Tuesday, September 29, 2009

This Week In Amtrak

WASHINGTON - JUNE 23:  Joseph Boardman, presid...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

This Week at Amtrak; September 11, 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 37

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) You never know what is to be found on the private United Rail Passenger Alliance Intranet. Here is one of the offerings from Labor Day weekend.

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Today was the first of the two day "Railfest 2009" held at Steamtown NPS in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Amtrak sent along one of each: P42 locomotive, Amfleet I coach, Amfleet I lounge, Viewliner sleeping car.

In the lounge was an Amtrak intern; an astute young man with hope in his soul that has yet to be crushed. I discovered – as I suspected – the current Viewliner RFP is more an exercise of purging the last of the Heritage cars than an expansion of service. But, I asked why there hasn't been a push for more Superliners. The thought process is looking toward HSR and not buying "slow trains".

Does Amtrak understand it is in the fight of its life? There is no doubt in my mind something will be built in this country. Perhaps there will be a fleet of Talgo designed trains running to and through various places in the Midwest. Talgo already performs its own maintenance. It's not much of a stretch for someone other than Amtrak to run the trains.

If the Midwest does succeed in obtaining the requested 31 trainsets it wants through stimulus money and necessary motive power, that would be quite the interconnected network. A network of such size would probably warrant the attention of a larger player such as Sir Richard's Virgin Rail. How does Amtrak intend to compete with that? Point to the fab job they have done with the Northeast Corridor?

I may now say that from the inside to the outside, no one knows what's going on with Amtrak. Stay tuned ...

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As they say, from the mouth of babes ...

And, as with most topics on the URPA Intranet, there was follow-up discussion.

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Amtrak says they don't want to buy any slow trains? Then that pretty much leaves them with no place to go. Any TGV-style fast trains would have to be a new start.

Leaving aside the lessons we learned from the Florida Overland eXpress (FOX), we here in Central Florida have also learned to avoid any new start project that involves Amtrak. So Amtrak is left with 79 MPH trains on freight railroad tracks, which is theirs only because of their statutory access to the tracks.

If they don't want that, and they've made it abundantly clear that they don't want it, then they have no purpose at all. They will end up like the proverbial lazy man who dies with his hand in a banquet bowl.

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Plus ...

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I think the answer to your last question about Amtrak’s vulnerability to, and refusal to respond to competition lies partly in its reliance on its compulsory track access privileges, but mainly in a related conundrum — liability exposure. The freights cannot refuse Amtrak access, and must rely on the combination of Amtrak’s $200 million/occurrence compulsory liability insurance requirement and the federal $200 million/accident liability cap (49 USC 28103). (We will skip over the evidence Amtrak maintains no self-insurance reserve/deductible funds below the usual $25-$50 million policy minimum as required by the federal law.)

When it comes to an alternative operator, the freights remain free to indulge their most paranoid liability scenarios — effectively ignoring the existence of the federal cap. This is what produced demands aimed at North Carolina and Virginia for liability coverage in the $300 million to $600 million range.

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And ...

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His report certainly explains why Amtrak has produced no vision for the future – because it chooses not to have one, based on the assumption it will be the high speed rail operator. Considering how many European companies have said they are going to jump in with lots of expertise, well, Amtrak is very, very wrong if it thinks its few buddies in Congress are going to protect it.

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Add this interesting observation ...

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At the height of the Battle of Britain when RAF Fighter pilots were barely holding their own against the Luftwaffe, guess what the Air Marshals of the RAF wanted as the priority construction: Bombers. At this time most British Bombs rarely got closer than five miles of the target. The peace time RAF was dominated by Bomber Pilots. Even in war they couldn't give up their ideology. This is true of most large organizations.

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And, finally ...

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There's a perfectly logical explanation. Amtrak, from deep in its corporate DNA, doesn't want to change and grow, and its congressional and executive branch enablers will continue to let it get away with it. Therefore, it's perfectly happy to limit its equipment orders to deep-sixing the last of the Heritage fleet: the dining cars and baggage cars. Status quo maintained. I think, as long as the NEC gets its cut of the HSR largess, Amtrak will be perfectly happy on that front, as well. And, many a few more states will step up with operating subsidy handouts.

