Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Rail and the Pickens Plan… why the environment needs more trains

Yesterday I was having a conversation with my friend, while CNN was quietly playing on the TV in the background. All of a sudden the conversation stops and we both find ourselves staring at the current commercial, which was tersely presenting the rather gloomy facts behind US oil importation. This wasn’t some typical oil company “we’re trying to solve this transportation crisis that’s milking you dry and making us rich… really.” It was an ad paid for by a former oil executive looking to redeem himself and address America’s fuel crisis: T. Boone Pickens. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. I watched his longer video online:

It’s certainly good that someone is taking up the crusade to encourage renewable energy development and domestic alternatives to oil such as natural gas, but I was disappointed that his plan failed to discuss another big step is reducing America’s dependence on foreign energy: stop using so much of it.

Switching to cleaner energy will be beneficial for both [new] automobiles and [new] trains, but renewable energy isn’t the “magic bullet” politicians are always looking for when it comes to solving problems. What’s also important is to ensure that our avaricious consumption doesn’t negate this new production of clean energy. Investing in passenger rail can be a crucial element towards achieving this goal.

Even if everyone in America switched to a zero-emissions car (that’s a bit misleading considering that they still use electricity.. still mostly generated by fossil fuels), we still have to deal with the fact that most people in this country continue to be glued to their automobiles. Environmental problems associated with driving such as urban sprawl and habitat destruction won’t be affected at all.

The air/auto/oil industries have gotten us into a huge pickle, and we have to recognize that we can’t depend on them to fix it. Vehicles such as the Chevy Volt can be part of the solution, but they’re not the solution. We need to be promoting energy efficient alternatives to driving such as walking, biking, and yes, trains.

A look at the relevant blogs should tell you that environmentalists and rail advocates on the grassroots level are quickly joining forces, but it just seems like the higher-ups haven’t quite caught on yet.

Filed under: Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy, Travel Woes, , , , , ,

Amtrak CEO Kummant talks to Newsweek about ridership, HSR, and the economy

Newsweek published an interview with Amtrak CEO Alex Kummant on its website today. While nothing he says or advocates is particularly revolutionary, it’s interesting to see where the company stands on certain issues during this critical time for passenger rail. Here are some excerpts:

Passenger rail systems across parts of Europe and Asia are the most intricate and reliable in the world. Why not here?
If you look at federal money spent on infrastructure, things are very different here versus there. In the end, it’s an issue of political lists and how high oil prices have to get to really motivate a return to the role of federal government, which is to build out vital infrastructure. We all love high-speed rail, and of course we want it here, but people forget that in Europe, there’s a base system that runs at high speeds, like you can see in Germany. It’s that base speed that we need to start building.

Transportation spending is often tied closely to the economy. Why invest in rail in particular, as opposed to other modal infrastructure?
If you want to really talk about a stimulus package for the economy, investing in rail is wonderful. There are local jobs and local materials. It’s good for steel plants, we can train people. There’s a heck of a lot of technology in the rail world, more so than a lot of people realize. From a stimulus point of view, from a jobs point of view, it’s fabulous. With high energy prices, we’re also going to see pretty dramatic realignments in real-estate value and even faster resurgence of city centers, which helps the housing market, too.

High costs have been a strong deterrent to the service. Will increased ridership translate to changes in ticket prices?
Well, this year, we’re going to grow more than 10 percent in ridership. We’re near sell-out conditions on some of the trains, like on the Northeast Corridor [between Boston and Washington]. Changes in ticket prices is really a public-policy question that the taxpayers and the Congress need to decide. But we’re working hard on increasing efficiency.

Speed is certainly factor in how people choose to get around. The top American trains go 150mph. European trains top 200.
Those trains run on dedicated right-of-ways reserved just for them. We’d love to be the TGV if we had a spare hundred billion dollars to create separate right-of-ways and spend the next 20 years in court on eminent-domain proceedings to build out in some of the most densely populated areas. I believe that there will eventually be high speed in the country like that, but it’ll probably start farther west where they’ll be less trouble putting in dedicated routes.

Particularly interesting was his comment about rail and city centers. As homes closer to the urban core become more attractive to consumers, the centrally located train stations are going to seem a lot more appealing than the exurban mega-airports, where getting to the terminal is practically a trip in itself.

Filed under: Amtrak, United States High Speed Rail, , , ,

Arkansas’ Highway to Nowhere

Move over Alaska, the Natural State of Arkansas has its’ own highway to nowhere. What does it cost? Only $600 million. This would fund the entire Amtrak system for six months. The Pine Bluff Commercial files this report on what should be a taxpayer outrage. Please note carefully the word  “future.”

The Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department has continued to progress in the construction of a 38.5-mile road designed to connect Interstate 530 in Pine Bluff to U.S. 278 in Wilmar though much of the work is hidden from view. The connector is intended to provide easy access to future Interstate 69.

The Interstate 69 corridor from Indianapolis to Mexico is the pork barrel pipe dream of highway and trucking special interests in 20 states and it is a dollar sucking waste. It is a total boondoggle. Of course, highway backers are not accustomed to hard questions about their taxpayer funded play pretties.

