Friday, November 12, 2010

This Week in Amtrak

Amtrak Coast Starlight (Train 14) northbound a...Image via Wikipedia
As with all journeys, this one begins with an itinerary. There are points of interest. There are schedules to be met. And, there is, of course, the occasional missed connection. As the new editors of this on-line publication, we shall attempt to keep this interesting and do so in a timely manner. We do not bring an agenda with us, but do believe in the free flow of news and ideas to that which unites us all together: the realistic belief in and rational expansion of passenger railroading in the United States. Therefore, without further ado, we would like to take a moment to introduce ourselves.

David Carleton has been in the engineering field for over thirty years; more than twenty of those years with an ENR top 500 civil engineering firm in Central Florida. Along the way, he has worked in railroad civil engineering and railroad electrification, as well as landmark preservation and intelligent mixed-use land development. He also has an extensive background in publishing railroad books for historians and enthusiasts, alike, by virtue of the fact that his family founded and operated the publishing house of D. Carleton Rail Books. David has made himself available here in the role of researcher and historian, so that all the lessons learned along the way can be put to their best use.

Daniel Carleton is a twenty-year veteran of the electrical power industry, with eighteen of those years spent in the nuclear field. He is now semi-retired, having attained the position of Supervisor of Mechanical Maintenance. Like his brother, he grew up around and in the world of railroading, and continues to draw parallels between these two branches of industry: railroads and power generation. Combining the context of railroading’s nearly two-century-old history with the strict attention to detail necessary in today’s environment, Daniel intends to be the vigilant eye on the ever-shifting landscape of passenger railroading.

We would also like to thank Jean Sopko, of Black Bear Wordsmiths (blackbearws@yahoo.com), for graciously accepting the task of proofreading our musings and ramblings. Jean has a B.A. in English. She has been a newspaper proofreader, newspaper archivist, and medical transcriptionist. She has also held several highly-technical positions in the electronics industry.

Many have been convinced, looking at the “modern” high speed trains of faraway lands, that history has nothing to teach us regarding the future of passenger railroading; however, as the old saying goes, “He who fails to learn his history is destined to repeat the seventh grade.” Sadly there are more seventh graders who are more prescient about the future of transportation than most adults. Another wise man once said, “Good ideas never go bad, they just sometimes are put on a shelf.” Shall we return to the days of steam, steel, and limiteds? No, that is not our vision; however, unless rational decisions based on proven formulas are made, the future of transportation, all transportation, is in jeopardy.

Our journey has just begun. When and where it will end is still unknown. So for now let us sit back, relax, and gaze out the large window as the scenery whisks by.

Waiter, there’s a High Speed Rail in my soup.

By Daniel Carleton

You know the party has only started when Charles “Wick“ Moorman, Chairman, President, and CEO of Norfolk Southern Corporation, begins his statements in regard to passenger trains with, “Get the damn things off my railroad.”

After the roar of laughter settled down, day one of this year‘s Passenger Trains on Freight Railroads conference, presented by Railway Age magazine, was underway. Afterward, Moorman acknowledged his appreciation for passenger trains, having ridden them to school every day in Great Britain. Hardly a stuffy or stodgy individual, Moorman proved to be quite congenial and self-effacing. He sees his company’s relationship with Amtrak as “strong,” a position this gathering of railroad professionals would not deny. He made one fact quite clear: passenger trains on his freight railroad means 79 mph, maybe 90 mph in certain circumstances, but definitely not “High Speed Rail.” He also made it very clear that the increased track maintenance will not be borne by his railroad or stockholders.

Moorman was quite concise that every corridor and potential corridor for passenger trains is different; they are “not all the same.” He pointed to three areas where current and future services are welcome: (1) Virginia — the increase of service by extension of a Richmond train to Lynchburg is seen as a success. Norfolk to Petersburg makes a lot of sense, but a connection will have to be built between the former N&W and SCL at Petersburg, after which one would “bounce your way to Washington” (a good-natured jab at his primary competition, CSX). The Commonwealth of Virginia is shouldering the cost of these services and upgrades. (2) Chicago — the grade separation at Englewood, which will raise a Metra commuter line over a busy NS freight line (also shared by numerous Amtrak trains), is one of many great projects in that area, improving freight and passenger service. (3) North Carolina — work continues in this state to continuously improve passenger service, and NS is committed to this work.

Then Moorman addressed two areas that have caused great concern to the industry, those being the now reconsidered Federal guidelines for high-speed rail, and Positive Train Control. He described the Federal guidelines as “surprising to us” and “frightening to us.” The reward of passenger trains is slight, to the freight railroads. Then a call to any seeking to run a new passenger service: “Keep the word `risk’ in mind.” Whereas many may see the benefits of running passenger trains, it is the freight railroads who weigh the risk. As for PTC, it is a well-intentioned but bad piece of legislation, with an estimated price tag of $10 billion for the industry. This is going to be a big distraction to the railroads for the next five years. NS has estimated two-thirds to three-quarters of its track will require PTC.

