NCI: Leo KingApparently the Northeast Corridor will not be affected by Amtrak's plan to cut services in the fall. Amtrak CEO George Warrington said only the Northeast Corridor "would have an opportunity to run."
|Will passenger trains stop?|
For the first time since the historic Golden Spike linked the Union Pacific to the old Central Pacific at Utah's Promontory Point in 1869, it is possible you will no longer be able to travel coast to coast by train.
That scenario is possible, but not probable.
Congress will likely intervene and (again) solve the politics of the problem without solving the problem.
Sick to death of being asked to run a national passenger train system on unrealistic band-aid funding, and then catching flak for the less than first rate service, Amtrak has laid down the gauntlet to Capitol Hill and said in so many words, "You get what you pay for. Put up or shut up."
Amtrak President George Warrington did not flinch when the Bush administration, as expected, proposed $521 million for its Fiscal Year 2003 budget.
In a press release dated February 5, Amtrak said it was "pleased that President Bush and the USDOT have recognized the need to continue providing support for the nation's passenger rail system by proposing" the money. However, that figure, added Amtrak, "falls well short of the amount" the DOT's own Inspector General Kenneth Mead reported that Amtrak needs.
The DOT IG has said Amtrak "will require significant capital investment on the order of $1 billion or more each year for the foreseeable future."
The next statement by Mead should be emphasized: "These needs reflect deteriorated conditions in the railroad infrastructure that will need to be addressed if rail service is to continue."
Thus, Amtrak is standing by its announcement of February 1 to request a federal grant of $1.2 billion to continue the current system.
If such funding is not forthcoming, Warrington insists, 18 long-distance routes will be eliminated as of fiscal 2003. That would essentially shrink Amtrak back to the Northeast Corridor; a Chicago-based hub of existing corridors; several short to medium distance runs in California, the Cascades in the Northwest; the Auto Train; the daytime Carolinian, and that's about it.
Amtrak Board chairman and former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis said it would "kill any of us on the board to have to propose this," and added, "We believe in a national rail passenger system." He told the AP, "To discontinue (long-distance trains) would be a terrible mistake."
The consumer-oriented National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) called the $521 million figure a "placeholder" (USDOT language in a press release) pending the development "of a new paradigm for intercity passenger rail service."
In announcing the Bush administration's budget, Deputy DOT Secretary Michael Jackson told a briefing Monday, "We must decide precisely what intercity passenger rail service we need, what we can afford, and how we can sustain it over time."
NARP took heart from that statement, saying it is good "that the administration has not cast in concrete a low number."
"A lot of work is still required to save the national passenger rail network," NARP warned.
What is likely to happen, however, is that before next October, Congress will order Amtrak to keep the long distance trains running while refusing to provide the money required for quality service.
The Amtrak Reform Council on Thursday formally released its plan to restructure Amtrak with a different approach to rail passenger service in the United States.
As reported in D:F on January 14 and 21, the plan envisions three entities - a government agency to provide oversight and administration, an operating company to run the trains, and a separate government company controlled by the Northeast Corridor to own and manage NEC infrastructure.
The ARC plan involves the states more directly and is aimed at encouraging some involvement of the private sector. Basically, no one, least of all ARC, is running away from the fact that public money will be involved if this country wants a good national rail passenger system. More than 100 pages of text detail the plan. We will be looking into the plan and its ramifications in next week's issue, but for readers who would like to read the plan first-hand, it is posted on the ARC's website at http://amtrakreformcouncil.gov.
In response, Amtrak issued a statement acknowledging that ARC is right in saying "the current policy model for passenger rail does not work, cannot work, and must be fixed."
Amtrak patted ARC on the back for recognizing the "increasing need for passenger rail service" which "requires a substantial capital investment, greater efficiency, and where it exists, ongoing operating support for the public service of long-distance service," but Amtrak also added ARC "sidesteps the underlying policy and funding issues that must be determined." Basically, those issues are making a federal commitment to define, develop and invest in a viable system, and recognizing that we have "a policy problem, not an Amtrak performance problem." Amtrak notes in the last five years, its revenues have risen 38 percent, its ridership is up by 19 percent, while federal operating support has been cut by more than 80 percent. Obviously, there is a disconnect here, said the passenger train company.
Jim RePass, President of National Corridors Initiative, Inc, the parent company of D:F, issued a statement saying ARC "fails to address the core issue: money."
He also took issue with the ARC proposal to separate operating and infrastructure entities. A permanent funding mechanism is the right prescription, the NCI president added.
One businessman who does a lot of business with Amtrak weighed in with a statement on the very day of the ARC report.
Carl Fowler, vice-president and general manager of Rail Travel Center, a Vermont-based tour and charter firm, came out in full support for Amtrak's request for $1.2 billion for fiscal 2003, for speeding up the Amtrak equipment and repair program, and in support of a cautious version of ARC's proposal for franchising. Fowler advocated an "experimental franchising of a selected Amtrak route or service." At the same time, the tour operator opposed separating NEC from Amtrak's control or "exclusive state funding of regional services."
Not surprisingly, rail labor dismissed the ARC report out of hand. Sonny Hall, President of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, charged the ARC was stacked with members who were "biased," with "a mission to break up Amtrak and allow private interests to cherry-pick its most desirable parts."
In opening what may have been ARC's final meeting, Chairman Gil Carmichael pointedly declared Congress "got its money's worth" from the non-paid all-volunteer 11-member panel.
Vice Chairman Paul Weyrich, who considered this meeting important enough to rise from a hospital bed to be wheeled in for the occasion, criticized Amtrak for its "arrogance" and persistent flouting of the 1997 Amtrak law by refusing to supply ARC with vital information it had requested.
Noting that his former longtime friend and fellow Wisconsinite and former Amtrak Board chairman Tommy Thompson (now Health and Human Services secretary) had called him "an enemy of Amtrak" - even though Weyrich was instrumental in Amtrak's founding - the second ranking ARC member described Amtrak's attitude as "outrageous."
They had an attitude of "We're (Amtrak) going to be here long after you're (ARC) gone," Weyrich asserted.
This situation seemed to confirm a pattern whereby Amtrak, while unfairly criticized from all sides, nevertheless retained a unique talent for making enemies out of friends and thus cutting the ground out from under itself.
Weyrich's fellow council members awarded him a plaque for his dedicated service in persisting in involvement in ARC's work while suffering severe health problems.
ARC member Jim Coston, the Chicago rail lawyer who came to grips with the overall rail passenger problem at ARC's previous meeting (See D:F Jan. 21), was back with a follow-up.
While criticizing those who have stuck Amtrak with a "no win" mission, Coston did not spare Amtrak management. He accused Amtrak of inheriting a "no can do attitude" from the predecessor railroads that had thrown up their hands on passenger service. The freight railroads long ago concluded (correctly) that the government had gone into the transportation business and stacked the deck in favor of planes and automobiles and against railroads.
In that connection, Coston reported that when he was trying to charter special Amtrak trains years ago, an Amtrak executive took him aside and explained that Amtrak was "nursing the fleet. They're convinced Congress will never buy them another set of passenger cars or locomotives. We've been told to use the equipment as little as possible so it'll last longer."
