Sunday, June 01, 2014

Ebb & Flow

No, the title of this blog is not a new country duo--nor is it the name of my legal team.  It is what happens with Passenger Rail in the U.S. with Amtrak and Congress, that singularly mismatched duo, running things.

During the first decade of my life, Passenger Rail was full flow.  Post WWII streamliners came on line faster than Sbarro on Manhattan Island.  No matter what the railroad was running things, a serious effort to please the traveling public and make Passenger Rail competitive with air travel and highways created the grand days of 20th century rail travel.  The big ones come to mind.  The Super Chief, The Broadway, The 20th Century Limited, The City streamliners, The North Coast Limited, The Empire Builder.  There are lots more, but my childhood was centered on the midwest, so forgive my omissions.

Move on to the 1960s.  Don't get me wrong.  Passenger Rail was already on the skids in the late 50s.  By the early 60s, no skids were left underneath and it was almost free fall.  The airlines and the Interstate Highway System took big public money and made mincemeat of the Passenger Rail system.  The ICC paid lip service to competition and public necessity, but nobody thought of rail as a "modern" form of transportation, least of all Congress.  Regulation threatened to end railroading completely.

The onset of Amtrak . . . yes, it had an onset just like a disease . . . brought relief to the rail systems vis a vis removal of a nasty red line from the ledger, but it wasn't a panacea, and Congress was as stingy as it could get.  A subsidiary disease is something I would call Turn-a-Profit-Itis.  Or make that last part -oma.  It's a cancer that has to be cut out of our thinking about transportation policy before it kills the patient.

Ebb and flow continued as Congress and Administrations would alternately fund and defund things, install new Amtrak administrators, and boards, and decide arbitrarily how bad the "-oma" would be.  Ebb and flow.

Now we have a national system that needs a lot of work.  Congress under the current administration -- it's more of a custodian -- gave Amtrak enough money for some new equipment, but not enough for new routes.  The rebuild of the Northeast Corridor needs a rebuild.  Somewhere along the line, Congress had the brilliant idea that the individual states would have to kick in for service, and this regulation has been administered so arbitrarily that there are some state legislatures that will eventually either want to opt out or have to as the state goes belly up.  Others have embraced this bugaboo wholeheartedly and have succeeded at it for the most part.  California, Illinois, Michigan, Washington come to mind.  Note they are also highly liberal states.

So in a way, we also have the ebb and flow of a once private network of passenger railroads turning into a smaller public entity, now being spun off to become something less of a single entity and more of a network again, with the very real possibility that some states will find private operators, and maybe even private owners, willing to run Passenger Rail again.  (Florida, perhaps California, Oklahoma?)

Ebb and Flow.

©2014 - C. A. Turek - mistertrains@gmail.com

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Freight v. Passenger Rail

This blog has reached the dubious milestone of having over 25,000 page views.  That's not a lot by some standards, so I'm only tooting my horn once.  Please help get more by linking and sharing.  Many thanks to my regular readers.

The oil boom and consequential uptick in the number of "oil cans" on U.S. rails has illuminated a certainty I've observed for some time.  Basically, it's that passenger trains no longer get the priority they need to be a viable form of medium- to long-distance travel.  The exceptions are the tracks owned by Amtrak and commuter rail authorities, where the track owners can choose to give passenger trains priority.  Often they don't.  The problem is just going to get worse, as the feds have found out they can foist costs off on the states by blackmailing them with the loss of train service.  (See Southwest Chief in Colorado, New Mexico, and Kansas.)

I'm not arguing that freight should never get priority--far from it.  Seeing that freight rail is possible the most energy efficient way to move heavy loads anywhere on the planet (marine is most efficient where there is a waterway and a port), a robust freight rail system, with marketplace competition and free from burdensome regulation, is necessary for future economic success.  But passenger rail also approaches optimum efficiency for moving people.  What are we to do?

I've made no secret that I'm not a fan of High Speed Rail (HSR), but that's mainly because of the way America is going about it.  Piecemeal doesn't cut it.  At the current level of funding, Amtrak will turn into a fragmented, useless entity for anything but trains on the Northeast Corridor and some other Corridor trains.  Beyond those corridors and regional transportation agencies, passenger rail will disappear.

I do not now and never have given purchase to the argument that the federal government can't make enough cuts to fund something really important.  But, with the media in the corner of the politicians, it would take one helluva piece of investigative journalism pitched to the public by one helluva believable news personality to demonstrate that the wool has been pulled over our eyes for years.  Forever for younger folks.  Once we free up all that taxpayer money, put it into a real network of HSR.

The professional politicians will never let this happen.

Some additional links: http://krcc.org/post/railroad-west-trinidad-freight-and-passenger-rail-are-linked
http://www.abqjournal.com/389258/news/santa-felamy-passenger-rail-trips-look-set-to-return.html
http://motherboard.vice.com/blog/the-us-oil-boom-is-putting-the-squeeze-on-amtrak
http://www.bizjournals.com/albuquerque/news/2014/04/22/nm-railroads-to-focus-on-freight-not-passengers.html?page=all


©2014 - C. A. Turek - mistertrains@gmail.com 


Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Please People!

