Monday, October 31, 2011

Amtrak Joins "The Revolution"

Amtrak proclams at their Facebook page, that they soon will be offering Wi-Fi service on more of their trains than not:

Brief passage:
Responding to strong passenger interest, Amtrak is launching today a major expansion of its free AmtrakConnectSM Wi-Fi service to 12 East Coast routes. As a result, trains that carry nearly 60 percent of all Amtrak passengers now have Wi-Fi connections.

Even if I am somewhat astounded, I can't help but note how important 24/7 access to the internet appears to be to some, as with so many infrequent and first time Amtrak travelers the inquiry "is wi-fi available?" made. I have seen consternation on-board; I can't forget how aboard Auto Train this past February, I was sitting at a table in the Lounge for the pre-departure wine tasting and this Mother and teen age daughter sit down on the opposite side. The girl was "at the wailing wall' when she learned that the wi-fi was only good at Lorton and not en-route; she hustles off to their room. The Mother tells me "thank goodness you said something; she has school assignments to prepare and she must have on-line in order to get them done".

To me it sounds as if they were "expecting' that wi-fi would be available.

Personally, I could care less; to be "a day or two" without being on-line is "no biggie'. Most any hotel at which I have occasion to stay during the 21 or so nights a year I'm out of town has a Business Center or Lobby computer; sometimes you have to pay, sometimes not. But I should be prepared to accept that those younger than my age 70+ demographic, it "is a biggie' and is just as expected on-board as is working HVAC and toilet facilities.

Needless to say, the only computer I own is this Dell desktop from which I now write; so I have to ask in all sincerity, is this "need" for wi-fi as prevalent through any societal demographic or is it mostly within a young, computer savvy demographic that frequent blog sites such as here?

I of course note that Amtrak is spending "heap big wampum" to add wi-fi to its fleet. It almost seems to me that Amtrak was slow to "wake up and smell the other guy's coffee brewing' and that if they don't get their own kettle on the fire, they will lose many a potential rider.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Cash-Free Amtrak Dining Car?

As likely many of my readers here know, Amtrak is mandated under PRIIA '08 to prepare Performance Improvement Plans for each of its Long Distance routes. They have made, in my opinion, a sincere effort to comply with this provision. The Improvement Plan for all-single level trains other than The Cardinal, which was addressed in another report, has now been released.

I think this Plan, mandated under PRIIA 08, shows that reasonableness and practicality rule. There are no proposals to increase frequencies or to reroute away from existing routes. Advocates who seek an expansion of the Long Distance system will be disappointed.

The point I find most interesting is first introduced within the Report's Executive Summary:
Converting the Lake Shore Limited dining car to a “club-diner” is expectedto improve financial performance and customer service. In this pilot initiative, the dining car will operate as a cashless club-diner in which payments will be made by credit/debit cards; the diner will have extended hours for beverage service; and the lounge car menu will be upgraded to provide coach passengers wanting freshly prepared foods with an alternative to purchasing full meals in the diner. These changes will increase food service options and allow diner staff to serve customers during time now spent accounting for cash transactions. Separately, an analysis of meals served in the dining car was conducted and it was determined that one less food service employee would be required during off-peak periods.

I would think that anything, repeat anything, Amtrak could do to minimize, if not totally eliminate, the amount of cash (currency) 'sloshing" about on-board would benefit all, save the few dishonest employees "subjected to undue temptation' (I've seen that phrase within transcripts of hearings I reviewed while in Labor Relations with a Class I railroad).

The largest problem is that while the report notes that airlines have largely gone to a cash-free environment for in-flight purchases, it is a fairly safe assumption that any adult airline passenger has some kind of electronic transaction card (credit or debit); In fact, I think you need have one in order to purchase an airline ticket. The same can hardly be said of an Amtrak (or Greyhound) passenger - and these passengers have just as much "right' to purchase Food & Beverage on-board as do the others. What I fail to see addressed in the report is how to accommodate these passengers.

