Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Train Isn't Running Yet - And Thanks For Noticing

(Also published in The Albuquerque Journal, January 17, 2006)

As a ten-year resident of Albuquerque who previously lived in the Chicago Area where commuter rail is a way of life, and as an amateur rail historian, I find Albuquerque’s and New Mexico’s entry into the commuter rail business both frustrating and laughable.

Let me first make it clear that I am a staunch supporter of passenger rail as one of the few viable transportation modes of the future. Gov. Richardson and the Mid-Region Council of Governments should be praised for taking a courageous move into the railroad business.

That we are now seeing missteps that will probably take the start of this service well into 2006, and perhaps into 2007, does not surprise anyone familiar with commuter services in other cities. Even Chicago’s Metra, an agency that started with an already functioning system of commuter railroads, is ill equipped to accomplish a new-service startup in so short a time.

Why compare Albuquerque with a metropolitan area the size of Chicago’s? The answer is that Metra, the commuter rail agency in Chicago, has to run many of its trains on tracks owned and operated by BNSF Railway. In order to do so, it has to negotiate contracts with BNSF that necessarily include all of the elements of such operating agreements or purchase agreements that we have to deal with here in New Mexico.

The people at BNSF are no dummies. They have years of experience in getting what they want and need from commuter rail agencies. And no freight railroad today “needs” to have passenger trains. BNSF appears to have seen New Mexico taxpayers coming with their wallets unzipped. They have sold – or tried to sell us a line that doesn’t mean very much to their traffic structure. It is a line they would have considered putting in mothballs if they didn’t have to use it to run Amtrak twice a day to keep the Southwest Chief off their “transcon” through Clovis. That may tell us something about its condition. And now they have asked us to indemnify them from their own negligence if something goes wrong.

For 2006, Metra budgets $1,276,081 for insurance claims and risk management for the BNSF Railway. These figures are only for BNSF lines and come from Metra’s published 2006 budget. Their total projected revenue from trains operating over BNSF lines is $42,765,965. This works out to somewhere around three percent of revenue. By contrast, BNSF is seeking $200 million in coverage and a bonded indemnity of $50 million from New Mexico. The Mid-Region Council of Government has not published any revenue projections that I have seen. However, there are those who believe that the cost of $250 million in liability coverage for the State or MRCOG is in the neighborhood of the same $1.2M that Metra has budgeted for a $42.7M revenue operation. Even at what could probably be a prohibitively high fare of $4.00, New Mexico’s operation would have to hit 10.8 million riders the first year for this kind of liability expenditure to even begin to make sense.

The proposed outright purchase of the line from BNSF raises a number of other troubling questions that I think should be asked soon and in a public forum. Some of these questions are: In what condition is the line from Belen to Raton? Does anyone realize that the line above Lamy is mountain railroad with relatively slow running and high maintenance costs? Does anyone realize that none of the line being purchased can be used to get into Santa Fe? How much will have to be paid to Herzog Transit Services, the contractor that MRCOG has hired for maintenance of way? How has Herzog performed in meeting its obligations under contracts with other commuter agencies? Will Herzog be maintaining the stations? What about the new station in Albuquerque? What is happening to the equipment already on the property? Has the manufacturer extended warranty expirations to account for the delay in implementation of service? Rail technology is changing a mile a minute, so who will pay for needed upgrades in hardware and software when the equipment is finally operational?

Because I know the answers to some of these questions, my opinion is that many citizens will not like the answers. Putting all our rail money into Rail Runner and leaving Amtrak passengers to use our Amshack, for example, is simply the tip of the iceberg of bad planning.

I strongly hope that such problems can be efficiently addressed in a public forum and that passenger rail can take its necessary place in balanced public transportation for the region. Until then, it seems, Rail Runner will continue to frustrate me and make me laugh out loud.

