Passengers: the "greatest threat"

About one week ago, CSX's V.P. for public safety, Howard R. Elliott, told members of the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that, based upon information his railroad has "received from federal intelligence sources," the "greatest terrorist threat to CSXT comes from the approximately 8 million passenger and commuter train miles each year that operate on CSXT-owned rail lines.”

Yes, that's right; the single "greatest threat."

To be honest, I was impressed. Louis W. Menk in his prime couldn't have developed a more profound anti-passenger offensive strategy!

If course, Mr. Elliott's rhetoric may be nothing more than a thinly-veiled attempt to siphon cash from federal coffers. After all, for several years now, one of the easiest ways to get someone's attention has been to utter the word "terrorism" and begin pointing fingers.

Still, this attack-the-passenger-train paranoia doesn't even BEGIN to make sense, save from the perspective of a Lou Menk or Downing B. Jenks.

Next time you see a general merchandise train and give it a roll-by, consider all the placarded rolling stock which has been festooned with graffiti. Now, ask yourself: might a miscreant determined to wreak havoc have also gained access to the property and sabotaged a tank car or two? [Anyone for chlorine?] If we can't
secure our yards and industrial sidings enough to prevent "artists" [read: "criminals"] from defacing private property, how can we be sure those with more nefarious purposes aren't doing a bit of tinkering on their own?!

[Question: when's the last time you've seen regularly operating general system passenger equipment that's been "tagged"?]

Maybe I should be happy that passenger service can demand our industry's rapt attention; but, why does the subject always require a negative outlook? For that matter, why are passengers basically invisible, otherwise (at least those who aren't busy attracting terrorists)?

The BNSF's own Matt Rose, in his recent interview with Susie Gharib (of PBS' Nightly Business Report fame), says when he thinks "about the challenges facing our country," he pictures "a three-legged stool. Reduce our dependency on foreign oil, reducing our carbon footprint and improving America's highways for commuters and highway transportation." Those are things that, in the future, our "railroads, quite frankly, [will] be able to do..."

Okay. I'm with him for the first little bit. It's right here on the P.R. web site that I've opined regarding a "three-legged stool" of my own: a comprehensive national transportation/energy/environmental policy. Reducing dependency on foreign oil? That's energy. Reducing our carbon footprint? That's the environment. But, "improving America's highways for commuters and highway transportation"?!

That is NOT the best we can do! That is NOT what our ultimate goal should be!

Why is it the railroad's responsibility to improve "America's highways for commuters and highway transportation," anyway? [I presume Mr. Rose is speaking of reduced congestion - which still isn't logical, but at least makes more sense than a few of the alternative meanings.]

Have we sold out to the Wendell Cox school of transportation planning?

Are we so afraid of the negative issues associated with passenger operations (and, most assuredly, there are some) that we're willing to either completely ignore trains and trumpet automobiles instead, or (worse yet) accuse passengers and the equipment assigned to their service of being jihad magnets?

Back to CSX for a moment. A couple of days ago, head man Michael Ward, while visiting the Milken Institute, said that the U.S. must make a “renewed and aggressive” commitment to modernize its infrastructure. “Other nations are making serious forward-looking investments," he said. We need "to do the same and do a better job of maintaining the strong but aging systems we already have in place.”

One might hope that investing and maintaining would include our railroad system.

A suggestion, if I may. Let's step back and look at all of this from the public's perspective. Many people might be amenable to public investment in privately-owned infrastructure if they perceived a personal benefit. The vacuous promise of less congestion or fewer tractor/trailer rigs on roadways sounds as meaningless as it actually is. However, mention the idea of improved passenger train service and, suddenly, most folks can visualise the common good.

Our common-carrier railroads need to control these discussions, not abdicate that responsibility to government entities. Tell elected officials why 90 miles-per-hour is doable along shared rights-of-way, but 125 isn't. Explain the way railway companies are justifiably concerned with liability and tax issues. Describe how it makes
sense to lower terminal-to-terminal running times through the elimination of slow spots. Show maps of possible by-pass routes. Indicate a willingness - even eager anticipation - of a new passenger railway era along private trackage, IF things are done right from the start.

