What happened at the APTA conference?
Wes Vernon and Jim RePass have some answers in "Commuter lines."
NCI: Leo KingAcela Express 2175 has less than one-half mile to go before being in position to leave South Station in Boston on time, at 5:15 p.m., and will be the last westward express for the day. It is crossing Fort Point Channel while exiting "Broad" interlocking in November 2001. If the trains are going to continue to run, Amtrak needs $200 million now, says President and CEO David Gunn.
|Senate hearing on Thursday|
After our Friday deadline passed, we learned the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on surface transportation scheduled a hearing this week to examine Amtrak's precarious financial condition, and to grill Bush administration witnesses on what they want to do about it.
The subcommittee's chair, Patty Murray (D-Wash.), said the panel will hear Thursday from Amtrak President and CEO David Gunn and several administration officials, including Federal Railroad Administration boss Alan Rutter and USDOT Inspector General Kenneth Mead, according to the Washington Post.
Senate sources said the committee wants to pin down the administration's position on a loan or a loan guarantee.
Administration political aides are reported to have grown nervous about the possibility that Amtrak might shut down on President Bush's watch - even if only briefly until emergency funding is found.
The Administration has been mulling a longer-range plan for passenger trains for months, but so far has been silent.
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Gunn still looking for cash;
slashes vice-president roster
Amtrak's new president and CEO last week was still looking for a $200 million loan by July 1 to rescue the national passenger railroad. On the job for barely one month, he has begun hitting the airwaves as well as sending letters to the field and all employees.
NCI via PBS News HourDavid Gunn: "I alternate between being optimistic and pessimistic."
David Gunn, who came out of retirement in Nova Scotia, Canada to take over the job, appeared on PBS's News Hour on Thursday.
Gunn told anchor and interviewer Jim Lehrer, "If you do a cash flow for Amtrak, the revenues minus expenses, we have a negative cash flow for July, August and September , and we need to borrow $200 million in order to sustain operations through the rest of the fiscal year."
The railroader said Amtrak was "negotiating with banks. We have a credit facility, we've had one and we have borrowed before, but, obviously, times are a little tougher right now, and we're trying to get a loan from our bankers."
The potential reality of Amtrak closing down on July 1 is real, Gunn said, but added, "I alternate between being optimistic and pessimistic. It depends on the moment, but I think we probably have a 50-50 chance of getting the loan."
Gunn said if the carrier does not have the cash, "We will have to say we're going to close down and do it in an orderly fashion."
He said two groups are responsible for Amtrak coming to its fiscal crisis.
"One is Congress - the politicians. They created Amtrak, and they put Amtrak on this fanciful search for self-sufficiency. There's not a rail passenger system in the world that doesn't require government subsidy for some either capital or operating or both. The next thing that happened is management attempted to do what the law required, which was to achieve self-sufficiency - and I think they tried far too long. They should have cried 'uncle' a long time ago."
He opined they "should have said, 'This is going to fail,' because what's happened now is we have a company that has run out of cash and has incurred enormous amounts of debt on its balance sheet. We now have $3.7 billion of debt. We added $700 million last year alone, last fiscal year. We have undertaken a number of initiatives, which have not proven successful. We've deferred a large amount of maintenance in trying to keep going under this mandate of self-sufficiency."
Gunn said, "Either we convince our bankers to loan us the money - and I think they should, by the way, because we'll be able to pay them back in the fall. I mean we will; we can pay them back. So, in a sense, it's a sure deal. We will get next year's appropriation, but the thing that should actually happen is, I think that the administration and Congress should at least, they should... "
His thought went unfinished.
He noted, "We've had a lot of support from Congress, actually. We've been getting a lot of support on several appropriations, which would not solve the problem, but it would keep us going for a good period into the next year. We've had support. 160-plus Congressmen have signed a letter supporting us; almost 50 Senators have signed a letter" supporting Amtrak.
The White House, however, continues to remain silent on the issue.
"The Administration, so far, has been silent in terms of what they want to do with this. We don't expect them to say that they have a long-term faith in Amtrak in all cases, but at least say they want us to make it into the fall."
Lehrer asked, "Why should tax money go to subsidize" the carrier?
Gunn responded, "We provide an essential service in certain areas. If you start on the West Coast, for example, like between Los Angeles and San Diego, we have a fairly frequent service there and move a lot of people. We operate commuter services in that area, for example, a peninsula commuter service. We operate the service to Sacramento, which is a pretty heavy and growing service, and we operate a service in the Northwest, an inner city service from Portland to Seattle, that corridor.
"We operate three transcontinentals, transcontinental trains. In some areas, it is a totally different sort of service, but it does provide mobility to some areas that don't have a lot of options.
"When you go into a small town in Montana, you have a four-lane interstate even though there's only a few people there.
NCI via PBS NewsHour"There's a lot of mythology about Amtrak's economics."
"Government has a role, I think, to provide mobility generally, but then when you get to the East Coast, I mean if you lose the Northeast Corridor, I think all of a sudden Amtrak will mean something to an awful lot of people because we are the dominant carrier between Washington and New York, and a big carrier north to Boston.
"We operate the commuter service in Boston. New Jersey Transit operates over our tracks and into Penn Station [in New York City], which we used to own until we mortgaged it to try to stay afloat. Geez, that's another thing they did."
Lehrer asked, "What you call intercity passenger service, particularly the transcontinental... I read something today that they only haul 18 percent of your passengers, but account for 75 percent of your loss?"
Gunn disagreed with the numbers.
