Sunday, August 26, 2012

A "Faux"; All Aboard Florida

In all likelihood, readers of this material are aware that there has been a proposal set forth by the Florida East Coast Railway to enter the intercity passenger train business and operate trains for their own account, i.e. a private concern prepared to risk loss in the expectation of earning a profit, between Miami over their existing lines to Cocoa, then over a line that they will build from there to Orlando.

Quite simply, there will never be a passenger train operating over the Florida East Coast Ry for their own account. I give Amtrak operation over the FEC, which is independent of this proposal, at best a 50-50. So long as Martin County FL remains "train hating", Fox News watching, country, I do not foresee any northward expansion of Tri-Rail to locations such as Stuart (FEC) or Northwestward to, say, Indiantown (CSX) as Florida law requires any county desiring rail service to impose a tax (ad valorem or excise) dedicated to that rail service's funding.

But there are unfortunate facts of life that need be addressed. Despite the appearance of a well run railroad, the FEC simply is not “making it” The 2010 Florida East Coast Annual Report reports the FEC made some $43M from railroad operations during that year. However, owing to the "leveraged buyout" debt on which the debt service cost is some $66M, FEC had a Net Loss of some $23M. Possibly the only sale, given the bleak earnings outlook, is to a public agency. I think the FEC is so over leveraged that a private investor would be scared away. Even a minor recession, a Longshoreman strike, or a natural disaster, could have FEC in deep trouble. But to reiterate, with the commitment being made to have the post-PANAMAX Port of Miami something beyond where the Love Tubs tie up, the State has a vested interest in the FEC remaining a viable, and independent, line.

While on a national level, government is averse to go into profit seeking ventures in competition with the private sector, there is no law precluding them from doing so. Florida, with its conservative governance at present has nevertheless committed massive public funds build "world class' maritime ports at both Miami and Port Everglades and may want control of the FEC to protect their investment in such so that, in a post PANAMAX world, they are competitive. An open access railroad which has a 350 mile captive line haul to Jacksonville, would ensure that either Norfolk Southern Railway and CSX Transportation can access the traffic affording the shippers of the "competitive route" they desire and yet having a favorable division of the line haul with FEC. .

Even if either NS or CSX were "interested" (and again with the debt structure, I doubt if they are), the public sector party that is bankrolling the improvements to Miami, wants to be able to tout to the maritime industry "we have competitive rail routings" (never mind such is 350 miles away). If FEC ever got into CSX or NS hands, either would have no reason to provide good service as they collectively serve every major East Coast port as is. FEC would simply become a long branch line and maybe even abandoned. As previously noted, neither of its JAX interchanges is interested in acquiring it owing to the debt structure - and the shippers, be they in place or "in waiting" post-PANAMAX, do not want any merger either, for they want the South Florida maritime ports to be "open", i.e. there is a competitive rail service, albeit in this case it is 350 miles away. However, there is a caveat to any Port commission/authority and to anyone who follows maritime affairs. This is a recent report in The New York Times, that the East Coast may have overbuilt its ports anticipating a post-PANAMAX traffic boom. There is distinct possibility that these ports, of which Miami is one of such, may be on a ruinous competitive run. The unfortunate outcome could be they are all getting ready to throw a post-PANAMAX party - and nobody came.

So how does this passenger service initiative play into the picture? What better way would there be to get "man on the street" support than to tout "we will give you some trains - and you won't have to pay for them unless you choose to ride'. Politicians since the Roman Empire have bemused the Proletariat in such a manner. It simply generates public visibility so that when the private equity concern that owns FEC approaches a public agency such as the State to buy the road, all this public excitement about passenger trains will translate to voters saying "buy it" (or we'll find someone else to vote for). But since the political climate in Florida, with its ever increasing conservative tilt, will have nothing to do with publicly funded passenger trains beyond the existing Tri Rail and the "in the works" Sun Rail, this passenger service proposal simply represents a "faux". Should such a sale be consummated, the passenger initiative will sort of go the way of Sunset East, or otherwise “Adios“.

