“WHY AMTRAK SUCKS!”

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Historical Overview Of How We Got Here: Identifying Trends-Errors, Mistakes, Bad Decisions, Inappropriate  Leadership
The Second Decade-1980s

By
Rail Provocateur (M.E. Singer)

As with the first part to this series pertaining to the 1970s, the intent here is not to be merely list items by chronological  dates, but rather, to identify and interpret by decade the issues and trends that would aggregate to explain why Amtrak is at the bumper post today.

Without question, Mr. W. Graham Claytor salvaged Amtrak, both politically and financially, in the 1980s, and into the early 1990s. Ironically, Claytor was appointed by President Reagan in 1982, despite that administration’s obsession with Amtrak’s costs and questionable utility. Claytor’s style insisted on running a finely-tuned business model, just as he had achieved previously at the Southern Railway. Claytor utilized well his prior political relationships built from the Southern and Navy Department to secure the requisite financing for Amtrak, achieving support for what would be the last new long distance service, the “Auto-Train”, in 1983. Smartly, he re-routed and re-named the Chicago-San Francisco train the “California Zephyr” when the DRG&W threw in the towel in 1983. Regrettably, with the arrival of the new Superliner diner equipment, expanded galley, and china, Claytor was forced by the powers of Washington to prevent the upgrading of meal services for several years.

Coming in at a most critical time, Claytor (and FRA John Riley) appreciated the economics of running more trains to increase revenues per train miles, enabling an increase in earnings from $428.7M in 1980 to well over $1B in 1989, (e.g., running “Desert Wind/Pioneer” with thru sleepers from Chicago on “CZ”; introduced the “Twilight Shoreliner”). Always seeking new revenue opportunities, Claytor had Amtrak expand into carrying the mail again, as well into commuter train services. Without question, Claytor’s term provided Amtrak its most profitable period, as illustrated when he came on board in 1982, Amtrak revenues covered only 53% of total operating costs; when Claytor retired in 1993, Amtrak revenues covered 79% of total operating costs. After Claytor departed, these favorable numbers quickly declined.

Intellectually, Claytor had a grasp on developing a consistent funding mechanism for Amtrak, through a 1¢ gasoline tax, referred to as the “Ampenny,”  which proved to be unsuccessful with Congress.

Claytor persistently pursued viable concepts for cutting expenses to reduce the subsidy, including a facedown with the various unions to change work rules by eliminating the prior traditional 1919-era T&E districts in exchange for a 40 hour workweek. To provide continuous supervision on the overnight long distance trains, the Train Chief concept was introduced. To encourage ticket sales by travel agents, Amtrak was the first on-airline to join the ARC (Airline Reporting Corporation).

However, as Amtrak fine tuned its politics, it concomitantly lost its perspective of marketing, as indicated:

1) Marketing Myopia I: Where was the strategic foresight that failed to retain the Budd 480 HEP equipment displaced by the Superliners? Such a potential equipment pool would have enabled additional frequencies, or, even additional sections over peak travel periods; expand into new markets to serve. Why was this business model so acceptable with VIA Rail Canada, but not with Amtrak?
2) Marketing Myopia II: Why did Amtrak keep the “Auto-Train” strictly as a Florida operation through the summer months, when demand was significantly lower, and travel even discounted? Instead of storing unused excess equipment in the Sanford, FL yard, why did Amtrak lack the strategic direction to identify and improve its asset utilization by establishing a Chicago-Denver summer seasonal service that would have served the gateway to the many popular western national parks; alleviating the tedious drive for many Midwesterners? How did Amtrak fail to absorb the lessons of history, given how The Pullman Company excelled in this concept and organized itself around such asset utilization as exemplified by running the same consist during the winter as the “Orange Blossom Special” between NYC-Miami; during the summer as the “Bar Harbor Express”between Washington-Bar Harbor.
3) Given the acute shortage of 10-6 sleepers, why was a departure past midnight between NYC-Washington (“The Executive”) equipped with this sleeper (apparently for the convenience of traveling Amtrak management); yet, no overnight service was initiated on the once popular (up through 1971) GTW/CN “International Limited” route between Chicago-Toronto? The same can be said for equipping the overnight Boston- Washington train with a slumbercoach, when the “Capitol Limited” and “City of New Orleans” still operated with low level equipment.
4) What did Marketing miss when analyzing the viability (short-term) of the “New England Metroliner” between Boston-NYC and the “San Diego Metroliner” (also short-term) between LA-San Diego? How did they not understand that the non-stop “Metroliner” market between Washington-NYC could not be successfully replicated in these other markets? Low traffic on these routes indicated express non-stop trains only  interfered with the potential en route markets between stops, as they were not as business-oriented as the NYC-Washington market.
5) Was their even a proforma supporting this venture, as how did marketing totally miss the actual bus-oriented, senior citizen market for the new Atlantic City? As a result, Amtrak wasted a $30M investment in a ⅓ stake of a $90M project re-building the line between Philadelphia-Atlantic City for its dedicated regional trains that were soon eliminated in favor of NJT commuter trains.  Also, the Atlantic City depot was far from the Boardwalk attractions.
6) Given Amtrak’s on-going issues with the Administration and its own operations, what prompted Amtrak to lay claim to all potential high-speed rail proposals evolving at that time on the basis of claiming exclusivity for operating on all freight lines? (It would be like a developer pointing to a phone directory and claiming an exclusive on everybody  listed).

Personal Reflections on the 1980s

I learned from a very vivid personal experience how Amtrak instituted the very concept of a monopolist not to be challenged:
1) I learned Amtrak adhered to the “Animal Farm” concept of how it treated Special Train operators. Although the Special Train tariff required a $500 non-refundable deposit for reviewing and approving each and every Special Train operation, Amtrak waived this requirement for the “Reno Fun Train,” relying upon only a rolling $500 deposit for the season.
2) Amtrak revoked the ARC when it felt threatened and tried to derail competition between Chicago-New Orleans for the 1986 Super Bowl; forcing me to come up with approximately $100,000 in cash to run a Special Train.
3) The illegal monopolist maneuvers by Amtrak also included the concept of “vertical tying,” whereby Amtrak would not dry lease a cafe or Superliner Sightseer Lounge, despite the operator evidencing public health certificates, liquor licenses for states to operate within, as well as “Dram Shop” insurance. Instead, if a Special Train operator desired a food/bar service car, Amtrak required only a wet lease requiring the operator to pay the higher costs for the LSA and Amtrak product, with Amtrak retaining the sales of those products.
4) Providing such monopolist actions to attorneys in Washington proved we had a case to pierce Amtrak’s monopoly. Unfortunately  when this local firm was sold to an international firm, we were required to drop our case and not proceed.

Consulting with the Pennsylvania High Speed Rail Association, I learned their was sufficient legal interpretation to prevent Amtrak from ever claiming first nation rights to prevent any HSR line, or, require payment to Amtrak.

Waiting in 1980 for the “Broadway” at North Philadelphia was like a scene from “Fort Apache,” despite the parade of Amtrak trains and ex-PRR signage from a very long ago past directing passengers to westbound trains to Pittsburgh, Chicago, and St. Louis. No lounge until Harrisburg when combined with “Capitol Limited;” so, a vendor operation set-up in coach selling drinks. 

With my work in Harrisburg, PA, I traveled frequently in a roomette or Slumbercoach double room on the “Broadway Limited” between 1984-1986. Also, between Chicago-Paoli, PA in 1987 (no diner in either direction, as post season and being shopped.)

Traveled in roomette on “Lake Shore Limited” Chicago-Boston; on same trip, “New England Metroliner” Boston-NYC; “Metroliner” NYC-Washington. Beautiful scenery through the Berkshires; could only lament over the missing and faster “New England States” from Chicago direct to Boston.

Several Deluxe Bedroom trips between Chicago-LA on “Desert Wind” and “Southwest Chief.” Frankly, the “Chief” had a rhythm to it that could not be repeated on the “Wind.” Found it very interesting how Amtrak did not understand that the primary attraction of serving Las Vegas was from Chicago; not LA.

