Interesting, but not useful


Honestly, I was hoping my negativism had been temporarily exhausted! I felt sure the time had come to outline specific improvements, so we could begin making our presumed railroad passenger renaissance something other than a trite catchphrase.

Sadly, at least one more venture down the road of despair is needful.

Two questions, if I may:

What is Amtrak's role in tomorrow's transportation world? More to the point, what is the passenger train's role?

After almost 39 1/2 years of this stuff, I still can't fully answer question number one. In reality, Amtrak, outside of the vaunted Northeast Corridor and a few areas where strong state support is evident, is but a token; a plaything. Surely, there are a handful of routes and services - niche markets, if you will - that offer a glimmer of hope; but, they amount to little in the way of public service and help even less in reducing carbon footprints and petroleum addictions.

Since the day of its inglorious birth, Amtrak has remained mired in confusion and indecision, bereft of a clear mission and unifying goals. Subsisting on a starvation diet, the 'trak has been given just enough support to guarantee absolute inertia. Even worse, with a highly politicised board at the helm, there is no real reason to believe that Amtrak could find its way clear to do the right things with a real budget even if the cash was made available tomorrow!

From the start, Amtrak was instructed to "save" domestic railroad passenger service ("make the trains worth traveling again," as it were). Because the only location where the young U.S. D.O.T. had shown any interest in passengers was along what became known as the Northeast Corridor (with its famed Metroliner and Turbo Train programmes), that service developed into Amtrak's de facto showpiece; it's raison d'etre.

With no other real input forthcoming from the administrative or legislative branches - and a railroad industry which was convinced the whole "experiment" would self-destruct within a few years - Amtrak bought into the entire 300- to 500-mile corridor routine. Once ConRail's creation gave Amtrak title to the N.E.C., it's future was sealed.

This corridor of corridors has proven to be an endless money pit with some very substantive needs. As Amtrak's main asset, it can't be ignored, even though it bleeds the remaining system of energy in the same way a parasite saps the life out of its host.

I suppose reality dictates that Amtrak's ultimate purpose is that of the N.E.C.'s caretaker, while its role as the officially accepted operator of intercity railway passenger service keeps it in the national network business and makes it the go-to group for any state-sponsored system expansion.

Unfortunately, with its corridor-centric mindset firmly in control, Amtrak views the entire continent as nothing more than a collection of disjointed and uncoordinated semi-independent short haul lines operating between congested urban areas, with a handful of token long distance routes in place to help fill in the gaps and keep a few politicians quiet.

That leads me to question number two.

Of course, since Amtrak IS the U.S. intercity passenger train operator, it muddles the issue. Still, if Amtrak's essential quest is to operate the N.E.C. and any other corridors which happen to sprout, we might safely presume the same sort of future awaits the domestic passenger train.

On the other hand, it's perfectly acceptable to wonder what the future might hold if our passenger trains were unfettered by the N.R.P.C. and its two score years of precedent.

What if it was no longer acceptable to pretend a major city is adequately "served" when only one route passes through its borders? What if places like Saint Paul and Cincinnati and Dallas and Denver received more than a token interest?

What if a true national network was planned and developed as a viable alternative to driving and flying, and operated in such a way that travelers could easily and efficiently use its services in any fashion they desired? [I've never seen the Interstate Highway system described as being ideally limited to journeys of under 500 miles in length and totally unsuitable for cross-country travel! So, why is it that the nation's automotive mode is straightforwardly presented and individuals encouraged to avail themselves of roadway infrastructure in every possible way, while passenger trains are consistently denigrated as offering no practical options for the vast majority of trips?]

What if the folks running the system truly believed in its primary product? What if they actually used it, on a regular basis?! What if those same people understood that a healthy trunk must needs precede healthy branches?

What if a strong desire existed to see the system grow? What if a leadership role was presumed, so that suggestions for network expansion and service improvement might begin originating from within instead of from without?

What if I could feel hopeful that even a handful of these items might be seriously addressed and acted upon?

Many presume the passenger train's future rests in corridor operations; but, if so, why hasn't a route between Houston and Dallas (or, better yet, between Galveston and Denton) been placed on someone's wish list? Why hasn't Amtrak reacted to that omission?

