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This Week at Amtrak; March 22, 2010
A weekly digest of events, opinions, and forecasts from
United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.
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Volume 7, Number 9
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 http://www.unitedrail.org.
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Amtrak is now saying the right things. Will they start doing the right things, like correcting last year’s flawed route studies as the first step toward a dramatically expanded national system?
But first, a correction on the list of Florida stations in the last issue. Amtrak serves Kissimmee and Lakeland between Tampa and Orlando. The other stations are were on the alternate Jacksonville-Tampa line, which Amtrak no longer uses. I am writing the column from Scottsdale; I have lived in the Phoenix area since 1991, Northern Virginia before that, and Boston for most of my first 23 years. I mistakenly copied the wrong list of stations, probably remembering my trips on the Silver Star and Silver Meteor to St. Petersburg and Clearwater in the 1980s. Mea culpa.
Now, to this week.
In the 1940s, a consortium of companies symbolically led by General Motors drove the privately-owned street railway business to bankruptcy.
Seven decades later, the streetcar returned the favor.
No, that’s not strictly true; but it is a curious reversal of fortune — karma? — suggested by one of three college students who visited the Phoenix Trolley Museum on Saturday afternoon. (The intelligence of the young never ceases to amaze. And signing up some bright new members who have been spending their days and nights devouring everything about trains and buses that the Internet can offer, is a very good thing.)
National City Lines, organized by G.M.’s Alfred P. Sloan to purchase trolley lines and replace them with rubber-tired, fuel-burning buses, was at least a symptom if not one of the myriad causes of the failure of the street railway industry. The trolley was a bellwether for the impending crisis in passenger trains generally.
Conversely, the growth of cities building rail transit in recent years has mirrored a growing dissatisfaction. The postwar suburban consumption-based lifestyle has proven to be an ecological, social, and economic cul-de-sac. Yet in my city of Phoenix, as elsewhere, business along the streetcar — pardon me, “light rail line” — is the bright spot of the local economy; Mesa, which once grudgingly permitted a single rail station to be built just inside its border, has seen the light called “transit means business” and is extending the line to bring shoppers, workers and students to its moribund downtown.
And this reversal of the streetcar’s fortune is proving to be a bellwether for the passenger train generally.
We now turn to two guest columnists. Rob Bohannan attended Amtrak’s Town Hall in Chicago last week; Daniel Carleton wrote in January on why the route studies completed in 2009 exposed fundamental barriers to our much-needed passenger train system expansion. The juxtaposition of these two columns raises the question: If Amtrak is now letting the once-hidden good ideas from inside bubble to the surface, when will we see the potential of a new equipment order resulting in new routes all across the country? Does Amtrak’s new emphasis on long distance trains as fundamental to its mission and future represent the first steps toward correcting the issues Mr. Carleton raises?
I leave you with these reports and those questions, which we shall ponder again next time. — William Lindley
by Robert H. Bohannan, AICP (March 2010)
Saturday, March 6, Amtrak and Trains Magazine co-sponsored a “Dialog for Progress” Town Hall Meeting at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago. Many of Amtrak’s “top brass” were there, including Board Chairman Tom Carper, President Joe Boardman, and Chief John O’Connor of the Amtrak Police Department. The three main topics of discussion were the Amtrak Photography and Videography Guidelines, Fleet Strategy, and Long Distance Service.
Photography. Chief O’Connor did an excellent job of explaining Amtrak’s photography policy. Essentially, Amtrak would like to be notified in advance if one is going to do extensive photographing on Amtrak property—other than photography taken by boarding and alighting passengers or photos taken onboard trains—of the passing scenery, for example. Given the proven use of photography by terrorists in preparation for attacks on infrastructure, it is not unreasonable to have a few, simple, reasonable rules. [A strong minority points out that we once laughed at the Soviet Union and other totalitarian states for such absurdities as prohibiting photography and requiring citizens to carry identification cards. Nevertheless, railroad stations are in some fashion private property and it is entirely within Amtrak's purview to have some sort of rules. - Editor] Of course, Amtrak struggles to get the word out about the degree of leniency to all the station and other personnel nationwide and concedes that “over-zealous” employees have needlessly chastised rail fans for taking photos. Moreover, the rules only apply to Amtrak property—different rules apply for photos taken on property of other railroads, and so forth. We advocates and our “railfan” friends have a responsibility to assist Amtrak in educating others about their reasonable photography policy.