This could have been a lot worse.



At least nobody was killed. I'll let you use your imagination what the injuries in the SUV could have been like.

As light rail, commuter rail, and passenger rail in general gets more and more popular, we need to get back some of the common sense that people had back when streetcars and frequent and fast passenger trains were the norm.

©2014 C. A. Turek - mistertrains@gmail.com

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Is HSR Possible in the US?

I haven't posted at the blog for a long time.  Maybe it's because I haven't found anything I like enough about the state of Passenger Rail in the United States to spend the time on.

Today I read this article.

http://www.ozy.com/fast-forward/the-high-speed-rail-system-america-needs/30518.article

It's one of the best, most comprehensive arguments I have read in favor of Hight Speed Rail (HSR), and probably one of the most realistic.  Please read ALL of the comments accompanying the article.  You can cull the good ones from the crackpots.  All these commentators are right on, and yet here we are, still jumping the same old hurdles.

HURDLE ONE:  Money.  This is a catch all for "we don't like HSR so we're just going to make it cost so much that you'll give up."  It's a political hurdle similar to Mr. Obama's vow to make coal burning plants so expensive that the power companies will just give up.  It doesn't have to cost so much.

So - the real hurdles are political.

HURDLE TWO:  It will only benefit the Northeast.  Yes.  In the short term.  But it's the best chance we've got of demonstrating the good HSR can do for the country.

HURDLE THREE:  It will displace a lot of people and take a lot of land off the tax rolls.  This is one and the same, if you think about it.  People never like to lose their homes or their land, but we've done it with Interstate highways, and we do it for things as mundane as shopping centers or low income housing.  Come on people!  Really?

HURDLE FOUR:  We don't know what form it should take.  That's a cop out.  Other countries have just jumped right in and rolled with the punches (mistakes).  How did we get so risk averse?  America should be able to design and build the absolute best HSR transport in the world - HSR that is truly American!

HURDLE FIVE:  It'll ruin the environment.  This is the fall-back for anyone who wants to oppose anything in this country.  Want to build a sidewalk?  There may be an Indian artifact under it!  Want to cut down a tree.  Heavens!  Logging should not be permitted as there might be a bird up there.  The environmentalists should embrace HSR, but collectively they won't.  When it comes right down to it, they'll throw up roadblocks just because they can.  It's about power, and we've given the real power away to the wackos and kooks for too long.

HURDLE SIX:  It won't make a profit.  I'll repeat my mantra again.  You can search it to see how many times I've said it before.  Passenger Rail does not make a profit anywhere in the world.  You can redefine profit, yes, so that some private enterprise comes out in the black after government subsidy.  What HSR will really do is reduce the need to tax people to provide that subsidy, spur nearby economic growth, and encourage travel for business and pleasure.  All good economic outcomes.

By having a balanced transportation policy, with all kinds of rail transport, including HSR, America can grow itself out of an economy in eternal recession and become a world leader in HSR.

The time for HSR is NOW!

©2014 - C. A. Turek - mistertrains@gmail.com

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Wherefore Art Thou (Or Wilt Thou Be) Southwest Chief?

The following is a comment posted on Trains Magazine newswire in response to [this article.]
I live in New Mexico and have been following the politics of railroads in the state for some time, and write an occasional blog on passenger rail.  It is supreme irony that, in order to keep Amtrak running through Albuquerque, we now have to fund maintenance on the track that Gov. Martinez effectively gave back to BNSF precisely because it would be too costly to maintain.  (I do not think a rerouted Southwest Chief would stop in Albuquerque.  Instead, the likely result of the reroute would be a stop in Belen, NM with bus--ugh!--service to Albuquerque.  Only if New Mexico Rail Runner gets involved could we expect an "all rail" ride from Albuquerque or Santa Fe.  That would be predicated on Amtrak actually making connections, as I would hate to have to wait hours at a Belen station.)  But back to the topic:  In all fairness, Gov. Richardson should never have entered into a deal to purchase the BNSF line from Albuquerque to Raton, but he was desperate for political points, had an open purse, and BNSF saw him coming a milepost away.  Rep. Gonzales has the right idea, though.  It's the best result coming out of a bad situation, and would be in line with Gov. Martinez's other so-called initiatives to garner more business and tourism.  The only good I could see coming from a reroute would be if New Mexico decided to fund a regional Amtrak route from Belen to Las Vegas, NM, or Raton (or jointly with Colorado to Denver) that would serve Santa Fe and NM Highlands University in Las Vegas.

(Photo by Drew Mitchem credit to Trains Magazine.)

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

PTC Redux - Or When The Knee Jerks

Don't you just love it when the establishment news media get their hands on a railroad story they know nothing about?  Grinding my fingernails down a chalkboard (a magical graphic device used in old-school classrooms, for  those of you in perpetual puberty) would be both more pleasant and more productive.

