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Obama Speed Rail

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Garl B. Latham

Ruminations of a foaming professional.

Obama Speed Rail

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Professionally, I am a Railroader, not a writer. I don't always know how to schedule the publishing of a column, or when to give myself a few extra days for anger to subside.

I, too, am aware of the Biblical admonition to "Curse not the king, no not in thy thought...: for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter." [Ecclesiastes 10:20]

Even so, there are times when situations become so outrageous that I feel something must be said!

This is one of those times.

I've waited for my emotions to calm a bit. I'm also willing to refrain from blindly casting aspersions upon elected officials or their appointees. Yet, I sincerely must wonder: are the people running our federal government absolutely insane?!

On Wednesday, June 9th, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in a "high-level meeting" with railroad executives, essentially accused them of attempting to "sidetrack President Barack Obama’s signature transportation project before it even got started" (per Crain's Chicago Business).

In a brief interview the following day, LaHood said he reminded railway leaders of "the president’s and vice-president’s vision" and told them "we need to get moving on it." He insisted that some "very intense meetings" would be held over the "next couple of weeks," so that various agreements might be finalised.

Although Wednesday's meeting failed to address the "nitty-gritty detail" of issues raised by the railroads, LaHood reiterated his belief that these matters "are going to be resolved." The Secretary continued, "There’s a sense of urgency... We want some of this work to begin this year.”

Far be it from our industry not to share the administration's "sense of urgency," or fully appreciate its politically-driven construction timetable. I only wish understanding was a bidirectional affair.

When representatives of our own government begin speaking of "punitive" measures; when they begin making thinly-veiled threats, such as LaHood mentioning the "pretty significant investment" railroads have received through D.O.T. grant programs (per William B. Cassidy in The Journal of Commerce), it's time to sit up and take notice.

And what of these nitty-gritty details which seem so unimportant to Washington?

Well, in the process of planning for expanded railway passenger service, our Class I roads, along with the Association of American Railroads, have repeatedly emphasised three things: their willingness (yes, willingness!) to negotiate, the necessity of certain operational and safety constraints when using railroad property, and the fact that the majority of proposed improvements for faster/more reliable passenger services are not necessary for, nor will they positively affect, the railroad's own freight operations.

Now, we see our industry being publicly castigated and browbeaten - by the people who supposedly work for us! - because government officials have decided the companies aren't cooperating quickly enough concerning the fed's plans for the railroad's property! Furthermore, if the road's fail to behave, they'll be required to pay back money they aren't requesting for infrastructure changes they don't need - changes which will not improve their operations or profits, or make them more competitive, but which stand to increase both their taxes and exposure to liability!

[I wonder: If we're asking the railroads to accept certain responsibilities and assume certain risks, what benefits will they be receiving in return?]

Secretary La Hood insists the D.O.T. needs "our friends in the Class I freight rail business to partner with us.” So, do his Department's actions seem friendly? Is it possible for true partners to cooperate under such circumstances?

Those are both fair questions.

You see, ANYTHING our government ends up doing will require not only the railroad industry’s cooperation, but its voluntary, remunerative partnership! The U.S. D.O.T. must understand and accept reality: our railroads are private companies, answering to shareholders, paying taxes and supporting thousands of employees. Freight operations are more vital to the nation’s economy than any passenger service - true high-speed or no - will ever be! It is both unfair and unreasonable to presume otherwise.

If Ray LaHood honestly believes what he told the National Industrial Transportation League - that "the U.S. is getting into the high-speed rail business in a big way" - then this is not how we should go about it!

First of all, what we're discussing is NOT true H.S.R.! Even so-called “higher-speed rail” (what I refer to as “O.S.R.,” or “Obama Speed Rail”) at 110 m.p.h. will not happen on the vast majority of lines, since that speed will require dedicated, passenger-only trackage. The cost effectiveness of our investments would be greatly increased if we’d concentrate upon the elimination of slow stretches and bottlenecks (terminals, interlocking plants and the like) instead of attempting to arbitrarily increase top speed. Such an approach would be less "sexy," but far more practical.

Secondly, it is unconscionable for the D.O.T. to pontificate from on high, issuing orders and telling the railroad industry how to run its own business! Even now, according to The State Journal-Register in Springfield, Illinois, Robert Kulat of the F.R.A. insists that "the agency is sticking by [its] guidelines." Cavalierly dismissing opposition (while preparing for Ray LaHood's "intense meetings"), he said, “I think the whole thing’s been overblown." I have a suggestion: why don't the feds, who are the instigators of this plan, come to the table with a proverbial "win/win" solution - then, let the RAILROADS decide if the deal's going to be worth it!

