Destination: Freedom

Rail is Real
The newsletter of the National Corridors Initiative

Vol. 1 No. 9 ©2000, NCI, Inc. June 2, 2000

   James P. RePass, President                Leo King, Editor

A weekly passenger railroad update

NCI: Leo King

NO. 175 roars by Nan on May 30. The sign at the left tells boaters when the span will open.

The bridge tender, Ray Salois, has few boats on this day, but summers are busy.

Boats, bridges, trains remain a question mark

By Wes Vernon

"It's a whole different world on the Northeast Corridor once you get north of New Haven."

Those were the words of a friend who, although railroad savvy, chose to say "north" instead of  "east," thus opting for English instead of railroad jargon.

He tells of an excursion he took with a friend, an Amtrak employee, to New EnglandĂs NEC territory. They stopped in at one of the lesser-used stations. And on the timetable board that posted arrivals and departures, there, for the entire world to see, was the designation, Bankers.

"Oh, wow! They would have a fit if they knew about this back at the home office!" declared the Amtrak employee, noting that all those old corridor names had been scrapped in favor of "Northeast Direct." This is part of Amtrak's transition effort to the Acela era, when all NEC trains will be either Acela Express, Acela Regional, or Acela Commuter, thus eliminating the individuality best remembered with such names as the Colonial, Merchants Limited, New England States, and other relics of the PRR and NYNH&H.

As the wires have been going up, rail crossings are being eliminated, and the general overall aura of comparatively laid back (as opposed to the urbanity of the New York-Washington schedules) country-style railroading is quickly fading.

So is the New Haven-Boston segment "ready for prime time"?

Hopefully, yes.

Then, there are those movable bridges ? Five of them between New Haven and Boston, all in Connecticut.

Beginning at the western end, they are:

Conn, at MP 106.8. This is the longest of AmtrakĂs movable bridges, a rolling lift bridge. Completed in 1914, it spans the Connecticut River two miles north of Saybrook Point and Long Island Sound.

The obvious problem comes when boaters want the bridges up when a train is coming. The letter of the law says no bridge has to open until requested to do so by the skipper, but the practical thing to do in heavy summer boat traffic is to just leave the bridge up until the next train is due.

That has worked out under Amtrak's old five-hour New York to Boston schedule, but how will it work under the new electrified regime when there are more and faster trains?

One can assume that passengers shelling out the bucks for an extra fare time-sensitive Acela Express for urgent business appointments in New York or Boston would expect the new three-hour schedule to be strictly observed, and if an express is unduly delayed, there would be hell to pay. After all, this is the U.S. equivalent of JapanĂs bullet trains, which have their own rights-of- way. Remember, too, the Providence and Worcester freights that must be accommodated.

Not to worry, says Amtrak. "We are prepared for that," spokesman Cliff Black assured us. Amtrak, he said, has been working on this problem since the early '90s.

In addition to one-on-one conferences with all parties involved, a Movable Bridge Advisory Board meets quarterly.

It involves Amtrak and boating agencies, including the Coast Guard, marina operators, commercial boaters, fishermen, and others. Working together, Amtrak said, this group has "institutionalized the process of addressing bridge issues."

Eventually, there will be 34 Amtrak trains per day on this stretch of road, plus the freights and the ConnDOT commuter runs. One must figure there will be times when trains are passing over these bridges in opposite directions, perhaps involving as many as three trains within a very few minutes, and could require the boaters to wait a full twenty minutes, as opposed to a normal ten minutes.

Here's the bottom line, according to Black: This whole plan has been geared in such a way as to help the boaters accommodate the train traffic, not the other way around.

The agreement has the blessing of the coast Guard, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), and the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection ? the three agencies most interested in having oversight of the plan.

On each movable bridge, Amtrak has installed a countdown clock indicating to boaters the approximate number of minutes until the bridge will be open.

Never, never will a boat be allowed passage if a train is coming. The train will get priority treatment.

Does that mean a train will "never, never" have to wait for an open bridge? Not unless there is a mechanical failure, says Black. That was exactly what happened on a "second tier" Acela Regional train I rode to Boston February 24. The Mystic River bridge delayed the train for about a half hour, but every effort is to be made to make sure that is rare, if it happens at all, he added.

