Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

From the Wall Street Journal

Here is a “letter to the editor” that really sets things straight. It is a response to the highly favorable story which ran just a few days ago in the same paper.

Meant to Commit Suicide, Amtrak Does a Hercules
August 31, 2007; Page A7

Crowds do indeed heed Amtrak’s “All Aboard” (Aug. 23) and have since it was created 37 years ago, despite the fact it was incorporated as a political contrivance to relieve private railroads of their obligations, and to then go quietly out of business. Since 1970 Amtrak’s strengths have somehow outweighed its weaknesses as it has struggled to serve many different masters seeking many conflicting political, economic and social goals. Despite being created in order to commit suicide, Amtrak has performed with Herculean (or, perhaps, Sisyphian) fortitude.

The notion that Northeast Corridor passenger service will somehow be improved by stripping Amtrak of its permanent capital assets is a cynical ploy. A similar scheme in England proved to be a hugely expensive, deadly mistake. If Balkanizing railroad operations and divorcing them from integral assets such as utility corridors, real estate development rights is such a good idea, why don’t other Class One railroads hasten to do it?

Describing the administration’s plan to provide states with “matching” funds for intercity passenger rail service also left unmentioned that national highway funding has for years been split 80%/20% federal/state, while the Bush administration’s proposal was 50/50.

Peter Hine
New York

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy

The latest from Taiwan

Things are changing all over the world, just not here. This is a highlight from an extended article in the Taiwan Review. It is a “must read” for any rail advocate.

In fact the new rail link will have as profound an effect on the thinking of Taiwanese as the original western line. By reducing the travel time between its two termini to a mere 90 minutes, the high-speed railway is destined to suburbanize Taiwan’s entire west coast. It will be possible to live anywhere along the route and work anywhere else. Going from the capital to Kaohsiung for a business meeting will no longer involve a tiring journey and an overnight stay. Nor will traveling in the other direction to take part in Taipei’s diverse cultural life. The island has suddenly become a lot smaller.

The high-speed railway, super fast, ultra efficient, comfortable, is something of which Taiwan can be proud, and in which, in a very real way, it is a groundbreaker. Of course Taiwan is not the first place to have high-speed trains. But the problems involved in constructing such a system, much of it elevated, in Taiwan’s seismically active terrain have been considerable. There were also doubts as to whether the demand for such a service even existed. Passenger levels since the service’s opening have proved that “if you build it, they will come.”

It is in the nature of the relationship between the railway’s operator, Taiwan High Speed Rail Corp. (THSRC), and the government, however, that the railway is really groundbreaking. The railway is a build-operate-transfer project and, at US$15 billion, the world’s biggest to date. Criticisms have been leveled at both THSRC and the government’s transportation ministry for lacking a proper understanding of their roles. Yet the simple fact is that, no other country has a project so big and so complex, being run on such a basis. Taiwan cannot copy other countries’ best practice because there is almost nothing to copy. In this sense Taiwan is genuinely innovatory and the high-speed rail link will provide lessons on infrastructure finance and management of huge significance to any developed or developing country.

Filed under: International High Speed Rail

Michigan’s quest for the “iron clad” contract

Good luck to the many public officials and conscientious citizens trying to nail down what looks like an honest shortline rail carrier on keeping Amtrak service standards. Here is part of the fine editorial running in today’s Battle Creek Enquirer which points out a local ridership of 54,000 annually.

Watco officials told local leaders Wednesday that the plan, already submitted to the federal Surface Transportation Board for approval, calls for passenger service to continue, with possibly as much as $20 million spent in the first three years to maintain or upgrade the track.

That is reassuring, but we think local officials are right to continue to press for ironclad guarantees that Amtrak service will continue, even if the business deal fails to be profitable for Watco. Such guarantees are necessary because the plan is not business as usual. There are virtually no other places in the nation where Amtrak runs on track maintained by short-line railroads, such as Watco.