Fleet Strategy. A significant aspect of the fleet policy for readers of TWA is that Amtrak is using stimulus funds to repair cars and locomotives at Beech Grove. After the meeting Saturday, we were all invited down to Union Station to see a rebuilt train consisting of two sleepers, a diner, and a locomotive—all of which had been wreck damaged. The equipment looked great: The diner was decorated in pleasing shades of navy blue and brown, and looked really classy.
Long Distance Service. Regarding long distance trains, Amtrak made official their intent to restructure the Sunset and Texas Eagle routes by operating a daily Los Angeles-San Antonio-Chicago train with a connecting San Antonio-New Orleans train. The LA-Chicago train would have full dining and lounge services. Amtrak has divided their 15 long-distance trains into three groups of five. The five worst performers — including the Sunset and Eagle—will be addressed this year, the middle five in 2011, and the five best—such as the Empire Builder and Southwest Chief — will be tweaked beginning in 2012. The undesirability of tri-weekly service on any route was noted.
Perhaps more significantly, Amtrak seems to be grasping—and willing to emphasize publicly — the importance of their long distance trains. One of the slides in a presentation devoted to long distance trains was titled “Long Distance Trains are Fundamental to Amtrak’s Mission and Future”. The slide included pie charts that showed that, while long distance trains provided 15 percent of Amtrak’s riders, they accounted for 24 percent of Amtrak’s revenue. Long distance trains account for 39 percent of Amtrak’s train miles but 46 percent of passenger miles. Moreover, long distance ridership and on-time performance has been steadily improving.
Regarding on-time performance, Amtrak is changing the metric to include arrivals at intermediate stops, instead of just end points. Officials commented at the meeting that this change took the passengers’ point of view into consideration as well as the Operating Department’s point of view. The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA) provides that, beginning in 2013, there will be an on-time performance tolerance of 15 minutes for intermediate stops.
Overall Impression. As encouraging as these developments are, the most significant aspects of the “Dialog for Progress” were that it was conducted in the first place, and that Amtrak recognized the need to reach out directly to the railfan and advocacy communities—the event was open to anyone who saw the notice in Trains and was one of the first 300 to register—rather than simply report the findings to any particular group.
Tom Carper, Joe Boardman, and the other officials were present throughout the session and at the subsequent equipment display and responded patiently and concisely to all the questions. This was at times no small feat, with an audience so amazed at finally having a chance to speak and hear candid responses that emotions sometimes ran high. Amtrak intends to conduct more of these events and I encourage TWA readers to plan on attending.
The Long Distance studies: Amtrak buy the numbers
by Daniel Carleton (late January 2010)
Amtrak, in the past months, has proffered three studies regarding the re-establishment of service on three lines: The Sunset Limited east of New Orleans, the Pioneer and the North Coast Hiawatha. The Hiawatha was discontinued in October of 1979 as the country reeled from the consequences of the world’s third oil shock. The Pioneer was discontinued in May 1997 as Amtrak banked its future and fortune on a then-yet-to-be-named high speed train in the Northeast. The Sunset was indefinitely suspended east of New Orleans due to track damage sustained in August 2005 and repaired by January of the following year.
Section 224 and 226 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA) required Amtrak to develop plans for restoring service to these routes. Much has been written and shall continue to be written as to the validity of these studies; the rhetoric is long and facts are questionable. As regards equipment, however, this boilerplate paragraph appears in both studies for the Pioneer and Hiawatha:
“Restoration of daily service on the three long-distance routes Amtrak has been directed to study by PRIIA – the North Coast Hiawatha; the Chicago-Seattle Pioneer; and the Sunset Limited between New Orleans, Louisiana and Sanford/Orlando, Florida – would require approximately 100 additional Superliner cars. That equipment does not exist today. Amtrak has 20 repairable “wreck status” Superliner cars, which it plans to restore to service in order to alleviate equipment shortages on existing Western long distance trains. In addition, if Amtrak is to continue to provide existing services on long distance routes, it must in the very near future replace nearly 100 remaining “Heritage” cars that are now more than half a century old.”