I would think some kind of prepaid meal arrangement could be offered definitely for the Diner and could even be implemented, even though the Report does not address such, for Snack Bar purchases. Passengers could purchase a 'gift card' prior to boarding, but I believe Amtrak would be obliged to make a ready refund without penalty of any amounts unused. The downside of this proposal is that impulse buying would be curtailed - and this would be of particular "hurt' for high margin alcoholic beverages.

While it can be easy to envision a cash free environment in a Snack Bar as well, let's address the Diner first, as unit accountability is in place for the Snack Bar inventory. The Diner is where Amtrak property can "grow legs' (much of same with railroad operated Diners as well).

All told, interesting idea that I think is long overdue.

The Report is worth a read - at least the Executive Summary.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Michigan Debacle

September TRAINS has a report regarding the deterioration of the Wolverine service. . A recent review of Amtrak's Train Status shows Wolverines arriving Detroit not less than 1'30" late - and this is on top of a 5'30" schedule from CHI over a route that can be driven adhering to posted speeds in about 5 hours. Presumably bus operators, with limited stop service, could "beat the pants off" Amtrak.

The report notes that negotiations are moving forth with the Norfolk Southern to sell what to them is a secondary line (their traffic moves South from Detroit to Toledo thence handled on the ex-NYC East or West as need be) to a public agency. If Michigan is sincere about the promotion of rail passenger service, then there is simply no alternative as the "Feddytrough" is already doing its part by providing three a day without any Local assistance. Of interest, TRAINS further reports that the "same degree of utility' provisions of RPSA '70 and the May 1, 1971 Agreement 'sunset-ted' during 1996 and were not part of the ARAA '97 legislation. Had such provisions been in place and enforceable, NS would be in violation allowing the line to deteriorate to the extent it evidently has.

Judging from the passenger loadings on the trains I rode during an Easter weekend trip to Detroit (for a Detroit Symphony performance), there is business. However, that business seems comprised of young people who could well lack having a roadworthy auto. It seemed that when East of Kalamazoo, the trip could only be described as "tortuous", and NS's actions will only make it more so. In short, once these young people have an auto available or the means to afford an airline ticket (Southwest, folks, is no longer cheap), THEY will hang up the Adios drumhead TO Amtrak. Again I note, the business is there, but somehow I think it is business by default and if those passengers had ready other means, they would be using them. In the Midwest, I believe Amtrak enjoys business by choice, i.e. the passengers have other means such as a roadworthy auto, Chi-Milwaukee and Chi-Springfield. Hopefully 'six a day" and a 4.5hr Chi-Det schedule will give the Wolverines "business by choice".

If NS can serve their major on line shippers such as Kellogg's at Battle Creek by means of an existing North South routing from the NYC Water Level route, then imposing the slow orders is no different than when BNSF imposed same Newton-La Junta - a line redundant to their freight operations beyond accessing on line industries. If Amtrak wants to be competitive in the market, then maintaining the track to efficiently operate passenger trains is their responsibility and not that of NS.

By contrast, the Amtrak owned ROW on that route Porter-Kalamazoo is a railroad worthy of efficiently operating passenger trains. Since the Wolverines are solely Federally funded, I'm not certain how interested Michigan would be in having their additional grant from the ARRA '09 rescissions applied to a Federal service.

Now what likely is paradoxical is that Amtrak is of the "just send us the bill" mindset with regards to maintenance of Newton-Albuquerque that hosts "one a day' and with a road ready to accept a reroute of that train, 3-4 Chief, and possibly, with Wichita and Amarillo being on line, generate more traffic than at present. Even though Michigan is not supporting the Wolverines, Amtrak may hold that some, if not most, of the ARRA grant can be applied to this route.

However, even though I want to go and support the Detroit Symphony next season; be it assured I'll be getting there by auto or air. The ride last April was simply "torturous' - and that was before many of the existing speed restrictions were imposed. Somehow the thought of poking along at 25 (there was enough of that as was for the Easter trip) when my buggy could be rolling along at a lawful 70) and now that I know the "lay of the land" I'm not concerned about M&M, the rap artist and Chrysler pitchman, sidling up to me and say "hey dude, we don't drive that Asian junk around here'.

