Image by Professor Bop via FlickrThis Week at Amtrak; June 25, 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
Telephone 904-636-7739, Electronic Mail firstname.lastname@example.org • http://www.unitedrail.org
Volume 6, Number 18
Founded over three decades ago in 1976, URPA is a nationally known policy institute which 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, New York, and other cities. 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) Here at home in an adjoining county to the south is St. Augustine, which bills itself as the Ancient City. St. Augustine, Florida has been around as a point of civilization since 1565, and was pretty much a sleepy, colonial town, even after Florida statehood in 1845. It wasn’t until the notorious Henry Flagler, business partner of John D. Rockefeller (Some historians say Flagler was the smarter of the two ruthless business partners.) came vacationing in Northeast Florida in the 1878 that he noticed sleepy St. Augustine.
Mr. Flagler came to Jacksonville for the temperate climate. (A century ago, oranges were still a cash crop in Northeast Florida.) He crossed the might St. Johns River (The only major river in North America which flows north.) and traveled by passenger train to St. Augustine in 1883. There, he found a slumbering city of Spanish descent which afforded cooling ocean breezes, a pleasant bayfront view, and a rural county seat.
Mr. Flagler took a liking to St. Augustine, and starting building hotels and the Florida East Coast Railway. His first hotel, the Ponce de Leon – begun in 1885 and which today is the home of Flagler College – became an overnight success as a playground for the Gilded Age rich and famous. More hotels followed, with Mr. Flagler becoming St. Augustine’s most prominent part-time denizen.
Not content to stop at St. Augustine, Mr. Flagler pushed his new railroad and string of hotels and resorts southward, creating such famous Florida hot spots as Ormond Beach/Daytona Beach, Cocoa Beach, Melbourne, Stuart, Palm Beach (Where Mr. Flagler eventually built his permanent home and today’s world famous The Breakers hotel and resort, the only remaining asset of the original Flagler System.), Ft. Lauderdale, and, in partnership with Julia Tuttle and her family, Miami and Miami Beach. Mr. Flagler’s railroad entrepreneurship didn’t end in Miami; he gazed further southward and saw Key West, the southernmost point of the United States, and promptly in 1905 began building the Florida Overseas Railroad, one island at a time from South Florida to Key West, completing the huge project in 1912.
Depending on your favorite Florida historian, there is debate as to whether or not Henry Flagler or Henry B. Plant, who owned a freight shipping company and small railroads, and in 1879 combined his holdings into the Plant System (Later, the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad.), building to the west coast of Florida via Orlando, invented modern Florida by the strength of their iron horses.
Of course, it was the common use of residential air conditioning in the late 1950s which created the most modern version of Florida, and allowed inland cities and towns away from cooling ocean and Gulf of Mexico breezes to grow and prosper. The coming of the Space Age at Cape Canaveral on the Florida East Coast Railway really put Florida on the international map.
But, no matter who your preferred railroad robber baron was prior to the Florida Land Boom of the 1920s, it was the railroad which created Florida, and especially St. Augustine.
St. Augustine was the home of a violent and deadly railroad strike in 1963; FEC non-operating employees went out on strike over several issues. The FEC continued to run trains with management personnel, but the strike turned violent with numerous bombings of bridges and trains, resulting in deaths, permanent injuries, and general mayhem.
By the time of the strike, Florida was served by the Seaboard Air Line Railroad, the Atlantic Coast Line, the FEC, and, into the northeast corner of Florida, the Southern Railway.
While the Seaboard’s Silver Meteor, Silver Star, Palmland, Sunland, and a host of local trains traveled down the middle of the state on SAL’s mainline through Ocala, the Coast Line trains, the East Coast Champion, the Everglades, and the trains it operated in conjunction with the FEC, such as the famed Winter-only Florida Special, the Havana Special, and the trains from the Midwest, including the Royal Palm, Dixieland, South Wind, Seminole, and City of Miami all stormed through St. Augustine on their way to and from Miami.
The 1963 strike ended all of that. The FEC’s named trains simply disappeared, annulled because of the strike and the continuing violence and threats of violence. The trains handled by the Coast Line moved inland westward, from the FEC to soon-to-be merger partner’s SAL lines down the middle of the state.
