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.



  • You remind me a bit of my father, even though I've never met you.  He was an engineer and I'll leave it at that.  As for European railroads, it should come as no surprise that there is no single answer to why they have such a small share of the freight market.  The world is mostly gray, remember, not black and white.  First, you are correct that the governments that own the infrastructure - and the operating companies in some states - give precedence to freight operations and freight capacity is not terribly large.  Second, distances on the continent are quite small.  Trucks and barges are more competitive with rail than they are in this country.  And note, I'm not into one of my rants about effective subsidization of trucks vs. rail.  In Europe all modes of transportation are subsidized to some degree.  Third, state policy works against rail.  For example, you can't go very from from Rotterdam before you hit the German or Belgium borders.  Rail freight must be interlined to Deutches Bundesbahn at the border and the Netherlands railroad doesn't make much revenue on the movement.  A Dutch truck out of Rotterdam, however, can travel all the way to Istanbul, for example, under the TIR license system, and that results in a Dutch driver or two being employed who wouldn't otherwise be.  So, the Netherlands government sees fit to subsidize the railroad and let the trucker have the traffic.  It's their system, not mine, and I don't get a vote on whether it is good economics or not.  I'm sure there are other factors determining use or non-use of European railroads.  I'm confining my coments to those I know something about.


  • Correction:  In my previous comment, I stated that the European governments that own the rail infrastructure and in some places the operating companies give preference to freight.  That is simply wrong.  The reality is just the opposite.  They give preference to passenger service and have allowed freight pretty much to move by the most efficient means that shippers can find.  Sorry, if anyone was confused besides me.

  • Time, distance and quantity are the decision points to determine the best or most efficient carrier. As a former Director of Distribution for a distiller and importer, I would or could utilize rail on a coast to coast shipment and normally would use truck for a shipment of 1000 miles or less.   In Europe where many destinations are within a one day truck drive from each other, A rail shipment would take much longer.  The same reasoning  is true in the US. If your shipping point and destination are on a siding coast to coast rail is feasible , but even then a truck shipment is normally faster.

  • Short and sweet.  Candlou is absolutely right.  Now that I've been polite, I do have just a bit of a quibble with him.  Rail costs have been reduced significantly in recent years and rail rates have been stable or rising modestly.  At the same time trucks have problems - driver shortages, fuel expense, etc.  I think you'll find that rail is competitive with truck - particularly intermodal rail - at distances well below the 1,000 miles that Candlou cites.  Rail speeds also have increased.  BNSF, for example, can run more miles in a day than can any trucker not using team driverss (which also runs up trucking costs.)  Double-tracking the entire Transcon between Chicago and Los Angeles allows intermodal trains to run at track speed of as much as 79 mph.  No trucker can run at that speed legally.

  • Larry, Candlou,

    Thanks for your comments.  I agree with them all.  But my concern is that too often we use the U.S. experience as a measuring stick for an "efficient" operation.  I won't partake in the discussions related to time and distance arguments until after I have aired all of my concerns related to differences between our freight system and RAILROAD systems in other parts of the world.  Here I have to substitute "Railroad" for freight to ensure that we are not merely measuring the efficiencies of systems based only on their ton-miles.  We've already all essentially agreed that the size (and considering the points Larry made about crossing EU borders, etc.) and wealth the U.S. creates a demand for freight rail service far greater than any of the countries we will use for comparison.  Frankly, I don't care what drives the demand for railroad freight service in this country, I'm concerned only with discussing the different technological approaches used to deliver the service of moving "commodity" by rail.  In this context and in light of the earlier comments, clearly "commodity" could include people.  

    I find it useful at times to look at the extremes to appreciate what happens in the middle.  So let me start with two extremes to use as the bases for the arguments that we will continue to develop.

    The Japanese Shinkansen system is one example of an extreme that represents the integration of different technologies to deliver a railroad delivery service.  A typical shortline operator running trains down one of the jointed rail secondary lines to serve up cars to the Class 1 mainline carrier represents the other extreme.  

    Now before someone jumps in immediately and complains that these systems may not be compared I'll offer the Amtrak Acela on the NEC corridor as a domestic example of a system which is somewhere in between these two systems.  I don't want to argue about dollars and cents just yet, I just want to put the two systems out there as the bases for comparing different operating and maintenance strategies and the extraordinary impact related to deploying technology which is several decades old.  

    Clearly, the Shinkansen system with its impeccable 47 year fatality-free, 99% on-time performance record with trains running on 5 minute headways at speeds of up to 180 mph represents a system that could compete with our trucks at distances shorter than 1000 miles.  Let's consider only the track and core systems technology for now and imagine that only a very modest portion of this technology could even be applied to our freight railroads.  

    Now let's look at the shortline operating their 6 trains per day at an average velocity of less than 25 mph and the lack of a need to actually schedule the trains.  Clearly this shortline is far more tolerant of service disruptions (slow orders) and interruptions (derailments) related to the continued use of obsolete track and signal technologies.  

    What happens when we begin to see that the actual costs related to not embracing technological change actual exceed the costs of implementing the changes?  Forget for a moment, the potential lost opportunities related to the shortline actually capturing some of the truckers 500 mile haul business.  Let's talk only about the technology that has the potential to significantly reduce the operations and mainternance costs associated with operating the freight railroad.  

