing large parking lots and lavishly landscaped grounds.

No city was more affected by this trend than Detroit. Even thought it ranked as the nation's fourth largest city in 1950 with a population of 1.8 million, it lacked a modern public transportation system; it's commuter rail network was minimal, at best. Its problems were exacerbated by the 1967 race riot, which accelerated the movement of white families to the suburbs.

Today, Detroit's population is around half of what it was in 1950, and most of those who remain lack the means to leave. Yet, it sits at the heart of a huge metropolitan area with a population of nearly 4.5 million people. Where did everyone go? To the suburbs, of course.

Detroit is America's greatest failure in social engineering. It created an industry that turned a city on itself. Ironically, that industry now appears to be failing, too, a victim of its deaf ear to the needs of the market it helped create. The Big 3 have come begging to Washington for a $25 billion bailout. I can think of a better place to put that money.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Service to Cape Cod: A Third Coming?

The Barnstable Patriot reports that John Kennedy, CEO of Cape Rail, intends to file plans with the state of Massachusetts to operate a passenger rail service from Buzzards Bay to Middleboro/Lakeville. There, riders could make an across-the-platform connection with MBTA trains for service to/from Boston. It ran an excursion over the route last Saturday. If the operation proves successful, it could be extended to Hyannis.

This would be a third coming for rail service between Cape Cod and the Boston area. The New Haven railroad ended its service from Beantown to Cape Cod in 1959. In the mid-1980s, the Cape Cod & Hyannis railroad operated some of its excursion trains out of Hyannis to Braintree, where passengers could connect with the "T's" red line.

The story in the Patriot said the run from Boston to Buzzards Bay could be made in 90 minutess, including the transfer at Middleboro. That would be fairly competitive with driving. Since trains would originate at Buzzards Bay, the entrance to the Cape, it seems this service would be oriented toward commuters. It would resemble connecting services like the Long Island Rail Road's Ronkonkoma - Greenport shuttle.

The questions to be answered are how much would it cost upgrade the line from Buzzards Bay to Middleboro to passenger train speeds, and who will pay for it.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Cause for Thanks

I learned of yesterday's terrorist threat against New York City subways and commuter railroads from a young relative from California who is staying with us for Thanksgiving. At first I thought someone was pulling his leg, and did not believe it until I saw the story on a news site. Not being a frequent rail traveler, he seemed quite concerned. I told him not to worry , although I had noticed an unusually high police presence that morning at Penn Station.

We agreed to meet on a street corner outside Penn Station where it would be easier to spot him than in the nation's busiest railroad depot on the busiest travel days of the year. There was a police mobile command post on the corner and several police officers on patrol by foot and car. Without warning, at least a dozen patrol cars pulled out into Eighth Avenue to head north, as if something was going on. I met up with my wife's cousin and our trip on the Long Island Rail Road was without incident.

Today I am thankful for the FBI, which intercepted a "plausible but unsubstantiated" terrorist threat back in September and for New York's Finest for their excellence performance yesterday. I am saddened, thought, that authorities in Mumbai didn't have the same kind of advance warning so they might have been able to prevent or defend against the horrible terrorist attacks there that have claimed over 100 lives, so far.

It's a sober reminder that in this year, in which so much has gone badly on global and personal levels, that there is still much to be thankful for. Our economy may be in the tank and our troops are engaged in two wars, but our democratic institutions remain intact and we have elected new leadership with the vision to guide us in confronting the challenges we face. In times like this, I am reminded of a line from an old Roy Orbison tune: "Today's teardrops bring tomorrows rainbows."

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Downeaster Extension Contingent on FRA Loan

Two real estate projects in Brunswick and Freeport, ME, with a combined value of $70 million, are banking on extension of Amtrak's Downeaster route from Portland to Brunswick. There's one not-so-small glitch. The extension is contingent upon the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA) , which operates the train, receiving a $35 million loan from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).

Completion of the line would close a 30-mile rail service gap between the Downeaster, which now terminates in Portland, and the Maine Eastern's excursion train, which runs from Brunswick to Rockland. The money would pay for station platforms and upgrading the track, which is owned by Pan American Railways, formerly Maine Central.

NNEPRA hopes to commence service for Fall 2010. The agency's Patricia Quinn says delays in obtaining FRA loan approval could push back that schedule, however. Application for the loan was submitted in May. It is not clear how the departure of FRA administration Joseph Boardman to become chief executive officer of Amtrak will impact the decision-making process.

The two projects tied to development of the rail line are Maine Street Station, a $25 million multi-use project in Brunswick that will include a 2,400 square foot railroad station, and the $45 million Village Station shopping and parking garage complex currently under construction in Freeport.

Quinn is confident of eventually receiving FRA's approval, citing the Downeaster's track record , including a 32 percent jump in ridership last year to make her case.
"It really is a success story. It's really proved to be an economic development. It's going to open up a whole new corridor from Rockland to Boston for that development to occur. I truly believe the loan will be approved. We're giving it everything we have going forward and keeping our fingers crossed that this will happen sooner rather than later."

Did Deferred Maintenance Contribute to LIRR Derailment?

A derailment just west of the busy Jamaica station Sunday played havoc with Long Island Rail Road operations for two days this week. WCBS-TV reports that a former Metropolitan Transportation Authority board member fears that deferred maintenance resulting from budget cuts might have contributed to the incident.

MTA Launches Service Alert Message System

In the last week, customers of New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority have had their travel plans affected by a minor collision and a derailment at Jamaica and, today, threats of an Al-Quaeda terrorist attack. So the MTA's press release yesterday announcing "an email and text messaging system that will notify registered customers of planned and unplanned service changes at any of the MTA's family of transportation agencies" is welcome news.

Customers will be able to register on MTA's website to receive alerts about any combination of subway lines, bus routes, rail lines, bridges or tunnels. They can choose to receive them 24/7, or only during a particular time of day or week.

Kerry, Specter Seek High-Speed Rail $$

Hoping to jump start the economy and rebuild some of America's second-rate infrastructure, Sens. John Kerry, D-MA, and Arlen Specter, R-PA, have introduced legislation in the Senate authorizing the sales of $23 billion of tax-exempt bonds to finance high-speed rail lines. If passed, the bill could make a hefty contribution toward the California High-Speed Rail line, for which voters in that state authorized a $10 billion bond sale earlier this month.
In a news release, Sen. Kerry said:
“A first-rate rail system would protect our environment, save families time and money, reduce our dependency on foreign oil, and help get our economy moving again. The High-Speed Rail for America Act will help fix our crumbling infrastructure system, expand our economy, and match high-tech rail systems across the globe.”
Added Sen. Specter:
“We must continue to focus our energies on building and maintaining a strong national passenger rail system in order to ease congestion of air and highway corridors connecting high-growth markets, as well as to meet energy and environmental goals.”
The High-Speed Rail for America Act of 2008 provides $8 billion over a six-year period for tax-exempt bonds to finance rail projects with top speeds of at least 110 miles per hour. It also authorizes issuances of two categories of qualified tax-credit bonds: $10 billion over ten years for true high-speed lines like the California project and the Northeast Corridor and $5.4 billion for lines that run at lower speeds, specifically the ten rail corridors previously designated by the Federal Railroad Administration around the country.

