Trains For America

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Memphis seeks inclusion on high speed rail

Today’s Commercial Appeal runs a story about the local Transit Authority’s interest in extending the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor from Little Rock to Memphis. This makes a lot of sense for several reasons.

  • Memphis is a larger population base than Little Rock, the current north terminal.
  • Service fo Searcy and Wynne could provide several additional pairs of towns, including the possibility of fast commuter trips to Little Rock from Searcy.
  • This could potentially ease highway congestion on 67/167 and I40.
  • One of the railroad bridges into Memphis is immediately adjacent to the Memphis airport, which is indirectly referenced in the “comments” for this article. I think the old MP line uses that bridge.

There is some congressional muscle here too. Please note, Mr George Will, they will do a study and it might turn out to be a good idea (see post below).

Working with U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, they’re seeking to have the “South Central” high-speed corridor, which currently ends at Little Rock, extended about 150 miles eastward to Memphis.

The Memphis-Little Rock connection likely would be made along existing rails.

In addition to offering travelers additional options, the connection would boost economic development and tourism and offer a more environmentally friendly form of transportation, proponents say.

“It would certainly bring us another connection with the national transportation network,” Fox said.

Cohen, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, had a provision inserted in the Railroad Safety Enhancement Act last fall calling for a study of the feasibility of extending the corridor to Memphis. He’s also working to secure funding.

One item that needs some correction is the price tag. Please help me out on this, and I am writing on the run, but $150 million a mile sounds like European-style HSR built from the ground up. I thought we were looking at something more like $4 million a mile for the complete conventional upgrade between Little Rock and Fort Worth.

One must add, in considering this extension, most passengers do not ride end-to-end, but would board or de-train at intermediate stops. This particular concept, I think, makes this corridor look a lot more attractive.

It also allows for extension to Nashville or Birmingham. Just a thought.


Filed under: Amtrak, Regional USA Passenger Rail

UPDATED:Amtrak Sunset/Eagle report from New Orleans

The following item appeared on an internet discussion group and is reproduced here, with permission. My thanks to Richard Wright Good news is that the Sunset west of New Orelans is probably headed for a significant upgrade, as is the Eagle, which serves my hometown, Little Rock. The bad news is that the restoration of service east of New Orleans is very likely two or three years away.

UPDATE AND CORRECTION: The New Orleans to San Antonio train will be a separate daily train with no through cars.  It will be a cross platform transfer.

Mr Richard Phelps spoke first. He made it clear Mr. Boardman is a strong believer in an improved Amtrak with a strong emphasis on “connectivity. ” He made it clear they are aware there is a railroad “west of DC.”

The have found from experience that when freight railroads run Amtrak trains on time their freight schedules improve, and this helps in selling Amtrak timeliness to the freight railroads.

If freight railroads do not meet an 80% on time performance level for Amtrak trains the government can and will take action.

For the latest reporting period the Sunset Limited had the best on-time performance of any train in the country.

They are currently looking at the possibility of reinstating the Hiawatha and Pioneer as well as has been previously reported.

They are looking at ordering new superliners as well as viewliners. (This apparently puts to rest the rumor of mass abandonment of large areas of the country due to no new superliners being ordered.)

There are two projects being looked at for service between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. One being a private consortium that would provide equipment, but Amtrak would operate. They apparently are well funded. There are problems which must be worked out though. However, Amtrak is also looking a reinstatement of that same service via a “Desert-Wind- type” service. Initial planning only has service between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, but continuation on to Salt Lake City as did the Desert Wind is both possible and

Superliners are preferable to viewliners due to longer-lasting construction, and just generally works better in service.

Viewliners will be looked at for shorter routes preferably for day runs.

Any cars ordered will require 3-1/2 to 4 years from order to acquisition. If the order is large enough (100 minimum roughly) time could be cut to about 2-1/2 years. They expect to place a large order which should cut the time to the latter time frame.

The damaged cars in Beech Grove will be rehabbed. The biggest questions about them is where they will go. They could go on current routes to expand service or be used for new service. Those decisions simply have not been made.

Word from VP Biden coming from Pres Obama is that funding will continue for Amtrak at a priority level. They have promised a commitment to passenger rail.

Mr. Phelps felt that this is a great time to approach the Union Pacific about increasing service on the Sunset/Eagle routes.

