Monthly Archives

July 2012

Editorials

Use Metrolink to get to the Airports

Opinion By Noel T. Braymer 

At the end of July LA Supervisor  Michael Antonovich as Chairman of LA Metro introduced a motion which passed unanimously calling for more rail and bus connections to the regional airports in the Los Angeles area. The following are some excepts from that motion.

Los Angeles County, home to 10.2 million people and adjacent to millions more, requires a regional airport system to provide effective air transportation options to support the region’s economy, mobility and quality of life.

Three airports-Bob Hope, Long Beach and Los Angeles International (LAX)-operate within the County, with a fourth-Ontario-just across the San Bernardino County border. A fifth airport-Palmdale-provides tremendous potential for future additional airport capacity to serve the region, especially with the development of the High Desert Corridor, upgraded Metrolink tracks from Los Angeles and future high speed rail links to Bakersfield and Victorville.

Of all these airports, the only one with a direct rail link is the Bob Hope Airport with an Amtrak/Metrolink station on its south side. For a region that would be the eighth largest state on its own,larger than Pennsylvania and just behind Ohio, this fact represents a failure of our regional transportation and government agencies to coordinate and prioritize the connection of our regional airport system to our regional rail transportation network… 

To be truly effective and multi-modal, our regional transportation system requires more projects that provide airport connectivity, such as the following:

• a Gold Line extension from Pasadena and an Orange Line extension from North Hollywood to Bob Hope Airport

• a new rail station at Ontario Airport that serves Metrolink and Amtrak

• the Gold Line Foothill Extension to Ontario Airport

• an expedited rail connector from the Crenshaw/Green Line to LAX

• an extension ofthe Green Line from its eastern terminus to the Norwalk Metrolink Station to connect Orange County to the airport via a Metrolink transfer

• Metrolink upgrades to decrease travel times from Los Angeles to Palmdale, with a rail connector from Palmdale Transportation Center to Palmdale Airport.

Currently there is  no funding for any of these possible projects. Extending the Orange Line Buses to connect Bob Hope Airport with the Red Line at North Hollywood and possibly the area around  the Warner, Disney and NBC Studios is a reasonable project that could be done a short period of time at fairly low cost. Ontario is a unique problem since it is connected with two separate railines both of which are owned by the UP. Amtrak has a stop in downtown Ontario on the old SP line from LA to Colton for the Tri-weekly Sunset. The old SP line goes right in front of the terminals of  Ontario Airport. Metrolink has a station at Ontario Airport but on the old UP line to Riverside which is behind the terminals and runways. Ideally a new Metrolink service could be created to connect Ontario Airport on the old SP Line to Colton out of LAUS. This would require additional track work and cooperation from the UP which is unlikely any time soon. Efforts to extend the Gold Line to Ontario Airport are ongoing. However there are problems with funding and because this would extend a Los Angeles County service to Ontario which is in San Bernardino County even though Ontario Airport is owned by LAX.

Nothing is easy about serving LAX by rail. Current plans are to extend the Green Line and build a new light rail Crenshaw Line to serve the LAX area. There is still no agreement on how passengers would get to the terminals. Most talked about is a People Mover to the terminals which would share a station at Aviation and Century Blvd with the extended Green and newly built Crenshaw Lines. Another proposal being looked at would extend the Green Line all the way into the terminals at LAX with the Crenshaw line passengers transferring to the Green Line to go to LAX. The Crenshaw Line which is expected to be running by 2018 is only 8.5 miles long and will meet the Expo Line at Crenshaw Blvd and travel down Crenshaw to Florence Ave where it will travel on the old Santa Fe Harbor Line which also runs along Aviation Blvd next to LAX and ends at Imperial Highway at the south end of LAX. For a passenger at Union Station this means in the future with the Regional Connector they will be able to catch the Expo Line at Union Station but transfer to the Crenshaw Line then to either the Green Line or People Mover to the terminals. LA Metro Planners think running Crenshaw Line trains on the Expo Line will create congestion on the Expo tracks. From LAUS passenger in the future could also catch the Blue Line and transfer to the Green Line at the Century Freeway. But only the current Flyaway Buses gives direct service from LAUS to the LAX terminals. The Green Line stops 2 miles short of the Metrolink Station at Norwalk. In the late 90’s the plan was to extend the Green Line to Metrolink with a subway. That project died due to lack of funding.

What would be a better, faster and cheaper alternative would be to run Metrolink from LAUS to LAX, Ontario, Long Beach, Palmdale as well as Bob Hope Airports. This can generally be done using existing rail rights of way although some of these lines may not be available for long. With track work and new connections Metrolink trains could run from LAUS to Aviation and Century on the old Santa Fe Harbor Line. For this to happen the Crenshaw Light Rail Line would have to be built so Metrolink could share the right of way but use separate tracks. The Green Line and the Harbor Line already share the same right of way south of LAX. The Harbor Line also runs along Slauson Ave which the local residents would likely want mitigation efforts to run more rail service on. Using the Harbor Line it would be possible to run run trains from Orange County directly to the LAX area bypassing LAUS. Doing this would be cheaper than 2 miles of subway in Norwalk and create direct connections on Metrolink to the Green and Crenshaw Lines near LAX. Serving Long Beach Airport is the old UP Harbor Line  which Metrolink  could use with a shuttle connections or track extension to serve the terminals. Metrolink would be able with improved track connections to run on the old UP Harbor Line from LAUS. The most difficult to achieve would be service by Metrolink to the Ontario Airport because of the difficulty of coming to an agreement with the UP. But by running Metrolink services from Orange County, the Inland Empire, the San Fernando Valley, the Santa Clarita Valley and High Desert with trains running through LAUS we could connect all these regions to LAX, Palmdale, Ontario, Long Beach and Bob Hope airports.

eNewsletter

eNewsletter for July 23, 2012

The money for construction of run-through tracks at LAUS is a BIG DEAL for RailPAC. It will cut at least 5 minutes out of the running time for trains coming and going from LAUS and greatly increase track capacity at the station which is now congested. Back in the late 1970’s there were plans to use Union Station as a massive parking lot and terminal for the Downtown People Mover which would have been an automated mostly elevated, grade-separated mini train running through downtown LA. The original plans would have made it impossible to extend the tracks over the freeway to build run-through tracks at LAUS. Heavy lobbying by what is now RailPAC lead by then President Byron Nordberg was able to reroute the People Mover so not to block future run-through tracks. The People Mover Project was finally killed by the Reagan Administration in April 1981.

