Thursday, December 31, 2009

Thoughts - Amtrak at Decade's End

While likely prepared prior to the closest shave in air travel security involving a US flagged aircraft during the past eight years, this quite positive article appears virtually "the day after' in The New York Times' Business Travel section and presents Amtrak corridor services as a viable business travel option;

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/29/business/29amtrak.html

Brief passage:

There are also signs that passengers are increasingly embracing trains. The number of Amtrak riders has increased steadily since 2001, surpassing 28 million in 2008, though a dip is expected this year because of the recession.

Amtrak estimates it carried 63 percent of travelers flying or taking the train between New York and Washington in 2008 — an increase from 37 percent before the Acela service began in 2000. Amtrak’s market share between New York and Boston was 49 percent last year, compared with 20 percent before Acela.

Amtrak hopes to push those numbers even higher, Mr. Lim said. The railroad plans to introduce free Wi-Fi service on all Acela trains in the second quarter of 2010, then add Northeast regional trains later in the year.

The ability to work on the train is one of the reasons Brian Silengo says he rides Amtrak for his weekly trips to New York from Washington. He uses a cellular wireless card to get Internet access, but as a sales executive for an interactive marketing agency, he mostly values the Acela trains’ reliability.

“They’re very good at getting you where you need to be on time,” he said

I believe there is finally recognition within the "Wonderland on the Potomac" that intercity rail passenger service is here to stay and that Corridor services are what 21st Century intercity passenger railroading is all about. Such services are definitely on the "upswing'. Acela service has been expanded to such extent that 17 of the 20 sets are now used to protect scheduled service, up from only 13 of the 20 within recent memory. All amenities of Acela First Class have been maintained. As noted by The Times, markets such as NY-WAS that had previously been ceded to air transport are again viable. I'm quite convinced that an order for new Corridor Regional Coaches will soon be on the books. There may even be additional Acela cars added to the existing sets.

Here in the Midwest, the additional trains added as part of the 2006 Illinois initiative are "doing well'. I was skeptical at first as it appeared an unpopular (some also say incompetent; all now say disgraced) Governor was buying a few votes - I'm very pleased to note that skepticism on my part has proven unfounded.

But now to address the other side of the business - the Long Distance trains. There is only one reason LD trains have existed in the Amtrak era - and that is political expediency. "No Yuma no moolah" is simply how the game is played. The Incorporators of Amtrak, despite all the "for profit" bluster' knew the enterprise was either going to be funded or it was kaput. Those of us in the industry knew it as well. Those in Congress learned it about a year later.

Amtrak was "sold' to the industry on the strength that there would be immediate relief from passenger train deficits, but that in about five years the LD system would be gone.

Obviously that little timeline proved fallacious. While I was never "privy" to the reaction "on the Eighth Floor (Mahogany Row)" at my road, I'm certain when it was learned that Amtrak had ordered the Superliners, the reaction was "grief, we're going to be stuck with these trains for another thirty years".

But let us consider that Amtrak LD during the Bush administration has survived relatively unscathed when compared with the preceding Clinton. During Bush, only the Sunset East and the Three Rivers were lost. Under Clinton (the so-called Mercer Cuts) all service over the "traditional UP", namely Pioneer and Desert Wind, was lost. To date, the Obama administration is showing that they encourage new services, but that those services will be short distance in nature and scope - and will be substantially funded at Local level.

So long as Amtrak gets its Federal appropriation, which in large part goes towards NECorridor infrastructure, then the level of LD service is quite adequate. But even though "I ride 'em' when convenient and come away with "more positive than negatives" travel experiences, I'm at a loss, and have been so throughout the entire Amtrak era, to see how LD trains can hold relevance to 21st century passenger rail.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Seniors Ride "For Half" Most Anywhere - FREE in Chicago

Impeached and removed from office, former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich certainly left 'we the people' of this politically disgraced state a piece of baggage. During March 2008, as part of mass transit appropriation legislation, he insisted with the power of a veto, that any person age 65 and over, be allowed to ride any services, namely METRA Rail, PACE (suburban) Bus, and CTA, offered by the Regional Transportation Authority without charge.

Allow me to editorialize; even though I am a holder of a Seniors Ride Free pass (age 68; reside in DuPage County), I would like to see this program repealed at first opportunity.

In a recent editorial, the Chicago Tribune is "echoing" the thoughts I hold:

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opin ... 6420.story

Brief passage:

A gratifying number of seniors recognized the gesture for what it was: irresponsible pandering. To this day, the Tribune gets a letter or two every week from retirees who say they didn't ask for the freebie and don't need it. Many of them cheerfully admit they're taking advantage of the perk anyway. Who wouldn't? Only a fool would walk into a restaurant that advertised FREE LUNCH and say, "No, thanks, I'd rather pay for mine." Nearly 400,000 seniors have been issued cards that qualify them for free rides.

In its present form, this program quite simply is discriminatory and further has presented the RTA with an unfunded $30M annual revenue shortfall. Suffice to say, the RTA is "broke', but what else is new.

First the program is available only to residents of the six counties served by the RTA. If you are from out of area but otherwise eligible, "sorry Charlie"; there are no "litmus' tests to establish need. As noted, I reside in "the land of the Burlingtons"; what likelihood is there that I or too many of my fellow DuPage residents have "need"?

If we the people of Illinois desire to offer free mass transit to certain Illinois residents, we have an existing program called Circuit Breaker. In order to be a participant in this program, a resident must establish "need". The guideline is age 65 and somewhere around $20K or less of annual income and financial assets of $5000 or less. Existing benefits range anywhere from a free Driver's License to free pharmaceuticals. Free mass transit regardless of where one resides within the State could be incorporated as a benefit of the program.

If such were enacted, a needy person residing in, say, Decatur or East St Louis would benefit.

In closing, I admit I am a passholder; I simply cannot look a gift horse in the mouth. But if the existing program is to be repealed, I'll surrender my pass without any hard feelings whatever, in fact it will be with pleasure.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Amtrak Route Performance Misstated - Pew Charitable Trust

Here is the report from Subsidyscope; a program funded by the Pew Charitable Trust.

http://subsidyscope.com/transportation/amtrak

The issue that Subsidyscope addresses is that Amtrak, in its unaudited Monthly Performance Reports, is misstating the financial results (mostly losses that result in understatements) of each route in that they do not charge Depreciation as a cost of providing service over a route.

OK lets take a closer look at Depreciation and especially within Amtrak since on one hand it is a private enterprise and on the other a government agency.

To start, let's consider the definition of an Asset. Such is a piece of property, tangible or intangible notwithstanding, from which economic benefit will be derived over current and future accounting periods. Depreciation is a systematic method over which the cost, i.e. the expenditure of an asset incurred in a current period and from which economic benefit will be realized over a number of future accounting periods, is allocated to both the current and future periods.

Additionally, and this is important in the case of Amtrak and many another transportation company that use leased equipment, Depreciation also represents a restatement of lease obligations so that the cost of the economic benefit is better expressed over the asset's economic life as distinct from the timing of the lease payments. This is known as a Capitalized Lease and is required under existing accounting Literature so that a fair comparison may be made between enterprises that purchase their assets and those that acquire such by lease.

Virtually all of Amtrak's locomotives and rolling stock is leased.

Amtrak's audited Financial Statements of course recognize Depreciation as an expense; there is further recognition of Depreciation within the unaudited Monthly Performance Reports. However, it appears that no allocation of Depreciation is made to the routes resulting in an, as Pew sees it and for that matter the GAO, a misstatement of a Route's financial performance. Rather, Amtrak considers Depreciation be be an expense no different than that of the Bureaucracy - 60 Mass and elsewhere.

To restate route performance with depreciation of equipment assigned to such as an expense element would make for inconsistent reporting - and Consistency is a standard of financial statements considered by the Accounting profession. Additionally, we have to consider a significant difference between Government Accounting and that of private enterprises. In government, Depreciation is not recognized. For example if the Navy builds an aircraft carrier which takes five years to build and will see active service for thirty, the costs incurred each year it is being built will be reported during the construction period. After that, it sails the Ocean Blue and going "pop pop" after the Bad Guys, without any Depreciation. On one hand Amtrak is government so why have Depreciation and especially why allocate over each route? But on the other, Amtrak's "Depreciation" is mostly represented by lease payments so it IS 'cash out the door'. But on the other hand, Amtrak is private enterprise (or so they tell me ); therefore Depreciation should be recognized.

Wish I knew the answers - all I can do is set forth the parameters.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Positive Train Control and Amtrak

It appears that the first impact of the provisions within the Rail Safety Act of 2008 are coming home to Amtrak, as TRAINS Newswire reports that the BNSF has "put out feelers" to Amtrak regarding reroute of the Southwest Chief via their main "Transcon" line that last saw a scheduled passenger train on A-Day. Such a reroute would again provide Amarillo TX and Wichita KS with service but would leave Raton NM and the Boy Scout's Philmont Ranch as well as Albuquerque without. While this proposal represents a "treading of old sod", this is the first mention of such since enactment of RSIA '08 and its 2015 target date for installation of Positive Train control over all lines that handle passenger trains, as well as on lines that handle any appreciable volume of Hazardous Material.