The New York-Washington end of the corridor has accommodated time-sensitive Metroliner schedules for years, with two drawbridges along the line. Any opening of those bridges must be secured in writing 24 hours in advance. While that option is obviously not available on the New York-Boston stretch where the boating industry has grown accustomed to a slower train schedule, Amtrak believes the new regimen should work  as well and will help make the Acela Express "ready for prime time."

Amtrak's future, Acela express

'Privatization' may be off ARC's table

By Wes Vernon

Amtrak needs to have all twenty Acela Express trainsets up and running by the middle of next year, according to the vice chairman of the Amtrak Reform Council (ARC).

Appearing before the bi-weekly Transportation Table at the National press Club, ARC Vice Chairman Paul Weyrich said Amtrak can afford a delay "of up to a year" in the much-postponed full debut of the historic 150 MPH high speed Washington-New York-Boston train "if it is very clear that progress is being made and that (some problems that have delayed the start of the new service) are being cleared up—. People will be reasonable about it.

"If you get beyond that," Weyrich added, "if you get beyond the middle of next year, and you don't have a substantial amount of service, I think itĂs going to be quite problematical" and Amtrak's credibility will be on the line, because "so much of their business plan relies on that service."

If the train sets don't work right, and can't be made to work right, "and IĂm not suggesting this is the case. I'm just saying should it be the case, that would be a severe blow, and I think would hurt Amtrak politically very severely."

Moreover, it is Weyrich's view that once all twenty sets are operating, you really need to have the full fleet out on the road and in the timetables for a year before the ARC can make a judgment as to Amtrak's goal of operational solvency by October 1, 2002. The success of the Acela is a major factor in achieving that goal, according to Amtrak's business plan. That is why Weyrich has tried, so far without success, to persuade his Council colleagues to extend the panel's life by a year. He intends to re-visit the issue in the future because "there is no way that we will be able to judge, in the current timetable, Amtrak's financial situation to the point where I would be comfortable making the ultimate determination..."

"If Acela has the kind of financial impact that it is supposed to have, some of Amtrak's other problems will be resolved."

In the absence of a fair test, Weyrich's own guess is that "we would not make a finding."

Although the issue has not been voted on by the Council, Weyrich says the panel, charged with the responsibility of monitoring Amtrak's progress toward its goal, envisions that the matter of separating the infrastructure management from the operations management of the passenger service "was going to be a matter that was going to be open for debate, and that we would make a judgment on this at the end of the year." This idea has been adopted only as "a working paper" says the ARC vice chairman, but a "working paper in the context of other matters that have to be given priority, one of them being the permanent funding question."

In answer to a follow-up question, he said it is "possible" the benefit of management separation might be achieved within a single institution.

Socialist Sweden has made that separation in its rail system, Weyrich noted.

"They have found, as have many other nations, that when you make this separation... you can more easily determine what you need to do about the operations of the trains themselves. And it also makes clear the kind of support for the infrastructure (that) is necessary and on a par with other modes of transportation."

The Amtrak board's response to this idea was "mixed" in a joint meeting with top ARC officials. Amtrak Board Chairman Tommy Thompson (conservative Republican Wisconsin governor and Weyrich ally since the '60s) had a negative reaction and said it would do Amtrak no good. On the other hand, board vice-chairman Michael Dukakis (former liberal Democrat Massachusetts governor and onetime presidential candidate against whom Weyrich had vigorously campaigned) said, "it was definitely worth considering, and to be looked at." Chalk that up to the "surprise factor" in politics, which makes some of us "political junkies."

The 1997 Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act, which created the council, explicitly set the deadline for self-sufficiency, but is silent on the question of what happens to future infrastructure funding.

My question to the Transportation Table guest: Assuming Amtrak meets the goal on the operations side, and assuming that Congress and the administration squarely face the question of providing indefinitely adequate funding for the capital or infrastructure costs, is there a possibility that the private sector can manage the operation of the passenger service? This is not unlike what happens in every other transportation mode, including highways and airways. Weyrich responded that the specific question of privatization is "premature," but that unless the separation of operations from infrastructure is made, private sector interest "would be impossible."

In any event, "it is not an issue which, I think this council, as currently constituted, will end up addressing."  Too many "near term" issues to be dealt with in the limited time left to the panel.

One of several upcoming "working papers" by the council staff will be aimed at stirring public debate on the approaches to post-2002 financing. At its May 18th meeting, the council passed "a very strong resolution making it a priority that we focus on finding financial sources to operate this railroad."