July 23, 2012 Part 1   July 23, 2012 Part 2

The above copy of this enewletter is on a PDF file and you will not be able to click on to the links in blue. If you would like an emailed copy of this enewsletter or to subscribe to it email nbraymer@railpac.org

Rail Photos, Reports

Amtrak’s Southwest Chief: Anything new?

Report (with PHOTOS) and Comments by Russ Jackson

How is Train #3 doing into Los Angeles Union Station this summer? The short answer is, not bad, but with a few exceptions. On May 24, 2012, the Southwest Chief departed Chicago Union Station on time, with three non-regular consist cars on the end and Amtrak CEO, Joseph Boardman taking a long summer trip “getting out to ride the trains and visit with the (employees) who do all the things needed to serve our customers.” He rode several trains in that two-week period. How did Amtrak and the BNSF handle his Southwest Chief? It was 31 minutes late at Raton, NM, but by the time it arrived in Los Angeles it was 3 hours and 52 minutes late.

A late Southwest Chief arriving at Los Angeles Union Station. (file photo by Mike Palmer)

As for the rest of the Chiefs, as of July 2 they were running “on time” 76.1% of the time at end points for the fiscal year that started last October 1, a bit above the average for all the long-distance trains at 72.9%. Looking only at the arrival times in Los Angeles this summer, train #3, is scheduled for a padded arrival time of 8:15 at LAUS. Starting with July 10, the arrival times there through July 24 are: 7:25, 8:36, 3:47 pm (!), 8:53, 7:31, 8:13, 8:10, 8:11, 8:36, 8:41, 10:26, 8:28, 11:35, 8:20, and 8:05. Pretty consistent, but as we said, “with a few exceptions.” The one big exception in that list was the arrival on Thursday, July 12. That train departed Chicago on July 10 on time, but the recurring problem of engines dying enroute happened just past Garden City, KS, and the train limped across the rest of its route. Ordinarily it would have picked up an Amtrak “protect” locomotive at Albuquerque, but on this date it was not there. In addition, the Railrunner track work west of Lamy is causing 10 mph to 20 mph slow orders, so it was 2 hours 22 minutes late out of Albuquerque. The train advanced more slowly, losing more time until it was 4 hours 13 minutes late at Riverside. Then another crisis; there was a pedestrian fatality on the main BNSF line in Anaheim at Orangethorpe, causing the arrival time at Fullerton to be 8 hours and 19 minutes late. Take out the padding and it arrived at 3:47 pm in Los Angeles, 7 hours 32 minutes late. Other trains this summer have been slowed across the mid-west because of heat restrictions where the temperatures have been well above 90 degrees. No train wants to run through a “sun kink” at full speed, which is a sidewise outward movement of steel rails almost exclusively on continuous welded rail, not on jointed rail.

Lamy, NM, Amtrak station is also the destination for the Santa Fe Southern tourist train. (May, 2012, Russ Jackson photo)

Trip Report. Bill Page lives near Santa Fe, NM, and travels to Los Angeles on the Southwest Chief whenever possible. On June 13, 2012, he boarded train #3 at the Lamy Amtrak station, and e-mailed his friends that his train was “roughly four hours and 21 minutes late running behind a BNSF freight engine that is supposed to be changed out in Albuquerque. Beautiful country, good seat, pretty pre-monsoon sunset. Good ribs for dinner, nice wine.” What had happened was an Amtrak P-42 died outside Topeka, KS. In this case the BNSF had put one of their units on the train, but because it was geared for freight speed maximums Bill’s Southwest Chief ran later and later. His end-of-trip report says, “The saga of the little BNSF engine that could! After leaving Albuquerque those of us in coach who were following the details had to wait for the first big curve to notice that we were still led by the same freight engine. We lost time all night, but awoke to rumors we would get an Amtrak locomotive at Barstow. Didn’t happen. We arrived in Los Angeles at 2:34 pm, 6 hours 19 minutes late. But, o.k. I love train travel and I had an extra 22 minutes to make it to my granddaughter’s graduation ceremony. The Amtrak breakfast was wonderful and leisurely compared to the normal rush when the train is on time, and we had an ‘airline style’ package of emergency snaks for punch. Other passengers thought an (Army) MRE would have been better. The return trip back two days later was on time or ahead of schedule all the way.”

What about a possible reroute of the train to the southern “Transcon” line? Nothing definitive at this time, but they are “working on it.” At this point Amtrak and the BNSF have until 2015 before something must happen. That’s when the maintenance agreement between the two companies for the jointed rail section of the historic line across Raton Pass will expire. The BNSF says it will have to have $100 million up front to repair and restore the tracks to full passenger status, and $10 million annually for maintenance of the segment between Hutchison, KS, and Lamy, NM. Needless to say, Amtrak is not going to cough up that much for just two passenger trains a day (few freight trains run on any segment there currently, and none through Raton Pass). The BNSF is reported to be sending bills to Amtrak for the LaJunta to Lamy segment, but Amtrak is not paying. A speed reduction is now in effect, and Amtrak has lengthened the schedule through that area. Currently train #3 is still losing time even with the new schedule. Westbound trains that arrive close to on time in Newton, KS, are routinely arriving in Lamy anywhere from 24 to 93 minutes late. For many years the Southwest Chief has been a leader in long-distance on time performance, and RailPAC member Ralph James remembers his trips on it and seeing how it generated good local business as well as high passenger-mile travel.

