Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Airlines continue downhill spiral: The time is now for high-speed rail.

It should be clear to anyone who has been paying attention to the news or has had to book a flight recently that the days of bargain air travel are probably coming to an end soon. Fuel prices are hitting the carriers hard, and consumers are already seeing the ramifications. Almost all of the airlines have started charging extra money for checking a second bag, and some have even tacked on a fuel surcharge to frequent-flyer tickets. Is that enough? Can we keep this cheap flights bubble from bursting with just some extra charges and inconviencies for consumers? Of course not.

The New York Times is reporting that airlines are cutting flights to levels not seen since the post-9/11 period. Fares are on the rise too:

Over all, the cuts will reduce flights this year by American carriers by almost 10 percent, industry analysts estimate, with even deeper cuts in store for 2009.

Air fares, which are up about 17 percent this year on average, may rise as much as 40 percent within the next four years, Mr. Chase predicted.

What this all adds up to is the probable death knell for cheap air travel. Flying may soon go back to being a mode of transportation reserved for the wealthy or those needing to travel long distances. Though certainly unfortunate for consumers in the short-term, this isn’t such a terrible thing for American transportation, if we play our cards right. America needs to take this opportunity to create a transportation choice that is more environmentally friendly, convenient, and affordable than flying or driving. This choice is high-speed rail, and we, as rail advocates, (yes, I know that includes most of you reading this as well) need to be pushing hard for this. Because despite increased Amtrak and public transportation ridership, many just aren’t getting the idea. Nowhere does the New York Times article mention trains as an alternative to flying, and this article, explicitly about alternatives to flying, simply advocates telecommuting and lighter planes:

… [O]ne obvious investment possibility would be companies who provide video-conferencing and video-conferencing infrastructure; Webex was acquired last year but there are other fish in that sea. Another potential investment, although still a few years from being realized, is small, very light jets flying between the country’s underused community and regional airports – or per-seat, on-demand regional business travel on small, light jets, already being offered by a Florida company.

Community and regional airports are never going to be pratical or affordable solutions to our transportation crisis. Small planes are still planes, they’re still polluting, except now they’re just serving fewer customers. Sounds good. And telecommuting may be attractive for businesses, but no one’s going to want to substitute a teleconference with grandma for an actual visit (Well, that depends on how you feel about your grandmother, I suppose).

European countries have been preparing for the end of cheap oil. We haven’t been, and soon middle class travelers will be left with very few options.

H/T to the California High-Speed Rail Blog for this story, and, of course, a thumbs-up to them for promoting this country’s most exciting HSR project. California is addressing the transportation crisis, let’s hope a new presidential administration and legislation like HR 6003 can do the same for the rest of the country.


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


Here is an item that showed up as a “comment” to an earlier post and needs to be moved forward for general consideration.


Board rules railroad company falsified Crosstown Expressway documents
Wednesday, June 18, 2008 OKLAHOMA GAZETTE
By Ben Fenwick

On Aug. 30, 2005, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad signed an agreement with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation that ODOT, at taxpayer’s expense, would haul lumber in trucks for the Mid-States Wholesale Lumber Co., 101 S.E. Fourth. The estimated cost was $22,800.


The reason? BNSF was to abandon nearly three miles of track so that ODOT could build the new Crosstown Expressway, also known as the Interstate 40 Relocation Project, through a section of that rail line — and, incidentally, wipe out the rail yard for Oklahoma City’s Union Station.

However, when BNSF officials filed for permission with the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, they told a different story. The paperwork the company filed to give the track to ODOT claimed it had not been used for the previous two years — about 23 days after the railroad agreed to let trucks instead of trains haul the lumber.

When metro-area activists opposed to the Crosstown project presented the discrepancy to the board, the board ruled that BNSF falsified its application and threw out the paperwork.

“This means that its certification in September 2005 was false or misleading. As a result, we will reopen the January 2007 decision and reject BNSF’s notice of exemption as void,” the board ruled this month.

State transportation officials said the ruling might stop some construction on the Crosstown — for now.

“We are still pretty confident they will work it out,” said ODOT spokeswoman Brenda Perry. “We are not directly involved, but it affects us.”

A spokesman for BNSF refused an interview, instead issuing a statement prepared by the company.