Todd Stennis was to have spoken to us about the Sunset Limited east of NOLA. Unfortunately due to a family medical situation he was unable to attend. John read a report from Todd. The report basically said precisely what has already been reported from the meeting in Birmingham. We have three options.

Todd Stennis has spoken with every mayor or city leader along the Sunset route about these options.

1 – Resume the Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to Orlando. That is the cheapest method. However, Amtrak confirmed that this means a tri-weekly schedule with possibly a long wait for a daily train. There is no correlation between the daily service west of New Orleans and service east of New Orleans. In other words with use of option 1 we would have a situation where only three days a week would people be able to continue on to Orlando with that option. Daily service east of New Orleans would be a matter for another decision, and could take some time. No new equipment needed.

2 – Running the City of New Orleans from Chicago via New Orleans to Orlando. This route picks up the most potential passengers, and has the best effect on revenue. Would require a total of two sets.

3 – Running a brand-new train from New Orleans to Orlando. This is the most popular option of city leaders along the route (probably due to most likelihood of on-time performance) , and is the most expensive option. Service is not definite, but would not include first class immediately. Would also require a total of two sets.

I spoke with Mr. Rosenwald during a break, and he says he does not know which option will be recommended by Todd and the other planners so we will have to wait until that is announced. Their report will be made within days though.

SMART went on record officially as supporting a daily option so by extension that means option 1 is not a viable alternative for SMART members to support due to tri-weekly service.

I also spoke with Mr. Rosenwald during break about the time frame of all of these options. He told me there is no difference in time. Any one of the three will require from 2-1/2 years to 3 years in all likelihood – even the return of the transcontinental tri-weekly Sunset Limited. He said it’s not equipment, but training for the crews. In spite of the fact that it was formerly a route it’s been abandoned for some time. I will leave it up to Amtrak people with the expertise to explain that any further.

Brian Rosenwald spoke to us about the Sunset Limited west of New Orleans. First of all he is working on six routes right now, the Sunset, Empire Builder, Lincoln Service, Lake Shore, Adirondack and Crescent for improvements.

They are looking at numerous aspects of each. For example on the Sunset things such menus, special dishes and china versus plastic is being studied. They’re looking at restrooms, and essentially anything that affects passenger comfort and convenience.

One thing he made very clear is that nothing they do with the Sunset/Eagle west of New Orleans will in any way harm the plans for the service east of new Orleans. Whatever is finally decided for this service they will connect with it. The two items are simply being worked on by different groups, but they they will work together when decisions are made.

One recurring theme is that daily service is a must. Tri-weekly service is simply unworkable for reasons we all know.

They expect 115,000 more riders annually on daily service.

Daily service is expected to move the Sunset from dead last in revenue versus cost to right in the middle of the pack.

As we already know the combination of the Sunset Limited and Texas Eagle into one train between Los Angeles and Chicago is a near certainty. The train remains unnamed at this point. It will be daily and full service. They intend to make it a premier train. The reason is simply revenue. Far more passengers will be reached on that route versus the Sunset route.

The San Antonio layovers will be eliminated both directions with no more than 90 minutes each way.

The route between San Antonio [and New Orleans] will be serviced by a “stub” train consisting of coaches with one being divided into business class with attendant and amenities, and diner cafe. Future improvement will depend on ridership. There is great optimism the train will flourish. This train also remains unnamed.

This new route consist is expected to result in many millions in revenue which will make it very lucrative for Amtrak.

There will be a later departure for the Sunset to connect with the Coast Starlight. Exact schedules are not set definitely, but there is a general feeling that most of the cities will be served at more convenient times once the final schedule is “tweaked.”

This should result in an improvement of about 25% in cost recovery.

This new routing for both Los Angeles – Chicago and San Antonio -New Orleans will require seven sets. Essentially all the equipment being used today on these two routes will be pooled, and then new consists will be developed to make this routing work.

This could literally happen within six months. No guarantee, but they’re looking at sooner rather than later.

The Los Angeles consist will leave with a splittable train just as is done now with the Sunset/Eagle. The “stub” train will be split off at San Antonio while the main train will continue to Chicago. Both will be daily.

Passengers will be able to go first-class from Los Angeles to Chicago. Those going Los Angeles to New Orleans will be able to go first-class from Los Angeles to San Antonio and business-class from San Antonio to New Orleans. It’s recognized that this is not optimal, but it’s felt most passengers will be accepting.

