So, now we're partners?


U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is back at the forefront of railroad news. Yesterday, in Minneapolis, he delivered the keynote address for the opening general session of Railway Interchange 2011.

Now, I'll be honest about two things right off the top.

First of all, it would have been wonderful to take part in the conference and exhibition. I can't think of anything I might enjoy more than a leisurely stroll through a yard full of the latest and greatest innovations in rolling stock and equipment. [Well...maybe things like a foot rub and a big plate of Mexican food would rank right up there, too; but, y'all know what I mean!] Seriously, I hate it that I'm not in attendance - and it gives me an even bigger feeling of regret to know I'm writing these words while the event is still taking place.

Secondly, I have grown to despise most "keynote addresses," especially those by elected officials, their appointees and others outside our industry. Even if I was in Minnesota instead of Texas, I'm not sure I'd have had the stomach to sit through some inane speech right after breakfast.

Which brings me to the subject at hand.

Ray LaHood is now touting the Class Is as "partners" in Barack Obama's "vision for high speed rail."

Of course, he also referred to President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden as "THE rail men of the 21st century" [emphasis mine], so I'm not quite sure we can take his statements at face value.

Still, it's this "partners" deal I'm finding so interesting.

I have been begging anyone at the U.S. D.O.T. who'd pay attention - here on this site (beginning with my essay, "Obama Speed Rail," over fifteen months ago) and elsewhere - to treat our private railroad companies with respect, AS PARTNERS, and go to them for guidance (listening to what they have to say) when developing a plan for improved and expanded passenger train service. [In fact, just for the record, our private railroad companies should always play an integral role, from the outset, with any plans involving their property!] Under ideal circumstances, one might hope that the Secretary's use of this potentially loaded word means the feds are finally getting the picture.

Unfortunately, not only have my concepts (and those of far more influential people) apparently fallen on deaf ears, but the only thing which seems to have changed is Mr. LaHood's penchant for that one word: "partners." He even managed to use it two sentences in a row! When noting the administration's various financial commitments toward rail-based passenger initiatives - projects "that could not have been done without our Class I partners" - he acknowledged the government's practical inability to develop a railroad system of any sort without the participation of the railroads! "There is not enough money available for what we want to accomplish without good partners like them,” he stated.


Then, he said a few more things which indicated his continued ignorance of the issues at hand and the administration's real intent behind its persistent proposals.

Regarding the feds' fatuousness, LaHood indicated that the current administration "strongly supports" both "high speed rail and freight rail." For whatever reason(s), the DOT remains unclear on the most basic concept of all: true H.S.R. is literally incompatible with existing Class I railway infrastructure and operations!

Now, if they'd like to seriously discuss conventional passenger service, that's another matter. Let interested governmental bodies come to the table with a pile of cash - and the understanding that public benefits must be funded with public monies, that current and future capacity is a vital matter, that liability protection is non-negotiable, and that ALL costs for improvements which the railroad's don't require for their own operations but are only necessary for the passenger side of the equation, including ongoing maintenance and taxes, must be borne by other entities - then I'm sure the "partners" will be ready to negotiate. Please note, however, my use of the modifier "conventional." No matter how much certain parties might wish this wasn't true, we'd still not be discussing true H.S.R.!

You know, there's actually a lot of wiggle room between "high speed rail" and "freight rail." In fact, conventional passenger trains - trains which would be efficient, practical and marketable - fall right in there someplace! It's frustrating beyond degree to see someone in power who ostensibly knows better, yet continually spouts the same ol' claptrap.

Insofar as Washington's true motives are concerned, it only took LaHood's emphasis on "jobs" to make that clear. The Secretary publicly urged Congress to pass the American Jobs Act of 2011, stating that its four billion dollars of railroad-oriented money (with two billion specifically for Amtrak) would "create thousands of jobs." He also called upon Congress to put together another six-year surface transportation funding bill, in order "to put Americans back to work."

I agree that increased domestic employment is absolutely indispensable and our national economy will continue to suffer dreadfully without it. I only wish our industry and our technology weren't being used as pawns in these political games.

For ONCE, why can't we decide whether or not a given project is useful and if we honestly believe it will achieve its stated goals before throwing money at it?! We'll never achieve true H.S.R. the way Washington is handling these things, anyway! So, is H.S.R. really necessary? Would we fail if literal high-speed service wasn't our ultimate goal? Precisely what do we want these trains to do; what markets will they serve and what unique attributes will they bring into the mix?