When summing up the hypothesized dollar figures for equipping the expanded services the amount runs between $477-534 million, depending on what options are acted upon. Amtrak appears to be settled on the inflated figure of $4.5 million per Superliner, bringing a 100 car order to $450 million. The balance would purportedly be expended on motive power.
To the uninitiated it would be reasonable to assume that a public carrier would enjoy certain benefits unavailable to a private company. The rolling stock of a common carrier railroad is private property and as such subject to applicable property taxes. Private companies take great pains to justify what assets are kept as well as the spare parts on hand to keep them in a state of operation. Such justification must take into account the ebbs and flows of business. Therefore, during the ‘golden age’ of passenger rail transportation there could be found in or near major rail hubs rows of passenger cars awaiting the call to duty during times of heavy traffic demand. In 1946 the Pullman Company alone operated 5500 cars; by 1956, this was down to just over 2600.
Amtrak is a public corporation and not subject to property taxes. And since Amtrak could be viewed as a work-fare program it is not a stretch to imagine public monies spent for fleets of passenger cars awaiting the call to duty during heavy traffic loads. In 1972, the roster held 1262 cars. If Amtrak’s advertising is to be believed, this was about one-third of the total cars inherited from the private railroads. Currently Amtrak rosters 1367 active passenger cars; exclusive of Acela and Talgo trainsets. Where is all the extra capacity when needed? Where is the work-fare program to sustain the domestic railcar manufacturers? Instead of the rows of passenger cars on standby there is a one-size-fits-all passenger train running 365 days a year. Instead of a robust domestic railcar industry there is silence with the last, the Budd Company, closing its doors in 1987.
Currently, Amtrak stables about 250 active diesel-electric road locomotives, exclusive of the dual-mode locomotives in the Northeast. At the height of the F40 era at Amtrak there were 216 on the roster (plus 25 GE P30CH‘s); please bear in mind there was as yet no electrification east of New Haven, Connecticut. Today, the F40 is extinct on Amtrak. With the exception of Ontario’s GO Transit, Amtrak is the only original owner of the F40 locomotive to completely phase them out. On the private railroads, locomotives could be rebuilt under a Capital Rebuild Program allowing the unit to be depreciated over the anticipated additional life of the unit. As Amtrak is a public entity and not subject to property taxes no value was seen in the F40 fleet, and they were sold to commuter railroads, freight service or for scrap.
The national malaise toward serviceable passenger rolling stock has not gone unnoticed by those states desiring service. California, Washington and North Carolina have acquired cars (and in some cases locomotives) to properly address the needs of their constituents. Soon Wisconsin will join this once exclusive club as they reequip their Milwaukee to Chicago service with new trainsets from Talgo.
The national malaise toward service expansion has not gone unnoticed by the federal government as may be witnessed by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grants (ARRA) for High-Speed Rail. In an effort to revitalize America’s passenger rail network the feds have bypassed Amtrak and instead are seeding monies directly to the states. None of these projects tapped for funds will actually attain true high speed (greater than 150 mph) but will improve or expand existing rail services.
Even to the most casual observer the role of Amtrak is being minimized. Attempting to reverse this trend Amtrak’s president recently gave a speech declaring their relevance, “Being a healthier Amtrak helps position itself as THE provider and partner of choice for commuter, intercity passenger rail and high-speed rail service. We currently have partnerships with 15 states accounting for nearly 50 percent of our average weekday departures and we plan to foster more.”
However, when there is a legitimate need for a service to be rendered a way shall always be found. Lately it appears that ‘way’ does not include Amtrak. Is it the fault of the track worker who was given defective concrete ties to install? Is it the fault of the Viewliner car attendant whose car is shaking apart around her? Is it the fault of Pullman-Standard or Budd whose doors closed for good for a lack of orders? Is it the fault of management whose priorities change just a often as the politicos they answer to? Ultimately, it must be recognized that Amtrak does not deliver any of the possible benefits of a public corporation and all of the disadvantages of a welfare program.
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