By Noel T. Braymer
By Noel T. Braymer
Why is the Southwest Chief being targeted for not having PTC where there is light rail traffic?
It appears that current Amtrak President Richard Anderson says he wants to reduce Amtrak’s liability exposure, which is something all companies want to do so they don’t have to spend any more money than they have to that doesn’t make the company money. Amtrak has had a series of accidents, most of which were avoidable and often the result of management failing to enforce safety procedures. This was particularly true on the east coast with the derailment 3 years ago in Philadelphia where a signaling feature from the 1930’s was disabled on the track that train was on, but active on other tracks. This 1930’s signalling would have stopped the train which was going too fast for that curve had it been in service that night. Then there were deaths 2 years ago of Amtrak Right of Way employees in Pennsylvania when dispatchers failed to red block the section of track the men were working on after a change of shift for the dispatchers. The recent derailment of the Cascade Train in Washington State on its inaugural run on a new route was largely the result of the poor training given the train crews got who had never ridden on this new route in daylight. Instead they were in crowded cabs with other trainees at night, and never operated the train on this route during their training. So why is Anderson picking on the Southwest Chief?
The excuse Anderson is giving is that Amtrak won’t operate at least the Southwest Chief on track segments which don’t have Positive Train Control (PTC). There are several such segments in New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas. The results of this decision, should Amtrak go through with it will be a bus bridge between Albuquerque, New Mexico and Dodge City, Kansas. But the Southwest Chief isn’t the only Amtrak train which now run on track segments which won’t have PTC as of January 1, 2019, the deadline for railroads to have operating PTC. But only the Southwest Chief will see major reductions in service after January. This doesn’t make sense. The Federal Railroad Administration has the authority and is willing to offer waivers on the mandate to install PTC on track segments with light traffic where such an investment wouldn’t have a reasonable return on investment for safety. There are several other Amtrak trains which will be operating on lightly used tracks without PTC next year. Only the Southwest Chief is being disrupted.
What has made this decision worse is the way Richard Anderson reneged on an agreement that Amtrak had made to help upgrade the tracks for the Southwest Chief in New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas. Also part of the deal was expanded service to extend the Chief to Pueblo, Colorado as well as future rail connection to the Chief to Denver and other major cities in Colorado. Anderson’s actions also put in doubt plans to extend the Heartland Flyer between Fort Worth and Oklahoma City up to Newton, Kansas for connections to the Southwest Chief both east and west bound. Anderson basically is trying to throw away money that was already budgeted and approved. These improvements would result in increased ridership and revues for Amtrak. The track improvements alone would allow faster service by train, let alone being faster than by bus with better safety than traveling such long miles by bus.
When Anderson took full charge of Amtrak this year, he brought in many new people into Amtrak Management, while letting go many managers that had been at Amtrak for a long time. Many of the people he brought into Amtrak were from the airline industry like Mr. Anderson. Many of the people who were let go had lifetime careers in rail passenger service. This is not say that Amtrak didn’t have deadwood in their management ranks. But there were many who had useful knowledge about rail service which would have helped smooth the transition of the new management team.
The result of Richard Anderson’s abrupt behavior has been to alienate much of the rail passenger market in this Country. It has also alarmed many communities with limited public transportation options that looked forward to improvements in rail passenger service and the positive economic impacts made possible with better transportation. Another factor will be the revenue lost by several actions in downgrading Long Distance Rail Passenger service with no cost saving. Amtrak’s accounting is unique at best and highly dishonest at worse. The arbitrary way Amtrak assigns costs hides the major cost centers which are mostly in the Northeast while assigning them to the routes of the Long Distance Trains. What makes this even more ironic is the cost of operating Long Distance Amtrak Trains is very low. This is because by law the host railroads must offer Amtrak a discounted price to run on their tracks. The host railroads have long complained that they can’t make money with what they have to charge Amtrak to use their railroads. Railroads have no problem allowing commuter rail services on their tracks. But commuter agencies are willing to pay more to use host railroad tracks than Amtrak and to pay for capital improvements to avoid train congestion.
Amtrak’s Long Distance Trains are the most productive revenue producers for Amtrak. While there are Amtrak trains that operate at a profit on the NEC, most of the Northeast ridership is under 100 miles on average with low revenue. The income alone from the Northeast trains can’t cover the overhead costs of Amtrak’s owned trackage in the Northeast. By comparison the revenue from a deluxe Superliner bedroom between Los Angeles and Chicago is much greater than a ticket between New York and Philadelphia which is where the heaviest ridership is on Amtrak. At least until recently, sleeping car space was usually sold out most of the year on Amtrak.
