Thursday, April 08, 2010

This Week in Amtrak

Taiwan High Speed RailImage by jiadoldol via Flickr

Volume 7, Number 12

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 •


This week we look first at Amtrak’s slow pace, then at continued nationwide wrong-think surrounding Amtrak’s new venture into high speed rail; and we wrap up with a guest commentary by our Andrew C. Selden.

“In the unlikely event of a cabin depressurization, oxygen masks will appear overhead. Reach up and pull the mask closest to you, fully extending the plastic tubing, fasten the straps, and begin breathing normally… If you are seated next to a small child or someone needing assistance, secure your own mask first, then assist the child.”

— Airplane safety announcement

Consider a dramatization of the above starring Amtrak’s Joseph Boardman as the passenger, and network expansion as the child. Faced with the upcoming depressurization of its system through aging equipment, Amtrak is now in the process of securing its own mask with an equipment order. This is no little feat, but Congress still holds the strings. The mask isn’t even on yet, and as the air drains away, what are the prospects for the little form in the next seat?

Readers of This Week have had plenty to say about Amtrak’s progress, or lack thereof. Charles McMillan wrote:

I just finished reading your March 31st issue and I have just visited the two universities in Montana, Meeting with Faculty/Students/Staff and interested local citizens who want to see the restoration of the North Coast Hiawatha reinstated. In fact the consensus is to pretty much take the bull by the horns and get America back to the forefront of technology and world leadership in all areas of Science and Business. They are very adamant about this!

Their desire for Amtrak to get off of this NEC mentality and get a nation wide rail passenger system in place is unparalleled. They are disgusted with Joe Boardman and the attitude of the present board of directors in this regard, because they see no real growth on the part of Amtrak in the form of expanding routes around the country. They keep asking “how much growth in ridership can Amtrak realize just by operating their present routes without adding more trains,coaches or service”? “Can’t they (Amtrak) see that expansion is the key to real growth.” These are some of the thoughts of the general public and our Univesity system students.

We are continuing to garner support for this N.C.H. train all across the northwest including Minnesota.

Jerry Sullivan echoes a sentiment of frustration at,

Amtrak’s absolute refusal to restore the Sunset, or even a connecting train, to Florida. The only train I rode regularly was the Sunset prior to August 2005, and I have not been on a train since, except for excursions. Amtrak has become irrelevant; although I despise flying, Southwest Airlines is now my forced choice until Amtrak gets off their backside on the Sunset issue.

Until last year’s flawed Gulf Coast report is revisited and corrected, and until enough new — not just replacement — equipment is available, probably nothing will happen. Amtrak may be the only company whose product is desperately wanted by everyone but refuses to offer more of it.

As to markets and expansion, Christopher Parker noted, in reference to the speed comparison table:

[At that time,] top speeds were held by limiteds that were mostly overnight sleepers, a market [ceded] to the airlines… You should be comparing today’s trains to the stopping [all-stop local] trains of old. The other factor is we live in a more open and safety conscious world – routine disregard of speed limits is impossible now, as are top speeds over 79mph without automatic train-stop.

I wonder if railroads had the regulative freedom to run very fast if the fate of the passenger train would have turned out differently. Speed makes a huge difference in staying competitive. With some exceptions (IC), today’s top speeds aren’t much different.

True, after a number of accidents fifty years ago, legislation was passed that did limit train speeds. Modern safety devices warrant revisiting those speeds, as does the pending implementation of Positive Train Control, along with satellite, GPS, wireless technology, and computer control. There must be an equilibrium point of higher speeds versus construction and maintenance costs. How to implement a mixing of relatively high speed passenger trains in an era of double-stack containers and long unit coal trains is no easy task, but a worthwhile one. Mr. Parker suggests, that with good track and “cheap technology to detect open switches, dark territory should be good for 70-79 mph.”

And while railroads no longer have the monopoly on business travel, but European experience suggests there is plenty of market here for a slogan like “we are your rolling hotel.” A businessman at a conference in Phoenix could have a late dinner, board the midnight sleeper, and be in downtown Los Angeles by morning in plenty of time for a 9am meeting. Mr. Parker responds, “Let’s start by getting sleepers back on the [Washington-Boston] Night Owl or whatever they call it now.” Could not be repeated across the country?

