Thursday, December 10, 2009

This Week in Amtrak

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This Week at Amtrak; December 7, 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 48

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) Paul Dyson, the Never Say Die President of the Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada sent yet another love letter to Amtrak Interim President and CEO Joseph Boardman.

[Begin quote]

5th December, 2009

Mr. Joseph H. Boardman

President and Chief Executive Officer


60 Massachusetts Avenue NE

Washington DC 20002

Via Fax to 202 XXX-XXXX (1 pages total)


Dear Mr. Boardman:

Once again I must write to you about the catastrophic service failures on the Pacific Surfliner service. As I write hundreds of passengers are stranded by the locomotive failure of train 769 at San Diego. As a result I have been told that 796 from Goleta will be covered by buses this evening even though it would be possible to deadhead a crew to cover the service.

This is a repeat of the disaster of the day before Thanksgiving when you should have had every available manager and every piece of rolling stock in service. Instead passengers waited for hours for trains that were as much as 6 hours late. There is no excuse for the lack of action by Amtrak. We demand that you:

– Make arrangements with the commuter operators Metrolink and Coaster to make standby trains available to you, with extra crews available to operate them.

– Hire in some of the hundreds of idle freight locomotives and put a freight and a passenger locomotive on every train until you have put your own equipment in a state of good repair.

– Negotiate a power pooling arrangement with the commuter operators. Many of their locomotives operate only about 30 hours per week.

We are tired of excuses and inaction. We will be asking for a congressional hearing and state hearings to find out why California is paying so much to Amtrak for corridor service and getting so little in return.

We look forward to your early response.

Yours faithfully,


Paul J. Dyson



cc RailPAC Board , LOSSAN Board, Bill Bronte, Division of Rail

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2) Mr. Dyson has perhaps directly targeted finding a solution to Amtrak’s ongoing misadventures. Even though Amtrak top executives directly appear before Congressional committees, they often leave with only a slap on the wrist and business as usual recommences.

Those with a good understanding of history recall this same type of mischief took place with VIA Rail Canada in the late 1980s. In a parliamentary form of government such as in Canada, it doesn’t take an “act of Congress” to get things done; it only takes a vote in the Prime Minister’s cabinet to institute often drastic actions. That happened with VIA when it was unresponsive to its owner’s (the federal government of Canada) wishes, and ended up with its budget slashed so mercilessly, over half of VIA’s long distance system simply disappeared.

No one wants to see Amtrak any smaller than it is today, but, at some point, Amtrak’s management must be made to understand they are not operating in a vacuum and they cannot operate on hubris alone in perpetuity.

3) Here is a letter which ended up in This Week at Amtrak’s mailbox this past week; it’s being circulated among over 30 state passenger rail associations. The natives are definitely restless, and the Army seems to be close to being in a state of agitated rebellion. Somebody better make sure the stockade doors at Amtrak are sturdy and can withstand assault.

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An open letter to Amtrak

We in the rail-passenger advocacy community, along with friends and well-wishers outside the movement, are longtime supporters of expanded and improved rail passenger service in the U.S. As part of our support for passenger trains, we have supported Amtrak, standing by it and defending its funding in good times and bad.

Now the times have changed, and the temper of our advocacy must change with it. The Obama administration’s embrace of passenger rail, including its unprecedented commitment $8 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds, has lifted the nearly four-decade threat against American passenger trains. The breathing space afforded by this sea-change in public policy allows advocates to switch from a posture of defense to a more sober and measured examination of the American passenger train.

We are deeply concerned by Amtrak's apparent unwillingness to embrace change, its reluctance to express a national vision and, most of all, its failure to develop a National Growth Plan with annual ridership targets, programmed frequency expansions, openings of new routes, and a major equipment-acquisition program designed both to support and stimulate ridership growth and route expansion.