Prove to the people that railroads are their partners in these schemes and that our industry is solution-driven, too. If we do this, we'll hear less about re-regulation. We'll see fewer times where plans are made without consulting the property owners, first. We'll have some additional leverage when looking for federal help while wrestling with unreasonable local demands.

How about the spectre of unfunded mandates? Why not make a deal where every line that can (not necessarily does) host passenger train service have its P.T.C. system installed and maintained at the taxpayer's expense?!

We need to get over our aversion to varnish and understand that passenger trains, if properly planned, designed and executed, could play an integral role in
tomorrow's world. Who better to plan, design and execute these things than the railroads, themselves?

Passengers might even go from being our greatest threat to our greatest asset!

It could happen!



  • LK>"andrewsharp:  125 mph is in Europe - and a few other places like China and Japan - for the very simple reason that the governments of those places are willing to spend their taxpayers' money on true high speed rail passenger service.  It's just that simple. "

    Well, I think there are a couple of other factors, although I agree in the main with what you say.

    Certain organizations never left the cities to the extent that others did: government activities and finance (including insurance) being the classic example.  These kinds of businesses closely tied to, or part of, local government are replicated many, many times over in Europe, often at very close distances.  Notice that Wall Street often did business with State Street by train even at the lowest point of NEC service.

    Here, such business has moved to the suburbs a little more than in Europe, and, except for the Boston/Hartford/New York/Philly/Washington run, most of the financial centers are spread apart so far that air is usually a better use of time, if not always money.

  • Andrew: good to see you chime in!

    Larry (and anmccaff), Andrew Sharp is Director General of the International Air Rail Organisation in London, England. He has traveled worldwide discussing the benefits of true train/airplane (aeroplane?!) passenger intermodalism. I've known him for several years.

    The realities of privately-owned and operated, common carrier railroading in North America is nothing new to Mr. Sharp; still, it never hurts to be reminded of some basic differences between railway (and governmental) standards here and across the pond.

    Andrew, you've essentially revealed the basic reason why all this talk of "high[er]-speed rail" and "incrementalism" in these United States is fundamentally flawed. One can reasonably expect to go only so far with passenger improvements along existing railroads. In fact, almost without exception, the best case scenario calls for conventional intercity service approximating what once existed - up to three-quarters of a century ago!

    TRUE H.S.R. DEMANDS dedicated right-of-way and infrastructure, and a U.S. version will only come through the adoption of a comprehensive domestic transportation/energy/environmental policy requiring, among other things, a British-style decision to replace short- to medium-haul flights with high-speed trains.

    In the meantime, we'd be showing far more transport savvy if we'd leave all this H[er].S.R. talk behind for the time being and dedicate ourselves to the restoration/expansion of passenger traffic along our private railroad industry's main line routes, where public investments stand a chance to improve ALL operations - including those of profitable _freight_ services.


  • GBL>"Larry (and anmccaff), Andrew Sharp is Director General of the International Air Rail Organisation in London, England."

    Yeah, I thought he might be, what with it being in his member profile.  My comment stands, though: the demographics of business are different in Europe from most of the US market, and the distances are so different as to make meaningful comparison difficult.

    Outside of the BosWash, the conurbation that formed and was formed by what is now Amtrak's NEC (along with an interurban or three), the US does not lend itself physically to some of the solutions that do make sense in Europe.

    As I've mentioned before, it's patently obvious that the current state of technology would make deliberately placing airports between major city pairs and connecting them with high-speed rail the ideal solution for many parts of the country.  Seattle and Portland could share a rail linked airport near Centralia, for instance.  Such a system could allow security checks to be substantially completed on route, and would greatly lessen the number of overflights of populated areas, and would allow for a greater number of long-haul flights to be offered to the combined market.  It would also, obviously allow high-speed through traffic, much along the lines Perlman envisioned for the NYC.  Where's the 497 when you need it?

    It's just as obvious that, without a formal transportation strategy,and one based on something other that buying votes,  that's currently politically unworkable.

  • Time now for some fundamentals:  

    First, the U.S. is not Europe.  