"No. You've got to be very careful. There's a lot of mythology about Amtrak's economics. Everything loses money. In other words, people will say it's the long-distance trains, and if you got rid of them, the corridor would be a profitable company.
"The passenger movement or transportation market in the United States is thoroughly subsidized, whether it's highway, airlines or rail. The basic structure of Amtrak, the Northeast Corridor, covers most of its operating costs, the costs of the train crews and maintenance of the cars and so forth, but it does not cover its capital expenses - and we have an enormous deficit in that area.
"Long distance trains have little capital needs, but they have a big operating subsidy."
Gunn also took a dim view of breaking up Amtrak into smaller units.
"It makes no sense. People are avoiding the basic issue, and that is: Do you want passenger rail service?"
Gunn sees a great potential at Amtrak to increase efficiencies.
"What we should do, and we haven't done a great job of it, is run the most efficient system and network that we can, and then the question is: Look, USAir wants $1 billion just to keep afloat, right, just for operating subsidy. What you have to do is decide... how do you want to move passengers in these various markets, particularly the Northeast Corridor?"
Meanwhile, Standard & Poor's reported on June 7 that its "BBB" corporate credit and unsecured debt ratings on The National Railroad Passenger Corp. "remain on 'CreditWatch' with developing implications," where they were placed Nov. 13, 2001, according to a press release from Standard & Poor's.
The CreditWatch update followed Amtrak's June 6 announcement that it could shut down operations at the end of June if it did not obtain access to its existing financing sources (which includes a $270 million short-term credit facility) to fund cash needs until annual appropriations are received this fall.
"Amtrak's most recent announcement reinforces its position that it cannot reach self-sufficiency and will continue to need government support to maintain its operations, even at a reduced level," said S&P credit analyst Betsy Snyder.
An S&P spokesperson said, "The availability of these sources, which have been held up due to the late filing of Amtrak's fiscal 2001 financial statements, is anticipated prior to the end of June. Should financing not be available, ratings would likely be lowered, possibly to speculative grade."
Over the longer term, ratings on Amtrak could be raised or affirmed if Congress implements legislation that improves and ensures Amtrak's long-term operating and capital funding and eliminates the existing self-sufficiency requirement. Alternatively, ratings could be lowered if the legislative process reduces Amtrak's ability to meet its financial obligations, according to S&P.
Last February 1, Amtrak indicated that if it does not receive $1.2 billion, it may shut down some of its network of long-distance trains on October 1.
To date, Amtrak has received repeated indications of government support. Both the House of Representatives and U.S. Senate have legislation pending to extend that support. Even Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a frequent Amtrak critic, has requested a hearing on avoiding a complete shutdown of Amtrak, either discontinuing or subsidization by individual states of unprofitable routes.
S&P noted, "The issuer credit rating on Amtrak reflects its important public service role, especially in light of increased rail ridership since the events of September 11, 2001, and continued assistance from the federal government, offset by a weak financial profile."
Earlier in the week, on Monday, in his third message to employees via Amtrak's Employee Advisory, Gunn said, in a terse, single sentence, "I have no news regarding the loan, which we are seeking. I will keep you advised."
Unlike his predecessors, he is not filling the pages with hyperbole.
In his "Dear Co-workers" letter, he told the carrier's employees last week that not only is the number of 84 vice-presidents being shrunk to 20, but also the "strategic business units" will be eliminated in his "plans to return to a traditional railroad structure." Operational control will return to Washington headquarters.
He wrote, "The strategic business units will be abolished over the next few months. There will be four major system line departments reporting to Chief Operating Officer Stan Bagley."
The business units are Intercity (operating from Chicago), Northeast Corridor (Philadelphia) and Amtrak West (Oakland, Calif.) The regional offices will stay open, but they will handle local operations rather than make policy decisions, the Washington Times reported.
Meanwhile, in an unrelated action, the Washington Post of June 10 reported The White House has concluded that Amtrak should be under the purview of President Bush's new security apparatus, because terrorists might attack trains.
Gunn told Amtrak employees, "On June 6, the board of directors approved a significant reorganization of Amtrak. While it is impossible to communicate all the details in a notice such as this, I can give you the basic thrust of the reorganization."
He said the remaining vice-presidential jobs would include Bagley, who remains operations chief, and who is responsible for train movement and on-board services as well as mail and express.
Other posts include the railroad's chief mechanical officer, who will look after locomotive and car fleets; the chief engineer, who will continue to maintain the railroad and execute capital projects involving the fixed plant, track, signals, bridges and buildings, and so on; and the police chief.
Gunn said several support departments would report directly to Bagley. "For example, operations planning, which will be responsible for schedules, car utilization, consists, crewing, capital project scheduling and coordination."
The new Amtrak president, wasting no time since coming aboard on May 13, said, "The purpose of this reorganization is to streamline decision-making and clearly assign authority and responsibility for various aspects of the company." He offered an example by lopping the numbers of people in charge of fleet management to five.
He said sixteen positions "currently have responsibility and authority over cars and locomotives - one president; one executive vice president, operations; five senior vice presidents; two vice-presidents; three regional vice presidents; one chief mechanical officer; and three senior directors."
The board agreed, and the new order will be far simpler.
"The new organization will establish the chain of command for cars and locomotives as follows: one president, one chief operating officer, one chief mechanical officer, one assistant chief mechanical officer for cars; one assistant chief mechanical officer for locomotives."
Gunn added, "We also intend to deal with title inflation for a variety of reasons, and explained the carrier "has ended up with more than 80 people" with "vice-president" in their titles.