Raton, New Mexico, Amtrak station after its remodeling. (file photo by Jim Clifton)

Support for retaining the Southwest Chief on its historic route has been growing. According to Bob Johnston writing in the August 2012 issue of Trains magazine, in fiscal year 2011 65,198 travelers either boarded or disembarked from the train at the stations affected by the possible reroute in western Kansas, southern Colorado, or northern New Mexico. Each station generates approximately a half million dollars in annual revenue for Amtrak, with Raton having the highest productivity because of the Boy Scouts summer camp near there. Garden City generates 3/4 of a million dollars alone. That city has led the charge to bring the states, cities, Amtrak, and the BNSF together. On April 10 a meeting was held there and a “coalition” has been formed. RailPAC and the other rail passenger associations along the line have joined in support. Newton, Garden City, Dodge City, Lamar, LaJunta, Trinidad, and Raton have kicked in up to $20,000 each to work on the project. RailPAC NM member Jon Messier is working with the coalition to gather NM’s signature, and he is optimistic for a positive result, keeping the train on the current route where it is most productive. As for the BNSF restoring freight traffic up there, coal is the only commodity that would resurrect it, and with coal consumption on the decline reopening the mines along the route is unlikely. That state’s current Republican Governor, in the words of one resident, “won’t do anything for people north of Albuquerque, the state’s Democrat enclave,” and has her hands full with keeping the Railrunner trains alive and dealing with the BNSF over the Raton Pass ownership. As for the BNSF restoring freight traffic up there, coal is the only commodity that would resurrect it and with coal consumption on the decline reopening the mines along the route is not likely. RailPAC President, Paul Dyson said, “Someone needs to find oil or gas up around Trinidad or Raton to get some ton miles to pay the bills.” So, what happens in 2016? Will the train go via the “Transcon” line through Amarillo, abandoning those riders for cities that have not had passenger trains since 1971? That decision is probably not going to be made until 2015. Meanwhile, we follow the story and communicate with the decision-makers along the line, encouraging them to fight for it.

Elsewhere on the route of Trains 3 and 4, the remodeled 1907 Kingman, Arizona Amtrak unstaffed station is open with its 750 foot platform. A rental car firm has moved into the facility, for train riders who are heading for Las Vegas, NV. Almost 11,000 travelers used this station in 2011. It was featured as a “where is this” photo in the April, 2012 issue of Arizona Highways magazine. (June, 2012 photo by Richard Strandberg)

Editorials

What is a Boondoggle and is California High Speed Rail one?

Opinions and Facts from Noel T. Braymer

During the ongoing debate over High Speed Rail and improved rail passenger service in general such projects are generally dismissed as Boondoggles by its critics. The term Boondoggle implies something is wasteful, expensive and corrupt. The California High Speed Rail Project has gone through several evolutions and has been subject rightly to criticism. The current proposal is greatly improved over the original unrealistic proposal but will likely  see more changes for the better before it is finished. For now 12 Billion dollars is available;  2 billion from the 4.7 billion in new bond money matched with 4 billion dollars from other sources goes towards building long overdue projects that will be needed to feed or be shared with the future High Speed Rail service. The other 6 billion from Federal Funding and State Bonds will build 130 miles of new high speed tracks between Madera and Bakersfield. These new tracks will be used by San Joaquin Trains capable of 125 mile per hour by 2017 and used in the future by faster trains.

The current proposal calls for 432 miles of rail between Los Angeles to San Francisco to cost 68 billion Dollars in the next 10 years. That is a lot of money. How does it compare to current rail construction costs? The 15.2 mile Los Angeles County Expo Light Rail line when finished is budgeted at 2.43 billion dollars. This comes to around 160 million dollars a mile. The Los Angeles to San Francisco segment of High Speed Rail is budgeted at about 157 million dollars a mile. Both projects have high costs from construction in areas that require  tunnels and elevated structures. Los Angeles Country is currently working on other rail projects which are also largely funded locally with regional sales taxes approved by voters for transportation.

Let’s look at a popular “‘Boondoggle” the Central Artery/Tunnel Project (CA/T) or the Big Dig as it is usually known. This entailed many local highway projects in the city of Boston but the most expensive part was rerouting 3.5 miles of downtown freeway into a tunnel. The original budget for the project was 2.8 billion dollars as planned back in 1982 with the project’s expected finish by 1998. The project wasn’t finished until the very end of 2007 by which time the project’s cost had reached 14.6 billion dollars which was 8.08 billion in 1982 dollars. The Boston Globe has estimated that the final cost of this project will end up being 22 billion dollars after the cost on the interest is paid off for the loans in 2038.

There is criticism of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London which is now setting a new record as most expensive. The original budget for the London Games was 10.2 billion dollars in 2005 when London’s bid was accepted. At the time it was expected that much of the money would be raised from the private sector. Most of this private funding has failed to materialize particularly after 2008 and the economic slump. Recent estimates place the cost now at over 20.4 billion dollars. Some critics of the London Games claim that when all costs of the games are counted which are not included in the official budget then the final cost will be over 37.6 billion dollars. Hard to believe that in 1984 the Olympics in Los Angeles by using mostly existing sporting facilities was able to hold the Games for 1.5 billion dollars and turn in a profit of 225 million dollars.

The military has its fair share of critics. The most expensive weapon program right now is the F-35 fighter plane. Since the project’s start in 2001 the price tag has nearly doubled to almost 400 billion dollars for 2,443 planes. There has been criticism that many of the missions for the F-35 could be flown by new F-18’s at a third of the price per plane. The government has recently revised its estimate of the lifetime cost of this project which is spread over 50 years to 1.45 trillion dollars adjusted for future inflation. In 2003 after little debate but with broad bi-partisan support the United States invaded Iraq. At that time the assumption was that our forces would be greeted as liberators by the Iraqis and the total cost of the operation would run 50 to 60 billion dollars. The final direct cost of the war has reached 823 billion dollars. When accounting for all Iraq related expenses such as future care of disabled service personal, and the cost of paying the debt run up by the war among other costs the final bill is expected to surpass 3 trillion dollars.

Between 2007-08 the Housing Bubble popped around the world triggering a near economic shutdown. In 2008 alone the Federal Government pumped in at least 900 billion dollars related to the costs from the Housing Bubble. Half of this money went to supporting the mortgage providers Freddie MAC, Fannie Mae and the Federal Housing Administration. At the peak of the housing bubble in 2006 Americans had 13 trillion in private home equity. After the crash it dropped to 6.2 trillion in equity for a loss of 6.8 trillion dollars of equity for American home owners while at the same time their debts cost for home ownership went up.