© 2006 – C. A. Turek –

Friday, November 25, 2005

Raise Your Hand If You Don't Get It

Before I go off on the rant that I’d planned for this entry, let me just take you to this article. It caught my attention, because it is just further evidence of the strange and wonderful phenomenon that is taking place in the heartland. I am referring to common sense and practicality, two commodities that had become almost completely missing during the Clinton years and that promised to be relegated to obscurity as debates over the War on Terror heated up.

Here we have a passenger rail entity that, by almost every account, does everything wrong. Even though most of the beautiful people of Iowa know that Amtrak (reportedly) does everything wrong, they are willing to patronize it more than ever before. Some probably did it because it made common sense to ride the train. (High gas prices and crowded highways, bankrupt airlines, body cavity searches of Grandma and Grandpa Terrorist) Others probably did it because it was practical. (The station was right down the street and Uncle Wormy was going to pick them up at Union Station and drive them to his place.) I would bet that another bunch of the extra 7000 riders did it because of both common sense and practicality and also because they started to realize that the Federal Government has put Amtrak on a downward slide and they may never get the chance again.

My rant for today was going to be on one of two other subjects, and I won’t have time for them both. So I will cover how Bill Richardson is screwing up commuter rail for New Mexico in my next blog.

The remaining subject is how quickly “old media” is ready to condemn the passenger railroad for something it didn’t do. Read the recent articles in the Chicago Tribune, such as this one. This article was written after some common sense people started looking at the cause of this accident. But when it had just happened, all the wire services were reporting that the train’s engineer was being questioned for purposes of determining “human error.” Except this time, the human error was with the dunderheads that pulled out over a well-marked, warning-posted busy commuter line and stopped in traffic. What part of “long crossing, do not stop on tracks” didn’t they understand?

© 2005 - C. A. Turek -

Monday, November 21, 2005

It's My Blog!

I can be biased if I want to be. It’s my blog, after all, and in my little corner of the Internet, I can say what I want. (Subject, of course, to the rules and regulations of this wonderful host that, through its infinite grace, allows my blog to stay on the Web—followed by giant sucking sound.)

I don’t have to present the other side of the Amtrak Board Fires David Gunn Story. But here it is, from about as Conservative a source as you can get. Please read this article.

If you have read far enough into this article, you will find that it begs the question:

Does A Conservative Have a Heart?

The author of the article makes a pretty good argument about why Mr. Gunn should have been fired, and then he buries the rest of his article in the statistics of telling Mr. Gunn what he should have done.

I agree. Cutting sleeping cars and diners from the trains would have saved a lot of money. Or would it?

Passenger trains are more than cold, hard, money-losing transportation machines. Passenger trains have an emotional life. They have a historical life, and a tradition. They are a culture unto themselves. And if you strip out the heart and soul of the long-distance passenger train, you may as well be riding in a commuter coach on a one-hour ride to your high-rise office in the city.

Nobody will want to ride them, but maybe that’s what the Bush administration wants.

There are certain things that the passenger train must retain. Starting with reasonable comfort and reasonable timeliness, the list also includes food and beverage service, sleepers, the service of a fine hotel, and the conveniences of everyday life (morning paper, a midnight snack, etc.). To bring the passenger train into this century, perhaps we also need wireless Internet and satellite radio, but these new things aren’t part of the heart and soul. (By the way, I would draw the line at Dish Network, even for the 21st Century list.)

I don’t know if passenger trains will ever be as good as they were “back in the day.” I don’t know if anything will. Our quality of life seems to have peaked sometime in the last century. (I’m sure that about 30,000 GM workers will agree with that statement.)

But I do know that only a political conservative without a heart could strip off the diners and the sleepers and still think he was riding “a train.” Let’s crunch whatever numbers are necessary to get long-distance passengers back on the railroad, but let’s not gore the heart and soul out of the passenger train.

©2005 - C. A. Turek -

Monday, November 14, 2005

That's Just Peachy!

That’s just peachy.  See this article.

The Amtrak board of Bush sycophants has fired David Gunn, and thereby has decapitated the dying patient in the presumed interest of saving the organs.  That’s all that will be left when they get done, the organs will be sold to the highest bidder or apportioned among those states that may still want a remnant of intercity passenger rail.

