Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

A discussion starter – an open thread

This came from Evan Stair, Vice-President of the Oklahoma Northern Flyer Alliance, concerning some commentary from United Passenger Rail Alliance (included among our links).

Evan makes some interesting points and I will probably add a few of my own soon. Your reactions are invited in the “comments” section.

Rather than talk about “Amtrak’s wholly owned lapdog organizations” UPRA should work to prove them wrong. UPRA should do a better job promoting UPRA’s agenda; whatever that might be. What is UPRA doing to promote its agenda? What policy leaders are they engaging?

I am neither a defender of NARP or a basher. NARP simply exists. I have seen evidence where they do damage on regional levels. I have seen instances where they have done some real good. I do not believe they are overall damaging the passenger rail cause. Their effectiveness in many arenas should be questioned. However, dumping the outdated regional concept is a step in the right direction. I do however believe that their work in Washington D.C. is important. It is up to their affiliated “field organizations” to make a difference.

Political realities can change. However, they change slowly and require hard work in communities/legislative bodies/and in public education, not just weekly updates bashing Amtrak and NARP. Amtrak is a political and fiscal reality. No entity will change that overnight. Demanding that it be profitable in this era of debt is unreasonable. The business case
should be one to first retire the debt before talking about profitability. I for one still believe that Amtrak can become dramatically more efficient and customer friendly. However, I also am not sold on the concept of passenger rail profitability, despite Mr. Richardson’s weekly suggestion that this might be possible in the United States.

If Mr. Richardson wants to review real efficiency on a US level he need look no further than Trinity Rail Express between Fort Worth and Dallas. By invitation, Northern Flyer Alliance dignitaries from the Oklahoma legislature, Del City, Oklahoma County, and Edmond visited TRE in Dallas Union Station yesterday for a presentation showing what efficiency can do.

-TRE dispatchers are world class, based out of South Irving. They operate 55 passenger trains and over 20 freight movements daily on a mixture of single and double track segments between the Metroplex’s two largest communities. (Let’s see if any US Class I railroad can accomplish such incredible feats of dispatching)

-TRE is building and rebuilding what will one day be a double track railroad out of the bankrupt Rock Island route between Fort Worth and Dallas.

-TRE transports nearly 3 million people a year.

-TRE holds mineral rights over a narrow width 34 mile rail corridor that brings in additional cash. However, with all of this efficiency, with all of these additional side benefits, they are still “not profitable.”

-TRE receives trackage rights payments from a shortline operator and the BNSF.

-TRE may soon begin providing dispatching for the New Mexico Rail Runner Express.

Maybe Mr. Richardson could bash TRE while he is bashing Amtrak and NARP?

Amtrak has inherent institutional problems; but here again, they are the only provider of interstate passenger rail service in the nation. NOTE: I did not say “intercity” because this can mean either (or both) interstate or intrastate. If UPRA believes that there is a business case for
profitability, UPRA and its membership should shore up investors and become an operator. In other words, don’t complain about Amtrak’s problems, do something about them. Maybe UPRA should become affiliated with the Heritage Foundation under the fiscal responsibility arena? They would find a friend in Ernest Istook.

I would say that getting Amtrak out of debt should have been a major portion of the stimulus bill. The recent string of CEO’s had nothing to do with Amtrak’s string of debt. Since this is a national epidemic, maybe it is time to retire a nation’s debt through a 12 step program. Want to save money on Amtrak? Shut the ENTIRE system down. However, I don’t think we
should be kicking people out of their homes, nor should we be shutting down the largest interstate passenger rail company in the nation.

There is a real story in the comparison “intercity” versus “interstate” versus “intrastate” that is rarely told by persons promoting passenger rail. The misused term intercity allows congressmen and US Senators to call Amtrak a state funding responsibility. This is damaging because it forces state compacts over routes that are more efficiently proposed and managed by Amtrak. Amtrak in many cases knows what should be; however, due to their quasi-public charter, they are unable to lobby for what is best for their customers or their company.