Rail Provocateur (M.E. Singer)
In respect to the relevance of RPA’s release on 23 August of research data, and picked up by Trains on 24 August, identifying Amtrak’s very flawed Amtrak Performance Tracking (APT) economic model, my continuing saga revealing how “Amtrak Sucks” through the decades has been pulled to immediately respond to this exigency. For some of us, who felt like Churchill warning Parliament in the 1930s of the impending disaster with Germany, we have been identifying the improper, illegal accounting games played by Amtrak to the detriment of the national system, without significant response and support outside of RailPAC. Although RPA is obviously late in joining this battle, their valid research is appreciated. So now, how will DOT and Congress act upon what is so obvious a distortion to acceptable policy and accounting principles?
As Mark Twain so aptly summarized our dilemma regarding Amtrak, “Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on, or by imbeciles who really mean it.“Lacking appropriate oversight by Congress, the FRA, and the OIG, Amtrak has been free to deceive and manipulate the taxpayers over these decades, fulfilling what Charles Krauthammer stated how “nature abhors a vacuum.” Consequently, a culture of grifting has been baked into the corridors of power at Amtrak, run by apparatchiks loyal only to the beckoning of Amtrak’s very conflicted Board of Directors.
Given how Congress has the “power of the purse,” these issues created by Amtrak are not insoluble. Perhaps just as RPA tired of being manipulated by Amtrak’s Chair, CEO, and EVP to finally see the reality, Congress too will wake-up and realize it cannot continence being so overtly lied to by Amtrak. Just as Congress had the ability to create an unfunded mandate for PTC, it should demand everything be put on the table for explicit action, including revising how it got played by Amtrak when it agreed to separate the NEC from the National Network. A road map for Congress to act upon includes:
1) Require an external audit to specifically delineate how Amtrak currently allocates all funding, revenues, and costs for the NEC, State-Supported Corridors, and Long Distance Routes. For example, how much of state revenues per PRIIA are re-directed into the subsidizing the NEC? How does this deplete state resources to invigorate their own inter-regional services by increasing frequencies or expanding into new routes? In reality, all states, including the NEC, should pay per PRIIA; those revenues should only be spent in those states.
2) With this data, mandate Amtrak to revamp its financial systems to precisely follow GAAP, omitting SWAG (“scientific wild-ass guess”)and other attempts to manipulate such data. This activity should be prepared by and closely monitored by an external accounting firm reporting directly to the FRA.
3) Eliminate Amtrak’s current Board of Directors who have persistently failed to provide an effective stewardship to ensure oversight and transparency in generating accurate data in an unbiased manner. The Board has tolerated breaches in collecting revenues until mandated by Congress (e.g., commuter lines utilizing the NEC); refused to revamp food/beverage services as required by Congress; dissipated potential revenues/income from PVs, charter and special trains; created an institutional focus on the NEC to the detriment of the National Network. Amtrak should be directly under the stewardship of the FRA.
4) Identify lost revenues by Amtrak’s refusal to submit to Congress a proforma to purchase additional Superliner equipment to enlarge consists during peak travel periods; increase frequencies, and expand routes.) Define all long distance routes as a contiguous rail route between specific end points; not subject to revision or substitution by bus between any points.
5) Define an acceptable level of on-board services (F&B) for long distance routes. Actually, for a start, food/beverage, first and business class, as well as marketing should be operationally outsourced. For now, let Amtrak simply operate its own rake of coaches, cafe, and baggage on a train that includes privately-operated sleepers, diner, and lounge cars.
6) Bring the Class 1s to the table to determine a fair and equitable payment program for the use of their private infrastructure to ensure OTP, lower costs, improve PR, and increase asset utilization. Investigate true P3 opportunities to enhance Class 1 infrastructure to accept more passenger frequencies or new routes, i.e., building an additional main dedicated for passenger. No more free-loading by Amtrak to interfere with freight operations, with the inevitable consequence of destroying schedule reliability. Frankly, I thought this was one area were the temporal presidency of Wick Moorman would have studiously focused to change the paradigm.
Certainly, we need at this time an unbiased external audit to determine how effectively Amtrak utilizes equipment on the NEC. Given the overly commuter-type service, as reported by Mr. Selden, primarily between Philadelphia-NYC and NYC-New Haven, and the laggard traffic numbers for thru and other route segments, would this commuter heavy segment of the NEC be better served by expanding the regional services of the commuter lines; re-allocating “NE Regional” equipment elsewhere to be better utilized? At a minimum, transfer the decrepit Horizon fleet to serve these commuter markets to facilitate the re-positioning of Amfleet.
