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;

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: ... 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.