Friday, December 24, 2010

This Week in Amtrak

Southwest Chief at Raton PassImage via Wikipedia

We are privileged to present the following commentary by Russ Jackson. Russ is a decades-long URPA vice president. He is also a founding member and Secretary of the Rail Passenger Association of California (RailPAC); the largest, most active rail passenger advocacy group in that state. Russ regularly attends and reports on state rail meetings of the San Joaquin, Coast Rail, and Capitol Corridors.

The passenger trains operated by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway between Chicago and the West Coast are the stuff of legend. Their post-war fleets of stainless steel trains were, and are, considered the gold standard for American passenger railroading. Everybody knows the Super Chief ran over Raton Pass. They forget that the El Capitan was a separate train for most of its existence, but they vaguely remember that there was a different train called the Chief that also ran over Raton Pass. They remember that the San Francisco Chief ran through Amarillo, but they forget that the line through Amarillo also saw half of a train called the Grand Canyon; the other half of the Grand Canyon ran over Raton Pass!

Something else that apparently few people remember is that right up until Amtrak, the Santa Fe served Denver directly, with service between Denver and La Junta. In fact, there were two round trips per day until 1967. There were two trains a day through Amarillo before the Postal cuts in 1967, and there was one train daily right up until Amtrak.

It has been proposed that the one remnant of this once-proud lineage, Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, be rerouted some 790 miles off its current route through Raton Pass to the prominent BNSF Railway transcontinental mainline through Amarillo. This week, Mr. Jackson examines this proposition.

What Happens if the Southwest Chief is Rerouted?

Commentary by Russ Jackson, RailPAC

Every once in a while, the rerouting of Amtrak Trains 3 and 4, the Southwest Chief, off the traditional line from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Hutchinson, Kansas arises, because the line has virtually no BNSF freight traffic in Colorado and New Mexico any longer. That is a true statement. The railroad no longer uses the Chief, and has diverted through freights to the soon-to-be fully double-tracked "Transcon" line, farther south. This was the historic route of Santa Fe's San Francisco Chief prior to Amtrak. In recent months, Amtrak has been forced to add 40 minutes to the Chief's schedule due to a BNSF lowering of the speed limit on the very rough trackage in western Kansas and Colorado, such that Train 4 now departs Los Angeles at 6:15 PM. The BNSF has offered to move the train to the Transcon line, which as we will see, is more populated. The State of New Mexico now owns the line within its borders and runs the very successful Railrunner trains on the portion south of Santa Fe to Albuquerque. The BNSF still owns the rest.

Well then, what would happen if Amtrak had to abandon the line?

Would New Mexico pay to maintain the line through Raton Pass? Would Colorado step up and pay to maintain their portion of the line? Would Kansas pay? Would a "short line" purchase it, knowing there are almost no freight customers? Would Amtrak pay a higher share of the maintenance? Would anyone pay to rebuild it? Would the BNSF pay for a portion of an abandoned line? The answers to these questions are likely to be "No."

All right, then what would be lost in a reroute?

Certainly, there is the loss of the "absolutely spectacular and incomparable" scenic route through Raton Pass, as stated by URPA's Bruce Richardson, "but how many millions of dollars a year in track maintenance is that scenery worth?" In this case economics will eventually govern the results, even though Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman has said he is "not interested in" moving the train.

Here are the FY ‘09 Amtrak ridership and revenue statistics for the abandoned towns; but not including Albuquerque, as that ridership could be largely retained by having the Railrunner act as a shuttle to Belen, thereby avoiding Amtrak’s having to back up into Albuquerque.

Station FY09 Riders FY09 Revenue
Lamy, NM 13,012 $1,623,108
Las Vegas, NM 4,456 335,144
Raton, NM 15,066 1,572,789
La Junta, CO 6,809 658,928
Lamar, CO 1,722 162,363
Trinidad, CO 3,923 388,961
Dodge City, KS 4,248 429,647
Garden City, KS 6,930 712,501
Hutchinson, KS 4,045 396,749
Totals 60,211 $6,280,190

(Statistics found on Great American Stations)

To Amtrak Accounting, that might be "chump change," but to the people who live in those towns and use the train it can be a matter of life and death, just as was the case for the Empire Builder across North Dakota and Montana.