Thus, said Coston, the "Big Lie" begun by the private railroads (that passenger trains were inherently doomed) "was still alive and well" at Amtrak.
Meanwhile, in advance of the Amtrak Reform Council's Thursday meeting formally unveiling its suggested restructuring, the chief Amtrak critic on that panel, Wendell "All Highways All The Time" Cox penned a piece for National Review Online in which he called "Amtrak: An Enron in the public sector."
He repeated that charge at the Thursday ARC meeting. His council colleague, Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist immediately jumped on him for it.
Whatever one wants to say about George Warrington and other top brass at Amtrak, Norquist said, no one ever said he was stealing money or lining his pockets at the expense of Amtrak employees.
In his article, Cox took a swipe at Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott and, without mentioning him by name, made the Mississippi senator a poster boy for his complaint that Amtrak had been run "to serve constituencies of powerful members."
"What, for example, could possess any rational human being to believe that a train from Meridian, Mississippi" (whose mayor is a Lott ally and a member of the Amtrak board) "to Dallas was a high priority for expansion of passenger train service?"
This writer, in 34 years of covering Capitol Hill, cannot begin to count the number of hearings in the halls of Congress, wherein airline executives were pressured by lawmakers for failure to serve this or that city. Since the government heavily regulates airlines, the air carrier bosses take heed. Once you put any entity under the subsidized or regulatory thumb of the public sector, the politicians are going to call the shots. That is a fundamental fact.
Cox also said politics "have made it more important to operate trains through Havre, Montana than to undertake critically needed safety improvements that put hundreds of thousands of daily commuters in peril in the New York area."
Is this the equivalent of suggesting one must choose between his father and his mother?
We at D:F take a back seat to no one in deploring the conditions in those creaky old tunnels in and out of New York's Penn Station. In fact, we broke the story of those decrepit facilities in this space in early 2000, only to wait for another eight or nine months for the New York and national media to wake up and publicize it, as well.
However, if this native New York City boy who also lived in Montana for a number of years may be permitted to interject some background, here goes:
Yes, there was political pressure brought to bear to provide train service to Havre, Montana and other rural communities along the "high line" near the Canadian border. When the original Amtrak map was drawn, then Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) said he would not sign off on it unless his state got decent service. It is not all that uncommon for elected officials to look after their constituents. That's why the voters hired them, after all.
Mansfield insisted that if those areas of his state lost their passenger train service, the people living there would be virtually landlocked, especially in the winter. There was no air service, no decent highways, and no regular bus service.
The senator also argued that in addition to the highline or "Empire" route, the people who lived in Montana's more populous cities along the old Northern Pacific or North Coast Limited route should not lose their service either. The cities served on that route included Billings, Bozeman, Butte, and Missoula. So, the first Amtrak map included both routes.
In 1979, the Carter administration set out to cut 43 percent of Amtrak's route map. Ultimately, Congress held the cutback to 16 percent. By then, Mansfield had retired from the Senate and gone off to Tokyo where he served for years as U.S. Ambassador to Japan.
Montana was told to take its pick, one route or the other had to go. A decision was made that since the larger cities had air and bus service and the "high line" had nothing else, the "Empire" route would remain. That's how important that rural route service to Havre and other small towns was deemed to be. The Empire Builder, by the way, also serves Glacier National Park, a beautiful tourist spot.
This history also raises a question as to whether one reason for Amtrak's difficult circumstances is that in some cases, it is left with the slim pickings that no other transportation mode wants; but that's another matter. Suffice it to say that if you assume those people in Northern Montana deserve some service, some mode has to fill the need.
Cox also flatly said that except for passenger rail, "all intercity transportation operations and infrastructure in this country... are paid for by fees and charges on users."
Other analysts have found that no, they're not. Some studies have showed that over and above the Highway Trust Fund, every automobile out on the road is subsidized to the tune of $2,500 per year. That includes all the hidden subsidies for highway and rubber tire transport. Rail's subsidies, on the other hand, are out on the table for everyone to see.
Nor do the airport user fees begin to pay for all the federal, state and local money that has subsidized the construction of airports, runways, air traffic control and the like. Moreover, that huge, post September 11 $15 billion subsidy for the airlines went through Capitol Hill like a hot knife through butter.
You may remember also that we were told that in order for us to be safe when boarding airplanes, all security personnel at airports would have the be officially sanctified by being "federalized."
After the bill was enacted, the same security people that were in place prior to 9/11 remained at checkpoints. Only this time, they were working for Uncle Sam, and when you work for the feds, "political correctness" takes priority over safety. They can take away Grandma's nail clippers, but no "profiling!" Better to see that we don't offend some Middle Eastern ex-con with two aliases and no job. Taxpayers are footing the bill for that nonsense. Hopefully, air passengers won't pay with their lives.
Wendell Cox is also unhappy about Amtrak's "overly generous labor protections that require severance pay of up to five years." Of course, he is not the first observer to make that judgment; but a contract is a contract. Perhaps this is an implied offer on his part to be Amtrak's lead negotiator next time those union contracts are due for renewal.
One quickly learns that you can't bargain with the entire Amtrak workforce in a vacuum. Rail labor unions also represent members who work on the freight side. There is a reason lawmakers never allow a nationwide rail strike to last more than two or three days. Voters out there would soon freeze (or roast) in the dark without some necessities of life - there would be hell to pay at the ballot box.
Of course, that too is "politics," but it is reality.
Has rail labor been "unreasonable" with its clout? Some have said yes, but it is a subjective judgment.
Rail labor's representative on the Council, Charley Moneypenny, said while he's seldom, if ever, agreed with his fellow ARC members, he credited them for their integrity.
There's more. Much more - but we have to stop somewhere. It will be an interesting year. Stay tuned.
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Amtrak fares poorly as
Bush, DOT make choices
Amtrak will receive $521 million in funding while billions once again go to highway and air projects. One week ago today, USDOT unveiled its budget that would seek $59.3 billion in fiscal year 2003, which represents an overall increase of $4.7 billion, or 8 percent.
The language affecting Amtrak was different this year, at least in a press release, which indicates the agency is leaving the door open for changes. The text stated the Administration was recommending "$716 million for the Federal Railroad Administration, including $521 million which serves as a placeholder for intercity passenger rail service and $123 million for safety and operations... " It did not specifically name Amtrak.
In a briefing for reporters, U.S. Transportation Deputy Secretary Michael P. Jackson said that the fiscal 2003 budget for transportation includes $4.8 billion for the first full year of funding for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and $7.1 billion for the U.S. Coast Guard.
He said the Administration's budget proposal for transportation, "will enable our department to meet the President's three preeminent goals for America: winning the war at home and abroad, protecting our homeland, and reviving the economy."
Amtrak was not even a footnote.