“The ‘false or misleading information’ referenced in the STB decision dated June 3, 2008, was the result of a technicality that resulted in BNSF retaining and using less than 100 feet (the length of about one rail car) at the eastern end of this trackage near Shields Boulevard to serve a large shipper located nearby,” the release said.

Opponents to the Crosstown have a different view: The BNSF decision is proof that Oklahomans are being misled about the whole project, including its cost, its purpose and its would-be benefits for the city. With gas projected at $5 a gallon and beyond, does Oklahoma City need another highway, or a citywide commuter rail?

“Are they going to build a 10-lane highway across a rail line that is part of the national rail system and has jurisdiction?” asked Norman attorney Micheal Salem, who is working on the case. “Should ODOT continue to commit hundreds of millions of dollars to build a highway for which they have no authority, over the land that they’ve chosen already? Can they build a highway over an existing railroad without the authority of the federal government to do that?”


For Common Cause community activist Edwin Kessler, a retired meteorologist who filed the protest, the very first action of the Crosstown Expressway was a deliberate attempt to mislead Oklahomans.

“There have been some lines cut and there is a controversy about that indicated in the STB ruling,” Kessler said. “It means they are not authorized to abandon the line, and if they want to abandon it, they will have to reapply.”

To others on the opposition, Kessler’s work — which includes photographing BNSF’s actions on-site, developing the legal angles and other behind-the-scenes actions — the victory before the STB is a stunning upset.

“He accomplished a most significant task,” said Washington, D.C., attorney Fritz Kahn, who represented Common Cause to the board. “To get the STB to reopen a proceeding almost never happens. Moreover, to get the STB to rule against one of the Class I railroads as it did in ruling against Burlington Northern is something quite extraordinary.”

In its ruling, the board noted Kessler’s work as instrumental to the outcome of the case, and gave a scathing rebuke to BNSF, saying the company appeared to obfuscate the truth about the rail usage and the Crosstown construction.

“BNSF’s own evidence shows that it operated over a portion of the line during the (two)-year period prior to Sept. 23, 2005, confirming Mr. Kessler’s allegation that BNSF’s certification in its notice (that no local traffic had moved over the line for at least (two) years prior to the filing date) was false or misleading,” the board stated in its ruling. “Furthermore, despite multiple opportunities, BNSF has failed to provide an adequate explanation for the 2005 letters, in which BNSF seems to indicate that it provided rail service to Mid-States via the line within the (two)-year period prior to Sept. 23, 2005.”

Because of the misleading information, the board stated, it is reopening the proceedings. BNSF will have to reapply. This filing will be more involved, with proceedings on why removing the rail line is in the public’s interest.

“First of all, one of the questions that will have to be answered in additional proceedings, is what will be the purpose of rail use in Oklahoma City — that will be part of the ‘public interest, convenience and necessity’ that will be decided in a new abandonment proceeding,” Salem said.

Kahn agreed that BNSF’s task is likely to be widened considerably.

“The environmental-assessment report will be much more complex than BNSF had to file with this notice,” Kahn said. “The environment process will give citizens who are not shippers but have an interest in that line an opportunity to come in and testify. Before they file either a petition or an application, they have to consult with the specified Oklahoma and federal agencies to get their reaction on the environmental and historic effects on the proposed abandonment.”


Among those watching it closely will be Tom Elmore, executive director of North American Transportation Institute, whose work against the Crosstown and for light-rail contributed to the recent decision. Former Oklahoma City U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook shepherded funding for the Crosstown project through Congress in 2004. The federal funding favored many of Istook’s political donors, who received contracts for the highway. Istook, however, did the opposite for political donors in Utah, Elmore said, earmarking funding for a light-rail and commuter rail system that serves an Air Force logistics base considered to be a competitor to Tinker Air Force Base.

“Istook provided the startup funding for commuter trains between Provo and Ogden linked to Hill Air Force Base,” Elmore said. “They will soon have 60 commuter trains a day between those communities in full operation. It is such a high-tech corridor that the trains don’t even have to whistle at crossings — the crossings have their own whistles. Hill is now the only air logistics center in the nation with oil-crisis-proof workforce mobility.”

But not Oklahoma, he said.