Thanks to the overly excessive clout of the Northeast, this region has exclusively avoided the pain Amtrak has inflicted upon the nation, which explains why the excessive costs per PRIIA have stymied the natural growth of state-supported trains, while dismissing the opportunities afforded by the long distance trains. Frankly, given the pathetic state of Amtrak’s senior and executive management culture, as nurtured and encouraged by a contemptible Board, perhaps it is time to create a new business model altogether?
To eliminate the excessive management staffing at Amtrak HQ that fails to even appreciate customer experience and understand food&beverage services; replace the dead Amtrak business model by outsourcing to a competent, experienced management firm that gets the point–the more trains operated, the more revenues created over costs. Interestingly, this is the model Claytor/FRA Riley embraced during Claytor’s most successful term as Amtrak CEO.
As I am quite familiar with the waste in the Defense Department (remember the $600 hammer?) and how at least 20% of Medicare annual funding of more than $620 Billion goes toward fraud and abuse, frankly I think Amtrak’s financial antics make Defense and Health fraud look like amateurs. Why bother with Amtrak’s own OIG, or the other governmental auditing services, if their reports are ignored and such an overt corrupted culture cannot be rooted out?
What the sheer arrogance of the Northeastern political power base that manipulates Amtrak’s Board has no concept about is if the sun sets on the National Network, it will surely set on the ‘golden calf’ of the NEC, which is unsustainable in its current set-up that mirrors how the Penn Central, Enron et al played with numbers until the roof caved in. Without the National Network, the Gateway Project will not be the only problem for the NEC.
Compared to 1979 when we had 6 daily San Diegans, a daily San Joaquin, a daily Coast Starlight and San Francisco Zephyr: we’ve come a long way with expanded rail passenger service in California. We have now 12 Surfliner round trips between San Diego and Los Angeles and Metrolink service to most of the population of Southern California. There are now 7 daily round trips on the San Joaquins, 11 daily trains with the Capitol Corridor and ACE service with 4 round trips on Weekdays between San Jose and Stockton. ACE is planning to extend service between Stockton and Merced as well as service to Sacramento with the goal of 10 roundtrips most days. Even with this progress and more planned in the near future, there are still places that you literally can’t get there from where you are and when you want to go. But there are simple things that can be done that won’t cost much money to get around using more the growing California Rail network.
One example of this is travel between San Diego County and Sacramento. San Diego is only the second largest city in the State of California and the population of the County of San Diego is over 3 million. The county of San Diego has a population greater than that of 20 states in the US. Of the seven round trips on the San Joaquins only 2 now go to Sacramento. Only one of those trains has connecting bus service south of Bakersfield to San Diego. The other bus connecting at Bakersfield on the southbound train from Sacramento only goes as far as Santa Ana. There are also 5 round trip trains between Bakersfield and Oakland. Of these 5, they all have bus connections between Stockton and Sacramento. But only 4 have bus connections south of Santa Ana. That may not sound too bad. But a major problem traveling between Sacramento and San Diego is the time it takes to travel, compounded by the time lost needing to transfer twice in both directions by bus south of Bakersfield and north of Stockton.
In the past and today the solution to arriving and departing on long distance trips at decent times of the day is to take overnight trains. Even bus companies today have overnight service which allows reasonable arrivals and departures at end points while having a full load for most of the journey. It is most unlikely that the Union Pacific will allow any passenger trains on a regular basis to travel on their tracks south of Bakersfield. But extending more bus service south of Santa Ana is a start. This will become even more important when there are more frequent direct San Joaquin rail service to Sacramento which is planned in the near future. After 2022 there is the possibility of additional San Joaquin trains using the finished 119 miles of High Speed Track with speeds up to 125 miles per hour. With good bus connection to Southern California the time saving would mean a major jump in San Joaquin ridership.
One place that “you can’t get there from here” by train is between most of San Diego County and the Inland Empire. There are plenty of trains running to both places. But there is no direct service for passengers between San Diego and the Inland Empire. There is regular Metrolink service from Orange County to the Inland Empire during the work week. A few of these train start and end in Oceanside. Metrolink is also planning to expand service on all its lines in the next 10 years. This would mean regular service mostly more than once an hour on most of their routes. Because of track constraints in southern Orange County, it is unlikely that we will be able to run more trains just between San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino. But there will be plenty of opportunities for connections between Metrolink and the Pacific Surfliner trains for travel in San Diego County and the Inland Empire.
