Trains For America

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Joe Vranich is still alive? (Who would have figured?)

The Arkansas Times blog directed me to this somewhat partisan article. Frankly, I can’t quite fiugre out what’s wrong with the New York Times. The Obama administration scored an important political breakthrough for better transportation by increasing Amtrak money and seeking to improve HSR.

Joe Vranich has been, from time to time, a proponent of good transport policy, but one wonders if he has not assumed the position of permanent curmudgeon. Joe, this is America. It’s all about politics and that means spreading mney around on a regional basis. He (conveniently) forgot to tell the NYT reporter that a national HSR system would cost trillions.

Of course, these days that does not seem to be much of a problem.

He also fails to note the environmental issues and a larger question as to whether HSR is even justified on some routes. (I am speaking in the true European sense of 200 mph. trains and I think Mr. Vranich is too.)

Finally, it’s not airlines versus trains. Each has an appropriate place in the mix. If there were good HSR service, airlines would concentrate on the routes they best handle and we could all live in peace and brotherly love! (Sorry.)

Anyway, here’s the story.

It may be the longest train delay in history: more than 40 years after the first bullet trains zipped through Japan, the United States still lacks true high-speed rail. And despite the record $8 billion investment in high-speed rail added at the last minute to the new economic stimulus package, that may not change any time soon.

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That money will not be enough to pay for a single bullet train, transportation experts say. And by the time the $8 billion gets divided among the 11 regions across the country that the government has designated as high-speed rail corridors, they say, it is unlikely to do much beyond paying for long-delayed improvements to passenger lines, and making a modest investment in California’s plan for a true bullet train.

In the short term, the money — inserted at the 11th hour by the White House — could put people to work improving tracks, crossings and signal systems.

That could help more trains reach speeds of 90 to 110 miles per hour, which is much faster than they currently go. It is much slower, however, than high-speed trains elsewhere, like the 180 m.p.h. of the newest Japanese bullet train. (The Acela trains on the East Coast are capable of 150 m.p.h., but average around half that.)

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

Obama rail push

Now actually news, but something you need to take in. It is a lengthy Politico piece on the HSR negotiations. Disclaimer: Amtrak seems to consider anything over 100 mph. as HSR. (Hope I got that right.) Anyway, here is the story.

Big hurdles remain. Critics already argue that the money is misplaced in a stimulus bill since it will be hard to spend quickly. Much depends on winning the cooperation of Class 1 freight lines that control many of the rights of way outside the Northeast.

But it is a landmark transportation investment with regional effects in almost every corner of the nation. Just last October, former President George W. Bush signed a bill authorizing up to $1.5 billion for high-speed rail through 2013. Obama’s commitment in the same period will be eight times that.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is given 60 days to come up with a strategic plan for the funds. The combination of large capital upfront — followed by annual appropriations — fits the prototype for the infrastructure bank once considered for, but never included in, the recovery bill.

“High-speed rail is the infrastructure bank,” said Emanuel, and the legislation gives LaHood discretion to assign “priority to projects that support the development of intercity high-speed rail service.”

There is some precedent. At the height of the New Deal, FDR’s Public Works Administration played a role in persuading the Pennsylvania Railroad to complete the electrification of its Washington-New York line and finish Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. Today, the government could make capital investments that both benefit freight operations and facilitate high-speed passenger service. With the drop in freight traffic, the railroads might be more cooperative, although they are sure to want some liability protection for accidents.

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

LaHood: Obama wants HSR to be his “signature achievement”

In a short update the Washington Post mentions that Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has sent the White House a memo outlining ways to get high-speed rail rolling in the United States. Presumably that involves smart allocation of that $8 billion in stimulus money. Here’s an interesting quote about the President’s view on high-speed rail that’s certainly in line with the shift in attitude we’ve seen since just a few months ago.

The memo identified several potential high-speed rail corridors in the country and addressed potential means of paying for a system. LaHood said President Obama wants to make high-speed rail a signature achievement of his presidency.

There’s a thought. The Obama High-Speed Rail System. I’d like go on about this topic, but London calls urgently with both business and pleasure. Thoughts on what one man can do in four (or eight) years?

