By M.E. Singer (Rail Provocateur)
I am intrigued how the media has neglected to factually point out the role of the non-residential players in this matter to explain how it needlessly got out of control.
Clearly, just as Amtrak has illegally exerted the extreme interpretation of its monopoly against commuter rail lines across the nation (e.g., VRE at Washington Union Station; SEPTA between Philadelphia-Trenton; METRA at Chicago Union Station, Amtrak took the untenable position of merely foisting two extensive sidings upon these tony suburbs. Although METRA was not a participant, towards the end of this debacle METRA took a position against the sidings. Apparently, both Wisconsin Department of Transportation and Amtrak assumed a few extra “Hiawathas” would not create a problem for Canadian Pacific. The surprise objection by this Class 1 freight railroad is because Amtrak did not do its homework-before declaring additional “Hiawathas,” which is what triggered the requirement for the extensive sidings. Although the Canadian Pacific has been highly rated by Amtrak for its cooperative attitude facilitating Amtrak operations between Chicago-Milwaukee-St. Paul, Amtrak failed to appreciate that the Canadian Pacific’s primary mission is to operate its freight services in a profitable, timely manner.
Interestingly, what has also been overlooked here is how much an improvement the “Hiawatha” service could become by eliminating the middle man, Amtrak. As the Chicago-Milwaukee corridor has evolved into a economic and heavily populated megalopolis, the increased demand for more frequent and faster passenger trains has not, and will not, be met by Amtrak, due to PRIIA creating the artificial constraints of equipment availability and financial/operating costs. In essence, Amtrak secured from Congress the Passenger Rail Investment & Infrastructure Act of 2008 which enabled Amtrak to charge state corridors an allocation of full costs as only determined by Amtrak (never validated by an external forensic audit). PRIIA allowed Amtrak to fill its coffers with these state funds utilized to subsidize Amtrak’s own deficit-ridden Northeast Corridor (“the Corridor”). Amtrak’s questionable accounting methodology defies GAAP (Generally Acceptable Accounting Principles) by shifting costs exclusive to the Corridor onto the back of non-Corridor state operations. Increased frequencies, a cause of concern here, are artificially impeded as Amtrak does not recognize the common business concept of incremental costs vs. treating each additional train as its own unique cost center. Regrettably, what state treasurers outside the Corridor do not realize is although PRIIA required Amtrak to charge each state for any regional service under 750 miles, Amtrak does not invoice the states along the Corridor for their twice per hour, bi-directional intercity trains between Boston-Washington (a mere 457 miles). Amtrak has applied the same regional favoritism towards commuter lines of the Northeast utilizing the Corridor.
As Amtrak’s uncontrolled costs only increase as a pass through to naive states, their is an option for Illinois/Wisconsin to embrace. Already this month, we have learned that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is contemplating assuming control over the Harrisburg-Pittsburgh line to lower its grotesque costs to Amtrak for but one, poorly timed train between Pittsburgh-Harrisburg-Philadelphia-NYC. The projected Western Pennsylvania assumption of Amtrak passenger services model could be viable for the “Hiawatha” route. Instead of forcing upon the states an antiquated monopolistic model of “take it or leave it,” business today, particularly in transportation, thrives only in competition that defines and negotiates costs and services. The “Hiawatha” route should be able to bid-out to vetted, experienced private operators beyond Amtrak for equipment, train & engine crews; even catering which Amtrak is incapable of providing in a cost conscious manner. To facilitate freight operations, an additional track could be constructed to serve those needs to allow for unimpeded additional passenger frequencies. Also, their is much to learn today from California’s own regional passenger rail programs who have worked with state, local government agencies, and cooperative Class 1 railroads to improve rail infrastructure, increase trackage to drop in additional frequencies and faster schedules.
The key here is to provide a service level and schedules to meet market demand, while controlling costs and ensuring that funding is used for the specific local service; not to be a piggybank for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (which requires approximately $52 Billion just for infrastructure repairs). Before Amtrak, the Chicago-Milwaukee corridor enjoyed frequently scheduled, fast passenger trains to serve the market operated by the Chicago & North Western and The Milwaukee Road lines. And up until 1963, this market was also served by the interurban, North Shore Line. The debacle over the sidings should be a wake-up call how Illinois/Wisconsin can resolve the overall cost and service issue by looking to California, and now, Pennsylvania. No more excuses for accepting high cost, marginal services.