Amtrak’s newest focus is on high speed rail. As yet they have little involvement in most of the pending projects, so let us see the fine mess they are getting into.

Over the last few weeks we have compared Wisconsin’s pragmatic expansion approach to Florida’s Bullet Train That Doesn’t Connect (Daniel Carleton, 23 March 2010). We will look at Colorado’s venture into high speed rail in a moment, but first consider the California high speed project, which started some years ago along the lines of the Florida fiasco. Each refinement, we are pleased to report, generally tended toward a more logical approach. Maglev was eliminated in favor of compatible steel-wheel technology, permitting shared rights-of-way and stations. Nevertheless, room for improvement still exists in the “Plays well with others” department:

In a letter dated 23 March 2010, the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) ask the California High Speed Rail Authority (CAHSRA) to please revisit and consider “a rational shared use option in the Anaheim to Los Angeles segment of the CAHSRA project… In November of 2009, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) issued its first High Speed Passenger Rail Safety Strategy which provides a strategy for the development of shared use corridors. We believe this safety strategy has direct applicability to” the L.A.-Anaheim corridor and they point out that “reports prepared by the CAHSRA staff and consultants did not contemplate any discussion of the rationalization of passenger services in the Anaheim to Los Angeles segment… [part of] the second busiest passenger rail corridor in the nation… we would like to make these services more coordinated and integrated.”

One could well read this as a formal, polite way of saying, “You’re doing it wrong,” and one does wish that high speed trains, where they are built in this country, integrate with local trains and transit as well as they do in Germany, for example. In Germany they have even figured out how to run a streetcar into a regular train station, where you might see one on the platform alongside an ICE high-speed train. If the Germans can master the engineering and those safety features to give easy cross-platform transfers, why can’t we?

Meanwhile at the northern end of that California corridor, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on April 3rd that Caltrain, facing “plummeting sales tax revenues and shrinking ridership” could be forced “to eliminate its midday, night and weekend service, and return to its roots as a commuter-only railroad.” Yet an article there the previous day noted of the new High Speed project, “New numbers put the price of the Anaheim-to-San Francisco segment alone at $42.6 billion.”

Why are we spending millions on high-speed rail studies to the detriment of existing services? Why are we further planning new trains that will hurt, instead of complement, the few successful ones we have spent decades building? Cannot even railroad people work together or has too many years of fighting the highway lobby fractured the passenger train industry?

Colorado is poised to make the same mistake. Railway Track and Structures on March 30th reported,

A study of possible high-speed, intercity rail for Colorado has found that lines between Fort Collins and Pueblo and between Denver International Airport and Eagle County have the best “operating and cost-benefit results” of the options evaluated… The full system carries a $21.1-billion price tag, but Harry Dale, chairman of the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority, which produced the study, said the rail system would probably be built in phases…

The feasibility study… took 18 months to complete and cost $1.4 million… “It might be 10 to 20 years before we actually build anything,” [Dale] said…

The study identifies a $3.32-billion rail segment from DIA to downtown Denver and then south to Colorado Springs as a likely first phase [,which Dale said] would not compete directly with [the] Regional Transportation District’s planned East Corridor commuter train that will link the airport and Denver’s Union Station.

“This [HSR] is not meant to be fare-subsidized,” Dale said of the proposed high-speed rail system. “Average speeds must be superior to travel by car, or nobody will ride. There have got to be time savings to make it worthwhile.”

Does it not matter that almost every new well-planned light-rail and regional-rail system in the West has met, exceeded, or far exceeded ridership expectations? Why spend money planning a second “high speed” system paralleling a regional train we haven’t even built yet? Why do we keep having to fight the superfast fallacy? Frequency, dependability, and the matrix of connections are what attract people to trains — not high speeds. Dr. Adrian Herzog’s Matrix Theory, despite being proven repeatedly, continues to be ignored.

— William Lindley, Scottsdale, Ariz.

p.s., Mr. Selden’s guest commentary follows.