During World’s Fair in New Orleans, traveled in double bedroom on “City of New Orleans” from Chicago, utilizing dome attached from KC at Carbondale.  Even then, schedule elongated from former IC days.

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Getting Fast Rail Passenger Service In California before High Speed Rail

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By Noel T. Braymer

I found several interesting points in the 2018 California High Speed Rail Business Plan which I’ve recently went through again. One point which I support was the report from the California High Speed Rail Peer Review Group. This is an independent body appointed by the Legislature to prevent waste on the California High Speed Rail Project. The report was written by the Chair of the Peer Review Group, Louis Thompson. He has a long history of overseeing major rail construction projects from jobs both at the Federal Railroad Administration and the World Bank. In the 2018 Business Plan Mr. Thompson disagrees with the contention of the HSR opponents that the State should shut down all current construction on it to cut the State’s “losses”. Mr. Thompson points out this would be in effect a total waste of taxpayers money. The State would get no utility for the money already spent building a new railroad and would likely be forced to repay the Federal Funding already spent in the San Joaquin Valley. The recommendation of the Peer Review Group was to continue construction of projects that are already funded. These include projects not only in the San Joaquin Valley. They would also include projects being shared  by Caltrain and HSR between Gilroy and San Francisco, Also in Los Angeles HSR will use the run through tracks at Union Station and electrified double tracks for passenger trains between Burbank and Anaheim shared with Amtrak and Metrolink.

What is being planned in the 2018 Business Plan is to finish the current 119 miles of construction near Shafter north of Bakersfield past Fresno to Madera by 2022. The plan includes construction of 119 miles of rail and electrification on this segment. This would allow passenger service to be used by the San Joaquin Trains on this segment of track. Also it could be used for testing high speed trains for future service in California. Along with that using available funding, improvements would be made for future High Speed Rail service between San Francisco and Gilroy as well as faster Caltrain service. What the Peer Review Group also recommended was extending High Speed Rail construction to downtown Bakersfield and west of Madera to Los Banos. This would leave a single long tunnel to be built connecting the San Joaquin Valley to Gilroy and San Francisco now planned to be finished by 2029. The tunnel project is the last to be built because it is the most complex and expensive project. Funding for it will come from the Cap and Trade program which won’t be available in the near future.

What interests me the most is what is being planned in the San Joaquin Valley for rail passenger service after 2022. There is some talk when the new Siemens rail passenger  cars are available around 2021 of using them only in the Capitol Corridor/San Joaquins equipment pool in Northern California. This will allow the current bi-level cars to be shipped south to be used by the Pacific Surfliner equipment pool. Having just one type of equipment at a maintenance base simplifies spare parts management and gives the mechanics more useful experience dealing with just one type of rail car. The reason for sending the bi-level cars south is overcrowding on the Surfliners and to expand service planned in the future. Already new Charger Locomotives are almost ready to go into service on the San Joaquins, Capitol Corridor and Pacific Surfliner trains. These new locomotives not only run much cleaner than current locomotives. But they are more powerful and use less fuel. They are capable of speeds up to 125 miles per hour.

There have been plans for years to increase the top speed of the San Joaquin trains from 79 miles an hour up to 90 miles per hour. With the implementation of Positive Train Control by both the BNSF and the UP on the San Joaquin route, signalling for these higher speeds shouldn’t be a major problem. The main issue would be the higher track maintenance costs to raise the tracks from class 4 for speed up to 80 miles per hour to class 5 for 90 miles per hour. The Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority has been paying the UP to maintain their tracks the Capitol Corridor trains use at class 5 for years. This even though the trains don’t go faster than 79 miles per hour. In the case of the San Joaquin trains faster speeds would reduce running times and improve the service’s productivity.

San Joaquin trains could be run on the on the High Speed Rail trackage in the San Joaquin Valley after 2022. This would require a connecting track near Shafter to the BNSF for trains to and from Bakersfield to get on and off the HSR tracks north of Bakersfield. The Siemens cars are single level much like what is proposed for future California high speed rail trains. The HSR stations will have high level platforms, which shouldn’t be a problem to use with the new single level Siemens cars. Madera will be at the end of the line of current high speed rail construction in 2022. It is right next to the BNSF tracks and a good place for a track connection between it and HSR. North of Madera the San Joaquin trains can continue to either Oakland or Sacramento on the current routes. For those San Joaquin trains using the HSR tracks which skip some of the stations in the San Joaquin Valley, connecting bus service at local stations could connect passengers to the nearest high speed rail station.

Combined with 119 miles of faster running in the San Joaquin Valley and increased speeds up to 90 miles per hour north of Madera would see a significant reduction in the running rimes of the San Joaquin trains. It will also increase ridership and revenues for the San Joaquins. This could be done after 2022 and in service long before 2029 which is the earliest we can expect high speed rail service between Bakersfield and San Francisco. It is certainly a much better use of taxpayers money than knocking down billions of dollars of new infrastructure in a region that has been under invested in for years and is in need of economic stimulus.

 

“WHY AMTRAK SUCKS!”

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Historical Overview Of How We Got Here: Identifying Trends-Errors, Mistakes, Bad Decisions, Inappropriate  Leadership
The First Decade-1970s

By
Rail Provocateur (M.E. Singer)

In this introduction to a multi-part series analyzing each decade in a vivid reflection of missed opportunities and questionable decisions. Those decisions made by many politically-appointed apparatchiks either not committed to Amtrak, or, attempting to fake it as best as they could, realizing they lacked the requisite experience to competently lead Amtrak. Upon reflection, Amtrak enjoyed only two periods of stabilization, initially between 1982-1993 under the professional railroad experience and political savvy of W. Graham Claytor. As well, under David L. Gunn between 2002-2005, who was forced out by Amtrak’s political Board; thus, creating the vacuum in leadership that continued to evolve up to the present time.

In essence, as we reflect back upon how the decision-process developed and its impact upon strategic opportunities; how those decisions stymied and prevented the acceptance and growth of Amtrak as our national passenger train carrier can be defined in summary as: “Amtrak was flying at night, in the rain and fog; on instruments; but the instruments were not turned on.” Reflecting upon Amtrak’s past, it was inevitable it would lead to today’s train wreck that it has become. To know what must be undertaken to fix Amtrak today, requires that we must delve into and learn from its past. Each decade highlights events that continued to aggregate as trends that impeded Amtrak.

1970s: “Setting the Table” for Failure; Penn Central Complex; Inferior Product Design

What “set the table” initially for Amtrak was how political decisions handicapped operations from the beginning, by inserting an impossible “for profit” status in its mission; political inhibitions towards any financial investment to properly re-build a dilapidated system and dismissal of any ability to eagerly identify and address needs of new markets. As well, political tributes were foisted upon Amtrak, including those of multiple, duplicitous services to West Virginia from Chicago and Washington, the inappropriate use of rare TurboTrain equipment over mountainous terrain in West Virginia, and a second Montana service.

It was also as if the emphasis was just on bailing out the already failed Penn Central, including:
1) Selection of Penn Central commissary and maintenance base in Chicago, when both the Burlington and Santa Fe offered far superior facilities.
2) Selection of Penn Central Beech Grove car shops outside of Indianapolis for maintenance and repair, when more modern operations were available in Chicago.
3) Designation of NYC-Philadelphia Penn Central route of hourly “Clocker” service as non-commuter; however, identifying the same distance and similar metro markets of Chicago – Milwaukee as a commuter route; thereby, stripping out service until Wisconsin and Illinois paid-up.

When designing Superliners, why was the standard Pullman berth, faithful over so many decades, eliminated? What was the design advantage of pushing two seats together and throwing over a thin army-type bedroll and paper-thin pillows; with the passenger’s head on the lower in a well and far below the window; or, the upper so tightly close to the ceiling with a plastic mattress? For what (practical) purpose did Amtrak’s product design discard the entire concept of comfort-and watching the world go by a night?

