Image via WikipediaThis Week at Amtrak; July 27, 2009
A weekly digest of events, opinions, and forecasts from
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Volume 6, Number 25
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1) The irrepressible William Lindley of Scottsdale, Arizona, frequent contributor to This Week at Amtrak, has come up with some sage thoughts about train stations. Mr. Lindley, in the Arizona heat, occasionally rides his motorcycle, drives his car, and frequently uses the metropolitan Phoenix areas bus and light rail transit system in his travels around town. He would very much like to ride Amtrak trains to and from Phoenix for his domestic and world travels, but, alas, none exist. Read, think, and enjoy.
By William Lindley
Imagine putting a 10-story building in the middle of Los Angeles International Airport's runway. Ridiculous! you say. Yet, that's what Kansas City did with their Union Station – built a mid-rise building right smack in the middle of the train platform area, destroying its ability to be a train station. Saint Louis built a mall inside its Union Station, but at least most of that could be removed fairly easily (malls are always changing, anyway).
Are our historic train stations only to become museums (like Kansas City's) or should they have a rightful place in our transportation future?
Atlanta recently made what appears to be a bad decision that will prevent some mainline trains from conveniently entering its planned new downtown station, but at least the station will be downtown. Saint Paul, Minnesota likewise is moving forward with the renovation of its Union Depot, close to downtown – as light rail, and possibly a southward extension of the upcoming Northstar commuter trains get underway.
These cities understand, as in most real estate, station sites are about Location, Location, Location. That means walking distance to downtown; it means connections with commuter trains and streetcars and buses; it means a place where mainline trains can move in and out easily, and where rail services can be provided.
When the national argument for passenger rail was at its lowest point, Dallas shortchanged itself on the latter, by providing only three platforms – barely enough for Trinity Railway commuter trains and one or two intercity trains. San Antonio, in contrast, found new life for its main depot building as a food an entertainment complex called Historic Sunset Station at St. Paul Square, but, built a harmonious, functional, and pleasant new adjacent passenger and train servicing facility just a few feet away, using the original passenger platforms.
If the original station does not fit today's demands, it is appropriate to build a new building “around” an existing depot as at San Antonio. But, also have the fortitude to build an updated facility in a new location convenient to the city's modern activity centers. Some of our best historic stations and depots, often over a century old, are located in parts of cities and towns no longer desirable for 24-hour public use because of dangerous neighbors.
While it is highly desirable to keep these older structures and find new uses for them, it is equally important and more desirable to meet the needs of the traveling public by providing a station facility in a safe and secure location. The most beautiful or historic station can be meticulously restored, but if it’s in a bad part of town or lacks adequate parking or transit connections, the purpose of a proper, useful, and desirable gateway for rail passengers into a city or town is defeated.
An interesting point of discussion has been for former New York Central train station and tower in Buffalo, New York. The building has been empty since 1979 and is in a high state of disrepair. The sprawling station complex is located 2.5 miles from downtown Buffalo, and was designed to host an astonishing 3,200 passengers per hour. Debate and plans are raging in Buffalo as to how best preserve this architectural gem, perhaps through reincarnation as a high speed rail terminal.
In Detroit, a similarly magnificent structure is in even more dire condition; the old Michigan Central station and tower in another huge complex sits outside of the normal traffic flow of downtown Detroit. The local government in Detroit has decreed the building should be torn down it is in such bad condition, but supporters of this huge architectural marvel are looking to create a new life for the station either through rail-related purposes or as a convention center and casino, perhaps an international trade processing center (The station is near the Ambassador Bridge and gateway to Canada.), or as police headquarters for the City of Detroit.
When Michigan Central originally constructed the complex in 1913, it was built to last a lifetime, and Amtrak used the facility until 1988. At the time of its construction, it was the tallest railroad station in the world, with its massive tower atop the station, going up 18 floors and comprising 500,000 square feet of space, including the station areas. Located about two miles southwest of downtown Detroit, the station was always considered to be outside the loop of normal downtown traffic. The hope today is a revival of the station building will also bring a revival of the surrounding neighborhood.
In Jacksonville, Florida, the downtown Union Station is today the Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center, named in honor of the late CSX Transportation Chairman of the Board who took a personal interest in saving the historic Jacksonville Union Station, designed by New York Architect Kenneth Mackensie Murcheson. Murcheson also designed Pennsylvania Station in Baltimore, Maryland, which is still in use today by Amtrak on the Northeast Corridor.