Here is straight from the Act:

quote:
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Sec. 20157. Implementation of positive train control systems

‘(a) In General-

‘(1) PLAN REQUIRED- Not later than 18 months after the date of enactment of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, each Class I railroad carrier and each entity providing regularly scheduled intercity or commuter rail passenger transportation shall develop and submit to the Secretary of Transportation a plan for implementing a positive train control system by December 31, 2015, governing operations on--

‘(A) its main line over which intercity rail passenger transportation or commuter rail passenger transportation, as defined in section 24102, is regularly provided;

‘(B) its main line over which poison- or toxic-by-inhalation hazardous materials, as defined in parts 171.8, 173.115, and 173.132 of title 49, Code of Federal Regulations, are transported; and

‘(C) such other tracks as the Secretary may prescribe by regulation or order.

‘(2) IMPLEMENTATION- The plan shall describe how it will provide for interoperability of the system with movements of trains of other railroad carriers over its lines and shall, to the extent practical, implement the system in a manner that addresses areas of greater risk before areas of lesser risk. The railroad carrier shall implement a positive train control system in accordance with the plan.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Part 173.115 seems to cover anything that goes "up in smoke". 173.132 seems to be anything that could take care of your "sniffles" - and then a little more. I must note my surprise in that the Act does not address 173.50, or "things that go boom".

Here is a "quick reference" link to HAZMAT

http://environmentalchemistry.com/yogi/hazmat/placards/

I continue to hold, and others apparently concur, that the PTC mandate under RSIA '08 will result in reroutes of both passenger trains and HAZMAT. It will also raise the threshold at which a railroad will say 'that line is no longer worth it" i.e. it generated enough on-line traffic or was a nice detour to have "just in case' with its existing train control system. There could well be loss of passenger train service or, where loss of any rail service is on the table, the spectre of 're-reg'.

Now to address the issue at hand. As I noted, the Scouts have been very loyal to both the railroads and Amtrak over the years, and many a railroad executive 'got there' owing to contacts (whoops, networking in newspeak) he made through being active in Scouting. But loyalty has its price - and the maintenance to passenger train standards of some 200 miles of track solely to accommodate the "one a day", especially since the ante is being greatly raised as a result of the PTC mandate, just may now come at too high a price.

Another factor favoring the reroute is the double tracking through the Abo Canyon on the "Transcon". Apparently this project has moved forth - Recession notwithstanding. With or without passenger trains, that line either has or will have a train control system that will qualify as "PTC". There is also the possibility that passenger traffic potential at both Amarillo and , albeit "plane loving", Wichita will offset losses at Albuquerque which would likely continue to be served by an Ambus through Belen. Bypassing major cities is nothing new for Amtrak - even the "Amshack in the Styx" cases of Richmond and Jacksonville represent a "bypass".

In short, I think the industry could care less, and likely even endorse, any PTC implementation over publicly owned lines such as the NEC that predominately handle passenger trains. After all, who will pay the bills?

While the Metrolink incident at Chatsworth CA would have been avoided with an active PTC system, I still have to question how HAZMAT incidents occurring either at Weyauwega WI or Rockford IL could have been avoided even if such were in place.

All told, this one could well end up a "happen" this time.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Repeal The "$8B for HSR" Provisions of ARRA '09

Here's one to think about.

Various postings at other passenger rail forums suggest that the Requests to Appropriations ($8B) ratio is in the range of a 12 to 1. Obviously, someone is going to walk away empty handed, but there is one certainty: the "wired in" consultants will be fed.

By the time any of these projects to be funded under this ARRA '09 provision move forth, the economy will be in recovery mode.

Had the legislation called for "$8B for the NEC", that would be one thing; but it didn't and in fact specifically called for the allocations to be AWAY from the NEC.

Time to get rid of this before passenger railroad transportation simply is lumped in with "Bridge to Nowhere".

Friday, August 21, 2009

Wisconsin Talgo Equipment Order - Thoughts

The Talgo equipment used in Amtrak Cascade service between Vancouver BC and Eugene OR appears to be a commercial success with strong public acceptance, and acquisition of such by the sponsoring agency appears to have been a smart move. Indicative of such is that the "four a day' (+the Seattle-LA Coast Starlight) cover the route in 3'30' while the "three a day" prevalent during 1969 needed 4'00'.

Where I do have a problem, however, is that local agencies seem be be hearing the "siren' of Talgo's "hell on wheels' business model. That model is simply if you buy 'em from us, we'll build 'em wherever you want. Wisconsin recently ordered two Talgo train sets for Chicago-Milwaukee service, with an option for a third for use on a proposed Chicago-Milw-Madison route. Talgo has agreed that the assembly work will be done at a Wisconsin facility and that 80 some jobs will be created resulting from the project. To ensure that the jobs are held by Wisconsin residents, the facility will likely be located in Central Wisconsin as distinct from "border towns" such as, say, Beloit or Kenosha.

My problem is that absent a permanent assembly facility, Talgo will simply set up shop anywhere someone will buy their equipment resulting in increased costs (as well as possibly 'relaxed" quality control) from reduced operational efficiency. While not the case in the Northwest, I would dare say that Wisconsin will end up with equipment unsuitable for the essentially tangent Chi-Milw run. Bi-Levels modeled after the California cars are the most suitable equipment for any Midwest Corridor initiative, but watch Talgo try and peddle their product and business model, say, here in neighboring Illinois.

Those 80 Wisconsin jobs are going to be the most expensive jobs a locality ever "bought".

Monday, August 17, 2009

$8B For HSR

$8B for HSR? Well that is shorthand for the $8 Billion appropriation included within the ARRA '09, or Stimulus legislation, for the development of High Speed passenger rail service throughout the land. The enacted legislation provides that the funds will be allocated to the States in a "revenue sharing" model so that no region, especially the Northeast, will have a disproportionate share of the funding.

Many a state has submitted applications and to such extent that the funding will likely yield little benefit beyond throwing some "consultant feed" into the troughs at which they "chow down". That is the unfortunate thing.

While it is my firm conviction that there is a need for rail passenger service in the 21st century, that need is where there are people traveling "en masse', i.e. mass transportation, and in which addition to other facilities such as another four lanes to the NJ Turnpike or Garden State and a "twin span' for the George Washington Bridge, would be far more costly to both pocketbooks and society. Development of these Corridors need not be limited to the Northeast and Southern California, but being pragmatic, that is where the people are and where there is greater likelihood of passenger rail transport development obviating, or at least slowing down, the need for other more costly highway and airway infrastructure.

Projects such as Kansas has applied for to provide track improvements for a proposed Kansas City-Oklahoma City route (a continuation of the existing OKC-Ft Worth Heartland Flyer) have to be questioned. But then, volks, this is how the game is played - spread the largess about the land!!!

While that $8B could make meaningful improvements to the Northeast Corridor, and even to Southern California services, it appears that the $8B is going to end up a 'Bridge to Nowhere"; sorry such will likely be the case.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

VIA Strike Over - Issues Unresolved

At least so far as the public is concerned, "It's over":

www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/story/CTVNews/20090726/via_rail_090726/20090726?hub=TopStories

Having been a Labor Relations Officer on a US Class I (I left end of 1981 to enter practice as a Chartered Accountant - CPA down here), I'm of course most interested in the issues that remain unresolved. It would appear that VIA Locomotive Engineers have assigned runs, the issue appears that the men would like a little more time off AT HOME, as distinct from a hotel room that I presume up there also must meet standards of suitable lodging. But any hotel room, be it at the Dive Inn or the Four Seasons, has a way of getting old - fast.

The funny thing is that the media is reporting that VIA Engineers operate in unassigned service, such as (applicable terms down here) pool or "chain gang". Here is applicable brief passage to Canadian Business July 22 material:

"Some of the outstanding issues are linked to VIA's implementation of an antiquated crew utilization procedure designed for freight service which creates uncertainty as to when a locomotive engineer will be required for work'," said Shewchuk. He also acknowledged that wages and benefits remain a major concern but the requests are not outside of the norm in the industry".

Oh well, guess media up there and ours down here have one thing in common - they get it wrong. Of course, if Ellis were still an active journalist, as distinct from holding an administrative position within the Higher Education community in which journalistic skills are a necessity, that statement would be made with less credibility.

However, as I noted above, the carrier has not set forth publicly their position in this dispute; their only 'face' seems to be their PR gal (note I did not refer to her as 'Spin Lady") who has used her airtime (rightly I think) addressing passenger inconvenience issues.

But I do think that VIA Engineers in service anywhere outside the Quebec-Windsor Corridor must accept that VIA is a tri-weekly operation, and such will result in long layovers away from home. There is simply no way to avoid it, and it must further be accepted that operational efficiency, if even possible with tri-weekly frequency, results with establishing runs for as long as you can lawfully run. Sure, passenger service gives you predictability with your life, i.e. you know more or less when you are going to go, but it comes at the cost of the long layovers. Hopefully, any Engineer desiring to hire on (presume VIA recruits amongst Rules Qualified Engineers with CN) is aware of this unavoidable operating practice.

