Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Major attack launched on long distance trains, and this is for real

A few months ago, an Arkansas congressman by the name of John Boozman raised a few eyebrows by suggesting that Amtrak contributed to pollution. His theory, absurd as it may sound, is that freight trains have to come to a complete halt every time an Amtrak train comes on the scene. This theory is back and being promoted by one of the elitist supposedly conservative think tanks known as the Heartland Institute.

This is absolutely for real. Every sensible American who is concerned about highway and airport congestion, not to mention pollution, should be very afraid. There is a proposed bit of legislation floating around that would effectively end Amtrak’s ability to operate all long distance trains.

State and national policymakers are missing an important part of the solution to reducing traffic gridlock: putting more trucks on trains, according to the author of a soon-to-be-released report from The Heartland Institute.

“If we could get more work that trucks are doing onto rails, that would be good from a traffic congestion perspective,” said Wendell Cox, a senior fellow of The Heartland Institute and principal of Wendell Cox Consultancy, an international public policy firm that specializes in transportation issues.

Cox is putting the finishing touches on “Solving the Freight Rail Transportation Bottleneck,” a report describing how the nation could increase the capacity of the freight rail industry without unfairly or unduly burdening taxpayers or others who do not directly benefit from freight rail services. The report will be available in the fall.

This book is a frontal and desperate attack to deliver a final fatal blow to the Amtrak long distance service. The full release is here. Get this.

Much of the freight rail bottleneck problem can be linked to how passenger and freight rail systems are treated. Federal law requires freight lines to give priority to passenger trains, Cox noted. This slows the movement of goods by freight in favor of passenger trains, which account for less than 1 percent of passenger travel nationally.

“Rail and local transit do a good job of taking people to a few places like downtown Chicago,” Cox said, “carrying more than one-half of work trips. But if you look at Schaumburg [a suburb northwest of Chicago], that is the state’s second-largest employment area, and larger than downtown Portland or San Diego. Less than 0.5 percent of workers get to Schaumburg by rail.

“I’ve been concerned that the operation of passenger trains interferes so much with the efficiency of freight rail that it does more harm than good,” Cox said. “People must understand that it may sound good from a theoretical stance to force railroads to take more passenger trains, but the number of people who would be moved from cars to trains would be virtually nil, and the diminished competitiveness of the railroads would divert more freight to crowd the already crowded highways.”

Because freight rail lines linking cities hundreds of miles apart already exist, there is great potential to develop higher-speed freight trains and increase freight rail capacity, according to Cox. Truck trailers could be loaded onto trains and hauled nearer their final destination, playing to the strength of freight rail to haul large volumes of material over long distances, and the strength of trucks to drive to wherever the final destination may be.

The result would be fewer highway miles occupied by tractor-trailer rigs–and more room on the roads.
Priority Limits

Cox recommends minimizing traffic congestion by making it possible for railroads to concentrate their resources on freight movements. His recommendations include federal legislation to relieve the freight railroad industry of its burden to give priority to Amtrak passenger service, and to allow the railroads to charge Amtrak fully allocated costs for their use of infrastructure.

Any expansion of passenger rail service on freight rail infrastructure should be allowed only upon an administrative law finding that the additional passenger trains will have no detrimental effect on the competitiveness of the freight railroad system or the corridor involved, Cox said.

While intelligent people who closely follow transportation issues closely know well that this is a bunch of absolute desperate lies dreamed up by the operating railroads to finally relive themselves from the legal obligation of running passenger rail service, this kind of thing might sound good to the uninformed and uncritical listener.

We need to get out front on this right now and turn this horrifying pack of misrepresentations into an opportunity to tell a positive story about the beenfits of rail transportation. Obviously, we need the help of informed transportation specialists to help the rest of us combat this bunch of greedy nonsense.

And let’s not accidentally make Mr. Cox into some sort of guru in advance of his book’s publication. He will do the conservative radio tour and get tossed a bunch of embarrassingly weak softball questions by adoring uninformed hosts and compliant callers. This is an alternative universe into which no light will ever penetrate. It is most important to get out in front of this in mainstream media.

One reason this big push is happening is a realization that movements such as the Midwest High Speed Rail Association are gaining momentum and that the American transportation technology is a full hundred years behind. In this case, the railroads are taking the sentimental nostalgic position of stubbornly clinging to a world which has passed them by.

Please feel free to contribute to this thread in the “comments” section.
Some thoughts which might be conversation starters.

