Wednesday, March 10, 2010

This Week in Amtrak

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This Week at Amtrak; February 27, 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 7

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.


Patience and perseverance have a magical effect
before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish.
- John Quincy Adams

Gentle Readers,

Darwin was wrong. No, I'm not questioning "did man descend from the apes?" (perhaps he should have said "ascend" anyway). Darwin postulated a continual pace of evolution, but the reality is: whether we discuss clothing fashions, musical taste, or changes in animal species, change is almost invariably glacially slow for long periods, punctuated by flashes of utter revolution.

We seem at last to have entered such a quick phase of passenger rail renaissance.

In these past few decades, passenger trains have been accumulating a constituency in both size and composition. Like a blizzard in New York City or Philadelphia, it grew slowly at first and now more quickly.

Robert R. Young, variously known as the "gadfly of the rails" and the "populist of Wall Street," as early as the 1940s, foresaw the impending crisis in passenger trains and indeed railroading generally. Even before jet aircraft and superhighways, Young saw slow trains and antiquated equipment as obstacles to future passenger train profits, and the stagnation of American design and manufacturing as impediments to progress. Young sought to improve his Chesapeake & Ohio passenger trains "to head off a slump that might mean a demand for nationalization..." -- a threat realized in the creation of Amtrak in 1971 -- and "When Young decided to buy two new streamliners for the C&O and two for the Chicago-Grand Rapids-Petroskey run of the Pere Marquette, he was struck with the limited capacity of the de luxe car-building industry. Young's subsequent decision to replace every bit of passenger equipment on the C&O involved waiting for months for delivery..." (both quotes, Life Magazine, 24 February 1947.)

The creation of Amtrak, proceeding from a goal set in the late 1960s by Anthony Haswell's National Association of Railroad Passengers, was a legislative place-holder designed to effect the return of a healthy national rail passenger system. Despite the most concerted efforts of many during the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo and since, the legal and political roadblocks erected over the preceding century have proven difficult to overcome. But as the romance of fast planes and fast cars was replaced by the frustrations and dehumanizations of X-rays, pat-down searches and plugged expressways, the latent demand for trains returned.

Even in the warmth and vast spaces of the American West, the San Diego Trolley and Los Angeles Metrolink were pioneers of streetcar and regional rail, overturning forever the idea that superhighways and jet aircraft had obsoleted trains.

As cities across the country opened new rail systems, and as Amtrak has worked with states to extend services, the snow-drifts continued. Some of these, like the Gulf Breeze, were scattered in the wind; while others grew, in places like North Carolina and Virginia.

Pressure for change also grew in equipment and the railroads themselves. In the 1990s, Bombardier's BiLevel coach and General Motors' F59PH led the way in modern passenger equipment even as most light-rail orders went to Europe or Japan. The failed Penn Central, which had become government-owned Conrail, was sold and became parts of the profitable CSX and Norfolk Southern railways.

The Obama administration's eight billion dollar outlay on higher-speed rail, announced in April of 2009, perhaps played a part in Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway purchasing BNSF. Fast upon the heels of the awards of this Federal money we find billionaire Carl Icahn's American Railcar Industries having formed a joint venture with US Railcar. US Railcar has built regional trains for Florida, and hopes to capture the upcoming market for high-speed equipment. Obama's eight billion dollars, on a national scale, is tiny; but it has become a critical piece.

Though you may not be able to ride Denver's Ski Train to the slopes this year, residents of New York City and Philadelphia who have been keeping the tips of their show-shovels shiny can tell you that, when snow has been falling on the mountain for long enough, sometimes it only takes one flake to start an avalanche.

Yesterday's Friends of Transit conference which I attended in Phoenix highlighted that, when enough people -- and the right people -- assemble behind an idea, there are no more obstacles: just work to be done. The same avalanche as happened with streetcars in Phoenix leading now to serious plans for regional rail, is happening nationally. Of note: Richard Simonetta, who spearheaded the genius of Phoenix's METRO success -- where, through community involvement, seven billion dollars of new development accompanied rather than followed the construction of the line -- is now National Director of High Speed Rail at URS, a joint venture of whom is planning the California High Speed Rail Authority's 800-mile system. (URS press releases on Simonetta and California HSR)

California's HSR so far looks to be at least somewhat sensibly designed to build on, rather than compete with, a passenger rail matrix which includes Amtrak California's Surfliners, San Joaquins and Capitols. This contrasts with some other high speed systems recently proposed (and next time we will look at what happens to travel time versus return on investment, on a hypothetical 81-mile corridor). California is carrying on Robert Young's desire for modern railways.

Desire for continuing passenger profits like Young felt at C&O carried over to the street railways, whose President's Conference designed the PCC streetcar in the late 1930s with modern innovations: smooth, powerful acceleration and comfortable suspension. PCC cars continued to be built in America through the 1950s; in Europe, licensed designs were improved upon and constructed until fairly recently. Competitor products for the PCC were offered by the J.G. Brill Company, which became ACF-Brill; in 1994, some of that same American Car & Foundry's designs, properties and personnel were acquired by the same American Railcar Industries that Mr. Icahn owns today.

As streetcar manufacturing moves back to the United States, with American plants of Japanese and European companies recently joined by Oregon Iron Works products; and as production likewise steps up on full-size passenger trains, remember that a "stimulus" is hardly a new idea. In 1947, the United States was in recession; and 63 years ago this week:

"Young's idea is that if the American railroads would replace their Pullman and coach equipment every seven years, the resulting mass manufacturing orders would make the U.S. economy recession-proof..." (also from Life Magazine's 24 February 1947 profile of Robert R. Young.)

Now, Canada's VIA Rail has been using 50-year old streamliners from the Budd Company, which were built well enough to have lasted decades. VIA plans to use them for decades more. An inspection of passenger trains as recently as five years before "Amtrak Day" (May Day, 1971) shows U.S. railroads on their secondary trains continued to successfully use heavyweight equipment built in 1920s and 1930s before the advent of lightweight construction. Such well-built cars too lasted 40 or 50 years, being outmoded only by style, not function. So perhaps "augment" rather than "replace" every seven years would be prudent and effective, as passenger trains increasingly recover the market share vacated fifty years ago, and cater to new needs.

Amtrak can seize on the positive publicity from its successful train to Lynchburg, Virginia which has so far not required its planned state operating subsidy. This is a chance to appeal to both conservatives and progressives... yet the same Amtrak this week is threatening "to scuttle the SunRail commuter train planned for Central Florida before it picks up its first passenger." (Orlando Sentinel, 23 February 2010) The issue is liability insurance -- and surely a consistent policy on this subject is crucial -- and one hopes a constructive discussion can take place.

States like Virginia don't really care how much "profit," if any, Amtrak makes; only that state monies reserved for operating subsidies should be as small, and last as long, as possible. Any state function fulfilling its role while turning even a little of its money back to the treasury is bound to get someone excited at the State House. Several other Amtrak trains could follow the Virginia model of additional service for small increases in subsidy. Extending the Heartland Flyer south to Houston, or north to connect with service to Kansas City or even St. Louis, springs to mind.

If Amtrak, in partnership with host railroads, can thusly open the spigot for future capital outlays like upgraded tracks, signals, and stations, then the advancing avalanche which is the passenger rail renaissance will be unstoppable.

William Lindley
Scottsdale, Ariz.


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