Why did Amtrak fail to patent the design of the F40PH diesel that replaced the SDP40F, which would have generated additional funds, given this model’s popularity with commuter lines and VIA Rail Canada?

Bold management initially recruited to Amtrak correctly envisioned the feasibility of marketing an operation in 1971 of run thru trains at Chicago between Milwaukee-St. Louis. Not just any train, this dual round trip consisted of dome parlor, diner/lounge, and dome coaches. The same non-political management created four car “Metroliners” to run on an easy to remember hourly schedule between Washington-NYC.

Just in time for the first oil embargo of 1973-1974, French Turbos were purchased for Midwest runs. Beyond the higher fuel cost that engulfed these trains, their fixed consist did not allow for adjustment in consist for traffic changes, or, ease of maintenance. Later, American-built Rohr Turbos for the Empire Corridor were abandoned by Amtrak, after NY state had spent approximately $8 Million to rehabilitate the sets.

Despite arrival of Budd-built Amfleet equipment in mid to late 1970s, decisions were quickly made to strip-out first class and food cars from the Midwest in favor of building-up the NEC service. Thus, the beginning of the overt favoritism of the NEC over other regions and their own corridor needs.

Early on, Amtrak’s one size fits all cookie cutter approach to the market greatly impacted any thought of a rebound in first class overnight travel. Despite the ability of the ACL/SCL to operate an opulent “Florida Special” for winter seasons between NYC-Miami, Amtrak could only attempt to operate such a train just for its first winter season, 1971-1972. Amtrak did attempt to accommodate the winter season traffic surge from 1972-1976 by operating “The Vacationer” between NYC-Miami.

Without doubt, the most irate reaction to Amtrak’s indifference to first class services was in 1973 by the CEO of the Santa Fe Railway, John Reed, who was opposed to Amtrak’s elimination of the first class diner and lounge on the “Super Chief” and the lower standards on the “Texas Chief.” Although the Penn Central did not seek to protect vintage names and trademarks, the Santa Fe certainly did, and moved to withdraw its permission for Amtrak to use any train nomenclature denoting “Chief” or Santa Fe. A bold move by a railroad that cared and took pride all the way up to Amtrak Day–1 May 1971.

Although Amtrak attempted to operate a 1972 summer seasonal “Chief” between Chicago-Los Angeles, it was deemed a failure. A post mortem analysis determined that a significant contributing factor was Amtrak’s lack of timely advertising and marketing for this second west coast schedule well in advance of starting the service.

Although both Southern and Rock Island threw in the towel in 1979, with Amtrak taking on the “Southern Crescent,” Midwest corridor opportunities suffered due to the extent of the Rock Island’s demise from the early 1960s extending throughout the 1970s to its end. Tasked with planning optimal routes for Amtrak, Jim McClellan was stymied from suggesting the Rock Island’s more populated and abundance of colleges located on the Rock’s route between Chicago-Omaha, as Amtrak lacked the funds to re-build any such route at the time. Even the C&NW’s route would have been preferable to the Burlington, as the former Overland Route served DeKalb, IL and Cedar Rapids, IA.

A bright star in this decade that has only further developed well beyond New York, Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, and Wisconsin, is how California quickly grasped the importance of investing in rail corridors.  Now providing a vast inter-regional corridor approach through three JPAs, this all started in 1976 by funding the expansion of the “San Diegan” scheduled frequency.

The oil embargoes of 1973-74 and 1979-80 were a gift towards extending Amtrak’s tenuous life, encouraging Congress to fund new motive power and motors; Amfleet order from Budd; Superliner order from Pullman. Despite inheriting a vast empire of deferred maintenance on equipment, depots, maintenance bases, and downgraded track quality with lower speeds on Class 1s, Amtrak endeavored to combine commissaries and maintenance bases; eliminate duplicate depots, and create a computer reservation system.

However, churning its senior management three times in this decade, lacking a close and credible position with Congress, void of any cohesive marketing program, and internally having no idea of the difference between cost and price, let alone how to build revenues, the Carter Administration successfully imposed a ”haircut” on Amtrak in 1979 by cutting six of its long distance trains: The Hilltopper, The Floridian, National Limited, Lone Star, The Champion, and North Coast Hiawatha. 

Sadly, this story would be played out several more times, as neither Amtrak nor the political forces in Congress understood that cutting these long distance trains did not really meaningfully cut costs, but rather, only further reduced revenues; thus, putting Amtrak on a perpetual cycle (remember“flying at night on instruments without the instruments on..”) of cutting long distance routes with the intent of cutting costs, but only exacerbating the carve-out of more sorely needed revenues.

Personal Reflections on the 1970s:

In 1971, I introduced myself to Steve Kabala, Amtrak’s Regional Director of Marketing-Midwest, who offered me a position under him in Chicago. Regrettably, I declined and took a position in hospital management.

Traveled Los Angeles-Chicago and back in 1972 on what would be the last full year of how the Santa Fe approved operation of the “Super Chief”-still great, freshly prepared meals; well made cocktails in Pleasure Dome; a waiter going through consist with dining car chimes announcing the various calls for that meal. Nothing better than a bedroom in the remodeled 11 DBR Indian series cars.

In 1974, journeyed on the “Coast Starlight” between LA-Oakland; very crowded train; insufficient lounge space; however, diner was always able to accommodate the crowd (so, what’s changed these days..?)

When attending a master’s program at Yale University, 1974-1975, I cut the excruciatingly boring Biostatistics classes and went down to the New Haven depot to photograph arrival/departure of trains from Washington, Boston, Springfield; changing power between motors and diesels, the busy engine house, as well as the heavy commuter traffic. (The reason I purchased my first real camera, a Canon F1bn 35mm).

One Fall afternoon, traveled to Boston to ride TurboTrain back; taking a one car “Pilgrim” from New Haven; rode in forward dome of TurboTrain back. Serious issue of thugs attacking train over almost every viaduct with rocks and stones; what a site to see engineers “ducking” concrete missiles aimed at them. A while later, a passenger was killed in the dome by a boulder thrown at the train. Interesting to see Cedar Hill and coaling tower still standing.

Also, traveled almost every weekend from New Haven-NYC, leaving Friday afternoons on the TurboTrain (seated in forward dome with terrific views traversing Hell Gate) and returning on Sundays, either in parlor of run thru “Metroliner” or parlor of “Merchants Limited” located behind GG1 to hear bellow of horn; still individual swivel seats.

Took opportunity to ride new French Turbo in summer, 1975 between Chicago-Springfield, IL. Unusually small dining/lounge section; very uncomfortable seating-all coach. (And CEO Anderson envisions this style for his DMUs to replace long distance trains..?)

Last trip on “Super Chief” in February, 1973, LA-Chicago. Already menu changes, inside of 10-6 sleeper looked like a brothel in purple and red. Made same day connections to “Broadway Limited” to Washington, with consist split ting in Harrisburg to Washington. Moved to an ex-SP 12 DBR as my 10-6 was bad ordered.Although first re-modeled consist with ex-B&O observation on Washington section, roadbed was absolutely worst ever between Indiana-Ohio-Pennsylvania. Arrival in Washington only 4 hours off timecard.
Same trip, traveled parlor on “Metroliner” to NYC, to make quick connection to “TurboTrain to New Haven.  Late “Metroliner” caused me to miss connection and wait for slower, all stop “Southern Crescent/Patriot” connection.

In 1975, traveled Chicago-Glacier Park, Montana in Slumbercoach on “Empire Builder” with consist still including Ranch Car, Full dome, diner, and NP dome lounge with filthy tables and dirty, lexan windows.  Food just ok; Slumbercoach berth not like a Pullman.

January, 1978 beckoned me aboard “Empire Builder” overnight to Minneapolis in Bedroom. bused out to yards as switches were frozen  ran hours late.  Returning that night, train due out about 11:30pm; did not arrive until 5:30 AM, due to frigid weather. Fires out in diner before Milwaukee (against rules) and only chickens said sandwiches offered.

