Trains For America

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Arkansas utility asks customers to back railroad antitrust legislation

This item comes from the Stephens Media Group newspapers.

Utility urges customer involvement in rail legislation fight
Saturday, Jul 21, 2007

By Aaron Sadler
Stephens Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON – A northwest Arkansas electric company took the unusual step this month of asking customers to turn up pressure on lawmakers in Washington over railroad antitrust legislation.

The Carroll Electric Cooperative added a one-page flyer to its monthly bills seeking customer help in support of congressional action to rein in what utilities see as out-of-control costs and unreliable rail delivery of coal.

Enterg, the dominant electricity provider in Arkansas has sued Union Pacific over delays of coal shipments from Wyoming. I wrote about dispute last year in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Entergy contends that Union Pacific “in a conscious and deliberate practice” limited supplies of Powder River Basin coal to manipulate demand and ultimately maximize its own profits. The railroad blames the ordinary wear of coal dust on the roadbed and signals, in addition to bad weather for the lack of service. Thankfully, federal courts and our Public Service Commission will be left to sort the excruciating details.

While this dispute certainly deserves to be heard in the appropriate judicial forums, the hometown electric utility may have a tough time proving its’ charges against one of America’s largest and most historic railway companies. Union Pacific would appear to have a feasible defense against the allegation of a “conscious and deliberate practice” contrary to the best interest of Entergy. Put in the simplest terms, U. P. railroad might credibly contend that it is not well enough organized or managed to pull off the kind of highly orchestrated and ruthless campaign suggested in the legal pleadings

Railroad congestion is a serious problem and Amtrak is not the only user of the nations transportation network to suffer. Arkansas’ Public Service Commission says the virtual monopoly on rail shipments has cost ratepayers around here over $200 million.

The freight railroads take a somewhat different position.

Railroads respond shipping rates are 61 percent lower now than in 1980 and that freight rail companies are spending $10 billion this year to expand infrastructure on an increasingly clogged rail network.

In addition, they maintain the federal Surface Transportation Board is effective in handling rate cases.

Arkansas’ three Democratic representatives back antitrust legislation. As one might expect, Rep. John Boozman (Rep – Wal Mart) is not yet in the fold. Neither, so far, are Senators Lincoln and Pryor.

Senator Mark Pryor says we actualy need laws addressing rail congestion, so long as his solution is not Boozman’s scapgoating of Amtrak, he certainly has a point. Rail lines are obviously essential for moving much of what we need to et by. They were built on public-private partnerships, and there is no reason that should not be the case today.

Of course, part of the ongoing deal must be allowing Amtrak to take advantage of the increased capacity.

Is the antitrust legislation a good idea? My gut says “yes,” but I have been wrong before.

Filed under: Passenger Rail Politics, Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy

Amtrak ridership up, but income still down

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports the latest numbers, which are not exactly a surprise. The context, however, is good. Sensible ground transportation has never been more important, and the Bush administration is kicking and screaming against the national interest.

I would be surprised if it were any other way.

“Our equipment is aging,” Amtrak President and Chief Executive Alex Kummant told Congress last week. Referring to dining cars built in the early 1950s, he noted, “We do a good job of maintaining them … but there comes an end point.”

To help keep the U.S. passenger railroad rolling, especially in states outside of the Northeast, two Democratic-controlled congressional committees last week approved spending measures that would boost the subsidized rail system’s budget far higher than President Bush would like.

The House Appropriations Committee approved a $1.4 billion budget for Amtrak for fiscal 2008, up from this year’s $1.3 billion. The Senate Appropriations Committee followed, approving a $1.37 billion budget.

President Bush wants $800 million for Amtrak, which would force discontinuance of all long-distance trains.

The President’s stubbornness flies in the face of urgent capital needs in the heavily traveled northeast corridor. That’s for frivolous stuff like tunnels and bridges (some of which are a hundred years old).

There is good news. A number of senators are working to fund Amtrak from 2008 to 2012.

The bipartisan Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, sponsored by Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.), would authorize $3.3 billion for operating subsidies and $4.9 billion for capital improvements over the life of the bill. In addition, states would get $1.4 billion to upgrade intercity passenger rail.

Kinda’ strange when Trent Lott makes more sense than the President of the United States.

Filed under: Amtrak

Amtrak 2008 appropriation in danger (So, what else is new?)

Since Amtrak was founded to shift freight railroads public duties and financial obligations to employee’s retirement funds back in 1972, it has been a yearly fight to keep the national network of passenger trains running. This true despite strong ridership in the very limited areas in which convenient passenger trains operated.

So what’s new?

The Bush administration is blustering veto at all “excessive” domestic spending while simultaneously indulging itself in the excesses of “nation building” in Iraq. Naturally, Amtrak faces the budget ax.

This is especially ironic in a time when gas prices are at an all time high and nations in rich and poor countries are strengthening the commitment to good ground transportation, even high speed trains. If appropriated at the full level, the dollar amounts are an insult to an industrialized “first world” country.

While I do not intend to always be in agreement with the National Association of Railroad Passengers, their web site provides good insight and suggestions.

  • Amtrak’s fiscal 2008 appropriation: Fully fund Amtrak’s request of $1.53 billion, plus $150 million of strategic investment options. Consideration by the full House is scheduled for the week of July 23; oppose any amendment offered to cut Amtrak funding!
  • Amtrak reauthorization:The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (now S. 294) has been introduced, again this time by Senators Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Trent Lott (R-MS). The bill provides for common-sense Amtrak reform and operational improvements, authorizes Amtrak for the five years Fiscal 2008-2012, provides for capital assistance for states, and development of state rail plans. Right now, the bill needs co-sponsors; see if your Senators are co-sponsors and if not, ask them to sign on!
  • (A detailed synopsis of PRIIA is available here on our website.)

Arkansans should be very careful of Representative John Boozman who recently proposed legislation that would have had the effect of ending all Amtrak service sharing trackage with “host” freight railroads.

Amtrak’s operating arrangements that share facilities with freight lines creates a most fragile situation for the passenger trains. Once routes are degraded to freight only standards, it is unlikely that Amtrak will be back. Remember, for Amtrak’s opponents, that is the goal and represents a significant victory.

Congestion at airports and on highways makes Amtrak a national priority, not some perenial whipping boy for self-absorbed neo-cons.

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Politics

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