By court order, train service briefly returned to the FEC from 1965 to 1968, with a lone locomotive and two trailing cars – offering coach seating and parlor car seating, but no food service – running up and down from North Miami to Jacksonville’s union terminal. (The main FEC station in downtown Miami had been torn down by 1965 as part of urban renewal in downtown Miami.)
Even FEC retirees who chose to come to Jacksonville from Miami when traveling by train, went via the Seaboard or Coast Line because it was safer, had more frequency offerings, and full train service.
In the late 1990s, in the George Warrington era of Amtrak, there was a brief flurry of activity in St. Augustine because discussions and negotiations were underway to return passenger train service to the FEC, courtesy of Amtrak and a ton of money (Now allocated elsewhere.) from the State of Florida.
Plans were laid, station sites were identified (The FEC, like so many other railroads which exited the passenger business had executives at the time who wanted to make sure those pesky passengers stayed away, so all but one or two FEC passengers stations were either demolished, sold, or had their tracks ripped up.), and cities and towns along the east coast competed to see whether or not they could snag one of the limited number of station stops planned for the new service.
St. Augustine, once the railroad king of Florida and still the corporate home of the FEC until 2008, decided to build a new station on the FEC main line directly across the street from St. Augustine’s general aviation airport, claiming it was creating an “intermodal” center of transportation. No one ever quite explained what the attraction would be for private pilots to fly into the St. Augustine airport, tie their planes down, and then board a passenger train, but that was the plan.
All of those plans came to a screeching halt when Mr. Warrington’s Acela bubble burst, and the Northeast Corridor Service which was supposed to save the entire company ended up having the company coming close to being liquidated.
Now, in the third century of trains through St. Augustine, once again there is talk of passenger trains calling at St. Augustine. Several local government groups along the FEC are petitioning popular Florida Governor Charlie Crist to apply for free federal monies to pay for restoring service between Jacksonville and Miami via St. Augustine, Daytona Beach, Cocoa Beach, Melbourne, Fort Pierce, Jupiter, and into West Palm Beach where a new connection would be built for the trains to join the former SAL main line (Now Tri-Rail commuter line and present Amtrak line.) to take the train into Amtrak’s Miami/Hialeah southern terminal.
The scary part of this is the news media is reporting these funds are being asked for to use for high speed rail, not conventional rail. While the FEC is a very good piece of railroad with excellent infrastructure, no one would ever confuse it with high speed rail. Some of the logic goes the incremental approach should be taken, first restoring service, and then eventually upgrading the service to high speed over a specified period of time.
What is interesting about this is the current ownership of the FEC, RailAmerica, Inc., which in turn is owned by Fortress Investment Group. RailAmerica, in addition to owning the FEC, owns nearly four dozen other short line and regional railroads in the U.S. and Canada.
RailAmerica is a solid company, with good financial performance. Fortress Investment Group is a giant fund which controls many companies, all on a private basis. This means there are no individual stockholders or Wall Street money managers demanding RailAmerica do this or that to shore up stock prices, and no public reporting of financial results. In other words, the managers are free to carry out any prudent business decisions they see fit (Within the framework of the law and overall regulations.), including striking a deal with Amtrak to run trains on their property.
If it makes money and doesn’t interfere with RailAmerica’s other mission of supplying outstanding freight service, then there is an interest.
If the State of Florida does strike a deal for stimulus money for this route, there isn’t much standing in the way of restored passenger service between Jacksonville and Miami via the FEC, with the exception of creating a new equipment pool.
Initial plans were to move the Silver Meteor from Orlando to the FEC, which is a very, very bad idea. Why would anyone want to take service away from one of the world’s busiest vacation destinations in Central Florida to serve the towns of Florida’s east coast?
A better solution is to find additional equipment, or, perhaps split a train in Jacksonville (Which Amtrak did from its very beginning until the horror of the common consist in the 1990s, and the closing of the Tampa crew and maintenance bases.), with half of the train traveling via Orlando and half of the train traveling via St. Augustine. Other options are to extend other trains from the Midwest or Northeast south to Miami via the FEC, such as the Capitol Limited or City of New Orleans via Mobile, Alabama. Extending an existing Superliner train would require less equipment than starting a complete new route.
As usual, it’s all going to come down to politics. Which state (Other than Illinois.) has the most juice in Washington? Which state has the best planning? Which state can move the quickest?
