Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Airlines “can’t afford to carry every passenger who wants to fly”

Via the California High Speed Rail Blog comes this piece from the Washington Post about travellers switching to Amtrak. Inevitably, the article discusses the inconveniences and costs associated with flying these days. Unsurprisingly, many of these frustrated consumers are turning to Amtrak for their summer travel plans.

However, for those patiently awaiting the return of cheap flights: don’t hold your breath. The Post says this about the state of the air industry:

Amtrak’s growth has come as airlines are retrenching, trimming flight schedules primarily in response to high energy prices. The flight cuts started showing up this summer and will intensify through the year. Airlines are trying to recover higher fuel costs with higher fares and charging for snacks, luggage, in-flight entertainment, even pillows and blankets. The fees aren’t likely to go away soon either, analysts say.

John Heimlich, chief economist of the Air Transport Association, the airline industry’s Washington lobbying group, said the changes represented “positive steps” for carriers working their way back to profitability. He said airlines are sacrificing volume to focus on the profitability of remaining flights.

“We simply can’t afford to carry every passenger who wants to fly,” he said.

This underscores the need for trains, and particularly high speed rail. If airlines aren’t interesting in hauling John Q. Public from place to place in this country anymore, who is going to pick up the slack? Do we expect everyone to be okay with driving large distances only to have to deal with the hassle of a car at their destination? Do we start subsidizing the airlines more, ignoring the environmental issues inherent in air travel? Or maybe we just concede that long-distance travel is the exclusive domain of the wealthy who are willing to pay more for air tickets.

The obvious answer is none of the above. Rail needs to be a viable travel option here as much as it is in the rest of the developed world (or at least the developing world, please). It’s not a matter of posterity or nostalgia. Everyday Americans needs to be able to affordably get around their own country and trains are the most sustainable and civilized way to do so.


Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Politics, Travel Woes, , , ,

Amtrak trying to expand Acela service

Via the Boston Globe, Amtrak CEO Alexander Kummant says that the company is looking to increase the number of cars run on its Acela trains. Unfortunately, Amtrak would need to buy new cars for the route, as the Acela can’t use the normal Amtrak stock (which aren’t exactly easily available anyway). What does this mean for passengers of this very crowded service? Well, possibly ticket surcharges to fund the purchase of new coaches from Bombardier.

“We’re out of capacity,” said Kummant. “Most people know that’s a pretty tough ticket” because seats are hard to find except at “way-off-peak” times.

The Acela’s top speed of 150 miles per hour is drawing travelers who want to avoid rising airfares and highway congestion in the Northeast. Acela ridership climbed 7.7 percent in the first 10 months of fiscal 2008, part of Amtrak’s 11 percent gain.

The trains now run with an engine at each end. While that step speeds turnarounds when the Acela finishes its route and then reverses direction, reconfiguring trains to add coaches would be “very difficult and very time consuming,” spokeswoman Karina Romero said. Amtrak also doesn’t have any spare Acela passenger cars, so extending the trains would require buying more custom-built coaches, she said.

Trains are “running full and the demand is there,” said David R. Johnson, deputy director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers consumer group. “They have been under pressure to act like a business, and this is how private business acts.”

Higher fares alone wouldn’t produce enough money to expand the Acela, for which Amtrak agreed to pay $800 million in 1996 for 20 trains and maintenance. Such a step would require more funding for Amtrak, a “political football” that has struggled for aid in President Bush’s administration, said Kummant.

So there you have it, supply and demand. It’s amazing how even very flawed high-speed trains like Acela can generate so much increased traffic.

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

Shanghai maglev to be extended

The world’s most prominent maglev train line, China’s 18 mile (30 km) route running from downtown Shanghai to the regional airport, is about to get a 125 mile (200 km) extension. When completed in around 2015, the line will connect Shanghai with neighboring Hangzhou, capital of the Zhejiang province. From the China Daily:

In accordance with an action plan of the provincial government regarding construction of key projects for 2008-2012 period, this affluent Chinese province is determined to complete the Zhejiang part of the maglev project in five years starting 2010 at a cost of 22 billion yuan ($3.14 billion).

In accordance with an early construction schedule, the maglev project would begin construction in 2007, get completion in 2008 and start trial operation in 2009 before a formal operation by 2010, when Shanghai plays host to the World Expo.

The action plan, which was distributed to government departments at lower levels inside Zhejiang over the weekend, also set a timetable for construction of another high-speed railway line, reserved for passenger transport only, between Shanghai and Hangzhou.

Impressive considering that ridership hasn’t exactly been impressive on the currently rather limited route. This seems to be the train that American politicians tend to gawk at and reference when talking about such projects on this side of the world, so a more comprehensive rail line couldn’t be a bad thing for the future of this technology over here.