"Many of these jobs are important, but misnamed. In the future, the title 'vice-president' will be used sparingly and with fewer adjectives such as 'executive,' 'senior,' 'corporate,' 'regional,' etc."
The vice presidents will lose their job titles, but not their jobs, a source said.
Bill Schulz, among the people soon to be a former Amtrak vice-president, declined to respond immediately on Tuesday to queries from D:F.
We asked two specific questions - "These people are losing their titles, but what about their wages? Will they remain the same? Will they also remain in the D.C. area?"
He replied, "You can put us down for a 'declined to respond' on the questions you ask." He added, "As details are developed and made final, we will see about answering these questions."
As of June 7, Gunn's 20 VPs included Gerri Mason Hall, Business Diversity; Joseph McHugh, Government Affairs and Policy; Lorraine Green, Human Resources; Joseph Bress, Labor Relations; Barbara Richardson, Marketing and Sales.
Others included Stan Bagley, chief operating officer; Arlene Friner, chief financial officer; Alicia Serfaty, general counsel and corporate secretary;
The vice-presidency for planning and business development remains vacant, but he said the firm would soon post the job or bidders.
He noted two people who had been in an acting capacity for many months have been appointed - Joe McHugh and Alicia Serfaty.
He explained "A number of non-operating functions will be affected by the changes," and he would give employees around the system "more details later."
He noted, however, "While this reorganization will be far-reaching in its effect, the divisional structures and front line forces will be least affected. Furthermore, the details of the mechanical and engineering departments will unfold once a chief mechanical officer and chief engineer have been appointed."
He was also critical of former president and CEO George Warrington's practices.
"I know most of you have been through a lot recently, but I firmly believe what we are doing will make sense and will undo some well-intended, but unsuccessful organizational experiments. Furthermore, most of you knew I would make changes, so let's get it over with quickly and get on with rebuilding Amtrak. Unfortunately, I did not have time to hire consultants to tell us what to do, so we are doing this on our own."
One of his first acts a month ago was to fire most, if not all, consultants.
Meanwhile, we learned on Friday via The Packer (online at http://www.thepacker.com/) a trade publication covering the fresh fruit and vegetable industries, that ExpressTrak, based in Detroit, is expanding despite Amtrak's financial problems.
The firm has a 15-year contract with Amtrak to ship perishable goods in refrigerated cars coupled to passenger trains, and has managed to expand its business by adding Louisville, Ky., to its list of destinations.
Kevin McKinney, vice president of marketing and administration for ExpressTrak said he has no reason to doubt David Gunn's abilities to turn the Amtrak situation around.
"Gunn brings a good level of credibility to the office," he said. "He's off to a good start on Capitol Hill."
McKinney also expressed confidence in the changes proposed by Gunn, adding that he sees no downside to the changes for ExpressTrak.
"My personal opinion is that the changes will be helpful," he said, and added, "A better operating Amtrak is good for us and good for everybody."
Elsewhere, according to the Washington Post, (online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/) Amtrak got a lot of kidding for naming its new high-speed trains Acela - for example, Acella, with two "l"s, means "armpit" in Italian). Now Gunn has joined the chorus, telling a meeting of the American Public Transit Association Wednesday in Baltimore that he can't understand why Amtrak ever gave up the name Metroliner.
"That's like Coca-Cola changing its great brand name into 'brown liquid in a bottle,'" he said. "Acela, to me, is the room before the first floor."
The trouble is, he said later, too much marketing has been done and he can't give up the name entirely, but he said he may reverse Amtrak's policy of naming everything on the Northeast Corridor Acela-something, such as calling the regular trains Acela Regionals.
"That just confuses the passengers," he said.
Gunn has other symbols he doesn't like. He insisted on having his official portrait made with a lapel pin of the old Amtrak logo, commonly called the "pointless arrow." The new logo is hard to describe. It looks like a series of wavy lines or maybe a seashell run over by a train. Some Amtrak old-timers have taken to calling it "the flying breast implant."
Amtrak is online at http://www.amtrak.com/.
See Destination Freedom's coverage of the American Public Transportation Assn. in the "Commuter lines" section of this issue. - Ed.
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|Oregon solons ponder Amtrak cuts|
Oregon's legislature is in a special session, trying to erase a $900 million budget shortfall.
The governor's staff has suggested to the transportation department that they eliminate the money paid for the Cascades trains, D:F has learned from a reliable source.
At present, there are two Talgo (out of four) trains per day that extend their Seattle-Portland run to Eugene, Ore., and there are feeder bus lines from Eastern Oregon and from the coastal area. If the lawmakers cut $1.43 million, perhaps this week, that will bring total Cascades cuts to $3.68 million this year.
If the Oregon legislature eliminates its remaining Amtrak subsidy of the popular Cascades rail service, the Seattle-to-Portland service should continue, according to Lisa LaFond, spokeswoman for the Washington State DOT.
"Portland is a major part of our service," LaFond said.
"Last year, 560,000 passengers used the Cascades service, and 486,000 either got on or off in Portland. I am sure we will continue serving Portland. It would not make sense to stop the trains in Vancouver. Portland-Seattle is our most popular city pair."
LaFond said contributions from Oregon and British Columbia are factored into Washington State's ultimate plan of 13 round-trip trains per day between Portland and Seattle, "but at this point, I am not sure how much impact Oregon's action will have on that plan." The Cascades now runs four trains to Portland, and a fifth to Vancouver, British Columbia.
