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This Week at Amtrak; April 21, 2009
A weekly digest of events, opinions, and forecasts from
United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.
America’s foremost passenger rail policy institute
1526 University Boulevard, West, PMB 203 • Jacksonville, Florida 32217-2006 USA
Volume 6, Number 11
Founded over three decades ago in 1976, URPA is a nationally known policy institute that focuses on solutions and plans for passenger rail systems in North America. Headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida, URPA has professional associates in Minnesota, California, Arizona, New Mexico, the District of Columbia, Texas, and New York. For more detailed information, along with a variety of position papers and other documents, visit the URPA web site at http://www.unitedrail.org.
URPA is not a membership organization, and does not accept funding from any outside sources.
1) America finally has a surface transportation plan – sort of. The Obama Administration has, to great fanfare, placed a renewed emphasis on high speed rail as our next capital system of transportation. No one seems to have an exact definition of high speed rail for this plan, but it’s useful to say all of the proposed routes reach a traveling speed of at least 110 miles per hour over some portion of the route.
The foamers are foaming at the mouth over this, and they are so collectively excited, they can’t stand to wait for all of this to happen. Towns and cities large and small are trying to get into the high speed rail business, with great speculation as to what high speed rail can do for the future of their denizens. One can imagine that if newspapers of the day were archived when the first transcontinental lines were built just after the Late War of Northern Aggression in the 19th Century, the same type of speculation was made then as today about what the railroad would do for local commerce and local development. Hopefully, the railroad rascals and robber barons of that day haven’t become the railroad CEOs of today.
We’ve read what visionaries like Gil Carmichael and Andrew Selden have to say about the future of passenger rail in this country. And, we’re seeing what other voices have to say, too. The informed voices are making interesting projections and floating viable ideas; the uninformed, as usual, are using up valuable oxygen and wasting our time with hyperbole.
2) It is time to step back half a step and look at the big picture. We’ve seen the designation of 10 allegedly viable high speed corridors in the United States, some just a couple of hundred miles long, others multiple hundreds of miles long.
As we proceed to designate spending this year for the first corridors, what are we doing to design a full system? When the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System was designed and building began, it was pretty much a complete map; certainly much more than today’s few high speed rail corridors.
We know connectivity is critical for the success of any rail corridor, and, at the moment, there doesn’t seem to be much connectivity in the initial design. “Disjointed” perhaps is the best description of the first parts of the system.
And, we know these new high speed lines are going to be considered almost exclusively for passenger trains, so they will cause a financial double whammy. First, the higher the track speed, the more expensive it is to maintain that track. Speed can kill, and it really can kill when you combine high speed trains on low speed track. Second, today’s tracks outside of Amtrak’s expensive to maintain Northeast Corridor share the right of way with pesky, money-making, keep-America-moving freight trains. In most instances, the argument is made the tracks are maintained for the heavy pounding of freight trains, and only maintained at incrementally higher costs for passenger train speeds. Thus, outside of the NEC, no passenger train is burdened with the full cost of track maintenance, since tracks are shared with freight trains.
The new, nearly-exclusive high speed train tracks will have ALL of the maintenance costs charged to the high speed trains, which will make the high speed trains less financially viable.
3) Amtrak for years has falsely claimed Acela service on the NEC makes a profit. Amtrak accomplishes this through financial hocus-pocus (which sounds so much better than to simply say they are lying) and the payment of routine maintenance costs from capital budgets instead of operating budgets, or, simply just ignoring maintenance and chalking it all up to deferred maintenance, and claiming Acela service is profitable. The reality is, of course, Acela is never charged with all of the costs of operating the service because of the financial hocus-pocus.
So, who is going to operate these nifty new high speed trains? The French, since they are not busy surrendering at the moment to anyone, have generously offered to come run the trains, but it’s unlikely Amtrak is going to take kindly to that suggestion.
If Amtrak is the operator of the high speed trains, will it continue its current shabby and probably illicit accounting practices and use the same methods to keep track of high speed profits and losses it does on the NEC? Or, will somebody – anybody – seize the initiative and declare high speed rail to be free of funny accounting and demand everything be done right from the first moment?
