“SERVING MAN: THE TWILIGHT ZONE VERSON VS. AMTRAK’S VERSION”

Tags

, , , ,

By
Rail Provocateur/M.E. singer

In the 1962 Twilight Zone episode, “To Serve Man,” it took a while for mankind to interpret that the aliens presenting their manifesto on earth,“To Serve Man,” was not an indication of their benevolence, but rather, a concise cookbook to prepare and serve mankind as the entrée. At least when their cookbook was deciphered, the aliens did not deny their true intent. Given this past week’s pronouncements by Amtrak, and a state supported corridor service, I have to question how Amtrak defines its mission; what is its true intent and business expectations are these days.

In the case of Amtrak’s recently “oh by the way…,” last minute announcement crippling the “Sunset Limited/Texas Eagle” underscores how critics have correctly declared that by exhibiting such unsavory, almost negligent attitudes towards long distance passengers could only be manifested by an arrogant monopolist certain of no reaction or retribution by its governmental stakeholders. Indeed, Amtrak clearly evidences how comfortable it has grown to be just languishing in the Potomac swamp petitioning for subsidies. Certainly, Amtrak has defaulted its presumptuous position as a legitimate passenger transportation firm exclusively dependent upon as a provider of passenger rail services.

Belatedly, we have learned that between 17 January-9 March, UP’s track record will kill one of three weekly “Sunset” runs; terminate “Texas Eagle” thru passengers in San Antonio; significantly and critically break the connection in LA between the southbound “Coast Starlight” and the eastbound “Sunset Limited.” But, all we hear is total silence; just as we did a few years ago when, with little pushback from the self-pronounced East Coast rail advocates, Amtrak broke the long-term connection between the “Coast Starlight” and eastbound “Southwest Chief” at LA. When I previously discussed the “Starlight”route with Amtrak’s “A team,” Jim McClellan, and later with Kevin McKinney, interestingly their mutual points were how the “Starlight” served to link the major west coast cities between Seattle-LA, with the certain understanding that there would be direct connections in both directions to the East with the“Southwest Chief” and “Sunset Limited.”  With Amtrak so blithely breaking these critical connections, how is Amtrak any different these days than the Southern Pacific was in the 1960s?

Amtrak has created its own self-fulfilling void in every sense of how the marketplace defines itself, which explains Amtrak’s soft traffic and revenue numbers, despite how Amtrak’s EVP Gardner attempts to spin the reality, as if he was on LBJ’s staff. While acknowledging other track work planned, such as to interrupt “The Crescent” on the Norfolk Southern; “Carolinian” and “Piedmonts” on the CSX; “The Saluki” on CN, just focusing on the UP track work explicitly triggers the following reaction:

1) Given the appalling lack of sufficient timing of notification to ticketed passengers on the “Sunset/Eagle,” where was the well deserved loud, vocal objection to Amtrak’s insufficient, untimely lack of notification? How did Amtrak’s weak response pass without objection: “Amtrak only finalized the operating agreement with UP in the prior week?”
2) How long ago did Amtrak know about UP’s intentions for track work between El Paso-San Antonio, 17 January-9 March? Hard to believe how UP being such a darling of the NYSE and proud Class 1 member of the AAR, of which Amtrak is a member,  just decided over New Year’s what a great time it would be to perform track work in Texas.
3) What effort did Amtrak undertake to make the most of a bad situation, such as:
a) By negotiating with UP a firm commitment going forward for OTP;?
b) Did Amtrak seize the opportunity to negotiate a far more reasonably priced-and scheduled daily “Sunset Limited?”
4) Although we never had a proper introduction to the gentleman from Amtrak’s IT who assumed a year ago the mantle of VP of Long Distance Service Line, Bob Dorsch, his tenure was quite short term, unremarkable, and without any clarity of why he left, or, grabbed a a buy-out offer. (Reminds me rather darkly of Vietnam when nobody bothered to learn the names of new arrivals, figuring they would soon be a KIA statistic). However, we have now learned of Amtrak’s anointment this month of Roger Harris as the new VP of the Long Distance Service Line.
a) To what extent has Mr. Harris been involved in orchestrating, or simply approving, this pathetic approach to the marketplace re minimal, belated notification?
b) Does Harris subscribe to this barely ambivalent, if not, outright hostile condemnation by Amtrak of the long distance passengers?  Does he consider these passengers, as Amtrak historically has indicated, as people with no choice; no need to advertise to entice aboard; not to worry if coach passengers cannot be served in the diner; no worry about failed OTP and mis-connects? How does it fit within a federally subsidized quasi government acceptable of a civil conduct to create the impression of throwing crumbs to these travelers by claiming how Amtrak will be benevolent and not charge them for changing their travel reservations?
c) Critically thinking, has Harris picked-up the mantle left by Paul Rosenwald’s team who proposed to a previously long term disinterested past CEO the common sense re-routing of the “Sunset Limited” from LA-San Antonio-Chicago; to determine if a stub train was appropriate between New Orleans-San Antonio; what the gain would be in asset utilization with a run thru operation LA-Chicago? Given the the travel time of rail vs. air, and even bus, between Houston-San Antonio, who in their right mind would choose rail?

Funny how the NEW YORKER’S article, “If Amtrak Were An Airline” (14 May 2015) pointed out how  a resolution of Amtrak’s malaise would be competition that would trigger innovation. In the end, we must continue to charge forwards, avoiding the “windmills,” for a competitive landscape for passenger rail, just as the public has achieved and benefited from how the airlines adapted to a new marketplace. Although Amtrak takes for granted its monopoly on long distance and state-supported routes, if we can insert meaningful competition upon its Northeast Corridor, we will finally be moving in the right direction for an national rail system.

When it comes to Indiana’s “Hoosier State,” as I have extensively previously commented this situation, frankly if I was consulting on this issue, I would tell the Indiana governor to save the funding; tell Amtrak to “shove it!” Why? How many reasons do we need to think within a sphere of economic common sense, including:

1) The schedule is pathetic and serves no viable purpose; the timecard of 5+ hours is practically twice as long as any scheduled bus, or, auto.
2) Amtrak has done absolutely nothing to ameliorate the schedule that nobody can utilize as this is nothing more than a “hospital train” for equipment to repair at its Beech Grove shops.
3) Instead of departing Indianapolis at 0600 am EST to arrive in Chicago  at 1000 am CST; leaving Chicago at 5:45 pm CST, arriving Indianapolis at 11:39 pm EST, where has Amtrak been all these years not to have this train leave at a more sensible departure time of 0700 from Indy; perhaps 4:30 pm from Chicago? This could have been achieved at a minimum on the days this route was not simply covered by “The Cardinal.”
4) Amtrak’s depot at Indianapolis is horrific and dismisses any reasonable sense of security for anybody entering the maze, unless one favors East Berlin.
5) Important to acknowledge their is a definitive reason why it is so impossible for just anybody to declare they are in the market to provide passenger rail services  As we learned from Indiana, any potential private operation must be vetted before responding to an RFP to evidence-and prove-the basic requisite requisites to be taken seriously, including:  fiscal solvency to provide working capital and start-up costs-without any MOU from a state; availability of FRA acceptable equipment, current viable working relationships with Amtrak and Class 1s, critically key is to evidence operational experience.
6) Interestingly, in respect to Mr. Ed Ellis of Iowa Pacific, what he proved beyond Amtrak’s understanding of travel, was the fact that despite the horrific schedule, he could induce more passengers on board with a very positive food/beverage program in his first class dome. Importantly, Ellis did not commit the faux pas of Amtrak by ignoring the food/beverage needs of the coach passengers. With this information, would it not be possibility increase the frequencies, as well as to extend service to Cincinnati and Louisville?