Amtrak seems unaware that a transportation revolution is under way in America. The Obama Administration and progressive leaders are now offering Amtrak an opportunity for expansion and growth. Unfortunately, Amtrak continues to be plagued by the same drift, inertia and self-doubt of the past. Indeed, Amtrak president Joseph Boardman himself noted that “there are a whole host of people here who don't know whether to believe,” implying that people who cannot make the transition will have to leave the company.

President Boardman must now follow through on his observation.

Amtrak must realize that if it is to prosper, it must make itself relevant to America's transportation needs to the point of being indispensable. It must take a proactive role in the design of our national rail passenger system rather than merely executing plans developed and funded by others.

For the last 30 years Amtrak’s “business plan” has been: “If anybody wants us to run trains we’ll run them—just bring a check.” Outside of the Northeast Corridor, this message has been directed solely to state governments and has resulted in the addition of primarily intra-state trains. There has been no acknowledgment of any interstate route obligations beyond what Amtrak inherited from the private railroads. The company does not acknowledge any obligation to grow the interstate or overnight part of its business and has never designed a blueprint or sought funding for doing so.

For example, in years past Amtrak could have offered to share the costs of developing a showcase corridor, such as Chicago-St. Louis, to demonstrate to Congress and to other regions of the nation how a properly designed, funded and operated passenger-rail service could stimulate economic growth in the communities it served. It could have advocated the development of such a service between Chicago and Florida, or between booming city pairs in the underserved Sun Belt, such as Phoenix and Los Angeles, or Dallas and Houston. Such a success would have led to calls for more service elsewhere, ensuring a better future for Amtrak, while blunting calls for its demise.

But Amtrak never displayed the necessary initiative, and its absence did not go unnoticed by Amtrak’s adversaries as they subjected the company to one shutdown scenario after another.

It is time for Amtrak to be its own best advocate, as well as the advocate for the traveling public and for passenger trains themselves. It can only strike the public as odd that while the president, the congressional leadership, the advocacy community and dozens of state departments of transportation call for a passenger-rail buildup, Amtrak itself is silent.

A good first step for Amtrak to begin embracing the future would be through the placement of an equipment order large enough to allow system and frequency expansion. The company's current request for a 130-car order of new Viewliner II single-level cars and an option for 70 more cars, while praiseworthy, shows no vision for the future and ignores present and future capacity needs. This order will do little more than replace old, worn-out equipment. It will not allow for any meaningful expansion. To its credit, Amtrak recently proposed an additional 500- car order for new, standardized coaches, but these cars will only replace worn out Amfleet cars running primarily on the Northeast Corridor. It ignores the needs of the Superliner fleet and does nothing to address the need for new routes and additional frequencies on existing routes.

When the ARRA funds suddenly became available in 2009, Amtrak didn’t even have a wish list ready and is only now belatedly beginning to talk about a large-scale acquisition program. Amtrak needs to get started on that list now. But, it must do more than propose an order for cars or locomotives. Priority should also be given to route planning and expansion. It should develop a real vision for expansion of the current Amtrak system, laying the foundation for a truly national network. The “Grid and Gateway” proposal by the National Association of Railroad Passengers represents an excellent start.

Amtrak needs to evangelize governors, mayors, chambers of commerce, major colleges and universities and regional economic-development authorities about the good news robust train service can bring. It must champion trains nationally and regionally and lobby Congress for a national budget sufficient to support multi-state route expansions. It must court Congress, the Obama Administration, states, local leaders and others to promote its own survival and prosperity by developing plans for expansion that do not depend solely on the largesse of state legislatures. If Amtrak fails to do this, its relevance will continue to be a question in the minds of many.

Apologists may plead that Amtrak has had to fight just to stay alive and has no “juice” to support a culture of growth. But even in a hostile environment – which all private businesses and public-sector agencies encounter at one time or another – real leaders continue to prepare plans and wish lists, float trial balloons and put together pilot projects to demonstrate a concept and build public support for more ambitious programs.