4) And, let’s talk more in-depth about the issues of connectivity and feeder systems to the proposed new high speed rail trains.
Everyone wants to point to Europe as the example to follow. (Which, by the way, should you, too, choose to point to Europe, please take note of the Dutch, German, and other passenger rail systems in Europe which do make money, commonly called “profit.” Amtrak and its sycophant organizations such as the National Association of Railroad Passengers seem to love to tell the lie that no passenger systems in the world make money, which we know not to be true. Even the Japanese passenger rail systems turn a profit.)
One of the reasons European trains make money is connectivity; you CAN get there from here. Unlike Amtrak’s skeletal system, with current glaring holes like the missing Sunset Limited east of New Orleans to Florida, and the fact in Florida you can’t get to Atlanta, the commercial capital of the Southeast by passenger train, in Europe everywhere is connected to everywhere else by either conventional passenger rail, fast passenger rail, or high speed passenger rail. Frequencies are frequent (hence, the term), levels of service are designed to match market demand, and competition abounds, providing incentive to do well and provide good passenger service.
In Europe, you can go almost anywhere on a train. In America, there are many more small, medium, and large cities and towns that Amtrak doesn’t serve than it serves. Amtrak brags it serves just over 500 destinations in 46 states, with 21,000 route miles of service. Hmmm ... let’s see, 46 states, round up to 510 destinations, that averages 11.08 station stops per state. But, wait! In Florida alone, Amtrak serves 23 stations (including Amtrak Thruway bus service), so that means some states have less than the average of 11.08 stations. The Commonwealth of Virginia has 40 cities and towns, but Amtrak only serves 14 of those, including Amtrak Thruway bus service.
Should we return do the days of the 1956 Official Railway Guide where every small town and hamlet had passenger train service? Certainly, not. But, for Amtrak to be successful, and the next generation of high speed trains to be successful, then more than a mere 500 cities and towns must have passenger train service.
5) Where does/where should Amtrak figure into the development of high speed rail? The automatic answer is it should figure prominently. The realistic answer is, Amtrak, after being the monopoly passenger rail carrier in the United States since 1971, for nearly 40 years, still has not proven it is worthy of the tax dollars which are poured into it year after year.
This brings us to “the vision thing” as the first President George H.W. Bush used to say at the end of the 1980s.
As it stands today, Amtrak and its management lack vision. Amtrak may corporately lust after the pot of money which is being thrown at the development of high speed rail, but it really has not proven itself worthy of the privilege of directing the spending of that money.
Here is what Andrew Selden has to say as a vision for the immediate and long-term future of Amtrak.
A. Amtrak must become relevant.
Its contribution to national mobility today does not justify its cost. The national network is too small – it goes to too few places and interconnects too few city pairs (e.g., it doesn't go to Las Vegas, Nevada or Columbus, Ohio, and one cannot get from Dallas to Denver or Dallas to Orlando). Even in what its own supporters characterize as its strongest market, the Northeast Corridor, its market share of intercity trips is less than 1%, at a public cost of about three-quarters of a billion dollars a year. Even in the NEC, a complete shut-down would be all but imperceptible as all of its customers (except in the New York-Philadelphia sub-market) could be easily absorbed into existing road and airway capacity.
B. Amtrak must grow.
No business, or social service, succeeds by stagnating. Amtrak's share of the national intercity travel business has shrunk steadily for three decades. Its carrying capacity has shrunk steadily for two decades. The newest Superliner rail car is more than 10 years old and the average age of the intercity fleet is far older than the cars Amtrak inherited from the private railroads in 1971. At the same time, Boeing builds a new 737 airliner every day, and Airbus builds a new A320 every day. Southwest Airlines adds a dozen or more new aircraft to its fleet every year. Amtrak could not absorb real growth if it were to occur, except in regional corridor markets where even a doubling of transactions would not raise it to a 2% market share.