When Jacksonville Union Station opened at midnight on November 17, 1919, with its vast array of through-service and stub end tracks, it was designed to handle up to 210 trains a day. On opening day, the station handled more than 110 trains and 20,000 passengers. Every U.S. president from Woodrow Wilson through Richard Nixon traveled through the station. The station was mothballed in 1974, and Amtrak was moved to a far suburban station in the middle of one of Jacksonville’s industrial areas with a high crime rate.
While today’s primary use of the Union Station complex is a convention center, plans are also on the drawing board to remake the complex into a full multi-modal facility, which will include Amtrak, commuter rail, intercity bus, local transit, and downtown airport check-in facility where passengers will be able to come to the complex, check in for their airline, and then take secure bus service from the downtown station to the airport on the north end of Jacksonville. Ideally, when Amtrak moves back downtown, the present, far-suburban Amtrak station will stay in use as a second facility in a sprawling metropolitan area.
For all modern, full service stations, all the local connections – commuter trains, streetcars, buses, taxis, parking – create a "lesser matrix effect," where the intercity train matrix meets the local distribution matrix. The better these two systems tie together, the more useful they both become. Relieved of the necessity to carry every passengers everywhere, intercity trains can again rely, as they did in earlier days, on feeder regional and commuter trains. But, that does mean the Limited needs a stop at one or two suburban stations on either side of downtown, perhaps 10 to 30 miles out, at regional train stations (with that 10-to-30 mile spacing based on regional service levels), to collect and distribute passengers.
Let's look at one more example.
In Phoenix, the 1923 Union Station is still the junction point between BNSF and Union Pacific right downtown. The station is three short blocks from City Hall and a few more blocks away from the new City Hall light rail station (which Valley Metro Rail, in its wisdom, calls "First Avenue and Jefferson Street and Central Avenue and Washington Street Station" – not terribly easy to write and remember).
Phoenix Union Station maintains its alignments for the original six through tracks (a seventh was added during World War II) and several stub-ends on both sides of the depot. There is no other location close to downtown which could accommodate more than perhaps even two platforms, because of the street layout and the historic warehouse district.
Advanced studies are underway for both commuter rail in metro Phoenix and for express trains to Tucson (120 miles to the southeast). The Tucson trains would not be "high speed," but would likely travel at 79 MPH or 90 MPH on upgraded (double-and-triple-tracked) Union Pacific rails. UP, BNSF, and Arizona's short-line railroads are involved, and it is known the railroads are businesses and expect any passenger agreement to be beneficial to their freight business. Arizona has learned from California and New Mexico, Utah, and other western states which have succeeded in working relationships and actual operations with host freight railroads.
Valley Metro Rail ("METRO"), meanwhile, is planning a westward extension in the median of Interstate 10, taking LRVs potentially right past the railroad depot. There has been some talk also of historic or modern streetcars along Washington Street from downtown to the Capitol at 19th Avenue, should the LRT line be deferred or rerouted – and these streetcars could certainly connect Union Station to the Capitol with its thousands of daily workers at the west end, and the LRT line at the east end.
The city of Phoenix has certainly grown since the historic downtown station was built. In the 1920s, a civic goal was 100,000 citizens; today the city boasts 1.5 million, and the metro area over 4 million. But, as the population has expanded fifteen-fold, transportation options have expanded, too. Union Station was built to handle 90% of the transportation needs of a city of 100,000, so it certainly could handle 10% of transportation of a city ten times larger. It still fits the city.
And, it fits the city, too, in its Mission Revival architectural style. It is not enough for a station to be correctly located (both in the city and on the railroad mains) – a station also serves as a gateway, setting the mood for travelers entering a city or town. A station is part of a city's identity; and Phoenix Union Station does fit.
So, in Phoenix, at least for the upcoming decade, Union Station is the only logical intercity train station.
In the future, following Berlin, Germany's motif, a new modern station could be built west of the Airport LRT station (which METRO again calls "44th Street and Washington Street" instead of “Airport”). There is room enough between 38th Street and 44th Street to build an eight or 10 platform railroad station with connections to the new people-mover (to all airport terminals, parking garages, the car rental center, taxicabs and tour buses). This new station would handle commuter trains, intrastate express trains, intercity trains from Los Angeles, San Diego, the Grand Canyon, El Paso, Albuquerque, and points east.
