Friday, August 21, 2009

This Week In Amtrak

Amtrak train in downtown Orlando, Florida.Image via Wikipedia

This Week at Amtrak; August 19, 2009

A weekly digest of events, opinions, and forecasts from

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Volume 6, Number 31

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1) The lack of intellectual honesty when preparing reports apparently goes far beyond Amtrak. We know Amtrak’s P.R.I.I.A. Section 226 Gulf Coast Service Plan Report for restoring passenger rail service east of New Orleans and into Florida was fatally flawed and intellectually dishonest in addition to being insulting to anyone who is serious about passenger rail. Everyone is waiting to see what Amtrak will come up with for the Pioneer route restoration report which was originally due last week, and the North Coast Limited route restoration report which should also be due in the next few months.

Amtrak has other reports in the hopper, but keeps putting off the release of them declaring they are just too very busy and just can’t get them completed, mostly because the dog ate their homework.

This space frequently features the work of Ken Orski through Innovation NewsBriefs, from Here is Volume 20, Number 15, hot off the presses. While Mr. Orski does not specifically refer to Amtrak in his important report, he does reflect what is going on in Washington overall in transportation and the alarming trend of intellectual dishonesty in reports which are allegedly done for the public good.

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August 18, 2009

A Tendentious Report Has the Transportation Community Up in Arms

While the nation at large and the political community are consumed by the current debate about health care, another controversy is being played out on a smaller stage but with no less intensity. The object of the controversy is a recently released report entitled “Moving Cooler.” The report, unveiled with great fanfare on July 28 before a large gathering of the Washington environmental community, purports to estimate the potential reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that can be achieved from surface transportation. The report’s authors conclude that a combination of strategies and policy actions involving changes in vehicle and transportation system operations, travel behavior, land use patterns and level of transit service could reduce annual GHG emissions by up to 24 percent from the expected baseline levels in 2050. The authors further maintain that with "strong economy-wide pricing measures" (read, VMT fees and PAYD insurance), annual GHG emissions could be reduced by up to 47 percent.

The report was commissioned by a group of sponsors and written by a well-known transportation consulting firm, Cambridge Systematics. Sponsors included two environmental advocacy groups (Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council), several foundations, the American Public Transportation Association, the Urban Land Institute, ITS America, Shell Oil Company and three government agencies – Federal Highway Administration, Federal Transit Administration and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), one of the original sponsors, withdrew its support after concluding that the study "did not produce results upon which decision-makers can rely." Specifically, AASHTO expressed concern that decision-makers could be led to rely on the study’s conclusions "without understanding the drastic steps that would have to be taken" to achieve the promised reductions.

At an August 13 meeting convened by AASHTO to discuss the report, many of the study assumptions were described as "extreme, unrealistic and in some cases downright impossible." A list of 37 specific issues challenging the report’s methodology and requiring clarification was presented by a team of researchers that analyzed the study. Transportation professionals reached after the meeting were equally blunt. "This is an advocacy document pure and simple, couched in the form of a pseudo scientific analysis," one state DOT official told us. Other transportation professionals, speaking on background, criticized the study as "not meeting scientific standards," "using implausible assumptions," "failing to adequately disclose key analytical assumptions," "lacking in objectivity," " a deeply flawed analysis," and "following a questionable peer review process."

Precisely what kind of assumptions did the report use to warrant such a severe condemnation? Here is a partial list of measures assumed by the report’s authors that would be needed to achieve the estimated reductions:

• Institute tolling of all interstate intercity highways throughout the U.S. by next year (2010). Minimum toll would be 5 cents/mile. As the presentation to AASHTO pointed out, this would require immediate Federal legislation to authorize tolls and a massive crash effort to install toll equipment on these highways within the next year. The tolls would likely shift some traffic to other roads and hit rural areas hardest. According to the analysis, a 5 cent/mile toll would be equivalent to increasing the gas tax for interstate trips by $1.10/gallon for vehicles that get 22 MPG and $1.75/gallon for high-efficiency vehicles.

• Impose congestion pricing in 125 metropolitan areas, at 65 cents per mile. The presentation to AASHTO pointed out that a 20-mile round-trip commute trip would cost an additional $26 each day . Service workers and delivery vehicles could face much higher increased costs. The top 125 metro areas where congestion pricing would be imposed include such small urban areas as Canton, OH; Jackson, MS; Flint, MI; Modesto, CA; Greenville, SC; and Lancaster, PA.

