Monday, July 06, 2009

This Week in Amtrak

Los Angeles Amtrak yardImage by RodneyRamsey via Flickr

This Week at Amtrak; July 6, 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 •

Volume 6, Number 21

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

URPA is not a membership organization, and does not accept funding from any outside sources.

1) Amtrak woke up this Monday morning for the first time in decades without the prospect of having the many services, decades of experience, and wisdom of Victor Francis at its disposal. Mr. Francis retired from Amtrak on Saturday; the Fourth of July was his declared day of personal freedom, too.

Mr. Francis is a young man; he just turned 60 a few days ago. But, with his combined age and over 30 years of experience and the rules of Railroad Retirement, he was able to go out the door and start the next useful phase of his life. Don’t be fooled at that number 60; Mr. Francis could/has/will run rings around lesser folks half his age.

He began his Amtrak career when both he and Amtrak were young in the 1970s, beginning as a trainee in the kitchen of an Amtrak dining care that still used coke logs for fire and heat in stoves. His worthy teachers were salty chefs and cooks first trained by familiar names in the best traditions of passenger railroading such as Santa Fe, Union Pacific, and Southern Pacific, all working out of the Los Angeles, California crew base, where Mr. Francis called home his entire Amtrak career.

His experience under fire taught him the tricks of the trade, and how to turn out a superb meal in a hot, cramped space, often having to improvise to provide the best presentation for passengers.

After the kitchen, Mr. Francis moved into other areas, including a long stint as Chief of Onboard Services for the Coast Starlight and Sunset Limited. After that, other supervisory roles called in the Los Angeles crew base and Los Angeles yard areas, including his last assignment of making sure the Coast Starlight and Sunset Limited were road-worthy and ready to be backed into Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal to being their multi-state runs. It was under Mr. Francis’ watchful eye those consists were released for service after making sure everything was well-stocked and in as much working order as possible.

Mr. Francis is a totally passenger-focused manager; he understands service recovery and also what it takes for passengers to have an enjoyable train experience from the moment they step on the train. Graciousness has always been a part of his demeanor – unless, of course, behind the scenes something is awry and a stronger approach was necessary – and he was always an advocate for those working for him. Be sure, Mr. Francis was never shy about speaking his mind, but his purpose was positive and for improvement, not negative.

So, today, Victor Francis will be missed by his many friends at Amtrak, and all of us who had the privilege of working with him at various times on special projects. Under the direction of former Gulf Coast Business Group General Manager Deborah Wetter, Mr. Francis was one of the group of four of us who invented the successful 24-hour dining car experiments on the Sunset Limited. It was great fun working with him creating menus, figuring out labor requirements, and understanding storage limits in a Superliner dining car. He knows union rules inside and out, and he knows railroad safety rules even more. He took all of this experience and put it to use where it was most important, for his passengers.

There are many like Victor Francis in Amtrak’s national system; people who go to work everyday determined to make a difference for their passengers. These fine people often have to pick up the slack for co-workers who don’t share this creed, but they do it because they understand the passenger – not government subsidy – is what makes Amtrak possible.

Victor Francis will be missed at Amtrak. In the end, he knows he goes into the next positive phase of his life with the knowledge of a job well done.

2) The fans of failure often incorrectly point to Amtrak’s host freight railroads as the primary reason Amtrak can’t expand, citing track congestion and an unwillingness for freight railroad managers to deal with passenger trains.

Norfolk Southern Corp., owner of Norfolk Southern Railroad (along with Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railroad) has always taken a more business-like approach to passenger rail. While other railroads have often expressed a knee-jerk negative reaction when the subject of passenger rail is even brought up, the folks at NS have taken their cue from the top.

Wick Moorman, the CEO of Norfolk Southern, recently spoke to business leaders in the NS hometown of Norfolk, Virginia. Mr. Moorman in June told members of the Greater Norfolk Corp. civic development group his thoughts were his own, and not necessarily those of his company, but, please, when the CEO expresses an opinion which is made public for the press, that opinion always carries some extra weight.

