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KDOT versus reality

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Garl B. Latham

Ruminations of a foaming professional.

KDOT versus reality

  • Comments 6


Sometimes, it's really difficult to be an unqualified supporter of Amtrak. [Honestly, I'm tempted to claim it's always difficult, just to varying degrees; but, I wouldn't want to overstate the issue.]

Perhaps, when it comes to Amtrak and me, the term "love/hate" would be apropos.

I'm a firm believer in passenger train services of all types - and Amtrak is usually the only game in town. That's enough to keep me solidly within their camp. Still, even if I had no experience in advertising, I'd hesitate to recommend "Amtrak: it's better than nothing" as a marketing pitch.

Amtrak's myriad shortcomings have often been evident to passengers, to employees, and to fellow rails. Now that the concept of passenger train service is
becoming increasingly popular amongst transportation planners and elected officials, these shortcomings are manifesting themselves to a new and larger audience, with potentially negative results.

Kansas' Department of Transportation recently made news with the release of a feasibility study regarding restored/expanded service along the former Santa Fe main line between Oklahoma City and Kansas City (including portions of BNSF's Emporia, Topeka, La Junta, Arkansas City and Red Rock subdivisions). This report, developed by Amtrak, reviewed four basic options for passenger schedules and the approximate capital and long-term operational subsidies required for each.

In my subsequent review of the study, I came to several conclusions, none of which were encouraging. In fact, one might say they were all profoundly regrettable.

First of all, whatever growth Amtrak enjoys will come at others' expense. For example, Kansas paid for this study. That state will be expected to underwrite the cost of any new equipment obtained. They'll be required to fund station facilities, including the construction of A.D.A.-compliant platforms.

Amtrak is operating under the principle that system development should be viewed as a state, not federal, issue. Yet, running trains across multiple borders while depending upon individual jurisdictions to cover their fair share of the budget is surely a recipe for disaster!

Must we expect every new/restored route to be cobbled together through unique pacts, with no overriding plan or goal in place? Perhaps. After 39 years, Amtrak
remains adrift, without a unifying mission. Furthermore, it has never embraced the idea of a true national network.

Certainly, Amtrak pays lip service to the concept, occasionally restating is intent to maintain the existing long-haul fleet. Still, logical suggestions for system expansion are trivialised and potential solutions ignored.

Amtrak's Kansas study states that, behind this effort, the "underlying assumption reflected the fact that there was a desire to establish train service in the most expeditious and practical way possible."

Presuming that's true, why wasn't the simplest, quickest solution emphasised? Using the Heartland Flyer's existing equipment, on its current timetable, the run could be extended 199 miles north to reach the junction city of Newton, Kansas and a connection with Amtrak trains 3 & 4, the Southwest Chief! Suddenly, a new-and-improved Flyer would be anchored at both ends by healthy intercity runs, since that train already connects with Amtrak's Texas Eagle in Fort Worth.

Understandably, Kansas, who'll be footing the bill, is hesitant to fund a deep-night operation. What if their own citizens receive greater benefit from a daytime schedule? A fair question...but an erroneous - and costly - assumption.

The choice of a daylight option forces the train to rely solely upon on-line traffic, with no established en route or terminal connections, whatsoever. At best, ridership would be anemic, unless that train actually represented an additional route frequency. But, the state's budget likely dictates a single daily round trip, at least in the beginning.

I haven't a problem with various alternatives being presented to decision makers. I only ask that systemic logic be adequately explained and reasonable conclusions encouraged.

Regarding this issue, Amtrak has been condemned by its own words! The study admits a bias toward the "stand alone" model when computing potential ridership and ticket revenue. In fact, the document specifically states that, "with respect to service alternatives...which provide for extension of the current Heartland Flyer route, the projected results...do not include any ancillary traffic projected to be realized by Amtrak’s long distance service due to enhanced levels of connectivity associated with the proposed extension of the route."

Once again, Amtrak demonstrates an unfailingly corridor-centric nature. Completely lost in the process is the inherent value of a comprehensive, interconnecting route matrix offering efficient continent-wide service.

Regrettably, many of those who are depending on Amtrak to be their guide into the future are ignorant of this mindset, as well as the damage that approach can
inflict upon a project.

I spent ten years of my professional life at the 'trak. I deeply care about intercity passenger train service and I want Amtrak to succeed in every possible way.

At this rate, I'm afraid it'll never happen.