DOT officials said, "For the last three fiscal years, the country has been reaping the benefit of record-level funding for surface transportation, which has been adjusted upward as Highway Trust Fund receipts exceeded expectations. For fiscal year 2003, declining receipts will bring the first downward adjustment, reducing the federal-aid highway program obligation limitation by $4.4 billion to $23.2 billion and the total Federal Highway Administration budget to $24.1 billion. Even with this reduction, the guaranteed funding mechanism provided in law will have resulted in more than $4.7 billion in additional funding to the states since enactment of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century to help them meet critical transportation needs."
Meanwhile, Jackson said the new budget proposes $7.7 billion overall for transportation safety funding. He said the concentration in all modes was safety.
$4.6 billion is earmarked for the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) budget for aviation safety, $107 million of which is for development and use of new technology to help prevent runway incursion-related accidents, and another $122 million to improve pilot and controller training, and to make runway surface markings more visible.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is looking for $430 million, which includes $205 million for operations and research.
Other transportation budget notions include:
$371 million for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, an increase of 8 percent, to help reduce the number of traffic accidents involving trucks and buses.
÷ $700 million in the $14 billion total FAA budget for air traffic control system modernization and $3.4 billion for airport improvement activities;
÷ $7.2 billion for the Federal Transit Administration, including $145 million in support of the President's New Freedom Initiative to reduced barriers for persons with disabilities to enter the workforce;›
The President's budget for public transportation next year fared well. It proposes to fund new light rail systems in Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, as well as project development for public transportation in Chicago, Cleveland, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, and New York City. The budget also provides over $1.1 billion to continue funding 27 other public transportation projects.
In Salt Lake City, the Utah Transit Authority is proposing the Medical Center Extension project, a 1.5-mile, three-station, light-rail transit system extending from the University Line station at Rice-Eccles Stadium to the University of Utah Health Science Complex (Medical Center). The Medical Center LRT will connect to the University Line LRT and existing North-South LRT corridor. Station areas will include student housing, campus buildings, and a complex of medical facilities. The Medical Center LRT is expected to open in 2004 and carry 4,100 weekday riders, 3,400 of which will be new to the system.
The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority is developing a 5.9-mile, eight-station LRT (the Los Angeles East Side LRT) to serve a dense, urbanized, heavily transit-dependent area between downtown Los Angeles and East Los Angeles. The system is expected to carry 15,000 weekday riders, 7,600 of which will be new transit customers, in 2020. The East Side LRT also is expected to contribute to improved air quality in Los Angeles region, which is classified as an "extreme" area for ozone and a "serious" area for carbon monoxide.
Five other transit projects include the Chicago Ravenswood Line Expansion, the Cleveland Euclid Corridor Bus Rapid Transit; the Las Vegas Resort Corridor Fixed Guideway Minimum Operable Segment, Minneapolis Northstar Commuter Rail, and the New York East Side Access projects.
Amtrak riders and employees are still reeling from last week's disclosure from Amtrak president and CEO that the national passenger train operation was going to cut 1,000 jobs, including 300 managers, and cut virtually most if not all long-distance trains, ranging from the Sunset between Los Angeles and Miami to the Crescent between Chicago and New Orleans. The plan is to also reduce staffing hours at 73 stations, and other unspecified actions aimed at enabling Amtrak to make it to September 30, the end of the fiscal year. That would also cut off train service from Meridian, Mississippi where that community's mayor, John Robert Smith lives. Smith is a member of Amtrak's board of directors, and is NCI's chairman.
Though a spokeswoman, Smith told D:F, "The board did not vote to end long-distance service. It did vote to adopt the budget, which will be insufficient to meet operational and capital needs. It also approved George Warrington's remarks."
Smith said, "If Congress fails to act in the meantime, we must issue a 180-day notice of intent to shut down routes in October. Now is not the time to select specific routes or portions of routes. We took the steps necessary to meet our mandated goals. Our hope at this point is that Congress will finally make a significant, long-term commitment to a national rail passenger system."
Meanwhile, Gil Carmichael, the Amtrak Reform Council chairman, told D:F, "Like Ken Mead and the IG's office, I think Amtrak has done the right thing to address the growing cost of operating Amtrak, but, like Ken, I wish they had done it a year or two ago. My personal observation is that they cut bone and muscle instead of fat. Delaying maintenance on equipment is always dangerous."
Carmichael said the ARC "had no advance notice; however, we had been encouraging them to implement cost controls."
He viewed Warrington's move as coming at a good time.
"Amtrak's decision is probably timely because the debate is really reaching the national scene. We're starting the process of restructuring, reauthorizing and hopefully, developing a new national rail passenger policy that the public seems to want passionately."
Carmichael added a footnote - "Here's hoping we all do our work properly so the results will be to everybody's benefit."
USDOT's budget details are on the Internet at http://ostpxweb.dot.gov/budget/4budget.htm.
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|Press releases carry the battle|
The Amtrak Reform Council issued a press release following its Thursday press conference, and Amtrak responded shortly thereafter:
In a meeting today in Washington, the Amtrak Reform Council approved basic elements of a restructuring plan it must submit to Congress on February 7. The Council recommends that the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (NRPC), commonly referred to as Amtrak, be reorganized by putting its train operations into one subsidiary and its real property infrastructure into another.
The NRPC itself would be reconfigured as a small program management agency that would control the passenger rail franchise rights, define funding requirements for train operations and infrastructure needs, secure funding from the Congress, and oversee the performance of the system.
If Congress agrees, the immediate effect would be to place train operations in a separate company, free from the burden of the expensive infrastructure of tracks, stations, and other real property. Once the reorganization is in place, the NRPC could introduce competition into the national rail passenger system by entering into contracts with other train operating companies for the operation of a particular route or routes. The NRPC could also exercise its franchise authority to operate passenger trains at the request of a state or an interstate compact.
Council Chairman Gil Carmichael summed up the Council's action, saying, "What we're trying to do is produce a new national rail passenger system that works and is modern and meets the needs of this country and this century."
The Amtrak Reform Council is an independent Federal oversight commission established under the provisions of the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act of 1997 (P. L. 105-134) to recommend improvements in Amtrak's operations and to monitor its financial performance.
The Amtrak Reform Council's report today has reasserted what has been recognized for a long time: the current policy model for passenger rail does not work, cannot work, and must be fixed.
It makes plain what is already known: the increasing need for passenger rail service requires a substantial capital investment, greater efficiency and, where it exists, ongoing operating support for the public service of long-distance service; but the report sidesteps the underlying policy and funding issues that must be determined. First, a federal commitment to define, develop and invest in the passenger rail system must be made. Fundamentally, only then can the nation determine the system's scope and nature, level of necessary funding, and source of funding. No council or commission can make these decisions - the ARC hasn't - and until these issues are resolved, the nation's passenger rail system will continue to be torn by conflicting policy mandates and inadequate capital, whether operated by Amtrak or anyone else.
Amtrak's impending reauthorization is the vehicle for Congress to determine the role, scope, funding level, and source of funding for our passenger rail network. It is time to provide the policy and funding that will give America the passenger rail system it needs and deserves.
It is also important to recognize that we have a policy problem, not an Amtrak performance problem. Under current management over the last five years, Amtrak's total revenues have grown by 38 percent and nationwide ridership has risen by 19 percent, while federal operating support has been cut by more than 80 percent.