When speaking on the subject of the need for high speed passenger rail to come to the Hampton Roads area of Tidewater Virginia, the Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk’s daily newspaper quoted Mr. Moorman as saying “... (H)e signaled in an interview that his company is open to becoming an active partner. ‘If we think it makes sense for us financially to take some role in the ongoing operation, we’d be willing to at least consider that,’ he said. ‘We certainly are more than willing to be engaged in the dialogue.’”

The Virginian-Pilot went on to say “Moorman’s comments represent a sea change in Norfolk Southern’s attitudes. The company historically has had understandable heartburn about trying to coordinate fast-moving passenger trains and slower freight cars. But Moorman and other executives are proud residents of Hampton Roads, and they understand the economic consequences if a network of high- and higher-speed passenger rail along the Eat Coast bypasses the region.

“They also understand their own business model is changing. Moorman told business leaders that cargo traffic has dropped by about 45 percent for automobiles, 40 percent for steel and 25 percent for coal compared to last year’s figures. Although Moorman sees signs of improvement he believes recovery will be slow. While the recession has been painful, it’s also encouraged Moorman and his colleagues to consider new opportunities, including passenger rail.

“Moorman said 16 states have contacted his company eager to engage Norfolk Southern in passenger rail projects. He’s met with officials in Virginia, and his expertise is already helping to level barriers impeding the project.

“For example, he said in an interview that the state’s $475 million price tag for a southern route [From the Norfolk area to other parts of the East Coast in the Carolinas and elsewhere.] exceeds his company’s own estimates for necessary upgrades. Norfolk Southern boasts a rail network perfectly capable of handling passenger trains with additional side tracks for passing and improved road crossings.”

“While Moorman is willing to work with Virginia on passenger rail, issues of capacity, liability and financing must be resolved. ‘The trick is the money,’ he said.”

Well. So, to the surprise of many socialists and others of their ilk, basic business and the desire to make money for corporate shareholders does trump the perceived distaste for passenger rail that came from generations past of railroad executives, not necessarily those of today who are responsible for corporate growth and prosperity.

The time has come to discard the old, outdated thought patterns. People tend to forget railroads are a business charged with producing the highest possible return on investment for shareholders. If part of that process includes the reintroduction of passenger rail on much of America’s railroad infrastructure, there is a higher chance that is going to happen than there was 25 years ago. Stop thinking in the past and embrace the future, or you may just miss the train.

3) Okay, so we’re seeing an overt willingness by at least two of the four largest railroads in the United States to talk about passenger rail. Most likely, the others will fall in line when they realize what it can do for the bottom line. So, what about Amtrak? Is there a willingness on Amtrak’s part to embrace this new culture of expansion?

It really doesn’t look that way. While everybody and their dog in the country has created a vision for the future based on stimulus money and all sorts of other goodies as the recession wanes, Amtrak has been steadfast in its silence.

Amtrak Interim President and CEO Joseph Boardman publishes a column two weeks ago in the Richmond (Virginia) Times-Dispatch heralding the virtues of high speed rail and how Amtrak is poised and ready to assist states grab free federal monies (Something Amtrak is very adept at doing.) to start high speed passenger services.

But, the column was totally devoid of any mention of Amtrak as we know it – America’s passenger railroad – and the future of Amtrak as a provider of conventional rail.

More and more people with the ability to look at Amtrak with their eyes wide open – as opposed to those True Believers who believe Amtrak can do no wrong – are questioning Amtrak’s ability to move forward in a meaningful way. No one is seeing any vision, and no one is seeing any plan for the future. In reality, we’re not even seeing a holding pattern, just the continued decline in national operations.