Garl


P.S. On Wednesday the 24th, Kansas Governor Mark Parkinson signed two passenger train-oriented bills.

House Bill 2552 authorises Kansas' participation in the "Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact," designed to develop formal planning (and, eventually, operational) relationships with up to 11 other states. Interestingly, neither Oklahoma or Texas are named as part of this compact - the two states which, with Kansas, form the backbone of the service extension we've been discussing.

Senate Bill 409, the "Passenger Rail Service Program Act," creates a revolving fund able to serve as a place-holder for future federal grants.

GBL

 

  • Where to begin?  Garl, I sense your anguish, and I can offer no relief.  My specific, sometimes snarky comments on what your wrote are below:

    G: Sometimes, it's really difficult to be an unqualified supporter of Amtrak.

    Perhaps that is part of the problem, and people who really understand economics should not be "unqualified" supporters of Amtrak. There would be more credibility for supporters of passenger rail if they were more realistic and called a bad idea a bad idea when they see one.

    Garl: I'm a firm believer in passenger train services of all types - and Amtrak is usually the only game in town. That's enough to keep me solidly within their camp. Still, even if I had no experience in advertising, I'd hesitate to recommend "Amtrak: it's better than nothing" as a marketing pitch.

    Blind support does no one any good, neither Amtrak not its supporters.

    Garl: Amtrak's myriad shortcomings have often been evident to passengers, to employees, and to fellow rails. Now that the concept of passenger train service is becoming increasingly popular amongst transportation planners and elected officials, these shortcomings are manifesting themselves to a new and larger audience, with potentially negative results.

    There is one group not mentioned in your list of those who recognize Amtrak's shortcomings.  Management.  Perhaps that should tell us all something.  If the management cannot recognize shortcomings, how is anything ever going to be fixed?

    Garl: Kansas' Department of Transportation recently made news with the release of a feasibility study regarding restored/expanded service along the former Santa Fe main line between Oklahoma City and Kansas City (including portions of BNSF's Emporia, Topeka, La Junta, Arkansas City and Red Rock subdivisions). This report, developed by Amtrak, reviewed four basic options for passenger schedules and the approximate capital and long-term operational subsidies required for each.

    Is it Kansas" study or an Amtrak study?  I cannot conceive of hiring Amtrak to undertake a study of whether Amtrak service should be extended.  There are any number of reputable consultants who could have been hired by KDOT, and whose product would not be open to challenge as being biased even before the study were done.  In your entire blog post, I see no reference to market potential.  Did Amtrak try to assess the market when looking at subsidies?  Did it consider varying rates to be charged travelers?  

    Garl: In my subsequent review of the study, I came to several conclusions, none of which were encouraging. In fact, one might say they were all profoundly regrettable.

    First of all, whatever growth Amtrak enjoys will come at others' expense. For example, Kansas paid for this study. That state will be expected to underwrite the cost of any new equipment obtained. They'll be required to fund station facilities, including the construction of A.D.A.-compliant platforms.

    Unless one believes that things magically appear like manna from Heaven, and I don't, someone is going to pay for the proposed service.  That's also another reason why this country needs a national transportation policy.  Absent that, we will continue with what we have - a lot of talk and very little performance.

    Garl: Amtrak is operating under the principle that system development should be viewed as a state, not federal, issue. Yet, running trains across multiple borders while depending upon individual jurisdictions to cover their fair share of the budget is surely a recipe for disaster!

    See above; I stand on the previous comment.  There is no national policy for Amtrak to view, which leaves these things to the states, most of which cannot even afford to educate their children much less subsidize passenger trains.

    Garl: Must we expect every new/restored route to be cobbled together through unique pacts, with no overriding plan or goal in place? Perhaps. After 39 years, Amtrak remains adrift, without a unifying mission. Furthermore, it has never embraced the idea of a true national network.

    Absent a coherent national policy, yes, we must expect every new service to be cobbled together.  After 39 years, it is obvious that passenger service is not really on the radar either at DOT or Congress.  It was Congress that maintained the fiction for so many years that if Amtrak were properly managed, it could be weaned from the public dole.  It was false when first stated and it remains false today.  The pubs your favorite members of Congress in the cupidity or stupidty conundrum; either you knew it was false, in which case you are guilty of cupidity, or you didn't, in which case you are guilty of stupidity.  Which way do you want it?

    Garl: Certainly, Amtrak pays lip service to the concept, occasionally restating is intent to maintain the existing long-haul fleet. Still, logical suggestions for system expansion are trivialised and potential solutions ignored.