Yet, even in that scenario, Union Station remains the only choice for a downtown depot. Perhaps the commuter trains and express trains will stop there, with the intercity trains serving the Airport station. Once regional commuter trains cover the intermediate stations, a modern Golden State intercity train would likely stop at suburban Gilbert on the east side and suburban Goodyear on the west, with those stations' regional rail connections. Arizona Express trains would likely serve Union Station, the Airport, Tempe (with Arizona State University's huge main campus), Mesa, and Gilbert and just a few more intermediate stops north of downtown Tucson.
A mix of trains and services then blankets southern Arizona. Union Station steps back at that point from some of its design role, and becomes more an historic gathering place, a meeting place, perhaps with conference facilities or shopping in addition to regional rail and streetcar connections.
Southern California has the newest and among the most robust examples of several overlaid systems, although there is room for improvement even there. Los Angeles Union Station has been well refitted to its modern role, a re-interpretation of its historic one; the same is true of San Diego's Santa Fe station. These serve as models for other cities; look, too, to Saint Paul. Learn from mistakes at Kansas City and near-misses like Dallas. Denver would be wise to consider the constraints at Dallas as it looks to reconfigure its historic station built in 1881 as part of a new development, even as it seeks to bring commuter and more intercity service back to the station.
Many of our historic train stations should continue their revival along with their passenger trains... past is prologue.
2) It’s contest time here at TWA! How many train stations can you name where a local or state government treasury has paid to rebuild, upgrade, or create a new station on behalf of Amtrak, and only perhaps months or very few years later Amtrak abandons or severely curtails service to that station?
Here’s a short sample to start your thinking process:
Dade City, Florida
Lake City, Florida
Bay St. Louis, Mississippi
Okay, that should get you started. Send your list to TWA at email@example.com and we will publish a complete list along with the name of the winner. When you send the list, please include the name of the train which served the former station and, if possible, when the service was discontinued.
3) Just before all the commotion began about Amtrak’s grievously flawed Gulf Coast report restoring passenger train service east of New Orleans, news came from Wisconsin the state was purchasing two train sets, totaling 14 cars, from well-respected Talgo of Spain to place in service on a high speed route between Chicago and Wisconsin stations.
Those with a current copy of Amtrak’s Summer 2009 timetable will notice it is a Talgo train set speeding along Puget Sound en route to Olympia, Washington and Eugene, Oregon for Amtrak’s Cascades service in the Pacific Northwest.
Most people, including this writer, thought Talgo had been banished from expansion in the United States because of safety restrictions imposed by the Federal Railroad Administration. Talgo had received a waiver for those restrictions, but was only allowed to operate trains on approved trackage in the Pacific Northwest. Just a couple of weeks prior to the Wisconsin announcement, it was learned from insider sources the FRA had been studying a relaxation of its perhaps overly rigid standards for Talgo. That information proved to be true with the Wisconsin announcement.
As a bonus, Wisconsin convinced Talgo to perform final assembly of the Talgo equipment in the state, creating local jobs along with buying shiny new trains.
Some old time railroaders have lightly grumbled about mixing in too many types of equipment into Amtrak’s fleet, and the need for overall uniformity for ease and lower cost of maintenance. Certainly, a case can be made for that, but an equally compelling case can be made for the right type of equipment on each individual route.
Along those lines, there are a number of present Amtrak routes where the old Colorado Railcar/now US Railcar DMU self-propelled units are the perfect answer to lower operating costs and matching the right type of equipment to the right type of passenger demand and route.
4) Continuing with that subject, Amtrak has published an RFP for Viewliner 2 passenger cars. In part, here is what the RFP said:
PURCHASE OF “VIEWLINER 2” LONG-DISTANCE SINGLE-LEVEL PASSENGER CARS
Amtrak intends to issue a competitive Request for Proposal for a vendor to design, manufacture and deliver 130 “Viewliner 2” Long Distance Single-Level Passenger Cars, with an option for Amtrak to purchase up to an additional 70 cars. The “Viewliner 2” rolling stock which is fully described in the Technical Specifications, will be used as Amtrak passenger trains, primarily in long-distance service, but capable of operating anywhere within Amtrak’s system. There are four (4) “Viewliner 2” car types: Diners, Sleepers, Baggage-Dorms and Baggage cars. The “Viewliner 2” cars will be modeled on the concept of the Amtrak “Viewliner 1” cars.