Thirdly, if Washington thinks it's serious when predicting that, “two decades from now, the lion’s share of America will be connected by passenger [trains]," it needs to take a crash course in conventional passenger railroad technology - something that can be established for pennies on the dollar (in comparison to true H.S.R.), yet can give us some practical (versus theoretical) indication of the market for such service in the 21st century U.S. In addition, every investment made in existing railroad infrastructure would also serve to benefit freight operations, helping the economy and offering a viable, safe, energy saving and environmentally friendly alternative to trucking.

Finally, if Barack Obama and associates REALLY wanted make a substantial impact upon our society, they'd be working toward the establishment of a uniform, comprehensive transportation/energy/environmental policy!

But, of course, something truly "substantial" isn't the goal.

As I recently said on the Dallas Morning News transportation blog, "...it's fascinating. Sometimes, 'supporters' can achieve things detractors can't!"

I wholeheartedly support all forms of passenger train service, yet I am disgusted beyond description.

 

 

  • Well-written, Garl.  I'm sure I'll have any number of specific comments, but not right now.  My prescription: take two aspirin, followed by a deep breath, and then go do something that truly give you joy.  You'll feel better.

  • Thanks, Larry!

    You know, it's funny: something that generally gives me joy is reading. I suppose the level of pure enjoyment ultimately depends upon the source material, though!

    One of the first items I picked up off my mail pile this morning was the most recent membership newsletter from the National Association of Railroad Passengers. [That's always been a problem with me: the "busman's holiday"!] Of all things, Norfolk Southern's Charles "Wick" Moorman was being quoted concerning his take on this very issue!

    We both know he has consistently emphasised a number of conditions which must be met before there are more passenger trains on his road. Still, his overall positive outlook - and his basic agreement with my opinions regarding conventional passenger train service - communicates a wealth of information.

    Quoting from the article, "Moorman said he would work to convince his peers in corporate management that 'real Americans ride passenger trains for valid reasons.' He acknowledged the growing drumbeat for more and faster passenger trains, but cautioned that European-style high-speed trains will only be seen in the U.S. in very isolated circumstances... 'But I do think we'll see more of the conventional, 79-, maybe 90-mph passenger trains, and that, for a lot of the service we need, will be a good thing and be adequate and sufficient.'"

    It's far _past_ time for the Obama administration to begin working WITH the railroads instead of drowning them in unreasonable demands! There is no doubt in my mind that, if the D.O.T. refuses to do so, all the current dreams of a passenger railroad "renaissance" will remain just that: dreams.

    Maybe I'll just go have some Mexican food for lunch!

    Garl

    P.S. A wonderful book I _have_ been thoroughly enjoying is "The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt" by T. J. Stiles. HIGHLY recommended!

    GBL

  • It all makes me mad too but look at the bright side. Maybe we'll have government instead of Railroad Retirement pensions........

  • Be careful what you ask for, FSAdams, because you just might get it.  My Railroad Retirement pension is larger than Social Security would have been. I'll stick with RRB, thank you very much.

    The real issue is who shall pay for what.  The Class 1 railroads are taking a non-negotiable position that they will not make their stockholders subsidize Amtrak or other passenger operators on high speed, and if FRA/DOT force them to spend money they oherwise wouldn't spend without any hope of reimbursement, this will be just another lug on their shippers.  I'm not sure that a mindless policy of forcing HSR on the freight railroads is much better than the Bush Administration mindless policy of trying to end all government spending on Amtrak.  Mindlessness is mindlessness, no matter how you present it.

  • LK>"Mindlessness is mindlessness, no matter how you present it."

    Amen, Amen, Alle-molly-floggin'-luia.

    Shifting costs to shippers (or stockholders, for that matter) will penalize shippers (and stockholders, for that matter) whose actions supported some of this administration's claimed goals.  Freight rail -is- "green"; rail -does- save nonrenewable energy sources.

  • anmccaff:  You're right, which you already knew.  Yes, railroads are green and a number of other things we consider good in our society. I'm convinced the Obama Administration knows this.  But while $8 billion seems a lot, it's just a drop in the bucket of what a real HSR network will cost, and Obama/LaHood/Szabo are trying to cram 15 pounds in a 10 pound bag (you needn't ask what with) to get the most bang for the bucks available.  If a few shippers and stockholders get squeezed, well, that's their problem.  At least, that's the way I see their actions.  Remember, DOT/Oberstar & Co. can't come up with the needed funding for the highway program, and with the exception of RAILWAYIST just about everyone agrees that the highway program needs funding and more than it got in the last highway bill.  Someone's ox is going to get gored; we just haven't figured out whose yet.