The DOT Inspector General said it best in The Wall Street Journal on January 28: "For what it has been charged to do, it is amazing that Amtrak has gotten this far." However, the limits to this success are set by a flawed policy that must be fixed.
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|CNO runs with 22 cars on Superbowl Sunday|
On Superbowl Sunday, Amtrak had 13 private cars coupled to train No. 59, the City of New Orleans, which left Chicago's union station at 8:00 p.m. Saturday and arrived New Orleans around 3:40 p.m. Sunday. Railroad scene observer Ray Dunbar tells us, "This is the train consist of the City of New Orleans as it headed to the big Super Bowl game in the Crescent City."
Amtrak No. 59 of January 31:
P-42 locomotives 9, 14 and 195; deadhead cars coach 34062 and snack bar-coach 35010; baggage 1004; coaches 34066, 31530; lounge 33048; diner 38030; sleeper 32076; transition sleeper 39023; private cars Palm Beach 800239, Silver Quail 800712, Henry Hudson 800644, Royal Street 800726, Colorado River 800515, Northern Dreams 800710, Galatin River 800149, Northern Sky 800588, Bella Vista 800218, Glacier Park 800148, Illinois Central (IC) office car 800413, IC bedroom car 800219, and IC theater car 800653.
The New England Patriots defeated to St. Louis Rams 20-17 in the culmination of the National Football League 2001 season with a field goal in the remaining seconds of regulation play. The "Pats" are the world champions for the first time in the franchise's 42-year history.
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TRAX becomes model carrier
Salt Lake City's light-rail coordinator is not only a light rail advocate, he rides the trains as well. Bill Knowles, who is a retired food broker, had never ridden a train or bus when he took the job. Knowles said the carrier is now adding new equipment.
"In my conversations with people on the train, so many say they never thought they'd be on this thing. All these trains are packed. We're ordering new cars," reports the Salt Lake City Tribune of February 3.
Salt Lake City is gaining world prominence because of the Winter Olympics, and thousands of people will sample the two-year-old TRAX light-rail system.
The 15.5-mile north-south line and the new 2.5-mile university line are breaking ridership projections. Like a growing number of cities, Salt Lake has learned that rail transit works.
Like Knowles, many of these riders came around to rail by using it. The first line began operations during a grueling rehab of the region's freeway system, leading many commuters to try light rail. Since the freeway work has been completed, light-rail ridership continues to rise.
On the main north-south line, ridership is 30 percent higher than projected, at 20,000 a day. Trains are safe, clean, and convenient.
"You really have to think, 'Why do I need to take my car?' " Knowles said. Along with commuters, TRAX riders include students, tourists, day-trippers downtown, and Jazz fans.
"A lot of lessons were learned the hard way," Knowles said, especially about disrupting businesses along the route. Eventually, Salt Lake won praise for turning around virulent opposition.
"Communication, communication, communication," he said.
Business and neighborhood groups were extensively involved with planning and construction, including having a say on whether the contractor won bonuses.
"You have to give early, specific and truthful information," he explained.
"We never told anybody they wouldn't have pain and business wouldn't drop. That's baloney." Instead, officials helped businesses help themselves during construction, and now customers are coming back: Business is booming near some transit stops.
Transit-friendly development is coming, too, but vehicular traffic is still utilizing 400 South, the major thoroughfare that handles trains.
Other lessons: Salt Lake benefited from enthusiastic support by its congressional delegation (the $448 million cost came from federal and local funds). The project took 15 years from conception to opening, and much of TRAX is along existing Union pacific freight lines.
Now Knowles is on to a new job. He'll be working on the planned 140-mile commuter rail network that will link the Wasatch Front.
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The Amtrak Reform Council report released February 6 to Congress is the wrong message, at the wrong time, and one that fails to address the core issue: money. You had better start writing to your Congressman, your Senators, and your local newspaper, because the amount of disinformation about Amtrak is growing, and we could lose the national passenger rail system - and never get it back.
Although the ARC's roster includes a number of the brightest rail thinkers we have, they have been distracted by questions of form, when what is needed is a resolution of substance. To suggest the breakup of Amtrak, the creation of myriad regional rail companies, and a separation of infrastructure from operating responsibility, without addressing the central issue of how we fund rail, is truly to engage in rearranging the deck chairs.
It makes no sense to break up a functioning national rail system, even one that is as hamstrung as Amtrak is due to lack of funding. If we don't create a permanent source of funding for rail infrastructure, then doing as the ARC recommends would just create a bunch of new, mini-Amtraks with the same problems.
We must get out of the mind-set in this country that we always have to destroy the village in order to save it. Been there, done that, didn't work. Instead of tearing down what we already have, let's resolve to build it up.
What Congress needs to do - and the President needs to lead the Congress - is create a permanent funding mechanism for infrastructure for the nation's freight and passenger rail system, just as it has for highways and airports.
The U.S. Department of Transportation can administer this authority just as it does the others. We don't need to invent any bureaucracies, or re-invent the wheel. What we need to do is fund a healthy rail system, so that the nation has a robust and redundant transportation system. Let the money come from direct federal support, or let it be generated through capturing a part of tax revenues that grow over time as a result of infrastructure investment, but let's make sure Congress understands that we can not afford to lose the national passenger rail system.
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Congress offers the best hope
Editor's note - The author is managing director of California's Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority. He is also a director for the National Association of Railroad Passengers.
The new session of Congress is presented with perhaps the best opportunity to finally make intercity rail passenger service a meaningful component of our nation's transportation system. While the tragic events of September 11 clearly show the need for what the military calls "adequate redundancy" in our transport system for national security, the reasons to preserve, expand, and modernize the nation's under-funded passenger rail system are far more basic.
We have had decades of massive public subsidies to the nation's highway system and similar largess to the aviation industry and to our waterways and ports. Remember the "National Defense Highway System," now called simply "the Interstates?" These funds have been provided for "the public good." At the same time, our nation's private railroads opted out of the passenger business largely because the aging passenger system needed massive capital investment and the railroads could not raise the needed capital in the private marketplace, largely due to the competition from the government in its "free" capitalization of every other mode of transport (road, air and water). Deterioration from lack of capital investment and erosion of the passenger rail market caused by the government's subsidies to the other transport modes made passenger trains unprofitable and the railroads wanted to shed these losses which were being born by the private railroads, not the public. We really thought we would never need trains again.
In May 1971, two-thirds of the nation's passenger trains ended. What was left was a "skeletal" system, consisting of a fleet of aged, mostly unreliable passenger cars, dilapidated stations and, in many instances, deteriorated track. This "cast-off collection" was transferred to Amtrak in 1971 to "save" passenger service. Somehow, the concept that this new creation of Congress could become "profitable" was engendered, even though no other form of transport could exist without massive public subsidies, subsidies that continue today.
The real miracle is that the nation's rail passenger system has survived at all, let alone in far better shape than it was in 1971. No business can survive without investment of adequate capital funding and provision of an operating revenue stream. While continuing to pour billions of public dollars into the alternate modes (roads, air and water), only the nation's rail passenger system was measured by a standard of "profitability." This requirement has never entered into the vocabulary of the requirements for any of the other modes of transport.
