Vol. 7 No. 23
May 22, 2006

Copyright © 2006
NCI Inc., All Rights Reserved

The E-Zine of the National Corridors Initiative, Inc.
President and CEO - Jim RePass
Publisher - Jim RePass      Editor - Molly McKay
Webmaster - Dennis Kirkpatrick

A weekly North American rail and transit update

For railroad professionals
Political leaders at all levels of government
Journalists from all media

* Now in our Seventh Year *

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IN THIS EDITION...  In this edition...

  News Items... 
Bill would fund commuter rail in Western Massachusetts
Spitzer is cool to Pataki’s plan for a rail link to Kennedy
Other opinions on how to spend New York’s transportation funds
Nominations to Amtrak Reform Board announced
  Safety lines… 
FDNY and MTA agree on evacuation plan for rail tunnel
NS lasers in on rail defects
Train derails near Fort Madison
  Commuter lines… 
Hevesi Says MTA fare increase is not necessary, for now
  Legal lines… 
I-Team 10 follow up: CSX settles lawsuit
Judge gives union payment plan for strike fines
  Friday Closing Quotes… 
  Freight lines… 
CSX to replace 21 rail crossings
  Off the main line… 
First Coast’s first days
Plane Pain
Amtrak Needs More Federal Backing, Not Privatization
Plane pain factual errors
  End notes… 

Bill would fund commuter rail
in Western Massachusetts

Source: The Republican

BOSTON, MAY 18 -- Last Wednesday legislators unveiled a bill that calls for $500 million for a commuter rail between Springfield and Worcester, reported the Springfield Republican in an article by Dan Ring.

The line is used by Amtrak twice a day for their Lake Shore Limited train from Boston to Chicago and is owned by CSX freight railroad. The track would need significant up-grades to handle commuter rail. The legislators indicated that an extensive study would be needed, including ridership numbers, environmental problems and design construction hurdles.

The bill calls for a $200 million annual fund for other rail projects around the state, including New Bedford and Fall River, two cities that have been clamoring for commuter rail to Boston for 15 years. The fund would receive 2 cents of the state’s 21-cents-a gallon gas tax and 1 percent of the state’s 5 percent tax on the sale of motor vehicles.

Other ways of raising funds would be allowed under this bill if it passes. Communities could charge a higher tax for hotels and could also impose a $5 surcharge on car rentals, airline tickets and water ferries or sightseeing boats.

The bill would not provide money for a proposed commuter rail connecting Springfield with Hartford and New Haven, Connecticut. . A separate bill would be needed for that project.

Rep. Sean F. Curran, D-Springfield, said the first focus must be on winning money for the Hartford to Springfield line. The state’s share would be between $30 million and $50 million.

“Once you have the Hartford to Springfield connection, you’ll have a major push to build the line to Worcester,” Curran said.

Jonathan M. Carlisle, spokesman for the state’s Executive Office of Transportation, feels that Massachusetts residents are taxed enough. He said the administration should look at tapping into a portion of the existing gas tax and sales tax.

John Cogliano, Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation, and Stephen E. Korta III, Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Transportation, will meet to discuss the New Haven Hartford Springfield link, according to the article.

Co-sponsors of the bill from Western Massachusetts included Representatives Sean Curran,. Benjamin Swan and Cheryl A. Coakley-Rivera and Sen. Stephen J. Buoniconti, all Springfield Democrats.

The lead sponsor, Rep. Antonio F.D. Cabral, D-New Bedford, acknowledged that it might be difficult to move the bill before the end of this year’s formal legislative sessions on July 31.

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Spitzer is cool to Pataki’s plan
for a rail link to Kennedy

Source: New York Times Company

MAY 6 -- Eliot Spitzer, Democratic gubernatorial candidate for governor of New York, in his first major speech on transportation, said he would not place the rail link from Lower Manhattan to Kennedy airport as a high priority if he were governor, reported Patrick McGeehan in an article for the New York Times.

Mr. Spitzer, who is New York state’s attorney general, expressed doubt that the $6 billion project was a sensible use of public resources and did not include it among what he called “the top priorities for Albany’s funding of major new transportation expansion projects in the metropolitan region over at least the next five years.”