    In my opinion (and I believe I've earned the right to harbor an opinion on this subject) we have overlooked some of those technological advances in decades past.  

    I told you this was going to be controversial.  Please feel free to fire back.

  • With booze you also have the additional complication of physical security -highest for full-length welled containers, pretty good for boxcars and more accessible containers, and poor of trailers, with personal accountability going in about the opposite direction, especially in the not-so-distant past.  Throw in the high inventory carrying cost, it all musta kept you pretty busy.

  • Re-anmccaff.  Have had very little problem with theft with either rail or truck . even with LTL shipments.. But time was very important.   Another factor that affected my shipments was value.  Rail would be very effective for lower value goods, but for liquor shipments time costs money.     Mr. Kaufman:  My father was also an engineer, But he was one on the New York Central.     I agree that intermodal rail would be fast on Coast to coast shipments , but not on short haul where the transfer time at each end can take up to a full day.

  • Blaine first, then Candlou:

    You set all sorts of parameters in your latest comment, some of which are mutually exclusive.  You cannot just consider technology without also considering costs and benefits.  Well, you may be able to do that, but I don't think you come up with a conclusion that's valid.  I've ridden the Shinkansen.  First, it doesn't share its right-of-way with anyone, including conventional passenger service.  Second, the Japanese know who their market is and cater to it.  On my trip, I noted that the fare was very high and the train was filled with Japanese business people.  They didn't pay the same fares that this American tourist did.  And, finally (for now), the Shinkansen, even when running at very high occupancy, does not cover much more than variable cost.  The Japanese taxpayer covers the fixed cost - along with American tourists.

    Candlou:  The full comment that I didn't use before was: You can always tell an engineer - but not very much.  No insult intended, and I think you get the message.  I don't know when you stopped being a railroader, but I think you are a couple of years at least behind the real situation.  As I said, rail intermodal is competitive with trucks for lengths of haul well below 1,000 miles.  While you are right that motor carriage is faster than rail intermodal including the dray at each end.  But the modal decision is not made solely on rate or solely on total trip time.  It is based on inventory cost, total cost of transportation.  The railroad can beat the truck on cost almost every time.  Its rate is lower than the truck competitor and that's in large part because you can put a train with 280 containers over the road with a two-person crew and I'd hate to see another 140 tractor-trailer combinations cluttering up already congested highways.  My point, to make sure any reader gets it whether they agree or not is that modal choice is made on several factors.  Simple answers may have some appeal, but they often are not valid.

  • Larry,

    I appreciate your points.  And I agree that the technology may not be considered with some consideration of costs.  I merely want the parties in the discussion to first appreciate that these types of systems use radically different technologies; and that the technology used on the Shinkansen system is more advanced than the technology used here.  I purposely avoided costs.  I am quite familiar with the Japanese maintenance strategy as well and I don't consider that philosophy applicable here, particularly for a freight-only system.  

    If you'll concede that the Japanese track and signal system is more advanced than the system currently used by our freight systems, I'll continue describing the technology and why I think our freight's could be more efficient.

    And no worries with the shots at Engineers.  I work with plenty!

  • I knew that if we batted this like a shuttle-***, we eventually would reach agreement.  I can concede that the Japanese system is advanced and probably more-so than is ours, but as I am not an engineer nor do I have experience with technology beyond the computer, I cannot say with confidence that it is more advanced that ours.  As for U.S. efforts to catch up to much of the developed world, I'd like to see a good cost-benefit study of specific proposals.  Just the size of the U.S. compared with most countries that have high-speed rail suggests that it won't cut it here.  The longer the distance that must be traveled, the less competitive rail is in competition with air.

  • Larry,

    I'm sure I can learn a great deal from you about aspects of the business I don't know very well. I'd be honored if you'd consider joining me for lunch sometime in the near future to discuss further.

    I will explain the significant differences between the technologies I know well and also present aspects of the signal and train control arrangements that I understand only from a Railway engineers perspective.

    I live just outside of Denver and travel often to DIA.  

    We can continue to carry these blog discussions further but I'd be honored to have the opportunity to discuss in person as well.

    I'll attempt to reach you via email.

  • You've got a deal.  I live in Genesee, about 20 miles due west of downtown Denver and up in Mt. Vernon Canyon.  I get downtown on average of once every couple of weeks.  You can reach me at

  • CL"Re-anmccaff.  Have had very little problem with theft with either rail or truck . even with LTL shipments."

    Interesting.  Where and when?  (I was thinking New England in the seventies and early eighties.)

    CL>" But time was very important.  

    Another factor that affected my shipments was value.  Rail would be very effective for lower value goods, but for liquor shipments time costs money. "

    Yeah, and that's only gotten worse as accountants have gotten better at playing games with value of product as it crosses borders.  For stuff like designer jeans, that's become an art form.

  • anmccaff---Re theft, There was one time in the mid 70's when two trailers loaded with empty incoming liquor bottles packed in the branded shipping cases were stolen or hi-jacked from a truckers terminal.  I believe the bad guys opened the doors on the trailers , saw the branded cases an thought they were getting two full trailers of vodka..I would have liked to see what their reaction was when they began to unload ,,, The full trailers were found two days later in New Jersey..