Boardman Takes the Amtrak Throttle

Earlier this decade, when he was New York State's Commissioner of Transportation, Joseph Boardman tussled with Amtrak's then-CEO David Gunn over an ill-fated high-speed train between New York and Albany-Rensselaer and sued the railroad. This week, he stepped into Gunn's former spot as interim CEO replacing Alex Kummant, who left earlier this month.

The appointment is for one year, giving Amtrak's Board of Directors time to conduct an extended search for a permanent replacement. Boardman, 59, has spent his public service career working on transportation issues at all levels of government. Prior to joining Amtrak, he headed the Federal Railroad Administration.
"He is intimately familiar with Amtrak, its strengths, its weaknesses and the direction it needs to go to build momentum," Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black said. "He can begin to lead the company immediately."
With record ridership, a new rail-friendly administration and a Congressional authorization that would provide more money than it needs to the maintain the status quo, the stars may be aligned for Amtrak for the first time in its 37-year history. As Paul Weyrich notes in his weekly column:
"Whoever it is (new Amtrak CEO) will come in at an unprecedented time for Amtrak. The railroad always has had strong support in Congress. This is the first time since President Richard M. Nixon signed the Amtrak Bill against the advice of his aides Haldeman and Ehrlichman that the railroad will have strong support from the Executive Branch."
In his column, which offers the back story behind Kummant's departure, Weyrich points out that since the retirement of W. Graham Claytor in the early 1990s, Amtrak bosses have not lasted long. Boardman becomes the fifth Amtrak CEO since Claytor, following Tom Downs, George Warrington, Gunn and Kummant.

Many of the problems have stemmed from poor relationships between Amtrak's board, which tends to be hands on, and its CEOs. Concludes Weyrich:
"If the new person could get along with Board Members life at 60 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, would be much better. "

Monday, November 24, 2008

Recalling a Thanksgiving Trip From Amtrak's Early Years

Thanksgiving is traditionally Amtrak's busiest travel period. The railroad adds dozens of trains in the Northeast Corridor and adds cars to runs in other parts of the country. It's a treat for railfans since equipment from MARC, SEPTA and MBTA is often leased to help out with the crunch.

My one experience with the Thanksgiving rush came in 1976 when I came home to Long Island from South Carolina, where I was working as a newspaper reporter. I managed to string together a few days of comp time into a five-day break that would enable me to spend the holiday with the family and leave time for travel by train.

After work on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I drove over to the Southern Railway's depot in Greenville to await the northbound Southern Crescent, en route from New Orleans to Washington. The Southern was one of the few Class I railroad to stay out of Amtrak, and the Crescent, its last train, was maintained to impeccable standards - a matches stainless steel consist hauled by four green, gold and white E-8 diesel electric locomotives, each named for one of the 17 signers of the Declaration of Independence from the four southern states.

The train left a little before 10 p.m. I settled into my coach seat and then headed to the lounge car for what I hoped would be a night of partying. Much to my surprise, not long after I found a seat there the attendant announced "last call." He explained that he had to close up before the train reached the state line because North Carolina was a "dry" state.

After downing my cocktail I returned to my seat but, as is usually the case, I could not fall asleep. Somewhere it Virginia, probably between Danville and Lynchburg, I headed to the dining to to await the call for breakfast. I chatted with a young school teacher from a small town in Virginia who talked about her students. She showed me the paper of one who said her dream was to kiss (wrestler) Ric Flair.

As we chatted, the dining car crew strolled toward the kitchen, including Louis Price, the Southern Railway chef featured in the railroad's advertising for the Crescent. I said "hello" and asked him about a rumor that President-elect Jimmy Carter had asked him to come work for him in the White House. I don't remember much about breakfast other than the delectable bran muffins Louis had whipped up and that I ate somewhere around Charlottesville. About 2 1/2 hours later we were coming into Washington D.C.

Shortly after we arrived, the through cars for New York - two coaches and a sleeper - were attached to the rear of a Boston-bound Northeast Corridor train. However, we were operated as a separate train within a train with our own cafe car and apart from the other passengers. The cafe car was a former Pennsylvania Railroad parlor car, and for the price of my coach ticket, I enjoyed the luxury of a first-class individual swivel seat the last 225 miles to New York.

For the return trip, I was able to persuade my father to spring for a roomette between from Washington to Greenville. In those days, it was a mere $21 extra.

I recall Penn Station being mobbed, but I had no trouble boarding my train. My seat mate on the New York-Washington leg, I learned, was a student returning to Spellman College in Atlanta. Once we reached Washington, I headed forward to take my space in the sleeper. It was my first sleeping car experience and the only one I would have on the Southern.

The only thing I remember from that trip was the dinner, an excellent prime rib. I was too tired to socialize, and with a 6 a.m. arrival in Greenville I decided to hit the hay early. Once again, sleep did not come easy. I can remember rolling through Gastonia. Not long after I finally nodded off, the porter rang to buzzer to let me know we had just left Spartanburg and would be arriving in Greenville in less than an hour. I quickly got dressed, and was ready when the train reached Greenville on time. I drove home and napped for a few hours before going to work.

Both the Southern and Amtrak had provided what they were supposed to: safe, dependable transportation with decent accommodations and meals. Even the sorry state of the Northeast Corridor in the months after Amtrak acquired it from Penn Central would not prove an impediment. I hope everyone traveling by train this holiday will have a comparable experience.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

West Virginia Counties Ponder Saving Train

$2,380 per passenger. Is it worth that much to keep a commuter train running?

That's a question legislators in Jefferson and Berkeley Counties, West Virginia, will likely consider in coming months. To help close a budget gap, Maryland's MARC commuter line wants to curtail the 7:15 p.m. train from Washington Union Station to Martinsburg, WV, west of Brunswick, MD. Once the train crosses the Potomac River and enters West Virginia there are a mere 42 passengers on board on a typical weeknight.

To keep the train running, two legislators from Jefferson County have proposed that each of the two counties in the state's Eastern Panhandle kick in $50,000 to help reduce MARC's $350,000 deficit on the line, according to the Journal-News newspaper. That $100,000 contribution would replace money that the state of West Virginia no longer provides.

If the 7:15 p.m. departure goes, two MARC trains would still serve West Virginia customers. But, Jefferson County Commissioner Greg Corliss fears it would be difficult to restore the service once it is gone because host railroad CSX needs the capacity for its freight trains. Given that the Eastern Panhandle is a growing home to Washington workers, keeping the train growing seems far-sighted.