I sincerely hope that both parties will come together in good faith and work for a resolution! Good Luck to all concerned.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Possible VIA Strike July 24

There is some possibly that VIA Locomotive Engineers will strike systemwide at 24JUL1700 GMT, or high noon in Toronto tomorrow. There does not appear to be any reportage regarding the issues, but the following outlines the possible impact on the Canadian tourism industry (lest we forget, such comprises a far greater portion of their GNP than it does ours).
Here is a link to the material that was prepared by the Canadian Press:

http://money.canoe.ca/News/Other/2009/07/22/10225266-cp.html

As of a few moments ago Amtrak 63 (24) Maple Leaf, which is interchanged with VIA at Niagra Falls for continuation to Toronto will operate NY-Niagra Falls, but has been embargoed for interchange with VIA. #69 (24) Adirondack will operate as scheduled NY-Montreal.

However 510 (24) Pacific International shows "sold out" Seattle to Vancouver, but that seats are available Seattle to Bellingham. Possibly the Superliner equipment is handled (wyed) at Vancouver by a VIA Engineer (the Amtrak T&E must be afforded a respite if they are to make it home under Hours of Service) and it is not practical to assemble a bi-directional consist, i.e. Talgo equipment.

Now it is a case of "the jury's still out'; but be it noted there is a long history of having labor disputes, rail and others, resolved during the Eleventh Hour. After all, neither party wants to appear to their constituencies as having backed down and a timely and orderly settlement would lay either open to criticism of having done just that.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Inevitable - Proposed Michigan Cuts

"Conveniently" released to the media during the Holiday weekend, as well as during the 'all Michael all the time" deluge, is an Associated Press report that Michigan is proposing "cuts' with nature and scope not specifically identified to the State funded Chicago-Port Huron Blue Water and Chicago-Grand Rapids Pere Marquette trains. The 'three a day' Chicago-Detroit-Pontiac Wolverines are 100% Federally funded and not affected.

This was inevitable; Michigan is "broke": on that same note, I am astounded that there have been no other service cuts proposed in "nearly as broke' California and Illinois.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Transit Can't Afford This

Two stories reflect the quandry facing transit operating agencies. One talks about how this week's Washington Metro (WMATA) crash, which killed nine, highlights the financial problems agencies face in maintaining their infrastructures and how they could increase safety risks.

Yet at the same time, they need to do a better job of managing their expenses, particularly labor. E.J. McMahon, in his NY Fiscal Watch blog, reports that more than 10 percent of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's workforce of 78,393 employees took home more than $100,000 last year in total pay (base salary and overtime). The figure includes 654 whose compensation exceeded $150,000.
Eleven of the 654 employees who earned more than $150,000 in 2008 were Long Island Railroad car repairmen who earned an average of $206,000—which was $143,000 over their average base pay rate of $63,000.
Nice work if you can get it, but something is amiss when an agency that just foisted a 10 percent fare hike on its riders and forced New York State residents to pay higher taxes to support it, allows this to go on. Clearly, the Long Island Rail Road needs to do a better job of managing its payroll and both the MTA and state legislature need to do a better job of monitoring what's going on there.

LA Crash a Black Eye for Privatization

Last year's Metrolink crash, which claimed 25 lives near Chatsworth, seems to have another casualty, privatization. The Los Angeles Times report that the agency has approved a plan for a one-year transition from the current operator, Connex. Unless it opts to give the contract to Amtrak, Metrolink may soon be hiring its own operating crews.
Metrolink officials essentially had no choice but to act, in part because Connex -- which had been accused of lax oversight of engineers and conductors -- no longer wanted the job and other rail service companies balked at accepting the potential liability for any Metrolink accidents.

Running Down the Wrong Track

Even though I haven't been writing about trains of late, I've followed with interest the plight of Tri-Rail, the Florida regional rail line running from West Palm Beach to Miami. The line, which carried four million passengers last year, is in a financial bind because the counties it serves - Palm Beach, Broward and Dade - and the state of Florida reduced operating aid.

Consequently, it raised fares 25 percent and threatened to severely cut back on service. That would cause even more trouble for Tri-Rail since it would have violated the agreement with Uncle Sam to fund the recently completed double-tracking of the railroad's mainline. Uncle Sam could demand our (U.S. taxpayers) money be paid back if the railroad, which faces the possibility of shutting down altogether in 2011, reduced service.

Today comes word from the South Florida Business Journal that the railroad found a way to avoid the service cuts. But is it worth the price? To keep all of its trains running, Tri-Rail will move $18 million from its capital budget to cover its operating expenses.

Hopefully, this will be a one-time solution for dealing with a crisis and by next year the railroad will have a dedicated source of state funding so it can manage its cash flow. Deferred maintenance is a dangerous route to follow. People forget what happened to Penn Central and the New York City subways in the 1970s. And with recent deadly crashes in Washington and Los Angeles we have tragic examples of what happens when operating agencies cut corners.

Meanwhile, I am happy that Tri-Rail will keep its trains running, even if the ride gets a litte bumpier.

I'm Back

Took an unannounced and unplanned vacation from doing this blog. Time to get writing again. See you soon.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Rockford, Illinois Derailment Incident

Today, I would like to address a topic that could only at best be considered tangential to passenger trains, but nevertheless impacts the entire railroad industry, freight AND passenger, and for that matter society as a whole.

While obviously no conclusions can be drawn until the NTSB completes their investigation and their report is released next year, it will be interesting to learn if the provision under the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 - RSIA '08 - calling for installation of Positive Train Control (PTC) on any line over which HAZMAT (HAZardous MATerial) is handled, would have avoided or minimized the Friday June 19 incident occurring at Rockford, IL (and for that matter within 500 yards of a home in which friends of mine once resided). One thing I do know is that PTC would have had no impact whatever at the June 1996 Weyauwega, WI derailment involving HAZMAT. It would appear there are now two major HAZMAT incidents occurring in the Midwest (and both involving the Canadian National whether in actuality or by succession) and for which PTC would not have done anything to prevent them.

But the fact remains that RSIA '08, which mandated that PTC be installed not only on lines over which passenger trains are operated but also where trains handling HAZMAT are operated as well, was born from when, at Chatsworth, CA this past September, a passenger train collided with a freight train resulting in fatalities. Investigations have clearly established Passenger Engineer negligence. Congress in knee jerk fashion passed legislation and with about four months left in office, President Bush signed it. While it is one thing to have a PTC system where passenger trains are operated in any volume (there is always the public trough to pay for that), it is something else to place upon the investor owned Class I rail system the burden of equipping all lines handling HAZMAT with PTC when two incidents can be cited in which no benefit from PTC would arise. Legislative bodies do have their way of the knee jerk reaction; I wonder what they will come up with as a result of Rockford (escape lanes at highway X-ings)?

Having spent eleven years of my "post-college" working life in the railroad industry, I know all too well of injustices (some of my railroad career was in Labor Relations) that can occur from speculation as to the cause of an incident prior to release of information by the NTSB or a complete investigation "on the property". Accordingly, I will not be party to any speculations that seem to have a way of moving forth on the internet, and I sincerely hope others here will hold same. However, as one can readily surmise, I am quite skeptical with regards to any benefit the Class I railroad industry will receive from installation of Positive Train Control over lines that handle HAZMAT. The two incidents noted here would not have been mitigated in any manner had PTC been active.

While the personal injury and physical damage costs of Rockford, as well as of course in the case with Weyauwega, will be severe (the uninsured portion of Weyauwega claims may have contributed to Wisconsin Central's demise, but that IS speculation on my part), but so will the costs of PTC as mandated by RSIA '08. Who will pay for the latter; all shippers (higher freight rates) or only those shipping HAZMAT. If the latter, which classes (not all of them go boom with equal ferocity)? But on the other hand, shippers will also pay the higher insurance premiums that surely will result.

In that there was a fatality involving an innocent motorist, i.e. one who was obeying all applicable traffic laws, Rockford can only be considered tragic. While steps within and without the railroad industry must be taken to avoid a reoccurrence, I'm not certain that legislating a costly train control system is an effective solution. May wise heads prevail.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Amtrak Major Passenger Car Order - Thoughts

A major car order would certainly establish that Amtrak is in the game to play and it is here to stay. While I am not dismissing the projects that Amtrak has allocated its ARRA '09 Stimulus appropriations as meaningless "make work", many are comparatively invisible to John Q. Such an order would certainly signal to John Q that Amtrak is "for real", and are not just putting forth meaningless rhetoric and photo ops such as the Inauguration Special.

At this time Amtrak is "discussing" an order of single-level Long Distance (LD) cars comprising 25 Diners and Sleepers each, and 75 Baggage Dormitory cars. Also under discussion are 130 bi-level Coaches which obviously would be assigned away from the Northeast Corridor.

Whatever builder, domestic or foreign, is to be awarded the prime contract to build any such equipment, all can be assured that it will have substantial US content. In all likelihood, that US content will include final assembly with the attendant "photo-ops'. After all, how many photo-ops arose from Amtrak's first passenger carrying equipment order when the two ANF Turbo trains were unceremoniously off loaded by crane from a vessel docked at the Port of Baltimore?

