Tuesday, September 29, 2009

This Week In Amtrak

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This Week at Amtrak; August 31, 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 info@unitedrail.org • http://www.unitedrail.org

Volume 6, Number 34

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) Respected rail historian Daniel Carleton has some thoughts on the coming of high speed rail.

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By Daniel Carlteon

Your Attention Please… Next Stop: Fantasyland

After over 30 years of neglect, one of the Sunshine State’s premier railroad terminals has been given a new lease on life. Tampa Union Station (TUS), an Italian Renaissance-style building built by the Seaboard Air Line, Atlantic Coast Line, and Tampa Northern Railroads, was rededicated the weekend of May 29-31 after a $2.1 million, two-year restoration. Originally opened on May 15, 1912, the deteriorating building had been off-limits to Amtrak passengers since 1984 and boarded-up since 1988. – Jackson McQuigg, Trains Magazine, September 1998

All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go

Saturday, May 30, 1998 was a beautiful day, even by Florida standards. The bands played, the pledge was recited, the politicians pressed the flesh and made the obligatory speeches for all gathered to hear. At one point the “Rough-Riders”, a local group of Teddy Roosevelt aficionados, rode in on an ersatz fire-truck.

Amtrak, CSX and even the short-lived Florida Fun Train had equipment on display. Amtrak ran a round trip between Tampa and Lakeland ostensibly to promote the idea of a commuter service. (Five years earlier the same had been done with equipment from South Florida’s Tri-Rail.) There were also shorter trips in and out of TUS utilizing the Florida Fun Train. One of these was attended by then County Commissioner Ed “Choo-Choo” Turanchik and his family. He was obviously exhausted by the days’ activities but his smile never waned. Even when one of his constituents questioned why a local road had not been widened he patiently and politely explained there was no money for further eminent domain of people’s front yards.

All around the country this scene was repeated as stations and terminals large and small were rehabilitated, usually with ISTEA or other public funds, with the promise of new and expanded passenger service. Yet, behind the scenes the picture was growing ever more desperate. While the decaying building of TUS was boarded up, outside the grounds hosted a small maintenance base where two separate trains per day were faithfully turned, cleaned, stocked and made ready for another journey. This ended in November of 1996 in an ill-conceived cost-cutting move which cut service to Tampa to less-than-half.

Taste the irony: Tampa had superior rail service when the waiting room was a trailer on the platform than with a restored classic building. Less than a year later, the Florida Overland eXpress, which had mutated in concept from a simple single line running Tampa - Orlando - Miami into “an HSR-in-every-pot”, was mercifully axed by the governor. For almost a decade the term High Speed Rail disappeared from the American lexicon. Well, at least the station still looks great.

But now, eleven years after the speeches, music and bunting had faded into obscurity a renewed cry of “High Speed Rail” can now be heard around the country. There are plans. There are studies. There are websites. There is an edict from the highest elected office in the land. There is a dowry of $13 billion for states willing to commit to HSR. All of these pointing to the future; a future of high speed trains of various flavors for all Americans to ride and enjoy… is it time to queue the Rough-Riders, yet?

Learning to Crawl

The remedies are neither easy nor cheap nor immediately realizable. But the task you will set is not beyond the capacity of the aroused American public. – Robert Moses

The HSR dreams of the late 1990’s evaporated in the heat of sober reality; as a nation we simply would not commit the necessary resources for what was deemed as a luxury. Since the end of World War II Americans have deployed themselves to every far-flung corner of the landscape. Heavily subsidized highway transportation has made this possible. The new sobering reality is this may no longer be possible in the not-too-distant future. With the inertia of America’s post-war boom ever slowing to a crawl, many are re-thinking how we are deployed (and move) across the land and how these arrangements will change in the future.