Exactly what is the relevance of "profitability" to provision of a national transport service in the first place? The national intercity rail system was intended to provide the American public with a service, and should be measured by its accomplishment of that mission, and funded accordingly. We provide fire, police, library, and other services to our people and no one speaks of their "profitability." Services are supposed to be provided for the public good. Long-time rail passenger advocates can rattle off a myriad of benefits of rail in terms of safety, environmental and convenience.
Congress has a golden opportunity to "right the past wrongs" regarding our national passenger rail system. Sure, Amtrak has some warts, so fix them.
Amtrak certainly is not Enron.
All things considered, looking at the national passenger rail system that is still in existence today (at least until October), and the new, modern trains, which have now replaced all the rolling junk of 1971, Amtrak has done a remarkable job during the past thirty-one-and-one-half years. Much more can be done, and should be done to expand services, increase train frequencies and speed up the entire network. Some of this can be done in cooperation with the private freight-only (now) railroads and some of this will call for new publicly owned tracks to permit time competitive speeds in "corridors" like San Francisco-Los Angeles. All this will take an investment of capital funds (something Amtrak has been continuously promised but never provided) and an adequate and on-going stream of operating funds (again, something with which Amtrak has never been provided).
Critics will bewail the $23 billion Amtrak has been provided during the last 31-plus years. They conveniently overlook both what Amtrak has accomplished with those funds in rebuilding the old system, and what subsidies the public has given, and continues to give, to the other transport modes during that same period. Bill Gates and his wife have provided more money to charity in the last few years than our federal government has provided to Amtrak in its entire existence.
There is a message here.
A reasonable person would conclude that if the private airlines can walk into Congress and get $15 billion overnight, plus whatever amounts we spend on the airports, air traffic control system and the FAA, then surely a paltry billion or two annually will not bankrupt our government. It may just prove what we are finding out in California... Americans love passenger trains and will use them if they are frequent enough and modern enough. God knows, most drivers will do almost anything to avoid driving, and they pray for a viable train service.
Congress has a chance to put into place the mechanism that will give Americans a real choice about how we travel. A national system of intercity trains must be a part of America's transport network. Failure to provide this rail network will condemn us to rely on the hopelessly overloaded highways and increasingly frustrating air system.
The last two sessions of Congress have been presented with intercity passenger rail legislation to deliver the much-needed capital investments. The bills (both in the Senate and in the House) were jointly introduced by Republican and Democratic leaders. These bills engendered some 60 Senate co-sponsors (yes, that's 60 out of 100) who were not just "supporters" but joint sponsors of the proposed legislation. In the House, there were 188 co-sponsors (yes, 188 out of 435 total members), yet in the last two sessions of Congress, these bills have been allowed to die.
The American people are asking Congress for a modern, national passenger rail system that ties our nation together on the ground, and most of Congress has been aboard.
Enactment of this federal legislation is needed now.
This is the time for Congressional action, not inaction.
Eugene K. Skoropowski is Managing Director of the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority with offices in Oakland, California. Capitol Corridor Intercity Rail Service operates from San Jose and Oakland to San Francisco and Sacramento. It is a state-supported contract service with Amtrak in cooperation with the Union Pacific Railroad.
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Amtrak, yes, but...
Editor's note - The writer is vice-president and general manager of a Vermont travel agency. Guest opinion articles do not necessarily represent the views of NCI, but are presented to stimulate discussion and thought.
Rail Travel Center has operated tours by train worldwide since 1982. We have consistently marketed Amtrak travel as a part of that program and therefore have an experienced perspective on the current Amtrak situation. Too often, discussions of Amtrak are conducted without input from those who actually sell and use train travel. This situation becomes even more urgent in light of Amtrak's February 1 press release, which suggests the carrier might end its national network by dropping all long-distance trains as early as October 1.
We believe Amtrak must receive the $200 million it has requested to preserve its connected national network, and that now also is the time to initiate measures ensuring passenger train services continue to operate in the long-term. Therefore, we support bringing the equipment repair portion of Amtrak's $820 million Fiscal Year 2003 capital request forward into fiscal 2002. At present, the company gradually is losing its operating fleet due to the effects of deferred maintenance, ironically just as demand is trending dramatically upward. In the longer term, we support an experimental program of franchising selected Amtrak routes and services to bring about better marketing, operations and cost-recovery.
The problem with Amtrak is not a lack of potential business; rather, Amtrak's troubles derive in large measure from a lack of equipment to meet the demand already present. Worse, Amtrak's management, too often, has compounded the equipment shortfall by refusing to use assets it already possesses. We will outline our concerns with these practices below, in a section we characterize as "Institutionalized Pessimism." We also want to assert our deep respect for Amtrak, which has been a good business partner to Rail Travel Center. We know for the last thirty years its managers have been forced to grapple with virtually no meaningful capital investment outside the Northeast Corridor (and on a very few regional lines). This has fostered a corporate culture of endless cost cutting combined with a tight focus on the needs of the NEC, where Amtrak saw its most likely source for immediate funding. That attention has come at the expense of the national system. We appreciate our many long-term relationships with fine Amtrak employees, but we also recognize that Amtrak, as an institution, has flaws, which must be addressed.
Rail Travel Center is concerned about the harmful potential in a universal implementation of the recommendations of the Amtrak Reform Council (ARC). Although we set forth our chief differences in some detail below, we do not oppose all ARC recommendations. In particular, we believe the ARC is correct in urging at least some franchising (partial privatization) of Amtrak services. If done correctly, this could reverse the past Amtrak inclination to avoid opportunity and risk, lead to a dramatic increase in passenger train ridership (a trend already underway), and ultimately reduce the need for government support.
The worldwide experience with passenger train franchising is mixed, but far more positive than some recent media coverage of the failure of the U.K's Railtrack Co. would suggest. Not all the 26 British rail franchise operators have failed to turn a profit, improve service, or reduce government support. At least ten are operating profitably, and more will be when track repairs are completed. The Great Northeastern Railway, Scot Rail and First Great Western offer outstanding service. Throughout the United Kingdom, the frequency of trains has increased, and entire fleets of new equipment are in service or on order. Clearly, far too many franchises were issued (which should be avoided here), but the near meltdown of British operations in the last year reflected the mismanagement of the Railtrack infrastructure company, not the train operators. We need to learn from the errors of the British; but it is false to consider British franchising an overall failure.
An even more relevant example of the successful franchising of long-haul services can be found in Australia. The operation of the transcontinental Indian Pacific, Ghan and Overland trains was assumed by a private operator (Great Southern Ry.) which retained an assured level of government support, but only could make a profit by increasing its business. This is precisely what has happened. More frequent trains with more cars are operating. Fares were raised to the maximum economic level, especially for first-class travel, yet patronage soared with the adoption of the philosophy that "the more passengers we carry, the more money we make."