All told, until the matter of track deterioriation can be addressed, either by Amtrak committing funds for proper maintenance, I hold that the best option for Amtrak is to annul all Wolverine trains East of Battle Creek and provide connecting bus transportation onward, as the existing on-time performance is quite simply "unacceptable'

disclaimer; author holds long position NSC

Friday, May 27, 2011

Corridor to Private Enterprise - Mica

Rep John Mica (R-FL7), who again holds the chairmanship of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has dusted off the Bush administration proposal to separate the NECorridor from the rest of Amtrak - and of course stimulate private investment for both competitive services and infrastructure upgrades;

Brief passage:

House Republicans want to dismantle Amtrak, giving private investors the task of building and operating high-speed rail service between Washington and Boston.

They believe that an infusion of private capital would enable the system to be built in 10 years, a third of the time that Amtrak projects for completion of the $117 billion project, and that service would improve if operations were put in the hands of a for-profit company.

At a hearing Thursday, House Transportation Committee Chairman John L. Mica (R-Fla.) condemned Amtrak as having “one of the most dismal records on earth for any rail service, particularly in the Northeast Corridor.”

His plan to privatize the operations in the densely populated region from Washington to Boston was pounced on by Democrats and unions who represent Amtrak employees.

“The railroads didn’t want to run a railroad,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), pointing to the demise of private passenger rail service more than 40 years ago. “They went bankrupt on passenger service. They begged the government to take it.”

This material appears at the Committee's site:

This proposal would clearly represent a divide and conquer strategy. If a lawmaker wants to vote on the one proven absolutely essential service Amtrak operates, he can answer to his constituents for that.

If however, the lawmaker choses to vote for maintenance of the Long Distance system, he can also do that and answer to his constituents accordingly and independent of his vote regarding the Northeast Corridor. Any such proposal if enacted (and it won't be during the Obama administration) would neutralize the contention that the LD's represent the catalyst to have Federal level funding for the regional Corridor.

It could also mean the Long Distance trains would be "in jeopardy".

As previously noted, this is simply a "dust off' of a proposal made during the Bush administration - and during Rep. Mica's earlier chairmanship of the Committee. It is probably nothing more than a 'this Committee is now under new management; and we now again believe in strong Republican values of free enterprise, freedom of choice........(blahblah).

I would think this is a no start until there is again a Republican in the White House; and now that their possible '12 contenders are looking for the Exit signs and "Sarah the Sacrificial Lamb' is moving towards center stage, that likely will not be anytime sooner than '17.

Finally, if there is any interest in private sector investment, assuming risk to reap a potential reward, for rail passenger service, how about "baby steps first' - 40 additional Acela Coaches with two of such being aded to the existing 20 train sets.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Happy Fortieth - Amtrak!!!

Even though much of your Long Distance operations are presently disrupted through no fault of yours or your Politico "overseers", make the best of the day. Lest we forget, you have clearly outlived your life expectancy anyone within the industry (including management lesserlings like myself) gave you by now more than thirty years.

Of interest here is a related topic from an enthusiast site Railroad Net:

From The New York Times:

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Big Lie

While of course hardly either the first or last time a government will falsely represent its actions or intentions to those who are governed, I'd like to address how intentions were set aside regarding Amtrak Long Distance (LD) routes.

First, allow me to note that, although hardly some kind of avid railfan hobbyist, I enjoy riding trains. In fact, it seems as if I go a year without a "ride for real", i.e.somewhere to go and a Long Distance train is convenient, I'm out taking a joyride, i.e. the only reason I'm traveling is to ride a train.