We in the advocacy community have supported and defended Amtrak over the decades, but that support is conditional. If Amtrak wants our continued support, it will have to change, and soon. Amtrak must embrace the future, and if that means separating itself from those who feel comfortable only with the past, so be it. Nothing less will be acceptable. We are committed to the creation of a truly national rail passenger system by all possible means, whether it’s through Amtrak or some other approach.

The time to build a national passenger-rail system is now and Amtrak must become proactive and forward-thinking or risk its own demise.

[End quote]

Here is the only proper response to this letter: Amen.

At last word, less than a half dozen state passenger rail associations have summoned the collective intestinal fortitude to endorse this letter. Many seem content to continue to do nothing and metaphorically play the fiddle while Amtrak burns around them.

Now is not the time for cowardice; now is the time for action. If you are an active member of a state passenger rail association, demand your association not only endorse this letter, but begin to take action to force Amtrak to live up to its obligations to every American.

As long as Amtrak management thinks it can continue to feed at the public trough and not have to worry about support, then it will continue to operate as it does today with managers more worried about hanging on long enough to collect their pensions rather than creating and growing a national passenger rail system which is robust and viable.

Make it your personal New Year’s resolution to make Amtrak accountable to you and every other taxpayer in America. If we’re going to spend public money to keep Amtrak going, then we should be realizing a public benefit.

4) More from Ken Orski at Innovation NewsBriefs. This is Volume 20, Number 23; further information is available at

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December 5, 2009

The Selling of Transportation Reform

A small but influential group of individuals gathered recently at the downtown Washington office of University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs at the invitation of its Director, former Virginia Gov. Gerald Baliles. The bipartisan group included two former U.S. Transportation Secretaries and some 30 key players and opinion leaders who constitute what could be loosely described as Washington's permanent transportation policy establishment.

The purpose of the meeting was to solicit advice on a set of recommendations stemming from the Miller Center's transportation conference (see, "Reconsidering the Current Paradigm: Notes from the Miller Center Transportation Conference," NewsBrief, September 17, 2009). While the discussion dealt with a number of discrete issues to be addressed in the report, the central challenge was posed succinctly by Gov. Baliles at the outset of the meeting. The transportation sector, he suggested, is being neglected despite the evidence of a mounting crisis – aging infrastructure, growing traffic congestion, strained freight and logistical facilities. Both the Congress and the Administration are extemporizing rather than taking bold steps to avert the looming crisis. Where is the outrage? Baliles asked. Why is there no popular outcry? And what can we do to overcome this inertia? How can we create a sense of urgency and develop a narrative that will reverberate with the public, capture the media's attention and goad Congress and the Administration into action? The Governor's conclusion: we must involve "the three Ps": the Public, the Press and the Politicians.

What follows is some reflections stimulated by the Miller Center discussion. Specifically, can we sell the notion that continued inaction on the transportation front is placing the nation at risk? Can we elevate the need for greater transportation investment and program reform to a higher priority on the nation's policy and legislative agenda? And how can we rally the public, the press and the politicians to support these goals?

The Public

Does the public perceive a genuine "transportation crisis?" Opinions differ. While catastrophic failures such as the bridge collapse in the Twin Cities are a powerful reminder of the need for constant vigilance, such dramatic failures are happily few and far between. The public does not necessarily share the transportation officials' sense of urgency or alarm about "crumbling infrastructure." The Minneapolis bridge collapse is a fading memory. And while the severity of metropolitan traffic congestion and its adverse impact on the economy and people's lives are readily acknowledged, the driving public has grown skeptical that more money or program reform will bring effective congestion relief. Perhaps they have come to accept the truth of the oft-repeated skeptical refrain that "you cannot build your way out of traffic congestion." What is more, traffic congestion leaves vast stretches of rural and small-town America unaffected and unconcerned. As one participant pointed out, the average nationwide commute time of 25.5 minutes has not increased for the past eight years according to Bureau of the Census data. Traffic congestion may be of great concern to many individual communities, but it is not necessarily perceived as a "crisis" deserving national attention.