We want to see the Amtrak reauthorization and the ARC review processes succeed in preserving a truly national U.S. rail passenger system. Their actions can facilitate either a creative redesign of American rail travel or lead to a virtually useless system of isolated corridors best described as "Balkan Track." This disconnected system would almost certainly disappear, as it would lack both broad-based Congressional support and any connectivity, thus becoming woefully underused. As the airlines' "hub and spoke" systems have proven, easy connections between the maximum destinations are essential to efficiency, patronage and profitability.
Neither Amtrak nor any successor can succeed without adequate capital and a multi-year guarantee of operational support. This need must be satisfied for any operator to succeed. No real planning can occur if an operator must annually beg for funding. The United States must commit to a rationally capitalized and funded rail network, or failure is certain. If this can be done, subsidies will gradually decline and patronage will increase.
The semantics used in U.S. transportation policy must change. Why is it said we "invest" in highways and air service while "subsidizing" rail? It should be clearly understood by everyone that all of these funds accomplish the same thing: government funding assistance for the transportation needs of Americans in all parts of our country.
ARC's suggestion that regional services be funded only by state or regional agencies is flawed and will insure such trains die. The partial federal financial support of state-initiated trains (as is presently done) is a good approach which has produced outstanding routes such as the Cascades in the Pacific Northwest and the new Downeaster between Boston and Portland, Maine. It is unlikely the multi-state compacts needed under the ARC recommendations would be adequately funded at the state level. If, for example, three states were responsible for a route (a good example is trains between Chicago and Detroit), all operations could end due to a fiscal crisis in a single state. This is precisely what happened in 1971 and 1972 when Amtrak's original Buffalo-Chicago train was dropped because the five states along the route failed to come to an agreement over how to divide the costs.
ARC's recommendation to strip Amtrak of the ownership of the Northeast Corridor would degrade service. Any experienced railroader will attest to the need to control train dispatching. Amtrak's difficulty in raising speeds between New York and New Haven eloquently speaks to the problem of divided track ownership. This critical portion of the NEC is owned and dispatched by the Metro-North Railroad, a joint agency of the New York and Connecticut DOTs. M-N has priorities, which do not necessarily include high-speed access for Amtrak. Every other part of the NEC also hosts commuter trains, but elsewhere Amtrak controls dispatching and can assure access for its trains.
Most importantly, there is no likelihood a separate agency for the NEC would be more successful in garnering federal funds than Amtrak has been. A more likely outcome is that such an agency would try to collect ever-increasing track access fees from Amtrak and the various state commuter authorities. Since these agencies' resources already are severely stressed, the likely outcome would be a further drop in services.
Land-cruise trains are not the answer in providing a national system. Tour trains are essential to the business plan of Rail Travel Center, but we clearly understand that they are not the "real transportation" required of a national rail system. Of necessity, these trains serve only end-points, run very infrequently, and are extremely expensive. Moreover, they could not provide regular transportation even if they wanted to, since their operators could not afford to give up their limited capacity to local customers, space that might be sold for the full journey. Their schedules also could not tolerate frequent stops to accommodate shorter-distance passengers and still arrive at sightseeing destinations at appropriate hours.
The land-cruise trains presently operating nationally do so in large measure because they are able to charter engines and train crews from Amtrak. Most importantly, they use Amtrak's track-access rights to run on the freight railroads. Without a national Amtrak system, these trains would disappear because their costs would be impossible and they would be unable to reach most scenic areas.
Amtrak's long-haul trains serve far more passenger than up-scale tourists. Only long-haul trains serve such large cities as Denver, Salt Lake, Memphis, New Orleans, Dallas and Minneapolis. They feed countless connecting passengers into Amtrak's regional and corridor trains, virtually none of whom who would ride those services without the long-haul trains. These trains often are sold-out months in advance, particularly in the summer and at holidays. The sleeping car services are very heavily used. Even before September 11, first-class space frequently was unavailable. Since then, sleeper demand has grown 15 to 18 percent, yet Amtrak's fleet of serviceable cars is declining just as demand grows.
Long-distance trains provide the only public transportation for many points and the only reliable winter service over large parts of entire routes, such as Chicago to Seattle. They are very well used. For example, the often-belittled Empire Builder carried 398,000 passengers on the Chicago-Seattle (Portland) route in fiscal 2001. This is an average of 1,094 passengers per day, or 547 on each train (allowing for the fact that the train runs daily in each direction); yet, the Empire Builder serves such tiny (but rail dependent) towns as Wolf Point, Montana and Williston, North Dakota. Many departures are sold out months in advance, a fact that often has eluded Amtrak's critics.
System-wide, these "little used" trains actually carried 5.88 million passengers in fiscal 2001, more than 16,110 riders per day. Typically, a third of the passengers on the national services connected to other Amtrak routes, frequently including the very corridor trains which are so often claimed to be Amtrak's only viable operations. Amtrak's own Market-Based Network Analysis (MBNA) in 1999-2000 made the clear point that elimination of Amtrak's national network would dramatically increase losses on all remaining routes. Not only would connecting revenues be lost, but other costs such as depreciation, reservations and terminal expenses would fall on a far smaller number of routes. This impact could convert a marginally profitable operation like the NEC to a money-loser.
If the tragic events of September 11 and the days that followed proved nothing else about our rail transportation policy, they demonstrated the absolute necessity of maintaining a real, interconnected, national rail system in the United States.
Amtrak appears to have marketing problems, which warrant at least the partial implementation of several ARC recommendations. The carrier tends toward a corporate culture of institutionalized pessimism, which too often causes it to miss business opportunities. Under unremitting pressure to cut losses, Amtrak managers have focused for over three decades on cutting costs; but this concentration has had unfortunate consequences. Too often Amtrak has avoided expense by avoiding opportunity, acting as if it fears "the more people we carry, the more money we'll lose." Rail Travel Center's experience in its 20 years of selling Amtrak have shown us Amtrak's long-haul trains are frequently sold out, yet for a variety of reasons, Amtrak rarely responds to its lack of space by adding capacity. This flies in the face of a fundamental business truth. If a merchant has something to sell and it quickly sells out, two lessons are promptly learned: Get additional inventory now and raise prices until sales stop. Amtrak has experimented with market-driven pricing but rarely has acted on the need for more capacity. The long-haul system has been fundamentally compromised by the failure to meet market demand. These trains do not lack for riders; rather they lack capacity and frequency.
Amtrak cripples itself further by not keeping proper records on potential business that is lost. Amtrak refuses to take waitlists for sold-out trains because accepting waitlists would require staffing its reservations bureaus with extra workers to call passengers as space cleared. Amtrak managers always have preferred cost-containment through reduced staffing as opposed to having the opportunity to board more passengers. The result has been to deny Amtrak information it needs to properly estimate unmet demand. Amtrak often has used the excuse of a lack of cars to justify its reluctance to take waitlists; and indeed, the company clearly needs much more equipment; but if Amtrak managers really knew how much business they were losing, they could better justify capital expenditures for new equipment and to repair existing cars.