Poor Mr. Gunn.  In this writer’s humble opinion, though possibly sometimes the most infuriating president that Amtrak has ever had, he is the single most experienced and capable president Amtrak has ever had.  And he “slowed the pace of change,” the stated reason for his dismissal, because he recognized that it was the only way to accomplish what needed to be done in terms of preserving any realistic system.  

Mr. Gunn had Amtrak on the road to financial stability.  This infuriated the Bush Administration and Amtrak’s so-called board, because they wanted him to fail at this task.  They saw him as the last of the breed and the highly-experienced scapegoat for the agency’s ultimate collapse.  Instead he became—what appeared to most of us interested in intercity passenger rail—a savior.  

Perhaps the board will hire New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who is doing a bang-up job of getting New Mexico back on passenger rail by letting us all watch the equipment stand idle near the abandoned Santa Fe shops in Albuquerque.  If he decides to park the equipment from the Southwest Chief there, I, for one, won’t watch it.  

Write your representative.  Write your Senators.  Legislation is the only thing that is going to stop this slide into oblivion that will make the United States the only major industrialized nation that does not have nationwide intercity rail passenger service.  

© 2005 – C. A. Turek –

Saturday, October 29, 2005

What Kind of Crud Is This?

As if my dander hasn’t been up enough this week, I have to come across this article which appeared on line in DelawareOnline The News Journal.

The article is pretty critical of Amtrak’s board, so I don’t have to say much more.

It seems like the attitude is pretty much coming to, “Let’s dump the property and get out before something really bad happens.” Well, it has already happened. One day, if things go as they continue to go today, this country (United States) will have no national passenger rail service. Then the traveling public can sink or swim with the buses (eeeyuch!), the airlines (worse!) and the highways (getting worse all the time.)

© 2005 – C. A. Turek –

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Tell Me, People

Tell me that people don’t want to ride Amtrak. Tell me that people don’t want passenger rail.

Travel Industry Wire reports in this article of Sunday, October 23, 2005, that Amtrak again beat its previous fiscal year’s ridership. That fact alone should tell some of the ostrich legislators on both sides of the aisle that people will use Amtrak when Amtrak has the routes, scheduling and fare structure that could be created by proper federal government support.

Note to all Senate and House Dunderheads: Amtrak could be another Conrail, if you let it. Remember Conrail? That was the freight railroad system consisting of nothing but money-losing, bankrupt northeastern railroads. The Dunderheads of a previous generation recognized, to their credit, that America would not be better off without these railroads and their money-losing ways. Congress poured a ton of tax dollars into the system, but it eventually became self-supporting, profitable, and eventually an independent, stockholder-owned corporation.

Perhaps we need legislators that can see beyond the next election cycle. Maybe we need more people to speak up. Write your Representative.

© 2005 – C. A. Turek –

Saturday, October 15, 2005

November Trains

This writer recently received his November issue of Trains magazine. It was late, probably because it is the 65th Anniversary issue, and some might say because it is getting to be more like its subject. (That is a cheap shot, but perhaps a valid one. Ages aren’t listed in the masthead, but we would suspect that the only writer on the masthead that still remembers when ‘on time’ and ‘on schedule’ were the norms for American railroads is Don Phillips. The fact that he now lives in Europe helps him remember this.)

We didn’t start out to make this blog about being late. What got us lathered up are the letters from readers published in the Railway Post Office segment – specifically, the letters about an article in the September issue that outlined the politics of Amtrak and American passenger rail in general. This wasn’t necessarily an article flattering to Amtrak or to government. (We apologize that there are no direct links to this article available, so you may have to buy the magazine.)

But the editor in charge of RPO chose to print a letter from a Karl Spencer of Clovis, NM. We respect the opinions of readers. This writer wishes that magazines and newspapers would just post all of them on the internet and let readers plod through them. In limited space, however, an editor should decide to publish only those letters with something of worth to contribute to the argument.

Mr. Spencer’s letter contributes little on its surface.

