Destination: Freedom
The newsletter of the National Corridors Initiative
Rail is Real Vol. 1 No. 11 ©2000, NCI, Inc. June 23, 2000
James P. RePass, President Leo King, Editor
A weekly passenger railroad update
  Rail is real

Initiative conference opens Monday

A virtual who's who of passenger train railroading will be gathering in Washington on Monday and Tuesday for the National Corridor Initiative's annual gathering. Among the guest speakers on Monday are William E. Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Assn., Mortimer Downey, USDOT deputy secretary, Amtrak reform council chairman Gil Carmichael and the council's vice-chairman, Paul Weyrich.

The second day will see Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), who is also this year's recipient of the Claiborne Pell award. Also present will be Amtrak board chairman and Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, and David Carol, Amtrak's vice president for corridor development, NARP president Ross Capon, among others.

NCI president James. P. RePass said for the first time in more than a generation, "those of us fighting for a viable North American rail system can say that the renaissance we have labored for is at last at hand." He pointed out that "funds are being allocated for the first serious policy-driven program of rail investment in half a century."

RePass also said the slogan for this year ? and for subsequent years ? is that "rail is real." He explained that "We intend to make news by unveiling the first unified omnibus national, pro-rail public affairs campaign in history. 'Rail is real' It's a campaign for all the players in the rail environment ¤ railroads, vendors, associations, advocates, and labor unions."

NCI's editor Leo King and Washington correspondent Wes Vernon will be covering the two-day conference, and will write a complete report for next week's Destination: Freedom, to be published on June 30.

NCI: Leo King

Fast Acela engines like this and the express power cars are "grounded" for bolts.


Acela delayed for bolts;

GAO (yawn) reports again

By Wes Vernon

Washington Correspondent

Amtrak's 150 MPH Acela Express Trains, most recently slated for a late July inaugural, have now been re-scheduled for "at least" August. The July deadline, which was unofficial and labeled "unrealistic" by one Amtrak Board member anyway, was scratched because safety inspectors found bolts had broken off the undercarriages of at least two locomotives.

The word from officials is the bolts, used to mount the gear case of the train's traction motor, which turns a locomotive's wheels, broke off under stress after 40,000 miles of testing.

"We want to make sure people understand this train is safe and delivers what it needs to deliver", says Ed English, director of the FRA's office of safety, assurance and compliance, "We'll take as long as necessary to make sure that happens."

Previously, Amtrak had put off introduction of the Acela Express when it was discovered that rounding the curves at high speeds had caused excessive wear on the wheels.

The wheel wear and the broken bolts are unrelated problems. English says these are the kinds of problems one would expect to uncover and "That's why we're testing the trains."

The late July, and now the August, inaugural puts opening day squarely amid the hottest time of the year on the East Coast. That kind of rough climate has been known to slow down the 125 mph electrified Metroliners when the thermometer goes over 100 degrees. It only happens from three to six times a year, but does Amtrak want to run the risk of having a slow order on the Acela's inauguration day, just when the world is watching?


Perhaps it is not as bad as it seems

Meanwhile, in a "Dear NEC Co-worker" letter faxed to work sites around the Northeast Corridor on June 21, NEC president Stan Bagley told employees that "During the testing of one of the trainsets, a technical issue was discovered involving one of the bolted connections of the gear box to the truck of the power car. An inspection revealed that the same bolt issue was present on a couple of other power cars and high-horsepower locomotives."

He said they "found that the vertical bolt that clamps the gear box to the seat in the frame of the truck was broken or missing at one point of attachment. In a few other locations on the power cars and locomotives, the bolts were found to be loose."

Bagley stated that "We think the solution will be to lengthen the bolt to extend down through the frame, where it can be secured with a nut and lock washer," but they would take "the next couple of days to consider the options."

Bagley also said that "While a short suspension in testing might be frustrating to some, let's remember that the purpose of the testing phase is to uncover these kinds of issues so we can identify remedies well before the trainsets go into service.