Even in the west, where extra cars should be available given the size of the Superliner fleet, extra cars rarely are added. Indeed, in the last few years, Amtrak has cut the capacity of most western trains, even in the face of frequently sold-out consists at peak seasons. Ideally, a car would be added whenever advanced ticket sales reached the capacity of a train. The process of making that decision would be further enhanced if proper waitlists were kept. Even if cars never had to be added, waitlists would insure programmed capacity rarely ran empty by refilling space after cancellations.
All other transportation carriers - rail, sea and air - keep such waitlists. In 20 years at Rail Travel Center, we never failed to get a client, who was willing to be waitlisted, onto the frequently sold-out VIA Rail Canada transcontinental service. VIA, therefore, never lost that revenue.
Amtrak intentionally has reduced the capacity of many long-distance trains by failing to repair wreck-damaged equipment and by deferring essential overhauls. This saved money at the expense of undermining patronage on trains which were turning away customers. The result is reflected in reduced capacity and declining patronage even on trains that often are sold-out long before departure.
A good example is the vital California Zephyr, which traditionally carries three sleeping cars in the summer season over the entire route from Chicago to San Francisco. Last summer the third car ran only between Chicago and Denver on most dates. The supremely scenic portion of the route through the Rocky Mountains and the High Sierras was left without adequate sleeper capacity. Lack of cars was blamed. In order to obtain the added Chicago to Denver sleeper, Amtrak stripped its Chicago-Louisville train of any sleeping car space at all for the entire summer. Yet, at that very time, Amtrak had many Superliner cars in storage awaiting either deferred overhauls or wreck repairs. Obviously, Amtrak managers favored short-term cost savings over meeting passenger demand. This behavior makes a well-used service like the California Zephyr appear to suffer from declining patronage, when, in fact, passengers are being turned away.
The February 1 Amtrak press release announcing draconian maintenance cuts for the current fiscal year will compound the problem. If cars are not routinely overhauled, the stored fleet inevitably will grow. Every 180 days, all Amtrak equipment must receive major maintenance or be parked until that work is done. Even if essential repairs are performed, business will be lost if trains depart with cars that have torn upholstery, malfunctioning air conditioning, or improper cleaning.
In mid-January 2002, 32 of Amtrak's double-decker Superliner sleeping cars were out of service for maintenance. This represents 26.9 percent of the fleet. Some of these cars have been stored for months. Amtrak already has trouble finding the cars to respond to both emergencies and opportunities.
The Congress could be very helpful by targeting a portion of its annual Amtrak appropriation for equipment maintenance and repair and insisting those funds not be diverted to any other purpose. In the short-term, an emergency appropriation is needed now to repair stored cars for service before the summer season begins. Without capacity, Amtrak cannot possibly meet any performance goals.
A special program needs to be funded to restore all stored Amtrak equipment to operating condition. No operator can succeed without adequate equipment, nor could any meaningful new routes be started or capacity added to existing trains without more cars than presently are serviceable. Amtrak must not sell any more of its stored equipment. Many fine cars in long-term storage should be renovated for operation. For example, an entire fleet of former Santa Fe RR "High Level" chair cars is stored, offering the potential for hundreds of seats per day if returned to service. There is absolutely no lack of demand for any of Amtrak's stored assets.
The VIA Rail Canada system provides dramatic evidence of the success of running as many cars as demand requires. For years, VIA capped its trans-continental Canadian at nine cars in the off-season and 17 in summer. VIA also feared "the more people we carry, the more money we'll lose." But faced with a permanently capped level of government support, VIA raised fares as high as the market would bear and added cars until demand was filled. Now the Canadian often carries 26 cars, but the train covers its costs in the high season and has dramatically improved its finances year-round. No VIA trains have been cut since 1994, despite no increase in operating subsidies throughout the 1990s.
Amtrak consistently underestimates the likely patronage of new services. Such remarkable success stories as the Capitals in California, the Cascades in the Northwest, and the Downeaster in New England were grudgingly supported in their early stages by an Amtrak management that too often accepted the assumption few passengers would travel even on a well-run service.
The company's 1999-2000 Market Based Network Analysis (MBNA) might have offered a way out. Unfortunately, most new routes proposed in the first MBNA report were express and mail driven, and few actually were implemented. Amtrak appears to have completely abandoned the promised second round of MBNA recommendations, which was expected to include new passenger-oriented lines. The first MBNA was totally silent on the most obvious examples of unserved markets. For example, no trains were projected to serve Chicago to Florida (one of the busiest of all travel routes) or Denver to Dallas.
Starting new trains requires major federal and state capital investment and some additional operating support. Amtrak would request this funding in its annual budget - if starting new routes was really an Amtrak priority. Congressional and state support follows the perception that something might actually happen. Consider the resurgent interest in trains in Oklahoma once the Oklahoma City-to-Fort Worth Heartland Flyer began operating.
Amtrak rarely does effective route-specific marketing. Although Amtrak spends millions annually on advertising, virtually all of its media placements for the national network are vague "image" advertising. Amtrak tells users that "Trains are Fun," "All Aboard Amtrak," or "Tracks are Back," but it rarely runs an ad targeting the potential users of an individual train. After 30 years of Amtrak operation, most people know that Amtrak exists. What they do not know is where it goes, what they could see on a trip, and how much it might cost to travel.
Rarely are we told "The ten best reasons to take the Southwest Chief." Route-specific promotions work; and when Amtrak has tried this approach they often have been very successful, most recently in adding patronage to the threatened Texas Eagle; but individual route ads do not appeal to national advertising agencies that want to place generic ads they perceive meet all needs.
Even when route-specific marketing has been pursued, Amtrak sometimes gets it wrong. The most recent example is the naming of all NEC trains Acela. In the public mind, the term Acela denotes the 150 mph American super trains; yet passengers board typical NEC services run with 25-year-old Amfleet cars and are deeply unhappy to find they are not on a true Acela. Calling an all-stops New York to Philadelphia local an Acela Commuter is simply confusing to the public, especially when a true Acela Express bullet train may leave five minutes later.
The present Amtrak network is far too skeletal, not too large.
We support experimental and limited franchising of selected Amtrak routes or service functions. This should produce operators who will aggressively market. We have no illusions that all government support can be eliminated, but it very likely can be gradually reduced as patronage grows with dedicated marketing. Each franchise award would come with an assured level of government support. As already noted, Amtrak has historically focused its efforts on the NEC and a few other regional corridors (largely to exclusion of the long-haul network) because it correctly perceived the money was in those routes. If real dollars were applied to the support of the long-haul system, its operation should attract both Amtrak and other potential vendors.
Tax incentives and grants should be made available for purchase of additional passenger cars. This is the essential capital commitment that the government must make to allow any rail program to succeed. New cars already are desperately needed, especially on eastern long-haul routes where Amtrak uses almost every car it owns every day and literally has no reserve fleet. If franchising succeeds, more cars will quickly be needed. We must spend money now to make future money. To minimize the amount in direct grants, the tax code should be reviewed for ways to encourage private sector initiatives; for example, using tax credits and accelerated depreciation. In addition, the fuel tax collected on the railroads should be diverted to railway capital needs.