The cause of much of our recent economic problems and world wide is not too much government debt. or personal debt but massive commercial debt for very risky financial transactions. Economic bubbles are created by speculators  using massive debt to inflate the selling price of something far beyond its true value. For example in the Republic of Ireland a county with the population about half of Los Angeles County’s the banks of Ireland before 2007 first borrowed and then lent twice as much money as the entire Gross National Product of Ireland. The result today is numerous empty office buildings, unfinished business parks and 20% of Irish housing empty due to lack of demand. The Irish Government had a balanced budget before 2007 yet now is staggering under the assumed debt of the banks the government wasn’t responsible for. A market bubble is usually an inside job were the people behind it sell out before the bubble pops and make a killing while the suckers lose. This is very profitable for some but it doesn’t create wealth like investments in new products or services: instead this transfers wealth.

Expensive public projects like High Speed Rail need to be carefully considered and costs kept under control. But despite hysteria that High Speed Rail will turn California into an economic basket case, this claim is nonsense. California is responsible for over 13% of US GNP which is around 2 trillion dollars a year out of a National GNP of over 14 trillion. Assuming roughly 70 billion dollars spent spread out over 10 years for High Speed Rail this is around 7 billions dollars a year in an annual economy now around 2 trillion or 2 thousand billion a year in California. That doesn’t include the value added from improved transportation or money saved in energy savings or improved productivity.

eNewsletter

eNewslettter for July 16, 2012

Options dwindling to stop California’s high-speed rail project Boston Herald – Jul 11, 2012 As California secures the riches needed to start building a high-speed rail line, some longtime bitter foes of the bullet train are beginning to back off — yet from the courtroom to the boardroom, other opponents are preparing for one last shot at … This is a very informative article showing that even the UP is looking to settle to with the CHSRA to sell land needed for the project. You won’t find this article on the San Jose Mercury News website even though its reporter wrote this story. NB

July 16, 2012 Part 1  July 16, 2012 Part 2

The above copy of this enewletter is on a PDF file and you will not be able to click on to the links in blue. If you would like an emailed copy of this enewsletter or to subscribe to it email nbraymer@railpac.org

Commentary

A New Model For American Passenger Rail

By: Dick Spotswood. Originally published in the Steel Wheels newsletter, May/June 2012.

THE DILEMMA:

In the past decade it has become obvious that Amtrak, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, regards its principal responsibility as making the Northeast Corridor America’s first true high-speed rail route.

That’s a worthy goal and no easy task. Running from Boston south through nine states and the District of Columbia, the Northeast Corridor is the central transportation axis for southern New England and the Middle Atlantic states.

The dilemma is that Amtrak’s mandate is not limited to the northeastern states. Amtrak’s official name is the NATIONAL Railroad Passenger Corporation. Some forget that the rail passenger corporation’s mandate has always been to provide a truly national rail system. Unfortunately, it’s a role that the current Amtrak board and its permanent staff gives mere lip service.

It is time for America to have two intercity rail passenger operators: The current Amtrak in the eight-state/District of Columbia Northeast Corridor and a brand-new passenger corporation providing a high level of services for the remaining forty-two states.

Amtrak’s current priority, whether it is staff time, innovation, planning or allocation of fiscal resources, is the right-of-way between Boston and Washington. The reality is that the Northeast Corridor is perceived by the corporation as the prime reason for its existence. The national system serves as little more than a useful political device when it comes time for the public passenger carrier to seek federal subsidies.

When times are tough, as they are now, those trains provides Amtrak’s current management was a convenient scape goat: blame deficits on long-distance trains. While based on erroneous data, it’s a task facilitated by Amtrak’s dysfunctional accounting system and a political agenda that places the Northeast Corridor as priority one.

Amtrak’s focus is on this 455-mile stretch of Middle Atlantic-Southern New England mainline trackage. That leaves than the remaining national system’s approximately twenty-one thousand route miles across the American west, Midwest and the South as an unwanted stepchild. Some of Amtrak’s limited focus is due to practical concerns; but a big part is an East Coast centric corporate cultural that overwhelms both staff and board. The final element is political

From an Amtrak management and board point of view, concentrating on the Northeast Corridor and especially their Acela high-speed train service provides a manageable project within the professional capabilities of their current staff. Acela has had its problems, not an wholly unexpected development given the pathetic lack of American-based high-speed rail expertise.

It’s even consistent with the plan proposed two years ago by House Transportation Committee chair John Mica (R-Florida) and Rail Subcommittee chair Bill Shuster, R-Pennsylvania, to privatize development and operation of the Northeast Corridor. Whether operated, as now, as a quasi-public agency or, as Mica and Shuster proposed as a private railroad, the Northeast Corridor has the volume of passenger traffic and the potential for increased freight services that should make it a viable stand-alone railroad under either scenario… if properly managed.

CULTURE:

The corporate cultural aspect of the dilemma is harder to quantify, but very real. The men and women who manage Amtrak are based in Washington, D.C. Most have spent the bulk of their professional lives in those very same Middle Atlantic States. When they, their friends and family think of rail, they naturally focus on what they personally are familiar with.

They ride Northeast Corridor trains with some frequency. When they look out the windows of their Washington Union Station-based national Amtrak headquarters, they see the Northeast Corridor fleet, along with excellent Maryland and Virginia commuter operations. The few long distance trains to Florida, the Midwest and the South appear as oddities with weak constituencies. They are easy to ignore and can even be entirely written off with little political or bureaucratic risk… so far.

It’s so easy for most of us residing in the bulk of the continental United States to forget but Northeasters suffer from a provincialism that regards much of America, even California, as a backwater. They vaguely understand that Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and for the well-traveled, perhaps Seattle or Denver, do exist. More often these far-off exotic locales are out-of-sight and out of mind. They consider us “the Coast” or “The West.” The later is defined anywhere west of Buffalo. We live in cities and town where Easterners go on vacation but certainly not where they perceive many Americans actually live.