    That's because there is no policy guidance and with all respect, Joe Boardman is a hired hand and cannot develop a policy by himself.

    Garl: Amtrak's Kansas study states that, behind this effort, the "underlying assumption reflected the fact that there was a desire to establish train service in the most expeditious and practical way possible."

    Who had that "desire"?  Too many passenger supporters blindly support every cockamamie proposal, whether it has any merit or not?  This is not helpful in the grand scheme of things.

    Garl: Presuming that's true, why wasn't the simplest, quickest solution emphasised? Using the Heartland Flyer's existing equipment, on its current timetable, the run could be extended 199 miles north to reach the junction city of Newton, Kansas and a connection with Amtrak trains 3 & 4, the Southwest Chief! Suddenly, a new-and-improved Flyer would be anchored at both ends by healthy intercity runs, since that train already connects with Amtrak's Texas Eagle in Fort Worth.

    Again, I see no mention of potential ridership, potential fares to be charged.  Is this an essential service that might be justified even if subsidy is required?  Or, is it another "it would be nice if...." proposal?  I'm old enough to remember having to change trains - and sometimes stations - in the middle of the night.  Speed and distance means that these interconnected trains won't all operate in the daylight.  Might that not affect potential ridership?  And if a real study determined that were so, might it be an argument against restoring a service.  I was present when Amtrak was activated in 1971 and terminated half of the then passenger trains operating in the U.S.  Except for the nostalgic, the world has hardly missed most of them.  Air service is lousy and getting more expensive and less pleasant by the day, but it just may be a better way to get to/from Kansas City than a slower, expensive rail service, to say nothing of the drive the family flivver option.

    Garl: Understandably, Kansas, who'll be footing the bill, is hesitant to fund a deep-night operation. What if their own citizens receive greater benefit from a daytime schedule? A fair question...but an erroneous - and costly - assumption.

    Is it erroneous?  Perhaps, but I haven't seen a real, meaningful study of these factors, the kind of study KDOT should have demanded, and could have been produced by a legitimate consulting firm.  Amtrak, remember, is a party at interest.

    Garl: The choice of a daylight option forces the train to rely solely upon on-line traffic, with no established en route or terminal connections, whatsoever. At best, ridership would be anemic, unless that train actually represented an additional route frequency. But, the state's budget likely dictates a single daily round trip, at least in the beginning.

    A single daily round-trip is little more than an excursion.  It certainly is not a viable transportation alternative.  And as for potential long-haul passengers vs. those who would be local to a restored service, again, that's what real studies are for.  KDOT is not charged with figuring out how to make things better for Oklahoma or Texas taxpayers.

    Garl: I haven't a problem with various alternatives being presented to decision makers. I only ask that systemic logic be adequately explained and reasonable conclusions encouraged.

    Aha!  Whether you state it clearly or not, you also think a better study could have been performed.

    Galr: Regarding this issue, Amtrak has been condemned by its own words! The study admits a bias toward the "stand alone" model when computing potential ridership and ticket revenue. In fact, the document specifically states that, "with respect to service alternatives...which provide for extension of the current Heartland Flyer route, the projected results...do not include any ancillary traffic projected to be realized by Amtrak’s long distance service due to enhanced levels of connectivity associated with the proposed extension of the route."

    Translation: Even Amtrak recognizes the flaws of the study.  Perhaps KDOT didn't want to pay for a more useful study?  Perhaps KDOT couldn't justify paying for a study that would have affected potential Oklahoma and Texas ridership.  Perhaps the other states chose not to participate, leaving KDOT with no choice but to order up the study it got.

    Garl: Once again, Amtrak demonstrates an unfailingly corridor-centric nature. Completely lost in the process is the inherent value of a comprehensive, interconnecting route matrix offering efficient continent-wide service.

    Yep; we've been over this before.  I'm not sure Amtrak has the authorization to do it much differently than it has.  Considering the distances involved, I also think "efficient" and "continent-wide" are an oxymoron.

    Garl: Regrettably, many of those who are depending on Amtrak to be their guide into the future are ignorant of this mindset, as well as the damage that approach can inflict upon a project.

    Perhaps those of you who truly believe in passenger rail should find or create a different institution to serve as your "guide into the future."

    Garl: I spent ten years of my professional life at the 'trak. I deeply care about intercity passenger train service and I want Amtrak to succeed in every possible way.