Cutting Amtrak support will not affect the Coast Starlight train, which will continue daily trips north and south between Los Angeles and Seattle.
LaFond, noting that Washington State recently went through similar budget struggles resulting from a $1.6 billion shortfall, said Oregon officials who have worked on rail service "must be sick at heart." Oregon has used several grants from the high-speed rail corridor program to upgrade Union Pacific tracks between Portland and Eugene. Those improvements now will benefit mainly freight trains.
This also apparently kills efforts to resurrect the Pioneer train between Portland at Salt Lake City, or even a shorter version from Portland to Boise. The Oregon Congressional delegation has been campaigning to restart that train, but Amtrak needs a local partner to contribute some money.
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Communications were poor during
Auto Train rescue, officials report
Emergency officials in Florida say communication breakdowns disrupted rescue efforts after Amtrak's Auto Train derailed in Crescent City, Fla. last April. The communications issue arose recently when officials from Amtrak, hospitals, fire-rescue and law-enforcement agencies met to evaluate their response. The session was required by the National Transportation Safety Board.
"It took several attempts in this area to get out with a cell phone," Amtrak Safety Engineer Tom McConnell said. "I can speak from personal experience," The AP reported.
Four people died and more than 150 others were injured when the northbound train derailed less than one hour after its departure from Sanford, Fla. The NTSB is still investigating, and has not yet ruled what caused the disaster. The passenger train was enroute to Lorton, Va.
Crescent City policeman Anthony Rodriguez was the first to respond to the scene of scattered train cars and dozens of injured passengers. His portable radio would not work at the accident site, along U.S. 17 near the Volusia-Putnam county border.
"We had to go back to our cars if we wanted to get something to the Sheriff's Office," he said. The cars had better radios.
Also, the 911 calls that an Amtrak Auto Train was involved in an accident had some officers at first believing they were responding to a train that had hit a car. There were also some communication glitches as dozens of rescue workers from eight counties attempted to help the injured, and hospital officials criticized Amtrak for not keeping them up-to-date on how many patients might be sent to their emergency rooms. Nearly 10 hospitals from Jacksonville to Orlando were on alert. Some were swamped, while more distant medical facilities received only a handful of injured passengers.
Dan Kelly, chief executive officer for Putnam Community Medical Center, said a central Amtrak contact person was needed. He said they spoke to five Amtrak officials. Conversely, McConnell said when news media arrived, he had difficulty acquiring information on Amtrak passengers from the hospital; but considering the magnitude of the wreck and its isolated location, Amtrak officials said they had nothing but praise for local rescue agencies.
"It was organized chaos at that point," McConnell said. "We had more than 400 people on that train. We had quite a logistical nightmare to contend with."
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|Derailments are on steep rise|
Train derailments grew by more than one-fourth during the last five years, and the head of the National Transportation Safety Board called for more frequent and more detailed inspections at a House Transportation railroads subcommittee hearing in Washington, The AP reported recently.
According to FRA statistics, derailments rose from 1,741 in 1997 to 2,206 in 2001, a jump of 27 percent. In January, one person died when a Canadian Pacific Ry. freight train derailed in Minot, N.D., and released more than 250,000 gallons of anhydrous ammonia.
Marion Blakey, chairwoman of the safety board, told the House Transportation railroads subcommittee that the FRA needs to increase track inspections. She also called for new technologies in performing the work.
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|Florida governor vetoes spur|
Cash for a rail spur in Ocoee, Fla. that could ease highway congestion was axed from Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's budget last week.
The project has potentially huge economic-development and transportation consequences for west Orange County, advocates say. Bush vetoed the $1.1 million item that would have helped Florida Auto Auction in Ocoee get rail service and relieve heavy truck traffic on State Roads 50 and 429. Local supporters of the rail project plan to pursue other state funding. The spur would connect to Florida Central Railroad tracks.
Ocoee City Manager Jim Gleason said the city will pursue other funding through the state DOT.
"We at least want to see what other options are out there," Gleason said. "It does have, I think, viable merit."
More than 340,000 cars pass through the 300-plus acre auction site each year. Thousands of trucks transport those vehicles in and out of the site near the intersection of State Route 50 and the Western Beltway. Many trucks haul vehicles from a rail yard in Taft, and if those cars could be brought by rail all the way to the Ocoee site, it could decrease local truck traffic by at least 20 percent.
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|Alaska gets $20 million from feds|
The Alaska Railroad is getting $20 million for track upgrades, the Anchorage Daily News reported on June 11.
"These funds are critical to replacing old rail and rail ties, which will improve safety and further modernize our railroad infrastructure," said Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens (R).
The Anchorage-based Alaska Railroad is a state-owned corporation with has 611 miles of track, including the main line, spurs, sidings and yards between Seward, Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Railroad spokesman Pat Flynn said the $20 million is the same amount appropriated to the railroad for the 2001 budget year.
This year's money will pay for 32,272 new crossties, 63,000 feet of rail and a 6,200-foot siding at Curry, north of Talkeetna. The railroad is a single-track stem with passing sidings.
All railroads can apply for such funding, administered through the Federal Railroad Administration, he said. Typically, commuter train lines in big urban areas best qualify for the funds, but the Alaska Railroad qualifies because it carries both freight and passengers, Flynn said.
"Last year was the first year in a while that we had zero derailments related to track conditions," Flynn said. "We've been really attacking this problem seriously, and we're making great headway."
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NCI: Leo KingIn Boston, a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority street car, at left, pauses in Mattapan at the end of the line before heading back to Ashmont and its connection with the Red Line to downtown Boston and beyond. Another trolley is already leaving on its two-mile trip.