Of course the Flyer Corridor (Kansas City – Wichita – Oklahoma City – Fort Worth) is one of these unfortunate examples. If one includes Kansas City, MO an expanded Heartland Flyer would touch four states. Get even two states to agree on anything and you have accomplished a monumental feat. The result of this political reality has been a 10 year Oklahoma City stub end
because the state of Kansas has been unwilling to join the three state compact. Kansas is now showing signs of interest, but this interest may be simply to put the issue of passenger rail to bed permanently. Long term I do not believe this will be the case for Kansas. Kansas is as subject to fiscal/political pressure as any state. Short term; however, The Northern
Flyer Alliance is waiting with baited breath for Kansas legislators to set policy encouraging KDOT and finally funding the Heartland Flyer expansion for KDOT to Kansas City.

Evan Stair
Vice President – Oklahoma
Northern Flyer Alliance

If my memory is any good, Amtrak legally posses an exclusive legal right to operate inter-city passenger trains. I will gladly accept correction if I am mistaken about this. The point is that specific legislation would be  to allow “competition” or a secondary service. I suspect this aspect is loaded with legal technicalities and that the operator of a true European-style HSR would not be on the same legal classification as Amtrak.

All of this talk about “profitability” seems to avoid a number of particular issues. Operators of passenger trains on the host lines are running on tax paying entities. Airports and highways exist under an entirely different set of governmental expectations and favored treatment. This is not said to cause an all out shooting war, merely to observe the “real world” situation.

Amtrak is a political creature. It relies on government for operating capitol. Amtrak faces a number of unfavorable operating conditions which make the probably of private investment under the existing arrangement, at least, unlikely.

  • Amtrak is unable to reach essential markets and provide service on essential corridors because of objections from operating railroads and the unavailability of equipment.
  • Due to the inadequacy of rail infrastructure, Amtrak has little control over its own operating schedules.
  • A lack of investment has caused the deterioration of existing equipment.
  • Insufficient head end power.
  • Corporate management spends an inordinate amount of time defending the company’s very existence and appears to be prohibited from lobbying for essential regional modifications (something Evan references).
  • The general political atmosphere of nit-picking (dining cars, etc.) leads to a demoralization of executives and employees. This passes through to the passenger level.

Bruce Richardson seems to be saying that Amtrak can do better. I agree.

The sad truth is that Amtrak is a convenient whipping boy in the political world where cute 20 second sound bites trump sound policy discussions. It sometimes appears that some of the supposedly “friendly” commentary on Amtrak does little more than serve the ends of various obstructionists. We should move on from that.

I hesitate to critique NARP. I am simply not close enough to the operation, but I will say that they do a reasonably good job for national lobbying. One unfortunate reality of rail advocacy is competing regional interests. For example, if Idaho gets its train back the Sunset probably is not extended beyone New Orleans. Yet, both projects are clearly part of the basic system and should never be set up against each other.

Common sense always leads us back to the sensible proposals of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association. They propose a network of good fast conventional trains connecting  convenient locations. Waht they are proposing makes sense and augments the national Amtrak system. Until there are regional systems providing internmediate length services, the long distance trains will  suffer. We are talking about a national policy and a system that encourages regionalism.

TRE is a poor comparison to Amtrak. It is a commuter line running trains on its own trackage with its own dispatchers.

Evan makes an excellent point about the need for some Amtrak imput on the interstate rivalries which arise in even simple proposals like the Kansas City to Fort Worth corridor.

Amtrak debt is the gorilla in the parlor. Is that what caused Kummant’s swift and sudden departure? We have also gotten hints of activism from the Amtrak board which may not be typical for a large corporation. These are real concerns.

The National Rail Passenger Corporation provides an essential service and deserves a reliable source of revenue in order to make realistic plans for sensible expansion and improved business operations.


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

Louisiana to seek New Orleans-Baton Rouge passenger rail line from federal stimulus pot that Jindal called wasteful

My, my, my. Here is the latest transportation development from the New Orleans Times-Picayune. (The comments are pretty entertaining as well)

BATON ROUGE – Louisiana’s transportation department plans to request federal dollars for a New Orleans to Baton Rouge passenger rail service from the same pot of railroad money in the president’s economic stimulus package that Gov. Bobby Jindal criticized as unnecessary pork on national television Tuesday night.

The high-speed rail line, a topic of discussion for years, would require $110 million to upgrade existing freight lines and terminals to handle a passenger train operation, said Mark Lambert, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development.