Filed under: Amtrak, ,

Boardman set to shake things up at Amtrak, dismayed at staff “burnouts”

I believe in Amtrak. You [probably] believe in Amtrak. Does Amtrak’s management believe in Amtrak? New CEO Joseph Boardman is dismayed at the fact that many of them don’t seem to. The’yre burnt out. Jaded. Not in the mood to capitalize on ridership gains and a new political attitude. It’s one of a number of points highlighted in a recent piece in Trains Magazine. There’s some quality stuff in there: information about desperately needed train cars, quotes from Obama staffers about the railroad. Also some less encouraging facts about the dilapidated state of much of Amtrak’s equipment. Give it a read. With a hat tip to the Seattle Transit Blog, here’s the text.

From Trains Newswire (written by Don Phillips)

Published: Wednesday, February 18, 2009

WASHINGTON – New Amtrak President Joseph Boardman says many Amtrak managers do not know whether to believe that Amtrak actually has a future, and that anyone who cannot make the transition from a survival mode to a growth mode will have to find another job.

Boardman said in an interview that shortly after leaving the top spot at the Federal Railroad Administration last Thanksgiving to take over Amtrak, he discovered that the passenger rail system is in worse shape than he thought, and that some people in Amtrak headquarters in Washington are, in effect, burnout cases. He would not be specific about numbers, saying he has still made no final decisions about how many people will have to leave because they cannot make the transition from survival to growth.

“There are a whole host of people here who don’t know whether to believe,” he said. “People are going to have to get on the train. We will make some judgments very soon.”

Among other things, Boardman found that despite growing passenger traffic, up about 12 percent in 2008, Amtrak’s five-year plan in October contained no plans to order new passenger cars other than seven new high-speed trainsets, cars to lengthen current Acela trainsets, 15 new single-level sleeping cars, and some new baggage-dormitory cars. All other cars would have to be paid for by states that needed them for new corridor service, and perhaps ordered them through Amtrak. That secret plan, which had already become a joke around Amtrak, was thrown out quickly after Boardman arrived, and Amtrak is now making more ambitious plans.

Boardman said Amtrak’s most urgent need is for new electric locomotives, and he put in an immediate request for $1 billion in long-term low-interest government loans. Electric motive power is in such poor shape that Washington-New York-Boston trains are sometimes canceled for lack of power.

Since no firm plans have been made to order cars, up to three years will be necessary to actually obtain new cars. Meanwhile, as many wrecked cars as possible will be refurbished, he said. This leaves Amtrak in horrible shape even as politicians preach about a grand future of “high-speed rail.”

Meanwhile, Amtrak at least initially lost out in President Obama’s multi-billion-dollar stimulus plan, receiving $1.3 billion while commuter rail got $8.4 billion and “high speed rail” got $8 billion. (Amtrak is eligible to compete for the high speed rail funds.) Nonetheless, Boardman has instilled such confidence among members of Congress and congressional staff members that some effort may be made to make up the shortfall in future legislation. It is too early for any specific plans, especially since Boardman himself is still developing plans.

Interviews with various Capitol Hill staff members found a lot of confidence in Amtrak’s future under Boardman, perhaps too much confidence for Boardman’s own good.

Boardman has been surprisingly successful in blunting threats by unions to get rid of him. Shortly after he was appointed, 12 labor unions made a statement opposing him as an effort by the Amtrak board to block Obama from naming his own Amtrak president. However, Amtrak’s own unions came to Boardman’s defense and blunted the attacks. Much of Boardman’s union support began on a long Thanksgiving day at the crew room at Washington Union Station, as he and his wife bantered with engineers and conductors. Within hours, he had become almost a hero to Amtrak union employees as word spread around the country. Higher union leadership backed off.

Now comes the question: Can he produce? One major union official said he does not believe Boardman has the guts to do what is necessary. In the field, other union officials are waiting for a sign that Boardman means business, and they will not be patient forever.

What about Obama? Well-placed sources said he pushed for the $8 billion last-minute increase in high-speed rail funds, partly because he realized he had short-changed rail in his proposed stimulus legislation after bragging on the campaign trail about his dedication to passenger rail. Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, confirmed the reports, telling the internet newsletter Portico that Obama realized he had not asked for enough for high-speed rail and wanted $10 billion added as a commitment to the future.