The very notion that real live people live in small towns like Whitefish Montana, Ottumwa Iowa, Flagstaff Arizona, Meridian Mississippi or even Santa Barbara, are incomprehensible to the good folks of all socioeconomic classes who live and work in or between Washington, Manhattan or Boston.

As long as that East Coast culture represents the world view of Amtrak managers, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation or its privatized successor will be “national” in name only.

POLITICS:

The politics of all of this is understandable. In the eight Northeast Corridor states Amtrak and commuter rail is a big deal. Much of the Middle Atlantic States’ voting public utilizes these rail service and makes it known to their elected officials that they consider passenger rail a priority. Just like their constituents, their elected officials personally use the system and “get it.”

When he was a Delaware senator, “Amtrak Joe” Biden was famous as a regular rail commuter. Not to be forgotten is that his frequent seatmate was Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter, both of whom would regularly run into fellow Congressional rail commuters headed home after a hectic day at the Capital.

In itself that’s a terrific situation giving passenger rail in general and Amtrak in particular high visibility crucial at budget times. The lamentable but inevitable secondary result is that federal support for rail passenger service tends to be aimed only at those services that Eastern Congressmembers and their constituents personally experience. Ditto for the good folks at NARP.

Unfortunately, the unintended result is that the national long-distance system and those corridors outside of the Northeast are ignored or wrongly dismissed as underutilized anachronisms.

The negative effects of this Southern New England-Middle Atlantic orientation is visible on every Amtrak long distance train resulting in an inconsistent (at best) on-board passenger service.

Old equipment poorly maintained all staffed by a mixed bag of employees is the norm. While some Amtrak’s employees are highly dedicated and professional, too many others emulate the worst traits practiced by indifferent private passengers railroads or government bureaucrats s a scenario directly stemming from a management preoccupied with the Northeast Corridor.

To any impartial follower of the national rail passenger scene, it’s clear that unless a prompt order is made for new long-distance passengers cars, the national service will wither away within a decade or two. That’s how long the present roster of coaches, sleeping cars and diners have before being hauled off to the scrap heap. Given the huge lead time in ordering any new equipment, the current delay by Amtrak management to address this critical need is appalling.

Likewise, senior Amtrak managements doesn’t even possess the basic budgetary tools necessary to evaluate the costs and expenses of long distance services. Their current muddled accounting system provides none of the basic tools widely available to regional transit systems, not to mention airlines, to analyze and accurately inform management of the incremental costs of each of segment of their services.

Wildly inaccurate information is disseminated that too often appears to be grossly biased against any passenger services not based in the Northeast, and likewise biased in favor of Northeast Corridor trains. Recent efforts are at best efforts to keep supporters of a national system at peace, are too obviously designed “to keep the troops happy.”

As critic Andrew Selden has long pointed out, accounting gimmicks were designed to minimize the costs and maximize the revenue generated in the Northeast Corridor, preordaining that one will always be perceived as a “winner” and the other a fiscal “loser.”

“Lying with numbers” is an old trick in the transit business. It’s the use of seemingly unbiased figures to justify actions that coincide with the agenda preset by staff and well-positioned board members.

While the Northeast Corridor address a crucial if limited segment America’s mobility needs, current Amtrak management tends to ignore other corridors. The mere fact that it is “understood” at Amtrak headquarters that the Northeast Corridor’s infrastructure requirements and operations will be financed by the national system, while California, Illinois, North Carolina or the Pacific Northwest need to be “partnered” with local state funding sources, is a classic example of the Upper East Coast-bias inherent the current set up.

2009 began with much hope. The Obama-Biden Administration proclaimed itself the friend of passenger rail. While their intentions were good, they failed to add one single mile of additional passenger rail service or even so much as one additional non-corridor frequency. Amtrak’s management failed to use any available opportunities to expand its role or by purchasing badly passenger cars to replace the aging long-distance equipment.

The causes of this failure are multiple and bipartisan, but its undeniable that zero progress has been made. Given political realities, even less can be expected in the coming 2012-2016, whoever is president.

SOLUTION: TWO SEPARATE RAIL PASSENGER COMPANIES:

Just continuing the status quo is not only unfair to the other forty-two states, it puts untenable pressure on Amtrak’s current staff and board. It’s also a guarantee that American passenger rail will never be a competitive travel option as it is in so much of the economically advanced world. They are now being asked to serve two masters: the Northeast Corridor, and a national system of long-distance trains and “emerging” corridors. It’s too much to ask, and in the long run unsustainable.

It’s time to dissolve Amtrak. It’s very name “Amtrak” has developed in the public such a negative, bureaucratic connotation that it should become the latest “fallen flag.” Why else does Amtrak in the East focus on the weird word “Acela” to describe their premier service.

In its place, two alternative models are suggested.

One involves transforming the present National Railroad Passenger Corporation into a new, slimmed down entity. Either remaining in the public sector which much state involvement, or as a taxpayer assisted but private enterprise run corporation, this new NORTHEAST RAIL would be allocated the sole responsibility of perfecting a southern New England -Middle Atlantic passenger service stretching from Boston south to Richmond, Virginia. If the Northeast Corridor is privatized, there is little doubt that the needed management staff will be lean.

Note that NORTHEAST RAIL will assume all of Amtrak’s rights and obligations in the current Northeast Corridor.

Simultaneously, a new rail passenger corporation needs to be established. For now, let’s call it AMERICAN RAIL. It too will assume all of Amtrak’s rights and obligations that exist outside the Northeast Corridor.

Its purpose will be to assume responsibly for all aspects of a new independent passenger railroad. That entity will operate and secure financing for all long-distance and corridor services in America west and south of the Appalachians. It should combine some aspects of public funding with the actual service operated by private operators on a line-by-line basis.

How much better for all concerned for “NORTHEAST RAIL to concentrate on what it knows best, the Northeast Corridor. At the same time, much of America, particularly at a time when the understanding of the travel and environmental importance of AMERICAN RAIL, a truly national rail network, could benefit from an organization focused on its own needs and priorities.