Five years ago the connector was expected to cost $300 million, but that amount has since grown to $620 million due to a dramatic increase in construction costs over the past several years including the cost of oil-based asphalt, [Highway Department spokesman Glenn] Bolick said.

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

Amtrak equipment shortage

The decades of politically inspired neglect have had a consequence, and just at the time America faces impending $6 a gallon gasoline. As has been noted here countless times before, Amtrak does not have enough rolling stock to meet consumer demand. 

The Richmond Virginia newspaper carries a generally good story about the appalling situation of the National Rail Passenger Corporation.

Amtrak’s system has about 1,500 passenger cars. They average about 30 years old, while some of the dining cars serving Virginia rail travelers were built in 1949.

“We don’t have additional equipment” to pick up a big spike in travelers, Amtrak’s Connell said.

“They’ve got a very large number of cars that are out of service . . . in need of overhaul, and they have not had the money to fix them,” said Richard L. Beadles, a member of the state’s Rail Advisory Board and former president of RF&P Railroad.

According to Amtrak, 26 percent of its passenger cars are not in good repair.

Alas, it also includes the mandatory neo-con shot at long distance trains. Darn that Amtrak! A federally funded program that provides service to people outside the exalted corridors of power and prestige. People in Arkadelphia, Arkansas have transportation needs too.

Where are our congressional Democrats?

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

A national rail plan based on HSR corridors

An editorial in today’s San Francisco Chronicle is calling for a “rational national rail plan” (that’s a knee-slapper) based on high-speed corridors rather than Amtrak’s current mix of short-haul and long-haul trains. While I disagree with the notion that Amtrak’s long-haul routes are dead weight, the article makes an interesting point: that the development of American HSR will require a national program above and beyond the current Amtrak system.

Any high-speed rail program would require massive, long-term public commitment and investment. Given today’s weak economy, a large-scale public works program of rail improvements might make both economic and political sense. However, proclaiming, “Yes, but the private sector should do it,” is simply a politically expedient way to deep-six the idea.

In sum, a rational national rail program could help ease dependence on foreign oil. But a truly rational program would require a substantial refocusing from the current Amtrak model. Even if we started today, measurable improvements are probably at least five years away. But if we never start, we’ll never see those improvements.

The article is correct in pointing out that as it stands now, Amtrak isn’t going to be the one building truly high-speed corrdidors. The problem is that the company is barely given enough money to maintain its current system, let alone develop its own expensive new lines. For this, Amtrak would require an ambitious new mandate backed by serious funding. Politics being the way they are, I don’t think it’s going to happen. Washington seems increasingly willing to aid states with their rail projects, but a federal HSR plan as the Chronicle describes would take a sort of brevity that most national politicians can’t seem to muster.

As the article hints at, the danger is that high-speed rhetoric will be used to play up pointless privatization talk and diminish Amtrak’s relevance. This can’t be allowed to happen. The transportation crisis isn’t waiting for any HSR plan to be implemented. We need better rail transport now, and that means more funding for Amtrak, not less.

Filed under: Uncategorized, , , , ,

John Kerry says: Fix Acela speeds

It’s something of an open secret that Amtrak’s Acela high-speed service, though faster than a regular NEC train, can’t hold a candle to a true high-speed line. The reason? It runs on the same tracks that have always been there, which are old, curvy, and riddled with bridges and tunnels that were never designed to withstand Acela’s theoretical 150 mph top speed.

John Kerry has told the Boston Globe that he wants to fix all that:

“Are you kidding? That train can go 150 miles an hour, (but) it goes that for, what, a couple of miles?” Kerry scoffed. “I want America to have a first-rate high-speed rail system. A high-speed rail that really lives up to the name and gets people there in the time that we ought to be aiming for.”

Kerry plans to file in two weeks a $1 billion bill that will target out-of-date bridges, tunnels and tracks that prevent the train from hitting its 150-mile-per-hour maximum and getting commuters to their destinations faster.

A billion dollars is nothing to sneeze at, but we have to consider that Kerry is going up for reelection soon. Is that enough money to make a difference? Or is he just trying to wow rail-riding constituents with his outrage over America’s one so-called high-speed train?

While Amtrak took in more than $1.4 billion in federal funds last year [TFA note: is this really necessary?], the curvature of the railroad tracks continues to be the main reason for the Acela’s low speed in the northeast, said Amtrak spokeswoman Karina Romero.

Straightening the tracks along the heavily developed eastern rail would trigger many eminent domain takings, however.

“The price would probably be exorbitant,” Romero said about the number of land takings.

Modernizing bridges and other infrastructure may increase the speed by 10 to 15 miles an hour, said Romero, but probably still would not bring the line to top speed, despite Kerry’s remarks.

A 10-15 mph increase isn’t great, but it’s certainly an improvement. What do you NEC people think? Is it worth it? Is Kerry just being a politician? I glanced at the Boston Globe comments, which is basically a large pool of vitriol against Kerry peppered with an occasional “but the Acela does need to go faster…” here and there. If even making the route workable for Acela is such a challenge, will true HSR ever be acheivable along the corridor? HR 6003 will open up the door to private offers for a high-speed line along the route… that’s not looking very feasible at the moment.

Filed under: Amtrak, United States High Speed Rail, , , , , ,

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July 2008