Many presume the long distance passenger train's primary purpose is to handle leisure traffic; but, if so, why hasn't anyone identified the need for service between north central Texas and Colorado? [Dallasites go to the mountains to escape the heat in the summer and play in the snow during the winter. It's the city's number one year 'round vacation destination. Where are the planners? Where is the faith?!]

Occasionally, someone will express sincere interest in a train trip. "I just want to take a ride; I've never done it." Embarrassingly, my suggestion is almost always the same: don't choose a destination first, then see if the train goes there; rather, pick up a current Amtrak timetable, see where the trains go, then choose a destination you might be interested in visiting.

It may seem counterintuitive, but it works.

Regrettably, such an approach does more to satiate the desire for a travel experience than to address a real transport need. Left to that level of service, the North American passenger train will never again become an integral part of society.

The concept may be interesting, what with all those dining and lounge and sleeping cars. It's just not very useful to a 21st century traveler.

No; to make these things work, to justify a continued subsidy, to position passenger railroading a part of the solution and not part of the problem, we must move beyond this point.

I'm absolutely convinced we can. I just don't think it will happen before the status quo literally becomes unsustainable. Trains will regain a major position in the national passenger transportation mix. It just won't happen before the pain begins.

Naturally, that realisation tends to give me a negative outlook on life.

Therefore, from now on, I'll try to focus more on what could be instead of what is, and what we can achieve tomorrow instead of what we had yesterday - and lost.

My children are depending on it!

 

  • Blaine - a 350lb package would likely got LTL carrier such as YRC or Central Transport or Old Dominion to name a few of the hundreds.  These all use rail..but venture a guess that that short of a distance (and it is considered short by r.r. standards) they just trucked it and you covered fuel + a marginal profit.  Possibly a little more expensive to rail and pass on cost to consumer.

    oamundsen - i think those little used routes that go by way of the shortlines/regional's are little used primarily due to little or decreasing business on those lines.  If that's decreasing or small, then likely is the population or jobs and passenger service wouldn't find a benefit for the few that might use the service.

    The Class I's spin those lines off to decrease maintenance expense and I am certain the smaller carriers that gobble them up do the minimum to keep the line in a condition that allows them to keep equipment from going on the ground.  That said who will cover the rail maintenance of those lines?

  • BP>"As these discussions do seem to return to the same point time and time again, here's my regurgitation."

    Hey, not on the carpet, Pal!  We have a box full of sawdust for that kind of thing over in the corner.

    PB>"With a slightly different perspective to consider.  Previously I asked participants to comment on privately run national service bus companies competing with subsidized semi-national passenger rail companies."

    We could go on, for a very long time about which actually benefits more from (other people's) tax money, though.  Buses are a vexed subject; they aren't heavy enough to do the damage that a heavily loaded truck can, but they may not pay their actual way, either.

    BP>"(It almost seems like this should be phrased the other way round, but remember the Highway subsidy was presumed to be offset by the federal law mandating Amtrak access to private infrastructure).  "

    Presumed by whom?  That is, I understand this kind of thing has been discussed, but I don't think it actually influenced early Amtrak funding.

    BP"I'll admit I was not totally satisfied with the few replies I rec'd and the depth of explanations offered. "

    I don't remember the conversation off hand, and this site isn't the best for searching old threads.  Would you be able to point me (us?) in the direction of it?

  • BP>"My point here is related to the advantage of an established infrastructure. Amtrak, and any State Commuter operator for that matter, rely on an established infrastructure.  I'm still struggling with the arguments that moving people on intercity passenger trains in the U.S. on shared freight corridors is or is expected to be prohibitively expensive.  I'm not talking about speeds higher than the currently FRA sanctioned 79 mph as the higher speeds require capital investments and consume freight capacity.  I'm talking about running intercity passenger trains on existing lines with currently unused capacity."

    I'm not sure how much regular, predictable reserve capacity there is, as long as lower speed freight dominates on many lines.