Regarding the single-level cars for the LD's I guess it is a case of if you are going to continue to have 'em and I believe, right or wrong notwithstanding, such will be the case, you had best have roadworthy equipment for such. Having to set out a, say, bad ordered Diner en-route has a way of tying up a Class I's 'bread and butter', let alone passenger inconvenience and the spate of letters of the "Congressman, my Amtrak had no food and I got hungry...." varietal.

Regarding the 130 bi-level cars, what concerns me is every time I hear the "Perils of Pauline" tales regarding state fiscal woes, I have to ask how long can those with major programs such as California continue to fund trains? Somehow I think the health and welfare of a child comes first. Same of course applies to states with more limited programs such as Illinois. If local jurisdictions are serious about continued funding of intercity trains, best they seek grants from the Federal Transit Administration for needed equipment and not from Amtrak's appropriations. If Amtrak acquires additional cars for Locally funded services, then the local sponsors are in a position to blackmail the Federal legislative majority (aptly noted as 218 Representatives + 51 Senators + 1 President, or simply 218+51+1) into funding their services saying "you got the cars but we haven't got the $$$$ for the trains; what are you going to do, Feddies"?

All told, I would hold that a more suitable allocation of Amtrak appropriations would be cars for the Federally funded services. In addition to the 125 LD cars noted, 200 standard class (presently branded Northeast Regional) and 40 Acela cars added to the existing 20 sets would represent the best allocation of funds. Should local services live on being fed hand to mouth by their sponsors, that's what displaced Amfleet-I's will be for.

Finally, The New York Times recently editorialized with regards to the "Buy American" language included within enacted ARRA '09 "Stimulus" legislation pointing out that in Today's globalized economy, such a policy can be the double edged sword.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

New Routes For Auto Train Service

At the two passenger rail discussion forums at which I regularly participate, both are now having active discussion regarding additional Amtrak Auto Trains. The thoughts range from the “reasonable” such as extension of the existing Lorton-Sanford service to the New York area to the absurd such as Sanford to LA “taking a route around the Appalachians to save fuel”. It appears the most “popular‘ suggestion is Chicago-Sanford.

As a veteran of eighteen Auto Train journeys made over the years, including one on the private AT, I can only hold that there is no route out there that would enjoy the same success as does the existing Lorton-Sanford, although I have several in mind that could possibly support “Auto Train Service” with an auto carrier or two added to an existing train with the passengers being accommodated in line space. The routes I would have in mind would be:

Galesburg IL-Irondale CO
Galesburg IL-La Junta CO
Albuquerque NM-San Bernardino CA

Galesburg is selected as the Eastern terminal in that it is 150 miles West of Chicago yet roundly at the junction of two Interstate highways. It is in a location to draw traffic not only from Chicago, but also Indianapolis, St Louis, and even Minneapolis. The ground facilities such as auto ramps could provide service for two trains enabling greater operational efficiency. Additionally the BNSF Railroad has substation operational and maintenance facilities and would hopefully enter into agreement with Amtrak to provide switching and maintenance.

Locating the Western terminal at Irondale some ten miles to the East of Denver enables passengers with destinations such as the Rocky Mountains to avoid having to drive into/out of Denver. Also, with the redevelopment of Denver Union Station into a mass transit hub (busses, light rail), space for handling auto carriers and passenger autos will be quite limited. Amtrak may even have to find a new home before the project is complete.

La Junta provides access to the Pike’s Peak region and Santa Fe; also a “back up” for traffic to Denver, albeit such is 200 miles away.

Albuquerque-San Bernardino would enable service to a fast growing region, including visits to Santa Fe. A terminus at San Bernardino instead of in Downtown LA would provide more expedient access to any destination within the LA Basin.

Now why have I only considered “one night out’ segments rather than “all the way Chicago-LA”. This is simply based on my observations of passengers during my eighteen journeys and that is one night is enough. Auto Train passengers are no more railfans than is the average NECorridor passenger. I’m reminded of a book ex libris “The Only Way to Cross” by John Maxtone-Graham. Here the author describes life aboard a Trans-Atlantic ocean liner. While of course some passengers were seafarers, most were not; they wanted the voyage over and done and preferably without becoming seasick. No wonder the decline is “Trans-At” ocean travel was far more precipitous than any experienced by the railroads during the 1960’s. From personal experience, “arewethereyetitis” becomes quite endemic if Auto Train is not at destination by, say, Noon.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Amtrak Long Distance Access "Issues"

I’ve been following the frustrations of a member at a discussion forum who resides in the UK and wishes to travel during May 2010 to attend The Players golf tournament at TPC Sawgrass Club, Ponte Vedra Florida. He wishes to use Amtrak from NY to Jacksonville; however owing to health reasons, he does not wish to rent an automobile and wishes to get about from a hotel near the course using public transportation. He is willing to take a taxicab from Amtrak to the hotel.

This dilemma certainly suggests how the entire commercial travel market is oriented around "fly and rent'. After noting the limited options members have set forth, it is certainly evident that access to Amtrak trains away from Corridor cities is a real problem; even taxicabs have a way of being scarce at stations.

But then to have an auto rental concern located at a station is simply a matter of volume - and the percentage of rail travelers that rent an auto at destination is minuscule. Most Amtrak Long Distance Coach passengers simply cannot consider renting an auto at destination, and are being “picked up’ by the friends or family they will be visiting. Amongst the small universe of Sleeper passengers, many fall into the “can’t/won’t/best not drive’ category. Even in leisure travel capitol Florida, there is only one station that has an on-premises auto rental outlet with both staff and autos at train times; that is Hertz at Orlando.

But another member participating in the discussion said I was all too quick to perceive a need for a rental auto at destinations to which I travel. Basically, if I’m traveling be air or rail, I will “automatically’ rent an auto at destination. If my comments suggested a perceived need for an auto when traveling, and going without saying in Daily life, I admit it - of course 95% of the US adult population holds same view.

Of the three 'away from home overnight' trips comprising fourteen nights I have made this year, one was air and the other two were using my auto (including Auto Train on one). Two others are planned with mode yet to be determined (Amtrak LD is not off the table BTW).

However, for the air trip to Florida last Feb and a meet up with my Sister, who resides in NY area, I simply booked “knee-jerk” the rental auto with Hertz along with my air transportation. On the journey, owing to a recurring ear problem, my Sister could not fly when scheduled, and had to stay over an additional two days until she could. Her first words to me after setting forth she was not presently fit to fly were “can you help me get a car before you leave?“ The last I saw of her was at a Hertz facility in Boca Raton so she could get her own auto 'for the duration".

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Allies of the Earth

I recently learned of this book Allies of the Earth by Albert Runte ISBN 1931112525, in which the case of to save the environment, railroads should have been required to operate the same system of passenger trains existing say fifty years ago. There is a fairly substantive Google excerpt of this work presently available, as well as several web retailers offering discounts from the cover price.

However, from one who has been following railroad industry affairs for close to sixty years (including eleven "on the inside'), there is no way in a world with numerous alternate freight and passenger resources, then and now, that continuation of the industry as a regulated public utility could be justified. The industry should have been deregulated long before 1980; had it been so, I'm certain the 1970's 'Dark Ages", during which I was employed within, could have been minimized if not outright avoided.

But now to turn to the microcosm of passenger service (and how else could a line of business contributing maybe 10% of the revenue fifty years ago and maybe 2% today be viewed - Amtrak and all commuter agencies each about 1%). Again the only position the industry held from likely 1960 onward was OUT. By the mid-50's, the North Eastern and North Central roads had "had it', by 1965, even the most "stalwart" Western roads, such as the Santa Fe, were also ready to throw in the towel.

I'm not certain if the initiative that resulted in RPSA '70 and, under such, Amtrak arose primarily from the "can't drive/won't fly' or any of the other constituencies noted by Mr. Runte in his work, but rail passenger service was regulated and hence, the industry was not free to do as GM did to the Pontiac brand last week. Quite simply, the total discontinuance of all service would have been too much of a "cold water shower'.

While most of the roads operating passenger trains signed up (those that did not did so because the terms were unfavorable account individual reasons relating only to their property), had the offer been 'you have the choice to sign up and enjoy some benefits from doing so or you can get out NOW, I guarantee you Amtrak would have been stillborn" (possible "benefits - dubious indeed; cash flow as Amtrak pays up front, cash flow from overrides arising from assumption of liability- same as an insurance company enjoys - as well as management fees, employee transportation, and a means to move Office Cars -"PV"'s- about their systems).

However, to the extent the water cooler in my office proved to be a reliable source about anything, the industry was given assurances that "live with it for five years and at that time it will at least be going, going'. It could be held that the Carter Cuts, coming some eight years into the Amtrak era, represented the first step towards that understanding. Only problem, that understanding shall we say died after the 1996 Mercer Cuts - and those cuts only addressed services that had been added, largely by political fiat, subsequent to A-Day.

All told, I'm certain contemporary railroad management considers signing up with Amtrak to be a "bad deal' and just one more case of "if you let government in, how do you get rid of 'em?" (I'm fearful of what the auto and banking industries are about to find out). Had the railroads simply stayed out, I'm certain there would be Northeast Corridor service operating over 'ward of the State" Penn Central (instead of RRR '73 providing "no passenger service' , the legislation would simply said "and passenger' - how else do things work in the Potomac Wonderland?). Regarding other services, I'm certain many would have been gone during 1976 when the five year moratorium under RPSA '70 expired - and ALL would have been gone when Staggers (dereg) was implemented.

