Thursday, December 30, 2010

Eugene Kerik Garfield 1936-2010

I'm very saddened to learn of Gene Garfield's passing:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/30/business/30garfield.html

Brief passage:
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Eugene K. Garfield, who originated the American Auto-Train, ferrying passengers and their cars between Virginia and Florida, saving people the effort of driving to their winter vacation homes and the expense of renting cars when they got there, died in Hollywood, Fla., on Sunday. He was 74.

The cause was esophageal cancer, said Brenda Brush, his companion.

In the 1960s, Mr. Garfield worked in Washington in the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson as assistant to the secretary of transportation, Alan S. Boyd, and as an assistant to the president’s chief of staff, W. Marvin Watson.

During his time there, the Transportation Department conducted a feasibility study for an auto-ferry service between the Northeast and Florida, and concluded that the service would be potentially profitable and best left for the private sector.

Shortly thereafter, when President Johnson declined to run for re-election in 1968, Mr. Garfield returned to the private sector.

“He came home one day and said to my mom, ‘I’m going to run a train,’ ” his daughter, Pamela Garfield, said in an interview.
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Likely Gene Garfield was the last passenger rail entrepreneur (as distinct from administrator) to walk this planet and develop a concept attractive to private capital. Although his business enterprise the Auto Train Corporation failed, it established that there could be strong public acceptance for such in the "right" market. AT established the demand was there for a journey that could be made overnight, but yet, after committing private capital, found that for longer journeys, e.g. Sanford-Louisville, the demand simply was not. That is why I have consistently held "overnight is enough' and have dismissed the longer routes proposed at various passenger rail enthusiast sites.

Although Amtrak paid the Estate fair market for the facilities and equipment acquired when the service was resumed during 1983, what else they got was simply like the Master Card ads, "Priceless'. For $1.00, Amtrak reportedly acquired all the Goodwill and institutional expertise that Mr. Garfield instilled within his organization. Such expertise included how to efficiently load and unload vehicles (is it any accident that the ramps at Lorton face Northward and those at Sanford face South enabling vehicles to be handled Roll On-Roll Off?), what to tell passengers and what NOT to tell passengers (no estimates whatever when you'll get your vehicle back, even though they could tell you give or take five minutes).

I haven't traveled AT since 2009 ("never went down" this year), but should there be a journey next year, my thoughts will to turn to the memory of 'the man who made it happen".

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Post Election Amtrak

While there is at least one rail forum at which I participate and at which the owner would really prefer "no politics', I hold it is simply not possible to discuss passenger rail affairs without recognition of their political environment. So, with this site owner's acceptance and if I may, let's address the 2010 Mid Term Elections impact on Amtrak.

While not for one minute do I think the new Republican House majority will be chanting "kill Amtrak,,,kill Amtrak" (and even after the election rhetoric dies down, I doubt they will be chanting "kill Obamacare...kill Obamacare"), I think we are looking at an Amtrak that "did OK" during the 111th Congress but now it is time to be thankful "you got what you got when you got it". It appears that regarding the major equipment orders, the 70 Siemens electric locomotives are fully funded, but the 130 single level cars from the Spanish concern are not. While I have fair confidence these cars will be delivered, somewhere at 100 Penn "wind will blow' regarding the 'waste' these cars (for LD's) represent.

While the continued and growing public acceptance of both Amtrak's Corridor and LD services are certainly a plus, sometime during the 112th Congress, the call will move forth for some "pruning'. To what extent can (or will) a greatly neutered 1600 Penn come to the rescue, I know not.

One thing of which I am certain is that at such time railroad traffic returns to 2007 levels (and it will; I've placed my bets on that) and if some proposal for needless service is moving forth, i.e. some LD route, the "confiscation' position may be more than just an off hand comment a journalist reportedly heard, but rather a stated industry position promulgated through the AAR. Again, lest we forget the UP did not reportedly spend $2B for capacity expansion just so they could handle more Amtrak trains over the Sunset route - and if they did, my shares will be voted to 'throw the bums out".

