Monday, May 23, 2011

Finding an Apartment

Union Station in Portland, Oregon, USA.Image via Wikipedia
For those of you that have ever looked for an apartment, especially for those of us that want to use transit, you come to find most of the resources available online for finding an apartment mostly useless. While some apartments may show that they are close to transit or close to shopping, most of the websites fail to give you a good idea exactly how easy it is to access those services.

A week ago Saturday I flew to Portland in order to find a new place to live when we move. I think of myself as pretty web savy so I have done lots of research over the last six months since we made the decision to go back to school to try to find the right place for us.

For someone not familiar with a city this could be a daunting task. I have an advantage that I am actually familiar with the Portland area and know where to look and not look for a place to live. However, I still do not know the ins and outs of many of the neighborhoods themselves.

I do have to give a kudos to For Rent which is now including a walkscore map of the neighborhood the apartment to give you a better idea how far you have to walk to find necessary services.While that does help apartment searchers it still does not offer all the information that someone may need to find an apartment.

When I was doing research I would often have four or five windows up trying to find all the information necessary. I would have the apartment rental sights on one page, Tri-Met's website on a second, Google Maps on a third, apartment ratings on a fourth, and a fifth for other information.

Fortunately I was able to find a good apartment with excellent transit access at a good price.

However, this points out the lack of resources available through most transit system websites. Most sites are destinations with few links to get information you need beyond riding the system. Transit systems need to look at their websites not only to provide transit information but also a portal for those looking to not only ride the system but also be less car dependent.

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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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Monday, May 02, 2011

This Week in Amtrak - Amtrak's 40th Anniversary Edition

Acela Express power car 2000 at BWI Rail StationImage via Wikipedia
Volume 8, Number 8

From the Editors…

For those who have not noticed, Amtrak is now a four-decade-old reality. Is this the best we could hope for?

Fix Amtrak First

May 1, 2011 marks a major anniversary in American railroading. For some it is a celebration. For others it is a bittersweet regret. For a few, it means keeping their vocation. Then there are those who find political opportunity.

To be sure, the world which led to the creation of Amtrak is now a distant memory. In 1970, despite ever growing ton-miles, America’s railroads were in trouble. In the Northeast over a half-dozen carriers were mere decrepit shells of their former glory, and one by one would follow Penn Central into bankruptcy. The Milwaukee Road and Rock Island of the Midwest teetered on the brink of insolvency, seeking relief by shrinking their physical plants or by mergers. Out West, the Southern Pacific, once the third largest industrial corporation in the country, sought relief through merger and passenger train-offs. Otherwise healthy roads in the Southeast and West knew only too well that their future fortunes were inextricably tied to continued interconnectivity in the nation as a whole. Over six decades of burdensome Federal overregulation was threatening to wipe railroading from the American landscape.

Meanwhile, the rest of the country was aiming ever higher. Man landed on the moon. Commercial supersonic flight was becoming a reality. The basic interstate highway system framework was complete with no impediment, financial or physical, to its construction. Nevertheless, America could not survive without its railroads, and the powers-that-be knew this.

The simple reality is that Amtrak was created, not to save the passenger train, but rather to save the freight rail network. In a stopgap move created to relieve the railroads of their financial malaise, the government established the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, first known as Railpax, and today known as Amtrak. All eligible (non-commuter) railroads were invited to participate. All but seven joined. This was merely a Band-Aid for the industry. A much larger bandage would be the Federal takeover of the Northeast railroads in 1976, in the form of Consolidated Rail Corporation, or ConRail. The ultimate corrective surgery would be passage of the Staggers Act of 1980 and deregulation of much of the industry. ConRail would be privatized in 1987 and ultimately broken up in 1999. Through it all, the Band-Aid that is Amtrak remains.

Now with nationalized intercity passenger service a reality for four decades, the world is a much different place. We are no longer a nation capable of visiting the moon. Commercial supersonic flight ended almost a decade ago. The cost to return the interstate highway system to a state of good repair is estimated in the “hundreds of billions of dollars,” money the nation simply does not have. Now more than ever the nation is in need of a comprehensive and coherent passenger rail system, not a Band-Aid. In order to achieve this there is one unavoidable step: Fix Amtrak first.

True, there have been past attempts at fixing Amtrak’s woes. The most recent was the Amtrak Reform Council of the last decade. It was during this period that many Amtrak apologists obfuscated, and demanded from any who questioned Amtrak’s worthiness to “define reform.” Well, in just the last 18-24 months Amtrak has fired its Inspector General for ostensibly doing his job; after losing the contract to operate Virginia’s commuter trains, Amtrak began systematically harassing the winning bidder, Keolis, in what may or may not have been an attempt to get the contract back. In Florida, Amtrak demanded unnecessary concessions from a not-yet-running commuter railroad, SunRail, for reasons that are still nebulous. Suffice it to say there is plenty of room for improvement at Amtrak; actions such as the above at any private corporation would have warranted legal and/or disciplinary action.