Currently the Sufliners get much of its ridership between Irvine and Los Angeles. Because of this Surfliner trains are often crowded north of Irvine up to Los Angeles. But that leaves space for passengers going to or from San Diego County as far as Irvine. Connections could be made with Surfliners to Metrolink’s Inland Empire trains at either Oceanside or Irvine. There are already plenty of trains during the work week to make transfers between Amtrak and Metrolink. There will be even more opportunities as more trains are run on both services. This will fill up seats that often are empty south of Irvine on the Surfliners. And this will carry more people on Metrolink north of Irvine. Today ticketing is comprised of bar codes. Buying tickets online with a cell phone or by machine with paper all have bar codes. The hardest part might be getting bar codes that can be read by both Amtrak and Metrolink. Amtrak would have the right to suspend transfers during heavy travel times like holidays and weekends.
There has been progress with rail connections to some airports. Metrolink now has two stations at Burbank Airport on separate rail lines sharing one of these stations with Amtrak. The Capitol Corridor trains have transit connections to the Oakland Airport at a joint BART/Amtrak station. There is limited connecting bus service for Metrolink to Orange County’s John Wayne Airport. At Los Angeles Union Station LAX Flyaway Buses are heavily used to get to and from LAX. San Mateo County offers transit service to SFO available for Caltrain passengers, while BART has some trains that stop at the airport’s International Terminal. In San Diego passengers can get to the airport by bus from the downtown train station. But by and large outside of Burbank Airport, SFO and Flyaway Bus service from LAUS to LAX, the options are limited for airport connections by rail.
In the case of San Diego for passengers coming from north of San Diego to the airport, the trains roll right next to the airport and bypasses it. Taking the bus from the downtown train station is at best indirect. One solution would to run airport bus service north of the airport a short distance away at the Old Town transit center which is a station for Amtrak, Coaster commuter rail service, San Diego Trolley Light Rail transit service and several local bus lines. Metrolink also has rail service which is near Ontario Airport, but no bus connections to it.
But the biggest untapped market south and east of Los Angeles is for better connections to LAX. Service on both the Metrolink Orange County and 91 Perris Valley Lines are both expected to increase frequencies in the near future. What is holding it up is the need to add more track capacity which is expected to be taken care of by 2028. The Metrolink Norwalk Station is due east of LAX. But there are no reliable bus connections from the Metrolink Norwalk station to the Green Line Norwalk station or to LAX or the South Bay and West Side of Los Angeles. With a LA Metro Rapid bus service connecting at Norwalk to the Orange County and 91 Perris Valley Metrolink Lines, there could be connections to the Green Line, Blue Line, Silver Line bus route on the Harbor Freeway, the Crenshaw/LAX rail line at the 96th St station to the future LAX People Mover, the Expo Line at Culver City and the future Purple Line Subway Station at Westwood. This will not only make it easier to get to LAX without needing to drive. But also to most of the 405 corridor in the South Bay and West Side of Los Angeles.
With the extension of Surfliner service to San Luis Obispo service complimented with additional connecting bus services to other Surfliner trains, a fairly decent service is available between San Luis Obispo and San Diego. San Luis Obispo is roughly half way between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Money has been secured to upgrade the tracks between Moorpark in Ventura County to San Luis Obispo. This will allow faster, more frequent and dependable service in the near future. Currently there are 12 round trips on the Surfliners between San Diego and Los Angeles as well as 5 round trips between Santa Barbara and San Diego and 2 round trips between San Diego and San Luis Obispo. With the completion of track work north of Moorpark, the plan is by next year to add a third round trip between San Diego and San Luis Obispo. This would also create a sixth San Diego-Santa Barbara round trip and 13 round trips between San Diego and Los Angeles.
To the north as part of the California High Speed Rail Project, current plans call for electrification and track upgrades of Caltrain for faster service between San Francisco and Gilroy. This will allow better service south of San Jose years before 2029 when there is enough funding to finish High Speed Rail service between Bakersfield and San Francisco. But this leaves quite a gap between San Luis Obispo and Gilroy. The city of Salinas is working towards getting a couple of Capitol Corridor trains extended to Salinas. What has long been proposed is a Coast Daylight Train which would be an all stops day train running ahead of the Coast Starlight between Los Angeles and San Francisco. With Caltrain electrification, a more likely route would be San Diego to San Jose which has good connections to many rail services in the Bay Area. But the biggest sticking point to a new Daylight is the Union Pacific. For their cooperation will likely require funding for long overdue track and signalling upgrades between San Luis Obispo and Salinas.
Historical Overview Of How We Got Here: Identifying Trends-Errors, Mistakes, Bad Decisions, Inappropriate Leadership
The Second Decade-1980s
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.
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.
Historical Overview Of How We Got Here: Identifying Trends-Errors, Mistakes, Bad Decisions, Inappropriate Leadership
The First Decade-1970s
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.
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?
Why Only Amtrak Knows How to Define a Distraction
By Rail Provocateur (M.E. Singer)
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?
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.