This Trains reader is trying to argue against government funding of long distance passenger rail, but says he has no problem with federal funding as long as passenger rail is a “public service.” We think he is trying to point out that Amtrak does not serve enough of the traveling public in its present configuration. But he doesn’t say that. What he says is that only those citizens who live in heavily populated corridors should be entitled to this service at the expense of the government. The rest of us should be hanged. He would rather fly – flying from Clovis to anywhere is, in our opinion, at least as difficult as just flapping your arms – or drive. Driving Clovis to Albuquerque so he can catch his plane to Chicago is over a 2-hour drive only partly on the freeways. What the heck is he talking about? Maybe he can sleep on a plane, but this blogger finds it difficult to do anything on a plane but worry whether the guy at the controls is awake! (We have a pilot's license, and too much knowledge is a bad thing.)

An integrated transportation plan would see passenger rail available from Clovis through Belen to Albuquerque. Clovis is on the Belen Cutoff of the old Santa Fe, and there is no reason why not, in the future.

However, if we get dunderhead legislators that think a change of airplanes at O’Hare, Chicago, is a walk in the park, as does Mr. Spencer, then there is no hope.

And by the way, Mr. Spencer, the only reason Amtrak serves only a small percentage of the traveling public is that Congress has always wanted it that way. They have never given Amtrak enough funding to serve a greater percentage.

Perhaps the editors at Trains did publish Mr. Spencer's letter just so that more of us would see the idiocy of arguing against Amtrak (Mr. Bush please read). We would like to think so.

©2005 – C. A. Turek –

Sunday, October 02, 2005


If you would like to be inspired and have your mood concerning passenger rail transportation lifted to the point where you absolutely hanker for the experience and wish it would happen on a daily basis, read this article form the Scranton Times-Tribune by way of zwire.

Imagine having this kind of option for intercity travel on a daily basis.

More soon.

© C. A. Turek -

Monday, September 26, 2005

Can. You Beat That?

Business Edge, a Canadian business news magazine publishing online reports in their September 15, 2005, issue that Bert Titcomb is the national manager for a Canadian advocacy group called Transport 2000. Seems they may have been around since before the millennium rolled over, but in any case, they advocate environmentally responsible transportation policy and bemoan the lack of train service to some small Canadian cities and towns.

Please read Bert’s comments at this link. Then tell me if you believe that there can be someone like Bert in another country on the face of this planet that thinks Amtrak is getting any real support from the U.S. Government.

That’s a laugh. Even when Congress or the DOT appear to be supportive, they are just using Amtrak support as a political football and will yank it away like Lucy Brown when Amtrak Charlie (read: Amtrak management) comes running up to score the field goal.

Canadians tend to see the United States in a more objective light than Americans, so there is something to be worried about here. There are too many citizens that think Amtrak and passenger rail in general is getting a good deal from the government. Amtrak has to do something to disabuse everyone of this opinion. Amtrak needs to show the public what could be done with adequate funding, and let the public know that it is there – and not just there when there happens to be a heavy truck or a suicidal motorist on the tracks in front of it.

© C. A. Turek –

Friday, September 23, 2005

Example of Adequate Funding

Railway Age is reporting that Trinity Railway Express has proven that passenger rail works by carrying evacuees out of Houston. This is what we advocate. Our passenger rail system, including Amtrak and all so-called commuter routes have enough redundancy that they can spare equipment to use in the case of emergency, as we have here.

That's all for today.

© 2005 C. A. Turek -

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Passenger Rail Strikes Again

Once again, a grade crossing accident delays the train. This time, at the grade crossing at Osuna Road in Albuquerque, which is north of the Amtrak station on the Raton Pass route of the old Santa Fe.

This just happened. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to note that this is a lightly traveled line and that the Southwest Chief is probably the fastest thing on it. People don't expect that zooming streamliner because more than half the people in Albuquerque probably don't know they have train service. Amtrak doesn't do its advertising job.

And New Mexico's Railrunner appears to be stalled in the starting gate. But it will be using the same line. A few grade crossing accidents with the new and sparse equipment, almost as sparse as Amtrak, will be fatal to the budget.