LIRR Gap Fix Gap May Widen

Thanks to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's doomsday budget, it could take two years longer than planned to fix the gaps between station platforms and Long Island Rail Road commuter trains, Newsday reports. As part of a plan to eliminate 327 jobs by 2010, eight of the 28 positions assigned to the $20.7 million gap remediation project would be cut, as well. According to LIRR President Helena Williams, the move would extend the project completion date "a couple of years."

Between 1995 and 2007 there were 800 gap-related accidents on the Long Island Rail Road, according to Newsday. One claimed the life of Natalie Smead, a Minnesota teenager, who fell into a gap at the Woodside station and was struck by a train.

I agree with LIRR Commuters Council chairman Gerard Bringmann. Putting off completion of the project is "penny-wise and pound-foolish." One major lawsuit could easily wipe out any savings from the delays, and the decision could heighten the railroad's negligence, possibly putting in line for punitive damages.

Weyrich: Voters Will Pay Taxes for Good Transit

Paul M. Weyrich is a rare individual; a conservative thought leader who is also an advocate for mass transit and rail transit. In his column in the National Ledger, he delivers an important message for policy makers on both sides of the political spectrum:
"Let no one say that voters will refuse to tax themselves for good transit. If they doubt the will of the voters let them examine the votes of 2008."
Weyrich notes that in the November general election, voters across to country approved 70 percent of the transit-related ballot intitiatives up for a vote. Among them the California High-Speed Rail projects and major investments planned for Seattle and Los Angeles. The approved measures would add $75 billion in transit investment, according to the Center for Transportation Excellence.

Hopefully state and federal lawmakers trying to deal with agency budget gaps and other transit finance issues will note of Mr. Weyrich's message.

Did Opposition to Congestion Pricing Pour Fuel on MTA's Fare Hike Fire?

When the New York State legislature failed to approve a congestion pricing plan that would have imposed a weekday fee on vehicles entering the southern half of Manhattan Island, they walked away from $500 million a year to pay for transit improvements plus $360 million in federal aid. With New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority looking to hike railroad, subway and bus fares and bridge and tunnel tolls by 23 percent to close a $1.2 billion budget gap, the move looks shortsighted today, according to an editorial in Westchester County's Journal News.

The funds would have helped mitigate the fare hike two ways, not only would it have created a new revenue stream to support transit, just as the MTA acquisition of the Triborough Bridge & Tunnel Authority did 40 years ago, but it would have been a disincentive for driving into Manhattan that would have resulted in more more suburban commuters riding Metro North and the Long Island Rail Road and paying for monthly commuter passes.

That's the kind of behavior the plan was supposed to bring about, i.e. get people out of their cars. That's what happened when gasoline prices over $4 per gallon:
"...sent so many motorists scurrying for Metro-North trains. That's exactly how an incentive to choose mass transit is supposed to work. Driving became untenable; the train - the cleaner, cheaper and greener alternative - suddenly made better sense."
But the MTA fare hikes might have the opposite effect, especially for motorists who can access free bridges to reach Manhattan. That's what the transportation planners who created the "Kheel Plan" calling for free transit in New York fear. In an article in Streetsblog, they predict a 25 percent fare hike would put 30,000 more cars on New York's most congested streets, reduce subway ridership by six percent and slow the snail's pace of New York traffic by another four percent.

So, lets give three Bronx cheers to Speaker of the Assembly Sheldon Silver and all the politicians, especially from the suburbs, for their shortsighted opposition to congestion pricing. They did their transit-rising constituents no favors.

BART Coming to Silicon Valley

Not only have California voters approved a measure to issue $9.9 billion of bonds to construction a high-speed rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles and Anaheim, but in that state Santa Clara County voters have given the necessary two-thirds majority to approve a referendum raising the sales tax to help pay for a $6.1 billion extension of BART from Fremont to Santa Clara via San Jose. Trains for America has more.

The San Jose Mercury-News says the line extension could transform that city's Diridon Station, which was built by the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1935, into the "Grand Central Terminal of the West," served by BART, Amtrak, Caltrain, Altamont Commuter Express, VTA light rail and the new California High-Speed Rail line.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

South Shore Heading to Lowell

The Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District (NICTD), which operates the South Shore Railroad from Chicago to South Bend, has plans for two line extensions to Lowell and Valparaiso. It now appears the Lowell branch will be built first, according to the Gary Post-Tribune.

NICTD is counting on $500 million in new start funding from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to pay for half the project's cost. But to get the FTA money, the project had a meet a minimum cost-benefit threshold. The Lowell line, which uses existing railroad tracks did; the Valparaiso line did not.

(South Shore train approaches station in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. Photo by Robert J. McConnell)

Are train riders returning to the highways?

Rising gasoline prices helped produce huge ridership gains for Amtrak, commuter railroads and transit lines around the country this year. But with gas prices now falling, it seems, in tandem with the Dow Jones Industrial Average, there is evidence to suggest commuters are heading back to their cars.

The Los Angeles Times reports today this to be the case in Southern California. It says ridership for bus, subway and light rail lines operated by Los Angeles County's Metropolitan Transportation Authority was 1 1/2 percent lower in October than July, when gas prices peaked. Metrolink ridership fell from 50,142 weekday riders to 48,629 in October.

There is little that operating authorities can do about falling gas prices. There is a lot, however, they can do, to keep the seats of their trains filled with fannies. Among them, provide adequate capacity to avoid overcrowding; maintain clean, comfortable equipment, take timekeeping seriously, keep fares reasonable and always remember - SAFETY FIRST, SAFETY ALWAYS.

The industry has made good headway toward capturing a larger share of travel. Here's hoping it doesn't backslide.

Oops! They Did It Again

Metrolink passenger trains and freight trains seem to go together like pills and alcohol. Ten weeks after 25 persons died and 135 injured when a Metrolink commuter train had a head-on collision with a Union Pacific freight train near Chatsworth, CA, another Metrolink train ran into a BNSF freight train. It happened near Rialto, CA, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles.

Thankfully, this was a lightly patronized midday run that had only 15 passengers and crew aboard. Both trains were moving slowly, and according to Associated Press there were only four minor injuries. But, it does little to restore confidence in Metrolink's safety, and coming the day after a similar collision fouled the Long Island Rail Road's morning rush just west of the Jamaica station, it is bound to become fodder for sensational reports on rail safety in tabloid-style media.

Safety first. It's not just a motto, but it is essential to passenger trust.

Will "Doomsday" Budget Prevail?

New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority today put forth a "doomsday" budget for 2009 that calls for service reductions, layoffs and a 23 percent increase in fare and toll revenue to close a $1.2 billion budget gap that is expected to swell to $3 billion by 2012. Under the plan, base subway and bus fares would jump from $2 to $2.50. Long Island Rail Road and Metro North passengers would pay more, as would motorists who use MTA's bridges and tunnels.

The pain is real, but the situation also tests the commitment of politicians and taxpayers to supporting public transit in the most transit-dependent region in the United States. MTA Executive Director Eliot Sander pointed out that the pain could be alleviated if the state legislature acts next year to forestall the fare hikes and service cuts or if the Ravitch Commission, which is investigating new ways of funding the MTA, comes up with viable solutions.

