Sunday, January 10, 2010

This Week in Amtrak

Empire BuilderImage by Patrick Rasenberg via Flickr

This Week at Amtrak; January 11, 2010

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 7, Number 2

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) VIA Rail Canada is superb at doing it. The freight railroads do it like it’s an everyday occurrence. Amtrak, on the other hand, can never seem to get it right.

We’re referring, of course at this time of year, to operating trains in severe winter weather. While things have mostly been humming on the Northeast Corridor, it’s been a far different story out in flyover country where the Empire Builder operates between Chicago and Seattle, Washington/Portland, Oregon.

It’s been a while since Amtrak consistently got a train over the road anywhere near to keeping a schedule, and even running two trains in a row.

The problem has mostly been blamed on malfunctioning air systems from the locomotives. Without a working air system, there are no brakes on a train. (The air system we’re referring to has nothing to do with the hotel power from the locomotives to the rest of the train which provides heat for the train.)

Some Empire Builders have arrived nearly a day late, some not at all, some have only traveled a part of the route before being annulled. Word is, even Amtrak’s host railroad for the Empire Builder, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, has banned the Builder from its infrastructure until Amtrak can prove it can get a train from Point A to Point B without having a locomotive failure and fouling the main line which has heavy freight traffic.

All of this begs the question, “why?” since Amtrak has had nearly 40 winters to figure things like this out.

Some folks have speculated it’s because Amtrak tries to have an all-weather locomotive fleet, which operates in desert heat in the Southwest as well as it does in blizzard conditions in North Dakota. As with anything else which tries to be all things to all people, the inevitable failure occurs.

Some folks have speculated Amtrak’s mechanical department just isn’t up to the job, and does what it can with the budget it has to work with each year.

Some folks have speculated Amtrak just doesn’t care; if it doesn’t have anything directly to do with the NEC, then it’s not important.

But, looking at VIA Rail Canada, which generally operates under some of the most severe winter weather conditions in the world, VIA rarely has Amtrak’s winter weather problems. And, VIA is a smaller company, has fewer resources, and often makes do with older equipment.

The freight railroads in the same severe winter weather always manager to get trains with dozens and dozens of heavily loaded freight cars down the track, also using air brake systems, and they don’t have these problems. BNSF, like Amtrak, operates from the extreme northern tier of the country to the extreme southern tier, and needs locomotives, too, which can work in extremes of heat and cold.

If VIA can do it, and BNSF can do it, and Union Pacific can do it, and CSX and Norfolk Southern and Kansas City Southern can all do it, along with Canadian National and Canadian Pacific, why can’t Amtrak?

As said in this space before, we know there are some dedicated transportation people at Amtrak who want the railroad to run right, no matter what the weather forecast. Why aren’t these people given the budget and resources they need to get the job done? Amtrak begs for money every year from Congress and the federal treasury, laying out priorities. Why isn’t locomotive reliability outside of the Northeast Corridor in the winter a priority?

These are the times which try mens’ souls, when the harsh realities of Mother Nature go up against the needs of mortal man. These are the times when the professional railroaders, who go to sleep thinking about railroading and then wake up the next morning thinking about the same thing, need the resources to do their jobs. If Amtrak wants to continue to promote itself as the custodian of the next generation of passenger trains and thinks it’s going to be the first choice as the operator of the new high speed rail systems, rational people making those decisions are going to wonder why Amtrak, which is operating conventional rail on a system which has been in place for over 150 years, can’t figure out how to make that system work. If Amtrak can’t get conventional rail right, how will it ever get high speed rail right?

2) Where are you on the Amtrak spectrum? Are you a True Believer, willing to accept anything Amtrak and the National Association of Railroad Passengers says, at face value? Are you always willing to give Amtrak more and more money, without accountability, just because it’s Amtrak?

Are you more of a pragmatist, and believe in the business of passenger rail, knowing at one time it was a sane, profitable business, and there is no reason why in the future it can’t return to that status?

Are you convinced the days of passenger rail are gone, and everyone should enjoy driving their private vehicle down crowded highways or the only other option for public transportation is airplanes?

Which one are you? Do you fit into any of those categories, or, perhaps are you something of a blend of two or more of those categories?

How do you see the future of passenger rail? Are we on the cusp of renaissance, or near the end of the line? Is that light at the end of the tunnel an oncoming passenger train you welcome, or the halogen headlights of an overpriced SUV getting five gallons of gas to the mile of transportation?

It’s time to start choosing sides. More and more passenger rail publications are openly questioning the actions/lack of actions of Amtrak. Columnists who were once reliable Amtrak Apologists are now apologizing to their readers for taking so long to see the truth about Amtrak, and its lack of motivation.

So, are you going to sit on the sidelines and kibbitz about what the final colors of pre-merger Seaboard Air Line Railroad passenger locomotives were, or are you going to figure out how to take some action and demand better passenger rail transportation in this country, whether or not it’s from Amtrak?

Politics in Washington are in a turmoil, and there is likely to be a huge sea change in Congress at the end of this year. No matter who is charge in Washington, it’s time to express your displeasure with how things are with passenger rail, and demand better oversight, and, most importantly, demand someone, somewhere, develop a coherent national surface transportation plan.

As long as everyone just sits around and waits for something to happen, nothing is likely to happen. Amtrak seems content to consume its annual free federal and state monies without any demonstration of progress to create more or better passenger trains. Amtrak needs some major prodding, and it needs prodding from someone who can force change and inspire vision at Amtrak.

What are you going to do about it?

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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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