Passenger rail needs to be funded realistically by any government concerned. And there needs to be enough equipment to account for accidents (and maybe even to assist in major evacuations such as that going on as we write this in the Galveston and Houston areas.)

© 2005 C. A. Turek -

Friday, September 09, 2005

Has Anyone Heard About Amtrak?

Has Anyone Heard About Amtrak?

Amtrak, as the self-appointed national representative of passenger rail services, and through mouthpiece David Gunn, speaks out of both sides of its mouth.

At the end of last week, Amtrak was announcing fare increases of as much as 50% to cover fuel costs.  Yesterday, Mr. Gunn advised that now was the time to act on making Amtrak a viable alternative to using all those gas-guzzling SUVs.  I have just done the math.  With an SUV that gets only 15 mpg on the highway, it is still cheaper to take the SUV from Chicago to Albuquerque (1,350 miles) than to take Amtrak.

I have done a little creative accounting like the railroads have been doing with passenger rail for years.  I have called the cost of owning the SUV a fixed cost, because if you already own it you have to pay for all the things like repairs and insurance anyway.  So the trip is an incremental cost that exists only if you run the vehicle.  This is just like the railroad calling maintenance of way a fixed cost while fuel for the locomotive is an incremental cost.

So it costs $265.50 in gas for the SUV to take 5 passengers in relative comfort at today’s $2.95/gal for regular.  The latest fare from Amtrak for the same 5 passengers in coach seats is $645.00.  

But you can sleep on the train, you say?  Not well in a coach seat.  But let’s say that you spring for a hotel instead of driving the old SUV for 20 to 25 hours.  Even then, there are rates in decent hotels that get all 5 people in for under $100 plus tax.  (The train figures don’t include tax either.)

Mr. Gunn, you have a long way to go on this one.

And has anybody heard of Amtrak moving out refugees (evacuees) by rail from New Orleans or anywhere else on the Gulf of Mexico?  We would like to know.

©2005 C. A. Turek –

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Getting The Darned Thing Right

This is it! This is exactly what I'm talking about! We are now in the midst of a disaster of national proportions, and passenger rail could not be there to help.

I got so p----- o-- at Amtrak management, that I figured I would never use this blog again. Just quietly let the server strike it from the records whenever it got around to noticing that I wasn't active.

But now is the time to speak. Being a compassionate conservative, I cannot help but point out that if national passenger rail had been funded to a level adequate for national interest, there would have been a pool of passenger railroad equipment that could have been rolled into New Orleans and/or the rest of the expected strike area for Katrina and the inherent efficiencies of rail would have gotten a lot of people out of the area faster, cleaner, and at less cost than any other form of transportation for evacuation.

Heck, we moved hundreds of thousands of soldiers by rail during WWII and did it fast! And there is no reason we couldn't do the same for civilian evacuations. That is, unless it is because passenger rail in this country has been truncated to the point of being useless by a simple minded Congress and a President that fails to see the value of a truly national system over a state-by-state piecemeal system.

Sure railroads want to get their equipment out of the storm's way, but we had a lot of warning with this one. So write and tell the President and his ineffective Secretary of Transportation that they should get in line to take some of the blame through this channel, too.

©2005 by C. A. Turek -

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

A Non-Scheduled Stop - Amtrak Shoots Its Foot Again

We know that Amtrak has its problems, but when it comes to the Acela trainsets, it just makes one wonder why those of us who are pro-Amtrak funding don't just give up. The one component of Amtrak that probably will get full federal funding is kaput.

We suggest that you read the following link to understand the latest of the many problems besetting the Acela trains.

One wonders: Is this a conspiracy of the French and Canadians to make us look Just Plain Stupid? Acela? Acceleration and excellence? It's more like "access limited and expensive failures." Is there a qualified mechanical, materials, or design engineer anywhere at Amtrak? Did they just take Bombardier's word for it? Thank God none of these failures has resulted in a fatality. Why, oh why, do we bother?

