How Gaps in our Ground Transportation (i.e., Rail) Require A Comprehensive Template
for States to Expand Frequency or Start New Routes for Regional Rail Corridors
Rail Provocateur (M.E. Singer)
Upon my return from California on 3 October, I journeyed the next day up to Evanston, IL where the Northwestern University Transportation Center and “Sandhouse Gang” were hosting a well published academic expert on ground transportation issues, Joseph P. Schwieterman, Ph.D, of De Paul University and Director, Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development. Although publishing primarily on bus issues, his topic was most timely for our concerns at RailPAC: “GROUND TRANSPORTATION GAPS: The Most Heavily Traveled Intercity Routes in the US without Rail or Express Coach Service.” Although I intend to elaborate before Thanksgiving on this presentation and corresponding publishing, Schwieterman concisely pointed out my takeaway that reinforces why the three rail JPAs of California continue to progress by expanding their inter-regional reach, connectivity, and frequencies.
However, it also brought home a perfect segue that identifies why the non-NEC states beyond California, Oregon, Washington, and North Carolina are so paralyzed in their approach to developing regional rail corridors and/or to expand frequencies. Despite perhaps having an office tucked away in a corner for rail affairs, most state DOTs are still dominated by highway experienced staff who persist in espousing the solution to everything is pouring more concrete. Given that fact, and the need to prevent a reiteration of the calamitous one-two punch of failing to convert Amtrak’s “Hoosier State” regional corridor to a private operator, initially by INDOT withdrawing its award to the winner of the RFP; than the contractual issues emanating from the briefly operated alternative private operator, I have reached the conclusion that an unbiased, central repository must be created providing the requisite templates for those states bereft of passenger rail, or minimally served by Amtrak’s skeletal approach West of the Hudson. If this information has not been concisely pulled together by the FRA or U.S. DOT, perhaps their is an opportunity for RailPAC to step-up into the vacuum to broaden and hone its geographic image, if not also to gain financially. Although RPA finally stepped-up to belatedly substantiate what had already been published by RailPAC regarding the absurd cost accounting of Amtrak, it is doubtful RPA sees their role as beyond cheerleading state efforts by getting into the weeds.
What I envision to create this footprint to facilitate state efforts (and secure for RailPAC as the “go to” for the media) includes a template, possibly in conjunction with Amtrak and/or a Class 1 to keep their numbers honest (and keep both of their thumbs off of the butcher’s scale). Such a template would offer how to:
Identify and evaluate optimal routes and schedules, either to expand current operations, or, start-up new service. This would be salient information for state DOTs and political proponents how to assess optimal schedules with minimal padding; stops en route and appropriate dwell time; equipment; and on-board services.
Importantly, to level the playing field by identifying the closely estimating the proposed cost per mile to re-build rail infrastructure to accommodate passenger service, either on its own dedicated mainline track, sharing with freight, or, a blend of both dedicated and sharing infrastructure. As for Amtrak, the emphasis should be on either invoking the interpretation of PRIIA, or, securing a congressional interpretation that allows for the private operation of passenger rail dispatched by Class 1s. This will require identifying where and how to acquire current equipment acceptable to the state and Class 1 involved, and possibly Amtrak; a determination whether to piggyback on Amtrak’s insurance, track access charges, use of depots/yards owned by Amtrak. Also important would be an assessment of current and potential claims of private operators to have the appropriate credentials, including: track record, experience, financial heft for start-up, working capital, and insurance costs, working relationship with Class 1s and Amtrak. Their will be a need to analyze and identify potential union issues for on-board services and the food & beverage component, especially if current Amtrak corridors are fully assumed by the state. Important to note the vast opportunity for current and new state operations to enhance food & beverage services at a far lower product and labor cost than foisted by Amtrak’s approach to cafe cars.
Although their are other areas to include in this proposed template, which I would appreciate hearing from others on, what struck me for the need to offer such a template is to not only avoid the all glossy and no substance approach of prior attempts to insert private operators, but also, my reaction to recent attempts by Minnesota and Pennsylvania to expand their rail corridors. Indeed, my assessment of Minnesota and Pennsylvania, as well as conclusion regarding Connecticut, are quite relevant for California, as it is obvious California’s DOT and the rail JPAs must have a meeting of the minds to establish a “Coast Daylight” between San Francisco-Los Angeles on a reverse schedule of current “Coast Starlight”; as well as options if the gas tax and HSR system are voted down or eliminated in the next governor’s administration.
Getting Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois together to simply create a “Baby Builder” to serve the desperate need to operate on a reverse schedule of the “Empire Builder” between Chicago-St. Paul epitomizes how Midwest states along such a popular corridor cannot get their act together; the costs just go up. As I elaborated in the Star-Tribune on 23 Sep (“Additional Twin Cities-Chicago Rail Service Viable, Study Finds”), “although this proposal has been studied to death over far too many years, it still evidences a lack of historical knowledge and respect for hos the Burlington Route operated superior asset utilization by turning its “Morning Twin Cities Zephyrs” at both Chicago and Minneapolis; using the same equipment to return to the other city as their “Afternoon Twin Cities Zephyrs.”
Given the cost of a diesel locomotive and passenger cars (3-4 coaches; 1 grill/lounge), it certainly makes sense to serve this market by running this proposed train opposite the “Empire Builder” on a schedule that allows for wyeing (turning) the consist at St. Paul. What is commonly now done with corridor trains is to supply a second diesel engine at the end of the consist to avoid the time and cost of wyeing. Of course, to be built into this model is to allocate for additional diesel power and passenger cars to allow for mechanical/service issues, as well as adjustments to meet seasonal traffic demands.