  • America’s railroads have been built as the result of a public-private partnership which explicitly envisioned providing transportation services for freight and people.
  • Amtrak was created in 1972 in order to relieve operating railroad companies of “labor protection” and Railroad Retirement benefits costs in addition to the operating expenses of passenger trains.
  • State and local governments have made generous grants to railroads which have resulted in the creation of companies that enjoy vast profits and hold sizable assets.
  • The real cause of rail congestion is the wholesale abandonment of necessary mainline infrastructure.
  • It is illogical to blame the tiny and insignificant fleet of passenger trains for congestion, especially when the most impacted freight corridor handles the Sunset Limited, a train which operates only three days a week. The complete abandonment of that train would have ZERO effect on Union Pacific bottlenecks.
  • Rail congestion is caused by inadequate infrastructure. Most businesses are expected to build their own facilities. (Union Pacific net income $1.74 Billion. Source:Capital IQ, Yahoo Finance)
  • Amtrak does not receive “priority” dispatching. Again, the Sunset is frequently so late at final destinations that it is not even the correct day of the week. Amtrak trains frequently wait “in the hole” for hours while a parade of freight trains pass by.

It is not enough to respond. This is an opportunity to tell the good news. Conventional long distance trains:

  • Serve “corridors.” For example, Minneapolis – Chicago on the Empire Builder or Omaha – Denver on the Zephyr.
  • Provide necessary transportation to communities without airports, or limited air service.
  • Allow one to continue forward movement while sleeping.
  • Provide an economically reasonable transportation choice for families and students.
  • Provide necessary feeder service to shorter corridors.

Although TFA does not necessarily take the NARP positions, it might be a good idea to state your thoughts in light of the NARP 40th Anniversary “Vision” plan. Here is the link to that. Oklahoma and Kansas folks may use the Heartland Flyer as your vehicle. There is also a wealth of information in “The Ohio Hub.” These and other initiatives to enhance conventional tail service are on the right hand column.

As you contact your elected representatives, some of these thoughts might be worth including in a well written personal letter. The Senate likely will focus this week. on appropriations bills for FY2008 — including the Transportation Appropriations Bill

Smart folks like you can think of many more objective positive contributions of conventional long distance trains, so let us hear them.

Some tips on advocating.

  • No nostalgia, or discussion of personal illnesses. Never mention that you were employed by a railroad, unless your experience is recent and relates directly to the fact case you are developing. Opponents will presume that you are a pass riding freeloader.
  • Avoid referring to operating lines as “freight railroads.” This language tends to legitimize the industry’s anti-Amtrak position
  • Make your argument in the light of general good, not your personal convenience.
  • Allow for the possibility that the “host” railroads deserve to be compensated for operating passenger trains.
  • Emphasize that we are not advocating European style HSR.
  • Point out rail’s place as a part of a transportation system that includes highways and air.
  • Avoid all rail travel descriptions that might tend to depict Amtrak as elitist or providing luxury service.

I am sure you can add to that list, so feel free to “comment.” There is so much more that needs to be said about this, but we must be proactive.

Always turn negatives into positives.


Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy

International Railway Gazette reports onUSA developments (and lack thereof)

This  is a blockbuster report in the International Railway Gazette. Long distance train advocates, among which I count myself, will not the absence of any discussion of this aspect of the domestic transport scene. Nonetheless, this one is must reading.

Joseph P Schwieterman is Professor of Public Service Management at DePaul University in Chicago. His publications include ‘When the Railroad Leaves Town: American Communities in the Age of Rail Line Abandonment’. He is the author of this expansive profile that includes a chart of proposed and existing corridors.

A few highlights follow, including a very needed and appreciated clarification of terms.

A proper account of US passenger rail aspirations requires acknowledging that ‘high speed rail’ is a term loosely defined on this side of the Atlantic. In Europe and Asia planners often limit its use to trains running at 200 km/h and above, but in America the term often applies to corridors achieving only 175 km/h (110 mile/h), hardly a standard of performance that will put the USA among the world’s high speed elite.

Limiting speeds to 175 km/h avoids having to comply with federal regulations requiring total grade separation of road and rail alignments above this speed, which would be a major obstacle on routes with numerous level crossings. ‘Much of what we’re proposing really isn’t high speed, but a way to give travellers more attractive options,’ notes Richard Harnish, Director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, an advocacy organisation based in Illinois with 1 700 members.

Considering high real estate costs for the kind of construction required for true HSR, the conventional route makes a lot of sense in many areas.

Here is something you did not know. The younger generation is on our side. It is another reason to shun nostalgia around here.

Students and other young travellers are responding to improvements in a particularly noteworthy fashion. ‘The current generation is not as fascinated with cars as their parents and grandparents were. They are not “anti-car” as the environmentalists might wish, but they don’t feel any particular social stigma if they ride a train or the local transit system’, notes F K Plous, a consultant with Corridor Capital LLC. ‘Consumer electronics are also changing travel patterns, especially among young people, who bring BlackBerries, iPods and DVD players onboard.’

