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 However, dumping the outdated regional concept is a step in the right direction.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

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February 2009