His short list of priorities, he said, consists of a subway line along Second Avenue, a Long Island Rail Road connection to Grand Central Terminal and the replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge across the Hudson River.

Other opinions on how to spend
New York’s transportation funds:

Silver vs. Spitzer

The New York Observer reported that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who has long supported the Second Avenue Subway and is a resident of the Lower East Side, is now saying the J.F.K. Rail Link is more important. The Regional Plan Association, according to the report, believes the J.F.K. Rail Link, at $6 billion, is too expensive for the few thousand riders that would use it every day. But Mr. Silver sees it as an important rail link to get Long Island residents downtown, not just a means of getting downtowners to the airport.

Governor Pataki, on the other hand, has made the link to Kennedy a top priority in the revitalization of the downtown financial district, the article continued, and was able to persuade the Bush administration to allow $2 billion of Sept. 11 aid to be used for the project.

In a speech to the Regional Plan Association, Spitzer made only passing mention of the link. He criticized the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the Port Authority of New Jersey and New York, and the New York Thruway Authority for their slow progress on the projects he favors.

According to the article, he said the authority was “dysfunctional and not well run.” He said if he is elected governor, he will “appoint individuals to executive and board positions based on professional excellence and experience, not patronage.”

Anthony R. Coscia, the chairman of the Port Authority, who was in the audience for the speech, seemed unperturbed by anything Mr. Spitzer said.

Mr. Coscia said he agreed it was important to set priorities for the big projects since they are all in competition for money from the same sources. His favorite project is the tunnel under the Hudson River from New Jersey into Midtown Manhattan that could cost $6 billion.

Mr. Spitzer said yesterday that he supported Port Authority spending of $1 billion to $2 billion on that tunnel, as long as the agency contributed an equal amount to a New York project like the Second Avenue subway, the Long Island Rail Road connection to the East Side, or the link to Kennedy.

Thomas R. Suozzi, the Nassau County executive, who is challenging Mr. Spitzer for the Democratic nomination for governor, criticized his rival for not saying how he would pay for the projects he supports. Mr. Suozzi did not spell out what improvements in transportation he would recommend at this time.

Transportation analysts who heard the speech said they were impressed that Spitzer was so well informed on transportation needs and clear about what he supported.

“I would be surprised if I ever again sit in a room with a gubernatorial candidate who says that much about what he wants to do on transportation,” said Jon Orcutt, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, which pushes for mass transportation. “It’s important for New York to make those clear statements now because we have had this eight years of sort of a morass with all of these big projects going nowhere.” Mr. Orcutt added that he considered it “definitely significant” that Mr. Spitzer had less to say about the Kennedy rail link than about the Second Avenue subway, the East Side rail project or the Tappan Zee.

In reference to the Tappan Zee Bridge, Mr. Spitzer emphasized that mass transit would be an important component of that replacement, but he had no opinion on whether it should be commuter rail or a dedicated lane for buses.

He said he was open to all ideas on how to pay for a new bridge, which would cost at least $5 billion. One possibility would be a public-private partnership that would use toll revenue for construction costs.

He also said he supports the No. 7 subway line to the Far West Side of Manhattan. That would be financed by the city.

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Nominations to Amtrak Reform Board announced

The President intends to nominate the following individuals to be Members of the Amtrak Reform Board, for five-year terms:

The President intends to appoint Norman Y. Mineta of California to be a Member of the Amtrak Reform Board for a five-year term beginning June 28, 2006.

(Editor’s note: Amtrak’s Board of Directors is now referred to as the “Amtrak Reform Board,” not to be confused with the “Reform Council” which was established in 1997 to make recommendations for Amtrak and has now expired.)

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SAFETY LINES...  Safety lines...

FDNY and MTA agree on evacuation
plan for rail tunnel

From the Internet via WNYC

NEW YORK, NY, MAY 13 –A new train terminal, East Side Access, will bring Long Islanders from Queens directly into Midtown on trains that will pull into a station 15 stories below Grand Central Terminal. This new access will free up thousands of commuters from being solely dependent on Penn Station.

