A sense of pride

 

Question: If a commercial airline held some sort of contest and part of their grand prize package included the shipment of freight, would the company specify rail-based transport in the movement of those goods?

I think we all know the answer. It would be a resounding NO!

Even if the company wasn't actively involved in air freight services, they'd either maintain complete ambiguity or indicate (at least visually) some generic airborne vehicle. After all, they're part of the aviation world and, more than likely, are staunchly proud of that fact.

Conversely, in Union Pacific's current "Great Excursion Adventure" promotion, the railroad's contest rules specifically state that their "top five point winners will each receive two excursion tickets for a special leg of the winning route as well as airfare and lodging for two." The "airfare" mentioned is to be "provided within the continental United States from the airport closest to [the winners'] home."

The UP is part of the railroad world and, more than likely, is staunchly proud of the fact it makes money. Trains (even of the freight variety) don't rank at the top and real, live, honest-to-goodness passenger trains don't matter at all.

Not that I'm really put out with Uncle Pete. I both understand and accept its position. The UP has not been in the intercity passenger trade for 39 1/2 years (and, but for the grace of commutation traffic, would have no operational interest in varnish, whatsoever). In fact, I seriously doubt the railroad's choice of the word "airfare" was an intentional slight. "Flying" has been so deeply ingrained into our culture for so long that most people don't even consider the possibility of an alternative.

Save for driving one's own motor vehicle, of course. Driving is always an option.

And, we can't blame the flyboys for capitalising on that mindset, either. Our government has worked far too long and has spent far too much money in its effort to successfully establish the United States as a "drive or fly" nation. To many, it'd be a shame to give up on it now!

Without passenger trains, though, our industry seems unable to effectively communicate with the masses. Witness UP's "excursion" effort.

We've already lost local depots with their attending agents. We've lost most "name trains" and named cars, the Railway Express Agency, and the very idea of a railroad-as-public-utility. We've also lost our ability to connect with the general public and, in the process, have lost a clear pathway to the public's imagination.

Of course, "it's the economy, stupid," so none of that really matters. And, maybe it honestly doesn't! After all, it takes profitability to sustain operability; therefore, the "bottom line" is indeed the bottom line.

Still, where does that leave the railroad's persona? Surely, we must be aware that the general public thinks of us after some fashion, at least upon occasion.

Is it true that happens only when a freight train blocks someone's passage during rush hour, or when a derailment involving hazardous chemicals makes the front pages?

Is that a problem?

There are many towns and cities where the modern railroad serves to bisect the community - and nothing more. It's not just the train station that's disappeared; there aren't even any local carload freight customers remaining to be served.

Is that a problem?

About six weeks ago, OhioRailGuy wrote a thoughtful piece entitled "Rail & the Media," in which he lamented the presence of factual error in rail-based transportation reporting. In a day when trains are proving themselves to be "critical to both our economy and personal mobility," a lack of basic railroad knowledge within the media world costs us dearly in terms of public perception and support.

So, how can we expect a talking head (or news editor) to care that diesel-electric locomotives don't "chug" or welded rail doesn't "clickety-clack" if their emotions consistently remain elsewhere? Moreover, how can we expect the man-on-the-street to give a hoot about unit trains or D.P.U.s or the reason why he never sees cabooses anymore?

You know me; I've already explained my issues concerning the very idea of "freight railroads"! Personally, I'm ready to see the Class Is pick up the gauntlet and define for this nation, in their own way and on their own terms, precisely how passenger trains can play an important role in tomorrow's society. Not true high-speed passenger operations, which demand separate rights-of-way and are inherently incompatible with vital, profitable railway freight services, but conventional passenger operations, which retain the ability to move people safely, efficiently and comfortably, while running alongside existing freight traffic.

In the process of this public [re]education campaign, our railroads can regain something they've lost and, perhaps, don't even realise they're missing: their soul.

