Monday, December 13, 2010

This Week in Amtrak

Siemens Velaro China (Velaro CN / CRH3Image via Wikipedia
With this edition, we conclude the coverage of this year’s Passenger Trains on Freight Railroads conference presented by Railway Age magazine.

How does one brake a high-speed rail?

By Daniel Carleton

For many years, two prominent gentlemen have always been a presence at these soirées to act as guiding lights and voices of reason: Gene Skoropowski of California’s Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, and Thomas Mulligan of Union Pacific. Today, both have retired from their long, distinguished careers; therefore, it was a real treat when they took the stage, engaging in a simulated freight/passenger negotiation session with a twist -- reversed roles. Skoropowski represented the railroad, and Mulligan the local municipality seeking to start a commuter rail service. Assisted by Kevin Sheys (Partner, K&L Gates LLP) and his two hats, the hour-long simulation was both humorous and sobering.

Many times railroads learn about plans of starting passenger service by reading about it in the newspaper. By the time they are invited to discuss the plan, the governing municipality has garnered numerous ideas about the railroad and its operations, most of which are completely erroneous. The railroad is left to quell these preconceived notions before the real discussion may begin. Any excess capacity on the railroad is owned by the shareholders. Liability costs must be borne by the new commuter entity.

The current Amtrak rates for track access to preexisting routes do not apply, and actual access fees will be some $7-10/train mile. Non-railroad capacity studies are “not worth the paper they’re printed on.” Railroads are receptive to incentive payments for service, but not penalties. Ultimately, the right business deal is needed to make such service a reality.

Martin Schroeder of American Public Train Association (APTA) addressed the gathering on safety standards development. Currently, APTA has over 200 standards in publication, and they are recognized by numerous professional and government agencies. The result of this proactive effort has been minimization of government regulation and an educated influence on the final outcome of said regulation. Fixed standards equal reduced liability for those adhering to them.

Alan Zarembski, President of Zeta-Tech Associates, spoke to us about engineering hurdles required for higher-speed corridors. Anyone looking to build or upgrade track for high- or higher-speed trains needs to enlist Zarembski’s expertise. Through numerous charts and graphs, he illustrated requirements for making a higher-speed corridor, as well as conflicts between the needs of freight and passenger trains.

Simply put, passenger track is expensive. For instance, a #20 turnout (a broad track switch) costs about $100-120K. A #30 turnout (an even broader switch) costs over $250K. In the U.S., track maintenance dollars are spent on rails and ties; in Europe, the resources go into right-of-way surfacing. When asked about the failures of concrete ties in the U.S., he stated that since the 1970s over 300 million concrete ties have been installed, and about 5-10% of these have suffered chemical degradation.

Rodney Case presented an outsider’s view of European freight and passenger operations. Europe does, indeed, have a mixed-operation network, and private investors are showing up in the European Union. He concluded by asking aloud if projects such as Access to the Region’s Core and East Side Access would not be fundamentally more attractive if jointly constructed to accommodate freight across Manhattan. He also asked, Why does the U.S. rail industry approach the government and stakeholders in such a fragmented approach?

Thomas Mulligan graciously received this year’s Graham Claytor Award for Distinguished Service to Passenger Transportation. A self-effacing man, he humbly summarized his railroad carrier. Early on, one of his superiors once declared him ambidextrous; he could not take shorthand with either hand! The ovation Mulligan received was well deserved, and we wish him the best that retirement can offer.

Over lunch, casual conversation turned to some quite shocking and virtually unmentioned facts about Positive Train Control (PTC). Overall PTC will make transit times longer. How can this be? Was not one of the touted benefits of PTC higher speeds? It was explained this way: Suppose a train is entering a 40 mph curve. Currently, the engineer may enter the curve at 41-42 mph with no discernable difference in train operation. This will not be possible with PTC. The train will have to be at 40 mph (or less) entering the curve, or there will be a penalty. That conversation ended with, “We’re still working on the algorithms.” It would appear Casey Jones truly is dead.

There was a panel discussion on U.S. high-speed rail initiatives. The panel Chair was Al Swift, former Representative from Washington State, who started the discussion with the admonition, “Advisory committees are there to be ignored.” He later made the salient point that we use the term “High-Speed Rail” indiscriminately, and we need to make some agreement on what it means. Art Guzzetti of APTA made the point that ARRA was a “jobs bill” and not a rail program. Currently, most intercity rail work is building back to a state of good repair and capacity expansion. Of note, one of the scheduled panelists, Drew Galloway of Amtrak, could not attend (as he was attempting to save the ARC program).

During the question/answer period, this author inadvertently kicked the hornet’s nest. The point was made that all true High-Speed Rail programs around the world began as augmentations or replacements of existing conventional rail systems. The two true HSR programs proposed in this country, Florida and California, are not replacing existing conventional corridors. Without a pre-existing rider base to naturally migrate from an existing service to an improved service, any new-start HSR service may not meet preconceived notions for ridership.

Would not such a failure on the national stage have long-lasting negative impact on operation/expansion of passenger rail in the U.S.?

There was a pregnant pause. A stunned backlash followed. One of the panelists responded, “I’m just a consultant.” The sternly-worded formal answer, from someone actively working on the Florida project, defended his efforts with the standard line, pointing to existing state-owned right-of-way and choice of station location as being surrounded by nothing but parking lots. The existing renovated station in downtown Tampa is purportedly unsuitable, as there is currently nothing near it.

The final presentation was an update on the higher-speed initiatives in Illinois. This primarily focused on the upgrade between Chicago and St. Louis, where speeds of 110 mph will be recognized. By that time, the majority of attendees had vacated, starting their way back from whence they came. How many traveled by train?


It has been less than two months since the conference, and yet it seems everything has changed. In the elections of last month many candidates ran, at least in part, on a platform of ‘stopping the train.’ Higher-speed plans in Wisconsin and Ohio may be cancelled. Even the true HSR project in Florida is in question. It would appear at least at this early date that passenger railroading in America has had yet another false start.

The first exposure this author experienced with passenger rail and politics was the High-Speed Ground Transportation Association convention of 1996. The crowd was huge. The air was electric. We were going to set the world on fire. Amtrak had officially signed to buy the American Flyer (later Acela) trainsets for the Northeast, and Florida was to get the Florida Overland eXpress (FOX). Before the end of the decade, the FOX was cancelled and Acela suffered setback after infamous setback.

Yet it is the same people from back in 1996 who have been coming again and again to Washington, and to similar meetings around the country. Now, with a probable payout for the first time in 14 years, they were practically tripping over one another to sell their wares. After 14 years, their angst is entirely understandable; so when the long-awaited call for “shovel ready” HSR projects came, about the best Florida could come up with was a dust-covered plan for the FOX.

But this is not 1996. The paradigm has most definitely changed. Is this really the best idea for denizens of the Sunshine State? The new anti-rail sentiment now threatens the future of SunRail, the Orlando area commuter rail system. Is the audacity of HSR such that it may endanger all potential rail projects in Florida? Instead of asking these and other questions, those would-be builders of HSR are running ahead full throttle. Their actions border on malicious compliance. High-Speed Rail is not the devil incarnate, as some politicians would contend; however, all successful HSR programs follow successful conventional passenger rail programs. This is something this country has not enjoyed for almost a half century.

Just as a baby learns to crawl before walking, we the people must learn (or re-learn) the basics of passenger railroading before contemplating moving forward. It is a generational arrogance that believes elementary steps may be skipped, yet viable results still be achieved. Seldom does arrogance go without receiving its due reward.

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