Trains For America

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Washington State DOT trashes rail passenger services

It looks like Washington State, once a transportation leader, is now taking the lead from Arkansas and the other southern states that would not know what a passenger train looks like. Put this down to the vice grip of highway speical interests and a permanent “public be damned” attitude.

WSDOT Headquarters – News
310 Maple Park Ave. SE Olympia, WA 98504-7407, 360-705-7000

March 16, 2009

Contact: Scott Witt, State Rail and Marine Director, 360-705-6903

WSDOT restructures State Rail and Marine Office

OLYMPIA –The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) announced today that it has restructured the State Rail and Marine Office to improve efficiencies and service, eliminating a total of four positions; three vacant positions and the position of Rail Passenger manager.

“Rail, both passenger and freight, is a critically important component of the state’s transportation system”, said Scott Witt, State Rail and Marine Director. “We don’t take these moves lightly. But we believe this restructure allows us to combine and focus all of our assets in support of Washington’s rail program”.

An internal review and a survey of stakeholders revealed that the top three services that the State Rail and Marine office should focus on are freight and passenger rail planning, rail project management, and targeted communications.

The office has been segmented into three operating teams responsible for data and strategic planning, financial management, and delivery/project management. Moving forward, the State Rail and Marine Office will continue to focus on aggressively pursuing federal stimulus funding referencing the Amtrak Cascades Long Range Plan, the recently released Amtrak Cascades Mid Range Plan, and the department’s strategic project list in accordance with Legislative directive.

The State Rail and Marine office directs and manages the state’s freight and passenger rail capital programs and operations. It enacts the direction of the Legislature as it impacts rail and marine initiatives and manages rail system improvements that support economic development, move people and goods, relieve road and airport congestion, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The department works with railroads, ports, communities, and other organizations to improve the state’s rail system. WSDOT is also responsible for rail project identification, strategic rail transportation planning, development of state rail and marine data, and state grant programs administration.

And that’s it from the Department of Double Speak.

Washington’s Truck Department newspeak no longer allows for the word “passenger” when associated with the word “rail.”


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

UPDATED and CORRECTED: Amtrak eyes Sunset improvements

Here is the latest from Amtrak Ink. Analysis follows.

RPI 2009 To Target
Improvement Opportunities

“The 2009 RPI initiative is in full swing as a crosssection of departments and individuals are engaged in delivering route-level improvements to a number of corridor and long-distance services. In Chicago, Seattle and Los Angeles, representatives from Marketing and Product Management, Strategic Partnerships, Labor Relations,Transportation,Mechanical and Engineering
are evaluating route performance and targeting opportunities for improvement.”

Sunset Limited
“The Sunset Limited is one of a number of routes that is buoying overall long-distance ridership and revenue totals. Ridership and revenue are both around 20 percent higher than the prior fiscal year.

Product Management Director Jack Rich and a team of 65, which includes department heads, on-site managers, key employees and union officials fromWashington,D.C., New Orleans and LosAngeles, established an initial
punch list of more than 200 potential areas for change and improvement.And, while Rich said his team will likely focus on typical improvement areas like on-time performance or higher CSI scores, he envisions that the process “will put everything on the plate, with no prejudice.” Among the items for consideration are ensuring that the proper amount of equipment and staffing is maintained; implementing aggressive “green and clean” initiatives; establishing marketing initiatives to target city pairs; and launching station enhancements to increase patron awareness and use.

“We need to re-engineer every aspect of this train.That means redirecting
everything —from food to scheduling to marketing — so that it’s more customer-oriented,” said Rich. “We’re conducting a total examination
of the existing model to better match customer expectations, maximize revenue opportunities and get the most out of this service.”

Rich added that, “The recent significant improvement in on-time performance for the Sunset Limited has provided an opportunity to create momentum, as
performance indicators move in a positive direction on this route.We have an opportunity to be the Petri dish for unique innovations”

This is nothing but good news (unless Amtrak is exclusively managed by sociopaths and pathological liars). TFA has been somewhat skeptical about Beech Grove projects and the ultimate outcome for long distance trains. Taken at face value, this should answer those questions. Let us review.