"We've lost a couple of weeks in our testing schedule, but as we've said from the beginning, Amtrak is committed to providing safe, comfortable, and enjoyable service for our guests and crew. We will begin high-speed service when we are confident we can provide just that."

Bagley said that Amtrak and the FRA are currently in "conversation about resuming testing once we have a fix at lower speeds, with the higher speed tests to follow."


Meanwhile, as Amtrak is focused on a problem that is immediate and relevant, the General Accounting Office (GAO) has issued another report that is not immediate and, in the opinion of some people, not particularly relevant, at least not until we get to the time when decision-makers take stock of Amtrak's long term requirements.

The agency issued a report saying Amtrak faces capital needs of $9.1 billion through 2015.

As one who has covered Amtrak's trials and tribulations since its inception in 1971, my first reaction to that was "So what?" Amtrak President George Warrington has made no secret of the fact that even after the passenger train service reaches operational profitability, hopefully by the Oct. 1, 2002 deadline, there will be indefinite needs for capital funding, as is the case with highways, airways and barge systems. So what else is new?

Issuing the report right now will, of course, confuse a casually engaged public that does not make distinctions between operating and capital spending and will conclude that Amtrak, after all, is not going to become "profitable, as promised."

The GAO study also notes that among Amtrak's capital needs are "life safety investments" such as the deteriorating tunnels leading into and out of Penn Station, a problem we have alluded to in past D:F reports.

The agency also touched on some of Amtrak's well-known difficulties in getting a handle on labor expenses.

"Labor costs -- which continue to represent over 50 percent of Amtrak's total operating costs -- have grown about ten percent above the rate of inflation since 1995 (from about $1.3 billion to about $1.4 billion)."

This hardly rates as startling news. Once upon a time, Amtrak had a president named Tom Downs. He tried to trim labor costs by facing down a labor threat to shut down the Northeast Corridor. For his trouble, he was unceremoniously fired, though some still wander around clueless that his quick exit was never "explained."

There will come a day when there will finally be a showdown as to the following questions:

To what extent do the interests of rail labor and the traveling public coincide?

If there are some areas where they conflict, whose interests should take precedence?

It is this very question that is at the core of the controversy surrounding the labor's battle against the Amtrak Reform Council (ARC).

Largely at the behest of the rail labor unions, the House last month slashed the ARC's funding to about 55 percent below the administrations' request. It was thought that the money would be restored in the Senate, but then, according to several sources, Senate Transportation Appropriations Sub-committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) made a deal with rail labor, and the Senate figure was reduced to an amount that was close to the $450,000 in the House bill.

ARC Vice Chairman Paul M. Weyrich told me that even though he considers Senator Shelby "a good friend with whom I have worked on many issues," nonetheless he (Weyrich) had "tried to reach him on the days leading up to the subcommittee vote, (and) could not reach him or even his staff. I wanted to make sure he understood what we were accomplishing and what our objectives were. I was not able to make the case."

Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.) who led the fight in the House to slash ARC's funding acknowledged to me that, through their staffs, he communicated with his fellow New Jersey Democrat, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, and urged that the senator use his influence as ranking minority member of Shelby's subcommittee to cut the ARC funding. Andrews says he does not know what kind of deal Lautenberg made with Shelby, and apparently, no one who does know is willing to talk.

My own effort to reach Senator Shelby seeking comment for this report was unsuccessful before press time. As of this writing, supporters of the ARC are hoping to rescue the low-level agency by some other route. Sources close to the agency say it will have to virtually shut down if the money is not restored.

I have been covering Washington for 32 years, and I have seen much political intrigue in my time. But the ruckus over labor's effort to kill the Amtrak Reform Council lest it make a recommendation not in tune with labor's agenda has taken some bizarre twists and turns, even by Washington standards. The panel has the staunch support of a bipartisan majority of its members, including House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt's fund-raiser, G. Kling Lee;•Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, and the latest appointee of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, Chicago attorney James Coston, all of whom are Democrats.