Until Amtrak appreciates the proven concept of asset utilization, rather than sticking the “Hoosier State” on a layover track in in its 14th Street yard Chicago, their must be a professional managerial oversight on Amtrak re how it schedules trains; asset management, including the potential of thru service operations.

Advertisements

Why We Need More Rail Service To Keep The Freeways Flowing

Tags

, , , , , , ,

By Noel T. Braymer

For some time there has been a debate in some communities over should more money be spent for more roads or improved public transportation including rail passenger service. This is something of a silly argument since we need both good roads and rail service for both passengers and freight. The problem most regions are having is traffic is bad and getting worse. Building and expanding major roads and freeways is very expensive and new rights of ways are difficult to acquire. Also expanding roads doesn’t relieve traffic congestion, it makes it worse. The reason for that is more road capacity encourages people to drive more which leads to more traffic congestion. The reply of some is the taxpayers are wasting money supporting trains and buses because not many people are riding and they cost a lot of money to run. What has been holding back more people from using public transportation is they often can’t go to where they want to go when they want to go in many cases. Planning is underway to cheaply expand connections and frequencies to make riding more efficient than driving for many people while reducing  traffic congestion at many activity centers.

The main problem with roads is a great deal of space is used to usually carry one person in a vehicle. When all things are going well a freeway lane can in theory carry around 2,000 vehicles in one direction per hour. But traffic is rarely ideal and mostly because of driver behavior traffic can become stop and go without traffic incidents which greatly reduces the capacity of major freeways. A typical bi-level commuter rail car can seat over 100 passengers. A six car train of this equipment can easily carry 600 people. At trains very 15 minutes, that means 2,400 passengers can be carried by trains in one direction. Run ten car trains and that number jumps to seated passengers of 4,000 traveling per hour in the same direction. Most California commuter trains can carry over 300 passenger in their cars with standee’s during peak travel times. With 10 car trains with 300 passenger per car that 3,000 passengers per train. Running 4 trains an hours at these loads are 12,000 passengers an hour by train in one direction.

One thing about major railroad rights of ways is they often have extra room to add more tracks. Major railroads often can handle up to 4 tracks. Caltrain along with electrification will have its own double tracked railroad on UP right of way with future High Speed Rail service south of San Jose also sharing it. The UP will likely have their own tracks and not need to share with passenger service. Between San Jose and San Francisco most of the right of way is wide enough for 4 tracks. There are already some 4 track segments on Caltrain between San Jose and San Francisco. In Southern California construction is on going to build a 4 track railroad between Burbank and Fullerton. Up to 2 tracks would be available for freight traffic and 2 tracks for faster passenger service. This will include Metrolink, Amtrak and future High Speed Rail service on this electrified passenger railroad. Meanwhile in San Diego County of the 60 miles of railroad along the coast, by  around 2020 75% will be double tracked. This will allow additional trains including frequent Coaster service between San Diego and Oceanside. For now most Coaster service is run only during peak travel times with trains often hours apart most of the day. After 2020 we could see trains running twice an hour most of the day with the added track capacity.

Metrolink is planning in the next few years to be running most of their trains at least every half hour most of the day. Some of the busiest lines will be run every 15 minutes. What is planned for most rail passenger services in California are trains run frequently on the same schedule all day long. This will include timed connections at each station to other rail services as well as connecting bus service. At Santa Ana there are planned direct bus connections to Newport Beach, Huntington Beach and Long Beach. There are also plans for bus connections to LAX from LAUS, Norwalk and Van Nuys train stations. Many other local train bus connections are also being planned in California.

The Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) has been authorized to build a passenger track along the UP mainline in the San Joaquin Valley between Merced and Stockton. This will connect to their current service between San Jose and Stockton. The San Joaquin JPA has an agreement with the UP to use a secondary rail line between Stockton and Sacramento to extend passenger service between Bakersfield and Sacramento on the San Joaquin trains. This will create hourly service between Stockton and Sacramento  with San Joaquin and ACE trains alternating service every 2 hour. SMART trains serving Marin and Sonoma Counties will soon be extended to the Larkspur Ferry landing which will allow direct ferry service to San Francisco. The Capitol Corridor trains are planning extended service south of Oakland with some trains as far Salinas. Capitol Corridor is also planning to extend more trains north of Sacramento to Roseville in a few years.

With all these project the different agencies are working to connect these services to each other with reliable connections. This will also include more reliable connections to other local services to more places, more often. A major factor to increasing ridership is development around train stations. Having stations near job and business centers is a major source of commuting passengers for a rail service. So are stations which are near high density housing which reduces the need to drive and park at stations. The San Diego Trolley have some stations which were joint developments built on then vacant lots which included new apartments as part of the station. In California new development often comes with increased rail service.

In San Diego, there are areas around the old downtown train station which are now ringed with high rise apartments and condos, most built in the last ten years and with more under construction. Near the station are high rise condos going for a million dollars. There are people who live in late 20th century houses with at least 2 car garages who would oppose new high density housing in their neighborhood. The good news is very few people live in such neighborhoods less than a half mile away from a railroads let alone a train station. Better transportation stimulates new construction for both jobs and housing. Recently after years of legal delays, a developer has been given the go ahead to build 2 resort hotels in Oceanside near the beach and even nearer to the tracks and train station. These new hotels will join at least 2 other resort hotels near by. One thing the City of Oceanside is working on is creating “Quiet Zones” at each of the city’s grade crossings by upgrading them so train horns don’t have to be sounded at each crossing unless there is a vehicle or person in the crossing. This will let people sleep more soundly along the tracks. The quiet zones could be in service later this year. As it is in many places in California near railroad tracks are often rundown commercial buildings and old rundown houses.  Now increasingly along California railroads you see more new housing and businesses built by the tracks.

“HOW AMTRAK’S PERSISTENT FAUX PAS SNATCHES DEFEAT FROM THE JAWS OF VICTORY”

Tags

, , ,

By Rail Provocateur/M.E. Singer

Here we are at the beginning of a new year, 2019, and we have to wonder what the hell is going in Amtrak’s HQ bunker, as obviously nothing has changed from 2018, the year of fiasco, except perhaps a further hunkering down by those in management who have survived the purges.

In its rush to shed any vestige of being a national passenger rail system, we find Amtrak spitting in the wind to deny the the fans of the Philadelphia Eagles an option for coming to Chicago for the playoff game on Sunday, 6 January; fallout in the press from the long delayed Chicago-St. Louis high speed line; an inability to learn from a successful airline CEO and a failed airline CEO. Even the PR flak from Amtrak over the addition of its Sightseer Lounge has a tinge of stink to it.

For some of us opining from the trenches, it has become so obvious to modify Amtrak’s ill-founded resolute position to embrace Yogi Berra’s understanding of how life works, far more instructional than any MBA program, as he professed, “you can observe a lot by just watching.” 

If Yogi’s aphorism was just simply followed in lieu of Amtrak’s narrow focus on its targeted real estate rich NEC; with its management so prophetically looking out for their own toochis to survive and secure another questionable bonus, Amtrak would not have been left on the blocks when the horses ran the race out of Philly. Instead of minutely dissecting questionable costs and revenues to explain why it would operate unprofitably, Amtrak would have never allowed MegaBus to steal the show by offering the only charter service directly between Philadelphia-Chicago. A business-oriented Amtrak would have jumped at the opportunity to utilize its equipment pool at a low seasonal period to operate sleepers and coaches from Philly via Washington to Chicago, as a second section of #28, “Capitol Limited.”  