Yes, there is also a human cost. On my October trip to northern New Mexico, I stopped for a visit at the Las Vegas, NM, Amtrak station, which is not staffed by Amtrak but is the city's nicely-restored Intermodal Facility in the Historic Railroad District. Employees handle questions about Amtrak travel, and there is a Quik-Trak ticket machine.

Transportation Facility Manager Debra Trujillo was aware there was talk of a potential loss of the train, and expressed concern for her town's people, many of whom are senior citizens who would have no transportation alternative. Greyhound does not serve the town. She said many people ride the train to Albuquerque for medical appointments, or into Colorado to visit relatives. While dealing with Amtrak can be difficult, she is looking forward to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) stimulus-money-funded new, ADA-compliant platform; although as of the date of my visit, construction had not yet begun. I urged Manager Trujillo to let Amtrak and the political establishment know how important the train is to her city, and to muster the other cities on the route to do the same.

What would Amtrak gain by rerouting the train?

Many observers felt Amtrak should have also retained the San Francisco Chief when it began in 1971. To go into these towns now would mean they would be starting over, selling rail passenger service after 40 years of absence. Here are the current populations of the new station cities, not their metro areas. It is not a prediction of ridership, but one can certainly see the temptation to reach out to new customers. The towns listed below are not all the stations that were served by the Santa Fe's train, but are the most likely stops:

Station Population
Vaughn, NM (flag stop?) 463
Clovis-Portales, NM 45,124
Hereford, TX 14,455
Amarillo-Canyon, TX 200,183
(major university at Canyon)
Pampa, TX 17,204
Alva, OK 4,738
Woodward, OK 12,206
Wellington, KS 7,812
Wichita, KS 361,420

(Statistics from Rand McNally map book)

Eventually, the decision may be out of the hands of the cities, the railroad or Amtrak. That would be unfortunate and would probably be a big black eye for all. The BNSF's Joseph Faust told the Amarillo Globe-News on October 8 that Amtrak is free to use the freight tracks in Amarillo, but that option "would require a great deal of study." The historic passenger station is used by an auction house, but is still standing; as is the brick platform. Amtrak's Marc Magliari told the newspaper, "Right now (the delays) are not significant. Our intention is to stay on the current route."

This writer urges all parties to work to preserve this service area and work to restore the San Francisco Chief into the Amtrak long-distance system; yes, to San Francisco from Barstow, up the San Joaquin Valley. That would be a bonanza for Amtrak ridership and revenue. Years ago, the Amtrak agent in Stockton told me that he could fill a sleeping car on the train every day, in the old days. Think future, Amtrak!
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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 soirĂ©es 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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Thursday, December 09, 2010

Transit Service, Transit Service Area and Equality

Boring, OregonImage by shoseph via Flickr
Does a transit system provide service to the largest coverage area possible, or does it provide the most possible service to its highest ridership areas? In an perfect world a transit system would have the funding to do both. However, 75 years of government induced pro automotive growth has made it impossible for a transit system to do both.

At one time, most transit systems tried to provide service to the largest service area possible. While this allowed more people to use transit, the question had to be asked whether the transit system was loosing more passengers due to the lack of frequent service on its most important lines.

Over the last couple of decades transit systems have gone away from the philosophy of providing the maximum coverage to a system of maximum efficiency by providing more service and busy corridors and cutting service to outlining areas. The problem is that you leave some areas with only limited service and sometimes they do not feel they are getting their money's worth from their tax dollars.

This is a situation currently happening in Portland, Oregon. The city of Boring (yes, the town is called Boring), is not happy with the amount of transit service it is receiving from the local agency Tri-Met. The city of Boring contributes about $2 million a year in tax dollars to Tri-Met but only gets limited service primarily during rush hour.

It is easy to understand where the city of Boring is coming from. A large amount of tax money leaves the city and they do not see a lot of return from their investment. While it would be nice if they could see the big picture cities only look to their own self interest and over the next few years that may only get worse.

