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 However, dumping the outdated regional concept is a step in the right direction.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

6 Responses

  1. Benjamin says:

    I don’t know much about the relationship between NARP and URPA (not UPRA, as Evan miswrites). While I like a few of URPA’s ideas for making the existing system more efficient and service more convenient, I don’t think that that’s all that needs to be done.

    I will say that I’m pretty sure that Amtrak’s monopoly is not statutory – that is, other companies are permitted to run intercity passenger rail, but none choose to. After Amtrak was founded, a few other railroads continued to operate their own intercity service, such as Rio Grande and Rock Island. The Auto Train started as a private venture in the ’70s, after Amtrak was operating; it was popular, but overexpansion killed it, and the equipment was bought and operated by Amtrak thereafter. (Incidentally, the Auto Train is one of Amtrak’s most profitable routes, which perhaps shows the wisdom of URPA’s contention that some new ideas are needed to draw passengers to long-distance trains.) And a company called Desert Xpress is trying to build and operate their own high-speed line between Victorville, CA, and Las Vegas, which they presumably wouldn’t even try if the law forbade it.

  2. Avery says:

    Speaking of desert xpress, it appears they added a few words to their website, and a new picture clearly showing a catenary. Mention of the california high speed rail mainly.

  3. Allan says:

    But here is something that caught my finance-degree-background eye:

    “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.”

    WTF! Over!

    I’m trying not to loose my cool over such an idiotic statement.

    How in the world does he propose to retire debt unless there is profitability? If one does not make a profit, then one can’t retire all the debt because you’ll need new debt to pay off the old debt … unless you’re profitable!

    Does he think that corporations are debt free?

    He is obviously clueless about finances.

  4. Amtrak is not the only organization that operates passenger rail across state lines. The Massachusetts Bay TA runs trains to Rhode Island, Metro-North runs trains to from New York to Connecticut and New Jersey, New Jersey Transit runs trains to New York, SE Pennsylvania TA runs trains to New Jersey and Delaware, PATCO runs trains from Pennsylvania to Delaware, the Maryland TA and Virginia Railway Express run trains to DC, WMATA runs trains from DC to Maryland and Virginia, and the South Shore Railway runs trains from Illinois to Indiana. Did I miss anyone?

  5. D. DiQuinzio says:

    I am a NARP member. I am not an URPA member. I do, however, receive and read Mr. Richardson’s “This Week at Amtrak” e-mails and I have read articles on URPA’s site. It’s my understanding that some NARP members are URPA members too, so the idea that this is two fully divided camps opposing each other is not quite correct. But, after you become familiar with their on-line materials, some broad distinctions between the outlook and approach of the two become obvious. Very roughly speaking, URPA leans right and NARP leans left. Unavoidably, in today’s polarized environment, this gives rise to some tension.

    If I could wave a magic wand and make the disagreements between various members of both organizations go away, I would. The next best thing, which I think is achievable, is to tone down some of the vitriol and name-calling and look for common ground such that the two groups can agree to disagree politically while advocating effectively for more and better passenger rail. If we go this route, we could have the best of both worlds in that one of the reasons passenger rail advocacy has not been more effective is that the conservative passenger rail advocates are too few in number to avoid getting steamrolled by their fellow conservatives.

    So where is the common ground? Easy – more frequent service to more city-pairs, at higher average speeds, with higher on-time %, operated with high standards of customer service, by a provider that is well-regarded by the travelling public. How to get there? Ah, there’s the hard part.

    URPA members make several arguments in favor of greater private sector participation and moving Amtrak away from “permanent creature of government” status that I think NARP members dismiss too quickly. I’m an engineer, a numbers guy, and transportation analysis unavoidably involves numbers. I therefore gravitate toward whoever has the best numbers and understanding of them. When it comes to route performance analysis, equipment utilization, and other financial and operational details, I find URPA’s analytics very sophisticated and insightful. Their work explains quite a few things, such as this – why, if short-haul corridors are the “sweet spot” for passenger rail (nearly every pundit and big-city editorial writer repeats this as if it was a basic law of nature), has Amtrak’s financial condition, averaged out over its entire existence, gradually worsened while, over the same period, the carrier has come to operate less long-haul train-miles and more corridor service? For this and many other reasons, I would welcome a situation in which some of URPA’s ideas for improving performance could be “field tested”.

    At the same time, NARP, with headquarters in DC, has evolved into an organization with a politcal focus. NARP officers and staff know the ins and outs of the political systems and legislative processes that determine what happens in the short term. With the proverbial gun to the head of what remained of the US passenger rail system since NARP’s founding in the 60’s, it appears to me that the earlier generation of NARP leaders felt they had no choice but to go the political route. NARP therefore tends to look across the modes and at how the actions of local, state, federal governments affect passenger rail. NARP, I think, deserves credit for preventing the extermination of the passenger train – which several accounts indicate was on the agenda in business circles in the 70’s and 80’s.

    So you can see that part of the problem is culture and background. URPA is more business-oriented, NARP more politically oriented. The first step to finding common ground is to simply acknowledge this difference. The next step is to tone down the harsh language. On this front, URPA members need to do some soul-searching. Mr. Richardson, in particular, undercuts the effectiveness of his own advocacy by the childish name-calling and bitter tone of his writings. URPA could accomplish more by simply letting their fine analytical work do the talking. And I think they would be surprised to learn how many NARP members, like myself, are paying attention to them. NARP, meanwhile, needs to step out of the DC bubble and spend more time away from politicians. NARP also needs to take more seriously some of the reasonable criticisms of URPA that it too often looks the other way at dumb moves by Amtrak managers and too often apologizes for, rather than works to improve, bad service. URPA needs to accept that government is involved big-time in transportation, and that’s not likely to change soon, while NARP needs more businessmen and women in its membership and leadership ranks.

    I could go on, but I won’t. If you’ve read this much, you must be really interested, so e-mail me and I’ll provide more of my observations.

  6. Benjamin says:

    One of Chicago’s Metra lines runs over the state border to Kenosha, WI. Apparently, it’s easier to run the train a few miles to Kenosha than it is to turn the train after the last Illinois stop. But I think the point is that only Amtrak is operating true intercity passenger service in America (though MARC trains operate between Baltimore and Washington, it’s a commuter train through and through).

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