I know this is possible, because in late 1985, I performed the Government Relations on Capitol Hill to secure the Illinois congressional delegation’s support to Mr. Claytor to ensure Amtrak would lease a special train consist of Superliners to accommodate Bears fans between Chicago-New Orleans for the 1986 Super Bowl. Although Amtrak refused to “dry lease” the Sightseer Lounge and required payment for the LSA, products provisioned at Amtrak’s cost, with Amtrak keeping the revenues (i.e., “profits”), I was allowed to identify public health certified catering firms in Chicago and en route to feed the 700+ passengers. As Mr. Claytor regrettably resented the interference by the Illinois congressional delegation, he disbanded the ARC payment method and required me to pay the nearly $100K up front for the train; as well, he operated several competitive options against the train I paid for. However, only the train I fought for ran-full. Frankly, as I look back, I do regret the inappropriate advice offered by counsel and a PR flak to charge the hill, as I believe Mr. Claytor and I shared similar outlooks to build passenger railroading in America. Today, just like Anderson flushing any opportunity to build and support community relations with the long-standing “Toys for Tots” program, we see no let up with his faux pas not to seize the opportunity to operate a PHL-CHI train via WAS special train. Perhaps if Anderson had been properly counseled, he would have at least welcomed Bennett Levin’s Pennsy E8s and PVs to serve a much willing audience?

Yet, as I cautioned Colorado authorities, based upon my experience as an operator of special trains, I wonder if the sponsors of the “Winter Park Ski Train” ever expressed curiosity how much more they are being charged for the addition of this lounge car? If it is staffed and supplied by Amtrak, who pays for the Lead Service Attendant at $48/hour running the car; does Amtrak provision the car; who keeps the revenues? Was it possible to “dry lease” the car, as in Maine on its “Downeaster” route, where the state provides the attendant and products? Actually, these questions are most relevant for California’s JPAs to facilitate how to get out from under Amtrak’s contractual tent that buries them in excessive costs for including cafe cars in their consists. A pertinent question is how does Maine escape the claw of Amtrak to burden the “Downeaster” line; how can the JPAs replicate that Maine deal?

The press has not yet stopped on questioning the viability of the very costly “high speed line” between Chicago-St. Louis. As reported in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the extreme delay in re-building this route and establishing fast schedules  questions  the justification for its expense and is causing consternation. Frankly, as I commented the end of December, 2018 to clarify this issue:

“How soon we forget what was taken for granted!  Until the late 1940s, passenger trains under steam and diesel regularly ran at 100 mph; up through the 1960s, diesel passengers trains on Santa Fe, Burlington, Illinois Central, Atlantic Coast Line, and Seaboard continued to operate at 90 mph–over mostly jointed rail with numerous grade crossings.

The issues still left unanswered include:

1) What will be the route between Chicago Union Station-Joliet? The direct, fastest route is the current line owned by Canadian National, but requires the U.S. Mint to finance its gold-plated approach towards building a dedicated passenger main to avoid regular delays from freight priorities. IDOT has pushed the METRA-owned Rock Island District as a publicly-owned infrastructure; however, that route requires expensive flyovers connecting between Chicago Union Station-Rock Island and between Rock Island District at Joliet-St. Louis. As well, the Rock Island District has about 35 angled grade-crossings to inhibit any fast running to avoid the obvious accidents.

2) What are the plans between Amtrak/IDOT to alleviate the rail traffic congestion/dispatching issues amongst 5 lines between Alton-St. Louis to prevent current delays?

3) As the Union Pacific will obviously take advantage of the improved infrastructure on this line to re-route their fast intermodal trains from the west coast, is their sufficient double track capacity and sidings to ensure the priority of passenger trains? How will this route handle “Precision Scheduled” elongated freights that do not fit on any current sidings?

4) To identify additionally needed funding, perhaps IDOT under the new governor will comprehend what a waste of dollars it will be at Springfield and reverse the pathetic decision?  IDOT proposed to spend $35+ Million to rehabilitate the current depot conveniently located near downtown, hotels, government on 3rd Street; in order to spend another $335++ Million to build a new depot far off in a vagabond area on 10th Street. This location is not necessary; will only handicap higher speed schedules by requiring trains to switch on/off the UP to the Norfolk Southern to access the 10th Street depot. Why not emulate what Reno, NV accomplished by dropping the rail line into a trench through its downtown, obviating the need for grade crossing horns.”

As I would like to end on a high note, despite how we push back on the darkness, it is most relevant to reflect on Southwest Airlines’s founder and CEO.  Despite his anti HSR position in the early 1990s, here’s a leader in transport with proven leadership, who successfully turned around the airline industry. Kelleher understood asset utilization, schedule frequency, pricing, and scheduling. In parallel, look today how a blog writer on airlines has the insight to identify the problems of a major carrier, American.  As I wrote in “View From the Wing” on 5 Jan, “What’s really amazing is that you have consistently called out AA for its far too numerous faux pas over matters you would think AA management would have concisely understood, and with an experienced hands-on approach, avoided the calamity. Wonder if any member of AA’s Board of Directors reads your site here; if so, when do they make an entreat to you to be their soothsayer? I feel sorry for AA’s stockholders so blind-sided by AA’s PR machine that covers-up their management errors.”

Although it is encouraging is to see the same disease that paralyzed Amtrak overcome the CEOs of a US airline; however, what will it take for Amtrak to benchmark to such successful airline executives “out of the box” executives who understand the traits and demographics of the market? How many more examples do we need to evidence Amtrak’s faux pas as a passenger carrier?  Perhaps to add teeth to our concerns we need to identify the benchmarking opportunities missed by Amtrak per week; the willful or ignorant faux pas created by an Amtrak management/Board holed up in their HQ bunker like the Wehrmacht in Berlin in 1945.

Governor Jerry Brown Getting The Last Laugh

Tags

, , ,

By Noel T Braymer

In one of his last public appearances as California Governor in early January, Jerry Brown made it clear that he likes trains, particularly High Speed Trains.  As one of his last acts as Governor he reappointed Dan Richard for another 4 years as Chairman of the Board of the California High Speed Rail Authority and Tom Richards who is the Vice-Chairman of the Board. Did Governor Brown care about the criticism by his opponents? Not in the least. Governor Brown already has 15 million dollars put away of money he has raised to be used for political campaigns against attacks of any of his legacy projects.

Now was it rude of Governor Brown to reappoint existing Board Members to the High Speed Rail Board for the next 4 years? This prevents Governor elect Gavin Newsom from getting his own board members on the High Speed Rail Board. I believe Governor Brown was doing Governor elect Newsom a favor. Almost anybody Newsom could appoint will likely be criticized by the people and establishment media who want to shut down the High Speed Rail project. In effect Brown gladly took the heat and spared Newsom of that hot potato at the beginning of his administration.  Also there is the problem of to much turnover at the High Speed Rail Authority will make things worse not better. As it is California needs to speed up construction of High Speed Rail to get the 119 miles of current construction finished by the end of 2022. Failure to do so would mean the State would have to pay back the Federal Funding already spent in the Valley.