The plan has been on the drawing boards for many years but was stalled three years ago when the New York Fire Department and the Metropolitan Transit Authority could not agree on the evacuation plan. Recently, a compromise in the design for emergency access in the deep underground tunnel was reached, reported Beth Fertig for WNYC.

The Fire Department was concerned about a section beneath Second Avenue where the nearest exits would be 31-hundred feet apart: More than half a mile. That’s not unusual in deep train tunnels, according to the article, but safety standards call for passages to be built between the train tunnels whenever the exits are more than 2500 feet apart. The National Fire Protection Association wrote the standards.

The MTA had planned the cross passageways to be 800 feet apart but the Fire Department insisted the distance be no more than 500 feet. In 2003, the MTA’s code coordinator objected to that. In a letter to the Fire Department, he said such a distance, quote, “cannot be reasonably achieved and is in significant excess of the requirements.”

That prompted a stern response from the Fire Department’s commanding officer Robert Weinman. In November of 2003, Weinman wrote a letter to the MTA stating that when designing East Side Access, quote, “You must take into account the requirement, experience and the expertise of the Fire Department that you will be calling upon to protect your passengers, employees, property and equipment in the event of an incident.”

WNYC obtained the correspondence under the Freedom of Information law. After 2003 there was no further correspondence. When WNYC inquired recently about the status, they were told the two sides were still in negotiations. But after a meeting between MTA’s construction captain and the Fire Department, an agreement was reached on May 12. Extra passageways would be built for the fire fighters.

James Long of the National Fire Protection Association says it’s not unusual for agencies to disagree about the standards, because they’re just that: standards. He said they were written with the goal of getting passengers out of a tunnel.

James Lake, the other specialist from NFPA, said the NYC fire department has every right to ask for something more than the standards for their purposes of access.

The sheer scope of the project raises questions among transit groups and politicians about safety. The MTA has designed high speed escalators to take Long Island Rail Road passengers from the platform to mezzanine. In the event of a fire or other emergency, the head of capital construction has said that passengers could get to a designated point of safety within the four-minute industry standard. And the federal government has approved this plan.

Gene Russianoff, an attorney with the Straphangers Campaign, says he’s pleased the Fire Department and the MTA were able to agree on improving emergency access for firefighters

Russianoff said: “I think it’s important to be straight with the public and to be transparent and open about what the safety features from the LIRR connection to Grand Central Terminal. As a rider I can’t tell you whether it’s safe or not safe. I rely on the Fire Dept working with the MTA and federal officials to guarantee the safety of the 70,000 people who will go into that station in the morning and 75,000 people in the evening.”

Construction on the tunnel leading to Grand Central Terminal could start as soon as this year and the project is scheduled to open in 2012.

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NS lasers in on rail defects

From the Internet via Roanoke.com
The Roanoke Times

ROANOKE, VA, MAY 18 -- Norfolk Southern Railway reported to writer Ray Reed that advanced technology, including video and GPS systems, is enabling the railroad to plan maintenance much more efficiently and more economically. Defects in rails and wheels can be spotted more quickly, thereby avoiding accidents and more expensive repairs.

In a Pullman car built in 1923 but outfitted now with video and laser beams, NS engineering technicians peer at emerging defects in rails.

Their challenge is to predict when a rail at a certain milepost in the 22-state system will wear thin or get loose enough to cause a derailment.

The ideal is to spot defects in time to fix the rail before an accident occurs but without interfering with shipping times. “That keeps shippers happy,” said Robert Blank, director of research and testing for NS in Roanoke.

In one incident, a carload of paper towels and food products was stuck on a siding for 30 days while repairs were being made.

Shippers are returning to the rails which they had once discarded in favor of trucks, so NS is using technology, i.e., lasers and other sensing devices, in order to offer faster, safer service.

Freight railroads are hard pressed to deliver service with a booming market that analysts think will continue for at least two years. The problem is those railroads are using tracks that have had very little maintenance in three decades.

A GPS system recently installed in the research car will record worn spots in tracks by latitude and longitude -- a system more precise than reporting that a defect is within 100 yards of a given milepost, for example.

NS’ research car is perhaps the most advanced maintenance tool in the nation’s rail fleet, Blank said, because other railroads don’t have one like it.