I'm cautiously hopeful that fares and tolls won't rise as much as feared, i.e. that Albany will act in response to pressure from politicians wanting to look like heroes. (New York City elects a mayor in 2009 and the largest suburban counties - Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester elect county executives.). On the other hand, the state of the economy and New York's financial woes put a limit on how much taxpayers will be able to bail out the MTA.

The higher fares will hurt the weakest the most, i.e. those who travel from the outer boroughs to low-paying jobs. They comprise a substantial part of New York's population, and their interests are, to some extent, aligned with the more affluent commuters from the suburbs. Student who attend The City University of New York and go to school by subway or bus face a double whammy since Gov. David Paterson has proposed a $600 (15%) tuition hike.

Economics 101 tells us that higher transit fares and lower gasoline prices are likely to yield a shift in travel from railways to highways. That's one of the downsides of the market: people vote with their pocketbooks, even when there are hidden social costs, e.g. congestion, greenhouse gas emissions.

The problems affecting New York's MTA are part of a national trend. They are just more prominent here because of our transit dependency.

I believe we can cure a lot of ills by imposing stiff taxes on gasoline to promote fuel conservation, encourage travelers to use public transit, keep transit fares low and invest in new transit infrastructure. Not only can it support all these goals, but it can be an antidote to higher oil prices once the economy improves and it can give auto manufacturers incentives to produce and market fuel efficient and hybrid cars instead of the gas guzzling trucks and SUVs now rolling off the assembly lines and taking up space in dealer showrooms, parking lots and highways.

Editor's note: Details of the MTA plan at TransitBlogger.com

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

So long, S.L.U.T.


When it opened in 1894, St. Louis Union Station was the largest and busiest railroad depot in the world, with a trainshed spanning 11 1/2 acres. But, when Amtrak was formed in 1971 the number of trains serving the giant terminal had fallen to four arrivals and four departures each day. Not needing such a large facility, Amtrak moved out in 1978, leaving the landmarked station to be transformed into a mixed-use complex of hotels, offices, restaurants and stores.

In its place, Amtrak moved into a cluster of trailers that was supposed to be a "temporary" facility that wags labeled St. Louis Union Trailer (S.L.U.T.) Finally, 30 years later, Amtrak has a permanent home in the brand-new Gateway Transportation Center.

Amtrak shares the steel and glass structure with Greyhound, which raises the potential for convenient intermodal connections so passengers can reach outlying cities in the "Show-Me State" like Columbia, Springfield and Branson. The complex has four train platforms and 10 bus bays.
"Passengers can reach the tracks by walking through an enclosed walkway and two sets of stairs, escalators and elevators to the train platforms below. Greyhound and Amtrak passengers will share the lobby and a deli, and fast-food restaurants will be opening in the future."
Rich Eichhorst of St. Louis, a retired teacher and transportation buff, was the first passenger to board the first train out of the new station, the 4:35 a.m. for Chicago. He says he also was aboard the last train to use St. Louis Union Station.

While train travel in St. Louis is nowhere near what was in its heyday, there has been somewhat of a renaissance since 1971. Amtrak restored the Texas Eagle, which runs from Chicago to San Antonio, with connections there for Los Angeles. In addition, there are now five daily departures for Chicago, up from two in 1971, and two for Kansas City, up from one.

The state of Missouri has plans to upgrade service on the St. Louis-Kansas City line, including a "name-the-train" contest, and trip times to Chicago should improve once a large segment of the line is approved for 110 m.p.h. running. One casualty, however, was elimination of the National Limited, which ran to New York via Indianapolis, Columbus and Pittsburgh, in the late 1970s.

Having a new station in the heart of the city should add to train travels appeal. In fact, officials are concerned that they may not have enough seats in the waiting room.

AIG Leaves Transit Agencies Holding the Bag

CTA Tattler has an item today based on an article in Crain's Chicago Business on how an equipment leaseback agreement that was guaranteed by American International Group could cost the Chicago Transit Authority $76 million. I won't go into detail here, but will check back on this in coming weeks since CTA apparently is one of at least 10 transit agencies affected and which are seeking relief from Congress. Last month, AP had this quote from Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland:
"I made the point that it would be wrong to ride to the rescue of private Wall Street firms and then leave public transit agencies out in the cold."

LIRR Crash - I Saw It

Two Long Island Rail Road passenger trains collided this morning just west of the Jamaica station. I was a passenger on another train passing through Jamaica around the time of the crash. While I did not witness the incident, I was able to get a good view of the scene from our train as we crossed the viaduct over the Van Wyck Expressway.

In all likelihood, it happened sometime between 7:30 and 7:40 a.m. EDT. A train of six M-7 class EMU (electrical multiple unit) cars had just left the station and was running through an interlocking to get to one of the two westbound tracks that go to Penn Station in Manhattan. A second train consisting of four bilevel C-3 coaches pushed by a diesel-electric locomotive, headed either to the Hunterspoint Avenue station or the Morris Park coach yard, sideswiped the first train around the fourth or fifth car. From my vantage point, it appears that the first car of the second train derailed.

My train, which is not scheduled to stop in Jamaica, sat in the station for approximately 15 minutes while one of the conductors made repeated announcements that "due to a track condition" service to Penn Station was being canceled until further notice. When we finally moved, I saw at least two dozen railroad, fire and police personnel on the scene. I did not notice emergency medical personnel, so I am presuming that injuries were minimal. At that location, trains normally operate at very slow speeds.

[Of course, the injury count will likely climb as passenger on the affected trains report pains, flashbacks, etc.: "If LIRR retirees can take advantage of the system, i.e. file fraudulent disability claims, why shouldn't I get what's coming to me." That's a whole 'nother story.]

The big question is why did this happen. I hope someone more knowledgeable on railroad technology might be able to explain the working of interlockings. Nevertheless, I thought that if switches were lined for a movement of a train in one direction then other trains would be prevent from coming into their path. Indeed, according to Wikepeida:
"An interlocking is designed so that it is impossible to give clear signals to trains unless the route to be used is proved to be safe."
In short, somebody screwed up. Hopefully, the person(s) will be held accountable. This incident occured at critical location at a critical time, the peak of the a.m. rush. More than 100,000 riders were probably inconvenienced by it. The lost economic opportunity cost due to people late for work will probably run several million dollars.

From a public relations standpoint, the timing couldn't have been worse. The New York Times reported this morning that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is expected to propose a whopping 23 percent fare hike when it releases its budget later this week. (When I reached my final destination, the subway stop at W. 145th Street, I glad signed a petition opposing the fare hike.) And, earlier this week an LIRR executive was arrested in connection with the railroad's disability scandal.

