Thursday, January 07, 2010

This Week In Amtrak

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This Week at Amtrak; December 15, 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 51

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) It’s that time, again. Amtrak has put out the Fall 2009/Winter 2010 national timetable, and these things just keep getting better with every edition. Amtrak’s timetables are one of the few bright spots in the company; each one becomes more user friendly than the previous edition, and the design – which was stagnant for years – shows some zip and imagination.

Notable are the number of paid advertisements by outside agencies and vendors. These people are obviously interested in the business which can be created by Amtrak’s passengers, and they are reaching them in the most expeditious manner, plus helping reduce the cost of producing the timetables.

Whoever is creating the timetables needs to keep doing whatever they are doing. It’s working, and working nicely.

2) It’s begun. Yesterday’s San Francisco Business Times reports the California High-Speed Rail Authority is submitting a business plan to state lawmakers increasing the price tag of the California bullet train between Los Angeles and San Francisco by $9 billion, from $33.6 billion last year to $42.6 billion now.

Ridership estimates have also fallen, from 51 million riders a year down to 41 million; the Authority says the lower ridership estimate is based on projected higher fares, from $68 to $104, now almost $105 instead.

The cost increases for construction are due to inflation, more right-of-way purchases, and additional track work required.

The Authority expects the intrastate project will be funded by $9 billion for 2008's Proposition 1A approved by California voters, local funding of $4 to $5 billion, private funding of $10 to $12 billion, and you and me as federal taxpayers will kick in $17 to $19 billion over the life of the construction project, which isn’t planned to be completed until 2020, 11 years from now.

3) This will give you an end-of-the year giggle. There is a mini-crisis brewing in Tallahassee, Florida’s capital. Senator Paula Dockery, who lost the battle to defeat SunRail this go round earlier this month is never saying “die.” Her new approach: Ask for all of the e-mails swapped between various government officials, departments heads, etc., relating to SunRail. Senator Dockery has particularly been gunning for the Secretary of the Department of Transportation.

Here’s the fun part: Florida has very strong sunshine laws governing all public communications, including intra-governmental e-mails. It seems while the legislation was being formed, Florida’s Department of Transportation was in constant contact with CSX, the main beneficiary of the law; CSX is selling its right-of-way and infrastructure to the State of Florida to make SunRail in Central Florida possible.

Horrors! says Senator Dockery. Florida DOT, as it was crafting legislation, was in contact with CSX, the beneficiary of the legislation. Something crooked must be going on!

Most likely, it never occurred to Senator Dockery, in all of her vitriol and seeking revenge against CSX and Florida DOT, perhaps, since both parties are going to have to agree to this deal, if the parties communicate while the deal is going on, there will not be a prolonged period at the end for negotiations? Perhaps, if agreements are made incrementally, then upon final drafting of the deal, only signatures will be required instead of more and more negotiations?

That’s what a reasonable person would think.

The folks at Florida DOT didn’t help themselves, though, by creating what is now known as “Wafflegate.” It seems the DOT people MAY have wanted to avoid public records disclosure searches by labeling all of their e-mail pertaining to SunRail with the names of breakfast foods.

Yes, you read that correctly. E-mails traded between DOT officials had subject headers of “pancakes,” and “French toast.” When the initial public records search was made using key words such as “SunRail,” “CSX,” and “commuter rail” the search engines somehow completely ignored “pancakes” and “French toast.”

So, a tempest in a teapot has come to be. Somebody, drinking the breakfast tea, should have used better judgement in labeling e-mails. A very good commuter rail project is now mired in election year political backbiting and witch hunts because somebody was just being foolish.

3) Does everyone understand the concept of an unfunded mandate? This is what Congress and the federal government frequently do; laws are created everyone must follow, but no money is provided often for the billions of dollars it will cost for private industry or individuals to follow the new law’s mandate.

Positive Train Control, as mandated for 30 of our nation’s railroads in the Amtrak reauthorization signed last year by President George W. Bush is an unfunded mandate, which the railroad industry estimates will cost $10 billion to comply, says The railroads (including Amtrak) will be required to install the monitor-and-control system. Industry benefits on the $10 billion investment are expected to be about $600 million, far, far short of the cost of installation.

As a result of this, some railroads are looking at their track networks and trying to figure out how much of the networks have to have PTC by the mandated start date. Some railroads, such as CSX, are looking at lightly used main lines, like the Sunset route east of New Orleans into Florida, and making decisions not to upgrade that track, electing instead to move freight trains over a nearly parallel route further to the north, and dropping back into Florida for the gateway at Jacksonville to all of Florida’s peninsula.

Other Class I railroads are correctly doing the same. With a mandated investment in the billions, and return on investment in the low millions, railroads have to take a rational approach to PTC. No track is being torn up, but routes are being downgraded until the long term business climate looks more favorable.

This puts Amtrak in a bit of a difficult position. Any route expansions or restorations have to take into account for the first time whether or not PTC infrastructure is in place. If not, the cost of the expansion includes the addition of Positive Train Control on the new track.