High-speed won't come overnight,
but can streetcars pave the way?
"True corridors are unlikely," says Paul Reistrup, CSX Vice President for Passenger Services.
Look to the California model "twenty years out," he advises passenger train supporters. California is upgrading its passenger train infrastructure and services on an incremental basis.
Speaking June 9 in Washington's Maryland suburbs to the Potomac Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, Reistrup, a former Amtrak president (1975-1978) said the task of mixing 30 mph freight traffic with passenger "rocket ships" would remain a problem.
In answer to a direct question from D:F, Reistrup affirmed that talk of quickly building (for example) the Midwest Regional High Speed Rail Initiative, with fast rains radiating from a Chicago hub is not in the cards.
After the talk, he told us that Rep. Don Young's (R-Alaska) proposal to develop the high-speed corridors largely through the states and through bond issues may prove itself as the way to go. Young's legislation would require elimination of grade crossings to accommodate trains of at least 125 mph. That's Metroliner speed. The Northeast Corridor was not able to accomplish it without eliminating grade crossings. That is what will be required elsewhere, Young argues.
Basically, it's "a funding issue," Reistrup says.
That having been noted, he adds that despite Amtrak's current funding crisis "There will be intercity passenger service. You will get the money some way or other to make ends meet," and he says Amtrak will continue to provide it.
"We in the freight industry like that," says the CSX man, "because it (Amtrak) is sort of like the devil we know. We already deal with (commuter agencies, such as) SEPTA, MBTA and Metra, and all these people. It just takes zillions of time. Can you imagine if we had to deal with (states or private franchised operators, as proposed by the Amtrak Reform Council)? And some of them don't have a clue about how to run a railroad."
"Take Georgia. It's a highway department."
But for the short term, the trains will continue to roll, Reistrup believes.
"I think we need to get past the election, and we'll deal with it next year," he opined. Right now, the idea is to get to October 1.
"This stuff is serious," Reistrup added, "and if (Amtrak President) Dave Gunn were here, he'd tell you the same thing," with reference to the passenger company's fiscal bind.
As for the long term, there may be some action next year after the Congressional elections have been decided. But even then, he believes there will still be a search for money. The Class I executive pointed out that the Bush administration had not unveiled its own plan for rail passenger service.
He believes in the months after the election, there will be some action on long-term planning, but the gist of what he said was that don't expect overnight ambitious plans to build everything yesterday. The Young bill, Tea-21, may eventually be the way things will pan out, as he sees it.
There are two schools of thought as to Reistrup's analysis.
One is that, after all, he is paid to look out for the best interests of a Class I carrier which, like other freight railroads, is not overjoyed with having to carry passenger trains on its property, but has resigned itself to the fact that passenger service is here to stay, and the current object is to make it as painless as possible for the freight operators.
The other school of thought, not contradicted by some of the most knowledgeable Capitol Hill watchers, even given all of the above, is that on a lot of issues, Reistrup is correct. Congressional action is basically about damage control so as to avoid negative political fallout, as Reistrup implies. He knows this from having lobbied on the Hill for years, both for passenger and freight interests.
His analysis, further expressed to D:F following his talk, is that the Young bill's approach (or some variation of it), which would test the states' willingness to actively participate in the development of high-speed rail, might be the ultimate answer.
The CSX executive did not disagree with our question as to whether failure to actively pursue grand plans for high-speed rail lines in the near term would result in a political reluctance to give the Northeast Corridor what it needs to upgrade its own infrastructure.
Reistrup agreed that lawmakers outside the Northeast, seeing their own constituents denied an immediate serious go-ahead on high-speed trains would not sit still for any grand plans to make it possible for the Acela Express to make it Washington-New York in two hours. Already, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who chairs the relevant Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, has let it be known she thinks the Northeast is favored at the expense of the rest of America.
Others dispute this analysis. Amtrak Reform Council Chairman Gil Carmichael, for example, says he has talked to "the freight boys" and has found many of them would be receptive to dramatic upgrades of their property. That would make it possible for their freight trains to attract more customers from the truckers by being able to run freight traffic at a faster pace, up to 80-90 mph.
While Reistrup was discussing the future, a study released at last week's American Public Transportation Assn. (APTA) conference in Baltimore, advocated a "back to the future" approach to urban transit.
"Bring Back the Streetcars! A conservative Vision of Tomorrow's Urban Transportation" is the title of the document.
Authored by Paul Weyrich and William S. Lind of the Free Congress Foundation, the study cites success stories in Dallas, Memphis and Portland. Here, the "light rail" solution has been built at relatively low cost and attracted high ridership.
Given the relative ease in constructing such lines, Weyrich and Lind write, "Virtually any place that wants a streetcar line can have one." The authors, both rail experts, see streetcars as an effective method on their own, but also something that can help spur public support for more extensive rail systems.
"What streetcars can do almost anywhere is help rail transit make a start," the study argues, "They can give people something to see, ride, understand and like, so that when it does come time for commuter rail or light rail, rail transit is no longer an unknown quantity. People can relate to it, in their own town or city, because they have ridden it or at least enjoyed the sight of it passing by. And knowing what rail transit is, they feel comfortable voting for more."
Weyrich and Lind offer practical steps for activists to start developing public support for building streetcar lines through methods such as forming an educational foundation, developing coalitions, and recruiting and maintaining volunteers."