The converted research car’s cameras and laser beams record six kinds of defects that occur in track: curve alignment; rails out of level; rails spread too far apart; the cant or angle at which they sit; their surface smoothness; and their twist, or flex.

That information prints out on a chart with squiggly lines that record the ways the rails have, in essence, groaned under the train’s weight, the article continued.

Back in the 1950’s and 60’s NS’ predecessor, Norfolk and Western, deferred maintenance during a period of mergers. That was followed by programmed maintenance done on a regular schedule.

With the new technology, wear-out signs can be spotted much more precisely.

Wayside detectors are used for locating defective wheels, bearings and other moving parts. The condition of 865,000 wheels per week, on more than 1,500 trains, is being recorded in a database that keeps a log of individual cars, said Scott Keegan, manager of project engineering for NS.

With this data, a flat spot on a wheel can be detected and the wheel replaced before it causes bad vibrations, which in turn could lead to derailment.

(On a typical train, half the cars belong to other railroads or private shippers. The huge amount of data being compiled by technology will help those outside owners to know about maintenance problems ahead of time.)

Strain gauges also measure track wear, but in a different way. Resembling a tiny plastic strip with wires, strain gauges are attached to rails in a curve to detect whether a train’s weight is distributed equally on each rail.

The weight distribution is affected by the speed of the train, said Kevin Conn, a research engineer for NS. Adjustments can be made by changing speeds whereas in the past, railroads were always trying to make trains stronger.

“Unequal weight means the train isn’t moving at the right speed, or a rail has gotten too high or low,” said Conn..

“For years the railroad tried to make things stronger. Now that process has become more expensive, and we are finding it is more economical to reduce the force we are applying” to rails and wheels, Conn said.

In the 1970’s, many miles of track were torn up by freight railroads during a decline in shipping volumes. Today, with rapidly increasing demand for freight rail, many of those railroad executives wish they had those tracks back.

Technology is much less romantic than the days when veteran railroaders with flashlights eyeballed the wheels and rails to spot defects.

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Train derails near Fort Madison

Source: Associated Press

FORT MADISON, IOWA, MAY 14 -- A 130-car Burlington Northern Santa Fe train derailed on Friday, May 12, on its trip from the St. Louis area to the Powder River basin area in Wyoming.

A locomotive and 22 cars of the train derailed just before 2 AM, dumping about 1,600 tons of coal onto the ground and closing the tracks until the mess was cleaned up, railroad officials reported to the Associated Press.

The locomotive and six of the cars remained upright, according to the article.

No one was injured.

The cause of the derailment was under investigation.

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COMMUTER LINES...  Commuter lines...

Hevesi Says MTA fare increase
is not necessary, for now

Source: New York Times

MAY 11 -- The New York State Comproller, Mr. Alan G. Hevesi, said recently that the five percent fare increase that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority wants is not necessary right now, according to a story by Times reporter Thomas J. Lueck.

The anticipated increases would be 5 percent in 2007 and again in 2009. That would follow last year’s 5 percent increase and a 25 percent jump in 2003 when the subway fare went from $1.50 to $2.00, the article continued.

In a financial analysis released last week, Mr. Hevesi’s staff said that the authority has received a share of real estate transfer and recording taxes which have buoyed its coffers for the short term. The long-term outlook is far worse, according to Hevesi, because of a huge increase in the authority’s debts to maintain and expand the transit system.

For the present, he feels that transit users have enough financial burden with the “incredible increase in the price of gasoline and fuel.”

“Public policy should be to get people out of their cars,” Mr. Hevesi said.

Katherine N. Lapp, the authority’s executive director, said yesterday that the authority would “take under advisement” Mr. Hevesi’s recommendations when updates to the plan are recommended in July.

The comptroller’s analysis shows that the authority’s cash surplus at the end of this year, because of the real estate taxes, would reach $533 million; that’s $316 million more than anticipated in the authority’s current plan, according to Lueck’s article. Hevesi criticized the M.T.A.’s financial plan for being out of date.

Mr. Hevesi attributed the authority’s longer-term problems to a pattern of heavy borrowing begun in the late 1990’s. The debt stood at $20 billion last year, and will grow to $32 billion by 2010, the report said.

