Monday, February 14, 2011

This Week in Amtrak

Shinkansen 700T train head at Kaoshung depot, ...Image via Wikipedia
This week a tale of caution, a tale of woe, a tale of passenger rail investment in our 21st Century.

Beware the Law of Unintended Consequences

Basic physics teaches us that for every action there is a reaction. The sociologists tell us such reactions may bring unintended consequences; unanticipated and potentially undesirable outcomes. It is widely held that such unintended consequences fall into one of three categories: Positive, negative, and perverse (wherein the results of the reaction are opposite to what was intended). Prominent sociologist Robert Merton cited numerous reasons for this lack of foresight, but perhaps the most dangerous in the political arena is the “imperious immediacy of interest” wherein “…paramount concern of the immediate excludes consideration of further or other consequences …”

At this time last year, passenger rail was garnering more than its usual share of the public eye. This was entirely due to the Administration’s said goal of building “High-Speed Rail” projects all around the country, even likening these to the Federal Interstate Highway program of the 1950s. As a result, many states pulled their decades-old dreams for intrastate passenger trains off their respective shelves, shook off the dust, and slapped on “High-Speed Rail” labels. One of these was the state of Ohio which wrote, in part, in its High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Application of October 2009:

"During the past 35 years, the State of Ohio has continued planning for the reinstitution of passenger train service on its Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati corridor and vested several state agencies with that responsibility. In 1973, the Ohio Legislative Service Commission (LSC) moved to ‘study the feasibility’ of establishing a rapid transit system connecting Ohio’s ‘major cities’ in response to the Arab Oil Embargo. In 1977, the Ohio Rail Transportation Authority (ORTA) was created by the Ohio General Assembly to continue feasibility planning. In 1979, the Ohio legislature passed a law urging neighboring states to join them in exploring the potential for the development of a regional rail system within the Great Lakes Region. Following the 1982 defeat of a statewide sales tax initiative to advance high speed rail service, ORTA was abolished and its staff moved to the Ohio Department of Transportation.

“The initiative advanced in 1991 when the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) was enacted funding safety improvements at highway-rail grade crossings on corridors that were ‘designated’ as high-speed intercity passenger rail corridors based on their present utility and their potential for future development. It was in 2000 that the FRA designated the 3C Corridor as an extension of the Chicago Hub network and included the primary points or cities along the line: Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati.

“Subsequent and current initiatives to advance passenger rail service in Ohio have been the responsibility of the ORDC, which was established by the Ohio General Assembly in 1994. In 1996, ORDC joined the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative (MWRRI), which calls for the development of a ‘Chicago Hub’ a system envisioned as a 3,000-mile rail system with eight passenger corridors serving 60 million people in a nine state region. The most current Midwest Regional Rail System (MWRRS) Plan report was issued in October 2004.”

Another of these was the state of Wisconsin. Although its rail aspirations were not as long-lived as Ohio, Wisconsin did bring its checkbook. In July 2009, the state entered an agreement with Talgo America to purchase two train sets for $47 million. As part of that agreement, Talgo would establish an assembly plant within the state’s borders. In doing so it would set the standard for the Midwest. Its High-Speed plan, also of October 2009, was the guideline for reintroducing service of some 85 miles between the state capital of Madison and Milwaukee. Although tagged with the “High-Speed” label the proposed service would never have exceeded 110 mph. The plan read in part:

“WisDOT is the lead state for the [Midwest Regional Rail Initiative] and will manage the efforts of the Steering Committee to identify the preferred train set equipment type. WisDOT also is involved in the nationwide effort to identify and acquire the preferred train set equipment through their involvement in the Next Generation Corridor Equipment Committee (mandated by the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, Section 3605).”

Talgo, for its part, kept its end of the bargain. They set up shop in the former Tower Automotive facility in Milwaukee with the promise of jobs in an area perpetually hit by hard times. The train sets to be delivered are of the new Talgo Series VIII, which are to be fully FRA-compliant and needing no waivers. The two sets ordered in 2009 will be placed in service on the existing Chicago - Milwaukee Hiawatha service. (The state of Oregon also ordered two sets, also to be built in Wisconsin.) It was initially hoped that two more train sets would be ordered for the expanded Madison - Milwaukee service. Ultimately, a new maintenance facility would be established in Madison.

At face value, this seemed like a good idea; a state connecting its largest city to its capital. New Mexico accomplished the same in 2008 when it connected Albuquerque with Santa Fe; however, the New Mexico Rail Runner has the look and feel of a commuter train, and has a total length of 97 miles. Recently the Commonwealth of Virginia announced its intention to connect its second largest city, Norfolk, with the state capital of Richmond, a distance of 109 miles. At no time in either case was the moniker “High-Speed” ever used or applied.

As with most parties these days, however, after the champagne stops flowing and the music stops playing, comes the stark dawn of day. The HSR party was no different. This ersatz High-Speed Rail was deemed as grossly indulgent in an era of austerity. New regimes elected to high office in Ohio and Wisconsin view HSR as too rich for their blood. Both new projects have been canceled, and the Federal monies reallocated to other states.

Talgo, for its part, will continue to hold up its end of the bargain; however, instead of filling the 125 positions originally projected, it will fill just 65. The four train sets on order for Wisconsin and Oregon will be completed by 2012. If no new orders are secured by then, the Milwaukee plant will only be used as a maintenance base for Wisconsin’s equipment. [As we go to press it has been reported Talgo shall move its operation to Illinois. Details of this shall be forthcoming.]

It was believed by many that these projects of Ohio and Wisconsin were reasonable -- and realistic -- due to their basic nature. Despite the “High-Speed” label, they were really in fact just a return to the past, with schedules that would not have been out of pace just two or three generations ago. Since these were really conventional trains and not the gold-plated fast trains of another continent, it was hoped those in charge would see past the HSR-“imperious immediacy of interest“; however, this was not to be. Even though all that glitters is not gold if it is perceived by the public to be gold, then it is a target. And whereas the call was for “High-Speed Rail” to be built around the country, it appears its collapse will doom many conventional rail projects as well. Can any other reaction be more “perverse?”

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