Tuesday, January 18, 2011

This Week in Amtrak

ViewlinerImage by Madbuster75 via Flickr
From the Editors…
And now a (highly) condensed look at the year past through the eyes of This Week at Amtrak.

2010, A.D. [Amtrak Defined]
As we enter our eighth year of publication, we find the world of passenger railroading in a greater-than-usual state of flux. Obviously, the biggest curveball thrown may be summed up in three little words: High- Speed Rail. After the “Vision for High-Speed Rail” and High-Speed Rail guidelines of 2009, we waited in expectation for January 28, when $8 billion worth of specific American Recovery and Reinvestment Act rail projects would be announced. It took months for the euphoria to subside. Then came reality; mid-term election candidates began to run on platforms advocating stoppage of HSR projects in their respective states. Freight railroads found the punitive federal guidelines “surprising” and “frightening.”

Then things got interesting.

On January 5, after an initial one-year term as President, Joseph H. Boardman was granted (by the Amtrak Board) a permanent position. On January 11, an Amtrak press release announced, “AMTRAK READY WITH BIG PLANS FOR 2010 -- New Year brings major projects and new initiatives.” This was hardly the first announcement heralding “big plans.” As with so many other forward-looking statements of years past, this was generally received with a sigh. As events would later prove, however, some rather big things did actually happen.

March 6 saw the first Town Hall meeting co-sponsored by Amtrak and Trains Magazine. Well-attended and featuring the presence of Amtrak Chairman Tom Carper, as well as Joe Boardman, there were those inside the corporation who decried this “foamers’ forum.” Even so, there was positive dialogue about photography and updates on equipment rebuilding at the Beech Grove Repair Facility, using stimulus money. A train of three cars and a locomotive were on display for all in attendance to tour (and photograph).

March 31 was the end of an era at Amtrak. Cliff Black, long-time (and long-suffering) Chief of Communications and employee since 1981, retired. For years, it had been his quotes, his voice which represented Amtrak to the general public. Through each change of leadership at Amtrak, and there were several, the one constant had been Black's deft handling of the news media. Any of us seeking good honest information knew Cliff Black was the man to see. While keeping on-message for his employer, he never led the news media astray; an amazing feat in today's world of journalism. Suffice it to say, this is a retirement well earned and richly deserved.

July 23 brought what was perhaps the biggest, most jaw-dropping initiative undertaken by Amtrak all year, and possibly all decade: The order for 130 new Viewliner 2 single level cars with an option for 70 more to replace the remaining Heritage baggage cars and diners. Was this shocking turn due to a previously-unrealized corporate need? No. As far back as 15 years ago, Amtrak's then-president Thomas Downs described the remaining Heritage cars in service as “junk.” Was this, then, as a result of a sudden jump in demand for sleeping car space on eastern trains? No. Sleeper space has been at a premium, especially in the East, since the retirement of the last Heritage sleepers in 2006. Ever since the 50-unit fleet of Viewliner sleeping cars entered service in 1995-96, we have been waiting for the rest of the Viewliner fleet to supplant the last of the Heritage fleet. We have waited… and waited… and waited. When Amtrak announced, on January 11, “a comprehensive and detailed plan to replace and expand its fleet of locomotives and passenger railcars” they could have warned us that this time they really meant it.

The Washington Times of September 12 reported on a Congressional probe of the sudden ouster of Amtrak Inspector General Fred Weiderhold, the previous year. Quoting from draft copy, “Because of his expertise, the [Amtrak] Board viewed Weiderhold as a threat.” Also found were “excessive fees” paid to outside law firms by Amtrak’s Law Department and, due to the circumstances surrounding Mr. Weiderhold’s departure, “It was not a truly voluntary resignation as Amtrak management had suggested in public statements.” There was some attention given in the Halls of Congress which, thus far, has amounted to nothing beyond lip service. But as Chicago Cubs fans are used to saying, “maybe next year.”

On October 16, a Norfolk Southern freight train departing Enola Yard across the river from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, en route to Hagerstown, Maryland and points South, derailed in downtown Harrisburg. The rear of the train was still west of the Amtrak station, precluding the eastbound Pennsylvanian from entering. Many will use such an incident to demonize the freight railroads and to call for building separate tracks. Ironically, that is exactly what NS has been attempting to accomplish in the area for a number of years. Currently, when freight trains to or from the south enter or depart Enola Yard, they are required to cross the Susquehanna River twice (and pass the Amtrak station), a process which adds hours to transit times. NS has been working with the State to rebuild a former connection on the south side of Enola Yard at Lemoyne. The process has been held up for the usual political reasons (concerning which a boxcar could not care less). Until this has resolution, efficiency will suffer. Passenger rail will suffer. Egos will continue to be stroked. A similar incident occurred July 2, and for what? For less than 1,300 feet of track. Sometimes the answer really is that simple.