And, yes, the South is lagging.

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy

New York editorial reaction to HSR announcement

The Independent, serving  Columbia and Rensselear counties, has a few things to say about yesterday’s announcement. Here is a clip.

     High-speed trains in Europe and France regularly travel at more than 200 mph; high-speed here means about half that fast. And before conjuring up images of weekenders arriving in Hudson 20 minutes after leaving Manhattan, consider that the money trumpeted by the senators will actually help fast trains bypass Hudson.
As it turns out, the Hudson station creates a bottleneck on the line. Whenever a train pulls into the station, other trains may not pass it in either direction. That can cause delays all along the line.
A new set of tracks will mean that express trains can whiz right past Hudson, while slower trains stop to let passengers on and off. The whizzing part explains the need for the overhead walkway and the elevator to reach it: Get too close to the breeze from a train traveling over 100 mph and it can rearrange your dental work.
Senator Bruno wants trains that will cut the travel time between Manhattan and the Rensselaer station down to about two hours from the current two and a half hours. Should government spend millions-perhaps, ultimately, billions-to shave half an hour off the journey between cities less than 150 miles apart? Why not drive?
Most people do drive, but anyone who has hit New York City gridlock or a closed lane on the Thruway knows that cars and buses face delays too. Business travelers like the train because it allows them to get some work done en route. And full trains cost far less to operate and generate much less pollution than cars or airplanes.
Yet for all these advantages, train service won’t grow unless it can deliver passengers on time as fast or faster than cars or planes, and at a competitive cost. And it will take a lot more than $22 million for Amtrak to realize these goals on this line alone. Amtrak, starved for funding by the current administration, doesn’t even own most of the rails; the freight line CSX does. And most freight trains don’t need to travel at high speeds. So government should step in as long as taxpayers also subsidize road construction and air travel.

Filed under: Amtrak, Regional USA Passenger Rail

USA TODAY notes rail advances

It is most disappointing that professional journalists seem to have some trouble with the Amtrak story. To be fair, the facts lie in the realm of both transportation and government and are subject to interpretation. For some time now, only airline and trucking interests, with the assistance of a few die-hard elitist so-called conservative think tanks, have been the only ones allowed to speak.

Real serious conservatives think for themselves and recognize the rightful role of government in providing infrastructure. They are not swayed by the emotionalism of aviation and highway lobbies.

So, these are good times at Amtrak. Jim Shur, the AP business writer, gets a lot of it right. Gas prices are up, highways and airports are intolerably congested and Amtrak is carrying more riders.

Now, we get down to the dollars part of the story. Amtrak provides two kinds of services, one is as a transportation company. Amtrak is also a type of social service agency. Passenger trains stop in small towns that have limited options for intercity transportation. Interstate highways also serve isolated areas. That is a social service.

Amtrak’s northeast corridor service is a more pure form of transportation service, seeking to carry the most passengers at the lowest cost with the highest return.

The way the discussion is cast, long distance trains usually get the shaft. This is where the special interests go to work. Operating railroads that run Amtrak passenger trains seems bound by an emotional disdain for passenger trains. All sorts of foolish arguments and the traveling public has very little to compete with the mega dollar contributors to political campaigns.

It is particularly distressing that an Associated Press reporter took the official party line completely unchallenged regarding the “iconic” Sunset Limited. TFA has commented extensively on the distinctions between a service which is being systematically deprived of finances, equipment, stations and infrastructure.

I am sure the reporter has a lot of irons in the fire and never thought to ask questions that are obvious to those of us who closely follow serious transportation issues. He fails to note that:

  • the Orlando – New Orleans section has been suspended for over two years and these travel destinations are unavailable to “feed” other parts of the system.
  • The Sunset operates only three days a week. This means that it has less that 50% of seating inventory available for passengers, but 100% of overhead costs.
  • Stations in several cities (Beaumont, Texas is most notable) are in such bad repair, Amtrak threatens to cease stopping there. This removes on more destination from the map.
  • The Sunset operates over the most congested freight line in the country. While Union Pacific works to improve the infrastructure, the passenger train frequently runs so late it does not reach end points on the scheduled day of the week.

While the Sunset has serious troubles, it is the only available rail service available along a number of essential travel corridors. Should any portion of this train be removed from service, Union Pacific can be expected to move quickly removing signals and all other pieces of the system needed for passenger service. It will not be easily or cheaply restored.

Of course, if you are a trucker or airline, that’s the plan. It is a stupid plan and completely out of date. A modern passenger train network operating fast (79 to 110 mph) is good for the economy and does not harm highway or airline interests. These ant-Amtrak people are just stuck in the past.