    Second, like most of Europe, the U.S. does not have a lot of uncommitted money floating around waiting to be spent on the project du jour.  With all the pressures to increase spending on education, health care, housing, national defense, a rational moment or two just might cause a rail fan or two to realize and accept that "it ain't gonna happen."  

    There is room, both financially and societally, for passenger rail improvement.  It will be in corridors where rail service will be time competitive with air service and undoubtedly at a lower net cost.  I could go on, but why bother; the true believers out there don't want facts cluttering up their preconceived notions, and those who do understand the nature of the debate don't need more lectures from me.

  • And now, it's time for some fundamental responses:  

    A reminder that differences exist between North America (at least the U.S. and Canada) and Europe (at least western Europe) can be very important in situations like this. Using the excuse that "the U.S. is not Europe" (or Asia) to justify a blind allegiance toward discredited transportation policies is untenable.  

    Larry, I'm not saying that's what you were doing. I _am_ saying that unscrupulous "leaders" who benefit from the status quo do just that - with alarming regularity.  

    Secondly, the U.S. (and most of Europe) may "not have a lot of uncommitted money floating around waiting to be spent on the project du jour"; however, with all due respect to the technology, if myriad passenger railroad proposals are literally nothing more than the latest fad, they NEED to remain unfunded!  

    I've often said I'd rather see the U.S. D.O.T. candidly study these issues - even if that meant an eventual decision to abandon all domestic intercity railway passenger services - than to keep Amtrak limping along, year after year, on a starvation diet! Certainly, speaking as a "true believer," I would vehemently disagree with a negative conclusion; but, I'd find it far more worthy of respect.  

    Finally, since motor vehicles operating along public roads form our major source of competition, both for passengers and freight, I don't think we should limit ourselves to an arbitrary "time competitive with air service" goal - at least not in the ultimate sense. Three score years ago, one could travel by train from downtown Dallas to downtown Houston in four hours flat...which, even in the 21st century, would be quite competitive with the two commonly accepted alternatives: driving (non-stop on Interstate 45) or flying (once security measures, et al, are factored in).  

    The "lower net cost" qualification may also be problematic, since we know how money spent on railways constitutes a "subsidy" while money spent on airways and roadways constitutes an "investment"! If trains are indeed nothing more than another option and our society remains dedicated to underwriting automobiles and aeroplanes, an honest review of net costs will never happen.  

    As anmccaff said, we desperately need "a formal transportation strategy, ...based on something other that buying votes."

    Which, as usual, brings us right back around to square one.



  • 6-27-2010

    I hope that, as a former military man who always traveled by rail, what I say can be included in this particular discussion.

    After looking at all the posts in this discussion, I agree with Mr. Lapham. History itself shows Mr. Kaufman to be incorrect on many points. When I used to travel by rail in this country, I always tried to enter a dialogue with the ticket agents, dining car crews, porters, conductors, and trainmen working the passenger trains I was riding, if they permitted. With very few exceptions, these men provided me with a lot of information from what they saw and experienced on the front lines” of the passenger train problems, so to speak.

    Where I have lived (west Texas) most of my life, the two railroads that formerly provided passenger train service around here were the Texas and Pacific and Southern Pacific

    railroads. When I was a young boy, I rode passenger trains operated by these two railroads for the most part, but when I was in the military, I was sent all over the country, so by the time I came home, I had ridden passenger trains operated by other railroads, including the Penn Central, Milwaukee Road, Rock Island, Chicago and Northwestern, Chesapeake and Ohio, Southern, Santa Fe, and Seaboard Coast line railroads. Now, I am speaking about my travels on passenger trains these railroads ran BEFORE Amtrak, and shortly after.