Now, some analysis.

It’s a good idea for several reasons.

  • The Gulf coast is still rebuilding after Katrina and Rita.
  • Baton Rouge is close to New Orleans. Travel time of about one hour.
  • Provides for low cost housing to be built along the route. That would repoace stock lost in the Ninth Ward. (The entertainment industry in N. O. depends on folks who live in cheap housing).
  • Of course it creates more upscale development opportunities.
  • Rail lines already exist. No land cost and reduced environmental concerns.
  • That one hour with CONVENTIONAL equipment. No European style HSR expense.
  • Could be the first stage of an upgraded rail route to Houston. Again, the lines already exist. Might also be extended to Mobile. Alabama and Mississippi already have a legal entity for such projects. There is also an expansion possibility towards DFW.

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

Shame on Sean Hannity and FOX News

On second thought, one would need a functioning moral conscience and a sense of social obligation. Apparently, FOX and Hannity have neither. The following item comes from Media Matters and sets the record straight on a serious misstatement (lie) concerning the stimulus package and transportation.

Summary: On Fox News, Sean Hannity repeated the false GOP talking points that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act directs that funds be spent to protect the salt marsh harvest mouse in San Francisco and on a high-speed rail line between Southern California and Las Vegas. In fact, as Rep. Joe Sestak noted in response to Hannity, the bill does not contain any language directing funds to the salt marsh harvest mouse or its San Francisco wetlands habitat, nor does the bill include a provision directing that funds be spent on a high-speed rail line between Southern California and Las Vegas.

During the February 24 broadcast of his Fox News program, host Sean Hannity repeated the false Republican talking points that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 directs that funds be spent to protect the salt marsh harvest mouse in San Francisco and on a high-speed rail line between Southern California and Las Vegas. In response to Hannity’s false claims, Hannity’s guest, Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA) noted, “Sean, that — those words are absolutely not in the bill, and you know it. You may be reading them off the Internet, but those words are not in the bill.”

After Sestak challenged Hannity to “try to name” an earmark in the bill, Hannity responded: “The salt harvest marsh mouse that gets $30 million. The railway from Los Angeles to Las Vegas: that is a pork project.” In fact, as Media Matters for America has noted, the bill does not contain any language directing funds to the salt marsh harvest mouse or its San Francisco wetlands habitat, a fact that the House Republican leadership aide who reportedly originated the claim has reportedly acknowledged. Nor does the bill include, as Media Matters has noted, a provision directing that $8 billion in funds be spent on a high-speed rail line between Southern California and Las Vegas.

After writing that “there isn’t any such money in the bill” for the mouse, The Plum Line blogger Greg Sargent reported on February 12 that the “marsh harvest mouse” claim originated in an email from a “House Republican leadership staffer” who, when contacted by Sargent, “conceded that the claim by conservative media that the mouse money is currently in the bill is a misstatement.” San Jose Mercury News staff writer Paul Rogers subsequently reported on February 13 that Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH), originated the claim and said that “[t]here is no language in the bill that says this money will go to this project.”

Moreover, Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace has said that the claim that the bill had funding to protect the mouse has been “supposedly … debunked.”

As Media Matters has noted, the mouse falsehood has been repeated several times on Fox News, including on Hannity. Furthermore, other media outlets such as The New York Times, Fox Business Network, The Washington Times, and CNN have advanced the same falsehood.

Furthermore, contrary to Hannity’s false claim — which has been pushed by House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) — that the economic recovery bill directs that funds be spent on a high-speed rail line between Southern California and Las Vegas, the bill does not direct high-speed rail funds to any specific high-speed rail project. Furthermore, any funding would be allocated by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman.

The bill states that $8 billion shall remain available for the “Secretary of Transportation” for “projects that support the development of intercity high speed rail service” and that the secretary shall “submit to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations a strategic plan that describes how the Secretary will use the funding provided under this heading to improve and deploy high speed passenger rail systems.” The Joint Explanatory Statement of the Conference Report on H.R. 1 further states of the high-speed rail program: “The conferees have provided the Secretary flexibility in allocating resources between the programs to advance the goal of deploying intercity high speed rail systems in the United States.”