They are considering pulling superliners from the City of New Orleans and replacing them with viewliners to free up superliners. This is only being looked at, but seems logical at this time.

One caveat that was mentioned throughout all presentations is that all of this is contingent upon funding continuing to be available. Currently there seems to be excellent support for supporting and expanding Amtrak, however, Congress has to act, and everyone is aware of the budget crisis.

The only real bad news is simply that we cannot expect a train running from New Orleans to Orlando in less than three years regardless of the recommendation made for the option. Mr. Rosenwald seemed pretty firm on that. That will mean around seven years without a train through North Florida. However, we can balance that with the news that getting that service is almost a certainty. We simply have to have patience. (No one is more unhappy with that than am I. I’ve waiting four years for a train in Pensacola, and it appears it will be three more now.)

Mr. Rosenwald admitted that Amtrak did not handle the Sunset situation as well as they could have, but we all are aware of the various problems that Amtrak faces, and much of it is simply beyond their control, and we all know much of it has to do with funding.

I very much enjoyed the Amtrak presentations, and personally really appreciated them taking their time to speak to us. We know more now than we have for years.

I hope this report provides some useful information for the members. I know others will have their take on it too.

Filed under: Amtrak, Regional USA Passenger Rail

Correcting George Will on Amtrak

TFA considers Mr. Will to be an intellectual and he has a history, despite his lamentable conservative leanings, of consistent outbursts of reasonableness and compassion. That is how we know that his slight misstatement in the recent column “Have we got a deal for you?” was exactly that – a slight inadvertent error.

Because of the high regard in which George Will is held around these parts, TFA cheerfully sets the record straight with no hard feelings.

Making the case (and a rather convincing one, at that) against the government intervention for General Motors, Will lapsed into long outdated arguments. He said, “But one reason Amtrak runs on red ink is that legislators treat it as their toy train set, preventing it from cutting egregiously unprofitable routes.”

We think he’s talking about the Sunset, another favorite target of right wing wackos, a category into which we do not include George Will (at this time). It has been discussed to death here, and in other more intellectually honest and generous venues, that a train that runs only three days a week will have less than half the inventory of seats for sale and the same overhead as other trains.

Besides, this stuff about how some trains are worse performers is just plain strategy to “divide and conquer>” All of the long distance trains suffer from a lack of equipment. the routes are all undeserved and the trains often do not make good connections. Most of this is the result of a deliberate Republican preference to big money highway, trucking and airline special interests.

Now, let us bring forward, bound in shackles with an orange jump suit, United States Senator Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.) It is Byrd’s political muscle that held Amtrak captive until a train called “The Cardinal” was created to provide passenger train service to his state. It was bald face politics, pure and simple.

Today, this train serves Cincinnati, what should be one of America’s most important rail hubs, three times a week in the dead of night. It is a reasonably good train and seems to generate some revenue. One wonders how this region might have been served had decisions been made on the basis of transportation studies.

Don’t get me wrong. West Virginia has real transportation needs and Amtrak should play an important role there.

But, gosh darn it George, that was back in the 80s. That was when Reagan Budget Director David Stockman was peddling his egregious lies about “empty Amtrak trains.”

Bob Packwood pushed for the Portland section of the Empire Builder, and you know what? The transportation study showed it was a good idea and it has worked like a charm. Sticking up for your folks is not always the wrong thing.

Republican Senator John McCain has, by contrast, exercises an almost irrational hatred for Amtrak.

Mr. Will, as a fair minded man, ought to be aware that Amtrak has been the Republican party’s favorite whipping boy for more than 30 years. If anybody has played hardball politics with Amtrak, Republicans win 10-1. Republican presidents refuse to make appointments to the Amtrak board and, when they do put somebody in, it is generally with the purpose of shutting down everything outside the northeast corridor.

Congress has piddled around in Amtrak dining car service to the point where, it it were not such a disastrous insult to passengers, it would be a joke. Not too long ago, one congressman actually accused Amtrak of causing pollution and denied ever hearing that the National Railroad Passenger Corporation was in dire need of equipment. I think Congressman Boozman recognises his error, so I am very pleased to cut him some slack and suggest that west and northwest Arkansas might benefit greatly from expanded rail passenger service.

Mr. Will, we’re willing to let things pass this time, but don’t let it happen again.

Filed under: Passenger Rail Politics, Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy

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June 2009