Friday, October 29, 2010

New Amtrak Locomotives - Get 'em While the Going's Good

Amtrak has now awarded a contract for 70 new electric locomotives to the German concern, Siemens AG.

http://www.amtrak.com/servlet/BlobServer?blobcol=urldata&blobtable=MungoBlobs&blobkey=id&blobwhere=1249216633199&blobheader=application%2Fpdf&blobheadername1=Content-disposition&blobheadervalue1=attachment;filename=Amtrak_ATK-10-141a_Amtrak_Electric_Locos_Release.pdf

Obviously, Amtrak is concerned that there will be a few "Restricting" signals on the Right of Way come November 3 (or later; depending on how many contested elections will have to be addressed).

Finally, begging the reader's and site owner's pardon, allow me to "go political". I can well recall 1960 Kennedy-Nixon; at that time that one 'was as close as they came" and along with suggestions of vote fraud (reportedly here in Chicago, a few corpses made like Lazarus and found their way to the polls). The loser, Nixon, when it was suggested the results be challenged, simply said "no, for the good of the country".

Doubt if "post Gorebushoff", or otherwise Bush v. Gore , 531 U.S. 98 (2000), such will occur again.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Anti-Passenger Rail Sentiment Rising?

It would appear that the "roll" on which passenger rail has riding since President Obama was inaugurated is looking at anything between a Slow Approach and a Stop Signal, and that passenger train advocates should be glad they got what they got while they got it.

Likely, the "heady" days of the early Obama administration should have been recognized for what they were - passenger rail and any other socio-economic programs as well. Sure we had both the President and Vice President Elects coming to town on the train (won't see that happen again, as the President and anyone in the first five line-of-succession slots simply do not travel together), we had some 'ride Amtrak' words from Vice-President Biden within weeks of taking office, and of course the "$8B for HSR" provisions within the ARRA'09 (Stimulus) legislation.

Tangible progress has taken the form of awarded contracts of 130 single-level cars for Amtrak Long Distance trains and equipment orders for Talgo equipment by rail passenger agencies within Wisconsin and Oregon as well as bi-level cars by California.

New trains have been established within Virginia funded at Local level; many Amfleet cars that had been stored are being returned to service both to support the new Virginia trains as well as to handle increased ridership over existing routes.

But there are clearly Restricting Signals ahead.

First the political landscape has drastically changed. No doubt many of the young thought the new President could "walk on water' (I myself was youthful during the Kennedy administration; the same euphoria existed back then); they have now fast found he will sink just as fast as would anyone else. The opposition comprised of Conservatives and Populists, all seeking office under the banner of Republicans, will make considerable inroads to the existing one party domination of Congress, and the Administration will have to quickly learn how to govern within a "plural Democracy". Several pundits have already suggested that the President will not seek re-election come 2012.

Today we find that, while Amtrak continues to enjoy ever increasing ridership (up 5.7% during FY10), there have been missteps, although not necessarily the fault of Amtrak management and even passenger train advocates. One such misstep is the "$8B for HSR", which simply is not sufficient funds to have anything meaningful built on a National level. While real construction is moving forth in Florida, that construction could well end up as additional lanes on I-4 between Orlando and Tampa. Kansas with an HSR grant; sure it will feed consultants, but if any new service is to result, it will simply represent a reinstated LD train, namely the Lone Star that was discontinued during 1979. The $8B should have been directed to improvements along the Northeast Corridor with possibly some allocated towards "higher speed' rail in established Southern California markets. That funding would go a long way towards projects such as a new tunnel through Baltimore - and with the design work complete, it certainly would have met the President's criteria of "shovel ready".

Now the mid-term Elections are upon us - and while, as underdog politicians have a way of saying, "the only poll that counts is the poll that occurs on November 2nd", it appears that the Democrats will no longer enjoy the commanding majorities they hold in both Houses of Congress, and could well end up loosing control of both. Of the two, the House of Representatives appears most vulnerable.