Contrast this with the strong public support for climate change action. Until recently, at least, the need to curb greenhouse gas emissions received substantial public support. (This support has reportedly declined precipitously in the wake of "Climategate" – the recent disclosure of climate data manipulation at the U.K.'s Climate Research Unit.) The issue resonated strongly with the public because global warming was perceived as a potentially catastrophic threat to mankind ("planet in peril"). Traffic congestion and an occasional bridge collapse have not reached – and we doubt they will ever reach – the same level of concern and apprehension (or mass hysteria, depending on your point of view.)

We offer the above arguments not to refute the need for action, but to suggest that they provide a plausible explanation why there has been no public outcry about the stalled transportation authorization and no groundswell of public demand for a reform of the transportation program.

Supporting a Transportation Vision

If evoking an impending transportation crisis is not a convincing way to gain public support, could an appeal to the people's sense of vision be more effective? After all, America's transportation history has been marked by a series of ambitious transportation initiatives – Erie Canal and the transcontinental railroad in the 19th century, the Interstate Highway System, the urban rail transit networks and the air navigation system in the 20th century. Can't public support be rallied around a bold new transportation infrastructure agenda suitable for the 21st century? The positive reception given to President Obama's high speed rail initiative would suggest that a new transportation vision can still capture the public imagination. And if a giant new infrastructure program on the scale of the Interstate Highway Program no longer is financially feasible, could one not enlist public support for a more modest capital program that could still enhance the nation's infrastructure and contribute to economic growth? The answer, we believe, is a tentative "yes" – provided, as one participant noted, that the infrastructure plan is presented as a collection of tangible projects that could capture the public's imagination, rather than vague and poorly understood promises "to improve transportation performance."

The Press

The popular press and mass media can be captivated by and serve as an effective communicator of bold new transportation visions – especially ones with a high technological content. The daily press and television also can effectively dramatize and draw public attention to spectacular transportation failures such as a bridge collapse or traffic gridlock. But the media's attention span is short and its ability to stay on subject is limited by a constantly shifting news focus. Moreover, many of the issues central to transportation reform are considered as too arcane by newspaper editors and editorial writers to be of interest to the general public. Trade and "niche" publications do provide more depth but their outreach and influence are limited to the client groups they serve. In principle, the blogosphere could serve as a useful educational tool. However, constituency-driven blogs are often tendentious and advocacy-driven. To properly inform and educate public opinion requires a flow of accurate information, diverse views and impartial analysis. Most blogs do not meet this test. We are left with a conclusion that getting one's message across will require a sophisticated outreach strategy that includes ability to connect with opinion makers outside the traditional communication channels.

The Politicians

There are several explanations for the delayed plans to enact a transportation bill and more generally for transportation's relatively low standing on the list of Congressional and Administration priorities. The most obvious reason is the already crowded Obama policy agenda and the importance of the competing priorities of health care overhaul, the challenge of job creation, financial regulatory reform, and climate change.

Deficit Financing and Higher Taxes Are Off the Table

Contributing to the legislative inertia on the transportation front is the Administration's reluctance to use deficit financing or raising taxes to support expensive new government initiatives. Administration officials have signaled that the President's focus next year will bear heavily on bringing the deficit down. This mindset is matched on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers are conscious of the political and economic danger of increasing the national debt and reluctant in an election year to consider measures that would add to the soaring deficit. As one participant remarked, the political community refuses to buy into the crisis scenario or admit there is an infrastructure problem. Or else the problem is not viewed as serious enough to warrant additional deficit spending.

There is an equal reluctance to consider tax increases. Proposals to enhance the Highway Trust fund revenue by raising the gas tax – to the extent such proposals are still heard these days – are coming from interested stakeholder groups and lobbyists rather than from the grassroots. And those meet with a skeptical reception on Capitol Hill, a bare 12 months before mid-term congressional elections. One telling indication has been the unwillingness of the House Ways and Means Committee to consider a tax hike to fund Rep. Oberstar's proposed $500 billion surface transportation bill.