The name AMERICAN RAIL signifies a fresh start and new direction. It should have its headquarters anywhere but Washington. Chicago, the traditional hub for western and mid-American rail passenger services, would be a fine location as would St. Louis or even Denver. With its own separate board of directors, with new management and working with new private sector operators, AMERICAN RAIL would not compete with NORTHEAST RAIL but serve as its national connection.

With innovation the watchword, AMERICAN RAIL should lead to way to new routes and more frequencies all in new passenger cars and locomotives operated by a freshly recruited and trained staff equipped with a private sector-style customer-first approach. Is there risk of failure? Yes, but right now the risk of the ultimate demise of Amtrak’s long-distance service seems assured.

THE DIVISION

The new railroad’s mission will be the operation of all American intercity passenger trains outside the Northeast Corridor.

Certain services ancillary to NORTHEAST RAIL’S heartland, such as the New York to Buffalo Empire Service, the Down Easterner Route from Boston to Portland, Maine and the once-a day service extending east from Richmond to Newport News would be subject to amiable negotiations. If NORTHEAST RAIL considers those lines essential part of their bailiwick, they should continue to operate them. This plan envisions a non-hostile division resulting in two new, independent but cooperating entities.

The private sector components of both plans is an acknowledgement of the new leaner 21st Century structure of government and the ruinous divide that in the past few years has seen with passenger rail identified with the Democrats and vilified by many Republicans. A serious effort needs to be taken to depoliticize the topic of passenger rail.

Creating allies in the private sector without alienating labor is a difficult but essential component of this strategy.

This approach will result in two new entities that should create their own new corporate cultures.

While some may consider that scenario optimistic, there is zero doubt that if Amtrak’s status quo is maintained no progress will ever come to pass.

The most difficult aspect will be the division of essential federal operating and capital subsidies between the two new companies. There is no doubt that even if there is significant private sector involvement, federal dollars will remain an essential part of the puzzle, just as it has decades when it comes to air, highway and barge modes of passenger and freight mobility.

Congress is entitled to a voice even with much private sector participation. Yet, there is no valid reason that rational minds can’t prevail resulting in mediated solution acceptable to Congress and the Administration without raising regional passions.

Greater involvement by the individual states could assist in all of the above described goals. One dares to think that federal funds might even be allocated on a per-capital basis, rather than the traditional allocations which relied more on history than rationality.

MANY BENEFITS, FEW NEGATIVES:

This concept is a win-win for all except some current management employees at Amtrak’s Washington headquarters who will find themselves redundant.

Rail labor will benefit. Not only will there be no layoffs of operating personnel, there is a distinct prospect of additional employment associated with more routes and greater frequency. Certainly the manufacturing sector will benefit from equipment purchases to replace worn out passenger cars and locomotive.

Small town America will benefit. Not just from additional routes and frequencies, but from American Rail, a new rail passenger company focused on their needs. Likewise, larger states will be rewarded from attention to their emerging corridors linking major and medium sized cities.

Northeast Corridor states win from Northeast Rail, an operation undistracted by what’s proved to be an incompatible a long-distance system.

The bulk of America benefits from a new system focused on the needs of Western, Mid-western and Southern states needs and desires with new management open to innovative public-private partnerships.

MOVING FORWARD – NEXT STEP:

It’s my suggestion that the Rail Passengers Association (RailPAC) of California and Nevada members contemplate this plan aided by the preparation of professional-quality research reports. The end result would be consideration of adopting the notion of dissolving Amtrak and replacing it with the two new entities, NORTHEAST RAIL and AMERICAN RAIL as RailPAC’s official position.

We would then urge other rail advocacy groups to join with us. Sad to say, it’s doubtful that NARP, almost as East Coast centric as the current Amtrak leadership, would be supportive. NARP’s history, understandably, has been to defend and justify Amtrak management. The time for that self-defeating approach has clearly ended.

An essential early step is to secure bipartisan sponsors in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives to serve as our proponents. It’s naive to think that Amtrak’s current board and senior management will not oppose this move. Substantial bipartisan Congressional and Administration support is essential if this proposal is to be taken seriously. Just getting the debate off the ground is not an easy task. We can’t do it with just the old friends of passenger rail. Simultaneously, we need to expand by adding others, e.g., Republicans and the business community, who have in recent years opposed or indifferent to passenger rail, but were supportive in the past.

At the very least, debating this proposal will cause many in the rail community to think about Amtrak’s current dysfunctional structure and understand its long-term implications. A vigorous public conversation will have the salutatory side effect that Amtrak management will likely never again take the West, Midwest and the South for granted as they have done so often in the last few decades.

At best, such a bold discussion will spark others in the rail passenger community to rethink old approaches and faulty assumptions. Ideally this will all lead to a more sustainable vision of a vibrant twenty-first century truly national rail passenger system.

Editorials

What is Amtrak’s Problem?

Opinion by Noel T. Braymer 

Amtrak’s problem is the same problem the railroads had for most of the 20th Century: too much overhead costs and not enough revenue. After the Civil War to just before World War I the railroads built many lines of questionable value. Local governments also often subsidized railroad construction to build in places which didn’t pay off. With government regulation the railroads had trouble eliminating money losing lines and rates were often too low to be profitable. After World War II the railroads lost many freight customers to trucking and new highways while stuck with surplus pre-war infrastructure. These problems for the railroads were greatest in the Northeast and Mid-West. This came to a head in 1970 with the bankruptcy of the PennCentral and only turned around with railroad deregulation after 1980.

Amtrak was created mainly to bail out the PennCentral. The original plan for Amtrak was simple: Amtrak would have minimal overhead. It would have few employees and own very little property. Amtrak by law wasn’t allowed to run commuter rail service because that was not profitable. The model for this was the Pullman Company. The plan was Amtrak would own passenger cars and Amtrak employees would be the on board staff. But the locomotives and road crews would belong to the host railroad. Amtrak would lease the stations and create a unified ticketing system and organize the trains to connect with each other. By consolidating the different railroad passenger services to save money, keeping overhead costs low and eliminating the weaker rail passenger services the hope was that Amtrak would make a modest profit. What went wrong is first Amtrak was greatly under capitalized to go into business and second the PennCentral was still in trouble.

