Thursday, August 06, 2009

This Week in Amtrak

Sunset LimitedImage by °Florian via Flickr

This Week at Amtrak; August 3, 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 27

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) The folks on the Loonie Right – you know the type, they drive the BIG Hummer, not the wimpy small version, don’t care much about the cost of gas, and keep a hunting rifle handy in case while they’re driving home from work they want to shoot Bambi for dinner – are adamantly opposed to high speed rail, transit, and any type of transportation other than the automobile, pickup truck, or SUVs.

Then, there are the folks on the Loonie Left – you know the type, they hate automobiles, demand walking paths everywhere, want the price of gas to be taxed through the roof, adore the use of transit, no matter how inconvenient, and want everyone on the subway to join in singing a few choruses of Kumbaya between station stops after they have led a scintillating group discussion on the myriad benefits of herbal tea – who always know what’s best for everyone, and think the higher and more confiscatory taxes are, the better.

A survey of talking heads, columnists, allegedly learned academicians, and experts on various types of transportation produces such extremes in opinions it’s difficult to find any common ground.

As high speed rail and expanding transit has been discussed this year, conservatives, citing the same statistics over and over and over, demand no money be spent for high speed rail or transit because more money is needed for roads and air travel. These folks cite the absolute, complete freedom of personal vehicle travel, such as the ability to leave and arrive at will, total control over stops and route, and choice of speed. They go on to cite airline statistics, and repeatedly say Americans only want to drive or fly; who has time for other types of what they call wasteful and expensive surface transportation?

Coming from the liberals, who apparently must swear they adore transit in order to receive their cherished government identification papers, is the argument to build! build! build!, sparing no expense or higher taxes to put new transit and high speed systems in place, hoping someone will want to ride them. Never mind the ongoing costs of operations or maintenance, just build the systems so we can save the planet.


Here’s a reality check. As said in this space many times before, not every rail project is perfect, and any rail projects which are ultimately built must be of the highest quality and have the best chance for success so other projects may follow without controversy.

For all of us who live in suburbia, and plan to stay in suburbia, don’t force us to do anything against our will, no matter how smart you think you are, and how much you just know it’s for our own good, so it must be the right thing to do.

Instead, provide us reasonable options.

Now, is that so hard?

Let’s talk about Amtrak, our favorite monopoly common carrier. One tenth of one percent is Amtrak’s market share of domestic transportation output. Less than 29 million people a year climb aboard an Amtrak train of any description, and since the same person is counted twice for round trips and repeat riders, the actual number of Americans riding Amtrak is significantly smaller, probably in the range of 10 million or so.

Yet, we know it’s important to have a balanced mix of transportation options in our domestic network. Passenger rail is an important part of that mix, and it should grow in an orderly and financially responsible manner.

Let’s talk about SunRail in Central Florida, the proposed commuter rail system from the Northeast of Orlando to the Southwest of Orlando’s metropolitan area. Much of the proposed system will parallel Interstate 4, which runs from Daytona Beach on the Right Coast of Florida to Tampa on the Left Coast of Florida, and goes through the middle of downtown Orlando. Interstate 4, which most of time if it isn’t 3 A.M., resembles a long, long parking lot, is about to be expanded – yet, again. It already seems it’s a few dozen lanes wide at some points, but, hey, they want to make it wider.

With the way Central Florida will continue to grow after this pesky recession abates, a larger I-4 will only be a larger parking lot unless it’s 3 A.M.

Will SunRail stop that from happening? Most definitely not. Maybe, if Sunrail has three minute headways all day, and 10 car trains, it may make a trifling dent in I-4 congestion. But, it won’t. Instead, SunRail will offer a reasonable rush hour schedule with convenient schedules other parts of the day.

But, what SunRail will accomplish (As Tri-Rail in South Florida, running parallel to Interstate 95 already does.) is offer a reasonable choice for those commuting from one point on the SunRail route to another.

If you want to creep along on I-4, you can do that. If you want to zip along on SunRail, you will be able to do that, too, if the Florida legislature ever approves the project.

