Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Las Vegas maglev

The story is sorted out in great detail in The Hill. This a federal issue about transportation in interstate commerce. This is the kind of thing truckers and airline lobbyists just hate to hear discussed in a serious professional tone. That influence by special interests is the sole source of fiscal concerns.

 Competition over the Southern California-Las Vegas corridor has pulled the Nevada congressional delegation, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D), into debate over travel into the casinos of Las Vegas, one of the world’s biggest tourist destinations.

Critics say the fight also spotlights another example of Congress spending taxpayer dollars on parochial interests.

The focus is on a bill, passed 422-1 vote by the House last month, to correct drafting errors in the $287 billion 2005 highway legislation. Unlike the 2005 law, the provision would direct $45 million to an assessment of a “magnetic levitation” rail project, referred to as Maglev, that would use advanced technology to move trains at up to 300 miles per hour. The measure includes new language that states that the project would extend to Anaheim, Calif., the same 200-mile stretch as its competitor.

House and Senate aides say that language was inadvertently omitted when Congress drafted the 2005 highway law, making the project compete for annual appropriations that it did not receive. With no federal funding, the project stalled and opened the door for a rival company, DesertXpress Enterprises, to move forward with plans to give passengers an option besides flying or driving on a congested highway.

The provision in the pending bill, which the Senate has not yet voted on, would give new life to the Maglev project and accelerate a battle with DesertXpress, which is privately financing a high-speed train projected to travel at up to 125 miles per hour and bring passengers from the Los Angeles area to Las Vegas in an hour and a half. DesertXpress says regardless of the pending language, it is moving full-speed ahead and hopes the $3.5 billion project will be done by 2012.

“We have to do this without public dollars because the public dollars are not there to build it,” said Tom Stone, president of DesertXpress. “Our view is we don’t need [federal funding], and we don’t want it.”

M. Neil Cummings, president of the American Magline Group, which is pushing the Maglev project, said a majority of the $12 billion needed to create his rail line would come from the private sector.

“It’s not the future,” Cummings said of the DesertXpress project. “Maglev represents the future of high-speed ground transportation as a way to move people quickly, safely and in an environmental friendly way as we move ahead in the next century.”

Both projects are in their early stages. The $45 million in the bill would be used for an environmental impact study along the corridor, a first step for construction of the Maglev project. There already is a separate environmental study underway for the DesertXpress project. Analysts say the winner will be the project that is the most financially viable and has the support of federal agencies.

And now the part you have been waiting for.

The Bush administration argues that Maglev projects are too expensive, and should not be done at the expense of other transportation needs.

But Reid and his House counterparts, including Shelley Berkley (D) and Jon Porter (R), are not ruling out either project and are trying not to take sides.

“Personally, I think from tax dollars, it makes sense to build a high-speed train from California to Nevada,” said Porter, adding that he wants a rail line there as quickly as possible.

Sen. John Ensign (R) appears to be the Nevada member most skeptical of the Maglev project. He raised deep concerns in a 2005 letter about an estimate that the project could cost $25 million per mile.

“The privately financed is in general the best way to go,” Ensign told The Hill last week. “There just isn’t enough money to do all the rail projects that we want to do around the country.”

To translate Ensign into ordinary English, “There’s not enough airline and highway payoff money to fund necessary transportation projects.”


Filed under: Passenger Rail Politics, United States High Speed Rail

Rising fuel prices boost Amtrak

Fox did a major story. Here is the passenger rail aspect from Cliff Black.

Passenger railroads see both disadvantages and benefits from high oil prices, said Cliff Black, spokesman at Amtrak, who added that the rail operator is “certainly” concerned when the cost of crude goes up because diesel prices follow.

But, “higher crude-oil prices almost play into Amtrak’s hand,” he said. “Rising fuel prices affect automobiles, buses trucks and airlines much more than railroads, because of trains’ inherent fuel efficiency.” Amtrak has seen a “surge in ridership and revenue,” which Black said is partially attributable to those rising fuel prices.