Gavin Newsom has already flipped flopped flipped on the issue of California High Speed Rail. He was for it, then opposed it for a while which only got him air time on conservative talk radio. In his race for Governor Newsom is again in favor of California High Speed Rail. But Newsom’s primary objectives for his administration are to build much more affordable housing and create universal health care for California. But High Speed Rail is not one of his highest priorities. He is well aware of the value of the project to his political base in the Bay Area. Housing has largely become unaffordable in the Bay Area (and most major California cities) for even the most highly paid professionals. With the initial segment of California High Speed Rail between San Francisco and Bakersfield this will allow commuter service to the San Joaquin Valley for more affordable housing. While also letting people avoid hours stuck on freeways traveling to and from work. Even before High Speed Rail service is running, upgrades to Caltrain service to Gilroy will be in service. The tracks between Gilroy and San Francisco will be shared with future High Speed Rail service. As part of this much of the funding of the track upgrades and electrification between Gilroy and San Francisco is coming from the California High Speed Rail project. These improvements are planned by 2027 and would open more housing for Silicon Valley employees in the area south of San Jose with Caltrain service.

One point made in his last days as California’s Governor, Jerry Brown praised the stimulus effect on the economy in the San Joaquin Valley due to the construction spending for the High Speed Rail project. Brown has been around long enough to know economies go in cycles of boom and bust. When Brown returned to the Governorship in 2011 the State’s Budget was in deficit and the States was billions in debt. As Governor he raised taxes over the last 8 years and controlled spending. The result is the State now has a healthy budget surplus as well as a booming economy even with (or maybe because) of minimum wage increases well above the Federal minimum wage. Governor Brown is well aware that sooner or later California will be hit by a Nation wide recession. He has left the State’s budget in a good position to weather the next recession. The problem California has is much of its tax revenues come from Capital Gain Taxes from the profits of selling Stocks. When the Stock Market is hot, California is rolling in tax revenue. But when the Stock Market crashes, California’s tax revenues do as well. That’s the problem California had in 2009 with budget items approved assuming Capital Grains revenues which had since dried up. This is why Governor Brown built up a major budget surplus to avoid painful tax cuts in the future when Capital Gain income drops.

Governor Brown thinks highly of the value of High Speed and conventional rail construction for stimulating the economy. This is nothing new, improving infrastructure in times of high unemployment has been used by governments for hundreds of years. With both increased State and local taxes for transportation the California economy has been humming along after years of hostility from Washington at the beginning of the 21st Century. Where major cities have local funding for rail and road projects, the areas around train stations have become thriving economic hot spots.

What honest economists can tell you is economic growth is based on consumer spending. Rich people have more than enough stuff that most of their money goes into buying “investments”. But most jobs comes from spending, for things like food, housing and health care. Most businesses sell goods and services to people making less than $100,000 a year. When the Government or any person spends money they create the multiplier effect. Basically when government spends money it pays workers on the job funded by the government. These workers now have money and spend it at their local stores or to pay bills. This in turn allows the people working at the stores or utility workers and so on to get paid. But when Government spending is cut to balance their budgets the reverse happens and the economy slows down. When the rich have low taxes like they did in 1929 and now in 2019, they usually use the money to speculate on the stock or commodities markets which drives markets up and then often come crashing down.

Happy New Year, Amtrak, here are some Trip Reports

Tags

, , , , , ,

Commentary by Russ Jackson

Here we go again, this time into the new year 2019.  Amtrak is still here and the long distance trains are still running, but the uncertainty of what might happen in this new year remains of concern to not only readers of this report but to all who have been riders of Amtrak’s “national system” and want to continue to do so.  I can’t predict what will happen, but the fact that so many continue riding the trains must be taken into account by the strange Amtrak administration now “in charge.”  The question has to be asked, “up there do they know what they are doing?”  Many would say No, but at least there have not yet been any big changes or eliminations going into the new year; just one temporary change to the Sunset Limited departure from Los Angeles Union Station for the eastbound train 2.  From mid-January to mid-March its departure time will be at 7:26 PM instead of 10 PM.  BUT, train 2 will only do so on Wednesdays and Fridays; the Sunday departures during that period are canceled.  The reason for that change brought speculation, but educated guesses included a rail construction project by the Union Pacific on the Sunset Route,  or possibly building the new highway over-crossing of the tracks at the Maricopa, Arizona station.  The reason is the former, a massive needed track work window east of Alpine, Texas, and rumors are circulating that the UP wanted all three round trips canceled for those two months.  Of course this schedule change temporarily breaks the connection to the Sunset Limited from the Coast Starlight in Los Angeles.  But, it also puts the two train 2s into San Antonio earlier, where making the car shuffle to the Texas Eagle on time has been a continuing problem, with the Sunset Limited frequently arriving two or more hours late due to “freight interference,” which delays the 7 AM departure of the Texas Eagle and puts it at the mercy of the UP and BNSF as it travels north to Fort Worth and beyond.  If this track work project helps relieve that situation it will help in the long run.  Anyway, so much for an opening statement.  Now let’s hear the good news and maybe a few negatives from two friends who traveled on Western long distance trains in December, 2018 and a final quote from a former Amtrak CEO.

A Coast Starlight Trip Report.  Dana Hawkes, of San Marcos, CA, rode the Starlight from Seattle all the way to Los Angeles Union station after Christmas, riding in the Accessible bedroom in the Superliner Sleeping Car lower level.  His departure from the Seattle station was on time, and the train “is completely full.  Service is friendly and efficient.  Just had lunch and the food and service were excellent as well.  I’m sorry they removed the Parlour Car, it was a great addition.”  He was pleased that the route south “still went along Puget Sound and under the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.”  The next morning came the report that he had a great night’s sleep but the arrival into Sacramento would be 2 1/2 hours late.  Mr. Hawkes is a veteran Amtrak traveler, having been on over 30 trips.  The reason for the delay was between Portland and Salem, Oregon, the train was tragically “held up by someone using it to commit suicide in front of a Union Pacific freight train” ahead of them.  But, the Starlight ride was smooth and he, like so many Starlight riders, enjoyed the sunrise the next morning and the scenery throughout the day, although the lateness continued all the way to Los Angeles. “To be a little philosophical,” he writes, “my definition of train travel is it’s a journey.  It does get you where you want to go but it allows you to enjoy the beauty of the scenery, the culture of the countryside, and the vitality of America that exists outside of the chatter and turmoil of the city.  Some might think that so much enjoyment and travel is a luxury.  No more luxury than a bike lane, or a hiking trail, or a local or national park.  None of those are vital to Commerce in the United States, but they are vital to the experience of life in its fullness.  I think a train falls into that category.”  Oh, his train arrived in Los Angeles at 1 AM, but obviously the trip experience was worth it to this Amtrak customer.

A Trip Report on the Sunset Limited.  John Blaubach from Santa Barbara, CA, took the Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to San Antonio, Texas for Christmas, riding in Coach using Guest Reward points.  He found “lots of padding in the schedule, and they arrived in San Antonio on time despite long delays along the way.”  For meals he bought the “at your seat” dinner both ways, which was the “Salisbury Steak, mashed potatoes, green beans, 2 mini rolls, water and a large cookie for $12.”  Eastbound the crew walked the cars to get the order, but Westbound he had to walk to the Diner to order at 5:00 then pick it up at 5:25.  Why?  Well, “the trains were sold out, sleepers were all booked (3 cars),” eastbound they never took lunch or dinner reservations from the coach passengers except the to go orders, and while the westbound was sold out, the diner served the last walkons, the only way for coach passengers to have participated.  For breakfast eastbound he went to the diner at 7 AM after leaving Del Rio and tried the burrito special, for $6.50.  It was “better than expected, but my tablemate (from Michigan) didn’t like his.  For lunch westbound he joined many veteran riders and bought two burritos from the El Paso station burrito lady, still $2.  Arrival back at Los Angeles was late, but it was a “perfect connection to his train to Santa Barbara,” as he had 15 minutes to walk down tunnel 10 and up 11, and did not have to “waste time walking to the waiting room to get my seat assignment and then retrace my steps!”