The High Green Amtrak and its backers have enjoyed will soon be over. This is not to say there will a groundswell, even if only rhetoric, to "kill Amtrak', but rather there will be return to the Bush (43) years of "it's there".

Now there will be post mortems regarding to what extent Amtrak squandered the past two years of 'free flow funding'. Obviously, I personally hold the "$8B for HSR" was a squander and I hold concerns that it will represent a boondoggle, hardly of size to bring down the entire US economy, but of size enough to be "Amtrak's Bridge to Nowhere".

I further hold that if there were to be 130 units of new rolling stock ordered, those 130 units should have been 90 Coaches and Food Service cars for Northeast Corridor service and 40 additional Coaches to expand each Acela trainset to eight cars. The Long Distance trains, which, so far as this author is concerned, are simply an appendage of political expediency would just have to wait for another day to be re-equipped; and if the Bush era vis-a-vis Amtrak is to be repeated over the remainder of Obama's term, something, somewhere, will likely be "pruned' with a good guess being The Cardinal or the Silver Meteor (the Meteor could be discontinued without the 180 Day Notice under ARAA '97 - the only Long Distance train so "vulnerable').

While the Talgo trains for service in the Chicago-Milwaukee Corridor are simply the 'wrong trains for the wrong job', additions to the Pacific Northwest fleet are $$$ well spent. Released Amfleet cars could well serve any new Locally funded routes presently under consideration. If the initiative for new and expanded service in the Midwest is to go anywhere, bi-Level cars patterned after those presently in service on California routes are what's needed.

So all I can hope is that at Amtrak Headquarters, they are readying for stormy weather. Intercity rail passenger service is here to stay and the ridership increases, even through a severe recession, have shown there is public acceptance for such. As a result, a "rerun" of the Reagan administration battle cry of "kill it" is unlikely. The challenge will be to hold on to the gains of "Obama 1.0" and hope that the days of funding favor will someday return.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The March 6 "Town Hall Meeting"

Likely, most readers of this blog are aware that TRAINS magazine sponsored a conference this past Saturday which was led by senior Amtrak officials, including CEO Joseph Boardman. The conference was held at the Merchandise Mart Conference Center in Chicago. Attendance was limited to 275 participants mostly drawn from the rail hobbyist (railfan) community; pre-approved questions were accepted by the Amtrak panel.

I did not attend; I'm simply not that much of a railfan anymore, and my personal views regarding the role of 21st century intercioty passenger service likely would be in conflict with the majority of attendees. However, I have reviewed postings made at discussion forums by members who have represented to be in attendance. Here are two "Brief passages" from such postings:

Emmett Fremaux [VP Marketing/Product Management] is up.

LD trains are a fundamental part of Amtrak's mission, and are not going away any time soon. However there are zero plans for any new trains. Zero. Not happening. In the past few years, LD service has been improving with all time highs in ridership, revenue, OTP, and customer satisfaction.

I think that the candor (safe assumption such was carefully scripted) of an Amtrak senior manager in front of an audience at which all too many would love to have shouted out 'when will we get our ----- (fill in the blank; Pioneer, Sunset East, whatever)...?' was indeed refreshing. It represented public admission of what I have contended since A-Day (anyone with grounding in railroad industry affairs knew all that "for profit; no funding' bluster was just that) that the LD system simply represents political expediency from a Federal agency that needs a legislative majority in order to ensure its continued funding. However, it is pleasing to note that it is management's position that we will give as good a travel experience as can be reasonably expected within our budgetary constraints. Very simply, this immediately translates to that any further cutbacks in the quality of the on-board Dining experience appear unlikely.

Another attendee reporting at a different site made the following observation on the same remark;

Amtrak is basically saying it won't launch any new trains / services outside NEC without state funding in place, which could lead to fairness discussions later on where some areas, like California provide the bulk of train funding, but NEC states get essentially a free ride.