The debt is needed to pay for some major projects such as a share of the Second Avenue subway, but most of it is for maintenance and repairs.

Mr. Hevesi said the authority should cut its work force to get rid of duplication in human resources and find other ways to cut. He said that Ms. Lapp, who was made executive director in 2002, had made strides toward making the authority more accountable and toward reducing costs, but that more needs to be done.

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LEGAL LINES...  Legal lines...

I-Team 10 follow up:

CSX settles lawsuit

Source: I-Team 10 TV newswire

ROCHESTER, NY, MAY 12 – A settlement in a lawsuit has been reached between CSX and the family of a young man who was electrocuted while jogging along their railroad tracks in Brighton. Robin Armstrong died after touching a signal wire that was hanging along those tracks.

The company admits no fault, but a long time railroad employee told I-Team 10 that he had warned CSX bosses of potential danger just four months before Armstrong’s death.

Railroad maintenance workers have a name for the section of track in Brighton which they say is not maintainable because it is not accessible by truck. They call it “the hole.” “We didn’t have the equipment and/or the forces to maintain it,” the workers said.

Shortly after Armstrong was electrocuted, I-Team 10 went to the remote site where he died and saw tipped electrical poles and worn wires. “The 550 wire that killed Mr. Armstrong was a floater. It wasn’t tied in, which was an FRA violation,” said Michael Baker, a CSX maintenance supervisor.

When Armstrong’s family filed suit, they claimed that CSX’s maintenance of its pole lines was deplorable and that the company had made a conscious decision to cut costs at the expense of public safety. Baker gave a sworn deposition supporting their case.

Baker says that four months before Armstrong’s death, he and his regional boss warned the company about the potential hazards along that very stretch of tracks and even took photographs to show his superiors. “The conversation was we were both aware of the fact that it was a dangerous situation out there.”

But Baker also says he found a way to install track signals that would have eliminated the high-voltage electric lines. He claims the proposal was forwarded to the corporate bosses, but nothing was ever done.

John Casellini was CSX regional vice president at the time. “The fact of the matter is we’ve got a regular inspection procedure and we have dealt with those issues that not only we find through inspection, but that our own folks find when out there doing their work along the tracks.”

Lisa Fairchild, Armstrong’s fiancée, was not entitled to any of the money from the settlement because she and Robin Armstrong were not yet married. I-team 10 contacted her via e-mail. She called the settlement a minor inconvenience to CSX and wished they had been forced to spend that $250,000.00 on upgrades to the signal wiring and better monitoring.

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Judge gives union payment
plan for strike fines

TWU Must Fork Over $2.5M For Illegal Transit Walkout

Source: Associated Press

NEW YORK, MAY 17 -- A lawsuit has been dropped and a payment plan imposed on the Transport Workers Union that led the transit strike last December, reported an article by Associated Press. The strike forced millions of New Yorkers to walk, bike and find other ways to get around in the cold for two days plus just before Christmas.

An agreement was reached by the union, the state attorney general’s office and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the article continues. The city agreed to drop the lawsuit seeking additional damages for the walkout and the payment plan will require the union to pay the city $208,000. a month. The total fine is $2.5 million.

Left unsettled for the union is its desire for reform of the Taylor Law, which prohibits public employees from striking. Roger Toussaint, TWU president, said this law “is in dire need of reform, and we hope that the state Legislature takes the necessary and appropriate steps to protect workers from out of control bureaucracies like the MTA.”

Another part of the penalty is the suspension of the union’s right to receive member dues by automatic deductions from paychecks. This will be allowed while the fine is being paid off but will be suspended afterwards for at least three months.

The union wants to move to a system under which members would make direct payments to the union.

City lawyer Georgia Pestana said agreement on the framework for the payment plan was reached outside court and approved by Brooklyn state Supreme Court Judge Theodore Jones.

“We hope that this hefty fine and the loss of the dues check-off will warn the TWU and other unions that contemplate violating the law that the law must be obeyed and that public employees and their unions have no right to betray the public’s trust by engaging in illegal strikes,” Pestana said.

The roughly 33,000-member union’s appeal of the fines is pending. The city would have to repay the fines if they are reversed on appeal.