In future blogs, we hope to regain enough composure to answer the last question. For now, and if we were an MC or a Senator, we would be asking for Amtrak's head on a cracked brake rotor!


Friday, April 15, 2005

Funding and The Great Lie - Blogging the DOT

Finally, the Bush Administration is doing something right about Amtrak.

Please follow this link to read the press release on the Passenger Rail Investment Reform Act.


Thursday, April 14, 2005

Funding and The Great Lie - Airing the Other Side

Out of fairness to the other side of the story, I would like to give any reader an opportunity to read my son's blog. You can find it at

More posts soon.

Please blog this, email, or just comment.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Funding and The Great Lie - Part 5 - Consequences

There's no business like show business, and railroading. Passenger railroading has always been a little bit of both. This fact is particularly true of long distance passenger railroading since the Great Depression and of commuter railroading after 1950. In future articles, I would like to demonstrate how "doing a little sidestep" is a dance peculiar to passenger railroading. However, in the blogs just preceding this one, we have brought the reader to the point in time where federal funding for Amtrak is completely gone and where the system has shut down, with the probable exception of some areas of the country where the service is more vital to the smooth flow of daily transport. We took a one-blog time out to bring you some up-to-date news on funding to which nobody paid any attention. (Come on, folks! Blog me!)

There is little to no proof that the transportation system of the United States would suffer any great or even noticeable handicap with the loss of Amtrak. There is no proof that it wouldn't, either. It is all statistics and speculation. On the one hand, passengers trains have been withdrawn from many, many areas of the country in the past 50 years, and those areas are doing just fine. Or are they?

On the other hand, many areas where passenger trains have been withdrawn now have them, either in a locally subsidized or commuter form. And more are going to get them. There are areas where there is a recognition of some of the things I am going to say below. A not-so-perfect example is Albuquerque, New Mexico, where they are going to have a train from Belen (45 miles south) to Bernalillo (10 miles north), and eventually to Santa Fe (now about 60 road miles north). There used to be Santa Fe service on this same route from El Paso, Texas, on the south, to Santa Fe. The local governments are starting to realize the price paid in highway costs, pollution, lost productivity, and restricted development, by the absence of the passenger train.

There have always been consequences for the withdrawal of rail service. Highway costs and vehicle pollution are just the most obvious. Small towns withered and passengers chose the private passenger automobile. Trucking has grown beyond the capacity of the Interstate Highway System (another government subsidy for transportation), and the growth of trucking was in part spurred by the withdrawal of passenger rail before and during Amtrak enhanced by business decisions made by Amtrak on what they could and could not carry on a passenger train.

How? Passenger trains used to carry the mails. This was an extremely efficient deal for the post office, but it was part of a losing proposition for the railroads that, pre-Amtrak, wanted to lose the passenger train that - I have said this before - NEVER MADE MONEY, EVER! The mails went to truck, the trucks got sloppy with service, UPS and Fed Ex came in and took up the slack. More trucks. Amtrak tried and failed to make money on carrying the mails again, putting even more trucks on the roads and on dedicated intermodal trains that currently clog the remaining freight railroads.

Consequence: If you get on an Interstate in your SUV, even in the most remote part of the country, you have to deal with heavy trucks. More of them every year, and no end in sight. The buses have to deal with them, too. With no Amtrak, your only other alternative is to take off your shoes and get in line at the airport security check.

Incidental to all this, the airlines are just about where the railroads were with passenger rail just before Amtrak. They can't make money at it. But unlike the railroads, they have already used up their subsidy from the government. The airports, terminals, airway system, control towers, and regional traffic control centers. They are all federal government owned and operated. Cry for the airlines, as they have found that the only thing they can do is reduce service and drive the customers away, or onto the highways. I do not think we can build, or afford to build, highways fast enough, or to maintain them.

Consequence: For the sake of argument, let's say there is a day in the future when we are all out on the road bucking the truckers and the airways are full of money-losing airplanes and the buses are tootling along the roadways that are left in condition to take them with their busloads of passengers who can't drive and won't fly, and with their toilets overflowing. We suffer a national disaster at that moment.