I'm afraid that many people perceive today's railroad industry as possessing a sort of "please don't hit me; just leave me alone" attitude. By restoring its soul, our technology of choice and the companies which maintain it have a chance to reclaim something else from the dustbin of history:

A sense of pride.

 

 

  • Sorry, Garl, but I'm not with you on this one.  Let's get a fact or two on the table; perhaps that will help the discussion.  When Congress passed the law creating Amtrak, it was not intended to "save" passenger trains.  It was intended to "save" the private railroad industry by relieving the railroads of the financial burden of providing common carrier passenger service as required by the Interstate Commerce Commission.  In 1970, the railroads collectively were losing "only" about $100 million annually, back when $100 million was real money.  Penn Central, Reading, Erie Lackawanna, Central of New Jersey, Lehigh Valley and others were in bankruptcy and others were approaching it (remember the Rock Island and Milwaukee Road?)

    As for drive or fly, have you tried to get anywhere on Amtrak lately?  I have; it simply didn't work.  To get to Sarasota, FL, from Denver, CO, requires taking the Zephyr to Chicago, changing to the Capitol Ltd. and riding to Washington, where one finally can get a train to Florida's southwest coast.  Amtrak does a decent job with the meager resources it has, but meager they are.  Its frequency of operation off the NE Corridor requires long periods between trains - where you can even make a connection.  I spent Thanksgiving in Minneapolis; the flight from Denver took just under an hour.  Add another hour for security screening and it became a three hour trip.  That sure beats riding the Zephyr to Chicago and then connecting with the Empire Builder to get to Minny by rail.  

    This is a big country, Garl, and thanks to many years of cheap gasoline, driving or flying still is a viable option for any trip longer than a "corridor" ride such as Detroit-Chicago, Boston-NY, NY-Washington, or LA-San Francisco.  

    As for UP and its promotion of flying, that's not what it was doing at all, I don't think.  It was awarding a prize to a contest or promotion winner.  As Amtrak is not efficient or timely for most travel, UP chose to award air fare.  Big deal.  UP - and other railroads - can screw up plenty of things; let's blame them for the real things they screw up, not some piddling promotion.  As for promoting Amtrak, why should UP or any other Class 1 railroad do that?  The relationship of Amtrak to the Class 1s is contractual, not fraternal.  UP and the other Class 1s have some serious public policy issues to pursue, and passenger service is not one of them.  The Class 1 railroads are trying to fend off legislation that would allow truckers to put heavier trucks on the highways without paying their allocable share of the costs of the public right of way they use.  The truckers are supported by hypocritical shippers who are only too happy to put more freight into each trailer (one could argue there are a lot of socialists out there wearing capitalist suits.)  There's the unfunded federal mandate that Positive Train Control technology be deployed.  The Rockefeller bill that effectively would re-regulate the railroads still is lurking in Congress, also supported by shippers who aren't satisfied with three decades of service improvement from railroads; they want lower prices.  It's just that simple.

    Note, Garl, not once have I used the term "freight railroad" in this comment on your blog post.  I have no problem with the term.  After all, that's what the railroads are and freight is the business they are in.  Let's not let love of passenger trains distort the reality that other than riding on steel rails that are four feet, eight and a half inches apart, and are steel, there really is little relationship between Amtrak and the freight railroads.  There, I used the term.

  • Regarding PTC, I would not be surprised if it prompts the Class I's to spin off some more of their secondary lines to Class II/III's, which are generally subject to the PTC requirements only on lines regularly hosting passenger services (or the specified hazmat classes triggering PTC).

    If that were to transpire, the desire to NOT allow new passenger services may well have been a key motivating factor.

  • There's something to what you say, but I think you might want to look at it another way, too.

    Let's assume for a second the omission wasn't a mistake, that it was deliberate.  Now, why might the UP do that?