• Impose or significantly increase parking fees in the CBD and require $400 biennial residential on-street parking permits

• Reimpose a national 55 mph speed limit

• Invest $1.2 trillion over 40 years in expanding urban transportation. Increase transit operating subsidies by next year to allow transit fares to be cut by 50% in all regions.

• Increase highway capacity above the baseline by either $640 billion ("aggressive deployment") or $1.2 trillion ("Maximum deployment") over 40 years.

• Add bike lanes and paths at 1/4 mile intervals in high density areas (more than 2,000 persons/square mile.)

• Require at least 90% of new development to be in compact, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly neighborhoods with high quality transit. The report notes that the land use measures "may require strong regional land use planning and oversight agencies,... may result in higher housing prices and...some people might need to live in smaller homes or on smaller lots than they would prefer."

While the report’s authors acknowledge in the body of the report that implementing the strategies at their "maximum deployment level" would require a major shift in national attitudes and political will, the presentation and press releases distributed at the July 28 report rollout ignored this caveat. They also ignored the report's conclusion that lower emission reductions would be achieved at less intensive -- and more realistic-- levels of deployment. Thus, an impression may have been created, says Allen Biehler, Director of PennDOT and AASHTO’s President, that emission reduction targets in the range of 24 to 52 percent are reasonably achievable. This, in turn, could lead to their adoption in EPA rulemaking and legislation pending in Congress.

Environmental sources contacted for this story allege that the threat of climate change is no less urgent than the threat of air pollution was 30 years ago, and the means to combat it happen to be largely the same: reduce reliance on and volume of automobile travel, greatly expand public transit, support nonmotorized travel (biking and walking), and change development patterns to achieve more compact "walkable" communities. They had to be reminded that improvements in air quality over the last 30 years have been almost entirely achieved through changes in vehicle and fuel technology and not through changes in travel behavior and land use patterns. Indeed, urban air pollution has been substantially reduced from its 1970s levels despite rising vehicle-miles of travel (VMTs) and continued dispersal of homes and jobs.

Be that as it may, the present controversy is not about challenging the legitimacy of the emission reduction strategies advocated in the "Moving Cooler" report. It is, rather, about using allegedly flawed analysis and unrealistic assumptions that could mislead policymakers and the public and raise unreasonable expectations about how much progress can be achieved using these strategies. Evidence from the last 30 years shows that "travel demand management" and "smart growth" have been largely ineffective as a means of reducing auto dependency and automobile trips. There is thus good reason to question whether these two strategies, applied in a reasonable manner, would be any more effective in reducing future vehicular-based GHG emissions.

Lance Neumann, President of Cambridge Systematics, the consulting firm that authored the report, responds:

Unfortunately, there has been considerable misinformation circulated regarding the Moving Cooler study. Contrary to some reports, Moving Cooler does not advocate for any particular approach to reducing GHGs, nor does it assess the political feasibility or the overall merit of the strategies examined. Rather, it presents estimates of how much GHGs might be reduced for a very large number of measures and under a very wide range of assumptions about how aggressively they are implemented. For Moving Cooler, organizations with varying perspectives were invited to join the steering committee, and members collaborated in selecting the specific measures and the range of implementation assumptions for each measure to estimate strategy effectiveness in reducing GHGs. It is intentional that the implementation aggressiveness of each measure reflected a wide range of assumptions.

Given the range of measures and implementation scenarios examined, it is not surprising that AASHTO disagrees with some of the assumptions used. Many members of the Steering Committee also disagreed with some of the implementation assumptions that were evaluated. However, there was consensus among Steering Committee members that exploration of the strategies under the range of assumptions defined was a worthwhile exercise to inform public debate. We believe that Moving Cooler provides additional objective information to inform the debate, whether you agree with all of the assumptions or not.

It should also be noted that, although the study did not explicitly analyze fuel efficiency, it did use for its baseline forecasts more aggressive estimates of future fuel efficiency improvements than were used by the Department of Energy in its forecasts of future fuel efficiency. So, Moving Cooler analyses clearly acknowledge the absolutely critical role of fuel efficiency improvements in reducing GHG emissions.

Ed. Note: The Steering Committee that Mr. Neumann refers to included representatives of the American Public Transportation Association, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, ITS America, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Shell Oil Company, the Urban Land Institute and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Additional sponsors (but not members of the Steering Committee) included the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, The Rockefeller Foundation, the Surdna Foundation and The Kresge Foundation.