And while we're at it, we'll let you in on another Washington secret, something to bear in mind when you hear about a GAO report that has "discovered" this or "exposed" that.

The analysts at the GAO are honest hard-working civil servants who do their jobs, but they must do as they are told. They would be horrified if anyone told them to "cook the books." That is the kind of nonsense that they see themselves as in business to expose, not perpetuate; but they must focus on the specific questions that a lawmaker instructs them to ask. If a senator or a representative wants to "prove" something or make a political point, the GAO will often be instructed to ask certain questions that, when answered in a vacuum or out of context, could make a target of the investigation or analysis look bad. If they were to ask other questions in different but related areas that could throw a different light on the matter, the investigation target could come out in better shape public relations-wise. Sometimes, results of an investigation are skewed by what is not asked.

However, one should not think ill of the analysts who are just doing their jobs, or even of the lawmakers who are just doing what comes second nature to any political animal. Politics, in the final analysis, is what Washington does. It may be messy, but it is the kind of tradeoff that any free society accepts.

Railroading's future:

Are we ready to 'bite the bullet'?
By Wes Vernon
Washington correspondent
Big changes usually don't happen overnight ¤ at least not in a free country whose leaders are elected. That is why trying to speculate on the future of anything so large and complex as the railroad industry must be interspersed with caveats and cautious "on the other hand" comments. But anyone who has followed political trends, as well as attitudes in the private and public sector can sense differences in the parameters of the debate on how to keep this 170-year old machine "on track," both for freight and passenger traffic.

James Coston, one of the newest members of the Amtrak Reform Council (ARC), outlined the history of the problem very well on June 12 when he spoke to the Sixth Annual Global Forum in New York City.

Coston, a Chicago lawyer whose love of trains has been detailed in our previous writings on this website, recounted the means by which the rail mode became a poor cousin in the house of America's transportation network.

Investor-owned railroads were on their own, following an initial federal grant to start up the transcontinental rail line in the mid- to late-19th Century. Investors owned both the infrastructure and the operations.

Meanwhile, government policy since at least the 1920s was to sink federal largesse into the competing highway and airway modes without so much as a thought in the world about how America's railroads would be affected.

The end result was a rail system that got no government help in sustaining itself while its competitors enjoyed government-supported infrastructure and were able to enjoy healthy private sector profits on operations alone. With one hand effectively tied behind their backs, railroads in the post World War II era fell behind, bleeding passenger deficits and operating freight service which, in many parts of the country (notably in the east), was falling apart.

Comes along the Amtrak legislation in 1970 to relieve the railroads of the biggest source of their deficits, but still leaving rail passenger service with one hand tied behind its back because the problem of infrastructure funding was not addressed.

As Coston points out, critics who took cheap shots at Amtrak for its inadequacies overlook that crucial distinction. As ARC Vice Chairman Paul Weyrich said on May 26 here in Washington, this notion that Amtrak is subsidized by the taxpayers while airlines and highway modes are models of free enterprise is "a joke."

Weyrich is open to the possibility of supporting the $10 billion bill to supply bonding authority for infrastructure funding to keep Amtrak in a position to offer "world class service" that its management promises. If airlines do not have to build their own airports or pay the traffic controllers, why should Amtrak have to pay for stations and other improvements such as upgraded trackage? Coston believes Amtrak has great potential if we face the reality that infrastructure is forever a public responsibility. If infrastructure funding is separated from "above the track" operations, the operator can turn a profit. Not bad for an entity that started out in 1971 as "a hastily improvised tourniquet for the railroad industry." One cannot talk about solving Amtrak's problems without dealing with the importance of infrastructure ¤ the tracks, the stations, signaling, etc. Coston thinks ignoring this factor would be the equivalent of "trying to land a 747 at 1950s style airport with a 4,000-foot runway."

Once we face up to this reality, there are those who are saying, in effect "Why stop there? Why not straighten out the whole railroad industry while you're at it?"