  • There appear to be a lot of people commenting on this site with “common sense,” which seems to be a major component lacking when it comes to national transportation policy ,(among other things) in this country. As a regular retired guy who appreciates the inherent positives of train travel, my frustration with Amtrak seems to match that of Garl regarding “mindlessness“!

    This past week I went from Syracuse, NY to Boston via the Lake Shore Limited, stayed in Boston for two nights and took the 11:15am Acela from Boston South Station to NYC Pennsylvania Station.  A couple of observations pertinent to this post:

    The oft neglected Lake Shore was on time, basically a full train, with its NYC and Boston sections couches(5), sleepers (3), dinning car and lounge car appearing near capacity. This train crawls, taking from 11:30 am until 8:30 pm to travel 349 miles, = 38mph and yet is still full.  Question,  is high speed the most important consideration to encourage passenger rail customers or is it reliable schedules, reasonable frequency, good equipment maintenance, positive employee attitude, intelligent marketing and consideration of regional differences in equipment suitability?

    On my return date, I arrived early at South Station but if I wanted to catch the about to depart 9:15 am Acela, it would cost an additional $31. Question, the empty seat I would like to take will probably not be sold before departure in minutes, while the seat on the later train I relinquish has two hours to be sold, why charge me ?

    In the entire South Station where thousands of commuters from the suburbs arrive and depart by train, there was not a single visible sign advertising Amtrak’s long distance trains for vacation travel. Question, why on earth not advertise to people with money who are used to train travel and are physically right in front of the Amtrak ticket office?

    Amtrak spent somewhere around a billion dollars to electrify the route from Boston to New Haven and all tracks at South Station have a catenary wire but I did not see any of the many commuter trains run by the state of Massachusetts using electric power.  Question, would there not be some advantage to sharing the electrification scheme with the commuter trains especially since rapid acceleration is probably more important to commuter trains economics then longer run trains?

    The 45 mile run from Boston to Providence takes the Acela about 35 minutes, on the wall of Back Bay Station, literally minutes out of South Station is a poster advertising pre WWII service to Providence, “45 miles in 45 minutes.” no electric locomotives, no computers, no remote electric switch operation, no radios, etc.  Question,  is this a demonstration of  Amtrak’s extensive experience managing high speed train operations in the US?

    The roadbed on this Amtrak owned property is nice, the switches are taken very smoothly and the Acela does accelerate very nicely, running at a fair speed for about a mile or so before rapid deceleration into one of the infinite number of heavy curves necessitated by the geography of the many indentations to the coast along which this old route was laid out to serve. Question, the roadbed improvements alone are most likely responsible for a large part of Acela’s ability to make good speed where it can but so can any train running on it, so why the need for an electric powered unit “capable of speeds up to 150 mph” which can never be achieved because of the inherent route geometry?

    After numerous slow downs for track & wire work and to allow passage on a single track of an east bound regional train, we arrived a bit late at Penn Station where I would estimate 90+% of the passengers disembarked to be replaced by a waiting crowd on the platform getting on for the run to Washington, DC.  Question, per above comment, why run equipment unsuitable for the Boston to NYC route as a continuing train to Washington on a route better suited to higher sustained speeds when such a large number of the Boston passengers get off  in NYC anyway?

    My conclusion from these observations is that Amtrak’s Board & senior management do not know what they are doing, from market analysis to engineering studies, to cost benefit analysis, to equipment utilization and operation.  Question, why should Amtrak even be considered as the sole operator of new investment in passenger railroad operation in this country?  Have a great Father’s Day.

  • OA>"My conclusion from these observations is that Amtrak’s Board & senior management do not know what they are doing, from market analysis to engineering studies, to cost benefit analysis, to equipment utilization and operation.  Question, why should Amtrak even be considered as the sole operator of new investment in passenger railroad operation in this country?  Have a great Father’s Day."

    Amtrak's board has very little opportunity -almost none, compared with most businesses, and even compared to many governmental and quasi-governmental agencies - to control their own capital budget and to raise money.