Update:
Newsday reports one passenger was injured, the time of the accident was 7:30 a.m. and service was restored at 7:55 a.m. Also, it notes that there was a signal outage earlier in the day.
"The accident involved the 5:59 a.m. train from Port Jefferson, due in at Hunterspoint Avenue at 7:41 a.m., and the 6:42 a.m. train from Babylon, due in at Penn Station at 7:49 a.m."
Update 2
Terrific photos of the incident on the LIRR thread at Railroad.net

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Rail Projects Proposed for Stimulus Package

States for Passenger Rail wants Congress to include $1.4 billion in a new economic stimulus package for projects to improve passenger rail infrastructure. The legislation is expected to be debated this week.

In a news release, the group, which promotes "development, implementation and expansion of intercity passenger rail services with involvement and support from state governments," says it has identified "ready-to-go" projects where the money could be put to immediate use. The projects are in 16 states. They range from grade crossing and signal improvements to entire new routes. Highlights include:
  • Corridor development between New Orleans and Baton Rouge via the Kansas City Southern ($110 million).
  • Extending Amtrak's Downeaster line north of Portland, ME ($33.9 million).
  • Purchasing DMU (diesel multiple unit) rolling stock for Vermont ($23 million).
  • Restoring Amtrak's Vermonter to the Connecticut River line (former Boston & Maine) north of Springfield, MA ($25 million).

Do You Know the Way to San Jose?

The northern leg of the planned California high-speed rail line will link San Francisco with San Jose. That segment is already covered by the Caltrain commuter line. Will the two operators eventually share a common right-of-way?

Caltrain hopes it will so they can take advantage of the electrification and grade separations the project will require. When I worked in the media industry, we had a word for that: synergy. Caltrain could leverage the project to improve its service and, in all likelihood, generate higher ridership. Cities along the route could see new development, especially adjacent to station areas.

But, according to the Palo Alto Daily News, municipalities along the way have reservations. They worry about displaced business owners and endangered historic properties. The cities of Menlo Park and Atherton are participating in a lawsuit claiming that the rail project underestimates the potential harm.

Hard Times Hit Transit Riders With One-Two Punch

At the opening of his Oscar-winning film Annie Hall, Woody Allen tells a joke about two elderly women discussing their recent stay at a Catskills resort.
"The food taste like poison," complains one.

"Yeah, and such small portions," replies her friend.
That's what recessions are like, when it comes to transit services. Tax revenues fall short and government has to tighten its belt, holding back or reducing subsidies. When that happens, operating agencies like New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority are forced to raise fares.

Then the other shoe drops: service cuts. Today's New York Daily News reports hard times are in store for New York City subway and bus riders. It says MTA plans to eliminate the W and Z subway lines, end express service on the J line and truncate the G and M lines. Other routes would see reduced frequencies during midday, overnight and weekend periods. The result would be more crowded trains and longer travel times for people who will now have to change trains as a result of elimination of direct service.

[Interestingly, the report only mentions lines serving Queens. What about the other boroughs, particularly the Bronx and Brooklyn? What about commuter rail?]

In subway-dependent New York, few passengers are likely to shift to driving. It's simply too impractical and too expensive for most. But, in how many other cities will the case be the same?

Over the coming year, fare hikes and service reductions are likely to be a recurring theme across the country. The question is whether they will cut into ridership, especially since gasoline prices currently are dropping about as fast as the value of your stock portfolio.

Transit managers will have to work creatively to hold onto the gains made over the past decade. It is not only good for their business model, but essential to a "green" economy.

Update:
TransitBlogger.com has a statement from MTA Deputy Director of Media Relations Jeremy Soffin stating:

"We will not comment on the specifics of gap closing measures until the budget is presented to the MTA Board on Thursday morning. As we have said previously, plummeting tax revenues have increased the MTA’s deficit to $1.2 billion. The MTA began belt tightening long before the current financial crisis, and budget cuts start with further significant administrative and managerial cuts.

The size of the deficit will also require a combination of fare/toll increases and service cuts, which will be presented on Thursday. We await the release of the Ravitch Commission recommendations in December and hope they will be implemented to restore financial stability to the MTA."
TransitBlogger adds that by keeping mum on the details, the MTA puts credence in the Daily News report.
"If this is the case, we are in deep trouble. I can only hope that when the official details come out during Thursday’s board meeting, our elected officials will wake up & realize that the MTA needs help & must get it one way or another."





Monday, November 17, 2008

Hi-Speed Rail Chief Goes Short

One of the selling points for California's high-speed rail network was the promise that its San Francisco terminus would be at a new Transbay Terminal, the multimodal transportation center in the heart of the city. California Proposition 1A expressly stated:
It is the intent of the Legislature by enacting this chapter and of the people of California by approving the bond measure pursuant to this chapter to initiate the construction of a high-speed train system that connects the San Francisco Transbay Terminal to Los Angeles Union Station and Anaheim...
The blog Rincon Bay reports that Quentin Kopp, chair of the California High-Speed Railroad Authority, may be trying to backpedal on that due to the high cost of the last mile of track.
“We do not need First and Mission. I am satisfied with Fourth and Townsend.”
Fourth and Townsend is the location of Caltrain's San Francisco terminal. It's over a mile from there to downtown, meaning commuters must change to a bus or LRV to reach their final destination. This added inconvenience no doubt keeps many commuters on the highway when they could be riding the railway.

Plans for Transbay, to be known as Transbay Transit Center, call for Caltrain to run their, as well, so the cost of the extension would be spread among the commuter and high-speed line. As Kevin Kostner said in Field of Dreams, "if you build it, they will come." As Cuba Gooding Jr. said in another sports flick, Jerry Maguire, "Show me the money."

Google Your Trip

The Chicago Tribune reports that METRA and Google are teaming on a project to harness the power of internet to make it easier for people to find out how to travel between the Windy City and its suburbs by mass transit. The online plan tool, still a beta test site, combines METRA schedule information with Google Maps.

Check it out at www.metrarail.com/googletransit

It's pretty straightforward. Just enter your origination and destination points and whether you are coming or going. I tried it for an imaginary trip from Joliet, IL, to a location on N. Michigan Ave. Within seconds, I had walking directions to Joliet Union Station, the schedule for the next train over the Rock Island line, and a schedule for a connecting bus to take me from LaSalle St. Station to my final destination. Oh yeah, there was a map showing the route, too.

One drawback noted by the Tribune article was the lack of information for PACE, the suburban bus line. I'll go out on a limb and predict that once the kinks are worked out PACE will be included too. I'll go one further and project that eventually every public transit agency in the country - no, in the world - will be included.

A service such as this can be a huge boon for public transit usage. One of the drawback is access to easy-to-use travel information. Of course, passenger train schedules for the various operating companies are readily available online and in print. But they only tell you when you can go from one station to station.

The problem is nobody travels from Station A to Station B; they travel from Point A to Point B. It could be from their house in the suburbs to a museum, store or office in the city, or from an office in one city to an office or hotel in another. So, what's need is not just information on travel between stations, but information on travel from the point of origination to the first station and, then, from the second station to the final destination.