The few hundred million dollars cost of SunRail compared to the cost of expanding I-4 is a reasonable investment. SunRail, because of a number of factors, has a good chance of financial success, so bloated predictions of budget-busting operating costs are scare tactics.

Back to Amtrak, and making the case for an expanded Amtrak, including a healthy long distance system instead of the anemic and embarrassing skeletal system Amtrak boasts today.

If Amtrak had the will – and, don’t even start the baloney about never having enough money, because that just isn’t true – it could find ways to partner with its host railroads to expand the long distance system (See the three press releases press release below.). Equipment costs too high? Nah, lease it. New station costs too high? Nah, let local governments, using Amtrak specifications, provide depots and stations. Operating costs too high? Nah, not if the service is priced honestly and marketed properly.

Some Amtrak True Believers believe it should be a social program, with low cost transportation for all. Why is that? Amtrak isn’t some sort of museum or monument, or public beach – it’s a passenger railroad, tasked with moving people from one city to another in an efficient manner. Nobody said it has to be a welfare program like most transit systems think of themselves. Nobody is going to be penalized by not being able to get to work on Amtrak if a fair fare is charged for transportation; we’re talking about Amtrak’s true mission of long distance, intercity travel, not commuter rail.

But, more True Believers wail, nobody will ride Amtrak if it’s priced too high. It’s too slow, it’s too shabby, it’s too non-cool to be competitive, so it has to be priced low to attract riders.

Such uninformed piffle.

Amtrak boasts it is the largest single passenger carrier in the Northeast between Washington and New York City. Okay, if Amtrak is as smart as it claims to be and can achieve that goal, why can’t it be smart enough to expand in the rest of the country?

If you were the CEO of Amtrak, would you be boasting to your CEO buddies “Hey! My company commands one tenth of one percent of domestic transportation output, which is significantly lower than motorcycle riders!”?

But, again, you wail, “All it takes is more money for poor, starved, emaciated Amtrak!”

And, again, no, it doesn’t.

What it takes is a refocusing, and a rededication to Amtrak’s core purpose of providing a national passenger rail system, not just a loose combination of distinct corridors with little connectivity.

In reality, probably a refocusing of less than $100 million would be required to beef up ridership in the national system, using existing routes and trainsets. What would happen? A new wave of riders – many for the first time discovering America’s best kept secret, Amtrak – dropping money for fares into Amtrak’s coffers which would quickly replace that spent $100 million or less for sales and marketing.

Is that so hard?

How much vision does that take?

How much initiative does that take?

How much reality is Amtrak willing to absorb?

Or, will Amtrak just continue on its slovenly way, happy to eat slops at the United States Treasury trough instead of even attempting to become somewhere close to self-sufficient?

2) If you have any reservations whatsoever about Amtrak not getting into the swing of things and not realizing what is happening in the railroad world around it, read this press release from the Association of American Railroads. The world of passenger railroading – whether it’s conventional or high speed – is very quickly changing.

[Begin quote]

Freight Railroads Join Midwest Governors in Planning for High-Speed Rail

Joint Rail Efforts Should Complement, Not Compromise Freight Rail’s Future

Washington, D.C., July 27, 2009 – Association of American Railroads President and CEO Edward R. Hamberger today said the national rail network is critical to meeting the mobility needs of the 21 century. Speaking before the Midwest High-Speed Rail Summit in Chicago, Hamberger said striking the right balance between passenger and freight rail expansion is key to the success of high-speed rail in America.

“America’s freight railroads support the goal of increased passenger rail investment,” Hamberger said. “It’s good for our economy and the environment when more people and goods move faster by rail.”

He pointed out that the country’s privately owned freight rail network is the literal foundation for high speed rail in America. Railroads account for 43 percent of intercity freight volume — more than any other mode of transportation.

“We are critical stakeholders that need to be engaged from the very beginning of project planning and development. Passenger and freight efforts to grow and expand must complement, not compromise one another,” Hamberger said.

