Trains For America

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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

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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

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