In view of being 'duped' by RPSA '70 into joining Amtrak, it is simply no wonder that when two US roads, the KCS and the UP, made substantial investment in the State owned Mexican railway system, they simply laid down the condition precedent of NO passenger trains. Those existing, would be gone - and "don't even THINK of a Mextrak'.

Finally, even though I find little if any justification for continuing passenger trains outside of regions with sufficient population to support commuter and intercity Corridors operating over publicly owned rights of way, I do enjoy an occasional Long Distance ride; in fact, when it appeared, that during 2008, I was not going to use Auto Train for my (almost) annual Florida journey, I took a Chicago to Denver joyride, which affirmed my "more positives than negatives" overall assessment of Amtrak service.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Central Florida Sun Rail "In Trouble"

A Railroad Net member who resides in Ocala (Marion County) FL brought this Op-Ed piece to the attention of that community. I believe it deserves review over here at Ellis' site:

Staff reportage - Ocala Star Banner:

http://www.ocala.com/article/20090428/ARTICLES/904281010

Brief passage:
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In all, the SunRail system would cost state, local and federal taxpayers more than $2 billion over 30 years. But CSX officials have insisted that they be held harmless from any legal damages, beyond their own employees and equipment, arising from any accidents on the line that would be shared by SunRail and CSX.

CSX and DOT officials say the "no fault" agreement is necessary because the company would not be facing the risk of increased legal damages unless it allowed the commuter train system to operate.

Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, is the chief backer of SB 1212. "Why would you sell something to someone at the appraised value and open yourself potentially to more liability?" Constantine said of the need to give CSX the "no fault" protection.

But the plan's primary opponent - Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland - said taxpayers should not be on the hook for damages caused by CSX employees. And she said the current deal would leave the state liable for accidents involving trespassers and traffic that is not related to the SunRail system.
-----------------------
Opinion:

http://www.ocala.com/article/20090428/OPINION/904281011/1008/OPINION?Title=Opposing-SunRail-is-an-easy-call

Brief passage:
------------------------
SunRail cheerleader Sen. Lee Cosntantine, R-Altamonte Springs, has begun touting the job creation potential of SunRail, claiming the project would create 13,000 jobs early on. What he fails to add is that SunRail, if built, if taxpayers pony up $2 billion-plus, will only serve about 14,500 riders a day in 2030. That is in 20 years. That is 14,500 in a metropolitan area projected to have 3.5 million people.

Cost per rider: $180,000.

Like we said, opposing the CSX-SunRail project is an easy call. It's a bad deal for Floridians and it's an even worse deal for Marion Countians.

--------------------------------
As noted in both the news article and Opinion piece , the CSX requirement to be held harmless for anything that happens on lines to be acquired by a public agency for this rail system simply seems unreasonable, if not unconscionable.

"Heads you win, Tails I loose" seems more like it.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Cuba

At this time who knows if the reported "Fidel sightings' are in fact "the man" or if they are simply a 'double'. If he's gone sooner or later, the Cuban government will have to own up, lest they be 'exposed" to the world on You Tube or Twitter. The "Cuba libre' South Florida constituency is dying off......their children, and especially grandchildren, are all comfortably assimilated into American society; if they even know Spanish, they have learned it as a second language.

Now there are reports that President Obama, after having relaxed both currency and travel controls imposed by the Bush administration, clearly wants to open doors with Cuban government - that they are "Communist' is notwithstanding. After all, Rush, Glenn, Sean, and now again Sarah, all need something about which to rant.

Prediction; if Obama is re-elected to a second term, there will be normal trade and diplomatic relations with Cuba before he leaves office.

If one wants an excellently prepared, well photographed, article on contemporary Cuban railroading, be sure to dig out your copy of Volume 66 Number 3 NRHS National Railway Bulletin issued during 2003. The author went on a then-legal rail study tour. With a 700 mile line haul from Havana to Santiago and a paucity of other transportation available, such represents likely the only place in the Western Hemisphere in which Long Distance rail travel provides a meaningful transportation resource. To say the least a rail travel experience there sounds 'gritty', but to the adventuresome, I'm sure a "bumper to bumper' journey in hand me down French or Mexican Coaches (no Sleepers or Diners anymore; too bourgeois) would be quite "sport'. Local services, according to the article, are provided in Coaches made from scrapped bus bodies mounted atop Flat Cars.

However, when US investment again is made in the Cuban economy, what will happen to the railroads? Will a dictum of no passenger trains be handed down such as was by the KCS and UP in Mexico, or will there be a "Cubatrak', in recognition that it will be many, many years before domestic air transport is available to the average Cuban.

When would a system of controlled access highways (Interstates) be built? Possibly never, as someone in the Central Government, freely elected or otherwise, may look at the emerging Eastern European and Asian economies and say "we don't need this".

Maybe, just maybe, I'll set foot on Cuban soil in this lifetime.

Friday, April 10, 2009

An Auto Train Voyage

I have recently completed my "Voyage #18" aboard Auto Train. Such was aboard #53 (24MAR).

Tuesday March 24 began with a drive from the hotel in Pittsburgh (Airport Marriott; Aten Rd, Coraopolis) that was comparatively without incident. I’ve “been there don’t that’ enough in the past to know that caution must be the watchword when traveling due East on US 220 looking straight iinto the sun and entering the Fort Pitt Tunnel. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone did?

After a fuel stop in Bedford PA, arrival at Lorton was a comfortable 135P, or 85 minutes prior to the 3PM closing for autos (it’s 2PM for SUV’s Vans and Motorcycles). One thing I noted on this journey is the absence of signage once leaving I-95 at Lorton. While there is a good sign on I-95, once at the intersection, there is no signage whatever. One, and considering the average Auto Train passenger is not a fan, could easily head West when they should head East. There is no sign at the entrance to the Auto Train facility. I would hope that Amtrak and the Jurisdiction could properly coordinate on this matter.

There I was met by a fellow I’ve known since college who was at one time a mid-level Amtrak manager (he will retire shortly from the health care sector), also noted that Bltizie was “on duty” along with her handler (I presume she is also a sworn peace officer - many Police Dogs are such). The check-in was handled by the same Amtrak employee who gave me a two minute pass (I showed at 302P) during March 2007 on Voyage #16; with a quick prompt, she remembered me. From the absence of activity, as well as that I had a Bedroom at a rate I have customarily paid for a Roomette, I knew this trip was not going to make Amtrak any $$$. The 5PM Dinner seating was available . While waiting to board, Blitzie (a Black Labrador who if not a service animal, would have gotten a big hug from me) gave the terminal a good sniffing - I guess ’Security Theatre” also is a “now playing” in Lorton .

230P and its time to board; the sixteen car passenger consist, even if as good as empty, is still the most impressive thing Amtrak has on the rails. Line number 5341 was again Palm Harbor and located immediately to the rear of the Lounge. My Bedroom E was of course center car and forward riding. What more could one ask for.

Attendant Mike was willing to allow my friend to board (he did 15 years with the outfit); from there we went to the Lounge where the ‘comp” (tips accepted, and judging from some of the cheapos many of us have met on Amtrak journeys had best not be expected) wine tasting was Naked Mountain varietals.

At about 305P, the first cut of auto carriers was pulled. We both agreed that “party’s over’ when the first coupling was made. While Mike would likely have preferred my friend Roger did not board to begin with, he was confident that we both knew the drill.(more on knowing the drill later).

At 320P, #53(24) highballed.

First I could not help but note that Amtrak and XM Satellite Radio still do business with one another. Even if I personally see no need for the noise, apparently others do. While I would prefer WETA 90.9 leaving Lorton and WMFE 90.7 arriving Sanford, the XM Channel 24 Classic Rock was ‘tolerable’ and with the door to my room closed inaudible. At least it wasn’t some God-awful Lite Rock I was bombarded with in the lobby of a Boca Raton Holiday Inn last month (and unfortunately bombarded again on this trip at a Marriott Courtyard in Maitland FL).

The Welcome Aboard announcement noted there were 95 passengers and 62 Autos aboard - the lightest loading I have ever noted on any of my eighteen AT voyages.

Time for Dinner; AT offers a choice of three entrees (beef chicken fish). The 12oz Sirloin was “good’ (not Morton’s but hardly Denny’s) and cooked to order. The Dinner plates and Salad bowls are ceramic, the flatware is metal, wineware in which comp Williamsburg (all you can responsibly drink0 was served is glass. Napkins are cloth and coffee cups ceramic. Dessert, however was served on plastic ware. Save the last, I doubt if an AT passenger, and most have never used any other Amtrak LD, would even know what Simplified dining Service was. Service attentive and courteous - and well worth my $5 tip (the other three gents at the table also followed suit).