Southern Michigan cannot risk losing passenger rail service. That can only be assured if any change-of-ownership agreement includes clear, indisputable language guaranteeing it.

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy, Regional USA Passenger Rail

Three maglev employees charged over fatal German crash

And the news is not always good.

An unthinkable error led to 23 deaths during a maglev test run. While European high speed trains operate at 200 mph without incident, any glitch for the new technology casts an ugly cloud over further development. It is worth noting that the failure was not with the train system but inattentive human beings.

Here is a link and highlights.

he high-speed magnetic levitation (maglev) Transrapid train collided at 170 kilometres (105 miles) an hour with a parked maintenance vehicle last September on a test track near Lathen, a western town near the Dutch border.

The 23 victims of the crash included 10 employees from the RWE energy company who were riding the train as part of a business trip. Two Americans were also killed.

Transrapid is designed and built by engineering giants Siemens and ThyssenKrupp. The collision has cast a shadow over efforts to market the revolutionary train that ‘floats’ above its track and can travel at up to 450 kilometres per hour.

The only Transrapid train in commercial use is in China where the train, known as the Maglev, whisks travellers between Shanghai’s financial district and the city’s Pudong airport along a 30-kilometre track.

But it has been on hold in Europe since the crash.

Those charged include the control room operator, the manager of the test track and his predecessor in the job.

Filed under: International High Speed Rail

Austin Statesman takes on airport overcrowding

Some of these guys in Texas are darned smart. Take, for example, the editorial board at the Austin Statesman. They are thinking seriously about the major transport issues which have recently become more apparent, and not taking the standard cliche answers.

The airlines are pushing Congress to start shopping for remedies. One would be replacing 50-year-old analog radar technology with more efficient, more accurate global positioning technology. That multibillion-dollar advance would allow more planes in the air at a time because controllers would have more precise information on where planes are, meaning they could fly closer together. That would translate to more efficient use of air space.

The question, of course, is who pays. The airlines want corporate and private airplane owners to step up and pay a bigger share. Congress needs to act on this quickly, because demand for air space will only increase over the next decade. More than 1 billion passengers will be demanding space on domestic flights over the next 10 years — a 33 percent increase over today.

Every time a new low-cost airline spreads its wings, the more demand on airport space, the more competition for pilots and the more work for controllers. And we haven’t even mentioned baggage handlers yet.

During the first six months of 2007, the number of mishandled baggage items rose 25 percent and the number of complaints increased nearly 50 percent, the worst since the federal government started keeping those statistics in 1995.

Putting more teeth into the airline passengers bill of rights is something else Congress can do. But realistically, an overhaul that will encompass space, labor and air traffic management issues is only a start.

A really ambitious project would be financing high speed rail alternatives to air travel along popular routes to lighten the demand for passenger planes.

This isn’t just a matter of comfort or convenience, either. The overloaded system also has a price tag: Delays cost almost $10 billion a year in lost employee productivity, jet fuel and just plain wasted time.

Congress has got to start somewhere, and the sooner the better. Sorry to cut this short, but we’ve got a flight to catch.

Filed under: Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy, United States High Speed Rail

Joe Biden addresses transportation issues

He was in Keokuk, Iowa talking to a partisan crowd about Iraq and the economy when Senator Biden got a question about transportation spending. The Gate City carries a lengthy report.

You are looking at Mr. Transportation,” he said in response to a question about using an electrified rail system like Europe’s. “I am the reason Amtrak keeps moving.”

It costs considerably more money to build one lane of highway than to lay one mile of track, he added.

“We are doing the exact opposite of what we should be doing,” he said.

The cost of updating the country’s infrastructure has been estimated at $1.7 trillion, much more than the cost of updating China’s, according to Biden.

“Why do you think businesses are leaving (the U.S.)?” he said. “We need a good infrastructure, which would benefit economic development.”

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Politics

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