Hey, Amtrak, after reading these reports, why should there be ANY doubt about the viability of the “national network” of trains?  The long distance trains in the West are important to many riders, who count on your providing the safest, cleanest, most reliable travel experience.  As the previous Amtrak CEO, Joe Boardman, wrote in his recent Railway Age article, “Today, as well as for most of its existence, Amtrak has had both its supporters and detractors focused on numbers–numbers of passengers, dollars of investment, size of deficits, miles of rail service, and statistical comparisons with others.  There is a passion here that drives interest, much like the passion of sports fans immersed in statistics.  Amtrak is really about the value it brings to our nation, states, communities, employees and passengers–the forgotten stakeholders when one focuses solely on cold statistics.”  Could the cause of preserving passenger rail over long distances be more perfectly stated than what we have published here?   2019 is going to be an important year, for the country and for Amtrak.  Will there be a future for our travel opportunities by long distance trains in the West?  I hope so, you hope so, and we all will be diligent in working to see that a philosophy of GROWTH eventually breaks through the fog at Amtrak’s highest levels and a year from now we will be celebrating the future, not the alternative.  Readers, keep in touch, keep riding, and keep letting Amtrak know how important this service is to you.

ReplyReply allForward

A Quick End Of Year Train Trip To San Diego With Photos

Tags

, , , ,

By Noel T. Braymer

Its been awhile since I’ve gone on a train trip, let alone taken any pictures. With 2018 coming to an end I decided to take a quick round trip ride between Oceanside and San Diego. This being winter now because the sun isn’t overhead much of the day but at an angle, some of the pictures  from the train have glare. But much of the rail line is a scenic ride in many places. A great deal is going on just in San Diego County with rail related construction. These and a few other projects in Southern California outside of San Diego County as well as projects already finished should lead to increased rail passenger service in the next 2 to 3 years. That is not to say that more work planned in the future won’t be built for even better future rail passenger service. Even so, many of the projects which will be finished soon have been on a waiting list going back at least in most cases 20 years or more.

DSCN4682
A major project now underway is at the Poinsettia Coaster Station in southern Carlsbad. This will move the station’s west track and platform more to the west in order to make room to built a pedestrian tunnel between the 2 tracks and platforms. This will eliminate the at grade pedestrian crossings as well as make the station safer as well as allowing more trains to pass through the station. This is one of the projects that will be ready in a year or two. DSCN4686
This is a photo from the train at the Oceanside Transit Center of a short segment of the Coastal Rail Trail in San Diego County. This will be 44 miles long between Oceanside and San Diego when finished. But this will take many years to complete. As more segments of the Rail (bike) Trail are built and connected to other segments more people will ride bikes on the trail. But even now not only cyclists use the trail. Many people also use it to jog, run, travel by wheelchair or walk without dealing with road traffic. DSCN4618
This is another segment of the Coastal Rail Trail this time in Carlsbad. With this picture from the train you can get some idea just how wide the Coast Line railroad right of way is between Oceanside and Solana Beach.

DSCN4626

This is construction in the Cardiff neighborhood of the City of Encinitas of what I think is the Coastal Rail Trail. Cardiff is getting a segment of the Coastal Rail Trail along with other rail related construction including double tracking between Cardiff and Solana Beach  through the San Elijo Lagoon which will connect 2 sidings into a long stretch of double track. Much of the year, but particularly in summer traffic from autos, trucks and bicycles can be very heavy on the Coast Highway. There is only a narrow corridor along the coast around Cardiff between the Coast Highway on the west, the railroad in the center and San Elijo Ave on the east which ends at the edge of the Lagoon. Just in this area of Cardiff the Rail Trail should reduce some of the traffic congestion when the Coast Highway is busiest.

DSCN4673This is looking west over the San Elijo Lagoon in the background and the almost finished second track in the foreground.

DSCN4670

This is the view from the train on the Del Mar Bluffs looking out over the ocean. There have been on going problems with bluff loss in Del Mar which the railroads tracks are next too. The County of San Diego since it bought the railroad in the 1990’s have spent millions of dollars to slow the rate of bluff loss. The county of San Diego is planning to spend another 90 million dollars to shore up the Del Mar Bluffs over the next 20 years. A major factor causing landslides along the bluffs is water. Much work has already been done to improve drainage to prevent water from soaking into the bluffs.

DSCN4637

This is construction east of the I-5 freeway roughly just south of Highway 52. In this area a second track on a straighter track alignment is being built for use of Coaster, Surfliner and freight trains. Alongside of these tracks, new tracks to extend the San Diego Trolley Blue Line to the University of California at San Diego are being built to the east alongside of the existing railroad between Old Town and the 52. It is just south of the 52 that the Trolley tracks will be elevated over the existing railroad tracks to the west on a right of way along side the 5 freeway. Further north the Blue line will be elevated again over the 5 to UCSD and latter cross the 5 again heading east to University City.

DSCN4633.jpg

This is another view of the viaduct under construction to lift the Blue Line west over the adjoining railroad and then along the 5 freeway before heading to UCSD.

906000_1142615175752469_8153605442481842331_o

This is a SANDAG map of San Diego showing both the route of the Blue Line extension to the University City area as well as the double tracking for passenger trains along side of the Blue Line extension. You can also see the roundabout route for passenger trains in the canyon area where the tracks turn east going north of Highway 52, cross the 805 heading east and then turning west again crossing the 805 to Sorrento Valley

DSCN4643

Photo of construction from the train of a new grade crossing for a second track over Garnet Ave which turns into Balboa Ave about a block east. Also seen on the right hand side to the east are pillars to support a viaduct for the Blue Line extension.

DSCN4652
My southbound train to San Diego was almost standing room only on an otherwise quiet time of the week due to the holidays. But my late morning departure was very busy. This shows part of the crowd of people getting off my southbound train at the Old Town station.

DSCN4656
This is some of the new housing being built in downtown San Diego seen from the train. Right next to the apartments are the Trolley tracks. This picture is near the County Center/Little Italy Trolley Station a few blocks north of the Santa Fe Depot which is a major Trolley Hub and downtown train station.

DSCN4658
This is at the Santa Fe Depot and something being seen in most major cities is the boom in dockless bike and scooter rentals. This likely is cheaper than building and maintaining docking facilities. I discovered as walked around the Depot areas that at least one company uses a van to pick up not in use bikes and takes them to areas that they hope people will pay to ride to someplace.

DSCN4659
Here we are at the Santa Fe Depot in downtown San Diego with the 1915 depot in the front and some of the many hi-rise building in the area seen in the background.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 240 Billion Dollar Boondoggle No One Wants To Talk About

Tags

, , , ,

By Noel T. Braymer

There have been many stories in the news over the years about new proposed rail passenger projects that are loudly condemned by groups defending private enterprise against wasteful government spending. The California High Speed Rail Project in particular has been a major target as a classic example of wasteful government spending. What the recent audit of the California High Speed Rail Project found was much of its cost overruns stemmed from lack of government oversight by State officials. Most of the cost overruns were due to decisions by privately owned consulting firms under contract to the High Speed Rail Authority to help build the project. If we look at Health Care Insurance, the operating costs associated with Medicare are much lower than those for private insurance companies. The main difference is Medicare unlike private health insurance companies is managed by salaried government employees for a non-profit government agency.

The current estimated cost of California High Speed Rail between San Francisco and Anaheim is 77 Billion Dollars. But High Speed Rail critics love to claim 100 billion dollars is the cost of California High Speed Rail construction which is the current highest worse case estimate by the High Speed Rail Authority. But what no one seems to be taking about are the on going problems with shale oil fracking.