Back to the room; since the Bedrooms were Fireman side, there were the pleasant vistas of the Potomac and the various rivers X’d en route to Fredericksburg. I've often noted at the several Forums at which I participate, the scenery of an Atlantic Coast journey can best be described as “if you’ve seen one Pine Tree, you’ve seen ;em all’ . However, in all fairness, there are pleasant vistas of the Potomac and the several rivers crossed North of Fredericksburg. Also I guess to any Randolph Macon alums around here, I should also note the “down Main Street” in Ashland.

Now it’s “time for The Times” (Journal as well); lights out at about 830P.

I awoke for the Florence service stop, but was too somnolent to open the curtains. My next cognizance was Jacksonville; it appeared we were “more or less” on time, but such was not to be for much longer. Time for the morning announcement where it was noted that account CSX track work, there would be delays with 10A estimated for Sanford.

Time for the cold Continental Breakfast; its never changed from my Voyage #1 a Dec 1972 journey of the private AT. Cereal, muffins, coffee, juice.

Now again back to the “know the drill‘ comment. I noticed a rather “top heavy‘ gentleman walking through the Diner. One lateral lurch on CSX‘s stellar track, and this fellow was “plopped“ into an unoccupied booth. Fortunately, he did not hit the table; his head hit nothing. Other than a Waiter asking “are you OK?” “Yes”, there was no calling the Conductor and Service Director to investigate, and I would presume the incident closed. Now to “know the drill’. I’m leaving the car and this attractive young Waitress, who save about 6” of height was a dead ringer for Michelle O, notes me.. As I’m walking into the Lounge, she says to me “you must be with Amtrak’. I assured her I was a retired CPA that had once been with a railroad and asked her why she thought so. “You’re just about the only passenger who seems to know how to walk on a train. I..don’t need any more of that fellow falling down at my station”. A nice girl; hope she has a satisfying career with Amtrak (dollars to donuts says she has spouse/family who is).

At about 10AM as promised the “magic milepost 759" (at the North end of the Sanford facility) was visible. Owing to the light loading, I had my auto back (safe and sound) and I was on my way to Maitland with first a stop at Bill’s Car Wash; 2418 S. French Av (US 92) in Sanford (any of us Florida hands know there is no such a thing as a dirty auto "down below").

All told, Auto Train continues to be, along with Acela, Amtrak’s best foot forward. While I have always held it be unwise to quote fares for a future Amtrak journey on the web (that's Amtrak's job), but now that the journey is over, the total fare I paid was $526.00. That breaks down to Auto $152, Rail $93, Bedroom $281. All components of the fare are supply and demand. I have paid as much as $700 for a journey - and that was in a Roomette.

Auto Train continues to get my high marks. Looking forward to Voyage #19, whenever such may be.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Atlanta Keeps Beltline Free From HSR

High-speed passenger trains will not enter Atlanta via a segment of the old Beltline that planners want to use as a recreation corridor. The Atlanta City Council Monday signed an agreement with the Georgia Department of Transportation to protect the corridor, which was once used so freight trains could bypass downtown Atlanta.

Instead, passenger trains in the future would reach downtown Atlanta via the Western trunkline. However, that decision does not sit well with residents in the Marietta Street Corridor.

Greetings from the Dysfunctional State of New York

Tomorrow, New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board of Directors is expected to approve a budget containing fares hikes average 23 percent as well as massive service cuts on its bus, subway and commuter rail lines. There is plenty of blame to be shared among Gov. David Paterson, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith and Senate Minority Leader Dean Skelos for their failure to work out a rescue plan.

Although there is always the possible that these "leaders" could cobble a deal together in the weeks ahead, the clock will soon strike midnight. There is nothing more to say at this time. The details of the fare plan have been known for some time. It's a sad day for New York.

Extension Proposed for Saved Vermont Passenger Train

First, passenger rail advocates in Vermont persuaded their governor to continue to fund Amtrak's New York - Burlington Ethan Allen Express. Now they are looking to extend the run north to Burlington, the Green Mountain State's largest city.

"There is a groundswell and momentum building around this issue," Tom Torti, the director of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, told WCAX-TV. Torti says the move would promote tourism and decrease pollution.

The idea has the support of an important state legislator, Sen. Dick Mazza, the chair of the senate transportation committee, who led the fight to save the train. "If you ever want passenger rail in Vermont, this is going to be the successful passenger rail. People have been waiting for it. The infrastructure is here."

"Mazza points out that the rails have already been upgraded for a failed commuter service from Burlington to Charlotte. Extending passenger service to Burlington will still need rail upgrades from Vergennes to Rutland costing $30 million, but the federal funding is already approved."

Don't look for a start-up anytime soon. If all goes according to plan, it could be three years before the first run to Burlington.

Friday, March 20, 2009

New Virginia Services

Several on-line newspapers have reported that locally funded services between Linchburg VA and Wash and Wash-Richmond are as good as a done deal. Here is reporting of such from the Richmond Times Dispatch:

http://www.timesdispatch.com/rtd/business/transportation/article/CTBO20_20090319-221103/236377/

Brief passage:
--------------------------------------------------------------------
While firm schedules and fares have yet to be worked out, the Richmond train will tentatively pull out of Staples Mill about 7 a.m. daily and arrive at Washington's Union Station about 9:30 a.m., then leave Union Station about 4 p.m. and arrive back at Staples Mill at 6-6:30 p.m., according to the Rail and Public Transportation Department. It would be the ninth daily round trip between Richmond and Washington. Northbound trains currently leave Richmond at 6 a.m. and 8 a.m., among other times.
The Lynchburg train will leave the Kemper Street Station about 7:45 a.m. and reach Union Station at 11:20-11:30 a.m., the department said. It will depart Washington about 5 p.m. and return to Lynchburg at about 8:30 p.m.
Each train will consist of up to eight passenger coaches, a business-class coach and a café car, Page said

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
The consist noted appears to be quite consistent with that of the typical NE Regional train, and in the interest of operational efficiency, Amtrak should want such to be continuing trains. So would the sponsoring agency as a better 'draw for itineraries such as Stamford-Charlottesville would be available.

Given the normal station time allowed at Wash, it would appear the NB Lynchburg train would continue to Boston as 176; the Richmond train as 174. SB things are somewhat "muddier'. There already is a 93 departing Wash for Richmond from Wash at 550P AND an 85 departing 7PM. Possibly 171 arriving Wash 410P could be the continuation but the next available Regional presently terminating at Wash is 173 arriving 645P. However since the Lynchburg train has greater distance; it should be a continuation of 93 and the Richmond of 173.

Trust everyone is clear; hope you all were taking notes as it is now time for a pop quiz (LOL)

Sun to Shine on Sunset Limited?

The Sunset Limited, a perennial whipping boy for Amtrak critics because of its high losses and low ridership, may be getting an overhaul. Trains for America has a report that the train will be upgraded as part of Amtrak's RPI project. It cites a report in Amtrak Ink, the company's employee newsletter, which points out that ridership and revenue were up 20 percent and that a management team has created a punch list with 200 items for change or improvement.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Understanding the MTA Train Wreck

Newsday reporter Dan Janison offers an insightful analysis into how nine years ago the late investment banking firm of Bear Stearns and the administration of Gov. George Pataki sent New York's Metropolitan Transportation Agency down a track that would put the agency in its current financial pickle.
"Lee Sander, the MTA's executive director, said: "In 2000, Albany put our entire capital program on a credit card."

New Haven Deja Vu?

In the 1960s, service on the bankrupt New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad, one of the largest commuter lines serving metropolitan New York, had deteriorated for the point where it had replaced the Long Island Rail Road as the region's poster child for sick railroad syndrome.

The railroad's fortunes continued to wane after it was merged into the ill-fated Penn Central and later became a part of Conrail. However, things started to improve with the formation of Metro-North, which invested heavily in improving the infrastructure. On-time percentages reached levels high enough to get your kid into an Ivy League college, and ridership soared, partly due to a burgeoning reverse commute from New York to employment centers in Stamford and Greenwich.

Now service seems to have taken a serious turn for the worse, according to the blog Station Stops:
"...in the past few months, its gotten MUCH worse.

2009 Metro-North New Haven Line service has just been third-worldly. Breakdowns, delays, dirty, stinky cars, short trains with no available seats - day after day I hear about it, from friends - on Twitter (follow us @stationstops ) but with a frequency like never before."

Blogger Chris maintains the problem is the result of rolling stock reaching the end of its useful life. While passenger cars purchased circa 1970 have been removed from service on the Long Island and Metro North's Hudson and Harlem lines, they still soldier on on the New Haven line. That's because Connecticut hasn't been willing to purchase new rolling stock. Perhaps Fairfield County commuters will keep that in mind the next time their governor is up for election.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Bureaucrats Hold Up Transit Security Funds

Since September 11, 2001, Congress has appropriated $1.5 billion to pay for security and safety improvements in the nation's transit systems. To date just $200 million of that figure had been paid out, according to the Newark Star-Ledger.

The revelation has angered Congressmen on both sides of the aisle. Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican charged "the taxpayers are getting screwed." Steven Rothman, a New Jersey Democrat, demanded the dismissals of the heads of the Transportation Security Administration and Federal Emergency Management Administration.