During the strike, which began Dec. 20, the city put into effect restrictions on cars that were aimed at alleviating traffic jams in Manhattan, and taxis were allowed to take more than one fare at a time.

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STOCKS...  Selected Friday closing quotes...

Source: MarketWatch.com

  Friday One Week
Burlington Northern & Santa Fe(BNI)73.8079.55
Canadian National (CNI)43.5545.13
Canadian Pacific (CP)51.054.85
CSX (CSX)67.2070.72
Florida East Coast (FLA)55.8857.38
Genessee & Wyoming (GWR)27.5930.10
Kansas City Southern (KSU)25.6826.52
Norfolk Southern (NSC)50.5254.37
Providence & Worcester (PWX)16.6016.73
Union Pacific (UNP)91.7094.37

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FREIGHT LINES...  Freight lines...

CSX to replace 21 rail crossings

From the Internet

CSX Transportation Inc. plans to rebuild 21 of its railroad street-grade crossings in Terre Haute starting May 29 as part of a larger reconstruction project for its railroad corridor from Perrysville to Evansville, CSX spokeswoman Kimberly Freely told Howard Greninger, reporter for CNHI News Service.

Railroad crews will remove old crossings and replace them with new rails, ties, ballast and asphalt to create a smoother ride for motorists, Freely said.

The company’s reconstruction project will extend through the fall.

“It takes two or three days to replace a crossing, but that depends upon the size of the crossing and if the weather is good,” Freely said of the repairs scheduled for Terre Haute.

CSX is working with the city’s Department of Engineering to schedule the repairs. They are making an effort to cause as little disruption as possible to city residents, the report continues.

Kevin Hicks, construction manager for the engineering department, said he will meet with railroad officials today to discuss a schedule.

The crossings being replaced are: Rose Hill Road, Devonald Street, Ostrand Street, Haythorne Avenue, 25th Street, Fort Harrison Road, Maple Avenue, Ash Street, Third Street, Locust Street, Elm Street, Spruce Street, Chestnut Street, Poplar Street, Walnut Street, College Avenue, Springhill Road, Margaret Avenue, Davis Drive, McDaniel Road and Woodsmall Road.

In May 2002, CSX Transportation closed is primary Indiana line between Terre Haute and Evansville to refurbish track and improve crossings. Under that project, more than 500 workers with a fleet of railway equipment worked to repair 31 railroad crossings, replace 60,000 railway ties and 12.4 miles of straight and curved rail and install new roadbed materials spanning 100 miles, the article continued.

That project resulted in traffic delays in Vigo and Sullivan counties as several crossings were simultaneously closed.

CSX Corp., based in Jacksonville, Fla., owns companies providing rail, intermodal and rail-to-truck transload services that are among the nation’s leading transportation companies, connecting more than 70 river, ocean and lake ports, as well as more than 200 short line railroads, according to the company’s Web site. Its principal operating company, CSX Transportation Inc., also based in Jacksonville, Fla., operates the largest railroad in the eastern United States with a 22,000-mile rail network linking commercial markets in 23 states, the District of Columbia and two Canadian provinces.

Howard Greninger can be reached at (812) 231-4204 or howard.greninger@tribstar.com.

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OFF THE MAIN LINE...  Off the main line...

FERNANDINA, FL --- Destination:Freedom’s founding editor Leo King realized a life-long dream this month when his article “First Coast’s First Days” graced the pages of Trains Magazine’s June issue, with photos by Joseph Oates, on news-stands now. Leo, a long-time rail journalist, was a dispatcher for Amtrak in their Southampton (Boston) yards, and continues to work as a journalist.

Leo King

Leo King reports in the story, that The First Coast Railroad was formed by “...the Genesee & Wyoming Railroad through its subsidiary Rail Link, [which] took a 20-year lease in April 2005 on the CSX lines from Fernandina Beach to Yulee, Fla., and from Yulee to Seals, Ga., where the track ends, making the new railroad about 32 miles long.”

“CSX pruned light-density lines from its 23,000-mile system by leasing out around 1,000 miles a year in 2004 and ’05, according to spokesman Gary Sease,” Leo reports. “Small carriers operate much of that mileage today, such as the Evansville Western in Indiana and Illinois. First Coast is on that roster: Decades ago, this was Seaboard Air Line property and eventually part of CSX. Now, the new company expects to move around 15,000 carloads a year generating less than $5 million revenue.”