The problem with shale oil, besides being prone to explode, catch fire and contaminate water aquifers is that it has never made any money. That’s not me saying it. The news story “U.S. Shale Has A Glaring Problem” posted on October 21, 2018 on the Oil Price.Com website reports A new report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) and the Sightline Institute detail the “alarming volumes of red ink” within the shale industry.
“Even after two and a half years of rising oil prices and growing expectations for improved financial results, a review of 33 publicly traded oil and gas fracking companies shows the companies posting negative free cash flows through June,” the report’s authors write. The 33 small and medium-sized drillers posted a combined $3.9 billion in negative cash flow in the first half of 2018.

Fracking for years was suppose to become “profitable” any day now. In fact 2018 was suppose to be the year fracking became profitable. But that was before the stock and commodities markets got the jitters and with that oil prices are now plunging down. Ideally fracking should be profitable at oil prices over $100 a barrel. But current oil prices are roughly half that price and most signs seem to be heading for an economic slow down. So just how big is the debt run up by the Shale Oil producing companies? Again from the website Oil Prices.Com from October 10, 2018

U.S. Oil Companies Face $240 Billion Debt Mountain  “U.S. oil producers are facing debt of US$240 billion maturing until 2023, of which some 15 percent will be rated with the lowest rating of Caa, Moody’s said in a new report quoted by Kallanish Energy…
The glaring problem with the poor financial results is that 2018 was supposed to be the year that the shale industry finally turned a corner. Earlier this year, the International Energy Agency painted a rosy portrait of U.S. shale, arguing in a report that “higher prices and operational improvements are putting the US shale sector on track to achieve positive free cash flow in 2018 for the first time ever.”…
   The ongoing struggles raises questions about the long-term. If the industry is still not profitable – after a decade of drilling, after major efficiency improvements since 2014, and after a sharp rebound in oil prices – when will it ever be profitable? Is there something fundamentally problematic about the nature of shale drilling, which suffers from steep decline rates over relatively short periods of time and requires constant spending and drilling to maintain?

It is increasingly looking like the economy is headed downwards, not upwards. The question at hand is how did these shale oil companies get so deeply in debt? Since the Great Recession of 2008 interest rates have been kept very low to stimulate the economy. There has been bi-partisan support for increased domestic oil production through fracking during this time. What has kept the shale oil producers in business have been low interest loans made possible from efforts by the Federal Reserve. While many of these shale oil companies have a cash flow due to oil sales, they are not profitable. So while they are making loan payments now, they not paying down their debt. Instead they continue to go deeper in debt. If and when the economy takes a deep nose dive oil fracking and many other businesses will likely find themselves in  deeper trouble.

While this is going on, there is no guarantee that there will be growth in demand for oil. The auto manufacturing companies are having trouble now selling cars. Young adults have less disposable income than their parents and grandparents and are less likely to drive. This seems to be causing less demand for oil now and in the future. Renewable energy is dropping in cost and is becoming cheaper than fossil fuels. There is a growing interest in electrically powered transportation which is more economical to operate than fossil fuel powered transportation. Some analysts are predicting that by 2023 electric vehicles will be cheaper to own and operate than fossil fueled vehicles. That could be a tipping point with electric vehicle production surpassing demand for fossil fuel vehicles. These are only projections. But the history in just the last 10 years has been that electric cars have been meeting such milestones in their development sooner than predicted.

The problem remains that more people in the near future may not want to or be able to drive more.  It is a combination of economics and the supply and demand of road capacity. A recent wild fire in early November in the Malibu area of Los Angeles County caused a multi-mile back up of traffic of people in cars trying to evacuate from the fire area. A trip that usually took no more than an hour took many people several hours due to traffic congestion. Traffic in general is already slow in most metro areas of California and continues to get worse. What California is doing is expanding its rail passenger system. This doesn’t only mean High Speed Rail. But also  more frequent service with connections between rail transit, commuter trains, intercity trains, local buses, long distance buses, shuttle buses and other connectors like bike and scooter rentals to get people to almost everywhere people want to go when they want to go in California. This won’t mean the end of driving in California. But we can have cleaner air with renewable energy for transportation and more travel options besides cars with expanded rail service to get around and not get stuck in traffic.

“FIFTH COLUMNISTS AND MITLAEUFERS”Be Aware Of Diversionary Potomac Serenades!

Tags

, ,

(Understand What is Schemed at the Potomac Impacts California)

By Rail Provocateur/M.E. Singer

Although we can certainly rejoice that the incessant guest op-eds and editorials in RAILWAY AGE in recent months have finally served to smoke-out Amtrak from its closet; however, the synthetic response crafted for Amtrak’s numero 2 guy, Stephen Gardner, EVP, was far from offering a palpable rationale. His answers to the specific issues raised by Frank Wilner and William Vantuono of Railway Age, myself, and others, attempted to provide a calm perspective exclusively relying upon data. Frankly, this was more reminiscence of Robert McNamara’s total reliance upon the same such maligned data to send us into Vietnam; but could not ever acceptably explain why Ho Chi Minh would accept the loses; not buckle. As Max Hastings so interestingly surfaced in his detailed book recently analyzing the war, VIETNAM, Lyndon Johnson blindly approached Ho Chi Minh just like another politician, but was dumbfounded when his offer to finance a very important and expensive bridge for North Vietnam was rejected.

In respect to history, I am very concerned how our attention has been diverted and unfocused from the actual battle that lays ahead.  Just as we cannot forget how General Giap succeeded to divert Westmoreland’s attention from the NVA build-up to launch the Tet Offensive (31 Jan 1968) by attacking Khe Sanh, its surrounding hills, and areas within Northern I Corps, serious rail advocacy (beyond the foamers and self-righteous hanger-ons in their blogs) may have been lulled into a similar situation. As much as I stand ready with my detailed pushback for RAILWAY AGE responding to Gardner’s tepid foray into the real world of media and criticism, my sense is that we have been ignoring the real issues beyond the false idols that are taking up positions to thwart us.

It should be apparent Amtrak’s CEO Anderson was not selected by Amtrak’s Board because he appreciated an equipoise in our transportation; or understood the role rail could play to enhance mobility and economic development; or, if he even had a sophisticated understanding of transport history in America. Instead, I believe Anderson was personally selected to fulfill the role of “Peter’s Principle” by ensuring Board Chair Coscia’s plans would be facilitated as Coscia worked in concert with New York’s Senator Schumer and other clout heavy Northeastern politicos to subvert the National Network of Amtrak. This scheme required to focus all Amtrak players on the sacred NEC; to divert federal funding intended for the National Network to shore-up and subsidize the deficit-ridden NEC. If this action was not merely an attempt to protect the free ride of the Northeastern states with bi-directional trains scheduled every 30 minutes, what else could it be in the minds of such noble political figures and their batman at Amtrak? In reality, given that the NEC is actually but one contiguous expanse of real estate development, as every local politician understands, and in particular Amtrak’s Chair, formerly the chairman of the Port Authority New York New Jersey, Coscia required a CEO to willingly be under his cape; pretenders to the CEO throne to act as a “Mitlaeufers” (German for “hangar on or follower”).

If Coscia, who motions with a hand gesture to open and close discussion, was really interested in carrying out his intended duties and committed to running a National Network, he had plenty of time to evidence such commitment since he took the Board chair in 2013. In essence, instead of calling for Anderson’s dismissal, we should be garnering evidence to throw out Coscia and disable his plans. As for Gardner, he is simply a “yes” man doing Coscia’s bidding; eager to finally move-up on the ladder, not realizing the ladder is sinking in quick sand.  Although Gardner was quick to offer a “pill” to destroy the National Network, blindsiding Anderson to accept the foolish concept of bus substitution midway on the “Chief’s” route, Gardner serves at the Board’s behest to throttle Amtrak’s national mission.