[End quote]

Mr. Orski paints a bleak, but factual picture. As anyone who has dealt with Amtrak over the years knows, question everything, challenge everyone, accept nothing at face value. Everyone has an agenda, and the days are gone when reports and other public documents can be factually made without an agenda shining through.

2) More mail continues to come into This Week at Amtrak’s e-mail box. Here is the latest; some of our correspondents like to share their thoughts on what would make Amtrak a better passenger rail system.

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Bruce: Report on my recent and annual round trip to Denver from Eugene on the Starlight and Zephyr. I left Eugene on the 2nd of August and left Denver to return on the 9th. I had sleeping car accommodations on all legs. Standard bedrooms (roomette) out and deluxe room on the return.

Crews: All crews were pleasant, efficient and available when needed. I'd give the crews a 90% plus rating. Dining car crews 95%

Food: Adequate all things considered, the fish entree was especially good. Am still tired of the plastic plates and paper tablecloths. On the return Starlight on the 11th, I had lunch in the Pacific Parlour Car. A field greens salad with cold steamed green beans, marinated artichoke hearts and a very generous portion of sliced cold beef, well seasoned. Cloth tablecloth, plastic plate. This salad would make the grade at a very good restaurant.

Equipment: Diner lounge subbed for Parlour Car on the 2nd of August. Wine and cheese tasting now open to anyone on the train, $5 for sleepers and $10 for others. Changes the ambiance a bit, or maybe the idea of first class service.

On the return trip on the 11th Parlour Car on board. The 24/32 seats at the 6/8 tables for four (can't remember if its six or eight tables) are not available for card play or other seating until after lunch. They are set for breakfast the night before and set up for lunch as soon as breakfast is over. This only leaves the six cozy chairs and the benches with little bar tables (10 adults max) in the middle, or seating for 16 people until 1:30 or 2 in the afternoon. The car was cleared for the wine and cheese tasting people only on one trip, but not on another trip I took. When a friend and I sat down in mid morning at the tables for four we were informed of the seating ban. The same six people staked out the comfy chairs and sat in them most of the day. The attendant later offered to un-padlock the theater downstairs for us to use.

We were told at 11:00 P.M. the car was closed until 7:00 A.M. Some card players reluctantly went to their rooms, I went to the “comfy chairs” and read till 1:00 A.M. and was not asked to leave. We were told that after 11:00 P.M. we could go to the lounge car which was open all night (no attendant present). I asked why it closed, was told something about the attendant needing to do paperwork and company policy said it couldn't be done with passengers present.

NOW to the main question. If I have my dates correct, the first run of Superliner sleepers were completed in the late 70's, the second run in maybe 1983? Why has Amtrak not been able correct the problem on a number of the sleepers so the toilets will work above 3,000 feet in elevation? The middle sleeper on both trips had this affliction. A weary attendant a few years ago showed me how to reset the system by turning off the breaker for the waste system in the 480 volt panel, counting to 30 and turning it on again. This will get you from one to eight flushes before the system shuts down again. So I made it a habit to reset the system every time I left my room for some reason, so as to keep passenger dissatisfaction to a minimum.

Some attendants are good about regularly resetting the system, but others in the past have just told the folks to go to the downstairs toilets in the next car. OK, so I pay $2,000 or so for a long Chicago to Los Angeles trip in the family room downstairs, with an elderly parent, or the handicapped room for that matter. We are leaving Denver at 5,280 feet. I go into the toilet in my room and well you know ... I hit the flush button and nothing happens. I am supposed to live with the smell as well as go to the next car the next time all the way to California?

I wonder over the years how many tickets were refunded and other monetary concessions have been made to compensate for the problem? MY guess is that the money given to folks who will likely never travel by rail again and will bad mouth Amtrak, might have easily paid for the fix of the problem. On my return, the attendant in the middle sleeper told me that for the 15 years he has worked, this particular car has had only one vacuum pump instead of the designed two and a reset will give you just one flush. From what he said, I think he quit writing it up years ago.

On the positive side, ALL the cars on all four trains were adequately clean and fresh with just a couple of notable quirks. One of the doors in the cafe part of the lounge car didn't want to stay closed and latched. The attendant came out and hit it with his hip hard enough to latch it, which bowed it in at the latch at least four inches, I was surprised the door still fits at all. The other is a door issue also, on one of the doors to access the mechanism that operates the sliding door between cars, it wouldn't latch either. Well, I took a photo of the door, but it seems to have disappeared from the camera. It was a list by the attendants who had reported the door and for how many years.