Potential benefactors of a world with less energy are those championing the idea of livable/walkable communities. To many, this an exercise of social engineering, and envision bland Soviet style look-alike apartment blocs. Yet, walkable communities were the norm in the era prior to World War I and these were the greatest victims of the post war economic boom. As an example, Jamestown, New York; today a moderate sized city of around 30,000 in far western New York. From 1950 to 2000 Jamestown’s population decreased over 20%, while the country as a whole doubled. New York City and its rings of satellite suburbs have continued to grow. Jamestown is not a convenient place to visit despite having the Southern Tier Expressway; a drive from the New York suburbs is over six hours. Fifty years ago there were a half-dozen trains every day connecting Jamestown’s now forlorn station to the rest of the world. Without this lifeline Jamestown continues to die on the vine.

The dirty-little-secret of all transportation schemes is none perfectly overlays another; there shall always be winners and losers. As seen above, New York and its convenient-to-drive-suburbs were winners, while cities like Jamestown were not. Shifting the bias of transportation from one scheme to another will have the unintended consequence of shifting paradigms. Those in the transportation sector have most certainly taken note of this fact. There shall not be any real progress in the arena of rail transit – American HSR or otherwise – until all stakeholders agree to accept and mitigate these consequences.

Learning to Walk

Amtrak views itself as a social service, like a transit agency or a sewer authority, and thus as a ward of government. It measures its performance by the metrics of a public agency, in simple transaction volume. The only function at which it truly excels is extracting money from public sector sponsors. This vision condemns Amtrak to always being irrelevant to the needs of the traveling public. Amtrak must adopt a vision of sustained growth, relevance and minimized dependence upon public agency financing in favor of dependency upon customer selection, of mode and route. Amtrak must position its services and its operational network such that it can become the mode of consumer preference for most intercity travel. – Andrew Selden, United Rail Passenger Alliance, www.unitedrail.org

For most Americans, passenger rail is synonymous with Amtrak. Amtrak is the sole provider of long-distance trains, and partners with states to provide some corridor services. For some states, this is a marriage of inconvenience and are taking steps to assert their constituent interests. Wisconsin has decided to purchase its own passenger railcars for its corridor service between Chicago and Milwaukee. Although Amtrak has new rolling stock on its wish list, nothing has been ordered for decade. In a much bolder move, New Jersey has asserted itself by moving ahead with plans for a new terminal in Manhattan, to the exclusion of Amtrak. These public symptoms are only hints at a larger underlying malaise.

America must come to grips with the reality of how close it is to not having a national rail system. Per Amtrak’s own website, they are in possession of “Amfleet, Superliner, Viewliner and other railroad passenger cars totaling 1,519”. End to end this would make a line of twenty-four and a half miles. At the current standard of 79 MPH for passenger trains, this line could be passed in under twenty minutes. (Imagine explaining to the under-informed we are less than twenty minutes away from having no passenger trains.)

More money is not the answer, as at least two states have discovered. Amtrak was born in the midst of the post war economic boom where the taxpayer’s pockets were always deep. Today, those pockets are threadbare. In response to the realities of our day, a new business model must be adopted, if only to serve as a foundation for future expansion. There shall not be any real progress in the arena of rail transit, American HSR or otherwise, until all stakeholders recognize the practical and political limits of Amtrak, and agree to rework or replace it.

Learning to Run

What Americans are likely to get, for the short term, is “high speed” in a relative sense: the current working definition encompasses 100- to 110-MPH trains that would be a huge advance in much of the country where the top speed is often 79 MPH. – Luther S. Miller, Railway Age Magazine, August 2009

Once the national rail passenger scheme is rectified, only then may realistic planning commence for more local and regional rail projects. But, these ambitions must be tempered by economic realities. Although $13 billion sounds like a lot, it must be placed in perspective. The congressionally mandated Positive Train Control system to be installed nationwide by 2015 is estimated to cost around $10 billion. Expecting the freight railroads which host passenger trains to foot the entire bill is completely unrealistic. Anticipating ever larger sums of public monies for rail projects, as were lavished on roads during the boom years, is even more unrealistic.

Realistically, American High-Speed Rail will resemble, if not in form then certainly in function, the American passenger train of three generations ago. This is nothing to be ashamed of; with the economic boom years came an anti-historicist bias, “out with the old, in with the new.” New York’s original Pennsylvania Station was a victim of this bias. In more recent years, we have come to appreciate the intrinsic value of those edifices which are still extant.