With true HSR on the European and Asian models (on separate, non-freight and presumably publicly-owned right of way), Amtrak's historic and statutory advantages mean very little. Amtrak brings little to the table in terms of expertise or competence.

So, Amtrak's "drift," while blinkered and execrable, is completely rational, from Amtrak's point of view, given the history. Amtrak has its own inertial guidance system that many have tried, and failed, to correct.

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Perhaps this explains why we hear no vision statements from Amtrak; they have none, other than to glom onto more government money for high speed rail in the future. In the mean time, Amtrak’s current fleet just keeps shrinking and shrinking, no matter how much money it pours into passenger car and locomotive rehabs. Until a substantial order is placed for new equipment, no real, long term growth is possible.

As the late Austin Coates, founder of URPA used to say, “It’s just business as usual.”

If Amtrak does plan to not grow its existing system, or, eventually exit the “slow train” business, then it needs to let us know that, right now, so other people – with a true entrepreneurial bent – can step in and run Amtrak’s existing system properly. If Amtrak doesn’t like what it’s doing now, let someone else do it, and probably do it better.

2) Norfolk, Virginia’s Virginia-Pilot daily newspaper reported on Wednesday Norfolk Southern Railway projects the cost of putting conventional passenger trains on its freight tracks between Petersburg, Virginia and Norfolk at $75 million, much less than the Commonwealth of Virginia’s estimate of $262 million.

A spokesman for the Commonwealth said the figure included costs for stations and other costs not included in the NS figure, but it’s hard to visualize the few, small stations along that mostly rural route costing tens of millions of dollars. Towns along that former Norfolk & Western mail line south of Petersburg include (north to south) Disputana, Waverly, Wakefield, Ivor, Zuni, and Windsor, before you arrive in the larger area of Suffolk.

If you’re not completely familiar with those Virginia towns (Even though Zuni was the town where the Planter’s Peanuts silo burned back in the mid-1960s, and Wakefield is home to the Virginia Diner restaurant.), understand these are mostly tiny towns with four and five building “downtowns” spread on each side of four lane highway Route 460, serving nearby peanut, soybean, cotton, and hog farms. So, it’s unlikely an expensive station infrastructure is necessary for any of these locations, other than Suffolk, or Norfolk itself.

A spokeswoman for NS said the $75 million figure for improving the corridor is half the company’s early estimate.

Deborah H. Butler, NS vice president of planning and chief information officer, said Norfolk Southern supports sharing its railroad right of way with passenger trains, but the company would only help pay for infrastructure improvements if there are benefits to their freight service.

That stance is not unreasonable; if a railroad has all of the capacity it needs for its own customers, then any incremental improvements have to come from a source outside of the railroad. That’s only good business and good public policy.

3) William Lindley of Scottsdale, Arizona has some further thoughts.

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By William Lindley

In recent weeks we have looked at how a nationwide matrix of passenger trains would work effectively. Some of our readers have asked about timetables. This is natural, because in recent decades many advocates have obsessed over how Amtrak's skeletal system could be tweaked by adding a single train here, or adding one stop there. Contrariwise, the whole point of the late Dr. Adrian Herzog's proposal was a proper grid – a matrix – of trains, with multiple daily departures, largely removes the need for clever scheduling and obsession over microscopic details.

But, hark! In a sufficient network, small changes can make huge differences: let's look at an historic timetable that was a pinnacle of efficiency.

In the autumn of 1965, the St. Louis and San Francisco Railway (Better known as the Frisco.) had reduced its passenger fleet to the principal two of its mainlines, these being arranged in a large X and centered on Springfield, Missouri. Frisco ran one daily train from St. Louis to Oklahoma City, as well as daily departures from Kansas City to Birmingham, Alabama.

Train 1, The Oklahoman, departed St. Louis at 8:55 A.M., arrived Springfield at 2:35 P.M., departing there at 3:10 P.M., and arriving Oklahoma City at 11 P.M. The next morning, that same set of equipment departed Oklahoma City as Train 2 at 5:45 A.M., to Springfield arriving 1:40 P.M., and departing at 2:35 P.M., and returning to St. Louis at 8 P.M. This is 542 miles each way, with daily departures, requiring two sets of equipment.