The RFP goes on to state ultimately the contract for purchase of these cars and the start of construction will be issued in May 2010, with a notice to proceed in June 2010.
So, with all due lack of speed, we’re a year away from anything even being brought to a point of construction.
Let’s break down the specific order.
– 130 cars total, with an option to purchase up to 70 additional cars, for a grand total of 200 cars, if every option is exercised.
– The 130 cars will be divided into four types: Diners, Sleepers, Baggage-Crew Dorms, and Baggage Cars.
Even if you divide 130 relatively evenly, you still come up with only 32 or 33 cars per type of car. That will not double the existing 50 car Viewliner 1 sleeping car fleet, which is so worn out it can only charitably be described as a long line of rolling slums.
Amtrak’s single level dining car fleet is exclusively made up of Heritage fleet diners, which have operated far beyond their initial service life expectancy. At present, Amtrak doesn’t operate any crew dormitory cars, but instead wastes sleeping car revenue space with crew billets (Granted, you have to put the crews somewhere, but a better solution would have been to keep the older Heritage crew dorms running than taking up high-dollar revenue sleeping car space.).
Baggage cars are all Heritage fleet cars, and there is always a need for more baggage cars.
So, even adding the additional 70 cars for the optional order, once again, Amtrak is doing nothing more than replacing fleet instead of adding to its fleet – inadequately so.
This may be news to Amtrak’s financial folks and senior executives, but, why is Amtrak always buying equipment? It’s very rare among common carriers – especially airlines – to actually buy passenger equipment. Amtrak already knows how to lease locomotives, why can’t it lease passenger cars, too? What is the purpose of getting free federal monies from Congress to buy, when private capital can be used to lease? Is this another example of Amtrak’s lack of financial sophistication? Is it just easier to beg money from Congress every year instead of doing something proactive in the leasing market?
5) Look at some of Amtrak’s internal numbers. Amtrak reports revenue several different ways (not different revenue, but revenue as it relates in different ways). One of the ways it reports revenue is “revenue per car day.” This measures coach revenue versus sleeping car revenue, and it’s done by route. The numbers are based on average days.
This particular set of figures is based on 12 months prior to and including November of 2008; this is NOT a fiscal year report.
Route and classes of revenues
Superliner Coach – $5,163
Superliner Sleeper – $5,015
City of New Orleans
Superliner Coach – $4,624
Superliner Sleeper – $3,253
Superliner Coach – $4,419
Superliner Sleeper – $4,467
Auto Train (Northbound, Train No. 52) *
Superliner Coach – $4,339
Superliner Sleeper – $5,286
Auto Train (Southbound, Train No. 53) *
Superliner Coach – $4,255
Superliner Sleeper – $5,583
Superliner Coach – $3,251
Superliner Sleeper – $3,587
Coast Starlight **
Superliner Coach – $3,134
Superliner Sleeper – $2,818
Superliner Coach – $3,048
Superliner Sleeper – $3,243
Superliner Coach – $2,238
Superliner Sleeper – $2,603
Superliner Coach – $1,972
Superliner Sleeper – $2,545
12 Month Average
Superliner Coach – $3,476
Superliner Sleeper – $3,835
* Auto Train is reported as two separate figures, north and south.
** Coast Starlight figures include long periods of the train not operating due to the mudslides included in this period, and when the train did operate for some of the period, it only operated on part of the route and without sleeping cars.
What do we learn from these figures? On average, sleeping cars generate more revenue than coaches. What do we conclude from these figures? Sleeping car and first class travel are an important part of the future growth of Amtrak and should have equal – if not greater – weight than coach travel when planning for the future and compiling new car orders.
The most important fact to remember when looking at how well the sleeping car business does for Amtrak long distance trains is that sleeping cars are an even greater secret to Amtrak passengers than Amtrak is itself to the traveling public.
Everything Amtrak does overall is aimed at the coach passenger. When calling an Amtrak reservations center, an assumption is automatically made by res agents passengers only want coach, and in most cases, sleeping car accommodations are never mentioned as an option. When booking through Amtrak’s Internet portal, coach tickets are offered first, and sleeping car accommodations are offered only to hawk-eyed ticket buyers as an afterthought.