Well planned trip in August, 1979 to ride last round trip of “Southern Crescent” between Washington-Atlanta in Master Room. Unfortunately, train-off delayed until February, 1979.  Still a first class train re food, bar, accommodations.

Will It Take A Catastrophe To Fix Our Transportation System?

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By Noel T. Braymer

“You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else”. Winston Churchill

Often it takes a disaster to get something done that should have been done years ago. After every earthquake in California the civil engineers learn more about improving the safety of buildings and roads. With this there are usually upgrades as well as reconstruction of earthquake damage to buildings and roads. We saw this after the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989 in the Bay Area. Several freeways including the Bay Bridge were badly damaged and traffic in the Bay Area even got worse. After this earthquake came a large jump in ridership on both Caltrain and BART as alternatives to the jammed and damaged highways. This growth in ridership continues on Caltrain and BART which now often operate with standing room only. Much the same thing happened in early 1994 with the Northridge Earthquake. Several freeway bridges collapsed from this earthquake which left traffic a mess in the Los Angeles Metro area. Hardest hit was the Antelope Valley with the failure of the almost new Highway 14 bridge just north of Sylmar which connected the 14 with the 5 freeway. This was at the location where in 1971 the then under construction Highway 14 bridge collapsed during the Sylmar Earthquake. In record time the less than 2 year old Metrolink rail commuter service rushed to extend service from Santa Clarita in the Antelope Valley all the way to Lancaster with 6 additional stations built in 6 weeks. Service was also extended on the Ventura County Line past Moorpark to Oxnard. In March the Orange County Line was opened. Much of this expanded service was made possible with equipment borrowed from Caltrain and Amtrak and paid for with Federal emergency funding.

Recently we’ve had other natural disasters in California shutting down transportation. Late last year we had major fires in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties after several years of drought. This shutdown both road and rail service for a while in this area. Then early this year California was hit with heavy rains and snowfall in the mountains which lifted the drought in California. For the Santa Barbara area the heavy rains brought massive mudslides at the areas which recently had suffered from wildfires. The result was the 101 freeway was shut down for almost 2 weeks in Santa Barbara County. But rail service was running before the freeway was reopened. The question is how soon will this happen again? We are now, worldwide in a new cycle of extreme changes in weather. We go from extended high temperatures and droughts to massive short rain storms and snowfalls. The arctic snow pack is melting and ocean levels are rising due to melted snow and warmer water temperatures. Yes water expands like anything else when heated. At the same time in recent winters we’ve seen the temperature at the North Pole higher than that at many major cities in the northern hemisphere which recorded record low temperatures. Due to the fire damage in Santa Barbara as well as the recent fires in Redding and Mendocino and near Yosemite in the Serra’s among others, California’s funding for fighting wildfires will go over budget for the 7th year in a row.

The other issue when it comes to transportation is how will people get around? In most of California’s metro areas traffic is almost always gridlocked. Building more roads is not a solution since this causes people to drive more which makes traffic congestion worse, not better. With the increased possibility of more disruption to transportation due to weather we need to look at changes to how we travel. One small but important step has been taken in San Diego County. As part of its program to improve its main transportation corridor along the coast it is rebuilding the almost 60 year old 5 freeway north of Del Mar to Oceanside and extending car pool lanes north of Del Mar as well. As part of this project the railroad between San Diego and Oceanside is also being mostly doubled tracked. As part of this the old single track Santa Fe wooden bridges in San Diego County are being replaced, one by one with new double tracked concrete bridges which need less maintenance than wooden bridges. They are also being built higher to survive higher levels of flooding which are expected in the future. As more double tracking comes into service there will be more frequent Coaster service between San Diego and Oceanside by 2021 as well as Surfliner service between San Diego and San Luis Obispo to relieve the heavy traffic on the 5 freeway.

But such improvements are also needed elsewhere. Any populated place which is near sea level will be subject to more flooding. This includes in particular along the coast in Orange, Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties and along the San Francisco Bay area when it comes to rail service. We will soon see major track improvements and additional double tracking northwest of Moorpark most of the way to San Luis Obispo. But much of the Coast Line is near the ocean and segments of the Coast Line on the UP lie on land less than 10 feet above sea level. Future storm surges could easily wash out track so close to the ocean. This doesn’t just apply to railroads, but also to roads along the coast such as California Coast Highway 1. If rising oceans don’t knock out rail and road service, landslides triggered by heavy rains will. The Coast Highway in the Big Sur area was buried in mud in May of 2017 and closed. It was July of this year before it was reopened $54 million dollars later.

California can upgrade rail passenger service, our road system, encourage alternative forms of travel, improve water management, reduce fire hazards and replant areas striped of vegetation due to drought and fire. But it will cost money. We have in California the beginnings of a State wide Rail Passenger network with feeder intercity bus service and connections to local transit. We still have a way to go to having rail passenger service that is faster than free flowing road travel and with service to more areas. What we see happening now and which will continue in the future is new development and housing built around many of the train stations in California. This not only improves the State’s economy, but reduces demand for travel on crowded roads and reduces the needs for people to drive for work, business or pleasure. This is because with more people in the future living near transportation centers they will have more alternatives to driving. What makes this important is the best way we can control traffic congestion and reduce air pollution is by reducing the amount driving people have to do.

This is seen in many major cities in the world outside of the United States. Many major cities in Europe after World War 2 had freeways built in their counties. But they limited the amount of freeways allowed built in their cities for use for local vehicle travel. The reality was major freeway construction would have torn up large amount of land in densely populated major cities with limited available land for more housing . What was done was to improve and expand existing bus and rail transit services as well as regional and intercity rail service. Not much is said about such service being profitable or not, in these cities. Intercity rail passenger service does operate profitably. But in most major cities outside the United States, money is saved by not subsidizing often unused parking which doesn’t generate much revenue.  As well there isn’t as much productivity lost from traffic accidents and congestion in other major overseas cities compared to here. So it seems to be a bargain for them by comparison from supporting good public transportation. And let’s not ignore the economic benefits for a region with a good, efficient transportation network.

As usual there will likely be opposition to anything that costs money. But the increasing reality is weather related damage and other natural disasters to our transportation systems and the rest of our infrastructure will only continue to get worse. The thinking should be more “a stitch in time saves nine” than “it costs too much”. We need more well thought out solutions and fewer bumper sticker slogans. Its not a question of if future weather related and other natural disasters may happen, but how soon and bad will they be?    

ANOTHER EXAMPLE WHY ‘BEST BUSINESS PRACTICES’ PERSISTENTLY FAIL AT AMTRAK

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Why Only Amtrak Knows How to Define a Distraction

By Rail Provocateur (M.E. Singer)

Image 8-4-18 at 8.10 PM

After the revelations this past week by the OIG denouncing the havoc of the over-budgeted, time delayed project management at Washington Union Station; the pathetic selectivity by Amtrak of what defines a distraction (“Toys for Tots”charter train), I am convinced that as Richard Anderson grew-up in the 1960s, his favorite TV show was the “Addams Family”–specifically the introduction when Gomez blew-up passenger trains on his model train layout.  As a segue, although the Senate evidenced an unusual robust reaction to Amtrak’s death wish regarding the “Southwest Chief,” will this be but a one time foray into the world of reality, or, is this just the beginning of Congress regaining control over its power to fund and direct the purpose of Amtrak as the recipient of such funds?

The OIG report produced in the media on 31 July tagging Amtrak for cost overruns and delays over its platform and other depot improvements at Washington Union Station should certainly not be a surprise, except perhaps for Amtrak’s Board, which has apparently not read the prior OIG reports indicating the problem of repetition compulsion just on this topic of project management. (Has anybody seen the new over-built, under-utilized Metropolitan Lounge at Chicago Union Station?)This OIG audit, Asset Management: Better Schedules, Cost Estimates, and Project Management Could Help Mitigate Risks to Washington Union Station Projects (07/24/18), specifically cited “weaknesses in their scheduling, cost estimating and project management practices.” So, given that extensive indictment, was anything done correctly..?