By 1976 Congress gave Amtrak the North East Corridor to help Conrail the reorganized PennCentral have a chance at profitability. The cost of running the NEC with little freight and most of the commuter rail traffic in the county was a major reason PennCentral was in the red. Shortly after this happened Amtrak’s costs exploded and by 1979 there was political pressure to reduce Amtrak’s costs. Amtrak cut several mostly long distance trains in an effort to save money. The result was losses went up. The reason for this was revenue was reduced more than costs by cutting trains. In July of 1982 Dr. Ron Sheck then Geography Professor at New Mexico State published a paper after years of research of European Rail Passenger services that had an operating profit. The solution for Amtrak according to Dr. Sheck was run more trains while increasing ridership faster than costs. That meant running trains more frequently on existing lines with connecting services and running sections of trains to open more markets for Amtrak. This plan required spending money including adding over 3,000 new passenger cars for a total of 4,500 for Amtrak in order to carry enough passengers to break even. On a small scale we had seen this work by 1982 on the San Diegans as more service was added passenger counts and revenues increased faster than expenses. This happened again later on the Capitol Corridor. Dr Sheck’s report called Amtrak 90: A Route to Success showed how these changes could lead to Amtrak covering costs by 1990. You can read the Executive Summary at the URPA website.

But Amtrak remained fixated on the East Coast. Amtrak owned the NEC which came with a solid voting block of 18 Senators plus had the majority of Amtrak’s trains and employees. Amtrak’s efforts for most of its existence have been centered on getting Congress to give it enough money to keep running. To keep the NEC as is Amtrak has been more than willing to cut trains anywhere else or demand more money to keep local non NEC services running. Also Amtrak has been trying to create a High Speed Rail service on the NEC. A major problem with running high speed rail service on the NEC is it has little surplus capacity because of heavy commuter rail traffic. Of the roughly 1600 trains a day on the NEC 153 belong to Amtrak. Bypass tracks would be needed to run fast express trains around commuter trains. But adding track capacity on the NEC is expensive because of lack of space to add tracks without viaducts or tunneling. Amtrak’s start up of the Higher Speed Acela around 2002 almost put the company out of business. It was also during the late 90’s while Amtrak was in trouble from the start up of the Acela that the operating costs Amtrak charged for the San Diegans went from $13.3 million in 1992 to $37.5 million by 1999. Today Amtrak claims that the 15 long distance trains cost it $530 million dollars a year in losses. But past experience shows eliminating those trains wouldn’t save money. Yet Amtrak is responsible for the majority of the costs of the NEC and claims it almost breaks even despite being a minority user.

The result of this is Amtrak lives a day to day existence with little security since it has failed to come to terms with what it needs to do to succeed: increase revenues faster than costs. Instead for most of Amtrak’s existence its efforts to reduce costs have resulted in holding back or reducing revenues more than costs. A good example of trying to save money resulting in higher costs is deferred equipment maintenance. It is not unusual for Amtrak to have over 20 percent of its locomotives out of service with regions like the West to have up to 30 percent out of service. In France a high standard to be sure the TGV has less than 10 % of its equipment out of service. Amtrak has no plans to expand its car fleet outside of the NEC, only to replace existing equipment which is keeping them from expanding ridership and revenue needed to cover overhead. The result of Amtrak’s deferred maintenance is more breakdowns, late and cancelled trains and lost revenues. The Long Distance Trains are often crowded but additional equipment is not available to take more willing customer’s money. Amtrak has 433 active Superliner Cars of which Amtrak uses 326 daily to run their current schedule. That is 107 available Superliner Cars that Amtrak isn’t using because it thinks it is saving money leaving equipment idle. If Amtrak used 376 Superliner cars a day that would be 50 more cars on the Long Distance Trains carrying more passengers and still leave 57 cars available for maintenance.

eNewsletter

eNewsletter for July 8, 2012

The breakdown of the roughly $8 billion dollars pledged for rail construction from this legislation is $5.9 billion dollars for construction between Madera and Bakerfield for a new high speed railroad to be finished in 5 year. It will be use by the San Joaquin Trains by 2016. This comes with a $3.3 billion Federal grant and $2.6 billion State match from the approved sale of State Bonds. An additional $2.1 billion dollars from bond funding is for local projects including money for electrification of Caltrain, car order for BART, subway construction for Muni, as well as money for ACE improvement with an extension to Merced and $500 million in Southern California for track improvements between Anaheim and Palmdale. NB

July 9, 2012 Part 1  July 2, 2012 Part 2

The above copy of this enewletter is on a PDF file and you will not be able to click on to the links in blue. If you would like an emailed copy of this enewsletter or to subscribe to it email nbraymer@railpac.org

Editorials

Should Metrolink operate the Surfliners?

Opinion by Noel T. Braymer

A major reason for reorganizing LOSSAN from a Joint Powers Agency into a Joint Powers Authority is to make it possible for it to take over management of the Pacific Surfliners. Much of this is modeled after the arrangement  the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority has over the operation of the Capitol Corridor trains. The general assumption is that the new LOSSAN JPA will continue to contract with Amtrak to operate the trains. But before doing that it would be a wise to look at other possibly better alternatives.

Metrolink is a larger rail operation than the Pacific Surfliners. It is responsible for much of the trackage over which most of the Metrolink trains run on as well as that used by the Surfliners. Metrolink’s farebox recovery is nearly the same as for the Surliners despite having higher train mile costs and lower fares. Plus its on-time performance and reliability of its equipment is much better than Amtrak’s on the Surfliners. Metrolink has the infrastructure to take over operation of the Surfliners with yards and operational experience.