St. Augustine may or may not have train service again, 125 years after Henry Flagler became serious about hauling passengers into Florida to fill up his elegant hotels and resorts. If it does, yet another of the dozens and dozens of gaps in America’s passenger rail system will be rightly filled.
2) Inquiring minds want to know: With all of the money being thrown around Washington, and every city, town, village, hamlet, and their dog making plans to snap up as much money as possible to expand everything from local trolley systems (A good idea.) to major commuter rail systems to sprucing up stations, where are Amtrak’s plans for the future? What about fleet expansion, Rail Passenger Association of California President Paul Dyson wants to know? The single-level sleeping car order for the east coast trains doesn’t do anything to expand capacity; it just keeps enough new equipment floating into a maintenance-weary fleet to delay total breakdown.
What about new routes? We know three restart routes are being studied (The Sunset Limited east of New Orleans, the Pioneer, and the North Coast Limited/Hiawatha.), but, what about bold, new plans to fill in so many of the other gaps in the country outside of the Northeast Corridor?
And, the easiest thing of all, what about all of the other dozens and dozens of pieces of equipment sitting around in the weeds on wreck line tracks, waiting to be re-loved and repaired? When will Amtrak ask for money to fix this stuff, too?
A dose of reality for True Believers is Amtrak is lagging behind everyone else in vision, if not outright bold management. Yes, Amtrak Interim President and CEO Joseph Boardman seems to be nudging things in the right direction – only marginally and slightly so – but, when is he or the Board of Directors going to give things a major shove in the right direction?
Wise gray head Gil Carmichael has called for at least 150 new trainsets to ready Amtrak for his brilliant Interstate II strategy. While to some that may seem a big number, it’s only a starting point.
Remember, Amtrak today has considerably less than 2,000 cars on its total roster, including active cars and cars sitting in the weeds on the wreck line. In the mid 1960s, just before the invention of Amtrak, there were over 5,000 passenger cars in the combined national fleet of America’s passenger carriers, and that was a depleted number from the halcyon post-World War II days of rebuilding the worn out war time fleet of cars.
Now is not the time for timidity and reliance on the graciousness of others for survival. Now is the time for bold plans, bold action, and an understanding of how easy it is to bring America’s passenger rail system from an asterisk on the charts of transportation output to a real figure representing growth and prosperity.
3) While we’re on the subject of history, News From 1930 blog on the Internet came up with this fascinating gem, reporting what was written in The Wall Street Journal from June 16th through the 21st in 1930:
Pullman Company [Operator of the nation’s sleeping car business over the majority of passenger railroads.] purchases in the last year: 1,165,000 towels, 444,000 pillow slips, 387,000 sheets, 63,000 porter’s jackets, 5,786,000 paper bags for women’s hats. Launders 278 million items annually.
That’s a lot of items, especially for the first year of the Great Depression. At one point early in the 20th Century, it was said the Pullman Company made up more beds every night than the largest hotel chain in the country.
4) Now, what? Amtrak’s highly respected Inspector General, Fred E. Weiderhold, Jr. suddenly retired from Amtrak after 35 years, including being the watchdog who kept the contractors honest when the NEC was electrified north of New Haven, Connecticut.
This happened practically overnight, and was unexpected by most. The Boston Globe wondered in its news columns what brought on this sudden urge to retire, but no one is talking. It should be noted in the same several day period Mr. Weiderhold retired, at least three other government IGs were forced out of their jobs by the Obama Administration without reasonable explanation.
National Railroad Passenger Corporation
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Washington, DC 20002
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Media Relations (202) 906-3860
June 18, 2009
Amtrak Inspector General to Retire
Fred E. Weiderhold, Jr. Served Amtrak for 35 Years
WASHINGTON – Amtrak Inspector General Fred E. Weiderhold, Jr. today informed the Chairman of the Amtrak Board of Directors that he is retiring after 35 years of loyal service to the railroad.
"As Amtrak's first and only Inspector General, Fred has made important contributions in helping the Board of Directors understand key issues facing the railroad and made useful recommendations to improve how we do business," Amtrak Chairman Thomas Carper stated. "We thank him for his dedicated service to Amtrak and wish him well in his retirement."