These questions are foundational and should be addressed before any funds are allocated.

Over the past couple of years, much of what I've written here has concerned our country's flawed thinking regarding intercity passenger service and its future. When it comes to envisioning tomorrow's passenger trains, much less engaging in their planning and execution, cognitive dissonance exists at the U.S. D.O.T. (and most state departments), Amtrak and the railroads, themselves. This isn't just Ray LaHood's problem; it's most people's problem!

You'll never find a greater proponent for a revitalised national network of railway passenger train services than I! My advocacy is not blind, however. There are potential pitfalls within the best of plans. Worse yet, when plans aren't the best, when ulterior motives are at work, when supporters expect unreasonable results...well, it indicates serious problems afoot.

I'm convinced passenger service, of all types, can stand on its own merits. I'm also convinced that the public exposure, operational discipline and capital infusion which accompanies those trains will be good for our industry. I could also be wrong! But, no matter what, all the players involved should be able to expect a candid and technically reasonable set of proposals from those in positions of authority.

I'm afraid anything less is unconscionable.



  • Larry,

    Thanks for the straight talk.  In light of the earlier proposal and the current economic climate, I hope they don't get around to presenting and passing a new Bill any time soon!

    I've heard about a recent plan to source new funding for HSR.  It involves adding an additional airline "fee" to domestic legs of flights.  The proposal suggests $7.50 per leg.  Apparently, there are some 800 million legs per year and this "fee" would sum to ~$8B per year.  The quintessential selling point tied to this fee is related to the need to upgrade the current Air Traffic Control (ATC) system which is apparently nearing the breaking point.  The funds would be used to both make the necessary upgrades to the ATC network as well as reduce airport congestion (for short haul flights) by developing "Express" HSR corridors to carry burgeoning demand.

    While I like the idea of a new source of funding, I sure hope we don't abandon the argument that SOME HSR corridors promise a more cost competitive and sustainable solution than adding lanes or runways.

  • hanks Blaine.  I find that the older I get the easier it is to talk straight.  The idea of funding HSR with a new and additional tax on airline tickets is, on first blush, one of the silliest things I've seen, and I've seen a lot of silly things.  We airline passengers already are being nickel and dimed by airlines with fees for everything, and by various taxes that include segment taxes to fund airport construction and maintenance, a 9/11 security fee, and too many others for me to remember them all.  The idea runs counter to good economic theory in that it collects taxes from those who do not benefit from them.  Cross-subsidization is not good.  I have no doubt that this idea can be rationalized if anyone ever truly tries to advance it.  Rationalizing is what politicians do best.

  • Larry,

    I've previously met the individual who is pushing the idea.  While he presents a compelling argument, I agree that the idea of a new "fee" may be a difficult sell.  I believe the idea was floated by a (HSR) coalition that  is struggling to stay alive in these relatively uncertain economic and political times.  

    As much as I don't actually like Mica, I think that if he becomes a sponsor of this approach it may actually gain some traction.

    I'm still waiting to hear how the current and future administrations propose to deal with the crumbling infrastructure and the average joe's unwillingness to chip in less than $100 per year to have the luxury of driving across this great country at 75 mph!  I know some people that spend more than $100 per year putting armour-all on their tires!  I wonder why they never seem to concern themselves with what happens below the rubber.  It's much like the argument I was trying to make when I first chimed in.  Sometimes we can't see the forest for the trees!

    Our current plan is far from being sustainable.  When will someone in our Administration advise the users that they may no longer ride the roads for well below the cost to maintain them?  

    As the CAFE mandate approaches, car manufacturers are busy producing more and more efficient cars.  The good news is that, assuming the price of fuel only rises with inflation, the total $ the average driver will spend for fuel in one year will actually go down each year; the bad news is that a greater portion of the total collected will need to be used to fund much needed capital/maintenance programs.  Politicians should stop making arguments which consider tax RATES and consider telling Americans that the TOTAL taxes collected from the average driver will go down over time.  Don't explain why, just exploit the rhetoric.  By discussing the rates with the average voter, politicians are essentially soliciting the opinions of the average joe to weigh in with their own estimates of cost to maintain the infrastructure.  I work in a closely related field and I'm not able to determine a rational cost! (Although from the sounds of things it is currently too low.)

