Trains For America

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Ray LaHood named Obama’s Transportation Secretary… good for rail?

The strongest emotion surrounding Barack Obama’s pick of Ray LaHood, a congressman from Peoria, IL,  for the top DOT job seems to be surprise. He wasn’t on any of the shortlists, and he’s a Republican without much transportation experience. Obama needed a Republican in the cabinet (Robert Gates is a registered independent), and for better or worse, transportation got him. Fortunately, he seems to be a strong moderate who is well-liked and easy to work with. Mainstream news outlets, such as the Chicago Tribune say that

Unlike many Republicans in Congress, LaHood has a record of supporting funding for Amtrak and public transit.

However, a closer look at his record tempers that view slightly. To start off with, some of his record is reassuring. He did vote for this year’s 2008 Amtrak reauthorization legislation and has supported other pro-rail and pro-transit legislation. He has also made comments against privatizing Illinois’s Amtrak rails, and has praised Amtrak subsidies in light of the larger funds given to highway and air interests. But some of his comments about high-speed rail and Amtrak are a bit worrisome. Our friend Robert Cruickshank at the CAHSR Blog has pointed to LaHood’s comments about high-speed rail in 2004:

LaHood said he considers Amtrak “the lifeblood transportation for small communities,” and he knows many college students from Chicago’s suburbs use trains to travel to school, Copley News Service reported via The Lincoln Courier.

“On the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak is fabulous,” LaHood added, “and after 9-11, it became the transportation of choice for a lot of people because they felt it was safer than flying.

“I think if we’re going to have a pot of money where we subsidize airlines and we subsidize the funding of highways, that we certainly ought to continue to subsidize Amtrak,” LaHood said.

He said, “I don’t think we can afford at this point, with the kind of deficits we’re running,” to be talking about high-speed rail.

While funding is his main concern, he said, “People in rural Illinois are not for high-speed rail… They do not want a train traveling 120, 125, 150 miles per hour through the rural areas, and I support them on that.”

As Cruickshank states:

Obviously 2008 is different from 2004, and the “HSR vs. Amtrak local” dichotomy that LaHood set up in these 2004 comments may no longer apply (if it ever did). But this doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in our new Secretary of Transportation, who ought to be someone who understands the ins and outs of transportation policy, particularly high speed rail.

I would also take issue from how he describes Amtrak here. It’s great that he supports our national rail carrier, but I think it’s critical to not write it off as a service for small communities and cash-strapped college students. That’s basically saying it’s a second-class option for those who can’t afford to fly or don’t have access to an airport. That’s fine for continuing the status quo, but if we want to improve our passenger rail system, even a little bit, we need to recognize that trains are there to provide fast and efficient service between major cities (and small towns) that is convenient and affordable for all Americans. We need a train system that people want to take, not one they have to.

That being said, perhaps we’re jumping the gun. He’s now operating under Obama’s administration. His effectiveness when it comes to rail will likely be a product of the administration’s views on the subject and willingness to impose them.

Filed under: Uncategorized

DOT now taking private proposals for HSR corridors

Remember that part of this year’s Amtrak Reauthorization bill that mandated the government  look at private proposals creating high-speed service in the NEC and other federal HSR corridors? Well, in two press conferences yesterday at Penn Station and Washington DC’s Union Station, John Mica (R-FL), Mary Peters, and Michael Bloomberg announced that the DOT has officially started this process.

What does it mean? Not a whole lot right now. There’s nothing binding about the measure, the law only requires the DOT to take the proposals, any further moves would require another act of Congress, including, most importantly, funding. The Washington Post questions whether any organizations are going to put in the effort, considering the economic situation. It’s also a little bit unclear as to how any high-speed corridor would operate. Under Amtrak? The bidding company? Would it be subsidized? All of this would seem to depend on the nature of any given proposal and how Congress would implement it.

The Transport Politic points out the loose definition set for “high-speed” for these projects:

Proposals to be submitted will have to provide for the accomplishment of one or more of the following goals:

  • Northeast Corridor between Washington and New York must be completed in 2h or less.
  • All other eligible must have their current travel times reduced by at least 25%.

In other words, these goals would not result in many corridors in the production of high-speed rail. Travel times in almost all of the corridors listed above, even if reduced by 25%, would still be far too long. As a result, this request for proposals could provide better train service, but not necessarily great train service.