On time status: Eugene to Martinez: Down 15 minutes to Martinez. I always ride south as far as the schedule allows and my attendant will OK, so I am not in the Sacramento station for as long of a layover. It is about 2.5 hours each way, so that is five less hours layover in Sacramento if you are taking the Zephyr east.

Martinez to Denver: one hour twenty minutes early into Denver. Detour through Wyoming because of track work in Colorado. I was notified in June for an August trip of the detour which misses the Colorado Rockies. I prefer the Wyoming route because as a kid I was a frequent rider of the City of Portland, Boise to Laramie. Arrived Denver one hour twenty minutes early, would have been close to three hours early if the wandering around the Denver yards to back in hadn't taken forever.

Denver to Emeryville: one hour early into Emeryville. Again, through Wyoming. Left Denver Union on time at 8:05 A.M., returned to Denver Union 30 minutes later after the dispatcher in Omaha started us up the track to the regular route. We finally left the Denver yards about 1.3 hours late, but arrived in Salt Lake four hours early with quite a few disgruntled passengers who weren't told they would miss the Colorado Rocky mountains, though the scenery through Wyoming and the Wasatch Mountains is amazing. Left Salt Lake City on time, were an hour an a quarter early into Winnemucka. Early into Reno about 45 minutes. Held the same over the top and ended up an hour early into Sacramento. We left Sacramento 45 minutes EARLY. Apparently they can do that because of the Capitol Corridor service that gives folks an option south every 20 minutes or so. Into Emeryville an hour early.

Emeryville to Eugene: On time or early all the way to Oakridge where we lost about 45 minutes, so were a bit late into Eugene.

On the whole, it was a very pleasant trip for most everyone, I guess except for the folks in the car with the toilets with the altitude challenges. Again, the crews were great, good sense of humor, many with 25 plus years of service. The on time was good for most people, though for myself as long as I don't miss a connection and they don't charge me for the extra time onboard, I don't really care if I am late.

Post Script: Is the report on the Pioneer that was released on August 10th available on the web somewhere? The Pioneer is the obvious missing diagonal link for passengers from the northwest to the southeast. All we need is a rail link from Denver to LaJunta and the hub would in place.

[End quote]

The report, originally believed to be out August 10th, still has not been released.

Here is a later addition to the above e-mail, from the same correspondent.

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... Actually I started riding the City of Portland when I was six days old in September of 1950. Boise to Laramie two or three times a year ’til 1965. Then back and forth from the University of Wyoming when in college. Liked the Portland Rose also since it took longer.

My return of the Pioneer dream from years ago was the refurbish of the rest of the El Capitan high level coaches that Amtrak still owned in the 80's I think? An all coach train would be OK if not great. But, those coaches were full recliners, only, I think, 54 seats per car, Superliners are 70 something I think, but I digress as those cars are long gone.

I have traveled a lot of Amtrak miles since 1971. Such as it is, it is the only civilized way to travel. I just returned from a Eugene, Oregon (home) to Denver round trip that I take at least once or twice a year. This year the train was routed through Wyoming due to track work in Colorado. That cuts nearly 5 hours off the time to Denver. UP's track through Wyoming and Utah to Salt Lake City is mostly double tracked and is in fine shape. The scenery is pretty fine.

OK, my thoughts about the Pioneer (rename it the Portland Rose). It should have guaranteed connections to Portland from Seattle (with checked baggage) to Denver with a RAIL connection to La Junta, Colorado or Raton, New Mexico. This would allow a connection to the Southwest Chief. Currently that connection is made by a bus that leaves Denver at about 6:30 A.M., arrives in Raton at about 10:00 A.M. for an 11:30 departure on the Chief west to Los Angeles at around 11:30 A.M. East at maybe two in the afternoon if I remember right. Going the other way, the Zephyr gets to Denver from the east just a little too late to make the transition to the Chief. Depending on schedules, it then becomes the diagonal link for Seattle to Florida assuming the service east from New Orleans is returned. A note on the Raton, New Mexico/La Junta connection. I was told the New Mexico Rail Runner which currently goes from south of Albuquerque to Santa Fe explored the trackage right with BNSF up through Denver and into Montana. Don't know how true that is, but the possibilities are great since the north/south routes with Amtrak in the west are almost zero.