Sadly, what is working in parallel to these agents of doom are the powers motivated far more than to embrace and save the Amtrak National Network. To ensure the political payoff for developing Hudson Yards and Sunnyside in New York, New  York’s Governor Cuomo already initiated his move to assume Gateway without Amtrak’s involvement. Notice the growing parallels between Gateway and the Amazon HQ2 in New York–no auditing to verify target dates to be met and on budget; or to prevent “slippage” of funds to include outsiders to benefit from real estate deals.

However, lurking over these clout heavy politicians and their minions on Amtrak’s Board tearing at Amtrak like sharks attracted to chummed water, is the Congressional Budget Office on budgetary options released 13 December (https://www.cbo.gov/budget-options/2018/54773). I sense the persistent diversions indicated above succeeded to deplete our attention and energy from this “elephant in the tent.”  Unlike past years when it was assumed how Congress would protect Amtrak, and even increase its budget, we could be in for an unexpected 180 turn in 2019.  Just as we have witnessed this president suddenly change his mind; not accept the status quo or advisors opinions; turnout his senior experienced cabinet, we cannot forget what silently lays out there unnoticed. As the federal deficit continues to grow we should remember that back in late October, 2018, Trump had declared his war on federal waste, starting with every agency giving back 5%.

This CBO report gives credence to Trump’s war on federal waste to enact the decapitation of Amtrak. Yet, note the priorities of Congress which just passed a $5 Billion subsidy for sugar and a $862 Billion farm subsidy. Given how Amtrak is against the wall, do not be so quick to write-off this CBO report, now paralleling Trumps’ desire to cut federal costs, other than favored subsidies, given these facts not in Amtrak’s favor:

1) A Board loaded with political hacks with no apparent field of expertise to shepherd Amtrak, but approved by Coscia to not restrain his real estate development bidding. The last good Board member was Yvonne Brathwaite Burke from California, who refused to sell her soul to Coscia and left. What sits on Amtrak’s Board now like bumps on a log has been deliberately selected not to outshine Coscia; certainly unknowledgeable and incapable to defend Amtrak before Congress
2) The best managers were forced out with buy-outs or lay-offs, destroying the historical knowledge base and depth of the company; replaced by outsiders paid top dollar simply to learn the business.
3) Critically, the revolving door of management never learned from how Mr. Claytor successfully ran Amtrak, realizing higher revenues could not be achieved by cutting trains, but rather, by increasing the number of trains. Claytor’s formula for revenue gain was proven each time Amtrak chose to cut trains: revenues decreased; costs increased. If only Amtrak had enlightened stakeholders who would have objected to the stubborn actions of such an uninformed monopoly.
4) Today, management bonus is predicated on cost-cutting, which explains why the long distance trains have so severely suffered; no inducements to state-supported corridors to expand frequencies; routes.

Given this pathetic posture, how is any business deemed viable and sustainable in this receding economic environment when its sole objective is to cut costs; not build revenue and grow; a staid corporate culture, uninspired by a CEO planning his next move to be Secretary of Transportation under a Democrat administration elected in 2020? Imagine what Anderson would do to Amtrak as Secretary of DOT, if the CBO recommended cuts and Trump’s war on waste don’t swing the hatchet first? Wonder what the cancellation terms are in Amtrak’s contract with Siemens for those 75 Chargers..?

I do not mean to ‘curse the darkness and not light a candle;’ however, how do we paint a positive spin to the facts that Amtrak is being eviscerated by a Fifth Column on its Board. Such members who were trusted by the public are focused being in cahoots with the clout of Northeastern politicos they have worked with since all were singing on corners of Brooklyn, Bronx, and Queens? Accountability and transparency are simply words to use in Scrabble games at Amtrak HQ’s break-room. Sadly, so many older railfans and foamers have a limited focus to ridiculing the perception of others; further evidencing their inability to “think out of the box” by still complaining about the lack of shoeshines in sleepers.

To have faith in Amtrak, we have to be able to embrace its leadership, respect its competency, understand its vision. Currently, that’s a very long slog.  Indeed, the mantra can be in respect to Pogo, who said:  “We have met the enemy, and it is us!”

With my only family (my daughter) living in Spain, I hope each member/reader enjoys Christmas with their family!

What’s Wrong With Amtrak Accounting?

Tags

, , , ,

By Noel T. Braymer

Railway Age in the last year or so has run several opinion articles by authors criticizing Amtrak. In fact there have been 31 such articles according to Stephen Gardner a senior Amtrak Vice President. According to Mr Gardner who’s remarks were recently published in Railway Age as Amtrak’s reply to its many critics, wanted to assure everyone that everything at Amtrak was okay and that Long Distance Trains only carried 15 percent of Amtrak’s riders. This was a stupid argument. The vast majority of Amtrak’s passengers ride on the Northeast Corridor. The majority of those NEC passengers travel between New York City and Philadelphia a distance of roughly 90 miles. This is about as far as riding the Pacific Surfliner between Los Angeles and Oceanside. Compare this to a passenger getting a roomette on a Western Long Distance Train who often pays just over $1,000 to Amtrak to do that. What Mr. Gardner doesn’t want to talk about is the revenue and Passenger Miles generated by different Amtrak Trains.

Under Richard Anderson as Amtrak President, how is ridership doing now compared to last year? The answer is flat at best. The January 2019 issue of Trains Magazine has some very interesting articles on Amtrak’s performance. Two trains which saw major ridership losses were the Cardinal and the Lake Shore Limited. One of the problems which reduced ridership on these trains was the overdue need to repair tracks at New York’s Penn Station late last year and earlier this year. As a result of this Amtrak’s tri-weekly Cardinal train between Chicago-Washington and New York City was cut back to Washington with a less than ideal connection to the rest of the NEC. The Cardinal is long overdue for daily operations which would greatly increase its ridership. But the loss of direct service on the NEC, particularly to New York was a major factor in reducing the Cardinal’s ridership. Along with the issue on the Lake Shore Limited of losing hot food service in the diner was the decision by Amtrak to eliminate the New York section of the Lake Shore Limited this year. This also reduced ridership on the Lake Shore Limited

A major factor in ridership is the number of markets served by any transportation service. The airlines learned this years ago and try to have scheduled connections to as many markets as possible. For a passenger if they can’t get to where they want to go, they won’t ride with you. We have also seen ridership declines this year on the Surfliners. Much of this is due to the fires late in 2017 and the mudslides with the heavy rains earlier this year in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. As a result of this the LOSSAN JPA cut back the early morning Surfliner from San Diego to San Luis Obispo at Los Angeles. This was needed to create a long awaited commuter rail service between Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, particularly in the wake of the shut down of the 101 freeway due to massive mudslides last winter. Due to a lack of train equipment the Surfliners haven’t been able yet to restore morning service to San Luis Obispo yet.