Though Weyrich and Lind don't quite make this precise connection, their report contains arguments that raise the following question: Could the relatively inexpensive light rail or "streetcar," if built in enough cities, serve as a public relations inspiration for increased popular support for the much more ambitious high-speed rail proposals in future years? Would that be enough, over time, to help overcome high speed rail's "funding problem," to which Reistrup alluded?
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|Streetcars co-author Lind makes strong case for trolleys' return|
The on-going revival of the American city and downtowns, and the necessity of pedestrian-friendly environments therein, are trends militating towards a return of trolley service, author and rail analyst Bill Lind declared this past week at the American Public Transportation Association's (APTA) 2002 Commuter Rail and Rail Transit Conference in Baltimore.
Lind's comments were based on his and famed conservative thinker Paul Weyrich's new study, Bring Back the Streetcars! A Conservative Vision of Tomorrow's Urban Transportation, published by the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation.
Lind, a gifted speaker, told a packed audience, "The urban core really needs streetcars, because they interact with the most important elements of the city's transportation system: the pedestrians."
Lind and Weyrich see streetcars as a perfectly logical transportation mode for conservatives, and other people, to support.
They write, "As conservatives, we find America's past attractive. America in the streetcar era, from around 1890 to about 1950, was a great place. Many Americans who are not conservatives know that, too."
But Lind and Weyrich see trolleys not simply as reminders of a bygone era, but as an increasingly popular mode of transportation for the 21st century, and note the growing number of American cities and towns which have, in fact, "brought back the streetcar" already, ranging in size from Kenosha, Wis., to Dallas, Texas, with Portland, Ore., and Memphis, Tenn., in between.
Aside from their pedestrian-friendly aspects (frequent stops, direct access), Lind also pointed out that streetcar systems can be very inexpensive, especially if their development and operation are driven by strong volunteer efforts, and championed by community leaders who recognize the economic and quality-of-life benefits that low-cost but high-capacity transportation can bring. Streetcars should not cost more than $10 million per mile, he asserted, and the study backs that up.
Lind differentiated between trolleys and "light rail."
Trolley systems are built on lighter track (which may already be in the street, covered with years of asphalt but still there) and can use vintage (antique) or heritage (replica) lightweight trolley cars, whereas light rail requires broader curves and heavier track, and costs $20 million a mile or more. However, Lind and Weyrich note that streetcars can serve as a low-cost introduction to light rail, and by demonstrating the efficacy of street railways, help build support for building higher volume light rail systems when the time comes. That is exactly what happened in Memphis, where the first segment of the system was built to streetcar standards; but the next section will be built to support light rail vehicles (LRV) as well.
Streetcars can operate over light-rail-engineered track, while modern LRVs cannot.
Surprisingly, there is an ample supply (for now) of antique vehicles that can be brought out of retirement and used on a revived streetcar system. New Orleans is building, in-house, replicas of its antique Perley-Thomas streetcars, which have been in service for 80 years. They will be bringing back service on Canal Street, and even re-starting the real "Streetcar Named "Desire". There is also a company, Gomaco, of Ida Grove, Iowa (online at http://www.gomacotrolley.com) that built replicas for Lowell, Mass., some 20 years ago and has since built streetcars for Portland, Ore., and Tampa, Fla., as well as reconditioning cars for Melbourne, Australia, and Milan, Italy. It even has some of the latter, which are based on a design by American trolley maker Peter Witt, for sale.
Towns and cities that want to get started reviving their streetcar systems, say Lind and Weyrich, need a champion (often a local political leader) and a "spear-carrier" (usually a local activist), and some fund-raising abilities. They also need, write Lind and Weyrich, to "keep it simple" so that costs stay under control.
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|Dallas 'burb prepares for DART|
Dallas Area Rapid Transit, or DART, will start carrying commuters from Richardson, Tex., in three weeks from Richardson, a Dallas suburb.
DART has built about five miles of rail line through Richardson, and three stations officially will open there July 1, reports the Dallas Morning News. The transit agency spent $50,000 for artwork at each station, and separate city committees decided how each would look.
The three Richardson stations under catenary are Spring Valley, with 403 parking spaces; Arapaho Center, with 1,100 parking spaces; and Galatyn Park, where there is no parking - it's "kiss-and-ride" only.
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|Fort Worth okays streetcar plan|
Fort Worth's City Council gave the green light June 11 to a proposal to spend $165 million to run light-rail streetcars by 2008. They will travel up to 35 mph.
On a 7-2 vote, writes the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, council members approved a resolution endorsing the 7.6-mile starter system and a larger transit system, which includes expanded commuter rail, to be developed within 30 years. Partial funding for the project could go before voters in a bond election as early as 2004, officials said.
The plan drew criticism from some council members who questioned whether the light-rail routes, and the streetcars' relatively slow speeds, would be effective at getting motorists out of their vehicles.
Two councilmen voted against the proposal, but the mayor supported the proposal.
The council's vote mirrors last week's vote by the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, which also approved the initiatives. If approved by voters, and if other funding comes through, a light-rail system would be created along city roads from the Cultural District to Texas Wesleyan University. Funding the initial $165 million includes up to $82.5 million from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), $15 million in other federal funds, $15 million from a city sales tax reserve account and about $52 million through the city bond special election.
The council's approval paves the way for the city staff to apply for funding through the FTA to help with the streetcar system's engineering plans. Officials could know by August whether the city will get the money, which could amount to several hundred thousand dollars.
Ideas include possibly extending commuter rail from the Texas & Pacific Railroad station downtown southwest to the Medical District, Berry Street and Hulen Street. The initial cost would be $45 million.