    The depth of your feelings are quite obvious, Garl.  I regret being as negative as I am here, but I also think it an exercise in futility to be arguing over specific city-pair service/restoration when there is no real national policy that could be a guide for future planners.

    Garl: At this rate, I'm afraid it'll never happen.

    Quite likely so.  Have you looked at what passes for performance on Capitol Hill lately?

    Garl: House Bill 2552 authorises Kansas' participation in the "Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact," designed to develop formal planning (and, eventually, operational) relationships with up to 11 other states. Interestingly, neither Oklahoma or Texas are named as part of this compact - the two states which, with Kansas, form the backbone of the service extension we've been discussing.

    There you have it.  Texas and Oklahoma voted with their pocketbooks.  Not interested, was their response.

    Garl: Senate Bill 409, the "Passenger Rail Service Program Act," creates a revolving fund able to serve as a place-holder for future federal grants.

    Putting the train before the horse.  Where is this money coming from?  A revolving fund with no funds?  I'll bet the governor even made a statement about how progressive Kansas is being.

  • Here is the latest silliness from Colorado, which yields nothing to Kansas when it comes to being silly.  A so-called study, as reported in the Tuesday, March 30, Denver Post "has found that lines between Fort Collins and Pueblo and between Denver International Airport and Eagle County (way up in ski country) have tghe best "operating and cost-benefit results" of the options studied.  The full system carries a $21.1 billion (with a "b") price tag.  Assumptions include passenger fares of 35 cents a mile, with one-way trips from downtown Denver to Vail in the Interstate 70 corridor and from Denver to Pueblo in the Interstate 25 corridor, each soting about $40.

    This in a state that can't afford to maintain its existing highway system, and that has slashed support for the public colleges and universities in the state.  This also is a state that has a unique law that prevents the legislature from raising taxes without a vote of the people, and which prides itself on its libertarian/populist traditions.  Don't anyone hold his or her breath until this project is approved and/or funded.  By the way, the I-70 corridor involves grades and curves that would defy any engineer's attempt to put conventional rail through it.  Of course, since we're just talking about play money in the first place, perhaps they'll decide to go with a magnetic levitation system.  The Post did not say who had performed the "study," just that it was produced at a cost of $1.4 million by the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority.

    I'll match Colorado against Kansas any day of the week.

  • Larry,

    As always, I appreciate your responses. They are timely,

    intelligent...and not _too_ snarky!

    L: "There would be more credibility for supporters of passenger rail if they were more realistic and called a bad idea a bad idea when they see one. Blind support does no one any good..."

    G: Understood. For me, the temptation to support it all exists because there's so little of it to go 'round! That's not an excuse, of course; but, it is a reason. HOPEFULLY, I'm at least consistent, searching for projects which fill a real societal need (apart from the "creation of jobs").

    L: "If the management cannot recognize shortcomings, how is anything ever going to be fixed?"

    G: I don't know - and that's tragic, too. I'm afraid a large percentage of Amtrak's management may be satisfied with survival.

    L: "I cannot conceive of hiring Amtrak to undertake a study of whether Amtrak service should be extended."

    G: Well, Amtrak's "Feasibility Study" was conducted to show _how_ the service might be extended. The entire process - instigated by Kansas - was based upon the assumption (yes, I know!) that the train's route _needed_ to be extended in some way. If we're looking for an excuse, it'd be because the line under consideration was the route of Santa Fe's "Texas Chief" - one of only two long distance trains which the AT&SF never applied to discontinue, and a version of which would

    probably still be around today if it hadn't been for Jimmy Carter's U.S. D.O.T. Amtrak "rationalisation" process. Historically, that train certainly maintained healthy ridership.

    L: "Unless one believes that things magically appear like manna from Heaven, and I don't, someone is going to pay for the proposed service. That's also another reason why this country needs a national transportation policy. Absent that, we will continue with what we have - a lot of talk and very little performance."

    G: I'm with you, 100%

    L: "After 39 years, it is obvious that passenger service is not really on the radar either at DOT or Congress."

    G: Once again, you're absolutely correct. Even after all the "green" rhetoric of the past few years, that remains true.

    L: "Which way do you want it?"

    G: Yeah; occasionally, I'll feel like accusing an elected official of being either a liar or a fool (or both) - and, no matter which is the most accurate description, it should cost him his job!

    L: "Who had that 'desire' [to (re)establish train service]? Too many passenger supporters blindly support every cockamamie proposal, whether it has any merit or not?"