The most important points I see are:

1. Daily Service

2. Seattle all the way to Denver through Salt Lake City and Wyoming

3. Schedules that allow for reasonable connections at Denver with the Chief (via Raton?) and the Zephyr either in Salt Lake City or Denver or both?

4. Sleepers and full service dining.

5. Easy access from Nampa to Boise. I think the tracks from Orchard junction to Boise are gone.

If you look at Amtrak's U.S. map, the obvious missing link for the whole western system is Seattle to Denver. For me, a trip to Denver takes 50 hours counting layovers through California; 53 hours if I left from Portland. Looking at my 1968 copy of the Official Guide, on the City of Portland, Portland to Denver would be 25 3/4 hours assuming no train changes. If I add in 2.25 hours for Eugene to Portland, that would make 28 hours, making that trip about 25 hours faster. Not really a fair comparison because my old route does not go through Salt Lake City, but takes the Granger cut off, so I shall recalculate. Using the City of St. Louis for Denver to Cheyenne, that is 2.75 hours for 106 miles average speed 38.5 MPH, then Cheyenne to Salt Lake City on the City of Los Angeles, 10.25 hours/519 miles/50.6 MPH, Salt Lake City to Pocatello on the old No. 35 milk train 4.5hours/134 miles/29.7 MPH, Pocatello to Portland on the City of Portland, 13.25 hours/726 miles/54.8 MPH for a total trip, Denver to Portland of 1,585 miles in 30.75 hours for an average speed of 51.5 MPH.

Just for giggles, I looked up the same route that Amtrak uses today from Portland to Sacramento and Sacramento to Salt Lake City and Salt Lake City to Denver for miles and actual on train time. The results were surprising. We have all heard how padded the Amtrak schedules are and so on. So:

Amtrak, Portland to Sacramento, 637 miles, 16 hours

Southern Pacific “Cascade,” Portland to Sacramento, 715 miles, 15.5 hours

Amtrak, Sacramento to Salt Lake City, 745 miles, 16 hours

Southern Pacific, “Overland Route,” Sacramento to Salt Lake City, 18 hours

Amtrak, Salt Lake City to Denver, 570 miles, 15.5 hours

Denver and Rio Grande “California Zephyr,” Salt Lake City to Denver, 570 miles, 14.25 hours

Amtrak – Total Trip, 1,952 miles, 47.5 hours train time, speed 41 MPH

SP-D&RGW – Total Trip, 2,014 miles, 47.0 hours train time, speed 42.8 MPH

I have been curious and wanting to do these calculations for some time, ... gave me the impetus to do it. So, then the Pioneer will connect with the Zephyr at Salt Lake City for those connections to Chicago. If there is a checked baggage connection from Denver to Raton or La Junta, that makes Seattle/Denver/St. Louis/New Orleans possible. To me, the eastern missing diagonal link would be St. Louis/Atlanta/Savannah, which makes a decent routing from Seattle to the southern Atlantic coast. Do we dare hope?

That was fun.

[End quote]

And, one other TWA correspondent brought up this subject, referring to a TWA published earlier this spring regarding quick fixes to Amtrak’s system.

[Begin quote]

Speaking of long-hanging fruit – I mean, really low-hanging fruit – I never understood why the regional trains which terminate in downtown Chicago don’t simply extend their service to O’Hare airport.

This mainly applies to the Illinois regional trains (but not the Hiawatha), as well as to the Michigan routes which currently terminate at Union Station.

The trains, which enter the south side of Union Station, could use the tracks at Union Station which are by the river, which then continue north until the tracks connect to the northbound tracks out of Union. From there the trains could follow the Metra route to the O’Hare station, which then requires passengers to take either a short bus ride to the terminals or a shorter ride to the people-mover.

One would think that there would be quite a market for one-seat service to O’Hare. If inbound Amtrak passenger currently wish to go to O’Hare, they have to detrain downtown and then either take mid-day Metra service (which is generally hourly), take a cab, or hoof it over to the subway. If Amtrak explicitly marketed “One-seat direct from Springfield/Champaign/Grand Rapids/Detroit to O’Hare,” which only adds about 20 minutes to the train trip, I bet ridership would increase, and I bet that the cost would be minimal.

There has to be a really good reason why Amtrak can’t do this – it seems obvious. If I was running Amtrak I would figure out a way to do this. I wondered if you had any insight.

[End quote]

For those of us not completely familiar with Chicago and Chicago Union Station, well, this is an interesting idea. Any comments from other readers?

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