Train 101, the Southland, departed Kansas City at 9:40 A.M., arrived Springfield 2 P.M., and departed there 2:45 P.M., called at Memphis 9:45 P.M., and arrived Birmingham 6:15 A.M. the next morning. That equipment departed as Train 102 at 10:30 P.M., called at Memphis at 6 A.M., arriving at Springfield 2:15 P.M., with a 3:20 P.M. departure for Kansas City where it arrived at 7:40 P.M., ... in plenty of time to turn for the next morning's departure. That's 737 miles each way, with daily departures, requiring three sets of equipment.

In total, the five trainsets together averaged over 500 miles per 24-hour period, including even sitting still overnight at the ends of the line.

Returning briefly to today, compare this to the Piedmont train in North Carolina, which Amtrak operates on behalf of the State of North Carolina.

The Piedmont makes a single 173-mile daily round trip, or 346 miles per 24-hour period, running between Charlotte and Raleigh. The same trainset could travel 90 minutes and a total of 244 miles further east of Raleigh to serve Selma, Wilson, and Rocky Mount – making connections in both directions with the Silver Meteor to and from New York City... at only the incremental cost of miles and hours; more on that in a minute.

Crucially, all the Frisco trains converged at Springfield with connections possible in every direction. If even one of those connections were inconvenient or broken, the usability of the trains would have collapsed.

To see why, let's look at the matrix effect. As described in Dr. Adrian Herzog's paper "An Introduction to Matrix Theory for Passenger Trains,” for each of 'N' stations, there are 'N-minus-one' destination stations.

So, absent the matrix effect, as two disconnected routes, the 18 stations on the St. Louis-Oklahoma City line, and the 25 stations on the Kansas City-Birmingham line, would have given (18*17)+(25*24) = 906 possible origin-destination pairs.

But, with that connection at Springfield, the number of stations becomes 18+25-1 (Springfield being common to both routes) and the number of travel pairs becomes 1,722 – almost twice as many! If you moved the times of any train by a few hours, your revenue would drop by half. Or, if you think of each connection you can restore – your revenue would double!

This applies equally to, say, the connection at Memphis to the Illinois Central – where the eastbound Southland easily connected to the southbound Panama Limited for New Orleans, with another good connection in the reverse direction.

Again in the present, Amtrak, either on its own or convincing the State of North Carolina to extend the Piedmont to Rocky Mount – adding three stations to the current nine – changes that train's matrix from (9*8) = 72, to (12*11) = 132 ... nearly double.

Counting the connection to the Silver Meteor and its twelve stations to New York, the number of potential travel pairs rises to (24*23) = 552. That's nearly eight times the usefulness, for the cost of a 90 minute ride. And, many of those would be lucrative trips of several hundred miles.

Yes, we lapsed for a moment into fine detail we said could almost be ignored. Why? Because once you have a sufficient matrix, each little improvement builds the system far more than "linearly" – meaning each time you "add one" you might "get three or four more." That's why the concept of trains dubbed locals, expresses, and limiteds will work together toward a successful passenger rail system.

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4) We note today’s date, September 11th, the anniversary of the unspeakable horror inflicted on our country and countrymen by those who don’t cherish freedom.

September 11, 2001 was the day so many Americans, trying to go about their normal lives, needed a passenger rail system to step into the chasm caused by a grounded airline passenger system, and it almost wasn’t there. For many places in the country, it already wasn’t; there simply was no reasonable surface transportation alternative to the thousands of grounded airliners.

What have we learned these eight years since 2001? Not much. Amtrak is carrying a few more passengers than it did then, but it still represents less than a half of a percent of our country’s domestic transportation marketplace. Very little new equipment has come online in the past eight years, and Amtrak’s route system has taken dramatic hits, such as the loss of the Sunset Limited east of New Orleans into Florida.

Since 2001, Amtrak has replaced its president and chief executive officer three times, with the current officeholder working under just an interim appointment. There have been no substantial changes to Amtrak’s board of directors, and it remains dangerously under-populated.

A rational person would have thought we would have learned something in the past eight years.

Apparently, not.

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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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