Suggestions as to other sources of funding – such as a National Infrastructure Bank or a federal capital budget, mileage (VMT) fees and financial transaction fees – have likewise met with deep congressional and White House skepticism.

Short-term vs. Long-term funding

To be sure, there exists a possibility of a short-term infusion of funds in the context of a new job creation initiative. Highway and transit interests have seized on the White House "jobs summit" on December 3 to push for an $84 billion package of "ready-to-go" projects, and the House is readying a jobs bill that would provide up to $70 billion for "shovel-ready" infrastructure projects and aid to small business. However, this places transportation advocates in a quandary. They need to be part of the current job creation dialogue in order to stake out a claim to any stimulus funds that might be forthcoming. However, any short-term infusion of funds will remove – or at least seriously reduce – congressional urgency to act upon the larger need for strategic investment in transportation infrastructure aiming to promote long-term economic growth. This dilemma was evident in President Obama's remarks at the jobs summit. What's good in the long term, Obama is reported to have said, may not necessarily work as an immediate short term jobs stimulus, currently the Administration's paramount objective. There are tensions in the process of allocating infrastructure spending, he said, between immediate "shovel-ready" projects as opposed to long-term visionary projects. He intimated that the short-term goal to spur job growth would take priority in choosing projects over the long term need for strategic infrastructure investment. But some observers have raised questions whether even immediate "ready-to-go" transportation projects, such as pavement re-surfacing and highway beautification, create new jobs or merely keep existing DOT and contractor road crews fully occupied.

The Clouded Future

Thus, the prospect for an early enactment of a reform-oriented multi-year surface transportation authorization remains murky. Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has abandoned his quest to enact a six-year $500 billion bill by the end of the year in the face of continued Senate and House leadership opposition. Instead, he announced during a press conference on December 2, that he would agree to a six-month extension of the existing program, provided that there is an agreed upon time line for enacting a longer-term authorization. One possibility could be a staged process consisting of a two-year "front-loaded" transportation bill focused on job creation, followed by a longer-term bill containing broad policy reforms. However, at this point, the constantly shifting dynamics concerning the need for and type of a jobs stimulus makes any predictions about congressional action at the expiration of the current short-term extension on December 18 a mere speculation. Only one thing is certain: getting the lawmakers to enact an ambitious long-term surface transportation program in the tax- and deficit-averse political climate of an election year would be an uphill struggle.

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5) And, on this final note, this missive arrived at This Week at Amtrak. Good thoughts for all to consider from Evan Stair of Passenger Rail Oklahoma.

[Begin quote]

I thought you might like to take a look at the new Amtrak 2009 national route map. Isn't it pretty? I especially like the photograph of the train crossing at the top. Look at the inclusion of all those magnificent buses that flesh out the system... making it look twice as large as it really is.

Oops... I guess someone forgot to tell the cartographer to remove the New Orleans to Florida segment of the Sunset Limited... Oh... excuse me? I guess Amtrak considers this just a "service disruption" so it has a rightful place on the map?

Seriously, several questions come to mind:

1) If this IS just a service disruption, then why did they have to study its restoration? Why not just start operating it again?

2) Since this is just a "service restoration" why did Amtrak see a need to study alternatives to its pre-Katrina operation?

3) Since this is a federally funded route disruption, shouldn't the financing of the restoration match that of its pre-Katrina operation? It seems that Katrina erased everything but the red ink on the National map.

Needless to say, the four-year-and-counting "service disruption" and inclusion of an operational line on the Amtrak system map that has not operated for four years should be a source of embarrassment to Amtrak. In fact, it is false advertising. This map is displayed in Amtrak depots across the nation; possibly even travel agencies. It is included within travel planners and timetables. Fortunately, travel planners and timetables explain the situation. However, where is the disclaimer on the system map?

[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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