Shur said the Sunset loses .62 per passenger mile. I am sure he did not make that number up, although he did not name the source. He also did not suggest what, if any significance, might be attributed to the number.

Oh, the story? Here are a few highlights of what ran in USA Today. You can get the entire piece on the link.

But Amtrak’s headaches remain, and the biggest is funding. The service has never been out of the red since its launch in 1971, meaning it must rely on government handouts year after year.

In trying to hash out the federal budget for next year, Congress is weighing how much U.S. taxpayers should underwrite the passenger service. Amtrak has requested $1.53 billion, nearly twice the amount the Bush Administration wants to give it. In the past, Bush has proposed giving the service nothing.

A House appropriations committee recently agreed to boost Amtrak’s federal funding to $1.4 billion — a modest increase from the service’s $1.3 billion in government help — while a Senate panel has endorsed spending $1.37 billion. But Bush has promised to veto any spending bills exceeding his budget requests, forcing Amtrak to slice service if the president makes good on his threat.

Amtrak says the elusiveness of stable funding holds it back, leaving it unable to commit to infrastructure improvements, get past having to use using some equipment dating back half a century or add new rail cars it says it can easily fill on some routes.

It’s a good to know that taxpayers aren’t asked to “underwrite” airports and highways!

Amtrak officials are pinning their hopes on the bipartisan Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, which would authorize $3.3 billion for operating expenses and $4.9 billion for capital improvements over the life of the bill, from 2008 to 2012.

“We can’t keep asking Amtrak to operate like a business while we string the company along year to year,” Sen. Trent Lott, the Mississippi Republican sponsoring the bill with Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, said in January.

The haggling over funding comes as Amtrak’s ridership flourishes. Passengers for the fiscal year that ended last September numbered 24.3 million, setting a record for the fourth year in a row when comparing the same routes along the 21,000-mile system serving 500 stations in 46 states and Washington, D.C.

Trent Lott is right, to a point. Providing good transportation is a reasonable function of government. Amtrak ought to be treated like a useful portion of the national transportation ssystem. That includes air, highways, conventional passenger trains, high speed trains, and freight rail. Each of these has had a heavy commitment from government, so the theoretical intellectual purists and elitists should just give it a rest.

On the more positive side, the Midwest High Speed Rail Association is quoted and, as you would expect. stated the case perfectly.


Filed under: Uncategorized

HSR gets Illinois spotlight

The times they are a-changin’.

Reading sensible words from intelligent people almost gives one hope for the future. AP has a story about getting better transportation choices on the St. Louis to Chicago corridor.

While sleek new passenger trains streak through Europe, Japan and other corners of the world at speeds nearing 200 mph, most U.S. passenger trains chug along at little more than highway speeds — slowed by a half-century of federal preference for spending on roads and airports.

But advocates say millions of Americans may be ready to embrace high-speed rail for everything from business travel to vacations because of soaring gas prices, airport delays and congested freeways that slow travel and contribute to air pollution.

“We have to change these things really fast. The era of cheap oil is over,” said Rick Harnish, executive director of the nonprofit Midwest High Speed Rail Association. “People want choices in how they travel, and it’s time for the states and feds to start providing those.”

This is a well balanced story that presents the benefits of good transportaiton and the fiscal challenge of getting around well entrenched, powerful and wealthy special interests.

There is something very remarkable in this story. It is realistic. Check this out.

Few envision U.S. high-speed rail would stretch coast to coast or match the dizzying speeds of other countries in the next few decades, even if Congress approves the matching funds for intercity rail projects.

Instead, supporters see most trains running at about 110 mph between major cities 200 to 300 miles apart, similar to Amtrak’s Acela line that trimmed about a half-hour from the usual 4-hour trip from Boston to New York and about 15 minutes from the three-hour ride from New York to Washington.

The six-year-old Acela Express is the only U.S. rail line that tops the 125 mph considered “high speed” by international standards. And even supporters concede it barely qualifies, hitting its maximum 150 mph for less than 20 miles from Boston to Washington, D.C., and averaging just 86 mph over the full 456-mile run.

Even so, Acela’s ridership rose 20 percent in May as gasoline prices topped $3 a gallon nationwide, said Amtrak spokesman Cliff Cole. Nationally, Amtrak is poised for its fifth straight year of ridership gains this year, said Marc Magliari, a spokesman for the railroad.

Ridership was up nearly 18 percent through May on a Pennsylvania line that bumped speeds from 90 mph to 110 mph last October, cutting 15 to 30 minutes off the two-hour ride from Philadelphia to Harrisburg.

Reasonable speed and reliability. That’s the ticket.

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

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September 2007