    Well, one reason is because Amtrak, at its worst, is not something you want your business associated with, and newcomers are the the most likely to pick the routes that highlight that.  Old hands already know without being told that a travel allowance is a travel allowance, and they can spend it on a train, plane, or automobile; and they also are more likely to know what routes to avoid, or at least to plan for a little delay, or a little "adventure."  (You know,  Basic Training-type adventure.)

    For a long time, passenger rail -was- a railroad's face to the freight-buying public, and railroads acted accordingly as long as they could, keeping "name" trains a viable choice for passengers even when they were no longer viable financially.

    Now, most small and medium businesses that use rail do so indirectly, and have almost no say in route selecting, unless they make a very, very, strong point about it.  There's no longer a direct economic connection between passenger rail and freight sales in many freight markets.

    What do the freight roads do?  About the same thing bus manufacturers do.  Remember when we were kids, most bus makers put there names on the product in honkin' big letters, for all the world to see, like auto makers do?  Why?  Because there were still lots of small private buyers for most types of buses.  As more of the market has been taken over by agencies and larger carriers, and the small retail market dries up, your name above the bumper is just another clue for an ambulance chaser to sue you.

    Amtrak can't help the UP, but it can sure as hell hurt it.

  • Perhaps some wise old heads out there can help me: why is it that the cruise ship industry, using massive amounts of private capital, can keep building gigantic ships with incredible luxury accommodations and continue to fill them on trips to nowhere when the same population they market to are ignored by, not only quasi government Amtrak, but also potential private train operators? Retirees are spending lots of money, taking lots of time to go nowhere but when they go to visit their grandkids, they have no choice but to fly with all its attendent hassles and strains.  In the US, there are 75 million "Boomers" with time and money to travel without need to get there at hyper speed. Surely, some capitalist could run some pretty pleasant trains without appealing to the very limited "nostalgia" segment. Those cruise ships are state of the art luxury, not copies of the Titanic.

  • OA>"Perhaps some wise old heads out there can help me: why is it that the cruise ship industry, using massive amounts of private capital, can keep building gigantic ships with incredible luxury accommodations and continue to fill them on trips to nowhere when the same population they market to are ignored by, not only quasi government Amtrak, but also potential private train operators? "

    I am neither as old an oldhead nor as wise a wisehead has several others here, but I think I know some of the reasons.

    One is that cruise ships, generally, make use of resources that are terribly underutilized, and do so in a way that has a lot of positive economic externalities, and train cruises are the exact opposite.

    Most ports have publicly owned facilities that were designed for the pre-container age, when breakbulk ships didn't even have to be called that, it was the assumed default, and remaining or restore-able passenger facilities from the days of liners.

    At the points where they intersect with other transportation and population modes, rail is often bottlenecked by freight and commuter traffic.

    On the lines, the same is true.  There's a lot of ocean out there, and once clear of the congested areas around ports, cruise ships have no major conflict with other traffic.  Now, compare that to Amtrak, or American Orient Express (Or whatever its name was) on a busy line.

    Passenger rail equipment is generally made here, well, and expensively.  How many new Jones Act cruise ships to you see?

    Passenger rail equipment is made to meet antiquated ideas about safety, among other things.  Once the Class Ones got out of fighting about it, there's no one really there to advocate lower prices for the stuff; public agencies often class "bigger budget" on the plus side of things.  Compare the relative inflation of passenger cars and freight cars, especially with regard to tare weight.

    Cruise lines often use a crewing model that depends on the fact that the oceans connect all the world's economies, including some where any job is a good one.  They are also able to take advantage of a lot of temporary workers among the first-world staff.

    The Low-rent district of a big cruise liner - the rooms with no view, excessive engine noise, and so on- are so large that huge staff-to-passenger ratios are feasible.  Amtrak might have a dorm car at the end?

    Some cruise ships have a one-to-one ratio of paying passengers to staff.

    Finally, cruise ships operate globally, based on weather.  North American operators are somewhat constrained compared to that.

    All that said, I agree there are real opportunities out there, just as I agree that tying good passenger rail back into a sense of corporate pride would be a Good Thing.  I just don't see either as overloaded with low-hanging fruit.