If Amtrak cannot even function as a basic transportation mode by faltering in food & beverage services; with no intent on projecting the presence of a brand or marketing west of the NEC; refusing to secure new Superliner equipment for long distance trains; maliciously misleading Congress and states on prior legal commitments to share infrastructure costs; why would anybody think Amtrak can evidence competence in project management? Remember Penn Station NYC–the needless delays due to Amtrak’s kowtowing to political interference and a lack of leadership to prioritize project management?

Apparently, in the Amtrak world, its skills are limited to manipulating accounting ledgers to pilfer funds from the National Network to re-direct to cover its growing “black hole” of the NEC. Let’s not forget how PRIIA funds from states outside the NEC are also used to shore-up the NEC. Indeed, how much of that recently announced $370 Million (26 July) for new maintenance equipment on the NEC was derived from PRIIA remittances?

The perfidious character of Amtrak is evidenced how it falsely claimed that private cars (PVs), charter and special trains were a distraction to its core business (whatever it believes that to be); yet, project management and construction are allegedly within its realm of talent. Apparently, that claim remains unbelievable to the OIG; unchallenged by Amtrak’s Board which has consistently failed in its stewardship to provide oversight to demand accountability and transparency. If we are denied those basic characteristics for the National Network, why should we think this Board would expect such basic management principles in its own backyard on the Potomac?

In an amazing sense of timeliness, Australia’s The Sydney Morning Herald published an article on 30 July, on “Why So Much Money Is Wasted On The Wrong Infrastructure.” Like music to our ears, “It nominates some respects in which governments’ decisions on infrastructure still leave “room for improvement” – to coin a bureaucratic euphemism. One is that there should be more transparency – that is, information about the stages of the decision process and the public release of analysis – in making decisions about projects. This includes reviews on the completion of projects, showing the lessons learnt and application to future investments. Taxpayers pay a high price for the political and public service predilection for never admitting anything they’ve done was less than perfect. Yet more “room for improvement” arises because “too often, we see projects being committed to before a business case has been prepared, a full set of options have been considered, and rigorous analysis of a potential project’s benefits and costs has been undertaken.”

This Australian perspective nicely sets-up the backstory to the primary point why Amtrak has not acknowledged the serious distraction that project management is from its core business line? Although recognizing trends even slower than Amtrak, we now find even academic medical centers and universities outsourcing their project management in order to focus on their patient care and education.  Rush University in Chicago recently announced its move to outsource project management, which will actually save it significant dollars–$40 Million. If only Amtrak enjoyed a knowledgeable Board that took its stewardship seriously, Amtrak could have prevented the costly problems of project management; resolved its volatile food/beverage services long ago by outsourcing to a proper management firm known for best practices. Although Amtrak outsourced its commissary operations, only Amtrak could lose money on such a deal, while still providing less than desirable product quality, inventory shortages, and improperly trained diner and lounge crews.

We continue to experience in 2018 how Amtrak’s management team speaks ever more clearly with its forked tongue, as we are to believe that project management is not a distraction; however, PVs, charter trains, and special trains are; therefore, they are not part of Amtrak’s core business mission. When this no longer a joke is when Amtrak quite willfully turned its back on the long running “Toys for Tots” Christmas delivery by the USMC, a problem compounded especially now that Toys R Us stores shutdown. The irredeemable callousness of Amtrak’s leadership is most personified by this gesture of indifference.

Failing to adhere to the basic tenets of best practices in project management, while throwing the Toys for Tots program under the train begs the question: when does Congress seriously dispute the value received from Amtrak’s excessive corporate overhead and lackadaisical Board oversight? When does Congress realize time is fleeting to create a new business model in the mode of how Railpax was envisioned to be? How much longer will Congress tolerate the current Amtrak organization to barrel down the track towards the derailer, when its arrogant insular culture has been proven yet again to be faltering and near total failure?

 

What Causes Transportation Projects To Go Over budget?

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By Noel T, Braymer

The short answer is politics. The fault doesn’t lie with the often blamed bureaucrats who are suppose to be hopelessly incompetent. It is usually the conflicting forces which is at the heart of politics of who gets public money and how it will be spent and have the power to make decisions. There are powerful private industries which spend lots of money lobbying elected officials for regulations which protect their interests or reduce their taxes at rates well before that of the average taxpayer. There are people in communities, often referred to as NIMBY’s who will oppose almost any change in their neighborhood. In some cases people will move into an area and complain about things they don’t like which were there years before these newcomers moved in. Construction is always filled with unknowns and surprises. Also no two construction contractors are equally honest or competent. Plus “successful” contractors are often very active in local politics and donate money to their “favorite” public officials. Cost overruns are often a source of additional income in the construction industry.

Many of these problems have confronted the California High Speed Rail Project. Much of the early planning between 1996 when the California High Speed Rail Authority (CAHSRA) was created until 2008 when the Prop 1A ballot measure passed underestimated the problems they ended up having. One example was the assumption that there would be few problems getting the cooperation of the Union Pacific to using their Right of Way for High Speed Rail passenger service. This even though shortly after the passage of Prop 1A Union Pacific made it clear that they did not want any additional passengers services on their property. Unable to use the UP right of way at the beginning, this forced the CAHSRA to turn to the BNSF and to condemn much more private property which was more expensive than they had planned. The expectation of the California High Speed Project was that a third of its funding would come from Federal sources. During the George W. Bush administration (2001-2009), the Federal Railroad Administration worked on plans to create several “High Speed Rail” corridors on mostly upgraded tracks on existing rights of ways between major cities in the Mid-West, California, Pacific Northwest and Florida. This project at this time had broad bi-partisan support. But shortly after the election of the Democratic candidate for president Barack Obama who expressed support for High Speed Rail, it quickly became a partisan issue opposed by many Republicans. By the 2010 elections the newly elected Republican Governors of Wisconsin and Florida made a big show of refusing already approved Federal Grants for High Speed Rail which had the support of many leading local Republicans in these States. This funding was transferred to California.

The most difficult part of a major transportation construction project usually is acquiring land from often unwilling property owners. This often ends up in long drawn out court battles with acquisitions by condemnation through eminent domain. This has been a major cause of the delays and increased future cost of the California High Speed Rail Project. The ironic thing is because of the delays in construction the High Speed Rail Authority is actually behind in spending the money that is already available to build High Speed Rail. What complicates budgeting for major projects including the California High Speed Rail project is predicting what inflation will be in the future. The current budget for the Phase 1 Anaheim to San Francisco leg of High Speed Rail is planned to open now by 2033 and cost $77.3 billion dollars. That price tag is based on an estimate of what inflation will be by 2033 with 2033 dollars. But the High Speed Rail Authority has admitted that the final price could range anywhere between 67 Billion to up to almost 100 billion dollars. The reason for this is not because they are idiots, but that no one can predict what inflation will be over the next 15 years.

This is true of many complicated projects which take a long time to build. Partisan attacks which are mostly intended to score political points don’t help. These are done to improve those politician’s chances of winning elections or raise campaign funding than to save the public money. In the case of the Republican Party, it makes the most noise about Federal deficits when there isn’t a Republican Administration in the White House. Yet since 1980 the largest increases in the Federal deficit have all come during Republican Administrations. Also during Republican Administrations since 1950 have occurred most of the economic recessions while most of the economic growth happens during Democratic Administrations. The Republican Party’s membership nation wide for at least the last 20 years has been shrinking and getting older. In California there are more voters that don’t belong to a political party than there are Republicans. Republicans may need to try more positives approaches to attract new members.