If you can't readily find it, you'll probably punt, i.e. drive. After all, you can go to Google Maps or its rival, Mapquest, and get driving directions to just about everywhere.

Here's a personal example of how better access to information could put more people on trains. This past weekend, my wife and I attended a Bat Mitzvah in Northern Virginia. We wanted our daughter, a student at SUNY New Paltz, to join us, so I bought her a ticket on Amtrak from Poughkeepsie, NY, to New Carrollton, MD.

Then, we drove for nearly an hour on the Capital Beltway to meet her at the station. What I did not know at the time, was that WMATA's Orange Line originates at New Carrollton and terminates in Vienna, VA, just 12 minutes from our hotel.

Making public transportation more user friendly is a sure fire strategy for putting more fannies in the seats of America's passenger trains - intercity, regional and local. Harnessing the power of information technology from savvy companies like Google to help people learn how to ride is a low-cost approach for achieving that.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Adios, Alex

It never fails. Take a short vacation and a major story materializes while you are away.

It just happened to me. Amtrak CEO Alex Kummant has resigned after two years on the job. At first glance, it seems like an odd time to step down, especially in light of Amtrak's growth during his tenure.

Right now, the environment for Amtrak is as favorable as it's been in decades. An Amtrak-friendly administration about to enter the White House, the Democrats have strong control of Congress and reauthorization legislation positions the embattled railroad for a big boost in federal aid.

However, published report suggests that like his predecessor, David Gunn, he did not play well with Amtrak's board of directors. An article published by the United Transportation Union quotes an anonymous source close to the board as saying: Kummant "was not hands on. He didn't have a handle on finances or operations. His personality was often confrontational."

The article goes on to suggest that a permanent successor is not likely to be chosen until after President-elect Barack Obama puts his stamp on the Amtrak board. Finally, it points out that Kummant's candidacy was championed by Union Pacific CEO Dick Davidson and BNSF CEO Matt Rose, both of whom where major supporters of George W. Bush.

Since the retirement of W. Graham Claytor in 1993, Amtrak has gone through four "permanent" and one interim CEO. Clearly, Amtrak could benefit from a new leader of Claytor's stature; a former CEO of the Southern Railway, he spent 11 years in the top job at Amtrak. More important, it could use a board that can free the new CEO from the political agendas that have impeded progress.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Missouri Looks to Rebrand

The state of Missouri wants to come up with a new identity for the two trains that each day connect its largest cities, St. Louis and Kansas City. So it is conducting a contest with Amtrak to give the trains a new name.

Who can blame them? The current names lack sizzle. One is theAnn Rutledge, named for an old girlfriend of Abraham Lincoln who died before they could tie the knot. The other train is called the Mule; hardly an image to connote speed. Said MoDOT Railroads Administrator Rod Massman:
“We’re looking for something that reminds folks of Missouri’s great tradition of rail service, as well as the excitement and adventure of train travel. I’m looking forward to seeing what people come up with.”
The timing is right, since Missouri has improvements in store intended to improve the trains' on-time performance. In addition, a new station will open shortly in St. Louis and the depot in Sedalia is being renovated.

Whatever they call it, it's good to see the commitment to passenger rail from a state that had been wavering for a while and whose services had suffered from neglect and a congested route.

Monday, November 10, 2008

California High-Speed Plan Bullish on Ridership

By 2030, the proposed California high-speed rail network will carry 55 million passengers annually and generate a $1 billion operating surplus according to a business plan released by the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

The plan was released days after voters in the Golden State approved a ballot proposition authorizing the Authority to issue nearly $10 billion of bonds to help finance the project. Initially, the Authority will dip its toe into the bond market. It plans to raise $29 million early next year and another $50 million for the 2009-10 fiscal year.

The money would be used to complete the engineering work and planning for the service. The authority hopes to break ground in the latter half of 2010 and commence train operations eight years later.

However, conservative critics and opponents of the train, such as the Reason Foundation, charge the authority has underestimated construction costs while overestimating ridership.

Star Performer Could Burn Out

Amtrak's Downeaster, which runs five times a day between Boston and Portland, ME, is the fastest-growing intercity passenger train in America. For FY 2008, it boasted a 36.7 percent ridership gain, compared with 17.5 percent for Amtrak's 26 other short-distance lines. Yet, according to the Boston Globe, it faces a rocky financial future.

Next July, a $6 million federal subsidy is set to expire. The money covers nearly half of the train's $13.5 million operating budget. Ticket sales cover another $6 million, and Maine taxpayers kick in another $1.5 million. Maine Gov. John Baldacci has proposed an $8 million state subsidy, but the state legislature, so far, has not gone along. Neither Massachusetts nor New Hampshire, the other states along the route appear ready to chip in.

The fate of the Downeaster could be a bellwether for the future of other state-supported intercity services.

So What Else is New

AP reports "very, very significant" fare and toll hikes are in store next year for patrons of New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority commuter railroads, subways, buses and toll bridges. Thanks to lower-than-forecast real estate and corporate tax revenue, MTA's budget shortfall has risen by $300 million to $1.2 billion. Last summer, it said it would need increases of eight percent in 2009 to cover the shortfall. Agency Executive Director Eliot Sander said service reductions might be necessary, as well, to balance the budget.

MTA operates the Long Island Rail Road, Metro North Railroad, New York City subways and buses, Staten Island Rapid Transit and Long Island Bus.

If You Build it They Will Stop

Michigan real estate developer Jimmy Gierczyk has figured out a way to get Amtrak trains to stop: build a station with your own money. He is doing that in New Buffalo, MI, a getaway for well-heeled Chicagoans, with $1.5 million from his deep pockets. The Chicago Sun-Times quotes Amtrak Assistant Vice President Mike Franke as stating this is "the only privately developed Amtrak station in recent memory."

Currently, two Amtrak routes pass through New Buffalo, but only one of them, the Chicago - Grand Rapids Pere Marquette line on the city's outskirts, stops. The busier route to Detroit, Pontiac and Port Huron, which runs through the downtown area, does not.

The new station will be in front of Gierczyk's condominium and townhouse development in New Buffalo. One reason for the station is to help market the properties to Chicagoans. Initially, two trains in each direction will stop there. The service is scheduled to get a boost six months from now when tracks speeds between New Buffalo and Kalamazoo are increased to 110 mph as part of an effort to establish a high-speed corridor between Chicago and Detroit.

Singing the Sunset Blues

Amtrak's Sunset Limited is the Rodney Dangerfield of a railroad that has for most of its business been a Rodney Dangerfield itself. No respect, even though the Sunset is America's oldest name train: It first ran in 1893.

It was that way even before Amtrak. Its operator, the vehemently anti-passenger Southern Pacific Railroad, stripped it of sleeping cars and dining service in the mid-1960s in an effort to drive away what little business was left on the New Orleans - Los Angeles run. Eventually SP rescinded when regulators allowed it to operate the train tri-weekly instead of daily.