    Back to the argument related to the need to upgrade the ATC network.  I think the coalition looking for a HSR lifeline should present ten different funding source alternatives looking to seek $30B on an annual basis for HSR projects.  The politicians that are against these plans can take credit for objecting to 90% of them and still leave a respectable $3B in the annual pot to get a few moving.  

  • Points all well-made, Blaine.  Let's remember that the federal fuel and excise taxes go only to so-called federal aid highways.  City and county streets and roads are funded by state fuel taxes and from general funds.  That's where the real subsidy comes in.  I would not expect Mica to become a sponsor of any kind of tax on air travelers to benefit HSR.  I do expect him to prattle a lot and in the end to do nothing constructive. If he were to support a tax for HSR or do anything else meaningful, it would have an effect, no doubt about that.  On the highways, big trucks are subsidized, mostly by operators of smaller trucks, but subsidized nonetheless.  This allows them to charge lower rates than they otherwise might because the unit cost of trucking is lower than actual cost.  As one interested in railroads, I find this unconscionable.  Truckers now are being supported in their lobbying for even heavier trucks (97,000 lb GVW compared with 80,000 lb at present) by some of the nation's largest shippers.  I have a hard time condemning them for acting in their self-interest, but I do consider them hypocrites; they don't want to pay taxes but they are perfectly willing to screw over railroads, the one mode that actually pays its way.

    I'm in one of my cynical moods and I would expect Democrat or Republican administrations to try to finesse any transportation policy until the next Interstate bridge collapses at rush-hour someplace in the country.  Posturing and pandering is the one thing they all do well.

  • Regarding truck subsidies.  The ratio of damage from the biggest stuff out there legally to an ordinary light vehicle is about 80,000 to one.

    Yeah, that's the right number of zeros.  Eighty thousand.

    Of course, the ordinary truck out there isn't as heavy.  It only does about ten thousand times as much damage.

    Per axle, of course.

    Now, pavement damage isn't the only cost factor, of course, but opening up the public's eyes to just how much trucking is subsidized would be a good thing, and not just for the rail industry.

  • I can assure you, anmccaff, that the railroads have been trying to do just what you recommend for more than 35 years.  This is not an issue that will turn on right vs. wrong.  It is driven by lobbying and some of the lobbyists would shock - or at least surprise - you if you saw who they represent.  Yes, trucks do the damage cited.  Yes, independent studies - that means there is no rail connection to them - have confirmed and quantified the degree of subsidization that already occurs.  No, thing has been done other than to freeze truck maximum weights for more than a decade, although nothing has been done to roll back the subsidy.  And here's a big yes.  Yes, the trucking industry is supported by the National Industrial Transportation League and some very large shipper interests.  Face it, they are the beneficiaries of the subsidy for trucks.  They have the juice to extract the benefit from the truckers and to use them for their own benefit.  These, in many cases, are companies that have signed the Grover Norquist pledge not to support any increase in taxes or reduction in tax deductions.  The operative word is "hypocrite."  Yes, they are operating in their economic self interest.  But should they.  I get sick and tired when they get on their soap-box and prattle about good government.

  • Yeah, I agree with everything you said there, except for the idea that who was behind some lobbying would surprise me...disgust, maybe, but I'm decades past surprise.

    The problem is that the most important word, unfortunately, is "trying," and I think a big part of that is that the legislatures aren't just responding to pressure by groups acting in their own narrow self interest, but to the voters.  Cars appeal at some gut level to Americans, in a way that rational beings would reserve for the opposite sex, or at least for one of the higher mammals.

  • Once again, points well made, anmccaff.  I don't believe the American love affair with the automobile is all that much an influence on this subject.  The independent studies that I like t cite show the automobile is pretty much a pay as you go prospect in highway finance.  That is, they pay their fair share of highway taxes for the highways they use.  It is the light truck that subsidizes the heavy trucks.  Private motorists really have no dog in that fight.  Now, let' us not forget that federal fuel and excise taxes go for federal aid highways.  States and municipalities must pay for non-federal highways, and here your great aunt Martha who barely can meet her real estate tax paymnts is subsidizing a lot of vehicles - and she didn't even get a vote or an opportunity to lobby to stick someone elsse with a larger share of highway costs.

  • I'm going to bring up a related controversial point of view.  I feel that my lengthy experience with North America freight railroads as well as alternate railroad systems qualifies me to harbor an opinion.  I raise it here to gather the opinions of others who are equally or, in many cases, better qualified to contribute to the discussion.  

