Trains For America

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Amtrak studying Pioneer route return

Here’s some brighter news from Oregon.

Oregon Public Broadcasting reports that political leaders in eastern Oregon have convinced Amtrak to study the feasibility of a return to the Pioneer  running from Salt Lake City to Portland. The route was closed in 1997.

Warner says Amtrak would either have to build more tracks or negotiate a better deal with freight shippers.

Still, Warner hopes with enough political will, even that problem could be solved.

Fred Warner: “If it was easy, people would use it now, $4 a gallon gas makes it a real viable option now.”

That’s why Oregon Democrats Ron Wyden and Earl Blumenauer teamed with Republican Greg Walden.

The bipartisan delegation pushed Amtrak to study what it would take to reopen the Pioneer Route.

Amtrak says it’ll publish the report later this year.

And from there, lawmakers will  decide whether to put the Pioneer Route back on track.

Sounds like a bit of a longshot in our familiar anti-rail political climate, but this is the kind of smart infrastructure that should be a key part of the federal stimulus package. Too bad it isn’t. Some smart “steel on the ground” investments today would provide for stimulus well into tomorrow.


Filed under: Amtrak, ,

Surprise! Amtrak isn’t recession proof

Here’s a few snippets of recent rail events before you all head home for the weekend. First, some bad news. Amtrak ridership for the first quarter of 2009 is below expectations. This is a slight dip from the same period last year and 5% percent below expectations, according to the Associated Press. CEO Joseph Boardman told a House transportation subcommittee that lower fuel costs were leading some riders to return to their automobiles.

Surely our experienced Amtrak naysayers are going to jump all over this, giving the usual spiel about how the system is a waste of money and should be privatized AKA closed. Forget that Amtrak has seen unprecedented ridership growth in the past couple of years, provides green jobs, and stimulates the economy. Here’s a very specific case in point from Vermont’s ongoing battle to save its popular Ethan Allen Express route:

Rutland City Republican Peter Fagan said even the specter of the proposed Amtrak cut has had an impact on economic development. A condominium project slated for the old Sunshine food store lot has been placed on hold, pending the outcome of the Amtrak negotiations, according to Fagan.

“That’s an economic driver the city would like to take advantage of,” Fagan told the House Transportation Committee. “If the train is funded, they’ll continue on. If the train is not funded, that project is in doubt.”

Seems like the private sector is willing to embrace smart growth, if the public will provide the means for it.

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Politics

Tell your congressman

It’s not quite groundhog day, but I have emerged from my stack of theological books (and thanks to Logan for keeping up). I did not see my shadow, but I did see politicians doing what they always do. The disturbing truth is that this kind of stagneant unimaginative play-it-safe policy making is part of what has gotten this country in such a mess.

Good rail transportation is just prudent policy.Here is a note from the Midwest High Speed Rail Associaiton.

Tell Congress and Obama:
Put high-speed rail in the stimulus package

Momentum is building for a new stimulus package. Passenger trains have been absent from the debate. Help change that by sending a message today.

Click here to send a message

President Barack Obama and Congressional leaders are working on a stimulus package to invest in a green economy and create millions of jobs.

The amount of money that could be spent is huge: more than $800 billion.

Investing in fast, frequent and dependable passenger trains will help restructure and strengthen our economy by reducing transportation costs and bringing cities closer together.

Unfortunately, our D.C. sources say that the “marker” for fast trains is small – just $1.1 billion.

California’s high-speed rail project alone will require at least $15 billion from the federal government. How can Congress even consider spending only $1.1 billion for the entire nation on state-based rail investment?

We could miss this opportunity if we don’t act now.

The stimulus package is being debated right now.

Act Now! Tell your Member of Congress to invest at least $5 billion in high-speed rail in the $700 billion stimulus package.

And tell President Barack Obama the same thing: at least $5 billion for high-speed rail.

Click here to send a message
Our Priorities

Double Amtrak’s Fleet

Fund $500 million in ready-to-go Midwest railroad projects.

Build the South-of-the-Lake Reroute.

Finish the Chicago – St. Louis Lincoln Heritage Corridor.

Get trains to Madison, WI.

Help us build the list.

If your city or town has a passenger rail project in the works that is waiting for funding, such as a new railroad station, please click here to tell us more.

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

Obama: Bla bla, energy, cars, bla bla (not rail)

So we keep hearing bad news about the stimulus and its lack of rail provisions. And worse, the Overhead Wire has a good piece about why the Obama administration and the Democratic leadership seem to be squelching attempts to make any progress in the matter. Apparently it has to do with current Obama adviser, former energy secretary, and infrastructure-hater Larry Summers.

Amidst all this, Obama released a new statement on energy today. It actually might come across as nuanced and well-thought out, except for the glaring lack of anything rail or even transit related.