The Sunset remained tri-weekly even after other Amtrak long-distance trains, namely the Coast Starlight and San Francisco Zephyr, were upgraded to daily. Consequently, ridership has remained low, even though the train serves several major markets en route, including Houston, San Antonio, El Paso, Tucson and Phoenix. Amtrak critics constantly cite it for having the highest per passenger operating losses.

In its centennial year, 1993, the Sunset got its moment to shine, when the train was extended almost 1,000 miles east to Miami, making it North America's first coast-to-coast passenger train. But the glory was short-lived, as five months after the inaugural cross-country run the eastbound Sunset Limited derailed on a bridge over Big Bayou Canot in Alabama. The accident claimed 47 lives, making it the worst in Amtrak's history.

The train never recovered from the disaster. Cost-cutting measures in the mid-1990s led Amtrak to move the eastern terminus first to Sanford, FL, and later to Orlando. Poor timekeeping over host railroads Union Pacific and CSX gave it a reputation for unreliability. Ridership suffered, particularly on the eastern portion, which never had a strong base of business to begin with.

After Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, Amtrak suspended the Sunset Limited east of New Orleans because much of the track along the Gulf Coast had been destroyed. While CSX rebuilt the line, Amtrak never came back. Apparently, it never intended to.

This didn't sit well with elected officials serving areas along the route. One of them, U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-FL, added a provision to the Amtrak reauthorization legislation that requires the railroad to develop a plan for restoring the service.

As AP writer Sarah Karush recently noted:
"That case illustrates a central paradox of Amtrak: Despite decades of pressure to run the national passenger railroad efficiently and even profitably, its managers aren't free to make their own business decisions if Congress disagrees."

The history of Amtrak is littered with examples of powerful Senators and Congressmen using their muscle to force Amtrak to run trains that made little business sense. In the early days, Rep. Harley Staggers, chairman of the House Ways and Committee, pressured Amtrak to add trains such as the West Virginian, Shenandoah and Mountaineer to run across his sparsely populated home state of West Virginia. After Staggers retired and with him the trains he spawned, Sen. Robert Byrd pushed through legislation mandating the continuance of West Virginia's remaining train, the Cardinal, which, like the Sunset Limited, runs tri-weekly.

Amtrak says it will comply with the law and develop a plan for restoring the Sunset east of New Orleans (It is also required to develop plans for restoring two Western trains that were axed in the 1990s.). But the question remains: Why engage in exercises such as these when scarce resources, i.e. could be better deployed elsewhere?

If, as President-elect Barack Obama says, "we are the change we seek," then our representatives in Congress will have to step up to the plate and exercise leadership instead of just hankering for pork to bring back to the folks at home. Rep. Brown does her constituents little favor by bringing them a train that provides infrequent, slow and unreliable service.

This does not mean there is no demand for passenger rail on the 500-plus miles between New Orleans and Jacksonville, FL, the missing link in Amtrak's southern transcontinental route. But it has to be designed in a way that will attract, rather than repel riders, and if Amtrak has better opportunities in other markets it should be free to pursue them first.

Friday, November 7, 2008

VRE Ridership Up, Fares Will Be Too

Virginia Railway Express, which operates commuter trains from Washington to Fredericksburg and Manassas, VA, received the green light today for a seven percent fare hike to take effect in January. The increase comes in the face of record ridership, but is far less than the 15 percent hike railroad officials initially feared they would need.

The culprits are higher fuel, labor and maintenance costs, which caused a $1.6 million budget shortfall for FY 2009. A contributing cause was a Virginia Supreme Court ruling that $25 million in state funding approved by the legislature was unconstitutional. The court said the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority did not have authority to levy taxes and fees.

Other commuter and transit operators are facing fare hikes or service cuts to cope with budget shortfalls and governmental operating support that has failed to materialize. Voters in St. Louis defeated a proposal that would have upped aid to MetroLink, that city's light rail system. MARC, the Maryland commuter line, is considering eliminating service to points in West Virginia, including Harpers Ferry and Martinsburg.

St. Louis Blues

Voters in St. Louis County narrowly defeated a ballot proposition to increase the county's transit sales tax by a half cent. The measure would have generated $80 million a year to support operations and expansion of the MetroLink light-rail system.

Now, instead, the agency that operates the line will have to resort to fare increases and service cuts to remain solvent. Agency CEO Robert Baer said decisions won't be made until next year, after management and the agency's board of directors have reached a consensus.

Across the state, Kansas City-area voters voted down a three-eighths-cent sales tax to pay for a 14-mile starter light rail line. Not everything is up-to-date in Kansas City

File this Under "C" for Chutzpah

Not only are Long Island Rail Road retirees double dipping by collecting disability payments in addition to their pensions, but now The New York Times reports that they are getting free golf.

Under New York State law, persons qualified as "disabled" by the Social Security administration are eligible for free admission to New York State parks, golf courses and campgrounds.

Don't get me started on this! Not only am I, as a taxpayer and paying golfer subsidizing their game, but if they are truly disabled they are probably playing slow, too.

California Dreaming Becoming a Reality

Lost in the euphoria over Barack Obama’s election to the White House came news of historic proportions affecting the future of high-speed rail in the United States. By a 52-48 margin, California voters approved a ballot proposition calling for a $10 billion bond issue to fund a high-speed line linking Los Angeles and San Francisco.

That the measure succeeded in the most difficult economic environment since the Great Depression is testament to its importance. Even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who postponed an earlier bond referendum, was supportive this time. “We should do what other countries do. All over the world we see high-speed rails that go 200-300 hundred miles an hour. We should do the same thing in this country, especially in this State,” he stressed.

When the line is finished, travelers will be whisked between the state’s two biggest cities at speeds up to 220 mph. Planned future extension would bring high-speed service to Sacramento, San Diego and Riverside County. LA – San Francisco trip times could be as little as 2-1/2 hours, making downtown-to-downtown travel times competitive with air, especially when trips to and from the airport and security checks are taken into account.

It hasn’t been even possible to travel directly by train between LA and San Francisco since 1971. That year, Amtrak rerouted the Southern Pacific’s Coast Daylight to Oakland, extended it to Seattle and renamed it the Coast Starlight. The trip from LA to Oakland, where passengers can chance for a bus to San Francisco, takes nearly 12 hours.

The cost won’t be cheap: an estimated $45 billion when fully built out. Funding from the federal government and private sector will be needed to complete the job. And, just like the building of the transcontinental railway nearly 150 years ago, there could be many pitfalls along the way.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority’s business plan, released today, calls for construction of a dedicated separate right-of-way and use of proven technology from Europe and/or Asia. It anticipates obviating the need for “3,000 miles of new superhighway, five airport runways and 90 departure gates over the next two decades” costing $100 billion.

The high-speed rail line has the potential to not only change the way Californians travel but how they live and work. Central Valley cities like Fresno and Merced could become bedroom communities for Silicon Valley and the Los Angeles basin.