  • There are fundamental differences between cruise liners and passenger trains.  A train moves people from "A" to "B".  A cruise liner does not.  A cruise liner simply is a horizontal resort hotel that wanders from exotic port to exotic port.  No one gets on or off at en route ports (stations.)  They really are in radically different industries.  Cruise lines also are private companies and are free to enter or exit any market they wish.  Rail passenger service in the U.S. is mandated by the government.  Our government never has really understood the economics of rail travel nor provided sufficient capital to allow it to operate at its most efficient.  Nor are cruise lines restricted to rigid tariffs as Amtrak is.  They sell through travel agents and do "deals" based on how much incremental revenue is needed fore any particular cruise.  U.S. airlines have much the same pricing practice.  But not Amtrak.

    Take a look at the flag flying on the stern of the next cruise liner you see.  It invariably is that of a third-rate "maritime" power that does not care who crews these vessels and allows crewing by citizens of leser developed nations as long as the officers are qualified.

  • Thanks for the comments Larry and Anmccaff.  Larry, many years ago I was advocating for the merger of the transportation function of a number of not for profit, agencies which provided various assistance services, training, housing, etc for persons in need. One of the obstacles was a state law regarding use of school buses for anything other then school functions.  The solution: change the law. Perhaps it is time to consider passenger train solutions other then Amtrak, after all, it is only a law, nothing more.

  • Yeah, I think there are a lot of ways that changing law, or even internal policy, might encourage better use of resources.  The problem, in a nutshell, is that no one gives a damn when the money is flying, and when they do demand greater efficiency, the most knowledgeable people, the men and women who make the systems work on a day-to-day basis, or run them, or sell stuff to them, are more concerned about job security than they would be in flusher times.

    It's a hell of a lot easier to identify job slots for elimination when they guy in it isn't to worried about finding a replacement, and that's exactly when most big organization -private as well as public, mind you- are least likely to bother.

  • At the risk of offering a simplistic response, oa, I think it would take more than a law change.  Passenger rail service doesn't fully cover its full fixed and variable cost anywhere in the world.  In other nations, the state covers the loss (subsidy) for one or more of a variety of reasons.  These include: mobility for the local population that may not have access to cars the way Americans do; environmental considerations such as not burning gasoline on trips that could be made by rail; environmental considerations such as keeping traffic out of quaint little villages that were laid out before automobiles were even a dream; etc.  That is the right of a sovereign state.  The U.S., on the other hand, has never really thought through why it should or should not subsidize the provision of a comprehensive national rail passenger system.  And not having thought it through, we get the Ayn Rand-ian libertarian mantras that it's somehow wrong or even un-American.  Subsidizing trucks, on the other hand, is quite OK because we all get to use the highways and we all deserve a subsidy now and then.  Anyone old enough to remember when Juan Trippe, the founder of Pan American World Airways, put bricks in the mail pouches?  Pan Am was paid to carry mail on the basis of weight.  I think that was what might be called a hidden subsidy.

  • Watch for the latest and greatest UNION PACIFIC TV commercial---The UP crest is placed in a couple of city scenes.

    Maybe the next UP TV ad could feature some views of Union Pacific classic passenger trains and tracks with a final shot of the latest double stacks with a mountain view.

    There are lots of super bright full motion color digital billboards out there along the 'free'-ways & 'express'-ways ---how about some UP, CSX, BNSF, Norfolk Southern, AMTRAK, ALSTOM, SIEMENS, TALGO, VIRGIN RAIL, GE etc animated billboard ads...

    The 'super-slab' is the place to speak to the 'autobound'...

  • Rah, rah, rah, sis, boom, bah.  The cheerleading never stops.  Of course, there is no thought given to the "why" UP or any other railroad would want to do as suggested.  They are not in the business of satisfying rail fans.  They are in the business of satisfying customers - freight customers at that.