Monday, May 23, 2011

This Week in Amtrak

Amtrak Coast Starlight (Train 14) northbound a...Image via Wikipedia
This Week at Amtrak Vol. 8 No. 9
Volume 8, Number 9

From the Editors…

For something completely different, This Week goes to the movies, plus some observations by URPA Vice President of Corporate Communications Russ Jackson.

The Little Movie that Just Might: Atlas Shrugged, Part One

To be clear, Atlas Shrugged may not win any Academy awards. But that is not the point. The tale behind bringing Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel to the big screen is almost as long as the book itself. Loathed or loved, public sentiment is anything but neutral for Atlas Shrugged.

In this first of possibly three installments, the year is 2016 and the national economy continues to spiral downward. As a result, commercial aviation is a recent memory and all traffic, freight and passenger, must move by rail. (It is ironic that in this alternate reality all rail traffic is still in the hands of private operators.) In typical Luddite fashion, elected officials attempt to garner support for themselves while exacting a heavy burden from industry. The result? Numerous prominent businessmen vanish, following a shadow named John Galt.

From a literary standpoint, the movie succeeds. All the main points are visited: Hard work, and the virtue of the reward for such hard work, lead to progress; rewarding those who do not contribute will ultimately lead to ruin; the inequity of expecting industry to respond to critics whose sole job it is to criticize. That is not, however, the reason one goes to the movie theater.

This production was constrained by a small budget, and the results have the appearance of made-for-television instead of the big screen. The principal railroad scenes are stock footage of modern day trains and a real Union Pacific track maintenance/concrete tie crew in Indiana. The climax of the film is the completion of the rebuilding of a rail line, and the first train to ply it. Ironically, that first train is a computer-generated image which is heavily based on Amtrak’s Acela, the very epitome of government interference in railroad operations.

As a point of comparison, a rather silly movie from last year, Unstoppable, did succeed in bringing the railroad to the big screen. Although its plot was an unrealistic contrivance of unstoppable exaggerations, the moviegoer did get a first-hand look at the grit, grime and gravity of railroad life.

In Atlas Shrugged, the plot centers around three industries: The railroad, steel, and petroleum. Malevolent special interest government intrusion is hampering their efforts, but they resolve to move ahead despite this interference. The film makers concentrate on the characters and portrayal of the squeaky-clean world they inhabit. After all, why show the gritty side of industry? Interestingly, the plot of this film is not fantasy, but was once reality. Our film’s heroine, Dagny Taggart, presides over a railroad where locomotive parts are hard to come by, and some lines have track that is over a century old. Imagine Penn Central circa 1972. Imagine parked trains derailing. Now imagine direct government involvement. Hardly fantasy, these things actually happened. It was this world which led to creation of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation.

Should the film makers have paid more attention to railroad details? At a screening/Q&A session arraigned by the Reason Foundation, the first two questions asked by the audience were about the railroad scenes. Not too many people have seen the inside of a steel foundry or an oil refinery, but railroads are a universal tie which binds us all, either as onetime passengers or perhaps via family connections. This preexisting subconscious familiarity with railroading is just the sort of connection needed to attract an audience.

In spite of it all, the film does work. It is rather dense, and as such will sail clear over the heads of the average moviegoer. It is a thinking movie for a thinking audience. Is the free market the answer to all our problems? Of course not; but neither is the free market so infinitely large as to subsidize everything else. Some may see this as a political statement, others as social commentary. In the words of Alfred Hitchcock, “It’s only a movie.”

Winter and the Amtrak long distance trains
Report and Comments by Russ Jackson

The western long distance trains had a rough winter in the northern two-thirds of the country. Some trains were canceled altogether for several days. Here is a rundown of some of the activity, by train, in the past few weeks. Not everything is included, but here are some highlights, using Amtrak's data. When April is figured in, things will look much worse.