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

Biden the right pick for rail

Joe Biden is officially Barack Obama’s running mate for the November election… but although we know Obama’s position on rail, where does Biden stand? Our friend Robert Cruickshank over at the California High Speed Blog has clearly done a lot of research on the subject and has an excellent post up that includes a number of direct quotes from the man himself. The short answer? Rail advocates have a friend in Joe Biden. Just a few exciting excerpts from what CAHSR has collected:

A lead author of the legislation, Senator Joseph Biden, Jr. (DE) said, “Every advanced economy in the world invests more than the United States in high-speed inter-city service. We like to think of ourselves as the most advanced country in the world, and I believe we are, but for years we have nickel-and-dimed passenger rail service in this country.”

Biden proposes an interstate high-speed rail service similar to the interstate highway system.

“One mile of one lane of I-80 costs $22 million,” Biden said. “One mile of I-95 (on the East Coast) holds more traffic and costs $41 million.” By contrast, “One mile of high-speed rail costs $1 million.

“You can fit more people on a rail car and you’ll be taking 50 automobiles off the road. Rail uses 1/50th of the cost (of a car) in terms of energy consumption.”

Biden said the reason why railroads haven’t been used more in the past is because of special interest groups, most notably the airline industry. “They get $350 million a year to go where no one wants to go,” Biden said, qualifying that by saying that there is not enough business to support a commercial flight. He said people don’t like the idea of subsidizing railroads, yet the airline industry gets subsidies to fly to sparse locations.

John McCain will be picking his running mate soon as well. However, it hardly matters, as he has long made his regrettable position on passenger rail quite clear. There are some transit moderates in that field of options though, so we’ll be keeping track just in case.

Edit: I don’t know how I forgot to point out what the Obama campaign has been making a big fuss over… that during the time Biden works in Washington, he rides “a lonely Amtrak train” every night back to Delaware to be with his family.

And about the $1 million per mile of high-speed rail thing… I can’t really find the specifics of what he was referring to. Perhaps, as the Overhead Wire editor suggested, he was talking about semi-HSR upgrades or something. Or, well, he is a politician after all. They’re not known for always being informed/honest with their facts.

Filed under: Passenger Rail Politics, , , , , ,

Slight decrease in oil prices only temporary

Just in case anyone needed to be reminded, scientist Joseph J. Romm has a piece on about how the dip in gas/oil prices we’re seeing is only a temporary reprieve:

John Hess, chairman of Hess Corp., a global oil and mineral exploration company, said recently, “An oil crisis is coming in the next 10 years. It’s not a matter of demand. It’s not a matter of supplies. It’s both.” In October, Christophe de Margerie, CEO of French oil company Total S.A., said that production of even 100 million barrels a day by 2030 will be “difficult.” In November, James Mulva, CEO of ConocoPhillips, the third biggest U.S. oil company, told a Wall Street conference: “I don’t think we are going to see the supply going over 100 million barrels a day … Where is all that going to come from?”

Why does this matter? Because although Amtrak has been hitting record record ridership levels all over the country, the driving force behind this trend has been fuel prices. If politicians, being the fickle creatures they are, don’t think that prices are going to stay up, they won’t see the point in investing in Amtrak after years of neglect (despite that just being one of many reasons we need intercity rail).

I wish I could say that we’re not so shortsighted as to believe that this is the end of the fuel crisis, but I saw a piece on the local news the other day about how SUV sales at area dealerships have spiked in recent weeks due to lower gasoline prices. This is exactly the kind of thinking that prevented us from addressing this issue 25 years ago.

HT to Streetsblog’s daily update for the original source.

Filed under: Passenger Rail Politics, Travel Woes,

Amtrak? Equipment shortage?

This is probably my favorite theme. Due to over 30 years of starvation level funding by a special interest driven congress, Amtrak is flat on its back without even enough cars to operate a a skeletal national system. The Chicago Tribune carries a report on Senator Dick Durbin’s proposal to remedy this ridiculous and embarrassing situation.

Key elements of his plan consist of a trust fund to replace aging trains, along with grants and tax-credit bonds to encourage train-car manufacturing in America for the first time in many years.

“This is not the past. This is the future,” Durbin said of intercity train travel as he stood in front of refurbished Amtrak trains built at the railroad’s maintenance facility south of downtown Chicago.

“We cannot pave our way out of traffic congestion,” he added.

The proposed Intercity Passenger Rail Rolling Stock Trust Fund would be funded by diverting 1 quarter-cent per gallon from the federal gas tax to buy new rail cars.

But the Highway Trust Fund, which is funded by gas tax revenue to pay for roads and mass transit, is expected to go bankrupt this fiscal year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Durbin’s plan also seeks authorization for Amtrak to sell up to $2.8 billion in bonds each year to finance train-car projects.

Until this happens, there will be no daily Sunset, no Sunset east of New Orleans, no service to Las Vegas, no improvements in service, period. Of course, this is exactly as airline and highways interests would have it.

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

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August 2008