It is not unfair to argue that any disaster half of September 11, 2001, or beyond would result in the grounding of commercial passenger fights.

Let me then ask this question: How does one get from, say, Las Vegas, New Mexico, to Buffalo, New York? (Both cities are on Amtrak routes now.)

Next time: The Start of The Dance

Please blog this blog or send questions or comments to


Friday, March 18, 2005

Funding and The Great Lie - Time Out to Blog The Media

In the Chicago Tribune of March 17, 2005, Tribune reporter Rudolph Bush (we suspect no relative of our two presidents) writes about the senate blocking an additional $1 billion to fund Amtrak. He reports further on how this is a blow to those hoping to cripple the administration's efforts to zero out Amtrak funding. He also quotes a former Amtrak chairman as saying that zero is not an option because zero leads to bankruptcy.

The administration wants to see states fund intercity rail, and wants it done sooner rather than later. Reporter Bush also notes that this may be a good start in getting Congress to seriously consider the shape for Amtrak in the future.

Finally, the article also reveals that even the Bush Administration is reluctant to zero completely, recognizing that the Northeast Corridor, already a huge investment in taxpayer money, cannot exist or function without federal subsidy. (Could this possibly be read that they also know there are too many votes in the densely populated northeast to screw around with, even in a second-term administration?)

Then, today, the Albuquerque Journal carried an editorial by David Broder of the Washington Post Writers Group. (Disclaimer: Washington Post = Not Our Favorite Newspaper but Albuquerque Journal = OK) This editorial, while having nothing whatsoever to do with Amtrak, talks about the many unfunded mandates already imposed by the federal government on the states. He also talks about the 1995 Unfunded Mandates Reform Act.

We argue that zeroing out Amtrak funding is just another form of unfunded mandate, with the states having their arms twisted by the extortive "fund or lose service" proposition that the administration has to offer. Can we get our esteemed Senators and Representatives to believe that the UMRA applies to any law reducing Amtrak funding to zero?

Maybe Amtrak funding is not in as much trouble as it seems - if we can just get some creative thinking in Congress.

Please feel free to comment and or send your thoughts or questions to


Monday, March 14, 2005

Funding and The Great Lie – The System Shuts Down

Right now, Amtrak, the national passenger railroad system (motto: serving mostly the Northeast), is operating on a budget roughly $600 million short of what it needs just to remain in a “state of good repair.” The latter is Amtrak’s phrase, not mine. The Bush Administration has let it be known that it does not want Amtrak federally funded beyond the current fiscal year. This series of blog articles has focused first on our opinion that there is an inherent Great Lie in the operation of passenger railroads in the United States, and second on what will happen if federal funding is fully withdrawn from Amtrak.

We noted in the last blog – see March 6 – that at first nothing would happen. The point was that funding would be withdrawn in the middle of a fiscal year and everyone would probably get over it by the time the next fiscal year started. The first visible reaction, reported in Trains, April 2005, was to discontinue the purchase of DMU trainsets and the pole replacements needed to maintain and upgrade the electrical system – power for trains – for Northeast Corridor right of way.

Transportation systems of different kinds react differently to shortages or outright lacks of funds. Passenger railroading is still government regulated to a far greater extent that freight railroading. Notice that I said regulated, not subsidized. Traditional government regulation for railroads covered everything from how much railroads could charge their customers to how they could account for it. Non-traditional regulation began with subsidization. The budget process from the local level up to the federal level controls what passenger railroading can and cannot do.

The managements of subsidized transportation systems reacts to shortages of funds and shortfalls that may be made up in the next fiscal year by cutting services and processes that can be done without for a short time and that can be reinstated when the government (local, state, federal) comes up with more loot. What management has done with the Amtrak shortfall is a good example.

What management will have to do if federal funds disappear completely is different. First, management of Amtrak will have to strongly lobby state and local governments for funding to continue service through those areas that now help support Amtrak trains or say they want to. This is what President Bush wants them to do.