There is a great deal of politics when it comes to most public construction projects. Major contractors are often major political campaign contributors. The construction industry have both honest and competent as well as dishonest, incompetent contractors. Anyone who has ever hired contractors to do work on their house have likely dealt with both good and bad contractors. There is money to be made from changes to work orders which is a common reason cost estimates go up for public and private construction projects. Local politics is also a factor. The most expensive transportation construction costs in this country and most of the world is in the New York City Metro area. They also have the most workers on the job and the lowest worker productivity compared to construction projects in developed countries around the world. Not far behind New York is the San Francisco Bay Area. After earthquake damage to the Bay Bridge between San Francisco and Oakland in 1989, the plan was by 1996 to spend $1 billion dollars to replace the old bridge which might not survive a future earthquake. In 1997 the legislature approved $1.3 billion dollars for a new bridge. But there was local opposition to this new bridge because it wasn’t very fancy, a new iconic landmark bridge was demanded. By 1998 the current design for the new bridge was approved to be finished by 2004. By 2001 the cost estimate for the new bridge was now $2.6 billion dollars to be completed by 2007. The bridge finally opened in September of 2013 with a price tag of $6.5 billion dollars.

The lesson of the new Bay Bridge is building anything that is novel is likely to have problems which will delay the project and increase costs. On any construction project, the costs continue even when no work is being done. The consensus when it comes to construction cost overruns is the main cause for them are delays. The more complicated and “iconic” a project is, the steeper the learning curve and more unexpected problems arise. Ideally a slightly slower and less complicated High Speed Rail Project could have been built faster and cheaper in California. This could have happened if a right of way for it was secured before the start of construction. But this is not the way usually to get public support for a major project which is often more attracted to something fancy and shiny.

“A Blueprint For Building California’s High Speed Train”

By Noel T. Braymer

One of the favorite arguments of opponents of the California High Speed Rail Project is their claim that it won’t be able to run trains in under 2 hours and 40 minutes between Los Angeles and San Francisco. This also assumes that its trains won’t be able to run at 220 miles per hour. Of course such high speeds will only be run on long segments between station stops. What most of the opponents of the California High Speed Rail Project ignore is that the 2008 ballot measure doesn’t require all High Speed Trains that run between Los Angeles and San Francisco to do so in 2 hours and 40 minutes. Assembly Bill 3034 which was the basis of Prop 1A that voters approved in November 2008 said ” (a) Electric trains that are capable of sustained maximum revenue operating speeds of no less than 200 miles per hour. (b) Maximum nonstop service travel times for each corridor that shall not exceed the following:(1) San Francisco-Los Angeles Union Station: two hours, 40 minutes.” There are 10 High Speed Rail Stations planned between Los Angeles and San Francisco. If a High Speed Train stopped at each of these stations for 2 minutes, that alone would add at least 20 minutes to the schedule. That wouldn’t include time lost from stopping at the stations and time needed to accelerate back to speed due to stopping. But of course the authors of AB 3034 understood that.

Before Prop 1A was passed in November 2008, I picked a up a free booklet published by the California High Speed Rail Authority on what they were planning at the time. The title of this blog comes from the title of this booklet. The booklet assumed that construction between Los Angeles and San Francisco would take 10 years and be finished by 2020. That gives a rough idea when it was published. Some of the photo credits for the booklet were copyrighted on 2005 and the Chair of the California High Speed Rail Authority listed on the booklet was Joseph E. Petrillo who had that position between 2003 to 2006 roughly. This strongly suggests this booklet came out around 2005 or 6 give or take. Several of the assumptions in this booklet where not the same as those that ended up on Prop 1A which went to the voters in late 2008. 

While Prop 1A assumes speeds of at least 200 miles per hour for future California High Speed Trains, there are still plans for future service to run to up to 220 miles per hour. The plan is to test these trains to up to 250 miles per hour before they go into passenger service at speeds up to 220. The running times needed to meet Prop 1A’s requirements were planned for speeds under 220 miles per hour. It seems that in 2008 these changes were made to give an extra margin of error if they had problems meeting the running times as proposed before 2008. What the California High Speed Rail Authority was looking at before 2008 was running express trains between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2 hours and 35 minutes. This included a single mid route stop, which was not named but likely at Fresno. Burbank to San Jose was proposed for runs of 1 hour 59 minutes before 2008. But Prop 1A called for Los Angeles to San Jose in 2 hours and 10 minutes which is about 17 miles longer.

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Map of the planned California High Speed network including connections for service to Las Vegas.

What was in the pre-2008 planning called for at least 4 levels of service. This would add up to 86 trains a day run in both direction. That would mean roughly 4 trains an hour each in both directions if service ran from 5 AM until 1 AM the next day. This booklet doesn’t go into much detail of what was being planned. The levels of service being planned included 20 express trains daily with one stop between San Francisco and Los Angeles. 21 Semi-Express train service on the same route but with 3 intermediate stops. No names were given of what stations would get these stops. There were plans for 20 Suburban-Express trains with 8 station stops with none in the middle, but 5 at the northern end and 3 at the southern end. There would also be 21 local trains daily which would make stops at 15 stations which I assume would be between Anaheim and San Francisco. There were also plans for 4 Regional trains which would have 9 stations between Anaheim and the central San Joaquin Valley.

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This is a graphic scanned from the CAHSRA booklet reflecting  planning for HSR service before 2008.

What was in Prop 1A but not in the planning published before 2008 was that “e) Trains shall have the capability to transition intermediate stations, or to bypass those stations, at mainline operating speed. (f) For each corridor described in subdivision (b), passengers shall have the capability of traveling from any station on that corridor to any other station on that corridor without being required to change trains.” This assumes that there are 24 stations on the mainline between San Francisco and Anaheim as well with branches from Los Angeles to San Diego via the Inland Empire and a branch at Merced to Sacramento. What this means is a passenger in northern San Diego County at Escondido could catch a High Speed Train from there to Sacramento without changing trains. It will be some time before we see this. Service between Bakersfield and San Francisco now isn’t planned before 2029 and to Anaheim before 2033.

Many things have changed with the California High Speed Rail Project since 2008. Before 2012 the planning for High Speed Rail largely ignored connections to other rail services such as Metrolink, Pacific Surfliners, San Joaquins, ACE, Caltrain and Capitol Corridor trains. This has greatly changed with High Speed Rail sharing trackage in urban areas with Amtrak and Metrolink in Southern California and with Amtrak and Caltrain in the north. This saves a great deal of money compared to plans made before 2012 when construction costs were out of control. But it also opens many more travel markets to carry passengers both on High Speed Rail and improved existing services.

The reason for express connections between Los Angeles and San Francisco was to have an air competitive service for these markets on High Speed Rail.The problem with most express service is they are often not widely used. Any transportation service by nature is part of a larger system. When a person flies, first they have to get to the airport.Then when they get to the airport they are flying to, they still have to get to their final destination. At most airports, many people rent cars or hire shuttle vans to get to or from the airport.

Few airlines today fly non-stops flights. Even if a plane only flies between 2 airports, many of the passengers transfer to or from other flights at the 2 airports that the one plane flew to and from. For High Speed Rail to succeed, it needs to connect to as many travel markets as possible. Not only will California High Speed Rail allow fast service to several cities with air service. But it will also provide direct service to several airports in California. It will also need connecting services to many parts of California by bus, rail transit, regional rail services and conventional intercity rail service. Much of this is now planned for with the California High Speed Rail service. The point is  the California High Speed Rail service isn’t about just to rapidly get people between major cities in California. But also to connect to most of California and much of the rest of the world. This is a major difference of some of the original planning for California High Speed Rail service before 2012. High Speed Rail service can carry more people than conventional trains or automobiles per hour and with vastly fewer emissions than cars or diesel trains.

 

ATK, CEO, OTP, PTC, F&B, BLT, UP, etc. Challenges, challenges.

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Commentary by Russ Jackson

Here we are in August, 2018.  What a summer it has been on the nerves of rail advocates!  Just how different has it been from August in 2008, 1998, 1988 or 1978?  Not much.  Each of the symbols in the title of this article are just as important to the future of rail passenger transportation as in any decade.