Florida Snoozes on Regional Rail

Florida is the nation's fourth largest state. It has sizable metropolitan areas in the north (Jacksonville), south (Miami - Fort Lauderdale - West Palm Beach), central region (Orlando) and west coast (Tampa - St. Petersburg). Yet it is considered a laggard in developing regional rail, and some officials fear its tardiness could cost it opportunities to tap federal aid, according to the Sarasota Times-Herald.

Although 30 years ago state lawmakers promised to build a network of commuter lines, only one, Tri-Rail, which runs from Miami to West Palm Beach, is in operation. A second line, SunRail, which would serve the Orlando area, has been waiting for the legislature to sign off on the project for two years.
“What’s amazing to me is the federal government just looks at Florida and they just shake their heads,” said Jeff Koons is a Palm Beach County commissioner and longtime member of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority that runs Tri-Rail. “You need leadership and we just don’t have it."
The problem is a mix of money issues and parochialism. State legislatures are loathe to ask their constituents to pay for a commuter rail system on the other side of the state.
“The bottom line is that people in my district, if ever one or two of them use Tri-Rail, it’ll be few and far between,” said Sen. Mike Fasano, the chairman of the Senate Transportation Appropriations committee who is from New Port Richey north of Tampa. “Why would the people in my district or the Panhandle or Jacksonville have to pay for a train system they’ll never use and that’s in the red?”
Meanwhile, as Florida sleeps the federal money that could have gotten more regional rail lines off the ground is going to Utah, North Carolina and New Mexico.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

South Shore to Reduce Weekend Service

In times of recession, it is not surprising to see operating agencies reduce service on account of fiscal woes, usually caused by declining subsidies. However, the explanation given by the CEO of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District (NICDT), which operates the South Shore line from South Bend to Chicago, strikes us as odd.

According to WSBT-TV, the rail line wants to reduce weekend service to improve the reliability of its operations. This begs the question: if they can't run the trains on time during the weekend, when trains run every two hours, what must weekday operations be like, given that so many more trains are scheduled. Somebody isn't shooting straight.

Group Fights for Gun Rights on MARTA

As a veteran New York commuter, the thought of allowing passengers to carry guns on trains is terrifying. [Think Bernie Goetz, Colin Ferguson.] Yet down in Atlanta a pro-gun group is trying to secure the right to bear arms aboard MARTA trains. WAGA-TV reports the group, known as GeorgiaCarry.org, contends one of its members was illegally stopped by transit police when they realized he was carrying a gun in a train station.

The same group recently tried, unsucessfully, to force Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to allow guns in unsecured areas.

"The legal feud erupted when a new state law took effect in July that allows people with gun permits to carry guns into restaurants and state parks and on public transportation.

Atlanta officials quickly declared the airport a "gun-free zone" and warned that anyone carrying a gun there would be arrested. GeorgiaCarry.org sued the city and the airport, claiming the airport qualifies as public transportation under the new state law."

In all likelihood this case, too, will wind up in the courts. If it does, it is not clear who would prevail. Nevertheless, the fact that the Georgia legislature enacted such a law tells us a lot about Georgia. But, knowing the state's history and prevailing political philosophy, it should come as no surprise.

NJ Transit River Line Gets Money to Grow

When NJ Transit's River Line, a diesel light rail line that connects Trenton and Camden, was being planned, cynics charged that it would be a white elephant; that it would generate minimal usage and that it was being built for political expediency, i.e. to win the support of southern New Jersey legislators for light rail and other transit projects in the north.

Five years after its opening, it has become the little rail line that could, handling 9,000 riders a day and reaching the limits of its capacity. That's something I know about from personal experience, having been left at the Trenton station once because there was no more room on the train. Now, two capital projects, funded with economic stimulus money, are in the works to increase that capacity and expand connectivity, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

"Ridership on the River Line has grown significantly, and we've really maxed out the infrastructure," NJ Transit spokesman Dan Stessel said.

NJ Transit is spending $24 million to upgrade the line's signal system. According to Stessel, this will allow the single-track line to operate an additional express train from Florence to Trenton. The signal upgrade would be a step toward "positive train control" in the future.

Positive train control, which would automatically apply the brakes if an engineer misses a stop signal, must be in use by 2015. That ruling was an outcome of last year's fatal collision between a Metrolink commuter train and Union Pacific freight in Chatsworth, CA. Having positive train control would allow River Line trains to run past 10 p.m., when it now has to cede to the line to Conrail freight trains.

In addition, NJ Transit will spend $40 million on a new station in Pennsauken, where NJ Transit's Atlantic City Line crosses over the River Line. The two level station, which should take 2 1/2 - 3 years to complete, would provide River Line passengers with connections to Atlantic City and Philadelphia's 30th Street Station, a major hub for Amtrak and SEPTA.

Court Ruling Could Revive Dumbarton Caltrain Plan

The Dumbarton Rail Corridor is a planned project to extend Caltrain service from Redwood Junction to Union City, CA, via a freight branch abandoned by the Southern Pacific Railroad that crossed the lower reached on San Francisco Bay via a trestle and swing bridge known as the Dumbarton Bridge. The terminal for the new branch would be a "union" station where passengers could transfer to Amtrak's Capitol Corridor, Altamont Commuter Express and BART, as well as East Bay bus routes. The line's purpose is to improve connecticity and give East Bay residents a new alternative for commuting to jobs in Silicon Valley.

The San Mateo County Transportation Authority website says the service will commence in 2012. However, in January the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), a regional planning organization, transferred $91 million earmarked for the Dumbarton line to a project to extend a BART route from Fremont to Warm Springs, "which put the Dumbarton plan on hold indefinitely."

That decision didn't sit well with the Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund (Transdef), which file suit to block the transfer of funds. A judge is expected to rule on the case this week.

Transdef contends MTC's action was illegal since the BART extension was not among the projects funded by
Regional Measure 2, a 2004 voter-approved $1 toll increase to Bay Area bridges to fund local transportation projects. "The Dumbarton Rail project meets the regional connection needs outlined in Measure 2, whereas the "dead-end" Warm Springs project does not, the suit says."

MTC responding brief contends "
the Warm Springs project is "shovel ready" and has a much smaller funding gap than the Dumbarton Rail project." According to the San Jose Mercurcy News, the agency has no plans to fund Dumbarton until 2019.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Amtrak Stimulus Money to Support Rolling Stock and Infrastructure Repairs

Delaware had plenty to smile about when its favorite son came calling at the Amtrak depot in Wilmington. Vice President "Amtrak" Joe Biden, who for over three decades commuted by train from the same station to his desk in The Capitol, Friday unveiled the $1.3 billion to be given to Amtrak from the economic stimulus package: approximately $100 million of that figure is to be spent in Delaware, according to the Wilmington News-Journal.
"The stimulus package outlay announced by Vice President Joe Biden includes $21 million to restore Amtrak's historic Wilmington station, along with $58.5 million for railroad car restorations and repairs in Amtrak's Bear maintenance facility and other spending on improvements to tracks, power supplies and other rail facilities."
Additional cars will be built repaired at Amtrak's Beech Grove, Ind., shops. The largest project funded through the economic stimulus will be the $102 million replacement of a drawbridge overthe Niantic River in Connecticut on the Northeast Corridor.

Other elements of the spending include a new Auto Train station in Sanford, FL, rebuildings a critical power supply facility in Chester, PA, and signal system upgrades on the Northeast Corridor between New York and Washington and in Michigan.

Amtrak is a major employer in Delaware, with 450 persons on the payroll at the Bear car repair shops and 500 at the Wilmington locomotive repair facility. According to Sen. Tom Carper, D-DEL, the project will put 59 passenger cars back into service.

Amtrak Communications Director Cliff Black said the funds could create up to 6,000 new jobs.
"Today's announcement is about jobs -- both for Delaware's Amtrak shops and those businesses associated with refurbishing the Wilmington train station," said Carper, who served on Amtrak's board and commutes daily by train to Washington.

"In the short term, this money will put a lot of Delawareans to work. In the long run, these upgrades will help reduce traffic, oil consumption, greenhouse-gas emissions, and household transportation costs," Carper said.
Rebuilding the passenger cars will enable Amtrak enter new markets and increase frequencies on some existing routes. Previously these cars were sitting idle because the railroad lacked the funds to repair them. Thus, the economic stimulus will not only create jobs by enabling Amtrak to hire people to fix the cars, but also generate revenue by providing increased service, which, in turn, will create jobs in train operations, e.g. engineers, conductors and service attendants.

In Pennsylvania, rolling stock shortages have been an obstacle to increased service between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, according to Eric Bugaile, executive director of the state House Transportation Committee.

"Amtrak is ''kind of maxed out'' on its service schedule because of equipment limitations, he said, adding that the current one train a day each way past Altoona is ''dismal.''

''We would like four or five round trips,'' he said. ''At least one more.''

The funding is roughly double what Amtrak receives from Congress for capital projects, and Vice President Biden had strong words for Amtrak critics, mainly conservative Republicans, who have pointed company's failure to turn a profit and its inefficient operations

"It is "a necessity for a great nation to have a great [rail] passenger system," Biden said. "I'm tired of apologizing for help for Amtrak. ... It's an absolute national treasure and necessity."