Governors that participated in the summit were Illinois Governor Patrick Quinn, Iowa Governor Chester Culver, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, Missouri Governor Jeremiah Nixon, Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle.

Hamberger noted that each high-speed rail project needs to be examined and assessed based on its own merits, taking into account several important factors – including volume of freight traffic, terrain, number of grade crossings, and track configuration. These issues will help determine the feasibility of operating high speed passenger trains on the freight rail network. In addition, Hamberger emphasized that agreements addressing liability, compensation and increased maintenance need to be approved prior to project planning and development.

# # #

Editors' Note: The Association of American Railroads is a Washington, D.C.-based trade association whose members include the major freight railroads, or Class I railroads, of the U.S., Canada and Mexico, as well as Amtrak. Class I railroads represent 67 percent of the U.S. freight rail mileage and 90 percent of freight railroad industry employees. Railroads account for 43 percent of intercity freight volume — more than any other mode of transportation. To learn more about how freight rail works for America, the environment and for you, please visit:

[End quote]

3) Now, take a look at these two press releases from Norfolk Southern; CSX is mirroring NS and saying much the same thing.

[Begin quote]

July 20, 2009

Rail Can Help Relieve Highway Congestion Crisis, Norfolk Southern CEO Tells Nation’s Governors

NORFOLK, VA – Wick Moorman, CEO of Norfolk Southern Corporation (NYSE: NSC), called on the nation’s governors Saturday to consider railroads as “a vital part of the solution to our nation’s transportation crisis.”

Addressing the National Governors Association at Biloxi, Miss., Moorman said “railroads offer significant economic and environmental benefits while helping relieve highway congestion – which is fast becoming public enemy number one.”

Our nation’s transportation network is a complex, interdependent system that demands our combined creative efforts to operate it most efficiently,” Moorman said. “Our experience at Norfolk Southern has shown that by working together in public-private partnerships, we can achieve far more in far less time and with far greater public benefits than any of us can by working alone.”

Moorman cited two rail routes – the Heartland Corridor between the Port of Virginia and Columbus, Ohio, and Chicago, and the Crescent Corridor linking New Jersey to New Orleans and Memphis, Tenn. – as examples of how public-private partnerships “can create additional capacity in our rail transportation network, with public benefits of jobs creation, less highway congestion, lower environmental emissions, and fuel savings.” He said the Crescent Corridor project alone will result in 41,000 “green” jobs over the next decade and move more than a million trucks annually off the highways onto rail, saving more than 150 million gallons of fuel every year and reducing carbon emissions by nearly two million tons per year.

“It’s clear we must do something,” Moorman said. “Freight volumes in this country are projected to grow 88 percent by 2035 alone. To handle that freight, we must improve our national transportation infrastructure.”

Norfolk Southern Corporation is a leading North American transportation provider. Its Norfolk Southern Railway subsidiary operates approximately 21,000 route miles in 22 states and the District of Columbia, serves every major container port in the eastern United States, and provides efficient connections to other rail carriers. Norfolk Southern operates the most extensive intermodal network in the East and is a major transporter of coal and industrial products.

Norfolk Southern Corporation |

July 23, 2009

Norfolk Southern CEO Says Tax Incentives for Rail Capacity will Generate Economic Benefits, Create Jobs

NORFOLK, VA. – Tax incentives to expand freight rail capacity would “make sense for America,” generating $1 billion in economic benefits and 20,000 green jobs, Norfolk Southern Corporation CEO Wick Moorman said today on Capitol Hill.

“America needs more transportation capacity and needs it now,” Moorman said on behalf of the Association of American Railroads during testimony to a U.S. House subcommittee. Noting that today’s transportation network is not designed to handle the doubling in freight demand projected by 2035, Moorman said, “Railroads are the most affordable and environmentally responsible way to meet this demand, and that is why tax incentives for rail capacity would be good public policy.”

Railroads have spent record amounts reinvesting in their own networks even during the economic downturn, Moorman said – a record $10.2 billion in capital improvements last year alone. “Since 1980, railroads have spent more than 40 percent of their revenues – some $440 billion – to maintain, improve, and expand their networks.