  • Ridership and revenue are both around 20 percent higher than the prior fiscal year. This is great news and we an only hope that, within the Amtrak managements corps, left hand is talking to right hand. One would expect even more outstanding results from a daily train. It is impossible for anyone but a serious railfan to plan a trip using a three-day a week schedule.
  • “n initial punch list of more than 200 potential areas for change and improvement” How many can be done immediately? How many will cost nothing?
  • “proper amount of equipment and staffing” Not easily done today. As equipment becomes available, this will change. Daily operation is a function of equipment.
  • “on-time performance” How this objective relates to the excessive padding on the schedule is an unknown and a major issue. All suggestions welcome. End-to-end running time must be shortened.
  • “target city pairs” There are plenty on this long route. Again, a function of scheduling. New Orleans-Houston might grow with a daily schedule. LA-Phoenix is schedule sensitive and worked better with the old schedule.
  • “launching station enhancements to increase patron awareness and use.” Start in Beaumont. (Orange Co. Texas pop. 385,000)
  • And don’t crow about the improvement in on-time performance. The schedule is a disgrace, an abomination. Reliability is important but speed must have some value.

Amtrak seems to be saying many of the right words. All of this is the best possible news if good words are matched by good deeds.

Making this a daily train, which I believe is a non-negotiable item, raises logistical issues which those of us who are not working with it every day cannot imagine. Change is coming and not everybody will be pleased with every symptom of recovery on the Sunset.

The matter of restoring service east of New Orleans is also overdue for consideration. This is an essential part of the national system. It is another “must do” item.

Creating a separate connecting service similar to the old Gulf Wind between New Orleans and Jacksonville is a possibility. This is a logistical issue and way over my rank and grade. The only question is “when,” not “if?”

Your comments are surely invited and I promise to take part in the discussion.

UPDATE AND CORRECTION: I am informed that Jacksonville is not a “terminal.” A restored Florida Sunset must go to Orland. This seems to assure a “break” in the schedule at New Orleans. That’s probably a good thing.

As Amtrak gets serious about the Sunset, everybody concerned needs to realize that this route has been somebody’s red headed stepchild for 40 long years. SP has this train running tri-weekly in the 60’s and deliberately broke its connections to Florida in New Orleans every night. This train has had its diner pulled, its sleepers discontinued, its stations abandoned for 40 years and this is not by any means only Amtrak’s fault.

Getting this train back on its feet will take years.

Here are some general goals.

  • Daily service LA-NO and NO-Orlando
  • restore service into downtown Phoenix
  • restore Coast Starlite connections
  • improve Beaumont station
  • additional sleeping cars

Finally, restoring service east of NO is not a Florida issue. This train should be feeding the City and the Crescent from NO, the Eagle at San Antonio and, of course, the various east coast trains in Florida. This is an important regional issue and should be seen as effecting the nanational system.

And in summation, (whew) not everybody is going to be satisfied with all of the changes. That includes me. On this one, considering the sad history and sorry condition of this train, we need to give Amtrak some room to experiment. The population centers served by these two routes (LA-NO and NO-ORL) are too important to let languish.

FURTHER DISPUTED INFORMATION: A reader (who equally seems to know what he is talking about) tells me that Jacksonville, in fact, has necessary facilities to be a terminal for the Sunset (or Gulf Wind, or whatever).

I apologize. If things get any more serious around here, I may have to resort to AN ORIGINAL SOURCE. Don’t make me go there!

So many “stations” are in such shabby condition I would not doubt anything I was told about even a large facility like Jacksonville’s. Little Rock, where I live, has a single side track and the “house” siding for Amtrak was ripped out a couple of years ago. Only one train at a time can use the LR depot. We do have a crew base, and two agents.

Terminating a restored Sunset or Gulf Wind at Jacksonville has advantages, but that is an operational, logistical, management decision.

AND I really apprecaite readers input. I only wish I could do this full time.

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

Texas lawmakers consider fast rail

The Longview paper is known for progressive and intelligent editorials. I note that the regional proposals under consideration entirely omit Arkansas. The editorial is most favorable and you should read the whole thing.

The efforts of two East Texas lawmakers to realistically explore high speed rail for this area deserve to be applauded.

State Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, has filed a bill to study the feasibility of rapid rail passenger service in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Meanwhile, state Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, has introduced a bill to create a high speed rail authority for both the Texas-Louisiana and the Texas-Mexico border regions. Merritt’s bill would provide funding for the effort toward high-speed rail.