ATK.  That’s Amtrak, and here we are in the 5th decade where Amtrak has had the monopoly on rail passenger service in this country.  There have been many positives over the years, but there have been many criticisms that recur year after year and never seem to be “solved,” all of which would have contributed to making Amtrak thrive and possibly prevented the dire straits Amtrak has found itself in. Some advocate organizations have whitewashed the shortcomings, preferring to tout the fact that we have a national system of trains for us to ride, and to be too critical risks losing what we have.  Well, here we are in 2018 and what is the foremost problem facing us?  Right, it’s the highest risk of losing the national system than at any time in Amtrak’s history.  This writer congratulates RailPAC’s Paul Dyson, RPA’s Peter LeCody, the U.S. Senators from Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico plus Illinois and California, and the local community leaders along the route of Amtrak’s endangered Southwest Chief for the leadership they have shown to preserve that train, as well as those individuals and organizations in other states who have stood up and joined the fight on other issues from coast to coast.

CEO.  That ‘s Chief Executive Officer.  What we have now at Amtrak is a CEO who has come to the railroad with no railroad experience and brought with him executives who have executive experience, but no cultural background in passenger rail.  They are number crunchers, and while that is not totally disqualifying it is not enough for them to be entering a whole new experience without knowing what they were getting into.  Now they are finding out what “rail advocacy” means.  There is a whole industry of folks with memories of what rail passenger service was and should be, and are not afraid to speak up in its behalf.  There isn’t a similar national constituency that speaks for any other transportation mode.  The actions of the current Amtrak CEO this year have taken a toll on riders, company employees and their unions, and communities across the country.  What we now see in August is the “stand up for the national system” crowd is having a positive effect.  Have you noticed that Amtrak’s CEO has been very quiet for the last few weeks?  It “isn’t over until it’s over,” as Yogi used to say.  We can only hope CEO Richard Anderson hasn’t hunkered down waiting for the storm to pass before acting again.  Meanwhile, let’s detail some of the same old problems and see if he has been totally quiet.

PTC.  That’s Positive Train Control, the federally mandated system designed to prevent accidents on the railroads.  PTC is supposed to be implemented on all railroad owners by the end of 2018, and some are farther along in compliance than others.  Amtrak’s CEO is declaring this end of the year date as a mandate on him to preserve Amtrak service on any segment that Amtrak uses, and has threatened loss of service to any that are not compliant.  That includes the historic “Santa Fe” line across western Kansas, southeastern Colorado, and northern New Mexico currently carrying the Southwest Chief and no freight trains south of LaJunta, CO.  Another smaller segment is the line between Dallas and Ft. Worth, Texas, that carries the Texas Eagle and the TRE commuter trains.  The TRE told NBC5 in Dallas in a long report that they are working on implementing PTC, but a “shortage of funds and required equipment” may cause them to not be ready until 2019.  What will Amtrak do in that case or the other similar short segments?  Is the Denver to Grand Junction CO California Zephyr line in similar jeopardy?  Is that the next national system train in jeopardy?

OTP.  That’s On Time Performance.  When in Amtrak’s history has that not been an issue?  Amtrak’s Anderson has said in effect that they are tired of pushing the freight railroads day after day about running the trains on time.  We are tired of it being an issue, but it is inevitable that as long as the passenger trains are running on the lines owned by the freight railroads that conflicts will occur.  The U.S. Senate has passed a measure “to analyze impact of Amtrak’s on-time performance.”  And it passed 99-0.  RailPAC’s Steve Roberts says, “OTP is a major driver of repeat ridership, hence ticket revenue and costs.  Improved OTP would improve a lot of metrics for rail service.  I think the lopsided vote is a testament to the heightened awareness as a result of the Southwest Chief situation.  Maybe there is method (planned or unplanned) behind the Amtrak madness.”  We await the results, but conflicts are bound to happen on any line at any time that are not preventable.

F&B.  That’s Food and Beverage.  One of the first challenges that Amtrak’s CEO thrust upon the riding public was removing the Pacific Parlour Cars from the Coast Starlight.  Rumors persist that Mr. Anderson discovered only one person in the car, who wondered why it was there, then he acted.  Maybe yes, maybe no, but the only “first class” service on the national system disappeared overnight.  Then he changed the meal service on two eastern national system trains, the Lake Shore and The Capitol, and substituted box meals while reducing “costs” by eliminating positions in the Dining cars on those trains.  The firestorm of protest is still being heard.  If we wanted box meals we can get them from Kentucky Chicken, we said,  Now one hot meal has returned as an option, but it still comes in a box.  Look on www.AmtrakFoodFacts.com,  click on a train and see what is offered.  Thankfully that regretable option has not spread to other national system trains.  Yet.  OH, WAIT A MINUTE.  As this is being written we are hearing that the same process is going to be instituted in the Texas Eagle Diner-Lounges in September!  OH OH.

BLT.  That, of course, is a bacon-lettuce-tomato sandwhich, and this writer has called for the inclusion of such a self-descriptive item on Amtrak’s menus (with other similar highly recognized items) because it is so simple, inexpensive, and any rider can recognize it and want to go to the Dining car to buy it.  What we will look at next on this topic is some of the language that “fancies up” some Amtrak menu choices.  When you see “orzo, prosciutto, sopperssta, cannellini, arcadian, julienne, balsamic, quinoa, edamame” on the menu do you understand what is offered?  Many folks do not, and when they are told that it could also be called a high quality ham and cheese sandwich, well, then they understand.  Why do menu writers think they have to be so fancy?  Or, when they write that there is an “antipasto plate” and it contains “prosciutto, sopressata and smoked turkey, smoked Gruyere and aged Asiago cheese, artichoke hearts, stuffed olives, cornichons, grape tomatoes, cillengini and crisp Italkan bread sticks served with Colavita limonlio, cannellini bean salad and salted cheese cake” the only thing I hear is “cheese cake.”  Yum.  Oh, there is no longer any ice cream on menus.  And, where is the “mac and cheese” choice for everyone?

UP.  Yes, the Union Pacific Railroad.  While the UP is only one of the freight railroads that Amtrak must deal with day by day, month by month, and year by year, the UP is one that can quickly accommodate GROWTH (this writer’s favorite epithet aimed at Amtrak and its non-growth policies), such as a daily Sunset Limited.  The UP’s CEO recently appeared at the National Press Club in Washington DC, and while he is a very articulate spokesperson for the industry and most of the hour interview pertained to PTC and other railroad issues, in the last five minutes questioners brought up Amtrak.  He explained that he intends to accommodate Amtrak trains on the system as long as he has to, BUT, he is not going to be receptive to any new trains.  We have seen that attitude from his predecessors and expect nothing less in the future, requiring a huge amount of effort on the part of Amtrak’s administration and the Congress.   Are they up to it?  Do they want to be?   The are more so now.  Let’s GROW!

Solutions to these challenges are required to make Amtrak a truly national system of high quality train experiences that will entice more riders, bring badly needed new equipment on line nationally, and through realistic marketing will make it possible for this writer and future generations of rail advocates to be proud to support what it can become.  Don’t laugh, that is a must-see outcome of this summer’s debacle too.  As Andrew Selden wrote in Railway Age recently, “A small part of the issue is that Amtrak’s senior managers foolishly misapprehend the character of its customers on long-distance trains as consisting of “discretionary,” “leisure” or “experiential” travelers. These customers, according to Amtrak’s strategy, seemingly also are “dispensable.” That view would be a rude surprise to management at Carnival (or a dozen other cruise ship operators), scores of tourist railroads (like the Durango & Silverton), or any of a dozen airlines that are growing as fast as they can finance new aircraft. All of these carriers are adding amenities, not subtracting them. They staff their stations, feed their customers, build their fleets, and haul away the money they make. But not Amtrak”.  Readers, you must keep on top of the story this summer, and most of you have.  Onward to GROWTH! 

 

“THE ENEMY OF MY ENEMY IS MY FRIEND”

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Can Advocacy Befriend the Class 1s to Save the National Network?By Rail Provocateur (M.E. Singer)

“Recrudescence” is defined as the revival of behavior that had been previously stabilized or settled. As we realize by now, serious advocacy has failed by following a futile doctrine of a collaborative approach with Amtrak. We have witnessed how Amtrak has played a “shell game” with members of Congress and the RPA, withholding complete facts, or, simply reneging on agreements upon closure of such meetings. What advocates and politicos failed to understand was Amtrak’s sclerotic declaration of antagonism and hostility to the long distance trains that define the National Network. Have our options been played out to allay Amtrak’s decision made in solitude favoring the NEC, despite being in defiance of its mission, and at the expense of a national system?