It is difficult for Tri-Met to justify increase spending to areas such as Boring. If you look at a map of the Boring area you would see that it is largely semi-rural exurb that is difficult to service with transit. One alternative Tri-Met could use for Boring would be to provide a cutaway van flex route that agencies such as the Utah Transit Authority and Denver RTD have implemented.

A few of Boring's Neighbors have chosen to leave Tri-Met and start their own transit systems. With the investment they are making in Tri-Met they could provide better service than they currently receive from the bigger agency which is what happened when Wilsonville, Oregon started its own transit agency.

The problem would be for the citizens that have to travel out of the Boring area into Portland proper. Wilsonville's SMART transit agency and Tri-Met do not accept the other agencies transfers which means riders have to pay twice to make a one way ride (however SMART is fare free so if you are using Tri-Met's WES commuter rail line you would only have to pay once but it runs during rush hours only).

Portland is not unique when it comes to having battles over the amount of transit service being received. Ultimately the area in question needs to decide for itself whether going on its own will out way the pitfalls of not having a single integrated transit system with the most service being provided where ridership is the highest.

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Friday, December 03, 2010

The Balancing Act of Paratransit Service

This is a sample of all services provided unde...Image via Wikipedia
I have commented many times on the difficulties presented to transit agencies with the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. One of the biggest difficulties is the bill created an unfunded mandate that transit agencies need to provide services to those with disabilities but provided no money to actually provide the service.

Notice, I am NOT saying that people with disabilities should not have transportation however, what we have to recognize the the service is costly and the funding has to come out of a transit agencies operating budget which means that route service has to be cut to provide paratransit service.

Depending on the transit agency, the average cost to provide service is anywhere from $25.00 to $35.00 per rider which is several times higher than providing regular bus service or even more times higher per passenger for most light rail services.

However, the ADA did not just require transit agencies to provide a totally separate transit system. It also required transit agencies to make their regular bus service accessible. At first this included adding wheel chair lifts. For some agencies such as RTD in Los Angeles this was not a big deal since they started ordering buses with wheelchair lifts back in 1977 with the 200 buses they received from American Motors General.

Gradually transit bus manufacturers and transit agencies transitioned from high floor buses with wheelchair lifts to low floor buses. While the wheelchair lifts were expensive to maintain the low floor buses have their own disadvantages including lower passenger capacity and other design issues.

To reduce the cost of Paratransit service transit service has a couple of alternatives to make it more efficient.

Once solution that many transit agencies have done is contracting out Paratransit service to private operators. Of course transit agencies are ripped to shreds over the service provided by the contractors and how they do not care about the disabled. The question has to be asked, since the service is essentially a glorified taxi service and not true transit service, are transit agencies doing the right thing by contracting out the service.

Another way to reduce the price of Paratransit service is for agencies to limit those who ride paratransit service to those most in need. Those who do not meet the standards for Paratransit service then have to ride regular bus service. While that reduces cost it is also fodder for activist and also slows down regular transit service since it takes longer to get those people on and off the bus service.

A third way that transit agencies are reducing the cost of Paratransit service is to only provide service to the 3/4 of a mile limit from a regular bus routes that is mandated federally. Once again this is extremely controversial and is blasted by those located outside that service area.

Finally you have the Flex and Call N Ride routes that Denver and Salt Lake have implemented that provides both regular route and off route service with small vans that substitute for regular paratransit service.

Whichever route a transit agency decides to take to reduce the cost of Paratransit service, they will be criticized for the decisions they will make. However, transit systems have a fine balancing act of providing transit service to the maximum number of people possible with limited funds (that are even more limited during these economic times).

Of course the ultimate solution would be to build livable cities that someone with limited mobility can get the services they need without long trips. One of the often overlooked aspects of livable development is that if people with disabilities are able to live with easy reach of businesses and services they use frequently, they fewer trips they will need on Paratransit service.

Until then transit agencies will have to continue to do the balancing act will continue between cost and needs.

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