Some TWA readers have wondered what all of this is going to do to Amtrak as it shakily stands today.

Most likely, the host freight railroads are going to look to Amtrak as much as possible to bear the cost of PTC on their lines, especially on routes which are lightly used for freight movements, but constantly used by Amtrak. Parts of the Southwest Chief route on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway qualify under this condition.

The freight railroads will look at Amtrak like one of their investment bankers; Amtrak has less controversial access to cash from the federal and state governments than the private railroads. Don’t be surprised sometime in 2010 or soon after for Amtrak to make a large grant request to Congress, perhaps in the hundreds of millions of dollars, solely for the purpose of PTC upgrades along established routes.

This only makes sense; it was Congress, in its rush to prove its chops after the many fatalities of the Metrolink crash in Southern California earlier in 2008, which said any line carrying passenger trains and certain hazardous freight loads must be PTC equipped if used in regular, scheduled service.

If Congress believes its own publicity and believes it acted correctly with the Amtrak reauthorization in 2008 which included PTC mandates, then it should have little, if any, problems coming up with the big bucks it’s going to take to fund Positive Train Control.

Since Congress mandates host railroads MUST handle Amtrak trains, and Congress mandates host railroads MUST offer the safety of PTC, the Congress MUST pay for all of this. It’s one thing to make railroads host passenger trains, it’s entirely another to penalize them with additional expense to create a multi-billion dollar mandate nearly 40 years after Amtrak was created.

4) Here is the latest from Ken Orski at Innovation NewsBriefs. This is Volume 20, Number 24; for further information, consult

[Begin quote]

December 12, 2009

Using the Jobs Stimulus to Reform the Transportation Program

Writing recently in the National Journal's Transportation blog, we observed the new Obama-proposed job stimulus might dim the prospects for an early enactment of a long-term surface transportation authorization. "The jobs stimulus," we wrote, "or rather its infrastructure component, could be the death warrant for any foreseeable reform of the federal surface transportation program." ("What Have We Learned from the Recovery Act", December 9, 2009,

The crowded senate calendar, we reasoned, means congressional action on the second stimulus proposal — or at least its $50-70 billion component dealing with new infrastructure spending — must wait until next year and may not reach the President’s desk until late Spring 2010. With the newly authorized infrastructure funds added to the still unspent $16 billion left over from the Recovery Act (ARRA), federal stimulus spending for transportation projects could stretch well beyond 2010.

Assuming the job stimulus becomes law, we asked, does any one think Congress would still have any appetite to enact a $500 billion multi-year authorization in 2010, on the eve of a congressional midterm election? Most likely, we concluded, a multi-year authorization would be delayed until 2011and some pessimists think that with a new Congress and an increased emphasis on deficit reduction, an even further slippage could occur. "Is the tradeoff worth it? You decide" we wrote.

Well, the response is in and it largely supports our point of view. It came in the form of responses from fellow bloggers and in a December 9 Newsweek column by David A. Graham, entitled "Putting the Cart Before the Horse: Could a transportation-based jobs stimulus stymie infrastructure reform?" Wrote Graham: "The stimulus bill would spend tens of billions of dollars in infrastructure but do little to remake a flawed financing and planning system. That’s a missed opportunity, according to some observers, who are concerned a stimulus, while better than nothing, would fall short of its potential by ignoring the issues the surface transport bill aims to address." The column goes on in a later paragraph to say: "The worry is that by pumping large sums into infrastructure this spring, Congress might kill any appetite for a meaningful overhaul of surface transportation funding any time soon." It quotes my fellow National Journal Transportation blogger James Corless, director of the liberal Transportation for America coalition as "very concerned." "We worry greatly," the column quotes Corless, "that putting tens of billions of dollars into these existing stovepipes is not going to have the intended outcome," i.e. a true reform of the surface transportation program.

Meanwhile, the objectives of the proposed second stimulus are becoming more elastic as we speak. At a December 10 Brookings Institution forum on Infrastructure, U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood said he sees no reason why some of the infrastructure funds in the stimulus program should not be allowed to be diverted to fund the operating expenses of transit systems which have been hard hit by the economic recession. It's difficult to see how such a move would help to promote job growth, but then the entire rationale and objectives of the second infrastructure stimulus have been poorly articulated and, not surprisingly, are coming under increased scrutiny.

Hopefully, by the time Congress is ready to act — most likely, only after the President’s State of the Union address in January — the hemorrhaging of jobs will stop and Congress will be able to shift its focus, as several of my fellow bloggers suggested, from "ready-to-go" maintenance projects (which seem more effective at preserving existing jobs than at creating new jobs) to a longer lasting goal of investing in infrastructure projects that improve national connectivity, increase metropolitan accessibility and enhance economic growth. Such action would make it less urgent to enact a multi-year transportation bill, whose prospects of passage in 2010, we still believe, are anything but certain.

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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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