    What Mr. Lapham says is very correct. MANY of the railroads in this country, which were still operating passenger trains when Amtrak was set up, had been going out of their way for decades to ruin the passenger trains they were still operating on their tracks, even on routes that still had high ridership and popularity. The Vanderbilts, who owned the New York Central railroad, said the passenger train should be damned, because it does not pay. This statement was made around the year 1900. Great Northern’s James Jerome Hill said the passenger train is like the male teat; it does nothing, nor has any use. Even after Amtrak got started, these same railroads showed little desire to cooperate with Amtrak, and they showed a latent desire to get any kind of passenger train off their tracks, period. I remember how Southern Pacific was always causing its own passenger trains, and then Amtrak trains running on its tracks to have immense delays by making them pull over onto sidings for anything else that happened to pass by. So it should not be surprising that CSX would use the current threats of terrorism as a way to get any Amtrak passenger trains off their tracks. Not all railroads did this, but the historical fact is, MOST were trying to be rid of any passenger service they still had, and even when Amtrak took over the running of the passenger trains, they still wanted no passenger trains on their tracks. And what better way to accomplish this than by saying the passenger train poses a terrorist threat? That resonates. The railroads look like they are looking after our well-being, while they rid themselves of passenger trains forever, something many of these railroads had wanted to do for well nigh a hundred years. And THIS is something many of the train crews of the trains I rode told me even years ago, long before Amtrak.

    Now, not all railroads showed an inclination to be rid of all their passenger trains. The Santa Fe, Southern, and Seaboard Coast line railroads kept their remaining passenger trains in tip-top condition up to the very day Amtrak began operating almost all of America’s passenger trains. Santa Fe even insisted that Amtrak keep any trains it operated over Santa Fe tracks at the level and quality of service Santa Fe was still providing on its trains before Amtrak began passenger train operations. Even though they acknowledged that there was little or no profit to be gained from their passenger trains, these three railroads could never bring themselves to let their passenger trains become filthy, run down, and malfunctional, like so many of the other railroads did. Neither did these three railroads encourage or allow their ticket agents and train crews to lie or be surly to their customers, like some of the other railroads did.

    The bottom line is, as usual, money. These railroads don’t want anything that causes them to lose money as almost all of the passenger trains they were operating before Amtrak were doing, but that’s not the whole story. They don’t want anything that does not make them as much money as they think they should make. Amtrak pays these railroads to allow it to run its passenger trains on these railroads’ tracks. The railroads don’t have to pay much, if anything for these passenger trains but the track upkeep and maintenance they would have to pay anyway so they can run their freight trains on a viable schedule. Amtrak pays its train crews, it pays for its equipment, you name it. The railroads even get bonuses for making sure the Amtrak trains running on their tracks arrive on or ahead of schedule. But these railroads obviously do not think Amtrak is paying them, even with the bonuses, as much as they think they should get for use of their tracks. This is why railroads like Union Pacific often have the worst on-time records for Amtrak passenger trains running on their tracks, despite being guaranteed bonuses for on-time performance.  

  • A nice piece of fiction, Tex.  Considering that Amtrak was activated in 1971, you also qualify as a historian because all of the experiences you cite occurred at least 39 years ago.  The Interstate Highway System still was under construction then, and the jet was still replacing propeller-driven airliners.  

    You misquote Commodore Vanderbilt.  In a meeting with newsmen, he was asked about the public interest.  "The public interest?  The public be damned," he is reported to have said - no reference to passenger trains.  The Great Northern - Hill's railroad - actually adopted a policy of getting rid of branch line and local passenger trains - when the ICC would permit - in the hope of preserving its "name" trains like the Empire Builder. I do not think you can make the case the GN was one of the anti-passenger train railroads.  I also find it interesting that none of the railroads you mention in your list of wonderful experiences still exists.  Think there might be a connection?  As for all the train and station personnel you talked with, I'm reminded that in my active news reporting days, I didn't go the enlisted men to find out how the battle was going.  Brave, yes.  Knowledgeable?  Only for as far as they could see.  Rank and file railroad workers, auto workers, workers in any industry are in the same situation.

    As for the myth - yes, I call it a myth - that the railroads wanted to destroy the passenger train, you really need to read more than this blogsite.  After the Penn Central entered bankruptcy, in large part because of uncapped losses of long distance passenger and commuter service that it was required to operate, the government finally realized it had to do something about the passenger trains because railroads no longer had the cushion of freight profits to support money-losing passenger service.  The AAR offered to retain all of the nation's passenger service if the government would subsidize 80% (I may be off on the percentage, but the concept is valid) of the operating losses.  The government did not believe it could "sell" subsidies to private railroad companies, and developed the Amtrak plan with the fiction that it would be profitable within two years.  Yeah, and I'm the long lost son of the last Czar of Russia.  The idea that the railroads participated in a plot to destroy the passenger train is the myth.  Why, Tex, would anyone want to do that unless it represented a financial burden that no longer could be borne?