There would issues to be worked out. Metrolink doesn’t have food service. This shouldn’t be a major obstacle. There are many food service companies that are available to contract out food service and handle the job of a commissary. There is the question of manning the Amtrak Stations along the line and joint ticketing. Already Metrolink ticket machines sell Amtrak tickets and arrangements would be needed to insure Amtrak Passenger transferring from the Surfliners have through ticketing. Metrolink could hire station agents or contract with Amtrak to continue to man the stations on the route. There is the issue of trackage rights. Amtrak gets a discount for using the Class I railroads tracks and has legal rights to use them that Metrolink doesn’t. However Metrolink has a working relationship with both the BNSF and the UP. There is the possibility of more cooperation and better relationships between Metrolink and the railroads, particularly if Metrolink is in a positions to pay more than Amtrak for use of their tracks The greatest unknown is the issue of equipment. Most of the equipment on the Surfliners is owned by Amtrak. For Metrolink to take over operation of the Surfliners, LOSSAN would have to either lease or buy from Amtrak the Surfliner equipment or find equipment from other sources. The big question there is how would LOSSAN pay for new equipment?

The way Amtrak or most commuter rail operators buy equipment is with tax money. Financing is a possibility although even that requires tax revenue to pay for financing or leasing. But what if the Surfliners could pay for financing with operating revenues? Lenders are happy to lend money if you have the income to make payments. But wouldn’t that mean the Surfliners would have to make a profit? Looking back on the history of the Surfliners, Amtrak reported that the fairbox recovery for the the San Diegan was 36% in 1976-77 when California first subsided one round trip in addition to the 3 run by Amtrak. By 1979-80 with 7 total trains with 4 subsidized by the State the farebox was 60.4%. By 1985-86 the cost recovery was up to 88.1%. In the fiscal year 1987-88 Amtrak was able to extend one round trip to Santa Barbara. That year the cost recovery hit 104.4%. That year the the State paid no subsidy for the San Diegans. For the next 6 years the State paid little or no subsidy to Amtrak for the San Diegans. Then for Fiscal Year 1993-94 a new contract was negotiated that included a new item for “Amtrak Costs”. For 1993-94 this added $727,987 to the costs of the San Diegans and dropped the the fairbox recovery to 90.8% By 1996-97 the item for Amtrak Cost rose to $10,000,000 and the fairbox recovery dropped to 37.4%. By 1990-00 Farebox was up to 47.7%. But expenses charged by Amtrak for the San Diegans had risen to $37,497,489 with Amtrak Costs at $1,381,986. But back in 1992-93 total expenses charged by Amtrak was $13,254,709.

Should Amtrak’s cost figures for the San Diegans/Surfliners be accepted at face value? No. Amtrak’s accounting is capable of reporting exactly how much money they spend for a given year and how revenue is received from different sources. But Amtrak’s accounting can’t tell you exactly how much it really cost to run an Amtrak train. Amtrak allocates costs to its trains. Much of this is arbitrary. Amtrak generally takes its costs and assigns them to all of their trains. This opens the possibility of favoritism so some trains can be charged less to make their performance look better by dumping charges on other trains that make their performance look worse. Generally the costs are based on the route miles of the trains. This is one reason on paper Amtrak long distance trains have such high costs and high subsidy needs compared to shorter distance trains. But does this reflect reality? Based on their cost assumptions, Amtrak has eliminated some long distance trains a few times times over the years expecting to save money. Each time they did this their losses increased. Why was that? First eliminating trains reduces revenue. The second was much of Amtrak’s overhead remained. Each Amtrak train is assigned a portion of Amtrak’s total overhead cost. Since it is largely based on route miles the longer trains are charged more to cover overhead. When a train is eliminated, the overhead costs remain. No Vice-Presidents are fired, terminals, many of the stations and yards used by the axed trains are still there, no reservation centers are closed or agents let go. But now the overhead costs has fewer trains to bring in revenue to cover these costs and more has to be charged to the remaining trains. To illustrate the reverse of this when Southwest Airlines first flew it lost money. To save money management proposed layoffs and cut backs. The employees suggested faster turnaround of flights would allow keeping both employees and same level of service but with one less plane of the 4 the airline had then. Southwest got rid of the plane lowered their overhead and made money ever since.

Before LOSSAN takes over management of the Pacific Surfliners it should find out exactly what they will be paying for. The prices Amtrak charges for state supported trains are on the high side. Amtrak’s billing should be independently audited. Most of Amtrak’s overhead costs are centered on the East Coast where its headquarters are. A major part of Amtrak’s overhead costs comes from owning and operating most of the railroad between Washington and Boston. This busy railroad has over 1,200 trains running on it most days but only about 100 of these trains belong to Amtrak. Most of the traffic is from commuter trains on the East Coast. There should be a detailed examination of the costs Amtrak is charging on the Surfliners. Metrolink should be asked to write a budget of what it would cost them to take over and run the Surfliners and then we can see who would operate the Surfliners more economically. We don’t know how much of Amtrak’s overhead is being charged to California as an operating cost and how much of that overhead the Surfliners are really responsible for.

Commentary

RailPAC welcomes Bob Hope Airport Transit Center – calls for improved Metrolink service to make it work

RailPAC welcomes Bob Hope Airport Transit Center – calls for improved Metrolink service to make it work

The Rail Passenger Association of California, an early supporter of the project, congratulates the Bob Hope Airport Authority and supporting agencies on the groundbreaking for the Regional Intermodal Transportation Center. The Burbank Bob Hope Airport has the unusual advantage of being located alongside a passenger rail right of way which has the potential to provide convenient connections to the 65 Metrolink and Pacific Surfliner stations in southern California. The RITC exploits this location by bringing together air, transit and passenger rail services in the most convenient way possible.

A Groundbreaking signifies the beginning of construction, and while Metrolink has been in existence for nearly 20 years we have to acknowledge that it too is under construction, is a work in progress. If this RITC is to be as successful as we would wish it to be it is vital that all the stakeholders of this project commit to work together to implement a train service that meets the needs of passengers. Metrolink needs to operate at a minimum of every half hour, 7 days a week and for the same hours as the airport operates. Trains should run through Los Angeles to Orange County and San Bernardino to give passengers a single seat ride to as many stations as possible.

The Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada is an all volunteer, non-profit group that has campaigned for improved passenger rail service since 1978.

Paul Dyson
President
pdyson@railpac.org