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Railroads are training many new hires
Norfolk Southern's national training center in McDonough, about 30 miles south of Atlanta, is getting mighty busy these days. After Congress and the White House revamped railroad retirement last year to "60-30" - 60 years old with 30 years service, it's okay to retire - there are some 1,100 new hires, and that's almost 40 percent more than last year, who are expected to flow through the center this year.
After years of job-cutting and consolidation, hiring at the nation's biggest railroads has jumped, partly because they expect the reviving economy to boost cargo shipments, reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Through April, more than 6,000 railroad workers have applied for retirement nationwide, compared with 6,165 for all of last year, said Jim Metlicka, a spokesman for the Railroad Retirement Board.
Training classes will be bigger for years to come because "we are a graying industry," said Tom White, spokesman for the Association of American Railroads. Over half of railroad workers are 45 or older, compared with one-third of all U.S. workers, he said.
A communications and signals trainee expects to start at $16.91 an hour after he finishes the eight-week course, and eventually make about $19 an hour.
Many of the 82 trainees now at NS's center are aiming for positions that became available because of retirements.
"We're training in crafts we haven't trained in years," said William Faulhaber, manager of the 18-acre complex. It includes five brown brick and metal buildings backed up to several tracks. Two 135-ton locomotives and 17 freight cars are parked on them.
Students come from several states, drawn by jobs that in many cases don't require college degrees. Locomotive engineers earn around $60,000 a year on average, according to NS.
Debbie Nowak, 44, said she expects to make about $14 an hour after she completes an eight-week course to become a car inspector and repairperson at an NS yard near Chicago. She expects to eventually make about $19 an hour.
Brook Hartzog, 31, quit his job as a high school physics, chemistry and biology teacher in Macon almost five years ago to go to work for NS as a conductor.
"I bring home in two weeks about what I brought home in a month teaching, and with two kids and a wife, that makes this side of the fence a lot greener," said Hartzog.
Last week he was back at the training center, striving for a certificate to become a locomotive engineer. It was his third day.
After four weeks at the training center, 14 engineer trainees will spend the next six months to two years under an engineer's supervision out on the railroad.
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|UP's Challenger hits the road|
Union Pacific's remaining working articulated steam locomotive Challenger (4-6-6-4) No. 3985, the world's largest operating steam locomotive, began a 3,169-mile tour through the Midwest and upper Midwest on June 9, reports Railway Age.
"The tour is celebrating railroad heritage and providing an opportunity for several fund raising public steam excursion trips for two railroad historical organizations," said a railroad spokesman.
The engine is an articulated locomotive with a "hinged" frame for negotiating curves. It's 122 feet long, weighs more than one million pounds, has 72-inch drivers, and can reach a speed of 70 mph. It has four "pony" wheels (two axles) up front, followed by six drivers, another set of six drivers following the hinged arrangement, and a set of four more smaller wheels supporting the firebox.
It was built in 1943 by the American Locomotive Co. of Schenectady, N.Y. to haul fast freights, but was retired from service in 1959. UP employee volunteers restored it to running condition in 1981 for special service.
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Wildfires disrupt Colorado lines
United States Forest Service (USFS) officials in charge of two National Forests, the Rio Grande National Forest in Colorado and the Carson National Forest in the New Mexico, have issued an order suspending operations of the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad. In their order, the USFS officials cite the extreme dry conditions in the Forest and the fact that the Philmont Scout Ranch fire has grown to over 60,000 acres in two days as the basis of their concern.
The fires have also disrupted Amtrak and freight services. One Amtrak train was 30 hours late arriving in Los Angeles last week.
Meanwhile, local tourist rail lines have been forced to temporarily lay off workers.
The initial closure order, issued June 5, applied only to the Carson National Forest in New Mexico. That order effectively closed the newly repaired line from Antonito to Osier, which had been scheduled to return to service on June 6 following FRA-mandated repairs. In the event, the scheduled resumption of service was cancelled and no trains departed from Antonito.
On June 7, representatives of the state forestry departments, and managers, supervisors and legal counsel for the Carson National Forest and the Rio Grande National Forest met in Chama with representatives from the railroad and the Chama community. Following an internal discussion, the railroad was informed that the two national forests would issue a joint closure order.
When issued, the twin orders - one from each National Forest - stated that "no activity shall take place anywhere in the right of way" and that the orders shall remain in effect "until cancelled." As a result, the closure now affects the entire railroad, and has forced the suspension not only of scheduled passenger activities, but also of ongoing repair work to the roadbed subgrade at Martinez Point, which, said C&TS officials, is essential to reopen the line between Los Pinos and Osier.
At the Friday meeting in Chama, the C&TS management thought it had agreed to a list of rigorous fire suppression measures and conditions which, if met, would entitle the railroad to an exemption from the closure order. Officials said the railroad was "under the impression that a follow-on meeting with the USFS to review the situation and discuss the railroad's ability to meet these conditions would take place on June 11, but on Monday the USFS officers met behind closed doors and did not meet with or communicate with the railroad staff."
Rail officials added, "In an effort to husband necessary funds to resume operations when permitted, the C&TS has been forced to lay off a large number of employees."
Members of the Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec as well as a number of laid-off staff of the railroad have been volunteering at Chama to organize walking tours of the yards and demonstrations of track equipment for patrons who arrive expecting to be able to take the train.