“All Aboard Florida” is a ploy; enjoy the fun and dreaming while it lasts.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Adios "Sunset East"

TRAINS Newswire reports that effective May 7, a new schedule for both Eastward and Westward Amtrak Trains 1 & 2, Sunset Limited, will be adapted. Additionally Westward #1 will adopt new days of operation, which will enable one set of equipment presently assigned to be released. Here is a link to the material at Newswire. In order to access, a subscription to a rail related Kalmbach publication is required.

The reason why this days of operation change had not been made earlier is because there was the "phantom" Sunset East "temporarily suspended". Therfore the train had to be scheduled so that the "equipment" could "run" to Orlando and be "turned" for a "next day' departure.

However, somebody in the Amtrak Legal Department apparently has decided it is now safe to go in the water. Possibly there is an applicable Statute of Limitations, but I believe the now apparent discontinuance of Sunset East without required 180 Day Notice under ARAA '97 was simply the Amtrak Legal Department determing that "nobody cares" outside of the advocacy community.

After Katrina, Amtrak likely found they were confronted with a dilemma regarding "a golden opportunity to be rid of something in all likelihood they never wanted in the first place". To what extent will the law be "bent" or do we annul with the intent as we did in the case of disruptions with other trains such as the Builder, Zephyr, and Starlight - all services where to not have them, the political repercussions would be severe, so therefore we want them.

But failing some remote possibility that Amtrak will be required to restore the service, Amtrak has successfully discontinued a train without the Notice; management should be pleased to know they now have that prerogative.

With the upcoming days of operation change, as well as the release of the equipment set assigned to the "Sunset East", Amtrak will be in a hard to defend position that they have done anything other than discontinue service over the route. Violation of ARAA '97 notwithstanding, Amtrak appears confident they can deflect any possibly challenges from advocates, and that they will not be forced into restoring service - and maybe for longer than 181 days as a form of "punishment". It will be interesting to see how the Sunset route is presented in the next timetable.

Unless it can be established how Amtrak complied with 180 Day Notice provisions of ARAA '97, or that provisions somehow "sunset" after a given period of time, I can only hold that Amtrak violated the law. However, contrary to thoughts likely held by the advocacy community, I'm not about to suggest Amtrak be sanctioned for this apparent violation. This was a route outside the Basic System set forth under RPSA '70, that was inaugurated in response to some political leaning, and never "pulled its weight" with regards to patronage.

All told, Amtrak management appears to have won a victory in successfully discontinuing a service without Notice. To what extent this victory will serve as precedent elsewhere remains to be seen. It appears that the coffin has now been nailed.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

To Lorton In "WGC"

Auto Train Voyage #20 was Northbound from Sanford to Lorton aboard #52 (29 JAN).

This was part of a six day trip that I must acknowledge was four nights “on the road” and the remaining two were in Florida. That Sunday, January 29, had me leaving The Villages for a Lunch time meet up in Bellview. After our Lunch, it was time for a leisurely drive over to Sanford (65 miles) arriving there at 230P for the 3PM closing.

This journey was not going to be a moneymaker for Amtrak, as "the count" which always announced on-board was only 109 auto and 219 passengers. However, the consist was its usual sixteen cars. My auto was aboard within five minutes of surrendering it, and there was no line whatever when I checked in. While checking in, I learned the term “fare Bucket’ is official Amtrakese; previously I thought it was only “fanese”. I was surprised to find that no longer tickets are printed for the AT - or at least at Sanford. The necessary info such as accommodation and vehicle load number is recorded by hand on to the Auto Train folder. Personally, I would like to have a ticket, but then the majority of people nowadays apparently simply do not care, as I have learned that only a fraction of people using a credit card for a purchase will even retain their Customer Copy, if in fact the merchant even tenders one..