California Zephyr. 45.2% on time in March, 52.5% for the last 12 months. For several days, Donner Pass was closed not only to road traffic on I-80, but also the Union Pacific main line was snowed in as drifts of over five feet of blowing snow blocked access. While there was diligence by the UP crews, there were several derailments. For the first time in many years, the rotary plows stationed at Roseville were called into service. The old heads who remember how it was up there when snows like that were more common are mostly retired, and the youngsters have never seen snow like this before. The weather is still bad, but the route is open again so that Trains #5/6 can run their regular route. Train 5, which left Chicago on April 16 on time, arrived in Emeryville 3 days later and 58 minutes early. Delays to the trains now are in southern Iowa, where flooding has occurred. For some days the trains originated-terminated at Reno, with passengers bused from California when I-80 finally opened. To see a great video of the rotary plows in operation, look at

Empire Builder. 33.6% on time in March, 33.8% for the last 12 months. The Builder was the hardest hit of all the western trains. It did not run at all for many days, including the week before April 15, when it had not operated due to flooding on the BNSF in North Dakota. Before that it was winter storms, but once the snow starts to melt up in that state, Amtrak's line from Fargo to Grand Forks and west is subject to water problems. An anticipated BNSF detour line direct from Fargo to Minot had many slow orders due to high water, and was declared unusable. Amtrak has discussed permanently moving #7/8 to this alternate line, but it will bypass Grand Forks, Devils Lake, and Rugby, towns that rely on the train for service. Amtrak has said it will cost $100 million in upgrades to bridges and track in the Devils Lake area if that service is to continue. The BNSF does not use that route for freight service. It would take two "construction seasons" to rebuild, after Congress had appropriated the money. How likely is that to happen now?

Southwest Chief. 83.9% on time in March, 77.8% for the last 12 months. Not much to say here, as Trains #3/4 continued to depart on time, and arrived early at both ends more than they were late.

Sunset Limited. 88.9% on time in March, 83.1% for the last 12 months; however, problems arose when wildfires damaged a Union Pacific bridge near Marfa, Texas, on April 9, stalling the train for 18 hours; thus weather at the other extreme affected the Sunset route.

Coast Starlight. 45.2% on time in March, 65% for the last 12 months. Winter weather did have an effect on the operation of Trains #11/14, but most of the problems have come due to track work being done by the Union Pacific south of San Jose and San Luis Obispo, which has required the trains to be detoured, and has provided railfans with several chances to ride the detour route through the San Joaquin Valley. The detour began south of Emeryville at Fremont, where the trains crossed the Altamont Pass to Stockton, then traveled on the Union Pacific line south to Bakersfield, up the Tehachapis, across the famous Loop, through Mojave, Lancaster, Palmdale, and into Los Angeles. For a full description of one of the #11 detours that departed Oakland Jack London Square 30 minutes late and arrived at Los Angeles Union Station at 9:57 PM, see Chris Guenzler's picture story on Passengers going south to the Starlight's regular Central Coast stations rode buses from Oakland.

Whether Amtrak and its host railroads were "prepared" for this winter is ripe for speculation, but when a winter like this one happens it's nail biting time all along the routes. We congratulate Amtrak, the BNSF, and the UP for their diligence in restoring service in a timely manner. Lessons were learned, and it will be interesting to see how prepared they all are next winter.

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1 comment:

Terry Cantwell said...

Thank you for your very objective critique of Atlas Shrugged Part 1.
The movie has its flaws but is very true to the book. I was surprised to see an Amtrak fan speak so well of this film.

The irony comes in the second section of your blog. On time service of Amtrak appears to below 50% much of the time. In related articles “Amtrak Losses to Widen” and “All aboard! Amtrak sees surge in ridership”

Personally I love rail travel. I have used Amtrak from Albany to Buffalo and Seattle to Portland. For two years in Australia Sydney City Rail was my main transportation. The Australians have a rail system that is very nice. It is funded by a tax on gasoline which makes their gasoline twice the price Americans pay.

All we can ask is... Who is John Galt?