Therefore, this train (the “Baby Builder”) should leave Chicago at 0800 to arrive St. Paul at 1530; to depart St. Paul 1630 and arrive Chicago at 2400.In an historical context, do note that the Burlington, these trains operated for decades at 90 mph over jointed rail and many grade crossings, achieving Chicago or St. Paul in just 6 hours (including backing up into St. Paul’s stub-end depot.
Importantly, what certainly should be contemplated by the states involved is instead of paying exorbitant lease rates for equipment from Amtrak (already fully depreciated due to age), the states should consider securing their own equipment-buying new from foreign firms such as Siemens, Alstom, Bombardier, or Stadler with excellent factories in the US, offering a well trained American workforce, using American steel and U.S.-built components. Or, to look North to see what equipment might be purchased or leased from VIA Rail Canada.
This segues to the next equation–rather than just succumbing to Amtrak as the operator, look into a viable, experienced, private operator to negotiate directly with CP Rail and Chicago’s Metra for track access and dispatching. As Amtrak is currently pushing the envelope in favoring the Northeast Corridor over the National Network, it is inevitable that Amtrak’s monopoly stranglehold is to be eventually released by Congress. Until then, just price-out the cost for an Amtrak turnkey operation. As Amtrak does not even follow GAAP requirements, many corporate and Northeast Corridor expenses are dumped into the state-supported corridor cost allocation. As well, such state payments are then used to subsidize the Northeast Corridor.”
In the case of Pennsylvania, service across that Commonwealth has truly suffered from the days of the Pennsy operating such a volume of East-West streamliners and locals from NYC to Philly and across to Pittsburgh. As recently reported in the Pennsylvania media, once again their is renewed interest to increase the frequency of service from Pittsburgh. However, as I stated in the Altoona Mirror on 22 Sep (“PennDOT to Study Extended Services”), back in the mid-1980s, the Commonwealth actually had a Pennsylvania High Speed Rail Commission in Harrisburg, eagerly supported by the legislative representative from Altoona, Rick Geist (79th District), who was the first chairman of the Pennsylvania High-Speed Intercity Rail Passenger Commission. (Full Disclosure: I consulted with Mr. Geist and the Commission in 1985-86). I would suggest PennDOT start by interviewing Mr. Geist and reviewing the archives to prevent wasting time and funds on re-learning what has been learned already.
As a well published pundit on passenger rail affairs, I would also suggest for PennDOT to understand:
1) As the Alleghenies impede any fast running of passenger trains, the key will be to offer the convenience of frequently scheduled trains to ensure day-trippers are accommodated. Look to the success of California’s three regional rail JPAs to validate this point.
2) Although it would be logical to serve the entire route between Pittsburgh-Philadelphia, if the proposed service is intended to be within Pennsylvania (e.g., Pittsburgh-Altoona/Harrisburg) , look to North Carolina’s DOT for how they acquired their own equipment and locomotives to re-build, and now, continually expand, their “Piedmont Corridor” service. Perhaps PennDOT should also look to contract with Norfolk Southern for Train & Engine crews. Both concepts would save significant funds for the Commonwealth, instead of paying high cost to lease (despite being fully depreciated) equipment and power from Amtrak.
Although this could be an issue between Harrisburg-Philadelphia, given Amtrak’s ownership of that line; however, given the opening to private operators in the Passenger Rail Investment & Infrastructure Act of 2008, politico powers will need to ensure its enforcement.
For those local political powers to be who do not favor passenger rail, are they aware of how the exorbitant funds currently paid by states for non-Northeast Corridor services provided by Amtrak (e.g., Harrisburg-Pittsburgh) are based upon Amtrak’s highly questionable cost allocation model that is not even GAAP-compliant; that these funds are diverted to subsidize the Northeast Corridor “black hole” where Amtrak does not charge those states along the Corridor for their frequently scheduled train services?”
Given the example of Connecticut, their is indeed hope for such aggressively pro-passenger states as California, and others to follow. As I pointed out in Progressive Railroading’s article of 27 Sep (“Connecticut DOT Opens Second Track Along Hartford Line”), “the key takeaway point which has been overlooked, is how CTDOT successfully broke the grip of Amtrak’s monopoly on inter-regional intercity passenger service.
Importantly, what has been achieved:
1) Despite Amtrak owning the infrastructure as part of its NEC;
2) CTDOT to operate in competition to Amtrak’s scheduled trains on this route;
3) CTDOT rejecting Amtrak and relying upon a private operator.
Ideally, this CTDOT concept will serve as a successful Beta site to implement for other inter-regional passenger programs, whether currently operated by Amtrak, or, new route expansions. Certainly, by eliminating the high expense of leasing old Amtrak equipment and T&E labor costs, increasing frequencies can be accomplished. As we have learned, the convenience of frequently scheduled trains is even more relevant than speed.
As Amtrak’s business model is to turn its back on the National Network in favor of focusing on its own NEC, the CTDOT model presents a long awaited opportunity for current state-supported corridors to breakout of the Amtrak mold of one size fits all; and exacerbated by a 100% cost allocation methodology created by Amtrak that remains highly questionable, by throwing in everything but the kitchen sink, including unrelated corporate and NEC costs.
Cutting costs and increasing frequencies will be quite relevant for: Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Missouri, California, Oregon, and Washington; to encourage Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio. In reflection, it was critical for Chicago’s Metra to challenge Amtrak’s takeover of Chicago Union Station, in view of Amtrak’s assumed power that would have prevented private operators from using the depot for competitive or new inter-regional services.”
In essence, these illustrations identifying Amtrak’s “divide and conqueror” approach indicate a need to bring the disparate interests of states together; to share information and data; to work from an established template. As suggested earlier in this piece, perhaps their is a role for RailPAC, given the lackadaisical interest by the U.S. DOT and PR focus of RPA?