In reality, just like Amtrak continually ignores long distance trains in its future plans, it even more ignores sleeping car passengers.
6) This always filters back to the same question: Where is Amtrak’s vision for the future? Where is Amtrak’s long term plan? Where will Amtrak be five, 10, or 20 years from now? Based on what we’ve heard so far, probably exactly the same place it is today, constantly begging for money from a government treasury, and ignoring the most lucrative parts of its business.
7) Comments continue to come into TWA about the grossly flawed P.R.I.I.A. Section 226 Gulf Coast Service Plan Report.
A number of people have asked about simply restoring the route of the Floridian between Chicago and Florida, which was discontinued in 1979 during the Carter administration. The quick answer is some of that railroad infrastructure is gone, and other parts of that route have been severely downgraded to “creeping along” track speeds. Many will remember the short-lived Kentucky Cardinal, which operated between Chicago and Louisville, Kentucky. The biggest part of the problem of that route was slow track; the train crept along at speeds not much faster than speed walking.
While a restoration of the Floridian – or any Chicago to Florida route, especially one via Atlanta – is desirable, from an economic standpoint and the ability to quickly restored Chicago to Florida service, the cheapest and best bet is to either extend the City of New Orleans from New Orleans to Florida, or the Capitol Limited from Washington, D.C. to Florida. Restoring the Floridian route or a similar route would require an entire new set of station infrastructure, upgrading hundreds of miles of railroad to acceptable passenger speeds, and have a need for a number of new sidings or double tracking of very congested railroads. Simply extending the City of New Orleans or Capitol Limited would require no new stations, and only additional train sets, not completely new fleets of equipment.
Depending on originating terminal departure times, either the City of New Orleans or the Capitol Limited could make it to Florida by traveling one night, but it would be two very long days on either side of that one night’s travel. By extending existing schedules, two nights of travel are required, but, based on the success of multi-night schedules in the west, this is not an insurmountable problem.
Here are comments from several TWA readers.
I look forward to receiving each issue of This Week at Amtrak and appreciate URPA's consistent support for the restoration of rail service east of New Orleans. I am especially pleased to see I am not alone in my analysis of Amtrak's prejudged, fraudulent report concerning the restoration of this missing link in the national rail passenger system.
Back when the Sunset Limited ran through to Florida I was a frequent rider and spent many hours observing Sunset operations and speaking to station agents and train crews. When timekeeping became a major problem for eastbound train No. 2, the station agents and on board crews whom I had come to know collectively came to the conclusion the traveling public would be better served by an extension of the City of New Orleans to Florida. This would reestablish through service between Chicago and Florida and would maintain westbound service to California via a connection at New Orleans. Eastbound passengers from California would likely be required to make an overnight layover in New Orleans before heading to Florida, however, this would be no worse than the present routing via Chicago and Washington in terms of travel time. The net gain would be the ability to operate a timely service with great savings to Amtrak which often had to bus passengers east of New Orleans and/or provide overnight lodging in Jacksonville due to late operations and/or missed connections.
Amazingly, Amtrak never thought of this option on their own despite often having to annul two out of three trips per week of train No. 2 in New Orleans due to excessive lateness. This also necessitated the cancellation the following trip of westbound No. 1. After paying massive amounts of money for the recently released report, Amtrak points out the Chicago option would be the most effective, yet, thanks to fraudulent expenses, this (and all options) appears to be extremely costly.
The report lists expenses for station improvements along the route despite the fact the facilities across North Florida are basically in the same condition as when Amtrak abruptly left the scene after Hurricane Katrina, a move straight out of the playbook of Baltimore Colts owner Robert Irsay who snuck out of town in the dead of the night and moved his team to Indianapolis.
The full service stations in Pensacola and Tallahassee were constructed and/or improved with ADA compliance in mind. Platforms were constructed with the appropriate safety features that had just come into use elsewhere in that day and time. The Tallahassee station, which was actually a remodeled freight station, had ADA compliant ramps added to allow easy access to the off grade waiting room/ticket office. Since Amtrak's pullout, a local group of film buffs has used the waiting room periodically to show movies. The organizer of this group tells me people in wheelchairs often attend. I challenge Amtrak to explain to me why massive amounts of money are needed to rebuild the platform and make other ADA improvements at that station. Likewise, what changes are needed in Pensacola since the station is basically a grade level facility?