Carper added that under the federal Inspector General Act, the Amtrak Inspector General is appointed by the Chairman of the Board of Directors. Carper said he takes this responsibility seriously and will soon undertake a search for a replacement that can continue to maintain the integrity, independence and objectivity required of the position.
In addition, Carper said that he has confidence in the Inspector General staff and expects them to carry on their important work during this interim period, including providing effective oversight of how Amtrak is handling the stimulus funds it received from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Mr. Weiderhold has been the only person to serve as the Amtrak Inspector General since former Amtrak Chairman W. Graham Claytor, Jr, asked him to establish the Amtrak Office of Inspector General (OIG) in 1989. Previously, he was Amtrak's first Special Assistant to the Chairman for Employee Relations, conducting special investigations and acting as the company's first employee ombudsman. He has been one of the longer serving Inspectors General within the OIG community.
Amtrak has posted six consecutive years of growth in ridership and revenue, carrying more than 28.7 million passengers in the last fiscal year. Amtrak provides intercity passenger rail service to more than 500 destinations in 46 states on a 21,000-mile route system. For schedules, fares and information, passengers may call 800-USA-RAIL or visit Amtrak.com.
5) The Holland, Michigan Sentinel on Monday, June 22, 2009 reported ridership on Amtrak’s Pere Marquette is down 12.7% this May compared to a year ago, and a state senate committee which funds the service is looking to slash funding for the train.
Only 8,500 people boarded the route in May of 2009, or an average of 137 passengers per departure. All of the usual reasons were given for low ridership, including low gas prices and the slowed economy.
Here’s the problem no one seems to want to understand: As long as government funding as the primary source of revenue for these short, perpetually money-losing routes is necessary, politicians are going to always be looking for ways to cut budgets, and low return on investment programs are usually the first to go.
Too much of Amtrak relies on this very type of funding. There are unceasing stories from New England about those states wanting to cut funding for local trains (This, of course, does not include Amtrak Interim President and CEO Joseph Boardman’s home State of New York where he previously served as head of the state department of transportation. New York only funds one Amtrak train, the Adirondack, even though the entire Empire Service trains, with only an average load factor of 35%, gets a free ride with an all-federal subsidy.). Oklahoma pays big bucks for the tiny Heartland Flyer with even worse transportation output performance.
What will it take to make Amtrak and its True Believers understand a healthy and robust long distance system throws off enough excess cash (profits) these short distance trains can be mostly internally subsidized? Why perpetually fight these annual political battles when the simple answer is vision and expansion, even if it’s just making the existing skeletal long distance system train consists longer?
Why is this such a difficult concept to understand? Why do so many ill-informed people think it’s perpetually okay to support failure when success is within easy grasp?
6) Here’s some heartburn for those who believe the passenger business can never be profitable: Carnival plc, which owns Carnival Cruise Lines, Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, Cunard Line, and The Yachts of Seabourn in North America; Costa Cruises in Europe; P&O Cruises, Cunard Line, and Ocean Village in the Untied Kingdom; AIDA Cruises in Germany; Ibero Cruises in Spain and Brazil; and P&O Cruises Australia in Australia and New Zealand, operates 88 cruise ships with a passenger capacity of approximately 169,040 souls. Carnival also marketed and operated 16 hotels or lodges with approximately 3,500 guest rooms; approximately 560 motor coaches used for sightseeing and charters, 24 domes rail cars, which run on the Alaska Railroad between Anchorage and Fairbanks, Whittier and Denali, and Whittier and Talkeetna; 2 luxury dayboats; and sightseeing packages.
Carnival plc, headquartered in London, when tracing its heritage back through P&O Princess Cruises, was founded in 1850. Television fans may remember the real Princess Cruises happily loaned its ship, the real Pacific Princess, to Aaron Spelling and ABC to create the wildly popular television hit, The Love Boat, which spurred the modern cruise line renaissance.
All of this, by the way, is somehow accomplished without any government subsidies and is effected through private capital and entrepreneurship.
7) William Lindley of Scottsdale, Arizona has some thoughts on state passenger rail organizations. Mr. Lindley, a longtime professional associate of URPA, is a past president and treasurer of the Arizona Rail Passenger Association, and currently serves as a writer and editor for the group’s newsletter.
What does a rail passenger association really need to do? A recent report illustrates how what looks like failure to uphold principles may have helped doom a major city's plans for modern passenger train service.
