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.
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