Trains Magazine can be found at www.trains.com.

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OPINION...  Opinion...

Plane pain

By Emily C. Ingram
Published in the Harvard Crimson
Reprinted with permission

MAY 10 -- As we near exam period, conversations about summer plans proliferate faster than outstanding course assignments. Harvard’s annual summer diaspora is just around the corner. As is the ordeal that makes it happen: travel.

Traveling is full of potential pitfalls. But in the U.S., it seems like those pitfalls are more difficult to avoid than in the EU. The airlines and airports here are a mess, and there is no real alternative. It is only a matter of time before Americans realize—as their European counterparts have—that, with Amtrak privatization, transport by train on the East Coast could be vastly more efficient and convenient than taking a plane.

The potential is clear. A one-way journey from Boston to Washington DC on Amtrak’s Acela Express takes 9 hours and 15 minutes, but over roughly the same distance from Frankfurt to Munich, Germany’s InnerCity Express (ICE) takes one-third the time and costs $30 less. For the same journeys, flights take approximately the same amount of time as ICE, but are cheaper in Europe than in the U.S. because airlines have to compete with train fares. After adding time for transport to the airport, security and check-in, ICE is very time-competitive with planes, whereas Amtrak doesn’t even come close.

In addition, travel on Western European trains is very reliable—ICE reports punctuality rates of 94 percent, just ahead of the pan-European Eurostar train’s 92 percent. European train operators have realized that few things annoy travelers more than transport delays. Amtrak has not. Its 77 percent on time rate puts it roughly on par with European and US flight punctuality. European trains also provide less quantitative benefits, including wireless internet, uninterrupted cell phone services, and something that planes will never have: Windows that open and fresh air. Unsurprisingly, while Amtrak stagnates in the U.S., more and more people are choosing trains for short or medium-distance jaunts instead of flying in Europe.

Given its mediocre service, consistent record of losing money (a debt of $3.5 billion as of this year), and insufficient federal investment proposed by President George W. Bush, the U.S. Congress needs to do what Britain did in the mid-90s: Privatize the national rail system. Historically, nationalized rail systems have often been train wrecks. Before privatization, France’s national rail was 200 billion francs in debt, and the UK’s rail system was a heavy burden on taxpayers. Ten years down the track since privatization, the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) reports that the British National Rail currently holds Europe’s highest growth rate of passenger kilometers. Amtrak could do the same.

There are two major obstacles to privatization. Firstly, European governments used to own both the passenger service and the infrastructure it ran on, but private freight companies currently own most of Amtrak’s tracks. This issue could be overcome with long-term lease agreements between the freight companies and whichever private corporations buy Amtrak. Secondly, the current demand for Amtrak’s services is too low to make trains profitable in most mid-western areas. The fact is, trains are unable to compete with planes on speed over very long distances, and with a tightened budget, service is no longer an incentive to customers. In this context, it is true that privatization could lead to cuts in Amtrak’s long-haul services and other currently unprofitable lines. If there are cuts, it will be a necessary cost for highly efficient and competitive, shorter journeys in the most used regions, the east and west coasts.

If Amtrak is privatized, the current, rather pathetic, state of train service in the U.S. soon will be a thing of the past. With private investment—and private sector standards of efficiency—Amtrak will finally be able to compete with planes on prices, reliability, service, and, over shorter distances, time.

In the meantime, the weather is getting warmer, and summer travel beckons. Come June, students will trek to an inconveniently located airport to stand in long queues and move heavy bags. After the usual questions (“Did you pack your own bag?” “No, my mother did.” “Right, step this way for a bag-search.” “But my mum’s not a…”), their reward will be to crouch for a few hours with legroom barely sufficient for the small child sitting behind them, happily kicking the seat. It’s probably best to take a few sleeping pills and nap on a paper pillow.

Emily C. Ingram ‘08, a Crimson editor, is an English and American literature and language concentrator in Eliot House.