Besides the aforementioned Tampa Union Station, there is the Union Terminal in Cincinnati, Ohio which received an extensive renovation, yet, sees fewer trains than Tampa. For the sake of sensibility, it would be wise to replicate what was existing networks, and proceed from there. Instead of re-inventing the flanged wheel, start with a known quantity. This is neither out of nostalgia, nor an allegiance to old architecture, but rather the knowledge these schemes once worked, and did so very well.

However, it is claimed by Florida Department Of Transportation the restored Union Station in Tampa is unsuitable for the Sunshine State's HSR ambitions. And, a study commissioned by the Ohio Rail Development Commission regarding the “3-C” corridor has recommended against using Cincinnati Union Terminal in favor of a river front location now housing a restaurant.

Unlike Cincinnati, the station in Tampa is downtown, but this is not to say we should be tied to existing edifices just for the sake of architecture. Rather, this does point to a disturbing trend of these new corridors being developed outside (and to the detriment of) the existing passenger rail network. There shall not be any real progress in the arena of rail transit, American HSR or otherwise, until all stakeholders acknowledge the very real economic and thermodynamic constraints which lay before us.

If we continue to believe American HSR and the existing rail network are mutually exclusive, then both are doomed to failure. This is not the time to draw fantasy lines on a map for HSR routes that shall not be built. Expecting to build and properly operate HSR without rectifying what is currently extant is as realistic as expecting an infant who has just learned to crawl to run a marathon. Yet, the proponents of HSR in places such as Florida and the Midwest are touting the notion of 200 MPH trains before their existing trains have hit the century mark. It was such pie-in-the-sky ideas which killed the HSR schemes in the late 1990’s. If we continue to press these ideas today the results shall be the same… but then again, maybe that’s the idea?

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2) A This Week at Amtrak reader from California sent this message regarding last issue’s feature of the late Dr. Adrian Herzog’s plan for a robust and expanded Amtrak national system.

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Can the scheduling of all these routes allow optimal connection times so that a passenger can travel from any station to all other stations in the entire system matrix so that a passenger won't have several hours waiting for their next train?

I'd like to see a map on URPA's website of this route system. I'm not sure this contains a train going north from Denver to connect w/Empire Builder, North Coast, and/or Hiawatha. Are there cris-crossing routes to connect Kansas City with Denver or Omaha?

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In answer to the first question, absolutely, yes. Dr. Herzog was the king of connectivity, and stressed it at every opportunity, and ultimately through his matrix theory. As far as waiting several hours, well, that depends on a number of things, all to be determined by planners at a more precise time than just the broad brush painting of Dr. Herzog. But, optimally, the days of having to wait more than a very few hours for a train should disappear with at least three frequencies on every route.

The writer would like to see a map on URPA’s web site. We would, too. Someone is working on that, now. It may take a short period of time to develop such an extensive map suitable for public viewing.

In answer to the last question, go back at look at some of the Western routes. There are plenty of trains going southeast to northwest, etc. west of Chicago to provide adequate connections.

3) It should be noted a system this size, with nearly 80 distinctive routes, is a robust-enough system to be self-sustaining, and operated at a profit. As has been documented in this space before, when Amtrak reaches enough density in frequencies and routes, profitability is the inevitable result.

In a world of equipment leasing, high utilization of stations and infrastructure, and economies of scale which naturally occur with larger systems, Amtrak could be profitable and continue to grow.

4) What is needed most to make the type of system Dr. Herzog envisioned is simple vision and a viable plan for the future based on growth, not constant handouts from government treasuries.

There are so many changes Amtrak could make today to improve its financial position with asking for any additional monies, including better equipment utilization, better personnel deployment, and better marketing and public relations.

Until someone with vision is installed as the chief steward of Amtrak, today’s embarrassingly skeletal system will remain, and visions like those of Dr. Herzog will only be a mirage.

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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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