Enter Thomas D. Ellen, veteran railroader in the public and private sectors, and currently president of Vivax Medical Corp.

In an article in the May 2000 Trains magazine, Ellen takes stock of the rail industry as it stands today. Here is an industry, which, according to a 1998 paper issued by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, " has only attained half the level of profitability on a constant dollar basis it was reporting in 1966," and this despite the improvements made following the 1980 Staggers de-regulation Act.

Key to Ellen's point is his statement that "Rail technology clearly does not have enough economic advantage to support a privately-owned right of way in the face of government-provided infrastructure for most of its competition."

To remedy this, he says one of three things must happen.

First, the feds can purchase the nation's rail infrastructure and pay for all expansion, capital improvements and maintenance. The railroads would thus receive the same implicit subsidy in user fees enjoyed by their competitors.

Another option is that the federal government can privatize all competing infrastructures. The infrastructure owners would be free to charge fees for their use.

Finally, government can provide infrastructure subsidy to the railroads for capital improvements, growth, and expansion.

Of the three ideas which Ellen puts on the table, No. 3 is not only the most practical, but is actually, on a piecemeal basis, being gingerly approached by public and private sector railroaders.

Class I railroads are talking about accepting federal dollars for expansion of both passenger and freight traffic on their rights of way. The assumption in plans for future high-speed rail corridors is that there will be public funding for infrastructure, with operations expected to turn a profit. Coston agrees that a passenger train network can be profitable once it is freed of capital costs.

The pieces of this never-ending puzzle are starting to fit together, but don't expect radical changes overnight. In a society such as ours, the evolutionary route usually works best.

Corridor lines...

USDOT awards $34 million contract

for 'positive train control' project

Lockheed Martin Corp. was the winning bidder, at $34 million, on a contract to develop and deploy a Positive Train Control (PTC) system on a 120-mile segment of the Chicago-to- St. Louis high speed rail passenger corridor.

USDOT Secretary Rodney E. Slater revealed the plan on June 21.

Slater also said a $6.5 million grant was awarded to the Illinois DOT as part of the federal government's contribution toward the program.

"This Positive Train Control project will lead to safer and faster train transportation in the new century and new millennium," Slater said.

The Illinois system will enable the UP control center in Omaha to monitor the real-time locations of trains. When dispatchers authorize train movements over specific routes, computers will assure that operations are safe and will issue movement instructions to the trains over the digital radio network. A computer on each locomotive will display the permitted movements to the locomotive engineer and will stop a train if operations contrary to the dispatcher's plan are attempted.

The contract award was being made through the North American Joint Positive Train Control Program (NAJPTC), an amalgam of FRA, ILDOT and the AAR. The primary objective of NAJPTC is to demonstrate a cost-effective PTC system, which is one of the technologies that will further improve railroad safety and enable the development of high-speed rail in the Midwest and elsewhere in the United States. About half of the funding for the project comes from the federal government.

In a press release, DOT said PTC systems use "intelligent" transportation technologies including onboard computers, digital radio links, differential global positioning systems, computer route databases, and wayside computer control systems to assure that train operations are safe. Train control systems are mandatory under federal regulations wherever train speeds exceed 79 mph.

"Among the safety benefits of such systems is preventing train collisions, overspeed accidents, and protecting track and signal maintenance workers. PTC technology will also aid Amtrak in developing high-speed rail service across the country," the press release stated.

In recent years, according to the FRA, railroads have achieved unprecedented safety records. This has been accomplished through partnerships among the FRA, rail management, and rail labor in identifying and fixing systemic safety issues.

PTC systems are designed to aid the human operators of today's system in preventing accidents while also increasing the capacity of the railroad network for both freight and passenger trains.

The NAJPTC Project is intended to establish industry interoperability standards, which will govern how the railroads work with each other as new PTC systems are deployed. The Lockheed-Martin partners include Wabtec of Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Union Switch and Signal of Swissvale, Pa.; and Parsons Brinkerhoff of Chicago.

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, we'd like to hear from you. Please email the crew at

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