  • Politely engage, I would hope, Blaine.  I think BTTF has given you a pretty good answer.  You may recall one of RAILWAYIST's sillier schemes recently was the idea of adding a dome liner to a freight train, blah, blah, blah.  Those of us who know anything about railroads and railroading know that there used to be mixed freight and passenger trains.  They ran on lighter density lines and never really got near the mains for the simple reason that service was not very good either for the freight carried or the passengers.  Somehow, much as I respect North Dakota, the thought of riding around on secondary lines watching wheat grow does not strike me as a grand vacation trip.  

    Your reference to NPEDS reminds me that Amtrak once carried package express and even some larger freight, but the instant it began to impinge on a Class 1's revenue, it was prevailed upon to get out of the freight business.  From time to time there are suggestions that the USPS be off-loaded from taxpayers (constantly rising rates by no subsidies now) and given to highly successful FedEx and UPS.  Those who think this a great idea should be reminded that USPS is legally obligated to serve every address in the United States.  Neither FedEx nor UPS, good as they are, has such an obligation.  I'm a nut who actually follows his packages as they move through the UPS and FedEx systems.  FedEx so far does not use rail intermodal, while UPS is the largest single railroad customer.  I'm not at all optimistic that you can operate a successful passenger system on existing infrastructure.  If you were to look at a density map of the U.S. rail system, you'd find that there is capacity on lines serving just about every major market.  It all gets down to money in the final analysis.  Who will pay and how much?

  • I seem to recall that intercity busses were granted relief from per gallong fuel taxes a couple of decades or so ago when there were fuel shortages and prices spiked.  I confess to not having followed it since, although I cannot conceive of a tax break being rescinded once granted.

    Before we debate motor coach vs. rail services, we perhaps ought to complete debating rail passenger service, higher speed rail, and high-speed rail.  This is where our government seems determined to throw economic stimulus money.  I'm not aware of any genuing analysis by government of the costs and benefits.  In fact, I suspect that motor coach (bus) service beats rail on economics, even when subsidies are factored in.  A real study would go beyond the issue of comfort, scenery and nice things like that and would look at market potential (how many people need to travel between Dickinson, ND, and the state capital at Bismarck?)  How many round trips would be required and how much should fellow citizens subsidize those who may have business in the capital city?  Give me a few minutes and I'm sure I can come up with numerous additional factors.

    A final note on this subject:  Where have you been, Garl Latham?  You started this message thread with your anguished blog post; then disappeared.  Now you're letting others of us try to advance the discussion.

  • Larry,

    I haven't abandoned y'all (at least not purposefully); I'm just attempting to listen!

    [I think the proper computer term is "lurk."]

    To be honest, I'd love to compose a reasonable response to your earlier question as to why I'm so "emotionally involved"!

    I have a deadline looming right now, but will try to properly join in the discussion later on.

    Best to all,

    Garl

  • Thanks for "lurking."  I hope you know that I was not trying to embarrass or otherwise offend you.

  • Larry,

    I know; we're fine.

    Actually, regarding the emotional involvement...I wish I better understood the answer, myself!

    GBL

  • GL, re the NEC:  "This corridor of corridors has proven to be an endless money pit with some very substantive needs. As Amtrak's main asset, it can't be ignored, even though it bleeds the remaining system of energy in the same way a parasite saps the life out of its host."

    I think that is almost precisely backward.  The NEC's high costs are matched by its high passenger load, and, unlike many lines whose effect on the service are is limited, it has a great many externalities for the region it serves, most of them positive,

  • Larry - FedEx is using rail...of course not to the extent of UPS.  But they are a player.

  • It has long been known, since Amtrak's start in 1971 as a matter of fact, that the losses on the NEC outweighed the combined losses on most of the long-haul routes.  That's because Amtrak owns the NEC and gets to pay for all of its maintenance and capital costs, while on the rest of its system it only pays avoidable cost to the host railroads whose track it uses.  Perhaps Amtrak negotiators are incompetent, or perhaps Amtrak needs a new fiscal system, but high ridership numbers only increase the losses.  That's usually what happens when the traffic doesn't pay for itself.  More riders equals more deficits to be covered.  In the world of freight, it's the trucks that require subsidies while the railroads get the privilege of owning and maintaining their facilities at their stockholders cost.  Sorry, anmccaff, but I learned a lot of my economics from attending meetings at which these things were discussed back when Amtrak was a baby.