Class I freight railroads, which are defined as railroads with at least $319.3 million in annual revenue, spent $8.1 billion on fuel in 2006, up from $6.2 billion in 2005 and $4.4 billion in 2004, according to Tom White, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads.

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy

Washington state corrodor update

How are they doing out in the Pacific Northwest without the fast and modern Talgo equipment? The Columbian, serving Clark County, took a ride, wrote a lengthy and detailed story, and here is part of what they found.

“Ridership has held up well, considering the service disruption,” said Ken Uznanski, passenger rail manager for the Washington Department of Transportation.

Still, the numbers were down, Amtrak statistics show, aggravated by the loss of three days’ travel over a summer weekend while the replacement cars were brought together.

Some of those numbers:

– August 2007 ridership on the Cascades trains was 61,021, down 8.4 percent from 66,589 in August 2006.

– Ridership from Jan. 1 through Aug. 31 is up 11 percent, to 459,944 from 414,508 the previous year, probably due to a new through train from Portland to Bellingham.

– The number of passengers boarding or leaving trains in Vancouver reached 535,298 in 2006, a new high.

Officials aren’t sure when the Talgo cars will return but they will probably go back on line slowly, as repairs are made.

The problems have been found and the solution identified, officials said, but the exact schedule won’t be set until perhaps next week.

The Talgo cars, decorated in distinctive green and brown earth tones, have been in service since 1999.

The cars tilt around curves, so the trains don’t have to slow as much. The trip on the substitute cars is 25 minutes longer.

Some of the replacement cars look old and faded on the outside, but they’re no less clean and roomy inside. They show their age in other ways. Not everything works smoothly, crew members reported. The public address system doesn’t work in some cars. Some toilet tanks have to be emptied after only one round trip. No one seems sure yet whether the heaters will work. And the drop-down stair-steps are steep and sometimes balky.

“Piece of junk,” one conductor muttered while struggling to lower the steps in Centralia.

There’s no business class, no movie and no baggage check-in. Passengers have to carry their own bags on board and then find a place to stow them. Suitcases sometimes clog the fronts of the cars. The crew helps, but can do only so much. One woman boarded a train last week with five suitcases and four garbage bags filled with her belongings. She was moving.

“Stuff like that happens,” said Pat Gleason, a conductor.

The food selection isn’t as varied and the trip isn’t as smooth as on the Talgo trains, with a lot more bumping back and forth.

And there are also a few facts you may not already know.

– The Seattle-Portland trip on the Talgo takes 3½ hours, but the time could drop to three hours in the next decade.

– Talgo trains can reach 100 mph but can’t exceed 79 mph in Washington because of track conditions and safety equipment.

– More than 20 percent of Cascades riders are business travelers, a 2003 survey said.

– Washington is spending about $12.4 million in the year ending Oct. 1 to operate Cascades trains; the 2008 cost could drop to $11.3 million.

Filed under: Amtrak, Regional USA Passenger Rail

Arizona faces growth

Arizona’s Governor Janet Napolitano is talking some good common sense on the matter of getting people around efficiently and comfortably. She recently spoke in Casa Grande. The local paper has a long and insightful story. Here is a portion.

“And, we need to have some ‘transit’ options – not transportation, trans-it,” Napolitano said. “And by transit I mean we need to be looking at things other than cars and roads to augment what we have by way of freeway and road construction. And so we are looking in-depth at the possibility for rail in Arizona. Passenger rail, commuter rail between Tucson and Phoenix and between, say, the outermost reaches of Maricopa County into central Phoenix and the like to offload from our freeways.

“Why? Because we can’t build enough freeways. We certainly can’t build them fast enough for the number of people that we have. For many people, if you do it right it’s cost effective, and environmentally it’s a good thing, because the more people we have driving around in cars, that really adds to that brown cloud that is hovering above us that no one really likes.”

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

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September 2007