Since Mr. Boardman’s one year contract expires in less than five months, and he was the product of the previous White House administration, what will happen today and tomorrow? Will the current White House want to put its own imprint on Amtrak, complete with a new CEO? Will the current White House fill the five vacant seat on the Amtrak Board of Directors so the company can move forward in a legal manner?

Will Amtrak ultimately have the management team it deserves; a team committed to expansion, not retrenchment?

Amtrak’s current enablers always want us to believe to tired old canard of “just give Amtrak the money it needs, and everything will be fine.” Please, that line of thinking has got to stop. Amtrak, because of its lack of vision, doesn’t make full use of the money it receives now, but instead, chooses to plow money into the least productive and most socialistic lines of business, short distance trains.

4) Since Mr. Boardman has offered a helping hand to states wanting to get into the high speed rail biz, is he willing to do that to states looking to improve their state funded trains, too?

Michigan is going through some serious heartburn at the moment, with a sure cut coming in its funding of its state trains, including the Pere Marquette and Blue Water services. Michigan state senators have passed a budget resolution which will cut the annual Pere Marquette and Blue Water subsidy from the current $7.3 million to about $3.7 million next year. The governor and house, from a different political party than the majority of the senate, want to cut the Amtrak subsidy to about $5.7 million, still a 22% cut. Either way you look at it, there is going to be a cut in state funding in Michigan. These numbers are just preliminary, final budget resolutions haven’t been proposed or voted on by both chambers of the Michigan legislature.

As said before, this is the inherent problem of relying on state monies for routes, because not only will Michigan take a hit, but so will service in and out of Chicago. Both of these routes traverse Indiana to get to and from the Chicago terminal, but neither route makes a stop in Indiana. This is a vivid demonstration of how everything is connected, even when it’s paid for separately.

And, even though Michigan pays for these trains, what is Amtrak doing to promote the trains outside of listing them in its printed and virtual timetables? Does Amtrak have any responsibility to make these trains successful? Yes, it does. These state paid-for trains still carry the Amtrak logo and are part of the Amtrak system. The states are Amtrak’s clients, so Amtrak has a duty to make these trains as successful as possible, beyond just taking a monthly check from the states for operations. Amtrak will try and tell you promotion is the problem of the states, not Amtrak. While California and North Carolina take this to heart and heavily promote their trains to try and hold down their Amtrak subsidies, that is not often the case elsewhere.

5) Good news came in the past couple of days from Canada. The Canadian federal government has decided to wave its scandalous daily fee of $1,500 for border crossing services for a second daily train from Seattle, Washington to Vancouver, British Columbia. This train is designed to be a boost for the upcoming Olympic games in Vancouver, and much nail-biting has been going on over the Canadian’s refusal to provide border crossing checkpoint services at the same level it charges for other trains and forms of conveyance.

Finally, someone in Ottawa came to their senses and waved the fee so service on this train can begin. The new service will begin in August in time for the Olympic winter games in February 2010. There is desperate need for much more cross-border traffic between the United State and Canada beyond this new train in the Pacific Northwest. Can anyone say Boston-Montreal for starters?

6) Remember those Rohr Turboliners that caused so much controversy a decade ago in New York State? The trains, originally owned by Amtrak were being upgraded at great expense to the State of New York for runs on the Empire Service route between Albany and New York City. The Turboliners travel at a high rate of speed, but the tracks were never upgraded to handle the service.

Even though $65 million was spent to bring the Turboliners up to modern specifications, they ended up being stored at Amtrak’s facility in Bear, Delaware instead of being put on the road. Amtrak said since the tracks were never upgraded in New York State, these trains were too expensive to run in regular service, and chose to store them, instead.

New York took exception to this, and did all sorts of huffing and puffing, but Amtrak won the day and the trainsets remained in storage.

Now, you, too, can own your very own Turboliner. They have been put up for sale to the highest bidder. Be the first on your block to own a trainset; moving expenses must be handled by the buyer. Just think of that $65 million investment by the State of New York as a decade-old jobs stimulus program.

