Don Phillips, Barack Obama and personal vindication


During the late 1980s, as Union Pacific began to merge former Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad operations into its growing system, I became concerned about the future of a little used ex-Katy main line in north central Texas. The route in question stretched from B-RI Jct. in the city of Waxahachie to Dana Jct. just north of Hillsboro, basically completing the Dallas (eastern) side of the Katy's primary Kansas City - San Antonio corridor.

Historically, the Katy sent most of their north/south freight traffic through Fort Worth, leaving the alternate route by way of Big D available for passengers...which also left it quite vulnerable, once such trade evaporated.

UP, naturally, saw no reason to maintain both lines and, once the marriage was consummated, quickly moved to "rationalise" its plant.

Thanks to BNSF and Rail America's Dallas, Garland and Northeastern, most of the Dallas side was saved (with certain portions, thanks to DART, reclaimed for alternative rail-based uses). However, sans overhead traffic, that bucolic 35-mile stretch across the blackland prairie between Ellis County and Hill County was found good for little and profitable for nothing.

Nothing, that is, except the future.

According to several studies, the single most viable intrastate passenger operation in Texas would be the corridor between Dallas and San Antonio via Waco and Austin.

There are many reasons why that line's potential has yet to be tapped. One is a classically circuitous routing, including the fact that trains leaving Dallas must first head west to Fort Worth before turning south. Regrettably, the only way to operate directly from Dallas to Waco (and points beyond) is by way of the now-abandoned Katy.

Over a span of years, I tried, in vain, to get SOMEONE's attention and support (the Texas D.O.T., the North Central Texas Council of Governments, somebody) for the purchase of that route. In the meantime, various pieces dried up and fell along the wayside. UP applied to abandon the final four-and-one-half mile long segment, stretching from Waxahachie to the community of Nena, early in this century.

That exhaustive and convoluted introduction is important because of what happened a couple of years ago. At a conference, I saw a friend and key passenger train service advocate (and past president of the Texas Association of Railroad Passengers) who, in passing, mentioned how he had finally come to agree with me about the vital nature of that trackage.

It should have been saved. A government agency needed to step up and make a commitment. More productive activity among those who cared could have changed the outcome.

Yeah; I was right all along.

And that, along with four bucks and change, will buy my occasional cafe latte from Starbucks.

I wish his admission had made me feel better. Instead, it made me sick - down to my very soul.

Not because of his feelings, per se. He was only being honest and certainly meant no harm.

No, it was because of what could have been. Amtrak had been in existence for almost 19 years before the UP took ownership of that route, and another one score years passed before the rails were finally removed. If short- to medium-distance corridors truly represent the primary future of intercity passenger train service in these United States, why did this irrevocable loss occur?!

Unfortunately, this is by no means the only (or even the best) example of an instance where I fussed and pestered and wrote and preached and was later - TOO LATE - shown to be "right all along."

Maybe God is just trying to teach me some humility...or encourage the practice of perseverance in the face of intractability. Perhaps a far greater trial awaits me tomorrow, where yesterday's lessons learned will finally prove indispensable.

All of this came to mind as I was leafing through the latest issue of Trains Magazine. Don Phillips, a reporter for the International Herald Tribune (and former transportation writer for The Washington Post), maintains a monthly column which, for me, has always been a must-read. His February essay, entitled Obama hasn't matched language with action, details several reasons why the current administration's apparent goals for improved/expanded passenger service have generally remained unrealised.

He has much to say, not much of it complementary.

"'High Speed Rail' was a slogan that never lived up to its billing, and may have harmed rail initiatives."

"...the term 'high speed rail' has turned on Obama."

"...even the billions appropriated for high speed rail are obviously a puny amount, and that is becoming clear to everyone."

"...Obama no longer has the political power to keep the money flowing."


"...Amtrak's current system continues to rot."

"Is it any wonder that the term 'high speed rail' has turned from a phrase of hope to a phrase of derision?"

"What should Obama have said? ...[he should] have come into office...stressing that WE MUST WALK BEFORE WE CAN RUN." [emphasis mine]

Progressive Railroading magazine, through its web site, gave me an outlet I never had before, allowing me to address these matters (and more) well prior to the publication of Mr. Phillips' report. Columns like Obama Speed Rail, High Speed Rail is not the starting point and The myth of "Higher Speed Rail" reviewed the foundational problems with the current administration's transportation endeavours and offered possible alternatives. The compositions were well received by our group and the critical feedback universally constructive.

I feel somewhat vindicated by what Don Phillips has to say. I'm glad a man with a well-established reputation is finally calling Mr. Obama and his transportation appointees to task, both for their missteps and their abject failures.

I, too, want to believe I'm right; not because of who I am, but because of what my logical mind indicates is true.

I trust this will encourage me to continue writing, even in the face of intrenched opposition. I should never stay away very long from those who, like me, understand the industry, the technology, the issues at hand and the importance of these things to our world.

My sincere best wishes to all.

  • Oh, Garl, I do understand your frustration...back in the 1960's when I was in undergraduate and then B school, I used to write copiously about the impending loss of the amazing network of rail lacing the suburbs of the NE cities. But, were it not for the fickle finger of fate, I probably would have been right there with the other rail managers tearing up the third or fourth set of tracks, abandoning lightly used lines, committing " deferred maintenance," etc. because the times seemed to call for that in order to survive.  Timing is everything. I still believe that my youthful observations had great merit and I still wince when I wait aboard The Lake Shore Limited for room on the two remaining tracks of that "boulevard of steel" which used to be the NYC water level route to Chicago.  I too agree with brother Philips about the bungled approach the administration has taken with surface transportation planning and not understanding the historic place they were at when they started.  Lost opportunity. But, press on regardless, hope must spring eternal.

  • I'm curious and don't mind to sound contrary, but why is that route an "irrevocable loss"?

    The land is still there.  Could it not be reacquired in the decades-away date that it be needed?  

    If eminent domain can be used to provide a billionaire his sports stadium, surely a simple rail ROW can be carved out of that sparsley occupied countryside.