Amtrak’s foibles have not been lost on the current administration. The cry for High-Speed Rail was followed by requests of interest; not from Amtrak, but rather from the states, directly. With this end-run around Amtrak, it was hoped the rebuilding of passenger railroading could be achieved sans the bureaucratic black hole of business as usual. The results were spectacular failures in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Florida. If there is to be a renaissance of passenger trains, Amtrak is no longer a can to kick down the road.

Although there is no quick fix, there are steps which could aid in the recovery of national passenger rail service. The best place to start would be at the top: The Amtrak board of directors. Since 2008, the Amtrak Board should have had nine members; currently there are eight. Of these, seven are life-long bureaucrats with only one from a professional railroading background. As Amtrak is a ward of the State, this is to be expected, but it was not the original intent:

"Once the corporation was set up, it was placed under the responsibility of management working under a 15-man board of directors. Eight of the directors were to be appointed by the President, and one of the eight always was to be the Secretary of Transportation. None of these eight directors nor any officer of the corporation was allowed to have any connections with the railroads. Three additional directors were to be elected by common stockholders and four by preferred stockholders. Initially, common stock was to be issued only to railroads and preferred stock only to persons other than railroads. In short, the corporation mainly was to be owned by the railroads, but all the decisions were to be made by a board composed largely of Presidential appointees." - Don Phillips, Railpax Rescue, Journey to Amtrak, 1972.

Obviously, the original plan for the Board did not pan out. All of Amtrak’s preferred stock is held by the government and much of the common stock is still held by the railroads. As these shares are deemed worthless, they are not much of a basis upon which to run a corporation; however, there is a very significant difference between then and now. In 1971, there were over five dozen Class One railroads. Today there are only seven, six of which handle daily Amtrak trains.

Adding seven seats to the existing nine-member Board would come close to the original plan of 15 members. Of these seven new seats on the Amtrak Board of Directors, six seats would be from those Class Ones, and one would be a representative from the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA). Why? This ensures there are at least seven people on the Amtrak Board who understand business and understand railroading. By design, Amtrak is meant to be a quasi-public corporation. The addition of seven members from the private sector will ensure a professional atmosphere in accordance with generally accepted business practices. These seven new members would balance with the existing nine board members, selected and confirmed from the public sector, guaranteeing the public’s input to “America’s Railroad.” If leadership from the private sector were allowed to re-allocate available Federal capital to applications that would yield the highest return per dollar invested (as opposed to political goals), then Amtrak’s financial outlook might not be so dismal. Also, as seen with commuter passenger services provided under contract by some freight railroads such as BNSF in Chicago, they still know a thing or two about passenger operations.

Every aspiring manager is warned of a common human tendency of subordinates: The ever-present gravitation toward those projects that are favorites, to the neglect of other projects which may be priority. To that end, it becomes necessary to remove the Northeast Corridor from Amtrak. This is not to imply a lack of importance for the NEC. A large number of people live in the Northeast, but the majority of Americans do not. Even before Amtrak, the U.S. Department of Transportation singled out fast trains as reflected in the High Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1966, which led to the DOT's sponsorship of the Metroliners on Penn Central. Ever since the NEC was ceded to Amtrak in the fire sale that was the end of the Penn Central, Amtrak’s myopic attention has continuously returned to those 450 miles of track between Boston and Washington, D.C., consuming a half billion dollars or more a year in Federal support. What about the other 20,000 miles? Due to the unique nature of the NEC, it should be grounded in its own reality; a separate board of governance, and its own budget separate from the national network. Congress has mandated that all corridor services be operated in a uniform manner (read, state subsidy) by 2015. Now would be an opportune time to place the NEC where it belongs.

Obviously there are other issues plaguing American passenger railroading: Deteriorating equipment, eyesore stations, growing tonnage on the rationalized freight railroads, outdated labor practices, etc. These will all have to be addressed in time. For now, it is time to take that “first step,” the initial change in direction departing from the status quo, intent on a new destination. Up until now, Amtrak has been deemed too small to register with the body politic, but too large to simply dispense with entirely; now, however, is a different time. Passenger rail is no longer a luxury subsidized out of the national largesse. Passenger trains are the ever-present and ever-growing lynch pin of transportation. Future growth will be predicated on the present amelioration of the business-as-usual Amtrak. Is this not what we, the people, should deserve and should expect?

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