    Our railroads yield significant market share to trucks for haul distances they could easily capture if they moved quickly to embrace technology which would significantly improve their service level.

    As good as our freight railroads are, they are generations from reaching the same level of service as is currently provided in other parts of the world.  I'll be the first to admit that our private railroads represent a tremendous success story in their ability to operate without subsidy and return their cost of capital.  But in the next breath, I'll criticize our private railroads for not leveraging technology to further reduce their operating and maintenance costs and enhance their service. In my opinion, our freight systems have failed to leverage technologies which are several decades old.

    I'll start with that brief introduction to see if I can get a sufficient reaction from bloggers to carry the discusssion further.

    Looking forward to more discussion.

  • First, unless I misread your comment above, Blaine, I must disagree with one of your principal statements.  The U.S. freight railroads do not lag those of other countries.  On the contrary, where others are losing market share from a miserably small base, U.S. railroads are expanding market share and doing it in precisely the manner you say they should - by providing better service and doing so consistently.

    U.S. railroads do leverage technology.  Just think of hot box detectors, roller bearnings that replaced journal boxes and oil-soaked pads, continuously welded rail, wood, plastic, and concrete ties.  Locomotives are better built and longer lasting than those of the previous generation.  They also pack more power and can haul greater tonnage.  They do reduce operating cost through technology.  Remember, before Staggers, that was about the only way they could improve operations.  Then, Staggers allowed them to reduce thousands of workers through abolishing agents at stations all over the map, switching customers to service centers (technology again) and shedding uneconomic lines.  I am among those who believe the mandated PTC investment will pay off in sizeable business benefits that have not even been cnsidered for the most part as people look at a bad cost-benefit ration when safety is the only alleged benefit.  The industry has been slow to incorporate electro-pneumatic braking, but I'll give it a pass on that because you cannot convert a fleet of more than 1.2 million cars overnight.

    The revolution in domestic intermodal is capturing back traffic the railroads once had and which they lost to truckers.  When I first entered the industry, truckers dominated for any non-bulk traffic less than 1,500 miles.  Today, the railroads are competing for business down under 750 and as low as 500 miles.  That takes a combination of technology and efficiency.


  • Larry,

    This is precisely the kind of reaction I was hoping for....or, at least, expecting.  That is why I introduced the topic as "controversial".  But now that our dialogue is underway, I can continue.

    I agree with your comments.  When we compare U.S. railroads to where they have been and where they are headed, you are exactly correct.  And, to your other important point, other systems around the world do pale when total freight tonnage and miles are considered.

    I also feel relieved to read that you also feel that PTC has been given a rather unfair shake.  I'm no signal guy but I have seen the profound impact of similar technology in other systems.  I'll leave the braking alone for now, but I too agree that it's roll-out has been rather slow.  I met one of the pioneers of this technology when I was working in Kansas City in 1995-1996.  I don't recall his name or that of his rather small business at the time.

    Now that we have agreed on those points, I have to bring up areas where I think the railroads have been too slow to adopt change.  I'll qualify these, in advance, by reminding all that I am a Railway Engineer, a track guy, and when I discuss railroad aspects other than those related to track, I'm not an expert.  Still I have seen how those sides have been handled by different groups.

    1. I'll start with track technology.  The vast majority of our network is still comprised of the old cut-spike, cast plate, and rail anchor system.  This system was abandoned by most of our European counterparts decades ago.  The system of course worked well before the introduction of continuous welded rail (CWR) but has proven to be problematic where CWR is deployed.  Without spending the whole blog explaining why, suffice it to say that the rail anchor system is a "passive" restraint system.  The alternative elastic fastening system was really only adopted by our freight railroads when they first ventured into concrete ties.  Not because the elastic fastening system is an "active" system better suited for use with CWR, but because you can't drive spikes into concrete.

    2. Track technology again.  Less than 24% of our tracks actually use CWR at all!  While I don't know the percentage of tracks in Europe which are CWR, it is relatively difficult to find lines that are not CWR.  The joint bars our railroads have used over the past two decades are inadequately designed to carry our current axle loads. Instead of devising plans to phase out the jointed rail lines, we spend a great deal of time and money researching ways to locate cracked or broken bars.

