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.