Why Joseph Boardman Can’t Succeed
By Andrew Selden

Joe Boardman is a fine fellow, and an experienced rail administrator, but his tenure is doomed to be another failure as CEO of Amtrak, for the simple reason that his strategy for the company is to pour ever more capital and effort into the exact same business strategies and plans that have failed the company consistently for four decades. This is evidenced by Amtrak’s latest strategic “plan” released late this winter.

“Amtrak Planning” has come to be as much of an oxymoron as “Amtrak Accounting.” Key elements of the latest plan:

Upgrade interiors and add WiFi on Acela trains, with leather seats, new tray tables and improved at-seat power outlets.
NEC infrastructure enhancements such as a new Niantic River drawbridge in Connecticut, new power supply equipment for New York – Washington, new switches at Chicago Union Station, new car shops at Los Angeles, station renovation at Wilmington, Delaware, fire safety improvements in the Hudson River tunnels, car renovation at Beech Grove, NEC track and wire maintenance, etc.
Study its “poorest performing long-distance routes” to identify possible changes. These routes include the Sunset Limited, Eagle, Cardinal, Capitol Limited and California Zephyr. (No mention of chronically underperforming short routes.)
Expand state-funded short corridors.
Install PTC on Amtrak-owned track.
Increase security.
Replace large parts of the company’s locomotive and car fleet.
Now, this all sounds wonderful, and many observers leapt on the last item as proof that “Amtrak was home free and the Age of Aquarius was upon us.” No one paused to ask, “With the U.S. trillions of dollars in debt and piling on new debt just as fast as we can sell bonds to the Chinese, how is Amtrak going to pay for all this?”

Even worse, no one seemed to notice that Amtrak’s plans were nothing more than a reshuffle of the same tired 40-year-old business plan that has put Amtrak into a financial black hole. (Amtrak’s net loss worsened again last year, proving once again that the billions “invested” so far into the NEC, Acela, and all the other infrastructure projects has produced a negative rate of return on investment.) No one asked: “Based on 40 years of consistent failure and steadily worsening financial results, why should we continue pouring billions of new dollars of federal support down the same old black hole?”

This ultimately is why Mr. Boardman cannot succeed: recycling failed business strategies is not “planning.” Doubling the bet on a losing position is a poor strategy.

When Amtrak released its wish list of new engines and rolling stock in March, it took independent analysis by URPA professionals to point out that the “new fleet” strategy reflected a net shrinkage of lift capacity in the national system.

But, there may be a growing awareness inside Amtrak that they are missing out in their long distance markets. At an Amtrak conference in Chicago in March, some interesting ideas were surfaced. A URPA attendee reported:

“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. 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 2010. The undesirability of tri-weekly service on any route was noted.

“Amtrak seems to be grasping – and willing to emphasize publicly – the importance of their long distance trains. One of the slides in a presentation : ‘Long Distance Trains are Fundamental to Amtrak’s Mission and Future.’ The slide’s charts showed that long distance trains provided 15 percent of Amtrak’s riders, but 24 percent of revenue, and 39 percent of Amtrak’s train miles but 46 percent of passenger miles.”

As promising as this is, it still fails to reflect any understanding of how explosive growth could be if Amtrak were to address two simple questions:

What would long distance ridership, passenger miles and revenue be if Amtrak actually added capacity to existing trains, especially in peak periods? Long distance capacity and available seat miles have been flat, if not down, for two decades. Since these trains run nearly full much of the year, no growth is even possible without added capacity.
What would long distance ridership, passenger miles and revenue be if Amtrak better interconnected its routes, so that its trains could serve hundreds of new origin-destination city pairs? Examples: extend a Missouri state corridor train to Omaha, to connect St. Louis, Kansas City and intermediate points to the Central Transcontinental Corridor – Denver, Salt Lake City, Reno, Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay area; or, drop a coach and sleeper from the Chief, at Barstow, to run over Tehachapi Pass to Bakersfield, connecting to a San Joaquin, linking the entire Southwest Transcontinental Corridor to the Central Valley and the San Francisco Bay area.
Even if one assumes that these new services perform no better than the known performance of the existing trains, these small increases in operations, by opening up many hundreds of new long distance city pairs, will triple output, and revenue. Now there is a capacity issue, and a growth strategy, all in one.

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