Tuesday, September 14, 2010

This Week in Amtrak

Morning on Amtrak's Capitol LimitedImage by Madbuster75 via Flickr
After a slow August in the world of passenger rail, we return to a busy soon-to-be autumn.

According to Fred Frailey in TRAINS magazine,

Union Pacific has told Amtrak that changing the Sunset Limited‘s frequency from tri-weekly to daily will cost the government-supported company about $750 million in capital improvements.

That’s almost as much as Phoenix spent building an entirely new 20-mile “light rail” system — including two large bridges and a complete modern maintenance facility and fifty computer-controlled trolley cars. We eagerly await U.P.’s wish-list. One wonders, once you spend some millions to restore a missing connection at San Antonio to eliminate back-up moves, add a couple formerly removed station tracks at places like Tucson, add a bridge here and some signals there … how do you come up with three-quarters of a billion dollars to run one train once a day?

Meanwhile, Berkshire’s BNSF issued a two-part $750 million bond, $250 million for a 10-year period at 3.616% and a 30-year $500 million part at 5.074%, both paying a premium over Treasury bonds.

In his annual letter to shareholders, Berkshire chief Warren Buffett wrote: “Overall, we expect this regulated sector to deliver significantly increased earnings over time, albeit at the cost of our investing many tens — yes, tens — of billions of dollars of incremental equity capital…” So the same dollar figure that U.P. wants for one passenger train, it seems, is the same as BNSF’s first installment in sprucing up its entire system. Does one of those numbers seem a bit off?

Next, to Ohio, where Republican gubernatorial candidate John Kasich has “vowed to kill the 3C plan if elected.” This train, which would connect Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus and Cleveland, is in line for a $25 million for a preliminary study. Kasich and his advisors apparently are fretting over the $400 million starting price tag, and continuing state outlays. One does wonder, where is one penny of income from Ohio’s libraries? From Ohio’s fire departments? From Ohio’s superhighways? Oh, you say they result in increased education, decreased property losses, and increased economic and social activity, right? So why do we not frame trains in the same way? What is the cost of a trip not taken…

Yet we rail advocates find ourselves in a nasty predicament. Every time good work gets done, as in Ohio, toward a new train… or in Boise… or anywhere across the country where cities and states who want better transportation, and the social and economic benefits that stem from trains… Every time new Amtrak service is proposed, the price is so high and the service to be so slim that nothing ever happens. A year ago we looked at Amtrak’s Ohio report, one of three wrong-think reports issued around that time. We saw how “Amtrak really doesn’t want to be in the passenger railroad business” and, although there were some hopeful signs in subsequent months, we seem still stuck in the same doldrums as for the past 40 years.

One correspondent writes,

Amtrak’s complaints are so ingrained in politicians’ and voters’ minds that when some good public relations is needed, the cupboard is not only bare, but snarling back at those seeking relief.

Another writes that Amtrak,

has spent most of the last forty years not only saying, but proving, that passenger rail is a fiscal sinkhole. Needless to say the green eye-shade brigade in state capitals that must produce a balanced state budget every year takes on massive new obligations only with trepidation.

Add to this carriers like Union Pacific pulling massive numbers, some might think out of a hat, but perhaps out of reasonable expectations based on past dismal performance of a government-run passenger railroad, and here we sit, stalled again.

Perhaps the most excellent description of the conundrum is Steve Forbes’ recent commentary on high-speed rail. Forbes, logically unconvinced by what trains might be able to do, looks at projects like the Acela so-called high speed train which have failed to deliver on practically any of their promises, and at the cost of billions including a hidden billion-dollar loan from Canada… and rightly asks, Where is the benefit? Forbes doesn’t see any. And without benefit, what is the point of pouring billions more dollars into it? At some point, there have to be results. Call it return on investment.

To succeed in business, to succeed in the real world, you have to become indispensable. Apple has done that. Google has done that. Some might say Amtrak seems to have concentrated on becoming irrelevant.

Perhaps the renaissance of passenger trains will have to occur from the bottom up. USA Today reports that Denver has broken ground for its commuter train to the International Airport that replaced Stapleton Field. This is to be the long-anticipated first of four commuter lines radiating from Union Station which will complement Denver’s light-rail system. The article continues,

Denver joins a growing list of U.S. airports that are trying to promote public rail transportation. Others that will be connected directly via rail in the coming years include Dallas Love Field, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Miami, Dallas/Fort Worth, Oakland, Washington Dulles and Los Angeles.

An AP newswire story tells how even Arizona is planning on a commuter and regional train system:

“It will not be possible to accommodate growth and avoid traffic congestion by improving roadways alone, so passenger rail should become a key component of the Sun Corridor transportation system,” the draft plan stated, referring to a planning area that stretches from Prescott on the north to Nogales on the south and includes both Phoenix and Tucson.

Phoenix is seeing results with its Metro trains, with monthly averages up to 44,000 daily riders, far above the projected 26,500, and continuing year-over-year increases. With few exceptions, every city that has built a rail system in the past decades has met or exceeded expectations, and brought new development and a renewed sense of place and community pride. The cost has shown its benefit. Why should there be any different standard for intercity trains?

Finally, as promised, this on first-class accomodations.