Officials said the Forest Service closure orders would not affect the Friends' work sessions scheduled for Chama and Antonito during the weeks of June 17-21 and June 24-28, "However, due to fire danger, the sessions scheduled at Osier have been cancelled. Volunteers scheduled to work at Osier are being invited to come and work at another location."
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Across the western pond...
More privatization in Japan
In its latest effort to narrow its yawning budget deficit, Japan this week will finish privatizing a large chunk of its national railway system, completing a process that has dragged out for 15 years.
Japan is the deepest in debt of the world's major industrial nations, and it is smarting from the way its credit rating has deteriorated lately, most notably a two-notch downgrade by Moody's Investors Service last month, report The New York Times.
To reduce its debt, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has been trying to sell government-held assets and break up money-losing public companies that have outlived their usefulness. He has also pledged to limit issues of new government bonds to 30 trillion yen ($242 billion) a year.
The sales of the railway stakes and other assets are meant to help him keep that promise.
Equity investors are of two minds about the sales, including this week's offering of the government's remaining interests in JR East and JR West, two of the six successor companies created when the Japan National Railways Corp. was broken up in 1987. Some express concerns that an already soft stock market will be glutted with shares and prices will fall. Others welcome the chance to own shares in companies that, while no longer monopolies, still dominate their industries. Analysts are also encouraged that the government is moving more aggressively to cut back its role in the economy.
"It makes sense to fund structural reform out of privatization funds, and if it keeps the government from breaking its funding cap, more power to them," said Christopher Walker, an economist at Credit Suisse First Boston in Tokyo.
After years of deregulation and slow growth, the government's former monopolies are no longer generating enough profit for the government to justify tying up capital in them that could be used to reduce debt instead. So, over the next two weeks, investors will be offered 500,000 shares, or about 12.5 percent of the shares outstanding, of JR East, which runs the sprawling rail network around Tokyo, and 630,000 shares, or about 32 percent, of JR West, which operates around Osaka. Proceeds from the sales, which are expected to yield about 600 billion yen ($4.8 billion), will not go directly to government coffers; instead, the state-owned company set up to dispose of the national railway's assets, the Japan Railway Construction Corp., which will use the money to pay railway workers' pensions and other obligations that the government would otherwise have had to make good sooner or later.
The government is selling other state-owned businesses, including Japan Tobacco, which is No. 3 worldwide after Philip Morris and British American Tobacco. The Finance Ministry also wants to unload 1 million of its 7.4 million remaining shares in the Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. No sale dates yet for those firms.
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Museum celebrates Chicago, Aurora & Elgin line anniversary
Some freight cars on display at the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, Ill., have seen tough times. Rescued from swamps and snowstorms, they have sustained significant damage. But the museum's commitment to restoring these trains to full operating status has gone untarnished for nearly 50 years and has made it a destination not just for railroad buffs but for history buffs and families too, reports the Chicago Tribune of June 9.
"The person who really knows about rail cars will be in heaven, and the casual observers will enjoy it too," said Barbara Lanphier, a museum volunteer.
"We're really for people who love history, because that's what we truly are about here. Plus, the leisurely pace around here is very family friendly."
Everything from steam engines to street lamps at the museum is authentic, rescued from their original locations and placed on the 56-acre campus. Not only does the museum boast eight public viewing areas filled with trains, it also allows some of them to once again ride the rails. Visitors can ride electric cars on summer weekdays and steam and diesel trains on the weekends.
For some Chicago-area residents, these rides might recapture the nostalgia of days when train travel prevailed. The museum features many Chicago artifacts, including streetcars donated by the Chicago Transit Authority and returned to working order by museum volunteers.
On Independence Day, the museum will observe the 100th anniversary of the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin line, an interurban trolley that stopped running in 1957.
"One morning, the train took commuters to work and then they had to find their own way home," Lanphier said.
This celebration, which coincides with the museum's annual trolley parade, is one of many special events the museum has planned for the summer months.
Yesterday, the museum offered a special deal for Father's Day. Any father accompanied by at least one child received free admission.
Electric Park typically serves as the museum's peaceful picnic spot, but on July 13, it will become a booming battle site with a full-scale Civil War re-enactment of the Confederacy's recapture of the steam locomotive The General.
Kids and parents can take a ride on Thomas, television's popular tank engine, on Aug. 16-18 and 24-25. This event also will feature live music, puppet shows and magic shows.
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The detaining of the Sunset Limited for many hours in rural Louisiana exemplifies a growing problem that neither railroads nor affected passengers have dealt with. Since the deregulation of trucking in 1980, the number of trucks traversing the U.S. has skyrocketed.
[See D:F June 10 article, "Irked Sunset passengers get to Houston" - Ed.]
An increasing number of these heavy vehicles are being driven by owner-operators whose incomes are dependent upon how quickly they can make their destination and reposition themselves for the next load.
To stem the growing number of grade crossing accidents involving trucks, there must be toughened licensing requirements that would result in the revocation of a driver's right to operate a truck if he (or she) runs past flashing lights or gates, or moves into the path of a moving train at an unprotected crossing.
Also, the motor carrier involved in the accident should be liable for not only the damages caused to the train involved with the collision, but should be liable for all associated costs - alternate transportation of passengers, disruption of host railroad freight operations, etc.
Enactment of such legislation would lead to safer railroads and highways.
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NCI: Leo KingWhen the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad of Maine was green with cash, it ran some fine looking passenger trains. Consider how it was recently sold at what was essentially a fire sale in Maine. Will the new owners be able to bring it back? We hope so. Will it run passenger trains again? Not likely, but stay tuned... hope springs eternal, they say.
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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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