“The same guy, while he was funding that, was funding the Crosstown so Union Station would be destroyed — and don’t ever believe that he had anything other than that in mind,” Elmore said.

Istook did not return calls for comment.

Union Station — its rail yard slated for destruction because it lies in the path of the proposed Crosstown — was once the center of a massive commuter rail system in Oklahoma City that provided passenger service to Tinker, Norman, Edmond, Bethany and other surrounding communities. The easements and even lines for these still exist, but Elmore said the rail hub at Union Station will be wiped out by the Crosstown if it is allowed to proceed. However, ODOT’s Perry said a single rail line will be brought into Union Station should commuters wish to use it as a rail stop.

But now, Elmore said, there is a chance to reverse the destruction of the Union Station rail yard. Elmore said the ruling concerning the rail line has an effect similar to that of the movement to save the Walnut Avenue Bridge. That bridge, from Deep Deuce to Bricktown, was slated for destruction until civic activists opposed it in hearings at the Oklahoma Corporation Commission. Now, the bridge is considered a vital link between new, upscale loft apartments and Bricktown’s establishments.

“Remember the Walnut Bridge? We didn’t fight it before the council, we didn’t fight it before the planning commission — we took it to the Corporation Commission because that’s where the fight was,” Elmore said. “Well, same thing here. We quit arguing with them, we took it to the STB, because that’s where the fight was, and that is where the fight’s been won.”

As for BNSF, the company’s release states that it intends to continue seeking to destroy the rail line in question so the Crosstown can go through.

“BNSF will be following up with the Surface Transportation Board to ensure the highway project’s objectives are met,” the company wrote. “BNSF emphasizes that service to area shippers has been and will continue to be uninterrupted by this or any subsequent trackage removal activity associated with the I-40 relocation project.”

John Bowman, ODOT Crosstown development engineer, said the ruling affects little work so far.

“There isn’t any work that is ongoing at the moment that is really predicated on that hearing,” Bowman said. “We have a number of projects ongoing and we are working with those contractors. … We are working at the east end, and the west end and those projects are out of the way.”

Might there be a way to bypass the rail yard, or perhaps bridge it, so the rail hub for Union Station is still usable? Bowman said ODOT will wait and see if it has to.

“I think it would be premature to speculate on that at this point in time until we see what the ruling will be,” he said. —Ben Fenwick

From Tulsa city council, 2008/06/27 at 10:35 AM

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

UK starts to take high-speed rail seriously; suggestions for HSR development instead of Heathrow airport expansion

There’s been quite a bit of high-speed hubbub coming out of Britain lately. Earlier this month we posted about how the government was considering investing in just one HSR line, but it seems that the country has set its sights even higher. Network Rail, the UK’s public-ish owner of the nation’s rail infrastructure, has announced that it is studying FIVE new high-speed routes stretching across the island. From the Financial Times:

The launch of the review highlights the strain put on the UK’s existing railways by traffic growth over the past decade, following the system’s controversial privatisation in the mid to late 1990s. Passenger traffic grew 67 per cent between 1994 and last year, while freight traffic is up about 50 per cent since the mid-1990s.

The routes to be examined are likely to follow roughly a series of existing routes from London: the West Coast Line to Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow, Great Western line to Bristol, East Coast line to Edinburgh, Midland line to Sheffield and Chiltern route to Birmingham.

If built, the lines would mark the first new domestic routes in over a century constructed in the country that pioneered the railroad. Britain’s only current HSR line is the Eurostar chunnel train running from London to Paris. In investing in its own high-speed lines, the UK is playing catchup to European neighbors such as France and Spain.

The British Rail and Maritime Transport Union has also urged that the government to consider high-speed rail lines as an alternative to planned expansion at London’s Heathrow airport:

The report for the RMT says over a third of flights from Heathrow are short-haul, more than 20 per cent go to destinations already served by a viable rail alternative, and one in five more are to places where rail is a potential alternative.

It also claims where high-speed rail links have been opened there has been a significant switch from air to rail, and warns the UK is in danger of being left behind as countries like Spain benefit from rail investment.