In Atlanta, Georgia, a proposed green space called the "Decatur Beltline" would remove track connections which permitted trains to connect in all directions from Atlanta's downtown yards and stations. According to the National Association of Railroad Passengers Newsletter of May 2009, this "pitted local environmentalists against passenger train advocates (Georgia ARP remained officially neutral to minimize bad blood among erstwhile allies.)"
Say, what? Since when would a responsible passenger advocacy group roll over and play dead when the future of any kind of sensible passenger train operations is threatened? When I saw that I had to do some digging.
According to a November 30, 2005 Associated Press report, Ed McMahon of the Urban Land Institute called for using Atlanta's "unused" railway tracks for a linked system of parks, paths and transit. Now, while this is certainly an admirable goal, according to AP, "A panel of transportation experts raised concerns when it found isolated parts of the loop would not have riders to support trains, trolleys or whatever transit options are proposed." In other words, here we go again with removing a vital railway link – which can't be relocated – in favor of some green space which can be placed anywhere.
This conflicts with the goals of a long-proposed and eagerly anticipated downtown intermodal terminal at approximately the site of the original Atlanta Union Station, and with an immediate connection to mass transit MARTA's hub, the Five Points subway station, from which trains radiate north, south, east, and west.
Atlanta's other former main station, Terminal Station, on the Southern Railway, had south-facing stub-end platforms and was on Southern’s mainline just west of Union Station. Although the Richard B. Russell Federal Building replaced Terminal Station in the 1970s, a single through-track connection to the Union Station area still exists ... but neither Terminal Station nor the current Peachtree station used by Amtrak can reasonably be expanded for the demands of an expanded modern passenger operation.
The Five Points site is within walking distance to Georgia State University buildings, the popular Underground Atlanta shopping and nightlife district, and the downtown sports arenas. Furthermore, there is potential at a downtown terminal for a building with visual and interpretive ties to Atlanta's historic train stations and its growth as the key city to the "New South" – building on the idea of the station as gateway to the city.
The City of Atlanta, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper article of March 5, 2009, said that the State Department of Transportation's "vision of high-speed rail would discourage future residential development." Amazingly, the city seems thereby to value a few new apartments over connecting the entire metro area with its downtown transit center.
With the Georgia DOT's March 2009 removal of its objection to the park project, trains will only be able to reach downtown via the west side connection. Amtrak's Crescent and commuter trains from the north and east would have a two-mile backup move to reach a new downtown station.
Now, without the eastern loop connection, Amtrak would likely have to stop at a new station with a MARTA connection – a new stop miles further northeast from downtown than even the existing Peachtree Station. This would mean requiring longer trips for most users, and a
change of subway trains for many. This site, like Peachtree, has little potential for filling the perceptual role of a Gateway.
So, now, let's return to that quote again:
"... pitted local environmentalists against passenger train advocates (Georgia ARP remained officially neutral to minimize bad blood among erstwhile allies.)" – NARP Newsletter, May 2009.
I wasn't privy to the discussions but this certainly sounds like a failure to uphold the principles which should govern a passenger rail association. Rail passenger associations are neither historic preservation groups (the National Railway Historical Society fulfills that goal) nor are they railfan groups. Our associations are not yes-men to Amtrak, the railroads, local transit operators, real estate interests, sports teams, or environmental groups.
Indeed, the whole point of such a rail passenger association, as a non-profit institution, is a fiduciary (meaning: a relationship of confidence and trust) and a moral obligation to guide the progress toward modern and expanded passenger rail service. This is a charitable goal because passenger trains improve our quality of life, offer transportation options to everyone, improve our economy, and improve our environment ... everyone wins with better public transit.
So was Georgia ARP's failure to object to the removal of a vital transportation link a breach of trust for the objective of advocacy? Again, I wasn't there so I can't say, but if NARP's account is correct, placing "not upsetting so-called environmentalists" above "fulfilling the confidence placed in your organization to preserve and enhance passenger train service" seems
Because detailed coverage has proven difficult to find in newspapers or on-line, I dearly hope one of our Gentle Readers more familiar with the subject can soothe my fears.
8) Six months from today is Christmas Day!
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J. Bruce Richardson
United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.
1526 University Boulevard, West, PMB 203
Jacksonville, Florida 32217-2006 USA