The council official's May 26th talk came just a week after the House of Representatives, on a voice vote and at the prodding of organized rail labor, slashed the councilĂs requested $980,000 funding to $450,000. Weyrich, a veteran of Capitol Hill politics who spent a long stint as a Senate staffer, told the Washington gathering that House Transportation Appropriations Chairman Frank Wolf (R.-VA), a strong ARC supporter, handled this legislative development in an agile manner.

"If he (Wolf) had not accepted the amendment, you would have had a roll-call vote," as happened last year and, in Weyrich's opinion, the fund-slashing amendment would have prevailed.

"Once you have a roll-call vote," Weyrich explained, "it makes it much more difficult for the House to then accede to the position of the Senate. Acknowledging that predicting Senate action is always precarious, "it would be my opinion that we would end up with a number closer to whatever it is the Senate comes up with," which he thinks will be the higher figure.

A press release from organized labor quoted the anti-ARC Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ) as having "pledged to make sure" the lower House figure "remained in the final version of the bill."

Though Andrews was not referenced by name, Weyrich takes flat exception to the congressman's comment that "Their (ARC members) only mission is to dismantle Amtrak."

Only one member of the council, author Joe Vranich, wants to dismantle Amtrak, noted Weyrich. He knows of no others (including Wendell Cox who has written articles criticizing Amtrak operations) who take this view. Other members want to "reform the system to the point where it is stronger and more productive."

"Members of the Amtrak board had bought into the notion that we were to somehow sit in judgment of them and try to be destructive. Nothing is further from the truth."

Though Weyrich did not specifically say so, much of the controversy surrounding the council stems from stiff opposition on the part of rail labor, which fears the councilĂs recommendations may ultimately diminish its influence on Amtrak operations. (See "Labor Politics Find Changes in the Amtrak Reform Council," Destination: Freedom for May 2000).

Here's the bottom line, as Vice Chairman Weyrich sees it, as to why this relatively obscure federal agency has been the focus of so much political battle:

"There are a lot of rumors, you know, about the Amtrak Reform Council, that somehow we're a secret cabal wanting to put Amtrak out of business, and that we were constituted for that purpose so that we all had to give a secret handshake to Trent Lott that when the time came, we would pull the plug. The fact is we were appointed, all of us, to exercise our independent judgment."

Note: The idea of any "secret handshake" with Trent Lott would be interesting in any case, since the Senate Majority Leader is a supporter of Amtrak, and his protégé, Mayor John Robert Smith of Mississippi sits on the Amtrak Board.

Weyrich views claims that the council did not need outside consultants because the ARC is made up of rail experts as "one of these typical Washington deals where somebody appears to be complimenting you while theyĂre knifing you in the back." Of course, the council volunteer members, who are donating their time, do have some expertise in Amtrak and railroad matters. But obviously, a staff is needed to deal with many technical details that are involved.

On other issues:

·                         Legislation on Capitol Hill authorizing Amtrak to borrow $10 billion dollars in bonding authority for capital infrastructure "may have merit and need(s) to be looked at" in Weyrich's personal opinion, though the council had not discussed it. He suspected the panel will have to address the proposal at some point.

·                         ARC has acceded to the view expressed by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and others that Congress meant for Amtrak to continue using its present methods of separating operating from capital accounts in calculating its operational profitability. ARC, which believes more of its one-time capital subsidy of $2.3 billion should be used for acquiring more equipment and less for day-to-day maintenance costs, has decided, "this was not the issue on which we ought to have a national fight."

There is a lack of adequate modern equipment, to replace that part of the fleet which is "old, outdated in design, and unattractive," so the ARC is investigating "practical means of designing passenger operations so that they can attract private financing for modern trainsets that are needed." The California cars and other equipment just coming off line is the kind of equipment ¦"hat can make Amtrak the mode of choice."

Elsewhere, Amtrak's freight and mail service should not be hauled in such a way as to unduly hinder the passenger operation.

Also, the council has not yet made a determination as to exactly when it will make the determination vis-à-vis reaching the operational profitability timetable. The statute is silent on that point.