“Yet as much as railroads are investing, it isn’t enough to meet projected demand,” he said. A recent study found a $52 billion gap between the $148 billion needed for expanding freight rail capacity and the $96 billion railroads can expect to generate. Tax incentives “provide a sensible way to help bridge this gap,” Moorman said.

In addition to creating economic stimulus and jobs, public benefits would include reductions in fuel consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and highway congestion, as railroads are more fuel efficient than trucks, and a single train can haul as much freight as 280 or more trucks, Moorman said.

“Numerous states are partnering with us,” Moorman said. “Thanks to the leadership of Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, and others, we are already investing to expand our system to meet the looming demands of moving our nation’s commerce. Congress should bolster these efforts by enacting tax credit legislation to encourage additional freight rail investment,” he said.

“America today has the best freight rail network in the world. Still, it is clear that rail capacity must increase as the economy and population expand in the years ahead. Tax incentives provide one way to ensure that happens,” Moorman said.

Norfolk Southern Corporation (NYSE: NSC) is a leading North American transportation provider. Its Norfolk Southern Railway subsidiary operates approximately 21,000 route miles in 22 states and the District of Columbia, serves every major container port in the eastern United States, and provides efficient connections to other rail carriers. Norfolk Southern operates the most extensive intermodal network in the East and is a major transporter of coal and industrial products.

Norfolk Southern Corporation |

[End quote]

Why is this important? Because, as private railroads are warming to the idea of government help on infrastructure for freight movement, you can bet the mortgage money government strings will come attached to that help, most likely in the way the government will require any expansion plans to include capacity for passenger trains, either at conventional speeds or high speeds.

So, again, the question: Will Amtrak have the vision and be capable of handling this type of expansion? Or, will it be just another wasted opportunity on the part of Amtrak?

4) The comments keep floating into This Week at Amtrak about the horribly flawed Gulf Coast Report on restoration of service east of New Orleans. Here’s the latest comment.

[Begin quote]

Re: Former IG Fred Weiderhold

AMTRAK = Always Managing To Remove Anyone Knowledgeable

I like to "have fun" with acronyms.

Anyway, welcome to August, 2009, the 40th anniversary of Hurricane Camille. Imagine SCL–L&N using Camille as an excuse to discontinue the Gulf Wind! Hell, the ICC and state PUC's would have attacked SCL like a swarm of killer bees!

[End quote]

5) And, there was one gentleman who sent this comment.

[Begin quote]

Here is a SMART [The ad hoc private group working to restore the Sunset east of New Orleans and make it a daily train.] recommendation draft currently in circulation:

"There is one configuration that would appear to keep everybody happy and also have the potential for the most ticket sales. It is a Double Y Concept. The eastbound Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to Florida would continue to drop a sleeper and a coach in San Antonio for routing to Chicago on the Texas Eagle (the first Y). Later it would pick up another sleeper and coach in New Orleans coming in from Chicago on the City of New Orleans (the second Y) and carry them on to Florida. Westbound would reverse the procedure.

"This gives Amtrak the opportunity to sell through tickets to and from Florida to both Chicago and Los Angeles. It vastly extends the ticketing routes of both the Sunset Limited and the City of New Orleans.

"This solution provides a backbone for national coverage to a large part of the nation, including the second, third, and fourth largest cities in the United States. It covers all of the south and much of the central part of the country. Regional trains can easily connect into this backbone at many locations. All of Amtrak's "options" are covered.

– Dan Pugh

[End quote]

6) Former Amtrak Chairman of the Board John Robert Smith has found a new vocation.

[Begin quote]

John Robert Smith Named Reconnecting America President And CEO

Four-term Meridian, Miss., mayor recognized for initiatives to promote sustainability, affordability, livability

Mayor John Robert Smith of Meridian, Mississippi, has been named President and CEO of the national nonprofit Reconnecting America. He has served on Reconnecting America’s board for five years, and was a founding partner and board member of Reconnecting America’s predecessor organization, the Great American Station Foundation, voting to expand its mission and change its name in 2004.