News such as this not only serves to indicate the the forward thinking train policies of the British, but also highlights America’s increasing backwardness when it comes to passenger rail investment. How are we going to cope with the inevitable bursting of the cheap flights bubble? The high prospect of HR 6003 passing into law has been a necessary shot in the arm for our own rail projects, but we still don’t have a national plan to modernize our infrastructure. The Heathrow study says that Britain is in danger of being left behind when it comes to high-speed trains; what does that say about America?

Image credit: The BBC

Filed under: International High Speed Rail, , , , ,

Memphis infrastructure colapsing

This is just plain ridiculous. At a time when we are struggling with transportation and infrastructure inadequacies, a major Amtrak stop is facing elimination. You will never believe what’s up (or down?) in Memphis.

Amtrak hints service to Memphis may be sinking

After 2 months, hole under Downtown tracks remains

By Jody Callahan

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Amtrak could discontinue service to Memphis if a massive sinkhole at Central Station isn’t repaired soon, an official of the rail passenger line said Tuesday.

“Let’s put it this way, it certainly is an option,” said Marc Magliari said. Magliari would not elaborate.

Bill Strong, a Memphian and director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, said the move would be a “drastic step.”

“The service to Memphis is very important to this route,” Strong said. “But it is costing them a fortune to provide the buses, the lighting and all the extra steps they’re having to go through (to shuttle customers to an alternate site).”

Several hundred passengers a day ride the train that stops in Memphis twice a day — one headed north and once headed south. Last year, 50,049 passengers used Central Station.

You can read the entire story here.

The absurdity of this situation is beyond word and the situation of Amtrak as a fiscal afterthought is intolerable. 

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

High-speed rail increases property values in Spanish towns

When new rail connections are discussed in America, there is a strong misconception, particularly among politicians, that more trains will mean lower property values for the communities served. It may seem counter-intuitive, but such backwards thinking caused a commuter rail line running from Minneapolis to my college town, Northfield, to be killed off a few years ago by anxious state legislators from some communities served by the line (Thanks a lot). So it was with a mix of smugness and sadness that I read this article on the effect of Spain’s high-speed AVE network on house prices:

Spain’s high-speed rail network (AVE) plays a significant role in pushing up property prices throughout the country.

To prove this theory Kyero has launched a new Spanish house price index, which shows property prices in towns and cities served by AVE stations outperform their provincial averages. For example, house prices in Málaga, which is served by the AVE line, are currently 24.7 per cent more expensive than in Andalucia and 23.7 per cent higher than the national average across Spain. Prices in Seville and Córdoba also show a similar trend, where properties are within easy reach of AVE stations.

It makes perfect sense: people like living close to transportation, particularly fast and convenient services such as high-speed trains. Let’s just hope that our own lawmakers can pick up on these trends when making decisions concerning our own rail infrastructure.

Filed under: International High Speed Rail, Passenger Rail Politics, , , , ,

Amtrak in talks with Florida about expansion. What does this mean for commuter rail?

Despite the state’s past troubles with planning a modern rail system, Florida legislators are in discussions with Amtrak about expanding and improving its rail service. However, some local commentators have seen the move as an alternative to Orlando’s Central Florida Commuter Rail plan, and question Amtrak’s ability to provide commuter services. From the Orlando Sentinel:

[Sen. Paula Dockery’s] attempts to pass off intercity rail as a credible substitute for the Central Florida commuter-rail project she helped stall, and as the best thing going for lovers of mass transit throughout Florida, don’t wash.

And what would it provide? Service a few times a day to each of the four cities served. A few more cities in between them, like Lakeland, also potentially could be added. But there’d be nothing that gets folks to their jobs or anywhere else nearby. “We’re not the commuter answer,” an Amtrak official told the senator. Intercity rail’s not, as Ms. Dockery represented it, an option for the entire state.

This really just shows how politicians can misunderstand rail development. One train is as good as another, right? But the fact is that commuter rail and intercity rail serve complementary, but differing purposes. Amtrak does provide commuter services in states such as Massachusetts, but these stand in addition to the usual inter-city routes. Adding a commuter element to inter-city trains only serves to slow them down and make them less competitive with planes and cars. Ideally, Florida would invest in both commuter and inter-city networks, sharing connections at regional stations. Whether both can happen at once is yet to be seen, but at least passenger rail improvements are back on the bargaining table in the state.

Hat tip to Tom Palmer in his local politics blog.

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

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June 2008