One of the chief staff members responsible for a last-minute $8 billion increase in high speed rail funds laid almost all the blame for Amtrak’s current condition on President Bush and his administration. This Democratic staff member, who did not want to be quoted by name, said that Amtrak will now be able to grow without enemies looking over its shoulder. He expressed confidence in Boardman, and noted that more funds for regular Amtrak trains could be made available in future legislation if Boardman gets Amtrak’s house in order. The staff member said that meaningless restrictions enacted under Republicans, including harassment such as limits on the number of dining car staff numbers, were wiped off the books and he is sure that such restrictions will soon be eased by Amtrak.

Meanwhile, Democrats on Amtrak’s board gently but firmly took control. Republican Donna McLean was eased out as chairman, but given the vice chairmanship. Democrat Thomas Carper took over as chairman. Hunter Biden not only remains on the board, but has joined Carper as a force to be reckoned with.

Carper, mayor of Macomb, Ill., and a longtime Obama friend and political supporter, and Biden, son of the new vice president, have at least one tough job ahead. That is to convince Obama and Congress that plain old regular rail is slowly approaching a breakdown unless lots of new locomotives and cars are ordered soon, and unless aging basket-case terminals such as Chicago are fixed soon. That includes replacement of often-useless switch heaters. As Boardman points out, it is no secret that Chicago gets cold and is pelted by heavy snow in the winter. So why does Amtrak seem to be surprised when winter comes?

Filed under: Amtrak,

Acela fares being cut due to lower business ridership

While Amtrak ridership, generally speaking, has continued to look fairly healthy despite the poor economy and lower fuel prices, the same cannot be said of the its Acela high-speed service on the Northeast Corridor. The recession has led to a decrease in business travel, prompting the company to reduce Acela fares in order to bring in more leisure travelers. From Bloomberg:

Amtrak will offer one-way nonrefundable Acela business-class tickets for as low as $99 between New York and Washington, down from $133 or more, and as low as $79 between Boston and New York, from $93 or higher. The prices are available for travel from March 3 through June 26 and tickets must be purchased 14 days in advance.

Acela ridership dropped about 14 percent in January from the same month a year ago, and about 10 percent for the four months ending in January from the same period last year, spokesman Cliff Cole said in a telephone interview from New York.

If anything, this highlights the huge variation in the services Amtrak runs. Standard routes, and in particular those considered long-distance, have continued to see high levels of ridership. One wonders if many travelers aren’t fleeing air carriers and high-speed services like Acela for a cheaper, if longer, journey on a train. It will be interesting to see what the Amtrak numbers look like when people do have money to spend on air fares again, especially if gas stays cheap (doubtful). Hopefully by that point Acela won’t have to be the only fast train competing with air travel for much longer.

Filed under: Amtrak, United States High Speed Rail, ,

Amtrak and profits: Rush Loving Jr. tells it like it is

For a change of pace from all the stimulus news in recent weeks, let’s kick off this Monday with a very well-argued piece about Amtrak from someone definitely in the know: Rush Loving. He wrote a book about the rail barons of yore called “The Men Who Loved Trains.” Not the sort of nostalgic thing we usually talk about here at TFA, but the man clearly knows his stuff when it comes to modern rail management as well. He discusses the myth of profitable railroads, and mentions David Gunn, probably Amtrak’s best former head. Here’s a sample:

The entire history of Amtrak is replete with examples of CEOs who have tried to get government to commit long-term funding for the company, only to be ignored. Unfortunatel y, all but David Gunn made a fatal mistake: They never told Congress Amtrak couldn’t ever make money.

None the wiser, Congress has always expected a profitable company, and over the decades Amtrak’s chief executives dutifully have talked of putting Amtrak into the black.

In the mid-1990s Tom Downs went so far as to declare that Amtrak was on “a glide path to profitability.” His successor, George Warrington, went along with the dream, pouring so much money into schemes to raise earnings he blew away all the company’s capital. In the end, just to meet the payroll, Warrington was forced to mortgage one of its most visible assets, New York’s Penn Station.

You don’t hear much talk about Amtrak ever being profitable anymore. With stronger awareness about the environment and the economic benefits of greater transportation options, it seems that more politicians are correctly starting to talk about passenger rail in terms of “investments,” like they have have about highways for decades.

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Politics

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