Given California’s growing population, constrained infrastructure, rising fuel costs and increased environmental concerns, the time may be right for this transformative project. Having a pro-rail President certainly can’t hurt, either.

California has long been America’s trendsetter influencing everything from our entertainment to our social mores, our eating habits and how we travel. A successful high-speed rail line in California is bound to generate clamoring for similar services elsewhere.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

In Good Times and Bad, I Love Trains

I’ve had a lifelong love affair with passenger trains and train travel. Or, perhaps, an obsession. (My wife calls trains "the other woman.")

It began as a child. Each night I’d get in the car with my mother to pick up my father at the railroad station. It was a very exciting for a three-year old. We’d get there a few minutes early and sit quietly. Suddenly, the crossing gates would come alive with lights flashing, bells ringing and the gates automatically lowering to block traffic. “Ding-ding sticks,” I called them back then.

A few seconds later, an air whistle would sound four blasts. Then the train, itself, would rush into the station. Finally, the best part: all the Daddies, including mine, would come from behind the train, cross the tracks and walk to the waiting cars to be reunited with wives and families after a long day at work.

Much has transpired in the half century since my early childhood. The 1950s marked the beginning to a steep decline in passenger train travel in the United States that would not abate until the formation of Amtrak in 1971. Though most of the casualties were crack intercity passenger trains like the Phoebe Snow, Twentieth Century Limited and California Zephyr, commuter services took hits, as well. Service ended on New York Central’s West Shore and Putnam commuter lines in metropolitan New York, the New Haven’s Old Colony lines out of Boston and Los Angeles’ Pacific Electric lines, the “red cars” of Who Framed Roger Rabbit fame. One of the worst blows was the demolition of New York’s Pennsylvania Station, replaced by two sterile office towers and a new Madison Square Garden.

Passenger rail fortunes have waxed and waned with the whims of government policy. Beginning in the 1960s, it was government intervention that saved the American passenger train from extinction. In 1966, New York State purchased the Long Island Rail Road from the Pennsylvania Railroad. The following year, the federally funded Aldene Plan enabled the Central Railroad of New Jersey to relocate its remaining passenger trains from an aging, isolated terminal in Jersey City to Penn Station Newark, where passengers could connect with trains to Manhattan.

But, those early initiatives amounted to little more than keeping the remaining passenger trains on life support.
Rolling stock and infrastructure were aging and in need of replacement or massive investments. Many of the freight railroads these trains ran over, including the Penn Central, Erie Lackawanna, Reading, Boston & Maine and Rock Island would declare bankruptcy.

In the mid 1970s, things would begin to improve, a bit.
Amtrak was able to purchase new locomotives and passenger cars. In 1976, the government formed Conrail to acquire the assets of six bankrupt Northeast railroads and operate a slimmed down system. In the process, most of the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington was conveyed to Amtrak, which received $2 billion to upgrade the New YorkWashington segment.

However, Conrail had no interest in operating commuter trains, and service continued to worsen.
Finally, in the 1980s, state governments stepped up in a major way forming new entities, notably Metro North, NJ Transit and SEPTA, to take over services run by Conrail.

Since the 1980s, commuter rail, also known as regional rail, has undergone a renaissance.
In Boston, the MBTA restored service on the aforementioned Old Colony lines and increased frequencies on other routes. SEPTA built a tunnel under Center City Philadelphia to link the former Reading and Pennsylvania routes and facilitate through service. New commuter lines started up around the country in northern Virginia, South Florida, Nashville, Dallas-Fort Worth, Albuquerque, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose and Seattle. Others are in development.

A new mode – light rail, basically a trolley car on steroids – has been successfully introduced to Buffalo, San Diego, Jersey City, Camden, Baltimore, Charlotte, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Denver, Los Angeles, San Jose, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, Portland, Seattle and other large cities.
In addition, new heavy rail rapid transit lines were built in Washington, Baltimore, Atlanta, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area. According to the American Public Transportation Association, light rail ridership in the United States doubled between 1997 and 2007.

Despite continual threats from the Reagan Administration to eliminate its funding, Amtrak operated a fairly stable system through the 1980s under the leadership of CEO W. Graham Claytor Jr., while improving its operating ratio.
However, after Claytor’s retirement in the early 1990s, the railroad’s financial performance worsened, and in 1994 a report by Mercer Management Consulting called for the elimination of several money-losing runs, among them the Montrealer, Gulf Breeze, Atlantic City Express, Desert Wind, Pioneer and Broadway Limited, the former flagship of the once-omnipotent Pennsylvania Railroad.

Adding fuel to the fire, Congress, which was now controlled by conservative Republicans, enacted legislation requiring Amtrak to achieve “operational self sufficiency” by 2002 or face liquidation.
The railroad’s new CEO, George Warrington, carried out several strategies intended to achieve that objective, including extending electrification from New Haven to Boston, introducing a new high-speed train, the Acela Express to replace the aging Metroliners, and expanding mail and express traffic.

These initiatives fell short, and Amtrak began mortgaging assets, including its Penn Station real estate in midtown Manhattan, to raise cash in order to avoid liquidation.
Shortly after the extent of its financial condition became known in 2002, Warrington resigned to become executive director of NJ Transit.

His successor, David Gunn, fixed problems with the Acela and exited the mail and express business.
He also stood up to the Bush administration and other Amtrak critics, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican candidate for President. But, in 2005 Amtrak’s Board of Directors fired Gunn for his refusal to prepare the railroad for privatization, in line with Bush administration wishes.

Gunn’s successor, Alexander Kummant, has taken a more conciliatory tone toward Congress.
His tenure has benefited from a Democratic Congress elected in 2006. Earlier this year, Congress reauthorized Amtrak at $13 million over five years; about double current funding levels. President-elect Barack Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden, who has commuted to Washington from Delaware on Amtrak for over 30 years, are expected to be more supportive of Amtrak, as well.

For 2007-08, Amtrak achieved record ridership of 28.7 million.
A major factor was higher gas prices, which drove riders out of cars and onto trains. Much of its ridership growth has come from routes operated in partnership with the states, including the Downeaster (Maine), Lincoln Corridor (Illinois), Cascades (Washington and Oregon, and Pacific Surfliner, San Joaquin and Capitol corridors (California).

The political environment and energy concerns bode well for the growth of intercity and regional passenger rail in the United States.
However, the economic environment is a clear threat since it will be difficult to fund major projects in a weak economy. Nevertheless, an encouraging development this week was the passage of California Proposition 1A, which authorizes a $10 billion bond issue to finance a high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco, roughly the equivalent distance of the Northeast Corridor.

This blog will offer news, analysis and commentary on all aspects of passenger rail service and train travel in the United States - intercity, regional, heavy rail, light rail and tourist - although the emphasis will be on the first two. I hope you will come along for the ride.
If the next 50 years are anything like the last 50, it’s going to be fun.