There are numerous other inaccuracies in the report such as the time required to train crews and the absurd allocation of money for a new Sanford station. These have been well documented in your newsletter, hence, I will reserve comment.
Thanks again for your leadership in exposing this report. Hopefully, Amtrak will be pressured to restore service at least at the tri-weekly level sooner rather than later, with a goal of making that daily in the near future. To do that, Amtrak needs new leadership who has a vision, a plan to build a large amount of new equipment so that additional routes can be added, and existing trains can be operated with adequate capacity.
The Amtrak report on service from New Orleans - Orlando comes as no surprise. It is typical of the work Amtrak puts out. In the 1990's Amtrak produced a report on Chicago–Milwaukee service which concluded that not only should there not be any more intermediate stops, but that ridership would be greatest if the then two existing stops, Sturtevant and Glenview, were eliminated, thereby allowing the service to run non-stop, i.e. faster.
We all said "Huh?". Then I figured out their mathematical model obviously factors in a speed/population combination that the faster the schedule, the more people are likely to turn from driving to the train. Of course this is mostly [junk science]. No speed up of five or 10 minutes between Chicago and Milwaukee is going to attract more passengers, especially since the current 92 minute schedule beats driving, anyway. Common sense and/or real knowledge of the area being served is not important to Amtrak planners.
Since I am very much in favor of the return rail passenger between New Orleans, Jacksonville and points south; I desire to post my comments.
The greatest problem is Amtrak is the originator of this report with no auditing agency to review and comment on this report. This report should have been contracted out to a professional consulting firm and submitted back to Congress. Especially when Amtrak – even the CEO Boardman's – bias' have recently been made known regarding the long distance train system and reluctance to turn in a new car order reveal a lack of concern and empathy for the traveling public.
In 1993, when the Sunset started serving the New Orleans, Jacksonville, and Miami segment, I suspected a problem when the word came back we can’t offer daily service since we need more train sets. It seems Amtrak’s Cardinal and Sunset are unwanted step-children, merely tolerated.
I find it interesting Amtrak is willing to take the Texas Eagle to Los Angeles but extend the City Of New Orleans to Florida? no way! Amtrak is willing to run a train from San Antonio to New Orleans, but why not continue that same train to Florida instead of a separate train from New Orleans to Florida? Why not restore the Floridian? Isn’t the real goal here to expand the system? Oh, I almost forgot, Amtrak needs more train sets!
You brought up an excellent point on interconnecting trains! By not restoring the Sunset to the New Orleans-Florida segment, leaving the segment vacant of train service is perhaps an even greater loss for the traveling public.
Thanks for allowing me to share my thoughts!
Where is the story on the St. Louis Cardinal's Baseball Team riding passenger trains for the first time in 40 years? It was on yesterday's NPR, that the team was riding Amtrak's Northeast Corridor.
Sorry, not being at all a follower of National Public Radio, and only a very, very casual observer of baseball, we missed that story.
Perhaps the good part of the "Sunset Report" is the fact it is the smoking gun of incompetence/lack of vision/dull thinking/passivity/ignorant-arrogance that is the decision making process of the present Board and management of Amtrak. There is no denying it! What to do? I always write my two senators and now have written Ray LaHood but, who is in a position to change the board and direct them to buy out the senior managers and replace them with competent people?
I am uncertain of the line of authority here ... I doubt if Vice President Biden will do anything, and I have gotten no response from Senator Durbin on another Amtrak matter. Perhaps the alternative of just pushing for private – Veolia for instance – companies to bid on new and existing routes would be more productive. Both BNSF and NS executives seem to have some entrepreneurial interest in a role in passenger service, and perhaps they should be encouraged to explore some ownership/management models.
Maybe putting the freight fox in the Amtrak board chicken coop would do something constructive? I am hoping this administration is open to new, collaborative ideas about building a 21st Century world class passenger railroad system which will include some bold moves on the Amtrak problem.
Is there any chance Veolia might be interested in taking over Amtrak lock, stock and barrel and then be given free reign? Seems like a WIN-WIN situation to me, for all concerned.
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