Well to the train; this journey was to be in Bedroom C of 10BR car “W Graham Claytor”. Conveniently the car was A End forward which meant a forward ride - a “plus” with me as I would guess anyone else here at the Forum.

The wine tasting started promptly at 3PM, and can be a “wine chugging” if one is into that. To my surprise, there still remains one Sightseer car, 33043, assigned to the AT. The car has been reconfigured with all tables upper level with the Smoking Lounge ‘down below’. The latter “did its job”, or maybe no one was smoking any time I was in the car. Reportedly, all of the 3310X damaged at Crescent City have been returned to service; there should be one available as a spare. Therefore with the “if you’ve seen one Pine Tree, you’ve seen ‘em all” scenery along the route, it appears a waste to have a Sightseer permanently assigned to AT.

Departed Sanford at about 350P.

First serving of Dinner started promptly at 5PM; the Beef Tournedos were prepared exactly as ordered, all service other than dessert were with metal, glass, and ceramic ware - and the “comp” wine “flowed”. Somehow, I don’t think there are too many Food & Beverage sales in the Lounge car - maybe in the Coach Lounge, but not in Sleeper.

Movies are still shown after Dinner, and evidently since all Lounges have been upgraded with flat screen monitors, they are not about to go away.. But then, that is why I had a Bedroom - and for that matter, an unread Sunday New York Times.

About the only minor incident that took away from the pleasure of the trip occurred when I started to do a walk through the train. So far as I knew, Sleeper passengers have the “run of the train..’ Well, I got kicked out of the Coach diner (courteously but still assertively… “your Lounge is back in the Sleepers, sir‘). Then if that wasn‘t enough the two Conductors were sitting in an empty Coach and said to me “you must be some kind of company spy“. “Well I was with a railroad thirty years ago, but I‘m a paying passenger; here‘s my ticket“. “Well, you sure know how to walk aboard a train, and not too many around here do‘. So what am I going to do, forget how to walk on a train? “Have a good evening , sir“.

Oh well, time for The Times, then bedtime.

Aside from a minor issue requiring a stop to “reboot’ one of the locomotives, all went well.

“Continental Breakfast’ was served for me passing through Richmond; if there is any scenery on the route, it is on the RF&P. Arrival in Lorton was about 950A or 20min off. My auto was about first off; in fact I was talking with some travelers I had met in the Lounge earlier that morning. Nice people, so my auto sat out there for some fifteen minutes.

My autos are used to being last off - and I have two “consolation prizes“ in my collection for being such.

Otherwise, the drive home with an overnight in Akron was essentially without incident.

I still hold that along with Acela First, Auto Train is Amtrak’s “best foot forward’, Voyage 20 affirms my “more positives than negatives” overall rating of my Amtrak travel experiences.

So far as I'm concerned, I got value for the $610 total fare paid.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Amtrak's "Finest Hour"??

Today could well be Amtrak's "Finest Hour' in that never has public acceptance of Amtrak's services been stronger.

I'm inclined to hold this may be it; the closest could well be early '80's when W. Graham Claytor was at the throttle.

During that era, everything was new - Amfleets, Superliners, F-40's, and AEM-7's. While needless long distance routes had been eliminated by the Carter Cuts, other routes such as The Desert Wind and Pioneer were inaugurated (those were taken care of by the Mercer-Clinton Cuts). WGC, with his vast railroad and governmental experience appeared to be a "fit" that Amtrak had never previously enjoyed.

Even though patronage rose under WGC, it was still below the 1974 "gas crisis" levels. Today, Amtrak has left that mark in the rear view mirror.

So despite aging equipment, a fair amount of "horror story' travel experiences, and sky high fares, Amtrak today enjoys public acceptance not seen at any other time in its history. The momentum is there and should there be a Romney administration (if you care to believe as Karl Rove recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal, there will be), they will choose not to disturb what is there (blow some wind, of course) - and by many a measurement, works.