7) We’ve talked about this before recently in this space; here’s the formal press release of the good news.

[Begin quote]

COLUMBUS, Ohio, July 1 /PRNewswire/ – Private investors affiliated with Value Recovery Group, Inc. (VRG) of Columbus, OH, have acquired the Colorado Railcar DMU and will resume manufacturing this modern domestically produced passenger train in a new manufacturing facility to be established later this year pending state/local incentives and final round investments. Assets acquired by US Railcar include the former Colorado Railcar DMU proprietary rights and information, manufacturing documentation, inventory, and other equipment necessary for production.

According to VRG Chairman & CEO Barry H. Fromm, "US Railcar intends to reestablish passenger train production in the United States." Currently, passenger trains purchased in the U.S. today are produced by European and Asian suppliers typically importing 40 of content from overseas. "We want to keep American jobs and U.S. public investment at home," said Fromm. "There is a major commitment by the Obama Administration and the Congress to make investments in intercity and high-speed rail to promote economic growth and mobility, create jobs, conserve energy and address climate change. This opens a new era for passenger trains and railcar manufacturing in the United States."

US Railcar, LLC will be led by Michael P. Pracht, its President & CEO, a rail industry veteran with extensive past experience at two of the world's leading rail transportation companies, Siemens and Ansaldo. US Railcar will manufacture both single- and bi-level Diesel Multiple Units (DMUs) which are self-propelled railcars eliminating the need for more costly locomotive-hauled push/pull trains in lower density corridors. Both platforms are fully compliant with existing Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) safety standards for crashworthiness as established by Department of Transportation and approved for immediate use on the national rail system.

Unlike European & Asian DMUs, the US Railcar DMU can operate in all mixed-mode freight corridors throughout the country without waivers and/or temporal separation agreements currently required for non-compliant foreign platforms. "There are extraordinary growth opportunities for passenger rail development," said US Railcar CEO Mike Pracht. "The US Railcar DMU will enable new cost-effective passenger rail service across a range of corridors and routes, all with a proven, existing equipment platform already in service."

The US Railcar DMU was prototyped through a demonstration project in 2002 and is currently the only FRA-compliant DMU operating in revenue service in North America. Available in both regional and intercity configurations, the US Railcar DMU is uniquely suited for incremental corridor development at speeds from 79-to-90 mph. Platform enhancements currently anticipated include a diesel-electric upgrade, increasing speeds to 125 mph, making this American-made DMU the ideal solution for both mature and emerging passenger rail agencies around the country.

VRG is an asset recovery and management firm that specializes in asset management, advisory and asset recovery services for state and local governments, commercial banks, private investors and several federal agencies, including the FDIC. VRG also manages a brownfield remediation and redevelopment partnership and serves as consultant to advanced energy programs for state and federal agencies. More information about Value Recovery Group can be found at US Railcar's website is currently under development.

[End quote]

8) We get lots of mail here at This Week at Amtrak. Here’s a sampling from the mailbag after the last issue.

[Begin quote]

There are so many comments, suggestions, solutions, etc, on how the federal government will invest/spend the billions of dollars in stimulus funds (wisely). In my opinion, as long as politics are involved (Congress), the money isn't going to be spent wisely nor will such a passenger rail network be effectively planned and structured.

Recently, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) commented that the Federal Railroad Administration's (FRA) strategic plan for high-speed rail is less of a plan and more of a vision. Additional comments are that the plan does not establish clear high-speed rail goals for the federal government, other than a longer-term goal of developing a national intercity passenger rail network, and doesn't define a clear federal-role for high-speed rail involvement other than providing recovery act dollars. Source: Progressive Railroading Daily News 6/25/2009 (

It's a tremendous challenge to create a coordinated, reliable, passenger rail network after so many years of neglect. Would it be a consideration to offer the private railroad sector the opportunity to structure/restructure our passenger rail network? Could there be an incentive that would ignite an interest in the private sector to create an efficient, long-lasting, passenger rail system? It might even be less costly and more reliable.