Smith will replace Shelley Poticha, who has been appointed Senior Advisor for Sustainable Communities at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, where she will advise Deputy Administrator Ron Sims and help facilitate the interagency partnership of HUD, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

John Robert Smith was elected mayor of Meridian in 1993 and was re-elected three times before deciding this year not to seek re-election to a fifth term. He has been an active member of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and has served Amtrak as both Chairman and as Board member.

Mayor Smith was an early practitioner of transit-oriented development, having successfully renovated Meridian’s historic downtown train station, a project that helped leverage the revitalization of Meridian’s downtown. That experience made him a passionate advocate for the power of station renovation projects to link transportation and community revitalization. He has also been recognized in local, state and national arenas for his initiatives to promote sustainability, affordability and livability.

“John Robert Smith brings real-world hands-on experience to the work that Reconnecting America does. He has initiated and managed the kind of projects that Reconnecting America has long advocated,” said Reconnecting America Board President Janette Sadik-Khan, Transportation Commissioner of the City of New York. “He understands how transit-oriented development can breathe new life into communities and help generate lasting public and private returns.”

While in office Mayor Smith oversaw a number of development projects to boost investment in Meridian’s downtown and several declining inner-city neighborhoods, including the redevelopment of the historic Union Station, the construction of a new performing arts center and restoration of the Grand Opera House, and the development of a HOPE VI mixed-income housing project. He has been a longtime advocate for the performing arts and raised significant arts funding for Meridian. He also built a coalition that was successful in restoring daily Amtrak service from Atlanta to New Orleans, and has been an influential advocate at the national level for investing in and improving the national passenger rail system.

“I have been involved in transportation on a national level for many years, due to my passion for inner-city and urban revitalization,” Mayor Smith said. “With the next-generation transportation bill being crafted by Congress now, it is vital that the voices of those who believe in a connected, multi-modal approach to transportation are heard. Transportation touches every aspect of life in cities of all sizes and I am looking forward to working with our nation’s leaders at all levels to incorporate smart urban planning and connections to people across the United States.”

Reconnecting America provides an impartial, fact-based perspective on development-oriented transit and transit-oriented development, and seeks to reinvent the planning and delivery system for building regions and communities around transit and walking rather than solely around the automobile. Reconnecting America manages the Center for Transit-Oriented Development, the only national nonprofit effort funded by Congress to promote best practices in transit-oriented development.

[End quote]

Reconnecting America’s main office is in Oakland, California, and you can visit its web site at .

7) In the last issue of This Week at Amtrak we discussed Amtrak’s RFP for 130 Viewliner 2 single level passenger cars, of which approximately 25 are to be sleeping cars. Since that TWA was published, the Russians have announced they are purchasing 200 new sleeping cars for their trains, which will be compatible with most other systems in Europe through a changeable system to accommodate different track standards.

It’s also notable since the last TWA the federal government has rushed – without debate – to put an additional $2 billion in place for the cash for clunkers automobile replacement program.

When will Amtrak allow itself grow and be at a point of prosperity so it can be at the point of saying it needs a quick $2 billion without extended debate?

8) Even Trains Magazine, normally a blindly compliant cheerleading magazine for Amtrak is beginning to question why Amtrak seems adrift these days. In the just-out September issue, author Bob Johnston has a major article entitled “Amtrak, time to claim your destiny.” The subhead of the article is, “With an infusion of stimulus money and a new authorization, can America’s passenger railroad ‘be all it can be?’ Here are six things Amtrak can do immediately to capture more riders and chart its own future”

Particularly interesting is Mr. Johnston’s suggestion for Amtrak managers and members of the board of directors to experience the rigors of overnight coach travel.

The refreshing article is a good read. It appears Mr. Johnston and Trains Magazine are as anxious as the rest of us about the future of Amtrak unless it makes major changes in its corporate culture.

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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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1 comment:

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