From the February 24 edition of Fox News’ Hannity:

HANNITY: And that was President Obama, delivering his remarks to a joint session of Congress just a bit ago. And joining us now to give us his thoughts on the president’s speech is Democratic Congressman Joe Sestak [PA] is with us.

You know, Congressman Sestak, I’m getting a little frustrated. He said in last week’s $1 trillion-plus with interest, you know, massive spending bill — he said there were no pet projects in it. We all know that’s not true.

I have a list of the $410 billion omnibus spending bill. I have a list — I’ll start reading them to you, if you like — of nothing but part of the 9,000 earmarks. How can you say with a straight face that this is not irresponsible spending when it’s full of earmarks? Last week’s bill; this week’s bill being debated. Explain that to me. You’re a Democrat. Help me out.

SESTAK: Absolutely. Sean, first off, you try to name me one — one in the recovery bill of an earmark. Now, with a —

HANNITY: Got it.

SESTAK: — 9,000 earmarks in this omnibus —

HANNITY: I got it.

SESTAK: — bill — just one moment.

HANNITY: Answer.

SESTAK: There were — OK. If —


SESTAK: — you could, just answer this: Is — there’s 9,000 —

HANNITY: The salt harvest marsh mouse that gets $30 million. The railway from Los Angeles to Las Vegas: that is a pork project. That is reckless spending.

SESTAK: Sean, that — those words are absolutely not in the bill, and you know it.


SESTAK: You may be reading them off —

HANNITY: — the stimulus —

SESTAK: — the Internet, but those words are not in the bill.

HANNITY: Yeah, of course, because you hide it. But we know where the money’s going. It’s just like, for example, all-terrain —

SESTAK: Now, Sean, those words —

HANNITY: I’ll give you another one.

SESTAK: Sean, if I could.

HANNITY: All-terrain vehicles —

SESTAK: Now, wait a minute, Sean, you’re reading off an Internet type of thing.

HANNITY: I’m actually reading the bill.

SESTAK: You’ve got to read the actual bill, and I’ve read every word.

HANNITY: You know —

SESTAK: Now let’s talk about the 9,000 earmarks.

HANNITY: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You know and I know that Nancy Pelosi’s district, that these marshlands to help save the mouse, that’s where that money’s going. This railway for Harry Reid, these all-terrain vehicle trails, they’re in the bill, Congressman. We’re spending $1.3 trillion of our kids’ money. Why?

SESTAK: Sean, I just don’t want to mislead the public. Those words are not in the bill. Number two: We’re —

HANNITY: But the money is earmarked for it.

SESTAK: No, there are not, Sean. Number two —

HANNITY: You sound like Bill Clinton.

SESTAK: No, I’m just telling you what the facts are, ’cause I’ve read every word of the bill.

HANNITY: “I did not have sex with that woman.” They — that is where the money is going, Congressman. Be straight with the American people.

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

Why Virgin Trains shouldn’t be eyeing our rails just yet (even though they are)


Many of you probably already know that ever since 1997, the trains in the UK have been franchised out to private companies. I’ve taken them a number of times since I’ve been over here, and it’s an interesting system to see and to travel with. Stations, service, and signage are no longer standard, and while that’s an annoyance that’s certainly possible to put up with, privatization in the UK hasn’t really delivered the results. Conservatives should take note that the scheme does not mean that the operating companies are not publicly supported. The government pays them a certain amount to run the lines. The fixed infrastructure also continues to be owned by Network Rail, a government-owned company. But most worryingly, Britain has some of the highest fares in the world, as the BBC and other UK news outlets were lamenting recently.

If this sounds like the sort of transportation future you want here in the United States, take heart! Virgin Trains, the private operating company that manages Britain’s Great Western Main Line, is one of the companies planning to submit HSR corridor development bids, as requested by last year’s Amtrak legislation. Critically, these proposals are just that, non-binding proposals. They’re supposed to illustrate what could be done with private rail investment, but ultimately the DOT-solicited bids mean nothing unless Congress decides to act again.

Apparently no one told this to Virgin and The Times. Check out the tone of this article:

Virgin and other high-speed operators, such as SNCF, of France, are expected to work with the US Department of Transportation to develop its rail plans and then bid to operate individual services.