But simply because I enjoy riding trains is not reason for me to join an advocacy group to seek more of such, or for that matter even maintaining the existing system. Even if in certainty there isn't any publicly circulated written material to support such, the strong inference remains that the Class I industry (OK let's get the disclaimer out of the way: author holds long positions in KSU, NSC, UNP), in which I was employed on A-Day or May 1, 1971, was victim of "the Big Lie'. That lie was simply the industry was told that within five years, 1976, the Long Distance trains would start to be discontinued in an orderly fashion (New Orleans-LA Sunset and New York-Chicago, but tri-weekly and via circuitous routing, Cardinal would be first; Lake Shore (NY-Chicago via most direct route and six major population centers along such) would likely be last. That plan actually started with the 1979 "Carter Cuts" that took care of the Chicago-Miami Floridian and the New York-Kansas City National Limited, but as endemic with any social program, which is what I believe Amtrak LD to be, politics get in the way.

That was as far as what the Class I's were promised got.

The Clinton-era "Mercer Cuts" only addressed the "political" routes (Chicago-Portland Pioneer and Chicago-LA Desert Wind) added during the '80's when powerful Congressmembers thought a train was a means to "bring home the bacon" to the folk that marked the ballots.

The Bush 43 administration was able to do some minor "pruning" namely the Three Rivers (a secondary NY-Chicago route with only Pittsburgh as an intermediate population center) and the Orlando-New Orleans Sunset East, whose political supporters simply had "moved on".

Somehow, even though the incumbent Obama administration is moving more "centrist" during the second half of the first term (sound like Clinton, anyone?), I think Amtrak cuts surely to be proposed by the Republicans (especially their populist fringe movement; AKA the Tea Party) may meet "resistance" from 1600 Penn; a "weapon" is that LD ridership is on the rise.

But the fact remains that LD's are costly to operate and cannot command the fare level (in Coach at least) that can the Corridors - especially the Northeast. What is often overlooked is the indirect cost to the Class I railroad industry arising from the interference that any train operating on a schedule has upon an industry that no longer conducts its operations on a "boulevard of steel" but rather that of an "industrial pipeline". Imagine how a train operating at 79mph and on a strict schedule (and people aboard who can pick up the cell phone and say "Hi Congressman") will affect freights that operate between 45 and 60mph. They will simply have to take sidings to allow this 79mph object to get through, and in the case of an Amtrak train, is "not doing very much' to contribute to that investor owned railroad's bottom line.

So put it all together and had an industry that be assured was far more "desperate" than it is today had this magic wand waved in front of them that you will be relieved of the costs of operating these trains that have been imposed upon you by regulatory fiat and they will start to be gone in five years, but in fact turned out to be a "buddy, you're stuck; sorry 'bout that" situation, I think no Class I would have signed up. Accordingly there would have been no Amtrak, and the LD's would have come off quite quickly after the statutory (under RPSA '70) five year moratorium expired, if not sooner. Any that somehow survived would have been immediately gone once the industry was deregulated from rates and services under the 1980 Staggers Act.

Monday, January 31, 2011

A Modest Proposal - Taxation of Railroad Property

Over at a respected railroad discussion site, Railroad Net, a member has set forth "a modest proposal" (pardon me, Mr. Swift) regarding taxation of railroad property that host passenger train service. Here is the proposal:

From my article "Amtrak in the New Century" on, Given that the Federal government continues to fund and operate [Amtrak] trains, in exchange for access and service guarantees by the private railroads, the rights of way Amtrak operates on should be exempt from local and state property taxes.

This proposal forms the core of my argument for providing a more efficient means of ensuring high quality rail passenger service in the United States for the next 100 years. It also addresses historic problems with rail passenger service in the United States that Mr. David P. Morgan wrote about in April 1959's iconic issue of Trains. If the federal government is going to pay to operate trains 'in the public interest' along these corridors I do not see why state and local governments should be able to 'double-dip' and receive both federally funded train service and property taxes from privately owned rights of way. In my view this situation is akin to allowing the taxation of properties owned by the United States Postal Service.

There is much merit to this proposal. The Local taxing jurisdictions through which Amtrak trains pass, be they Corridor or LD, do receive some benefit, even if I personally hold quite small in the case of the LD's, for having those trains there. It would also provide additional remuneration to the Class I's that host Amtrak trains. While the amount and basis of such remuneration is contained within a bi-lateral contract that is not subject to public disclosure, it is reportedly in the bargain basement range - especially considering the potential interference with freight operations these trains can represent.

