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

1 comment:

  1. It appears that there could possibly be "light at the end of the tunnel". The press release, mainly addressing a new Transportation Center at Pontiac, also notes that the slow orders will be addressed and that track speed will be back to 60 mph by mid-September
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    http://www.michigan.gov/mdot/0,4616,7-151-9620_11057-260428--,00.html

    Brief passage:

    State Transportation Director Kirk T. Steudle "announced that a $4.2 million maintenance agreement with Norfolk Southern Railway would begin soon and improvements completed by mid-September. The work to be done by Norfolk Southern includes replacing ties, smoothing the track, and improving grade crossings on a 135-mile section between Ypsilanti and Kalamazoo. Train speeds of 60 mph will be restored on this segment, in preparation for even higher speeds in years to follow."
    --------------------------------------------
    Obviously, I for one would rather not transfer to a bus - even if perfectly coordinated with a train's schedule, and am pleased to learn that, notwithstanding the sale of the Michigan Central line to a public agency, necessary improvements are being made to enable trains to 'be in the ballpark' with highway transport.

    Who knows, maybe the planned trip sometime during the upcoming season to hear the DSO perform will be made by the Wolverine.

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