Also in October came an admission of the obvious. One year earlier, the contract to run the Virginia Railway Express commuter service, held by Amtrak for 18 years, was awarded to the French company Keolis. Amtrak did not like this intrusion into its turf. As documented by veteran reporter Don Phillips, “The battle then turned bitter, and Amtrak and its unions turned nasty. Union officials made it clear to employees that if they signed with Keolis, they would be fired immediately by Amtrak and permanently blacklisted. Crews who agreed to stay with Amtrak not only received a $5,000 bonus but were guaranteed a job. Amtrak, meanwhile, even tried to hire crews laid off from New Jersey Transit who had been approached by Keolis. The idea was to prevent Keolis from hiring enough crews to run the system by takeover day, June 28.” Yet, in spite of all the chicanery and dirty tricks Keolis did begin service (albeit delayed) and continues to operate. By October of 2010, Amtrak President Joe Boardman finally admitted, “We know we did not provide the right answers,” and “I see a lot more competition coming forward.” Amtrak considers itself to be the sole keeper of American passenger railroading. Considering its isolationist history, this is understandable; however, the word is getting around that there are others willing to ante up to the table. Amtrak has promised to behave. Will it?

Finally, on December 20, Norfolk Southern and the Commonwealth of Virginia entered an agreement to reintroduce passenger service to Norfolk. This is funded by “an $87 million Rail Enhancement Fund grant” which, when translated into English, means these are state monies, not Federal or ARRA grant. Yes Virginia, there really are states who take the initiative in their passenger rail programs.

2010 promised to be the year of “High-Speed Rail.” Ultimately, it came in like a lion and went out like a lamb. HSR was touted as the savior of our economy; an engine for creating jobs in much the same way as the Interstate Highway System of two generations ago. Rhetoric was thick. Substance was lacking. The proposed fast trains look sleek and sexy, but where is the business case to justify them? No one is against creating jobs, but with at least $8 billion in the offing, the question is begged: Is this a good, sustainable transportation policy?

Perhaps the biggest story in passenger rail is the one that did not happen.

Amtrak’s manifesto of January 11 predicted, in part, “the purchase of several hundred single-level and bi-level long distance passenger railcars and more than a hundred locomotives.” New Viewliners were ordered in July, followed by a contract for new electrics in October. Unlike many of the HSR initiatives, these orders have had no political opposition. Yet as 2010 wrapped up, there were no “bi-level long distance passenger railcars” on the horizon. As pointed out by Andrew Selden, URPA Vice President, “This is the one application of capital available to Amtrak that promises a quick and positive return on incremental invested capital. No other investment opportunity, honestly accounted for using GAAP measures, offers anything even close to this. Yet Amtrak refuses to pursue it.”

As the year has drawn to a close, the same basic route map remains in place. Apologists are grateful the map has not shrunk any further. Advocates wonder why, in an era of so much talk of rail, the map is not growing. The Sunset Limited still does not venture any further East than New Orleans, and is carried on Amtrak’s daily status as "Hurricane`Katrina' Aftermath & Service Adjustments - Sunset Limited: Normal service resumed 03Nov05, with the exception of Trains 1 and 2 between Orlando and New Orleans."

True, there was much more talk about passenger rail this past year than in recent memory. The small order for equipment was positive, yet after so many years of benign neglect, this can hardly be counted as a fresh start. “What is needed most in 2011, following what happened in 2010, is a better, more rigid plan for creating new trains which have a higher guarantee of success and financial reward, instead of becoming yet another burden on the overburdened taxpayers,” said Bruce Richardson, URPA President.

As the afterglow of the latest surge in HSR interest fades into memory, it is clear that sleek, fast trains do not exist in a vacuum. Around the real high-speed world, fast trains succeed as part of a vast integrated network; the trains, by themselves, would be nothing more than pricey tourist attractions. Amtrak would appear to have figured this out, as evidenced by its current equipment orders, and wish list from last January. Unless projects of this type are embraced, to build upon the few successes of this past year, then the whole enterprise is for naught; hopefully, it will not be too little, too late.

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