A problem, however, would arise with jurisdictions through which trains operate but do not make any station stops. For example, Amtrak trains #3-4, Southwest Chief, operate non-stop between Newton and Dodge City KA - 120 miles. Who knows how many local taxing jurisdictions that comprises - and some of course will be quick to cry foul. By that line of thought, only jurisdictions in which the station stops were located should have to participate in the abatement - and then one must ask how much benefit would inure to the Class I.

Even though real property taxation was an area in which my railroad career never touched, I do know that railroad property is quickly allocated into two categories - namely Operating Property and Non-Operating Property. Non-operating Property, or that property not being addressed here, is taxed ad-valorem, or in just the same manner as is your home. However, Operating Property is taxed by means of a formula which not only encompasses assessed value, but also the revenue that a railroad attains from such. This simply means "lots of trains, lots of taxes". and hence making the abatement more valuable to the Class I, but, on the flip side, more costly to the affected Local jurisdiction. If the affected jurisdictions, through the auspice of a citizen residing within such, petitioned the Federal government for relief (namely to have their representatives initiate legislation to have Federal funding meet the revenue shortfall), then we come down to the 'chicken-egg' analogy of tax incentives simply represent an appropriation. Therefore, why the subterfuge; simply increase Amtrak's appropriation and have such "earmarked' as additional contract payments to the Class I hosts.

Finally, I'm sure that anyone here who actively railfans has seen a railroad siding on which one or two lone boxcars sit. The reason for such is with a track remaining in place and the cars periodically switched out, that particular parcel remains Operating Property - and property that is generating no revenue. The most visible case of that was to anyone visiting the observation deck at Sears (now Willis) Tower in Chicago. After the B&OCT (CSX) abandoned (well before A-Day) Grand Central Station, several boxcars would be placed on a remaining track near the head house - and even after that was torn down.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Party's Over

As 2010 drew to a close, there is much to suggest "the party's over" for passenger rail. While the "$8B for HSR" provisions enacted under ARRA '09 (Stimulus) have awarded funds that will benefit existing routes, such as the "incremental" track improvements on the Chicago-St Louis route and restoring dormant rights-of-way accessing Chicago to minimize freight traffic interference, all too many have been seen for what they are - needless "pork" for largely needless passenger train routes. Two states, Wisconsin and Ohio, awarded funds under the legislation have rescinded the funding and recognize that the funding will simply be applied to rail passenger projects elsewhere. A third state, Iowa, appears on the brink of making a like rescission.

But the biggest of all rescissions did not involve Amtrak or intercity service; that of course was the cancellation of new tunnels under the Hudson River to be used solely by New Jersey Transit. The additional capacity to operate passenger trains from New Jersey directly into Manhattan is clearly needed and would make New Jersey a more attractive locale in which high income persons holding jobs in Manhattan would want to reside. But a conservative Republican Governor has said "no dice" and withdrew the portion of funding controlled by the State. While the project may someday be revived, possibly after this Governor has moved from one White House named Drumthwacket to another with a street address of 1600, it is now "requisceat in pace' - need for such totally notwithstanding.

However, all told, Amtrak has had a good run during the first two years of the Obama administration, but with the Republicans having a majority in the House of Representatives and are preaching repeal of any agenda having Obama's name on it, somebody has pulled the emergency brake cord. A legislative target will be a rescission of any unexpended funds under ARRA '09 (Stimulus) - and much of that funding represents the passenger rail provisions, i.e. the "$8B for HSR".

But even if "the party's over", Amtrak has "done OK" during these past two years. Additional frequencies have been added to four routes, new electric locomotives and new passenger cars for LD trains, as well as Talgo equipment for two Corridor routes, have been ordered.

While of course to the railfan community, where there's never enough - especially Long Distance trains - there is disappointment that a balance of power, "Plural Democracy", has returned to Washington. But with the growing public acceptance of both Corridor and Long Distance services, I think it safe to say that Amtrak's existing route structure is here to stay.