    I'll wait for rebuttal on these before I continue. I know it's a touchy subject, but I need to air these views.  

  • Not a touchy subject to me at all, Blaine.  I obviously do not have your expertise in track.  I do know that the number of train accidents has come down steadily in the U.S., so someone or many someones must be doing something right.  I'm not concerned by your data on how much mileage is CWR.  A lot of branch lines - like virtually all of them - never will be CWR.  I doubt the carriers can justify the cost of relaying old light density lines with expensive heavyweight CWR.  Not enough traffic to justify the expense.

    And now, I'll end for today and hope that someone else joins in on this conversation.

  • Larry,

    I agree with your comments related to reductions in derailments and the relative costs associated with converting branch lines to CWR.  Still, I've seen far two many busy secondary mainlines with 1950's jointed rail headworn to the point of making it difficult to locate suitably worn rail to be used as plugs.  I fully appreciate the capital costs associated with out-of-face rail relays but one has to wonder about the models that expected to get 50 years out of the rail.

    I approach this subject from a different perspective.  In my opinion, in many cases the higher maintenance and operating costs associated with NOT updating this infrastructure rivals the capital costs of making the upgrades.  This is my opinion. I use your comment related to the reductions in derailments as a testament to this postulate.  The industry has no real measuring stick which may be used to argue for these kinds of investments because of it's long term experience dealing with service interruptions and disruptions; collectively the industry and its customers have become quite tolerant of lower levels of service than are typical in many other parts of the world.  I did not realize this until I saw firthand how these other systems operate.

    We'll dwell a little longer on these track points, hoping others will chime in, before I move on to other points.

  • I'm treading water, here, Blaine, as I'm clearly out of my depth when it comes to system engineering.  I was at the AAR back when the industry was moving from 263K to 286K for cars and lading.  There was an increase in derailments and an rather large increase in maintenance burden back then which did slow the move to heavier lading.  I probably could be persuaded that the effort to keep heavy cars off branch lines with jointed rail accelerated the movement to what we now know to be much more efficient unit and shuttle trains that don't leave the main lines.  Similarly, the move from 4-axle to 6-axle power was accompanied by an increase in derailments from harmonic rocking and rail roll on curves.  I think we're both right; we just are looking at different aspects of the same system.  

    Where I disagree with you - if I read you correctly - is in your comment about service levels vs. other parts of the world.  I do know that except for some extremely heavy-haul systems in western Australia, most of the world doesn't load nearly as heavily as do the U.S. and Canadian railroads.  Nor do they run as long trains, and even more importantly, their share of market is almost infinitesimal compared to ours.  European railroads have less than 10% market share vs. highway and barge, and the share continues to fall.  I'm not so foolish as to claim U.S. rail service and operations are perfect or probably even close.  But they are quite good, and we've seen the proof in the industry's ability to continue very large capital investment programs and to make a profit right through the recession.  Thirty years ago, they would have felt forced to much larger layoffs, storing more power and rolling stock and figuring out excuses to give stockholders.

  • Larry,

    I think we are close to agreement on the jointed rail and increasing axle loads discussion.  And I actually appreciate that these are from different perspectives.

    We do need to discuss further my assertion related to the "efficiency" of U.S. and Canadian railroads.  I'll concede your points related to "heavy" and "long" trains, if you'll consider my points below.

    I'm actually not at all suprised by our assertions related to U.S. and Canadian freight railroads hauling the most freight (tons) and the longest distances (miles).  After all the U.S. is the largest wealthy nation in the world.  Couple with that the average American and Canadian's per capita consumption of raw and processed materials and, these accomplishments seem to make even more sense.

    So why don't the Europeans move a lot of freight by rail?  I have my own suspicion that this is probably related to their preference to use their rail systems to move people but I'd prefer to avoid discussing sides of the business I don't understand well enough to debate.  Rather I would prefer to look only at how their railroads are constructed, how they operate and how they are maintained.  

    I was actually briefly assigned an operations type role once about 12 years ago.  I remember being given a load-to-load cycle time for the fleet I managed.  I remember telling my boss then that unfortunately we are not going to move a sufficient volume of commodity for me to achieve our goals, I needed to remove cars from the system to achieve our targets.  

    If we can agree to define "efficiency" in this discussion as the ability to schedule trains with short headways and high on-time performance, I'll continue my argument related to why I think we could have done a better job embracing technology.

    Looking forward to more.