Virgin is keen on the Los Angeles to San Francisco route and also the East Coast line linking Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington. There are 30 return airline flights a day between Los Angeles and San Francisco and a high-speed train service could replace many of those, cutting carbon emissions. The journey would take less than three hours and voters in California have already agreed to raise $10 billion to start work on a line that would run from Sacramento, the state capital, to San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego.

Expected? By who? Nowhere does this article mention that such public-private arrangements are only being conducted with theoretical trains running on imaginary high-speed corridors. It also suggests that Virgin has met with the administration regarding high-speed trains. More details would be necessary to decipher what that means, although it might point to an interest in privatization on the part of the Obama team. Not exactly an impressive journalistic performance for the News Corp-owned Times, which seems to be rapidly losing ground to The Guardian as the paper of good repute here.

The private option is certainly one way to go, but how much of a difference does it make whether we’re starving one company or ten? Let’s try and actually get our rail network up to international standards first and see how that goes. Conservatives seem to view privatization as some sort of golden free market bullet that will end rail subsidies, but that’s just not the way it would work in reality. You can either pay for a train system or you can not have one.

Image credit: Trains for America. And that’s an Arriva Wales train, not a Virgin one, but oh well. The principle is the same.

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

More HSR money on the way?

The National Journal (by way of the CAHSR blog) has word from Secretary LaHood that HSR funding won’t be stopping with just the $8 billion stimulus money. He also stated that the DoT intends to focus on getting projects not just started, but finished in “at least” five parts of the country.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today emphasized the administration’s long-term commitment to expanding high-speed rail service in “five or six regions” of the country, not just with the $8 billion provided in the economic stimulus package President Obama signed into law last week, but also “in subsequent years a very substantial effort.” Meeting with reporters earlier today, LaHood said that for Obama building high-speed rail networks is, “if not his No. 1 priority, certainly at the top of his list. What the president is saying with the $8 billion is this is the start to help begin high-speed rail projects.” He added that the administration “is committed to finding the dollars to not only get them started but to finishing them in at least five parts of the country,” although he declined to elaborate on where these projects might ultimately be built.

It’s good to see that LaHood knows that if you chase two (or eleven) rabbits, you will catch neither. Even finishing five or six American high-speed rail projects is extremely ambitious, and it’s a good indication that we’ll be seeing some more Administration support for fast trains in the future.

NPR ran a story about high-speed rail this morning. It’s well worth a listen, but they also hint at where at least a little more HSR funding might be coming from:

But there may be more good news for fast-train backers: Obama is expected to seek an additional $1 billion for high-speed rail in his outline for the 2010 budget later this week.

That’s not a lot, but it would strengthen the idea of high-speed rail as something we should be funding on a regular basis. Hopefully this will be in addition to John Kerry’s upcoming high-speed rail legislation and priority changes in the 2009 transportation spending bill.

Filed under: Passenger Rail Politics, United States High Speed Rail

Lighter side: the express train to SIN

File this one under a bit of a laugh. Small potatoes California US Rep. Mary Bono Mack was alarmed at how $8 billion in high-speed rail could actually hurt California’s economy and speed vacationers on their way to debauchery. From the Riverside Press-Enterprise:

WASHINGTON – A last-minute provision added to President Barack Obama’s $787 billion stimulus plan could literally steer revenue away from Inland Southern California — and directly to Sin City, Rep. Mary Bono Mack said.

But Bono Mack, R-Palm Springs, said Reid — a longtime proponent of a Southern California-to-Las Vegas rail line — stands to gain from the provision at her district’s expense. With a fast train in place to take people from Los Angeles to the Vegas Strip, the Inland area would likely lose out on tourist revenue, particularly at the region’s Indian casinos, she said.

The Republicans made a huge huff about “pork” this last election cycle. Isn’t being against a proposal that could help the rest of your state (and country) just in order to protect a few casinos in your area basically pork in reverse? No mention at all is made of the California High-Speed Rail Project, which, in addition to benefiting from that $8 billion allocation, would be a boon to Southern California. The article makes it seem as if all of that money is going straight to the LA-Vegas Maglev.

Filed under: Passenger Rail Politics, United States High Speed Rail

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February 2009