Commentary by Andrew C. Selden and Randy Schlotthauer, URPA

Note: This item was on (Congressman) Eric Cantor’s list of budget cuts he wants people to vote on. Only 48% of respondents to the poll favored the idea, but on Thursday, July 22, Mr. Cantor and some of his followers appeared on the floor of the U.S. House to extol the desirability of this cut. An amendment to a pending bill was introduced to implement the idea, but was rejected 234-179. We asked Mr. Selden and Mr. Schlotthauer to comment on the reasons this idea was not a good one. – Russ Jackson

Eric Cantor: “Prohibit ‘First-Class’ Subsidies on Amtrak; Potential savings of $1.2 billion over ten years. While only 16 percent of Amtrak long-distance passengers opt for “sleeper class” travel, as opposed to coach class, federal taxpayers provide substantial extra subsidies for this first class travel. Passengers in long-distance first class travel are provided a sleeping room, many with a private toilet and shower, turn-down service, and complimentary entertainment and pre-paid food. Yet, Amtrak loses more than twice as much per passenger (an average of $396) for first class service as compared to coach class service. These losses are made up by taxpayers. This proposal would eliminate subsidies for first-class service and require Amtrak to provide any first class service at cost.”

Andrew C. Selden: The issue is the corrupt Amtrak RPS-based internal MIS/cost accounting system. Large subsidies to western sleepers are an artifact, if not an intentional distortion, caused by the system, not the business activity. We can show (and have often done so) that these sleepers are substantial net contributors of free cash flow to Amtrak, failing only to cover arbitrarily allocated shares of other system, not operating, costs, only some of which are even indirectly related to the operation of these services.

The Superliner sleeping car, measured by business economic factors like return on capital investment, load factor, revenue per dollar invested, etc., is the best thing Amtrak owns. These members of Congress should look closely at actual sleeping car fares out west, where many passengers are paying thousands of dollars for a single trip. There is NO POSSIBILITY that these fares are losing money on a direct cost basis. The catch is always to audit deeply what costs Amtrak is charging against the sleeping car revenues to determine that a loss exists in the first place. That is where the members of Congress were being conned.

The collateral issue is the subsidy that these sleepers provide to the dining cars. FIRST, diners are indispensable to all travelers on LD trains, where the AVERAGE trip runs 15-20 hours in duration (varying by route). These people therefore (including every coach passenger) are on board over two to four meal periods (and of course some for even more). Lose the diner, and you’ll lose ALL the passengers, not just the “fat cat” families and retirees in the sleepers. The sleeper fare transfer to the diner is what keeps the diner on at all—by including meals in the sleeper fare, Amtrak guarantees a predictable base of revenue to the diner. Take away the sleepers and that fare transfer, and with the loss of sleeping car passengers (most of whom wouldn’t be caught dead making a two or three day trip in coach) and their fare transfers to the diner, the diner would have to charge obscene prices that would drive out the remaining coach passengers, and without meals over two to three day trips, no one will ride and the trains would be empty.

If Congress wants to look for subsidies to first class riders, have them divide the Acela first class revenue by its proportionate share of the annual two-thirds of a billion dollars of subsidy “invested” each year into the NEC. Those numbers are real and staggering, even though Amtrak never reports them as such.

Randy Schlotthauer: Were it not for the frightening lack of concern by our government about the concerns of citizens, not to mention their misplacing of the Constitution (I have several copies of my own that I would be happy to donate to them), this entire debate over “first class” subsidies would be so tiresome that I would not be drawn to the laptop to respond to it. Those of us that have been involved with Amtrak since THE BEGINNING (that would be before many supporters and opponents were born) have seen this windmill tilted at every year. I remember when we were desperately phoning and writing politicians, interest groups, and anybody else that would listen over a $246M TOTAL SUBSIDY that promised that the pin would be pulled on October 1, (fill in the year). This was in the good old days when there were just two types of cars: Amfleet and everything else, which wasn’t much. Though few of us at the time would have granted it, Amtrak President Graham Claytor managed to “modernize” the fleet with new equipment which in retrospect probably saved the LD trains, which we were convinced he was conspiring with THEM to eliminate.

Though designed with the promise and physical capability to deliver a high quality LD experience, through active sabotage by some crew members and a benign neglect (read: stupidity) on the part of management. None of the LD trains ever made full use of the features designed into the cars, and did not repair equipment that was damaged or stolen by passengers, crew, and the denizens of 16th St, 8th Street, and other “maintenance facilities”. As a result, even the best attempts by individual route managers to ended up flowering and then all too soon downgraded due to budget cuts that often were the disguised jealousies of other route managers. Despite the efforts of the original RailPAC-URPA group to introduce market economic laws and theories to Amtrak and it’s 485 owners, every year it was a battle for survival, with Amtrak management’s RPS accounting system proving that they could be profitable if not for those nasty LD trains.

Never was enough capacity provided to even approach break even, which was all any serious advocate discussed. If every seat in every car on every train on every day were filled at the highest tariff fare, there would still be a loss. Even Herb Kelleher (Southwest Airlines) couldn’t do anything with one triweekly plane to its largest potential markets. He recognized that planes (and trains too!) make money only if they are moving and filled with people. In fact Herb was one of Amtrak’s greatest opponents, because he knew what a well run passenger railroad could do.

So today we are discussing the proposed elimination of the First Class Subsidy, in order to “save” the railroad. First of all, the last trip I took in a Deluxe Bedroom on #3 and #4 could not be called luxury by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed, Denny’s offers superior food, service, and even entertainment (if you are at the right one at the right time of night). When you kill the sleepers you kill the diner and lounge. When you kill those, you are the Southern Pacific in the 1960′s, although this time there are not enough people that buy the line that America NEEDS Amtrak. I can build you a great case for a quality passenger rail service, including multiple classes of service. I can even build you a case of how you make it break even in 10 years. RailPAC-URPA’s Dr. Adrian Herzog did the math a long time ago, and it still works. What I cannot do is build a case to justify an Amtrak First Class Subsidy for LD trains. There is corporate culture at Amtrak that would fight any attempts to a really make things work.
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