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

Minnesota shell game? You decide

Logan Nash is the TFA expert on all things concerning Minnesota, so I really should leave this alone. The smell of an over-active state highway department is unmistakable. Of course, in Arkansas nobody even pretends to care about passenger trains.

First of all, the proposed upgrade is to 100 mph – not true HSR. The project of improving tracks between the Twin Cities and Chicago is fairly practical. The most important thing is to sort out the best existing lines. Count on politics to get involved there.

The surest way for state bureaucrats, completely sold out to truckers and highway special interests, to kill a project is to study it to death. Here we go again, maybe. You decide.

The report is in the Winona Daily News.

A plan to run high-speed trains from the Twin Cities through Winona would get $5 million for an environmental study as part of a bonding bill approved Monday in the Minnesota Senate.

The $5 million allotment, if approved by House lawmakers and Gov. Tim Pawlenty, could position Minnesota for federal stimulus funds to link the Twin Cities to Chicago with 110-mph trains. But even as the Senate approved studying a high-speed route along the Mississippi River, other state leaders won’t dismiss the possibility of another route for the proposed line, perhaps through Rochester, Minn.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation has studied upgrading Amtrak’s Empire Builder route from St. Paul to La Crescent to carry high-speed trains; those plans now could qualify for part of the $8 billion in rail funding tucked into the stimulus bill. A MnDOT spokesman said Tuesday that the department may apply for the stimulus funds to study upgrading the Empire Builder route � or to analyze alternative routes through Rochester or Eau Claire, Wis.

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

Rail survives Ohio test

Thanks for the tip from an alert reader. Ohio corridors are still alive. These are major components of a Midwest transportation grid. Read the entire story here.

Ohio transportation bill slashed
Rail corridor survives in state Senate, but work-zone cameras, seat-belt rule killed

Wednesday,  March 18, 2009 3:10 AM


State senators last night took a knife to many of the most controversial provisions of Gov. Ted Strickland’s transportation plan, including tougher enforcement of Ohio’s seat-belt law, cameras to catch speeders in construction zones and a requirement that drivers turn on their headlights in the rain.The Senate’s transportation committee did not, however, kill the most debated provision of the plan: a passenger-rail corridor connecting Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati.

FOOTNOTE: Arkansas lawmakers (who just passed a law making seat belt violations a primaryoffense) Ohio lawmakers took out a provision allowing police to cite drivers for not wearing seat belts, even if that was their only violation.

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

States expect rail growth

Here is some “feel good.”

Job Creation Is Top Priority

WASHINGTON–(BUSINESS WIRE)–With $8 billion in federal stimulus money allocated for passenger rail projects, the States for Passenger Rail Coalition foresees the beginning of a new era of expanded intercity passenger rail service throughout America. The projects will expand and enhance passenger rail service in multiple ways, while creating thousands of new, good-paying jobs across the nation.In addition, President Obama has indicated that another $5 billion can be expected over the next five years, from the administration’s proposed transportation budget.

“The creation of good-paying jobs is a major goal in this national recession,” Frank Busalacchi, coalition chair, said. “Additionally, the public demand for expanded passenger rail service is high, and our goal is to meet that demand as quickly as we can. I applaud Congress and the Obama administration for creating this significant pool of important, new funding.”

The coalition, formed in 2000, has grown to include 31 states and two public authorities. At least 35 states are developing plans for expansion of services or new services.

The projects identified by state coalition members are spread out geographically, bringing a significant number of new jobs to many regions.

The projects will also draw on a wide range of labor categories, and will provide operational and capacity benefits to passenger and freight operations. Proposed projects include:

  • Track improvements, such as double tracking, welded rail and tie replacement to increase capacity and reliability;
  • Sidings to allow fast passenger trains and slower fright trains to pass each other.
  • Universal crossovers to provide capacity for shared-use corridor passenger and freight operations.
  • Grade crossing improvements such as gates and lights.
  • Advanced signal and train control systems to increase safety and operational efficiency of both passenger and freight rail operations.
  • Station improvements.
  • Equipment rehabilitation and acquisition.

“These projects require not only a large number of workers, but call on a wide range of skills,” Chairman Busalacchi said. “They will put people to work, and create significant improvements in passenger and freight operations across America.”

Busalacchi also is secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, and was a Congressional appointee to the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission.

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

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March 2009