The High Speed Rail Investment Act (HSRIA) should be passed to assure regional route development. We are absolutely in support of the incremental upgrade strategy essential to the HSRIA process. A network of higher-speed corridors should hugely reduce Amtrak's expenses and increase its ridership throughout the system.
A federal passenger rail franchise oversight agency should be created to analyze which services might be franchised. Not all routes may offer the prospect of real cost reductions. To assure a reasonable chance of success, the train services offered in a franchise award package must be sufficient in number to allow for adequate synergies of scale. It is very unlikely any individual train alone can be franchised. This agency should include representatives of the operating railroads, organized labor, USDOT, Amtrak, the states currently supporting Amtrak trains, and the travel industry. An independent arbitrator, in cooperation with the oversight agency, should make the actual ultimate award of franchises.
Amtrak should be retained, and encouraged to bid to operate any services included in any franchise award. The objective of any franchising should be to encourage an expanded rail passenger system with better economics through improved route-specific marketing, equipment utilization, and a more pro-active management culture. It should be understood that no franchise awards would be likely for two years.
We should franchise at least one group of Amtrak routes. The franchise should contain enough trains to give the operator a reasonable synergy of scale. For example, all long-haul trains running west from Chicago might be a franchise grouping. Another could be all trains run with Superliner equipment, or all long-haul trains to Florida, the Carolinas and New Orleans. Amtrak and other potential operators (including the freight railroads) should be encouraged to bid for the franchise to serve any route. Until the success of the initial franchise can be properly evaluated, all other services should remain under Amtrak's direct control.
There must be a federal guarantee of a fixed level of financial support. This guarantee must be for a multi-year period equal to the duration of the franchise award, be contractually assured, and not subject to the annual appropriations process. For regional trains, partial state support also could be a part of the package. An expectation of the franchise award would be that an operator seek to gradually reduce the government's support; but it would be clearly understood the operator would not be expected to cover all fully allocated costs.
The franchise holder would be required to operate the service for the full period of the award but could adjust service levels based on market demand as long as year-round service was provided. The Amtrak right of track access must be transferred to any franchise holder; but freight railroads should be encouraged to enter into the process, if possible by actually bidding for appropriate franchises. To encourage participation by the freight railroads, substantial tax incentives should be offered. This will help assure track access and good dispatching, even if the freight carrier is not the ultimate franchise operator.
There must be on-going review of the performance (both financial and operational), of each franchise. Poorly run franchises could be cancelled or offered to other operators.
Amtrak's equipment should be allocated on a competitive basis. If equipment needs are recognized on a route-by-route basis, mistakes (such as Amtrak's failure to order a single passenger car for its long-haul national system with the more than two billion dollars in capital provided in the recent Roth capital appropriation measure) can be avoided. From that appropriation, only express and mail equipment was purchased for routes outside the NEC and California.
We should experiment with privatizing on-board services including dining cars and sleepers. For years, Amtrak has had the authority to privatize its food services. This should be done now. Amtrak did contract-out the commissary function for its diners but not the actual operation on board the trains. This is where the greatest savings can be found. While it is unlikely a concessionaire would want to handle a single train, the entire long-haul system or a route grouping (such as all regional services out of Chicago) might look financially rewarding to a private operator.
While it is a clich» of rail operations that dining cars cannot be operated profitably, this is not always true. For many years, the Alaska Railroad has used a contractor for its diners. Amtrak itself has two trains with private food operations, the North Carolina Piedmont and the Boston-Portland Downeaster. Quality food service is absolutely essential to the rider, but options for lower cost service should be investigated. Amtrak would provide meal cars to the concessionaire, who would pay a reasonable fee to Amtrak for an effective service monopoly.
The same approach could be very successful for the operation of sleeping car services. Even if Amtrak retained the basic authority to run all routes, a strong argument can be made that subsidy payments should be focused on coach travelers, with first-class services reasonably expected to run profitably.
Franchising may reduce the need for federal financial support; but federal investment always will be needed, as it is for the airlines with the federally funded air traffic control system. A franchise operator will have every incentive to concentrate all resources on the assigned route. This can only improve service and revenue returns. An experiment with at least one franchised route or service package is a risk worth taking.
The ultimate objective of Amtrak's reauthorization and the ARC's review process should be to preserve and expand American rail passenger service. The present model does not work, and we see no easy fix simply by continuing the status quo. A true national network must be preserved. It is essential to the safety and public good of the nation.
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I wanted to commend you on a wonderfully written commentary [An open letter to journalists, D:F, February 4]. It was right to the point and well written with a touch of humility. While I'm a computer consultant, not a journalist, I think that all Americans can learn something from your commentary. I can only hope that the journalist who wrote the following gem, along with an overall negative opinion of Amtrak, for the Florida Times Union will read your piece.
"Other advanced nations such as Britain, Japan and Sweden have been moving toward private sector operation successfully."
It is errors like that which help to hurt the public's perception of Amtrak. I am enclosing a link to the full editorial should you wish to peruse it: http://cnniw.yellowbrix.com/pages/cnniw/Story.nsp?story_id=27522209
I have been an avid reader of D:F for probably close to two years now, ever since a link was first posted on the Prodigy Trains Community to your newsletter. The Prodigy site, as you know from your posting last week (the link to the Acela Express trainsets, has a wealth of train links and info. As an active participant on the bulletin board, I read most of the stories that are posted.
I've also posted some myself, so I consider myself rather well read when it comes to matters of Amtrak and trains in general.
Therefore, I always look forward to reading D:F every Monday, or as soon as I can get to it, each week. There have been many wonderful stories and commentaries before about Amtrak, but as I stated above, this commentary summed it up very nicely. I thank you and your team for your wonderful efforts on the part of Amtrak, and trains in general.
Along with my two cents in this e-mail, I have also, just tonight, rectified my oversight in not having joined as a member, and have therefore sent you my $45 tonight. I had always just gone right to the stories and never really looked around the site to see the membership page.
Of course, I suppose that with my new discount as a member I should have only sent you my one-cent opinion, but then again inflation hits us all.
Thanks again for a great article and a wonderful newsletter.
-- Wow. Thanks for your kind words, Alan. - Ed.
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Supply Chain Expo
Donald E. Stephens Convention Center
ASLRRA annual meeting and exhibition
World Center Marriott
NCI 2002 Conference
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NCI: Leo King CollectionPeterborough, New Hampshire, has always remained a memorable place in the editor's mind, because two tracks intersected there, and made the town, with its class quaint passenger station, unique. Around 1953, a railfan trip from Boston took an "around the world" trip over B&M lines.
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In an effort to expand the on-line experience at the National Corridors Initiative web site, we have added a page featuring links to other rail travel sites. We hope to provide links to those cities or states that are working on rail transportation initiatives - state DOTs, legislators, governor's offices, and transportation professionals - as well as some links for travelers, enthusiasts, and hobbyists.
If you have a favorite rail link, please send the uniform resource locator address (URL) to the webmaster in care of this web site. An e-mail link appears at the bottom of the NCI web site pages to get in touch with D. M. Kirkpatrick, NCI's webmaster in Boston.
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