Meanwhile, Amtrak needs to concentrate on its core business, serving passengers and operating mail and express. Amtrak is involved in far-flung businesses such as fiber optics, real estate, and other ancillary activities. And the question of whether Amtrak earns a sufficient return on its operation of commuter rail services outside the Northeast Corridor is debatable, though in talking to people out in the states, one gets the impression Amtrak may actually be making too much money (in the view of the commuter operators who have to shell out the money and charge higher fares to their own passengers).

"I'm not in a position to make a judgment on that" said Weyrich, who recalled that when he was on the Amtrak board,  "we lost our shirt" by making cars for the Philadelphia-area SEPTA commuter system. It is reasonable to ask if any or all of these interests detract from Amtrak's core goal of running a "first-rate world-class passenger, mail and express service operating company."

Another business opportunity may be the possibility of using the freight railroads to repair equipment. Weyrich suggested that was something else that should be looked at.

The fact that Amtrak owns the trackage on the Northeast Corridor prevents it from charging what Weyrich terms a "realistic" fee from the commuter train authorities "that would reflect the actual cost of operating those trains." The reason for that is political, to which Weyrich indirectly alluded.

Though he did not spell it out, politicians hold the purse strings on both sides of the negotiating table. Sometimes the same politicians are directly or indirectly involved on both sides, all of which makes for awkward bargaining. Human nature makes a "sweetheart contract" quite tempting. This is my analysis, not Weyrich's.

The council's second annual report will be issued next January on time, even if Chairman Gil Carmichael has to keep the staff  "working through Christmas." Moreover, Weyrich said that report will reflect the views of the council's bipartisan "pragmatic majority" (defined in our "Labor Politics" article).

A fundamental issue the council will have to address as transportation policymakers is that "unlike roads and air...neither local nor state governments nor the federal government" has determined an institutional and financial solution for adding the track and equipment capacity to provide an expanded system of intercity rail passenger service." The council's mandate makes it imperative, in Weyrich's view, that the panel address this question.

That is the number one problem that has haunted Amtrak since Day 1, and Weyrich sees it coming to a head, even if the council had never been formed. The many plans and blueprints for increased high-speed rail service beyond the NEC will force a showdown on the issue of why rail transport has been the poor cousin for so long. The air and highway modes have made great strides, with their infrastructures relying on "government orchestrated programs financed by various forms of user fees to fund investment, improvement and maintenance operation." In the face of such massive government investment programs, the rail sector cannot rely "entirely on the private market to finance the infrastructure."

Weyrich, who heads a conservative foundation and think tank, appears ready to tackle the false notion or in his words, "the joke" that Amtrak, alone among inter-city transportation, is subsidized while the air, bus and trucking industries are models of free enterprise.

The new millennium may start with an end to this cherished myth.

Designated high-speed rail corridors

USDOT grants $5.3 million for grade crossing safety

USDOT has sent financial assistance grants totaling $5.3 million to five federally designated high-speed rail corridors to eliminate hazards at public and private highway-rail grade crossings.

Five regions were included. In the Pacific Northwest Corridor, Washington will get $750,000 and Oregon, $500,000. In the Chicago Hub Corridor, Wisconsin will receive $1 million. In the Gulf Coast Corridor, Louisiana will get $350,000; Mississippi, $320,000; Alabama, $330,000. Two states in the Southeast Corridor will receive funding: North Carolina, $750,000; Virginia, $750,000., and the Empire Corridor in New York will receive $500,000.

DOT said all public and private highway-rail grade crossings in designated corridors are eligible for funding which may be spent on closing crossings; consolidating or separating grade crossings; installing or upgrading warning devices; improving track circuitry, crossing surfaces, crossing sight distances or illumination; installing advanced train control or traffic control systems; and other related project development, analysis and engineering activities. The federal share of costs for improvements funded under the hazard elimination program may be up to 100 percent of the total engineering and construction costs.

DOT Secretary Rodney E. Slater said "These funds continue our commitment to enhance the safety of high-speed rail in America by eliminating hazards at highway-rail grade crossings."

The funds will be used with other federal and state grade crossing funding "to safely accelerate the implementation of high-speed rail in the designated high-speed rail corridors," a DOT press release stated.

"We are all working to make this nation's high-speed rail the safest in the world," said FRA administrator Jolene M. Molitoris. The cash is coming from the Federal Highway Administration.

An end note...

We try to be accurate in the stories we write, but even seasoned pros err occasionally. If you read something you know to be amiss, or if you have a question about a topic, weĂd like to hear from you. Please email the crew at

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