But as The Transport Politic later states, the rhetoric presented at the press conference envisions more ambitious ideas, such as maglev. Whether propoals fulfill these lofty goals, disappoint with modest speed increases, or materialize at all remains to be seen.

But hey, if Congress is looking for a good HSR plan to put money behind, how about the very tangible and doable Midwest HSR network?

Filed under: Uncategorized

Transportation stimulus may pass up long-term infrastructure

Robert Cruickshank has a great piece on the CAHSR blog picking apart a recent Washington Post article on where the stimulus is going. Both are definitely worth a read, but in summation, current priorities seem to be on repairs and road projects that can be started immediately. And as the Post points out, money is being distributed through the conventional channels: state DOT’s and local transit agencies. There’s no impetus to invest in more regional solutions such as rail infrastructure (at least the way DOT’s are organized these days).

In many ways, this is understandable. The priority right now is creating jobs, which means getting shovels in the dirt. If that’s limited to roads, bridges, and a handful of narrow local transit projects right now, that’s fine. What’s not okay is if this is where it stops. If Washington and the new Obama administration will look at this after two years and say “Good, we’ve fixed our infrastructure,” then that’s a shame. And that’s why we must continue to keep the pressure on.

And well, Obama hasn’t even been inaugurated yet. I hope we’re not becoming jaded too early.

Filed under: Passenger Rail Politics

Vermont citizens not pleased with proposed Amtrak cuts

Last week we talked about a cash-strapped Vermont looking at cutting back its subsidy for its popular and growing Amtrak routes. Of course, this is exactly what we shouldn’t be doing right now, exactly what we hoped we wouldn’t have to do under a more enlightened Obama administration. Pat mentioned some unhappiness with the cuts later on in the week, but resentment seems to continue, with Burlington Free Press readers unanimously writing in support of the line (okay, so there were only a couple dozen of them, but well, it’s a small state). Carl Fowler in the Times and Argus says it best:

We “invest” in highways and “subsidize” rail, but I submit that both are really the same. When did Vermonters last get a dividend check from I-89? Cutting Amtrak now would be penny-wise and pound-foolish. Rather, we should be looking for ways to expand Amtrak. An immediate reinstatement of the St. Albans-Montreal Ambus connection will add a minimum of 30 passengers per day to the train, cover all incremental expenses, and add ridership of 15 percent to the Vermonter route, while increasing rail revenues by at least $500,000 per year, with no increase in train costs.

Let’s hope the Vermont legislature  listens to Fowler and other citizens when they’re considering these cuts. And of course, TFA will be sure to continue tracking this issue for you.

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Politics

Extreme Trains highlights Empire Builder

Our readers are always alert.

This train running from Chicago to Seattle is the busiest passenger
train in America. The route passes through America’s longest tunnel
where Matt finds out how the railroad keeps passengers from choking to death and how to keep the tracks from flooding. In the Cascade Mountains he learns what it takes to the keep the rails clear of snow drifts over a dozen feet high! This episode covers how James J. Hill built the Great Northern Railroad; and the Wellington avalanche disaster. It features some of America’s most beautiful scenery in Montana’s Glacier National Park.

Filed under: Amtrak, Regional USA Passenger Rail

Amtrak NEC ridership down sharply in November; long distance ridership up

The economic slowdown of November has had an effect on business travel, which has obviously had a strong negative effect on Acela. Of particular interest is that demand for long distance service continues strong. This includes the Texas Eagle and the perennial system whipping boy, the Sunset.

Amtrak Ridership down in November

Ridership on Amtrak trains, according to a document issued by the
company, declined 5.5% during the month of November against the same month in the prior fiscal year. It was down 10.7% against what the company expected. The biggest decline on the NEC and on the entire system was Acela Express, down more than 15%.

Leading the decline was the Northeast Corridor, where ridership was down 11.2% against a year ago, and 15.7% against expectations.

State-supported and shorthaul trains were up 2.0% against the prior
year, and down 5.0% against expectations. The biggest gainer was the Piedmont, up over 28%; the Adirondack was down 11%.

Long-distance trains were up 3.9% against a year ago, down 1.9% from company expectations. The largest increases were posted by the
Piedmont, up over 28%, and the Texas Eagle and Sunset Limited, both up almost 20%.

Despite a shaky economy and declining gas prices, there is still strong desire for rail intercity transportation.

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

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December 2008