C. Amtrak must change its vision.
Amtrak views itself as a social service, like a transit agency or a sewer authority, and thus as a ward of government. It measures its performance by the metrics of a public agency, in simple transaction volume. The only function at which it truly excels is extracting money from public sector sponsors. This vision condemns Amtrak to always being irrelevant to the needs of the traveling public. Amtrak must adopt a vision of sustained growth, relevance and minimized dependence upon public agency financing in favor of dependency upon customer selection, of mode and route. Amtrak must position its services and its operational network such that it can become the mode of consumer preference for most intercity travel.
D. Amtrak needs a new business model.
Amtrak has pursued the same business model for its entire history, one based upon the supply-driven model of point-to-point short corridors between urban city-pairs, based on the High Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1966. That model has produced the current state of Amtrak: irrelevancy to the traveling public and financial catastrophe. The model causes the results, the results do not occur despite the model. The new business model must be based on consumer demand, in applications that can be financially remunerative. The new model must focus on the metrics of output, not merely transaction volume, and growth, market share, and maximal return (in output and revenue) on invested capital. The model must create volume and efficiencies of scale on a national basis, by developing a true national network of regional and interregional routes that allow use of rail for most intercity travel demand, and inherently grow with demand and population growth. Capacity must be re-allocated to match consumer demand, and must grow to anticipate and accommodate growth in demand.
6) It’s going to take a while before the first shovel of dirt is turned to build any new high speed rail systems, even those systems with studies completed and the permitting process underway. What do we do in the interim?
We must unleash the pent-up power of Amtrak and let it take its natural course to prosperity through expansion and growth. Stop all of this silliness of whether or not Gulf Coast cities and towns east of New Orleans deserve or can support the reinstatement of the Sunset Limited from New Orleans to Florida. Yes, those cities can. Nashville, too, can support passenger rail, as could Louisville, Kentucky if it was properly configured and based on passenger needs, not commodity needs. Amtrak’s present skeletal system has done yeoman’s work as a placeholder, but those days need to be over. Amtrak and its host railroads must devise a plan – right now – that will provide for growth and connectivity and a financial infrastructure through connectivity and a proper domestic transportation matrix to support coming high speed rail and make it viable from the first day.
To allow Amtrak to remain as it is, without first improving it, and jump directly to high speed rail is like putting a race car on a bicycle path.
High speed rail may be visionary, it may be exciting and glamorous, and it may be the wave of the future. But, if the proper connectivity infrastructure is not in place when high speed rail becomes a reality, then it will fail, and be even a worse stepchild of government than Amtrak is today.
Andrew Selden has dubbed a new concept in America – advanced passenger rail. APR will ensure the success of high speed rail, and can be accomplished in less than three years.
This first step towards high speed rail can be done cheaply (as opposed to what is being spent on high speed rail) and efficiently. Things like ordering new passenger cars for existing trains, making station and parking improvements to make Amtrak more user friendly, and making relatively inexpensive upgrades to today’s railroad infrastructure to allow initial 90 miles per hour running where feasible, along with eliminating railroad choke points like junctions and bridges, and adding double track where viable.
An important aspect is these are all things which can be done with existing technology and plans, without requiring any costly and time consuming environmental politics, and mostly without land acquisitions (with a few exceptions at a few stations). These are things which can be begun TODAY with almost immediate MEASURABLE results and gauged RETURN ON INVESTMENT. These are the steps which pave the way for successful high speed rail. These are the steps that cost relatively little to do, thus building a new popularity for passenger rail which will result in less spending by the federal treasury later to build a popularity for high speed passenger rail.
7) Now is not the time for the faint of heart. Now is the time for the bold and resourceful to stand up and demand things be done right, in the proper order, and by those who have a vision to understand the process. Now is not the time to waste valuable federal dollars in the beginning on a project that may flounder. Embrace advanced passenger rail as the first logical step towards high speed rail. Finish the job with Amtrak and create a viable, functioning organization which can meet the demands of the future without relying on political patronage and money from others that only comes after months of haggling and begging.
This time, do it right.
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J. Bruce Richardson
United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.
1526 University Boulevard, West, PMB 203
Jacksonville, Florida 32217-2006 USA