    This has two nasty effects.  One is that short-term opportunities almost always go untaken.  After Ossama's thing in New York, Amtrak had a lot of business opportunities that it could not take advantage of because they had no free money for it, and Congress moves slowly on some things.  Amtrak is generally one of those things.

    The other problem is that getting funds means log-rolling, which means promising services that may not fit well, or at all into an optimized plan.  If you want to improve the North East Corridor, the only way to do it might involve repairing the passenger lobby in Abilene.

  • oamundsen and anmccaff:  You're both perceptive and right.  Boards of directors in theory bring their own business experience and acumen to the board room and set policy for the enterprise and approve the compensation schedule for the CEO and senior executives.  In Amtrak's case, the board tends to represent interests, and not necessarily those of Amtrak or its customers.  The pretty much eliminates the need for a good strategic planning/service design group, as it doesn't really have the capability of implementing what planners/designers might urge.  Freight railroad planning groups, on the other hand and especially since deregulation, have come into their own by contrast and really participate in setting the long-term future of the railroads.  

    Just as highway programs are as much political as they are efficiency-driven, railroad programs will be more politically-driven as more public money is injected into the rail system.

  • Railroads have always been enmeshed in political networks -- and there are good reasons for that.  Railroads have a lot of powers delegated from government, such as eminent domain in some cases, and the ability to supersede some kinds of local control.  Without these enabling powers, railroads and similar utilities would have a tough go.  In addition, there are issues related to being common carriers, and the fact that railroads are a major presence in the physical and urban environment - especially in cities.   While they are usually publicly traded private corporations, railroads can only exist and operate within a public framework that can either enable or disable certain activities.

    A good article covering about these "external networks" from a historical perspective is:

    www.h-net.org/.../Churella.pdf

    Churella dissects the influence of external networks on the Pennsylvania Railroad during the ostensible height of its power and wealth.  His conclusion is that the Pennsy had to operate within political frameworks that extend from the country club to the halls of power, and this steered much of its capital planning.  Churella argues that the large capital projects, brought out partly due to public pressure, ultimately benefited the managerial capacity of the corporation, training a new generation of executives and managers and building organization links among departments.  These "internal networks" are beneficial for business innovation.

    With regards to the question of passenger rail investments in the present context, there would seem to be posturing on both sides, which is a normal negotiating tactic.  In the end, the "freight" railroads could potentially derive many benefits from increased access to federal capital, potentially increasing their core business, freight, through improvements to both physical plant and operating practices.

  • walnut: Well, that's one way of looking at it.  I would suggest that an equally intelligent, thoughtful person could just as easily come to opposite conclusion on each and every point.

  • How about the 1/4 formula? To separate freight & passenger rail.

    The USA has close to 4 million miles of surface roads, with many leading to abandoned mega-malls, past vacated industrial & tech-parks, past tumble-weeded strip malls, through central cities that closely resemble spooky 'ghost-towns'. Most states can't afford to maintain soooo much pavement anymore.

    Take a hard look at a million miles or so of these roads (only a quarter/2bits) for railified conversion into inter & intra urban electric lines on the local, county & state roads, with slow, medium & TGV rated high iron lines between, along side, below & above the intra & interstate highways. Bust up some the pavement for sub-ballast.

    The freight and passenger railways would wink at each other from a safe distance at the depots, stations, terminals and marshalling yards.

  • @Larry: Did you read the Churella article?  I see a lot of echoes going on today, only instead of shaping passenger facility improvements, external forces (e.g. federal and state governments) are pushing for passenger rail policy in general.  Ultimately, a strategist is going to try and figure out how to optimize a situation that can only be partially controlled  (I hate to trot out a reference to "game theory," especially since I am not an expert, but this does seem to fit that description).

  • RAILWAYIST and tahoeville might be one and the same person.  Both are into doom and gloom.  Neither really understands of what he writes.

  • walnut:  No, I did not read the Churella article.  My comments were a response to yours and not to the article.  The country does not have a national transportation policy, and while the current administration is doing some good things, it is coming at the issues from an economic stimulus/jobs creation perspective and not one of supply chain logistics.  The sticking point for increase/improved rail passenger service, whether it be conventional or HSR, is money.  The money required simply is not available.  If you charged the fares that would support passenger service, they would be so high that few would pay them and subsidies would be required.  You can generate ridership if you provide sufficient subsidies to allow low fares.  In brief, the economics just aren't there.  Any transportation spending not covered by user fees are dollars that will not be available for housing, education, health, national defense and a few other government functions that the public and its elected representatives value more than they do transportation.