    Here are just a few of the things that were beyond the control of the railroads:  the military began to fly troops around the country or trucked them on maneuvers, no longer purchasing passenger train transportation.  The US Post Office decided to end Rail Post Office service, removing the last profitable business from the passwnger trains.  Worse, the railroads had been required to make huge capital investments in mail handling facilities.  Can you say "stranded capital"?  Oh, and let's not forget the Interstate Highway System.  It allowed millions of Americans the freedom to drive on their vacations and business trips.  That this created the modern hotel/motel industry and hundreds of thousands of jobs is rarely mentioned by those who think they know why rail passenger service almost disappeared.  The same highways allowed motor trucks to increase payloads by about 10 tons and average speeds by about 20 miles per hour.  That cut into the service sensitive freight business, that on which railroads had counted for their real profits.  Without that there wasn't any way to subsidize money-losing passenger service.  There have been some good books written on the subject, my favorite being "An American Transportation Story: the Obstacles, the Challenges, the Promi8se" by David J. DeBoer and yours truly.  But I'm prejudiced.  Seriously, Texa, I urge you to do some serious reading and/or research before you try to tell those of us who have lived this story how wrong we were.

  • A couple minor points to add: the demise of of the interurbans and streetcars dealt a much heavier blow to the steam roads than was realized at the time.  They acted as the feeders and final delivery routes.  Without them, except in very dense areas where walking or taking a cab to your hotel or business meeting or such was a simple matter, passenger rail is an incomplete solution.

    Simply looking at where passenger rail hung on or died hard confirms this; it isn't coincidence that the NEC is the place where rail is most feasible.

  • Why should passenger rail mix with freight in a first place? It should be a totally different infrastructure. There are too many reasons for that. And forget the slow turn of 20th century slow trains, we need high speed, from coast to coast, independently owned and operated, not sharing or leasing the track. Then people will use it, they will be more than willing to pay for high level, high speed service (well, with high speed interned onboard).

    Freight is freight, that's what they do, and there is no need to force them to mix their operations with passenger, becaue both will lose.

    Real estate may be expensive, but if we safe all money we waste on debates, discussions, endless pointless official sessions and hearings that lead to nothing but deadend at the highest level (by the way those speech therapy sessions are being funded by our tax money in most cases), or negotiations with existing rail network owners, the right of way acquisition could be successfully supported by such funds.

    The only problem with high speed rail we have is insufficient management strategies, outdated perceptions, mixed up business concepts and the way agencies and ventures that have nothing to do with it are trying to dictate the rules that will kill the project before it actually starts, to control operations beyond their grasp, and frankly to strip the profit without investment (well, what else is new...)

  • DesertRat, you win the fiction prize for today.  I'm absolutely certain some other heavy-breathing "foamer" will top your comment by tomorrow.  You ignore the fact - facts are those messy things that get in the way of our preconceived notions - that freight and passenger service has co-existed on the same infrastructure since the Best Friend of Charleston and the Tom Thumb were in operation.  You don't mean to do so, I'm reasonably certain, but you do insult every decent dispatcher out there.  It's no more difficult to mesh a passenger train with a freight than it is to mesh a all-trailer premium intermodal train with a coal drag.

    Independently owned and operated?  Where have you been hiding all the capital for that one?  You ae certain that people will pay for this wonderful service. Well, sort of.  They sure do pay for wonderful service in Japan, France, Spain, and now Mother Russia, but they pay only after taxpayers in all those paradises pony up the real bucks. As for saving our way to money for HSR?  Come on, get real.  How much do you think is spent on all those debates and negotiations you obviously abhor?  Sorry if this is harsh, but I've been living with this issue for more than 35 years.  Your comment, as I said at the beginning, wins the fiction prize today.