  • BacktotheFuture:  Thanks.  I know FedEx recently announced that it intended to begin using rail, but hadn't realized that it actually had started.  It always struck me as ironic that FedEx was such a strong supporter of the Denver U. Intermodal Transportation Institute, yet it chose not to be a player.  UPS was both a supporter and a player.

  • LK"It has long been known, since Amtrak's start in 1971 as a matter of fact, that the losses on the NEC outweighed the combined losses on most of the long-haul routes."

    Yup.  By 71 the other long haul routes were already skeltonized compared with even a decade before.  Compare that to, say Metroliner service.

    LK>" That's because Amtrak owns the NEC and gets to pay for all of its maintenance and capital costs, while on the rest of its system it only pays avoidable cost to the host railroads whose track it uses.  Perhaps Amtrak negotiators are incompetent, or perhaps Amtrak needs a new fiscal system, but high ridership numbers only increase the losses."

    Increases the variable costs, but not the fixed ones, same as any other road, yup.

    LK" That's usually what happens when the traffic doesn't pay for itself.  More riders equals more deficits to be covered.  In the world of freight, it's the trucks that require subsidies while the railroads get the privilege of owning and maintaining their facilities at their stockholders cost.  Sorry, anmccaff, but I learned a lot of my economics from attending meetings at which these things were discussed back when Amtrak was a baby."

    I'm not sure what you have to sorry about.  I'm not disagreeing with you particularly.

    Here is my position, or parts of it.

    Unlike the western and midwestern and most southern (But not Southern, hehehe..) roads, the NEC was, and is, still a major part of the transportation system in its region, and its loss would be felt, strongly, in the cities it serves.  While the Empire builder would have a good many tears shed for it, the economic impact outside of its own workforce and a few very small places along the line would be negligible; Trailways and Greyhound could take up the slack that the airlines didn't. Putting the Bos-Wash's traffic all on the roads or the skies would cause havoc.

    Now, if someone wants to argue that that should mean a local subsidy is more appropriate, or that an unsubsidized system would be better, assuming that the competition were also (Hi, Adron!  How's it going?), I'm all ears.

  • Well articulated, anmccaff.  You're clearly right, if unpopular, in your discussion of the relative effects of killing the Builder vs. the traffic on the NEC.    I just want to make sure there is no misunderstanding on how losses are booked.  As long as the fare does not cover the variable cost and as long as Amtrak pays the landlord based on variable cost, increasing ridership equals increasing losses and need for higher subsidies.

    As for Adron, I can't say I've thought much about him for months.  Where I - and I believe you - would argue that the NEC releives so much congestion and contributes so much to clean air, etc., etc., that its continued subsidied operation is good public policy, Adron was a libertarian who would argue that if it missed paying its way by so much as sou or a Euro, it should be shut down.

  • LK>"Well articulated, anmccaff.  You're clearly right, if unpopular, in your discussion of the relative effects of killing the Builder vs. the traffic on the NEC.    I just want to make sure there is no misunderstanding on how losses are booked.  As long as the fare does not cover the variable cost and as long as Amtrak pays the landlord based on variable cost, increasing ridership equals increasing losses and need for higher subsidies."

    Right, and I think this informs more Amtrak board decisions than they would be comfortable admitting.  New services have to be either justified upfront as requiring subsidy - not a popular thing, that - or have to be such obvious no brainers that anyone can see they are guarantted to make money - and most of life just ain't like that.  The low-hanging apples have been eaten already, mostly.

    LK>"As for Adron, I can't say I've thought much about him for months.  Where I - and I believe you - would argue that the NEC releives so much congestion and contributes so much to clean air, etc., etc., that its continued subsidied operation is good public policy, Adron was a libertarian who would argue that if it missed paying its way by so much as sou or a Euro, it should be shut down."

    Perhaps.  Somebody's gotta make that point though; too much discussion of passenger rail, especially the new-improved-high(er)-speed that's big now, spends too much time assuming positive externalities instead of showing them.

    BTW, seen Mr. LaHood's message to Wisconsin on HSR?