Second, Amtrak management will have to take a long, hard look at what they can do to preserve assets in the event of a shutdown. They will have a fiduciary duty to make the property, both track and rolling stock, worth as much as possible in the event of liquidation. This will lead to certain decisions to curtail service in the areas where state supported trains are not on the horizon and where maintenance costs are high and there is a higher risk of wrecking the assets or rendering them valueless. An example of the latter would be in areas where freight railroads have deferred maintenance on Amtrak routes.

Finally, when the last of the federal money is gone, management will have to get all the trains home and shut down the system anywhere that state and local funding hasn’t kicked in. In my opinion, that will be everywhere except the Northeast Corridor, Pacific Coast, and possible Chicago trains (Kansas City, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, maybe Minneapolis).

My readers will notice that I have not said anything about management deciding to raise fares to cover lost funding. They won’t, because they know that passenger railroading has never been able to cover its costs and probably never will. That fact is part of The Great Lie.

However, before we get into the History of The Great Lie, we will cover the Consequences of the Shut Down. Please stay subscribed or return often for our next blog.

(Please send questions or comments to © 2005

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Funding and The Great Lie Part 2 - The Great Mistake

Congress Denies Funding for Amtrak.

What will happen to passenger rail? The answer is nothing - at first. And this is one of the reasons why Congress and President Bush just might get away with it before anyone even notices.

Funding for many government programs is installed far in advance of the need for funds, or for the expenditures of those funds. This works something like when the price of oil goes up on the spot market and every gas station in town prices regular for ten cents more a gallon. The price that changes today doesn't immediately effect the actual cost of the gas you pump, but everyone connected with the industry feels the need to act as though a price change for crude oil has to be placed before the public in a way that will make the public notice.

There are two ways, then, that Amtrak could deal with a loss of funding. In the first way, the management of Amtrak starts to act like the damnfools (in our opinion) that run the gasoline industry and begins immediately to shut things down. But we predict that, for many, many political reasons, the management of Amtrak will act in the second way. That is, they will continue to run on in the current format until the money is used up. This could take months, and with the support of Congress in the way of Emergency Funding (read: Shut Up and Stop Whining and We Will Give You Some), even years.

We predict that the second way will prevail. Among the political reasons are that nobody who cuts Amtrak funding, including a Republican President, wants to be blamed when the sacred trains disappear. They hope the public forgets about it by the time they do.

God help us if the system starts to shut down at about the same time some jihadist decides to take another whack at the country.

Next time: The System Shuts Down (Please send questions or comments to © 2005

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Funding and The Great Lie

We intend to write about the great resurgence and demise of passenger railroads and passenger railroading in the United States.

If you are a liberal and making the connection between President Dubya and words in the title - forget it! The Great Lie in passenger railroading was told and continues to be told by a great many other politicians than George W. Bush. In fact, it has its roots in what passenger railroading was and had become as early as the 1950s. We only think it bears a dialogue now as another conservative president (Reagan was another) tries to zero out Amtrak funding.

If you are a conservative and starting to get a bee in your bonnet that this writer must be a railfan or some kind of "foamer" and that the only reason our slant appears to be in favor of Passenger Rail is to force the average taxpayer to pay for us to ride our silly trains, then you may be on to something. But trains aren't silly. They are a vital part of the enconomic fabric of this country, for both freight and passengers, and therin is another part of The Great Lie.

By the way, the slant of this blog is towards the right of the political blogosphere and heavily towards the preservation of passenger rail. But we hope to make our arguments persuasive; and pray most fervently (Oh, horrors! Virginia, we are also believers in the Christian God) that our reasoning will be heard by our elected representatives and elsewhere such that our nation does not turn The Great Lie into The Great Mistake.

But there is also some urgency, and we can't tell how much time we will have to post to this blog, so we are going to start at the ending. Our next post will tell you about The Great Mistake.

We invite you to email the writer at For your homework, pick up a copy of Trains Magazine or Railway Age Magazine. Then read it. ©2005