    G: To me, the proposal makes sense because it takes what amounts to a branch line and turns it into a bridge line! As I previously said, this "new-and-improved Flyer would be anchored at both ends" by national network trains. Every step we take toward establishing a comprehensive route matrix is a step in the right direction.

    L: "Is this an essential service that might be justified even if

    subsidy is required? Or, is it another 'it would be nice if...'

    proposal?"

    G: Honestly, it's probably a little bit of both!

    L: "Speed and distance means that these interconnected trains won't all operate in the daylight. Might that not affect potential ridership?"

    G: Absolutely...which is one reason multiple frequencies are so important.

    L: "I was present when Amtrak...terminated half of the...[U.S.]

    passenger trains operating in [1971]. ...the world has hardly missed most of them. Air service is lousy and getting more expensive and less pleasant by the day, but it just may be a better way to get to/from Kansas City than a slower, expensive rail service..."

    G: Personally, I find it hard to believe that conventional passenger trains could not offer a viable alternative to lousy, expensive and unpleasant air service! At any rate, the world today (by and large) doesn't even know what it's missing!

    L: "A single daily round-trip is little more than an excursion. It

    certainly is not a viable transportation alternative."

    G: And that's essentially the reason why I'm convinced a singular day train is NOT the proper approach to make!

    L: "KDOT is not charged with figuring out how to make things better for Oklahoma or Texas taxpayers."

    G: What have we been saying about a NATIONAL policy?!

    L: "Considering the distances involved, I also think 'efficient' and 'continent-wide' are an oxymoron."

    G: Perhaps; still, the private automobile remains the U.S.' primary mode of passenger transportation and the highway network built to support its use can be fairly described as "continent-wide." Looking at Amtrak's current route map, we can easily see how the failure to establish and operate a true continent-wide system prevents prospective passengers from considering train transportation for journeys between

    Little Rock and Memphis or St. Louis and Indianapolis - or Oklahoma City and Kansas City.

    L: "Perhaps those of you who truly believe in passenger rail should find or create a different institution to serve as your 'guide into the future'."

    G: You're tellin' me!

    L: "I...think it an exercise in futility to be arguing over specific

    city-pair service/restoration when there is no real national policy that could be a guide for future planners."

    G: Yes, sir. And that probably sums up the entire issue.

    Once again Larry, thank you so much for your comments!

    Garl

  • Garl, as usual, you triggered some additional thoughts, which I guess is the idea of this blog in the first place.    You and I are not far apart at all on the desire to see more and better passenger rail service.  I do, however, allow economics to be my guide.  All transportation is subsidized to one degree or another.  Nowhere is that more clear than in freight, where big trucks have a distorted cost structure as a result of their ability to operate over public highways at considerably less expense than their allocable share would require.  This allows them to price lower in competition with railroads, resulting in distorted modal splits.  Passenger cars are subsidized because the federal gasoline tax goes only to federal-aid highways and does not cover the huge cost of maintaining other than federal-aid highways - like state highways, county roads, and city streets.  

    You posed the thought that Amtrak management may be managing for survival.  I suspect you're right to a greater or lesser degree.  And if the powers that be ever were to focus on that issue, many Amtrak managers might find themselves seeking career opportunities elsewhere.

  • Boardman claimed that he would change the survival culture, but he has been in office for over a year now and nothing has happened along those lines.  In my opinion, Gunn was the best manager Amtrak has had, since Claytor, but we all saw how the Republicans handled a progressive manager and I woiuld not be surprised if Boardman is not gun shy.

  • No disagreement with what you say, landnrailroader, but let's look beyond the relative merits of Boardman, Gunn, and Claytor.  Boardman is a bureaucrat, and I don't mean that in the insulting sense; the man has worked in the public sphere almost since the day he got out of college.  That gives him certain skillsets and certain behavior patterns, as you point out.  Gunn was a superb railroader, all of his experience in the freight world.  Like so many operating executives he had what could be called a "prickly personality."  Or, as one friend said, he could piss off the Pope.  Even when he was right, which was most of the time, he was right in a manner that frequently caused his Amtrak board masters to ignore his counsel and eventually to fire him.  Claytor was an exceptional executive who, had he stayed around longer, might have had a more lasting and positive effect.  But he didn't, and we all have to deal with reality.  That reality, in fairness to Boardman, is that Congress has been niggardly in funding Amtrak, there is no real policy for a national rail passenger system, and the people running Amtrak have to lurch from crisis to crisis, not a recommended way of managing large enterprises.