Following that was a panel discussion on the National Rail Plan, chaired by Al Engel on his first day as Amtrak’s new Vice President for High Speed Rail. The Plan is a project by the FRA. As it is limited to 120 pages, the Plan is a strategic vision for the future, and an answer to Congress when it asks, “Show us your High Speed Rail plan?” FRA replies, “We don’t have an HSR plan, we have a National Rail Plan.” Even so, there were many useful tidbits of information brought out in this two-hour segment. The freight hauling system in the United States currently moves 40 tons of freight per person, per year. The goal of the Plan is to realize an increase of intermodal (trailers or containers moving greater than 500 miles) on the railroads from about 23% today, to 50%. The largest roadblock to building new intermodal terminals is not NIMBYs, but the environmental permitting process; this is a critical issue for the Plan. The expected cost of applying PTC to a single locomotive is $60,000-70,000.

Don Itzkoff, who will be moving to GE Transportation, then gave us an update on how things stand in Washington, DC. Simply put, HSR is now a higher political target. Everyone is feeling his way around this new scheme of transportation with the mindset of “play the game, then write the rules.” Of the more than $10 billion (soon to be over $11 billion) set aside for HSR, only $1 billion has been spent; however, rail is now very visible on Capitol Hill. Rail is now very much part of the surface transportation discussion, and rail is now speaking with one voice.

Our luncheon speaker was none other than Joseph Boardman, President and CEO of Amtrak. He started off by joking that his education in Agriculture Management at Cornell qualified him for Amtrak’s top spot. Despite his wit and spry manner, he looked tired and concerned, as though the weight of the whole world was on his shoulders. Even so, he did attend the entire morning, and most of the afternoon sessions. He was quick to point out that despite the conference title of Passenger Trains on Freight Railroads, talk of High Speed Rail kept “sneaking” in. Unlike most of the participants who stuck to the ‘where and when’, Boardman seemed compelled to answer ‘how and why’ he is, where he is, and what he intends to do about it. His appreciation for public transit came with the gas lines of 1973 and a national lack of desire to fix the problem. Even now it is already too late to provide balanced transportation for the nation. Amtrak needs a fundamental change in its culture — it has visibly lost support due to its arrogance – and to this end, Boardman seeks to instill the three parts of humility into those in his charge: inclusion of all, being collegial, and pursuing continuity. He said later on that he wants the people in key positions to be able to make those decisions on their own with the proper input. Is this perhaps a move away from the micromanagement so prevalent in state agencies? Time will tell.

Boardman acknowledged that his work is cut out for him. He noted that in the 1930s the number of passenger cars in the United States was around 65,000. By the late 1940s the number was down to about 30,000. Today, Amtrak stables less than 1400 passenger cars. As regards the latest order for rolling stock from CAF USA, everything except the stainless steel will be domestic, since they could not find a domestic source.

After lunch, representatives from Veolia Transportation delivered an interesting discussion on Cognitive Distraction and Attentional Error, which included actual cab video of a commuter Railroad Engineer verbally acknowledging a restrictive signal, yet still throttling up his train as though it was clear. Fortunately, he and the oncoming train did stop prior to an impact. Much research has been done to study the mind and mental health of those operating our trains nationwide, and there is still much to learn. It should be noted that the Chatsworth wreck was not discussed outright due to the ongoing investigation in which the panel is involved.

Next, a representative discussed what has been done and what is proposed in the Pacific Northwest. Like NS, Burlington Northern Santa Fe has been a cooperative partner in passenger rail, but has also made it clear that the maximum speed it will allow on its railroad will be 90 mph.

Then Al Fazio of Bombardier Transportation North America, who has overseen the build and start-up of NJ Transit’s River Line interurban in southern New Jersey, spoke on Extended Temporal Separation. For years, the River Line has been running non-compliant (crash standard) vehicles on the same tracks used by heavy freight trains protected by positive separation and lockout of one service or the other. He pointed out that the FRA defines systems as either `rail transit systems’ or ‘short haul passenger railways’. The decision is based on the `purpose of the trip’. If it is a rail transit system, then they may use non- or near-compliant equipment with temporal separation. If it is a short haul passenger railway, then the equipment must be compliant. This will be important going forward, as Fazio pointed out there are no more abandoned rail lines left to convert to light rail. The next step will be shared use.

The day closed with a sobering panel discussion, “Safety and Security: the Basics of Counterterrorism.” The panelists were quite dismayed over the cancellation of the second set of tunnels under the Hudson River; not because of the money lost in contracts, but due to lack of redundancy that presently exists in a heightened security environment. After a review of worldwide terrorist actions prior to 9-11, it was obvious that threats and sabotage against railroads is nothing new. Even so, the ‘Homeland Security Model’ developed and adopted after 9-11 does not fit all. There are five steps for counterterrorism on the railroad: (1) integrate thoroughly, ( 2) evaluate constantly, (3) know the threat, (4) foster vigilance — employees and rail fans, and (5) shift the balance.
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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"He also made it very clear that the increased track maintenance will not be borne by his railroad or stockholders." Obviously a good point. The High Speed Rail initiative that Obama espouses can't happen with cooperation of the freight railroads. They are private businesses that have to look out for the bottom line. HSR will have to be built in other corridors at the cost of hundreds of billions of dollars. The question is, who will pay for such an initiative, where trains can run at high speeds nearly empty. HSR is a pipe dream.