In his remarks Friday, Biden argued that every modern passenger rail service in the world depends on subsidies. He also claimed that U.S. highways and airports are actually subsidized more than the railway system.

"So let's get something straight here. Amtrak has not been at the trough. Amtrak has been left out," he said."

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Amtrak Cascades Line Marks 10th Anniversary

Ridership on Amtrak's Cascades line, which is funded by the states of Washington and Oregon, has risen by 71 percent since the service began 10 years ago, according to a Washington Department of Transportation news release. Last year, the line served a record 775,000 passengers.

Amtrak introduced the service 10 years using five Talgo trainsets, three of which are owned by Washington and the others by Amtrak. In addition, the Washington Department of Transportation has invested $137 million in rail infrastructue and other improvements. The service has grown to four daily roundtrips between Seattle and Portland, with two continuing south to Eugene and one continuing north to Bellingham. In addition, the line offers a daily roundtrip between Seattle and Vancouver, BC, with plans in the works for a second daily train to Vancouver.

A special event to commemorate the anniversal will be held May 9 at Seattle's King Street Station. The dates also marks the second annual National Train Day.

Major Fare Hikes Loom for Big City Transit Riders

Massive fare hikes are facing transit customers in major cities around the country. Higher fares could impact ridership trends, which set 50-year records last year.

In New York, where the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has proposed raising fares on subways, buses and commuter railroads by as much as 30 percent, a proposal to mitigate that fare hike by imposing new bridge tolls and a payroll tax has hit roadblocks in the state legislature. According to the New York Daily News:
"Albany sources said Gov. Paterson and other backers of the revenue-raising package, crafted by former MTA Chairman Richard Ravitch, are increasingly frustrated and concerned that time is running out for more than 8.5 million daily bus, subway and commuter train riders."
While Sheldon Silver, speaker of the state Assembly, says he has the votes needed to pass the Ravitch plan in that house, in the state Senate several Democratic members are joining with Republicans in opposing tolls on bridges across the East and Harlem Rivers that are now free. They have proposed higher vehicle registration fees, selling MTA-owned land and a commuter income tax to avoid raising tolls. U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, who until a few days ago was running for Mayor of New York, proposed cutting MTA administrative spending by 10 percent and transferring control of the agency from the state to the city.

The legislature's failure to act prompted an emergency MTA board meeting tomorrow to discuss the problem.

If the Ravitch plan is approved, it would also impose a payroll tax on counties in the MTA service region. Fares would still rise, but by eight percent rather than 23 percent or more. The legislature has until March 25 to act. On that day the MTA board is expected to vote to approve new fares, which would take effect June 1.

State legislature action will also determine what happens to fares on Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority subways, buses, ferries and commuter rail lines. The Boston Globe reports that the "T' preliminary budget "will include an "other revenues" line entry for $160 million, the size of the agency's budget deficit." The agency's board is required to approve the first draft by March 15.

The agency is counting on the legislature to help fill the money gap, but without state assistance the board will have to "reduce service and hike fares to make up the difference." Fares could rise by 25 percent, and off-peak and weekend service face substantial reductions that would take effect July 1.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has proposed a 19 cents per gallon gasoline tax to keep MBTA fares low, reduce a recently imposed toll hike on the Massachusetts Turnpike and support transportation projects around the state. However, the plan is getting a cool reception in the legislature, according to the Globe.

In the Windy City, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) board will probably impose higher fares and cost-cutting measures next month to help close a $155 million budget gap, The Chicago Tribune reports. Paul Fish, the CTA’s vice-president of budget and capital finance told the board earlier this week the agency could probably reduce expenses by $80 million but would still face a $75 million shortfall that would, most likely, have to be made up at the farebox.

One problem facing the agency is the reliability of sales tax revenue projections provided by its parent agency, the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA). In mid February the RTA told CTA sales tax revenue was running $58 million below projections. CTA had estaimted the shortfall at $87 million. The RTA board meets April 2; the CTA board April 7.

Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) is considering its second fare hike in two years because of a $45 million shortfall in sales tax revenue. The hike would take effect on some services in September and on others, including Trinity Railway Express, as late as December 2010, according to the Dallas Morning News. A day pass for local bus and light rail service would rise by $1 to $4.

Monday, March 9, 2009

New York Unveils 20-Year Rail Plan

At a press conference today held at the Albany-Rensselaer Amtrak station, New York Gov. David Paterson unveiled the Empire State's first statewide rail plan in 22 years. It calls for spending $10.7 billion over 20 years to upgrade intercity passenger and freight service, with $3 billion targeted for the so-called Third Track Initiative, which would reduce trip times and increase frequency and reliability along the Empire Corridor between Albany-Rensselaer and Buffalo.
"The Third Track Initiative aims to establish a dedicated third track for high speed passenger rail service across Upstate from Niagara Falls to Albany with a potential for reducing the travel time by 2 hours or more."
Other goals of the plan include:
  • Doubling train frequencies between New York and Albany-Rensselaer, Albany-Rensselaer and Niagara Falls and Albany-Rensselaer and Montreal.
  • Achieving on-time performance of at least 95 percent between Albany and New York City.
  • Shortening the travel time between Albany-Rensselaer and Montreal to 6 1/2 hours from eight hours.
  • Establishing new passenger service, where viable, such as between Saratoga and Albany, Niagara Falls and Buffalo, and Binghamton and New York City

California High-Speed Rail Agency Faces Cash Crunch

Despite passage of a $9.9 billion bond initiative last November and $8 billion for high-speed rail in President Obama's economic stimulus package, the California High-Speed Rail Authority could come to a crashing halt. The agency is facing a cash crunch, according to a Fresno Bee editorial, because state spending on infrastructure projects has been frozen.

It has pegged its hopes on a $29.1 million bridge loan to sustain its operations through June in hope that it can access some of the federal funds and bond sale proceeds. If the agency is forced to shut down and suspend its planning activities, California could lose out on tapping the federal high-speed rail money pool: it needs federal funds to build its rail line, which has a $30 billion pricetag just for the Los Angeles - San Francisco mainline.

"California is currently ahead of the rest of the states in planning its high-speed system. We're the only state whose voters have approved spending our own money on such a project, and the environmental and engineering studies required for the massive project are already well begun.

"But that lead could evaporate quickly if California's efforts are stalled by money woes. Not a day passes without news of the enthusiasm that's rising in other states and regions to build high-speed systems -- the Midwest, the Northeast corridor, Texas, Florida."

MARTA Ridership Gains Gone With the Wind

MARTA, the Metropolitan Atlanta public transit agency, reported an 8.6 gain in ridership on its subway system for 2008, the third highest among the nation's subway operators, according to American Public Transportation Association figures. But the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports a reversal of fortune for the agency this year, with ridership off four percent, year over year, in January. That's the start of MARTA's troubles:

"Despite getting about $65 million from the federal economic stimulus package for repairs, renovations and equipment replacements, MARTA is projected to have a $65 million to $67 million operating budget shortfall this year because its share of public sales tax revenues has declined dramatically along with the economy.

"And with lower gasoline prices and fewer people now commuting to work because they no longer have jobs, ridership is falling once again, too."

MARTA CEO Beverly Scott says the drop in sales tax revenue could mean service reductions of 10 to 30 percent, depending on what the Georgia legislature does to come to the agency's aid. Also a 25-cent fare hike to $2 for a single ride is in store for riders.

New Mexico Tribes Declare Shutter-Free Zones on Rail Runner

Officials of the Santo Domingo and San Felipe pueblos have asked conductors on New Mexico Rail Runner trains to request that their passengers refrain from taking photos while crossing their territories, Associated Press reports. A 12-mile stretch of the Albuquerque - Santa Fe rail route just north of Bernalillo crosses Native American lands, and the residents want to maintain their privacy.
“We know that we probably can’t enforce it legally,” said Lawrence Rael, director of the Mid-Region Council of Governments. “It’s just a matter of agreement to say we would respect their request. I think it’s pretty reasonable. Those of us who were raised in New Mexico know that when you drive into a pueblo there are signs posted that say ‘no picture taking.’ ... This is just an extension of that.’’

Transit Ridership Sets 52-Year High

Is America's love affair with the automobile coming to an end? Americans took 10.7 billion rides on public transit in 2008, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). That is the most in 52 years and a four percent gain over 2007. The increase came despite a falloff in gasoline prices and rising unemployment, a critical factor for transit, since 60 percent of transit usage is work related.
"The APTA survey found that ridership increased last year on all modes of transit all across the country. Ridership rose on 14 of the nation's subway systems (3.5 percent), 20 of 21 commuter rail systems (4.7 percent) and 20 of 26 light-rail systems (8.3 percent). Some of the big increases were in places such as South Florida, Dallas and Salt Lake City, not necessarily among the largest communities served by transit, officials said."
Transit advocates say the gains provide a rationale for increased investment in public travel modes. The spending would not only help the economy but address environmental and energy issues. APTA President William W. Millar told The Washington Post:

"Now, more than ever, the value of public transportation is evident, and the public has clearly demonstrated that they want and need more public transit services. These are investments that pay off for decades and decades to come. Boston opened the nation's first subway in 1897. More than a century later I can still ride it today."