In the January 2019 issue of Trains Magazine there was an extensive article by Bob Johnston about Amtrak’s accounting system which often bills major costs to trains outside of the NEC which results according to Amtrak these trains losing a great deal of money. An example of this is the Southwest Chief which brings in almost 50 million dollars in revenue a year, but according to Amtrak “costs 104 million dollars” to run so it loses Amtrak 54 million dollars. Surprisingly this article referenced a paper by the Rail Passengers Association titled “Amtrak’s Route Accounting:Fatally Flawed, Misleading, and Wrong.” What this white paper targets is Amtrak’s use of allocating costs to individual train lines. What Amtrak doesn’t do is audit the actual costs of a service by adding up the fuel bills, required equipment maintenance or direct labor costs and so on of individual trains. Most of theses “cost” are allocated often on a route mile basis to individual trains. This arbitrary method of accounting tends to inflate the assumed costs of Amtrak service outside of the Northeast Corridor and reduce the assumed costs of the Northeast Corridor. Among the examples of strange allocated costs in Mr. Johnston’s article were charges for snow removal for the Miami, Florida station and for maintenance of rail electrication on non electrified lines. Also odd about Amtrak’s accounting is its charging track maintenance on the NEC which it owns as a capital expense and not as an operating expense. But for all other non-NEC Amtrak trains, maintenance costs are charged as operating costs not as capital costs.

A mania at Amtrak is to “save” money by reducing “costs”. This has been done several times by Amtrak by eliminating  or downgrading  Amtrak trains usually outside of the NEC. But when this has happened the assumed cost savings for Amtrak fails to materialize. What does go down by cutting back service is revenue carried on the trains which were eliminated. A major problem with Amtrak’s quest to cut costs is little is done to invest funding to expand and improve service and increase ridership revenues. An example of how this can be done is the Coast Starlight. With the introduction of the Pacific Palour Car by Brian Rosenwald in 1995, there were several other upgrades to first class service on the Starlight. This included adding a 3rd sleeping car on the Starlight. Amtrak rarely if ever runs more than 2 sleepers on their long distance trains. But not only did the Starlight fill up these 3 sleepers, but it was also able to charge the highest prices (and get greater profits for Amtrak) of their long distance trains.

Adding new services and passenger cars to Amtrak trains has been proven to increase Amtrak’s cost recoveries. Between 1982 to 1993 Amtrak’s cost recovery for Amtrak went from 42 percent to 80 percent. This was the last time Amtrak has expanded long distance service and bought more, new Superliner equipment. Also being ignored by Amtrak management is the value of the support across the country politically for expanded  rail passenger service across the country. Also not to be discounted is the frustration and anger Amtrak creates against it by looking at the States outside of the NEC as sources to subsidize Amtrak, not as a market for it to serve.

What’s The Future Of Intercity Rail Passenger Service In The USA?

Tags

, , ,

By Noel T. Braymer

Look Out Amtrak, you’ve got competition

Virgin Trains USA has recently announced that not only are they teaming up and investing in Brightline (operated by All Aboard Florida, a subsidiary of Florida East Coast Industries) which recently started up privately operated rail passenger service in Florida. They are also building the long proposed rail passenger service from Southern California to Las Vegas starting with construction by next year. Now Virgin Trains USA and its partners are proposing service to most of the major American city transportation corridors. These don’t only include new routes like Atlanta to Charlotte. But also existing Amtrak Corridors such as St Louis-Chicago, Portland-Seattle, San Diego-Los Angeles as well as the Northeast Corridor from Washington-New York and Boston. About the only corridor Virgin Trains USA isn’t talking about is Los Angeles-Palm Springs-Phoenix-Tucson! But give them time, maybe that will be part of phase 2.

It will be interesting how Virgin Trains USA and its partners will get trackage rights to operate passenger rail service on many of these established corridors. The current plan for all of Florida’s now Virgin Trains USA services and between Las Vegas to Victorville is to use tracks owned by Virgin Trains USA with much of the right of way leased on State Highways. This works well in the states of Florida and Nevada where the roads being used are fairly flat and there is available land to add tracks on these roads rights of ways. But where will Virgin Trains find rights of way to build new tracks between San Diego and Los Angeles or Washington and New York? And what will Amtrak do to try to avoid competing with Virgin Trains USA?

For most rail service around the world, but particularly in Europe, the State owns the railroad rights of way. Most European railroads are controlled either by government agencies or non-profit corporations. What these rail management bodies do is to try to get as much traffic on the railroads they control to at least break even. In the European Union, every effort is made to promote competition between now private rail services for both passenger and freight. Virgin Trains in Britain pays a fee based on a competitive bid for the right to operate rail passenger service at a profit as a franchise using State owned rail lines. In other words a rail passenger franchise must bid to pay the highest amount of money to get the right to operate trains and still make money. On the mainland of Europe several former “National Railways” now operate trains through several counties on railroads they don’t own, but lease trackage rights to use.

This could almost work between Los Angeles and San Diego now. Most of the railroad between Los Angeles and San Diego is publicly owned which the freight railroads sold off passenger rights and maintenance costs to the counties. But the BNSF mainline is still owned by the BNSF between the City of Commerce and Fullerton. In roughly the next 10 years or so the BNSF main line will have 4 tracks between Fullerton and the City of Commerce. Two tracks will be for the BNSF trains and the other 2 will be for passenger trains. So in theory Virgin Trains USA might be allowed in the future rights to operate passenger trains on BNSF’s right of way. But not if Amtrak has any say in it.

Amtrak gets paid good money from the States like California which subsidize Amtrak to operate trains that travel 700 miles or less. Amtrak can’t lose any money running these trains since Amtrak bills the states to cover any loses Amtrak claim they have. We can likely bet that Amtrak won’t give Virgin Trains USA any operating rights to run Virgin Trains on their NEC if they can help it. Of course most of the available rights of way in this Country are still owned by the railroads. The Union Pacific will allow the Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) which is controlled by the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission to build a new track on the UP Mainline right of way for mostly passenger service between Stockton and Merced. The UP still owns the land, but will be paid by ACE to use that part of their right of way.

Much has been claimed about how private enterprise will fix all problems for rail passenger service. Virgin Trains USA expects to operate its trains at a profit. But carrying passengers was never where the money was made in rail service. In the case of the original Brightline service in Florida, it is owned and  was built by a property management company which also owned a railroad in Florida. Improved transportation increases the value of commercial property. Virgin owns many companies, like resort hotels. Much of the planning for Virgin Trains USA is for it to connect to other businesses owned by Virgin and feed business to them. In Florida Brightline was built to attract more tenants at the Brightline Stations and to other buildings near stations also owned by the parent company of Brightline. This is common in many places in the world. Carrying passengers has never been a big money maker for the railroads. But using rail passenger service to develop land has always been a major reason to expand rail passenger service,

Brightline /Virgin Trains USA won’t single handedly take over all the intercity rail passenger service in the United States. So far its a service for the high end market, which bypasses many communities. If we looks at the California State supported rail services operated by Amtrak, they serve a much broader market than Virgin Trains USA plans to do. The biggest issue for expanding service for Virgin Trains USA will be access to trackage rights. As long as there is single track in San Clemente and Del Mar, there will be constraints on the number of trains that can run between Los Angeles and San Diego. I doubt that Virgin would want to spend a billion dollars a piece to build tunnels at San Clemente and Del Mar to run trains between Los Angeles and San Diego.

For many regional services such as the Pacific Surfliners, San Joaquin and Capitol Corridor in California, much money can be saved by the States distancing themselves from Amtrak. California and other States are already doing this by buying their own equipment instead of leasing it at a higher cost from Amtrak. Each of these 3 services are managed by local Joint Powers Authorities which also cooperate with each other. These JPA’s also do much of the marketing and planning for their services. Time will tell, but the day may come when operation of these California Trains could be put out to bid to private operators instead of Amtrak. This is already done to operate many of the commuter rail services in this country. These private rail passenger operating companies have lower operating costs than Amtrak and can operate trains for less than Amtrak because in large part they don’t have the massive overhead costs that Amtrak has.