Year after year, decade after decade, we’ve chosen delay over decisive action.  Rigid ideology has overruled sound science.  Special interests have overshadowed common sense.  Rhetoric has not led to the hard work needed to achieve results.  Our leaders raise their voices each time there’s a spike in gas prices, only to grow quiet when the price falls at the pump.

I haven’t seen any definitive proof here that special interests still aren’t overshadowing common sense, but okay. Oh, there’s more.

Finally, we will make it clear to the world that America is ready to lead.  To protect our climate and our collective security, we must call together a truly global coalition.  I’ve made it clear that we will act, but so too must the world.  That’s how we will deny leverage to dictators and dollars to terrorists.  And that’s how we will ensure that nations like China and India are doing their part, just as we are now willing to do ours.

Not sure we need to be patronizing China about climate change when we’re going to be building loads of new highways while they invest billions in high-speed rail (via the NY Times).

I certainly haven’t lost hope in the idea that Obama will be bringing “change” to transportation in this country, but we haven’t seen much delivered yet. Even if the stimulus is all highways and tax cuts, we can still look forward (and keep on working) towards change in the “highway bill” coming up this year.

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

Secret Service forgets that Union Station is for trains

Matthew Harwood over at the Huffington Post points out what seems to be a hiccup on inauguration day that everyone ignored. Obama’s final ball of the evening, the Eastern States Inaugural Ball, was held in the grand hall of Washington’s Union Station. It’s a beautiful place. That makes sense. Except that this was one of the busiest travel events Washington has ever seen and people need to use the station for such frivolous things as, you know, catching a train. From the Huffington Post:

In the end, average rail travelers using Union Station got the same treatment they always do when their interests cross those of our nation’s elite: They were told to be patient and calm and to wait in line.

“And for what,” asked the New York businessman, “so someone could have champagne tonight?”

If you were lucky enough to get into the Eastern States Inaugural Ball, according to the Boston Herald, you could see a few Kennedys, Congressman Barney Frank, and the Senator John Kerry’s brother and sister, before the Obamas made their entrance.

Enthusiasts and critics of Obama are right: maybe this is the new Camelot.

Filed under: Amtrak, Travel Woes, , ,

The wrong place to put high-speed rail


I drew it out for everyone.

Conde Nast’s Joe Brancatelli has a few suggestions to Obama about transportation. One of them involves building a high-speed rail network (yep), but he gets something wrong.

What the nation needs is a titanic investment in high-speed, short-haul rail service between heavily populated major cities. What we need is inter-modal solutions that create express rail links between major airports, nearby suburbs and city centers. Recreating the 20th Century Limited between New York and Chicago isn’t the answer. Creating a 21st Century Amtrak that links Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to tens of millions of travelers in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and Indiana is.

Okay, I realize that lately some airlines in Europe have actually been supporting HSR and even getting into the biz themselves, like Air France. This is great. What we can’t do, however, is make the mistake of seeing high-speed rail as merely some replacement for short-haul connection flights. Trains [probably] won’t ever be as fast as planes, so it’s critical that we don’t remove from them one of their best advantages over flying: being able to leave and arrive right from the city.

For one thing, this makes things easier for travelers. Airports are generally located in the far-flung fringes of an urban area. The trip to and from the airport after the plane has landed can be long, expensive, and cumbersome for travelers. This is true for drivers and doubly true for users of mass transit. If you’re lucky, the city has a rail transit connection to its airport. If you’re not, get ready to put up with a more confusing bus ride or a pricey cab fare. Even if there is a connection, like the CTA’s Blue Line at O’Hare, those trains are usually neither suited for luggage nor the long suburban distances. It’s much more practical to have our trains arriving and leaving in the cities themselves, where they are well served by local transportation and close to urban amenities and destinations. The UK is looking at having Heathrow be the hub for a national HSR scheme, but Heathrow already has an express rail connection to London, and as part of the plan will be getting an even faster one. I don’t envision the political will ever materializing for something like that in the United States. Transit connections will always be “good enough.”

This also dips into the realm of urban policy. Focusing our tax money on airports will encourage more development in those far-flung suburbs. Conference centers and hotels will thrive out there while struggling in the cities. More subsidized sprawl is the least thing we need when we should be weaning ourselves off of oil and heading towards a greener economy. Missing the forest for the trees is part of what got us into our current transportation mess. We can’t afford to let that happen again.

And the right-of-ways for bringing trains into the city have existed for a long time. Improving these existing links and giving Amtrak the improved capacity is desperately needs should be our first priority. Refocusing our rail system onto the airports is a foolhardy waste of money. A better suggestion for Obama would be to get to work on improving the extensive infrastructure we already have and making it look at least a little bit like it might be the rail system of a first-world country. The Midwest HSR project would, as always, be a very very good place to start.

Filed under: Travel Woes, United States High Speed Rail, , , ,

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January 2009