Amtrak needs more federal backing,
not privatization

By Michael Dukakis

To the editors:

Re:“Plane Pain,” op-ed, May 10,

MAY 17 -- Emily Ingram tells us that the answer to inadequate rail passenger service in the United States is to privatize Amtrak just the way the British privatized their national rail system.

Unfortunately, Ingram didn’t do her homework. If she had, she would have discovered that British rail privatization has been a disaster, that, in fact, the British system has been substantially “de-privatized” after dozens of passengers were killed or maimed on the system, and that today, Britain is spending a lot more public money on its national rail passenger system than it was prior to privatization.

Moreover, Ingram doesn’t seem to understand that the American rail passenger system was privatized, and it went bankrupt. That’s why the Nixon administration created Amtrak. And the private freight railroads, which are doing well these days, want no part of a return to passenger service. They couldn’t make money on it when they ran it, and they would require massive public subsidies to return to the passenger business.

There is nothing wrong with Amtrak that a modest but consistent amount of capital investment couldn’t cure. Virtually every region of the country has detailed plans for major improvements in the Amtrak system if the Bush administration would wake up and understand that we desperately need a first-class rail passenger system in this country.

In fact, even with the annual budget battle that the system has to endure every year, Amtrak ridership has hit record levels in the past three years. It takes approximately six-and-a-half hours, not in excess of nine, to travel from Boston to Washington, D.C. on the Acela, and it wouldn’t take much in the way of capital investment to cut those times significantly.

The private freight railroads are required by law to make their rights of way available to Amtrak, so there is no need for Amtrak to “lease” them. What is needed is a collaborative effort between Amtrak and the freight railroads to expand and add capacity to the existing system so that Amtrak trains don’t have to wait around for freight trains to get out of their way—the single most important reason why Amtrak’s on time performance on some of its long distance routes isn’t what it should be.

Finally, Ingram should check her facts. The French railroads are run by the government, and they are excellent, as anybody knows who has ridden the TGV.

Amtrak doesn’t need a repeat of the British disaster. It already has strong bipartisan support in the Congress. What it needs is a president who understands how critical a first-class national rail passenger system is to the future of the country. Unfortunately, we will have to wait until 2008 to finally achieve that goal.

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Plane pain factual errors

by David Beale

Our European Editor reviewed this week’s editorial from Crimson online and notes the following:

Factual error number 1: The distance between Munich and Frankfurt is definitely not the same, not even roughly the same as Boston - Washington DC. FRA - MUC is 245 miles (+/- 5 miles) and Boston - Washington DC is about 455 miles (+/- 5 miles). Therefore BOS - WAS is almost twice the distance as Frankfurt - Munich. The fastest scheduled train is 3 h 40 min between FRA - MUC (ICE - InterCity Express). According to the Amtrak website, there are Acela Express trains that make the BOS-WAS route in 6 h 34 min. Therefore the average speed of these two trains is not all that different.

Factual error number 2: Deutsche Bahn FRA-MUC with ICE trains costs EUR € 75.00 (prior to any discounts), this converts to US $ 94.00. Amtrak Acela Express BOS-WAS costs $151.00 (prior to any discounts). So the price difference is also greater, namely Amtrak is $57.00 more expensive (not just $30) as the author claims, but it is nearly twice the distance as FRA-MUC, so the price is more or less fair, compared to Deutsche Bahn.

Factual error number 3: I do not know general statistics for all of Europe, but I do know that the largest German airlines (Lufthansa, Air Berlin, Hapag Lloyd) have on-time rates for their scheduled flights in the high 80 percent range, not 77 percent that the author of this editorial claims.

Factual error number 4: Britain (U.K.) to this day still spends lots and lots of public tax dollars (“pounds”) on rail, although the rail system is “privatized”. Similar to Germany, the British government actually pays on an annual basis to receive local and regional train services. A number of private rail companies in Britain operate local and regional train services under contract to the government, whereby they are paid a contractually agreed sum or price for the specified operations as laid-out in the contract or franchise agreement. These companies are usually profitable, but the profit margins are not large. The revenue received as ticket sales on these trains covers maybe 70% - 80% of this contracted price, the rest is paid for by the government as per contract or franchise agreement with the privatized rail companies and would be considered by most everyone as a subsidy.

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End Notes...

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