There is no question that there is unfairness noted within this quotation. California, however "broke' they may be, first established and now continues to Locally fund a comprehensive and well planned system, i.e. they have held the 'where's our train' interests in Portola and Oroville in check, that enjoys reasonable public acceptance. Same of course applies to lesser extents with other localities. Yet, the nine states comprising the NECorridor as well as New York's Empire Service and Michigan's Wolverine Service all get free rides compliments of the Feddytill.

While Michigan is obviously a "Debit State', all Corridor states save Rhode Island and Maryland (Pennsylvania a virtual "break even'), are "Donor States", i.e. they put more in the the Feddytill from taxes paid by persons, live and fictitious, residing within those states than is taken out in the form of Federally funded programs (including Amtrak) benefiting those residents.

"Life isn't fair', but didn't you learn that, uh say, about when you were five years old?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Section 4.4 May 1, 1971 Agreement - Barrister's Field Day

At this topic, I would like to address a provision within the May 1, 1971 Agreement between Amtrak and the Railroads that likely caused more contention than any with which I was familiar. As likely has been surmised, I "worked with this stuff for a living' during 'Early Amtrak". The provision is simply titled Section 4.4 Jointly Owned Terminals and Joint Trackage.

First let us address that a Terminal Company is a railroad that is owned by one or more line-haul railroads to provide switching and industrial delivery services to the using (not necessarily an owner) roads in a non-competitive manner. In contemporary railroading, the largest coming to mind include the Belt Railway of Chicago, Indiana Harbor Belt, Kansas City Terminal Railway, and Terminal Railroad Association St Louis. Possibly, Conrail Shared Assets is organized as a Terminal Company, but since that was formed long after I had left the industry, I'll defer to others regarding that point.

An interesting facet of Terminal companies is that they keep books in accordance with (now) Surface Transportation Board rules of accounting in such a manner that the 'bottom line, i.e. Net Income is $0. All expenses are allocated to the using roads in accordance with the company's agreement amongst the roads regarding such and revenues are allocated amongst same (usually the owning roads, as distinct from any non-owning roads known as tenants, get a little 'favoritism" with regards to revenues - especially those generated from non-rail sources).

Now to address passenger Terminal companies. and as noted above gave rise to one of the most "hot button' issues of the Agreement and surely kept Amtrak lawyers (in fact I know so), both in-house and outside counsel, quite busy. This provision allowed railroads to pass the entire cost, including the trappings of a well-embedded bureaucracy, to Amtrak - even where there was only 'one a day' such as at Cincinnati. This was likely a confluence of two parties, namely one anxious to stop running train and the other equally anxious to start running trains, as well as signed by persons who did not understand the ramifications of what they were signing.

Suffice to say, likely long about A-Day+1, both sides knew that "something had to be done' - that Amtrak would 'see 'em at Foley Square' and that the roads knew these provisions were "unconscionable' to such extent that they were unenforceable. While I have no substantiation for such, I once "heard' that Santa Fe darned near stayed out of Amtrak, not for the usual bluster and bravado fans like th believe that 'we can run 'em better that they ever can', but rather because they were concerned about costs to access CUS on one hand that Amtrak would find unconscionable and not pay regardless of what a piece of paper said vs. being tho only user left at Dearborn (Wabash had already built a separate shack for the Orland Park commuter train) and by default responsible for all costs of that facility. Amtrak of course made arrangements to vacate these terminals as rapidly as possible with the worst of worst, Cincinnati, being the first. That was followed by Richmond, Jacksonville, Kansas City, St Louis, and Minneapolis. Amtrak lawyers 'saw 'em all at Foley Square' as well.

Those terminals, namely Boston, Washington, and Chicago, having a high volume of traffic, were comparative non-issues as there were enough trains over which the costs of such could be allocated. But Amtrak solved the matter, and I think wisely, by acquiring those Terminal companies. While Boston has been dissolved, the other two remain as wholly owned Amtrak subsidiaries.

Finally, note I have avoided any discussion of Los Angeles; this is simply because I do not know of how any disputes regarding this property were handled. While of course well used for railroad and mass transit today, and the property owned by a real estate concern, ProLogis/Catellus, on A-Day there were were only "three and a half a day".