Again, my personal opinion, but presently an excessive amount of emphasis is being placed on the NEC and on "high-speed rail". Equal emphasis should be placed on an integrated, nationwide network for passenger rail service.

One issue that concerns me is, what organization is most influential, or respected, in contributing to the improvement of passenger rail service? My observation is that NARP obtains the most publicity. However, I've seen no dramatic, or noticeable improvement in our current passenger rail system over the years from their advice, judgment, or speculation.

J. C. Tietgens

Fargo, North Dakota

[End quote]

And, a second offering.

[Begin quote]


I'm a fairly regular reader of This Week at Amtrak, a mechanical engineer who lately lives in the Portland area and I admit I get curious about the Dr. Herzog's matrix operations theory and other technical aspects from time to time, and anyway the thought of the proposed revivals that have been much-mooted in certain circles gave me some pause for consideration.

I know there has been mandated studies for the revival of the Pioneer and the North Coast Limited. Now the question is – why should the Pioneer continue all the way to Chicago? Seattle has perfectly good maintenance facilities and so does Portland, and it doesn't seem to make very much sense to run it to Chicago especially if the North Coast Limited were to be revived (the main issue with reviving the North Coast Limited to be would see that an ideal trip would require the re-commissioning of Homestake Pass, though I know this wasn't necessary before, but it would make a more direct journey and serve Lewiston then, if I'm correct about the route of the old NP main). Anyway it seems the ideal trip matrix would be to have the Pioneer leave Seattle - Portland in separate sections (one going over Stampede pass) to combine in eastern Oregon in Pendleton, in the late evening/early night (around 10:30 PM departures at the latest, anything else would be an inconvenience). The goal would be to allow a morning arrival in Boise and then proceed by day to Salt Lake City. At that point I'm not sure if it would make more sense to try the Union Pacific main through Wyoming or just keep on the existing route – probably the later unless there's strong demand from Wyoming's congressional delegation, seeing how politicized it is these days.

Anyway, the basic thought is that once the train gets to Denver, why should it go to Chicago? It would seem more worthwhile to run to Trinidad Colorado (and worth establishing a station at least in Colorado Springs) and then mirror the route of the Southwest Chief as far as Albuquerque ... And then head south to El Paso. This would allow mid-route connections with all three of the Chicago-California routes of Amtrak and feed those connections into the Pacific Northwest. Is there something about the route that would make it unfeasable, or is this just another case of a lack of imagination at Amtrak?

As another question, for all that the Superliner equipment is better for the western routes, because Amtrak doesn't run the trains at nearly full capacity for the ability of head end power to provide hotel power to the train, wouldn't a fair bit of savings be achieved via economies of scale if the build order for single-level long distance equipment which is now going through was simply massively increased and the transition sleepers used to combine the two equipment types as necessary? It may be un-ideal, but with Amtrak's chronic refusal to spend money on infrastructure (perhaps America's chronic refusal is a better thing to say, sadly) it might make sense for now to try and squeeze as many cars as possible out of as little money as possible by just expanding the build orders for single-level equipment and starting to use it on western routes again.

If the cost of restarting production of the Superliners and having two separate production lines going at the same time is prohibitive it makes much more sense to just run 12-car single level trains in the future instead of the current trains which at most are eight Superliner cars, anyway – two deck equipment only truly makes sense when you have sold out trains of the maximum operating length with single-deck equipment, which is manifestly not the case with modern Amtrak. It does also offer the advantage of universal system interoperability in addition to the economies of scale from a single large order that I'd mentioned before.


Marina Collette

[End quote]

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J. Bruce Richardson


United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.

1526 University Boulevard, West, PMB 203

Jacksonville, Florida 32217-2006 USA

Telephone 904-636-7739

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