Why has Congress failed to hold Amtrak’s “feet to the fire” over a test of wills with the “Southwest Chief” serving as the domino theory of setting up the other long distance routes to fall after the “Chief” is dismembered? Why has Congress not coalesced to immediately introduce requisite legislation to bring Amtrak in line with its mission as mandated by Congress, such as:

1) Withhold all funding for the Gateway Project connecting New Jersey and New York, as the senators from those states must be required to line-up in support of the National Network of long distance trains.

2) Cease funding the Northeast Corridor to ensure the senators from those 11 states also throw their active support towards the long distance trains.

3) Stop the subsidizing of the Northeast Corridor by the National Network of state-supported trains by requiring all such funds to be spent only in those states remitting payments per PRIIA.

4) Revise the FAST Act and all Amtrak-related legislation to define a long distance train service as a contiguous rail route between end points with no break or change in service. Also, any proposed modification in a long distance route must be reviewed and approved by Congress.

How quickly did Amtrak CEO Anderson walk away from his apparent throwaway keynote address to the Rail Nation Conference last November, when he clearly stated, “The real purpose of the national network is to connect small cities and inland cities to provide the most utility to the most Americans across the country,” Anderson said, addressing the National Association of Railroad Passengers conference at the Millennium Knickerbocker Hotel. “Only 6 percent of the long-distance customers travel from the beginning point to the end point along the route.”  (CHICAGO TRIBUNE 11/1/17).

At the time, nobody thought to question Anderson’s integrity and alleged commitment to the National Network. Although this declaration was but months before Anderson initiated the attack (already being finalized as his speech was prepared) on the long distance trains (e.g., discontinuance of Pacific Parlor, PV restrictions, severe limitation of Charter/Special Trains, de-staffing depots, diminished dining service,  cutting direct Chicago-New York service for NEC commuter-related repairs at Penn Station, and frontal assault against the “Chief”), we should have seized upon his declaration and pushed Anderson to elaborate upon this alleged commitment to the long distance trains by moving quickly on two issues to evidence such support:

1) Reinvigorating a proforma for Congress to allow for an Amtrak ticket tax dedicated to Amtrak’s long distance routes.
2) Learn from past rail history to initiate a seat reservation charge to derive as ancillary income, just as the airlines have accomplished.

What we should learn from this experience is to identify new opportunities to coalesce in support of the National Network. We cannot stand idly by to see how the Coalition for the Northeast Corridor continues to grab the headlines and drown out advocacy for long distance services by declaring, “Letting the corridor slip further into disrepair could upend the American economy, threaten jobs across the region and undermine President Trump’s pro-growth agenda.” (USA Today 2/12/18)

Instead, just this past week, three such news items appeared that could be tied together and wisely interpreted as giving us the ability to fight Amtrak on its own level–and turf. We should seize this once in a lifetime opportunity that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” by embracing the position of the Class 1s, including inadequate  compensation for today’s market value of time sensitive track access and dispatching, imposition of infrastructure costs not required for freight service, etc.

The federal appeals court ruled against the AAR in favor of the FRA/Amtrak to establish their own on-time performance metrics.  

Until the Supreme Court inevitably kills the appeals court decision in favor of the AAR, (i.e., could GM make such demands upon the interstate highway system?) perhaps the time is right to start fixing “everything?” As Amtrak persists in perpetuating its broken model that is only acceptable to those served along the NEC, Congress must be solicited by advocates to mandate a full blown independent audit to:

1) Identify and determine how the accounting principles of GAAP are defied by Amtrak’s inappropriate allocation of costs, revenues, and funding. Such an audit will evidence how Amtrak has violated these basic accounting principles by inordinately dumping Northeast Corridor infrastructure and corporate overhead costs on the National Network to make the Northeast Corridor to improve its numbers.

2) However, the independent audit will not stop at Amtrak’s own “shell game” of allocations. This audit should also identify how Amtrak pays the Class 1s, as it is time to rectify the assumptions and demands Amtrak has been allowed to parlay over the decades on these privately-owned firms. A competent independent audit should identify what costs are the Class 1s forced to swallow that are not appropriate; that bend the curve towards inappropriate confiscation of private property by Amtrak; or, simply beyond what would be normally expected for a lessor to pay to intensively use such private infrastructure? To what extent are the Class 1s not reimbursed to maintain their infrastructure for the sole benefit of passenger trains; how different is the payment structure for Amtrak than the commuter railroads?

As Amtrak has elected to selectively violate legal agreements with states over the sharing of infrastructure improvement costs; to overtly deceive Congress and the media over track segments that have waivers for PTC; to surreptitiously plan to decimate the National Network, than it must be held accountable for the imposition of inappropriate costs upon the Class 1s. At some point, we must demand–and achieve-full accountability, oversight, and transparency of Amtrak. Auditing both Amtrak and how it pays the Class 1s will provide the requisite sunlight so critically missing these days.

This past week was the announcement of a draft for a infrastructure plan by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Shuster.

Beyond the obvious need to think beyond a straight tax on fuel, and instead to have a formula for mileage and weight, what about getting innovative for those most capable of paying any infrastructure related tax; to alleviate the burden imposed upon the Class 1s?

Although the Class 1s are thoroughly taxed by every jurisdiction for their property and activities; as well as required to pay out of their Capex for the congressionally unfunded mandated PTC, what about the airlines? Although this may not be the first topic at the breakfast table between Shuster and his airline lobbyist gal, given how the airlines have benefited from the federally built and maintained airline traffic control system, why not tax airlines for their use by traffic volume of the air traffic control system?

Whatever happened to Congressman Fazio’s proposal to tax every transaction on Wall Street, which could be a dedicated fund for all modal infrastructure? Or, does that receive the same wink and backslap as the hedge funds and carried interest forward powers to be?

Just these two concepts would go a long way towards relieving the over-taxed Class 1s and funding infrastructure by those who have historically enjoyed a very long, free ride.

Amtrak to invest $370 Million to accelerate maintenance on the Northeast Corridor

Makes one wonder how much from PRIIA remittances by non-NEC states was surreptitiously directed to subsidize the NEC (given how Amtrak has miraculously cut its overall loses since collecting on PRIIA)?

Instead of going to the NEC, what if PRIIA funds were required by Congress to be spent only in those states making such payments?  Would that not expedite the sorely needed infrastructure improvements required for passenger to share freight right-of-way, including construction of separate mainline track dedicated for passenger? Instead of imposing upon an unwilling “partner,” (Class 1s) states in lieu of Amtrak would identify and prioritize rail projects important to their state–and region. This could only facilitate improved and extended inter-regional intercity services; consequently, certainly extend the economic benefit to the Class 1s.

Preventing the axe-wielding management from “The Shining”

As the real stakeholders of Amtrak, the American taxpayer must rely upon Congress to keep Amtrak within the “guardrails” and not forsake its overall mission. But how many more threats and disruption to the National Network will Congress accept before it calls in its marker and requires a different model to ensure appropriate oversight, accountability, and transparency for national passenger rail services?

To achieve our immediate goal to insulate the long distance trains from those whose only skill has been to manipulate and hide the facts, we need to respond now and work with and support the Class 1s economically and politically. If the Class 1s see the economic benefit to this strategy, it would be in their interest to join us in support of the long distance trains. (For those who point to the OTP issue, to what extent did Amtrak enhance this issue due to broken engines; delaying disembarking and boarding by opening only one set of doors at an en route depot?)

Their is the basis for funding the long distance routes and the inter-regional state-supported routes if we can clean-up Amtrak’s accounting ledgers and prevent the butcher (Amtrak) from putting both thumbs on the scale when weighing the price for the National Network.