Four fatalities on a commuter train in New York, and many injuries, are certainly tragedies that apparently could have been avoided by the magic of Positive Train Control.  At least that's what NBC News decided when presenting this story early Monday morning on Today.  And, guess what, there is this technology called PTC that's established fact.  I can't quote the story directly right now, because I can't find a transcript on the Net, but it went something like, "There is technology that could have prevented the accident."  Really?!!!

So the railroads that have spent upwards of 9 figures, if not 10, trying to implement this "existing technology" are just throwing away their money trying to design and build systems that they could have gone to NBC and purchased "out of the box" to comply with Congress' arbitrary deadline?  Apparently, railroads are so stodgy and unfeeling toward the victims of such tragedies that they would lie a thousandfold just to keep from having to implement something so simple and so extant that it should have been done yesterday.  If only those railroads would stop concentrating on being the most fuel efficient from of transportation on the face of the planet, pound for pound and passenger for passenger, and start concentrating on what's really important!

Fact is this:  If Congress had de-regulated the implementation of PTC in a similar way that they de-regulated the railroads thirty years ago--that is, remove all government regulations as far as placement and testing, bandwidth, radio frequencies, environment, etc.-- then PTC "would" be working today!

Fact is this:  PTC only existed as a concept on the engineering drawing boards when Congress got involved, functional only in test situations on very short segments of track.

Fact is this:  There IS technology that dates back to the first half of the 20th century called Automatic Train Stop.  Lots of railroads have it, but its based on switches and relays and brute force mechanical systems that Congress doesn't understand.  Oh, wait!  They don't understand what it is taking to implement PTC, either.  Furthermore, it's not fun for Congress to mandate something that already exists.

My guess:  This latest tragedy can be blamed on technology--but probably not on the lack of it.  Check your text messages while running a train, anyone?

©2013 - C. A. Turek - mistertrains@gmail.com

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Does the Left Hand Know?

As I write this, several things are going on with railroads that can be lumped under the tentative heading: Government Intervention.  Two of these things will affect Passenger Rail.  One has grown out of what I believe to have been a sincere desire on the part of some in government to improve Passenger Rail safety.

Let's talk about that one first.  Just days after the 2008 collision of a Metrolink commuter train with a Union Pacific freight near Chatsworth, California, the government mandated that PTC be in place on something like 60 thousand miles of railroad by 2015.  PTC is Positive Train Control, a collision avoidance system that, on the surface and to Congressmen, appears like a simple concept.  So not only did they mandate this system and set a somewhat arbitrary deadline, but they told the railroads that they'd have to pay for it.  No federal budget item for PTC!

As an aside, let me note that Congress is seldom anything but superficial when it comes to passing laws, especially if those laws mandate an end result that will require anything of a highly technical nature to get to the result.  This bunch knows what they want and when they want it, and you, by cracky, had better get it done! (See Affordable Healthcare Act)

Getting back to my point, some "parts" of government are starting to understand that PTC isn't going to happen; at least not without some more hefty Government Intervention.  The price tag is already on the fancy side of the tracks of $5 billion--with a B.  If you stop and use your head, you're going to realize that this is nothing like an aircraft collision avoidance system.  For one thing, with the mass of railroad trains being in the neighborhood of millions--with an M--of tons, radar just can't stop a moving train by the time it's close enough on the ground to be seen on radar.  This has to be a digital radio--wireless--system that depends on computers on the ground, in centralized locations, and on board every train, as well as the global positioning system, communicating at all times and in all locations.  ON THE GROUND!  (What if those satellites get too old?  Stay tuned.)  And it has to be overlaid on existing signal systems, at least to begin with, or the costs triple or more.

So now the railroads want to build radio towers for all these wireless signals along their rights of way.  But wait . . . doesn't the FCC have to approve them?  U-betcha!  Not that the FCC can't ramp up, but they're getting into the game way late; they just realized it.  So no towers are going up.  Then there's . . . I bet you think I'm going to rag on the Environmentalists . . . you'd be wrong.  Something called the National Historic Preservation act gives the Indian nations the right to inspect every site for possible Indian artifacts.  So call out the brigades of Native American inspectors, you say?  At current estimates and rates of inspection by qualified tribal personnel, this is going to take 50 years--with a Y.  Thank Congress for thinking things through!  (Not to be crude, but here goes:  Most of Congress thinks a global position is something ENTIRELY different.)

Then there's the clamoring in Congress for somebody to re-regulate freight rates for those shippers who feel overcharged or under served.  Congress, in it's infinite inability to think things through, will probably do it, forgetting that before deregulation of the railroads there was the distinct possibility that 2013 would not SEE any private railroads running in America.  Perhaps that's the goal.  In any case, imposing higher cost or lower profitability on freight railroads will make it harder for passenger systems to negotiate track use and dispatching, and possibly cause the freight railroads to cross their legs and refuse any and all intercourse with passenger systems.  Between this and the PTC fiasco, on which the bigger railroads have already spent a wad of cash, the butt cheeks of the railroads are tight enough to hold up those transmitter poles all by themselves.

© 2013 - C. A. Turek - mistertrains@gmail.com