Sunday, December 31, 2006


As some readers of this blog know and others are about to learn, we are based in Albuquerque, NM. That wouldn't mean much, except that we have just been through the worst snowstorm to hit Albuquerque in about 50 years. (Records from 1959 were broken.)

In 1959, Albuquerque was served (well) by the Santa Fe and its generally reliable passenger schedule. Some of the great trains called at Albuquerque, and there were doodlebugs to El Paso, Amarillo and Santa Fe, with connections to the still operating Colorado narrow gauge system. History does not record how late the trains ran then, and it probably won't record how late they are running today.

But we will bet that they were not as late as Amtrak.

We don't exactly understand why Amtrak trains get as late as they get in snow. (As we write this, the eastbound California Zephyr, which is having to travel through the same snowstorm now in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa, is running over 8 hours late. Amtrak's Web site is reporting a "service disruption" for the Southwest Chief through Albuquerque, so who knows!) The basic technology is the same as 1959: Diesel electric locomotives pulling stainless steel passenger cars which are self-sufficient for some functions and which depend on the locomotive for others. Even the high-level concept was already in operation.

Part of it, we are sure, has to do with the freight railroads and with the record volumes of rail freight being carried. Not only will the freight railroads tend to give money-making freight priority, but they will have to have more maintenance windows as the freights wear out the track faster than ever.

Another part of it, we are also sure, is the management of Amtrak and the general attitude that it no longer matters if anything is on schedule. The attitude that things are just too complex and it is all right if we get off schedule so long as we have a reasonable excuse, like snow.

In 1959, railroaders of all seniorities were, we are just as sure, called on the carpet for any delay at all.

Given the history of railroading in this country, and the history of railroads getting the passengers and mail through in all kinds of weather, Passenger Rail should be the transportation mode of choice in bad weather. It's not, but it should be.

Times change and commerce suffers if the free flow of goods is impeded. Commerce and something more abstract suffers, however, when the free flow of American travel is impeded. This nation was built on the free flow of goods and people, and something happens to the American psyche when goods become more important than people.

We hope that, in the New Year, the new congress finds a way to enable Amtrak or some form of national Passenger Rail to become what Passenger Rail should be.

May God bless us all with a Happy and Prosperous New Year!

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Sunday, December 24, 2006

End of Year Report

Several thoughts - not the least of which is we have reached nearly the end of another year and the situation with Amtrak has not really improved.

As always, there are signs of imminent change and signs of imminent disaster. And you wouldn't be able to tell which sign Mister Trains thinks points which way.

Yesterday's TV news brought a video bite of a delayed air passenger in Denver who thought, with flights grounded, that there may be some way to get from Denver to Albuquerque by rail. There should be, but there isn't, and probably won't be for at least a decade. (If it happens sooner than that, we will gladly eat our words.)

The potential rail traveler looking for a train is a bad thing - because the public doesn't know where Amtrak goes - but it is a good sign. That an air passenger would even think of the train tells us that air passengers are becoming fed up with the hassle. If Amtrak put on more routes and lost the "don't take a chance running in the storm" mentality, it would have more riders pretty fast.

The January issue of Trains carried an article about new Amtrak president Alex Kummant. Can Amtrak's new president keep the trains rolling? Anyone who's interested should read it thoroughly and between the lines.

This is a bad sign. Why? Because after reading this article, we don't think he can keep the trains rolling?

Bless him for taking on a thankless job. But Mr. Kummant is too wrapped up in doublespeak and the "committee" way of doing a job. From the direct quotes in the article, we can tell that his version of action is "talking about action." And he doesn't think Passenger Rail is viable in anything but a corridor context. Furthermore, he doesn't think that any drastic forms of initiative can be done quickly. Just how long does he think he will last at this job? As we have reported before, Amtrak presidents come and go with alarming frequency. At least Mr. Kummant is humble enough to acknowledge the employees and the historical problems that Amtrak has faced.

We prefer optimism. So we hope and pray that, at this time next year, we will buy a ticket to travel from Denver to Albuquerque without leaving the ground or using an Interstate. We also hope and pray that Mr. Kummant enjoys his next job.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Tree-Huggin' Railroadin'

Those with some interest in the establishment of new Passenger Rail routes, and those with some concern that NIMBY's and BANANA's can put a stop to just about any project, should read the recent article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel entitled Crowds Flock To Rail Symposium by Genevieve Bookwalter, Sentinel staff writer.

Out there on the leading edge of trying to get Passenger Rail service on a 32-mile Union Pacific line, these people have the community both involved and interested. How did they do it? It appears that they are willing to look beyond conventional commuter service and think of alternates that satisfy the environmentalist in all of us. People interested in just getting automobiles off the highways are there. So are those who want to see alternate fuels used in order to reduce our dependency on oil and cut down on the environmental degradation of oil exploration.

There are also those who would finance the proposal, at least in part, from other than taxes and surcharges.

There was one classic NIMBY, a resident of 30 years who complains about the windows shaking when trains go by. Where has he been for 30 years? Living next to the tracks. The tracks were there before he was and, with some luck, the rest of the crowd will have passenger service long after he is gone.

But despite the NIMBY, this is the way Passenger Rail is going to have to get done in the foreseeable future.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Line Abandonments

At this time, we are going to abandon one project and revise our approach to this website. We have recently taken up new responsibilities that will restrict our abilities to produce a blog on a weekday. We are therefore going to change our blog back to once a week and revert to posting on Saturday or Sunday, whichever works. We will probably forward date all the blogs to the next Sunday, and we will “extra” the blog if possible with new information.

The project we are going to abandon is looking up the record on our congressmen. The research we have done so far indicates that our representatives are only interested when it comes to money, and they will be for or against Amtrak and Passenger Rail, whether they know anything at all about trains, based on if the funding involved appears to be politically popular or unpopular.

Popularity contests are no way to fund a railroad.

Oh, for the days of private investment and public stock offerings for Passenger Rail.

Maybe, they are right around the corner.

©2006 – C. A. Turek -

Monday, December 04, 2006

Las Vegas Has No Train Station

This will be a short post.

For one thing, Blogger Beta isn't working properly and we cannot format the text. For another, we got back from Vegas on Thursday afternoon and haven't had a chance to write or do research.

The hotel, The Gold Coast, was about a block from the railroad. There were plenty of Union Pacific trains working the line. No Amtrak, however.

Las Vegas, one of the premier tourist destinations of the country, has no train station. Bus stations it has got, airports also. But no train station and no Amtrak service except via Thruway bus.

As we said previouly. Pity.

©2006 - C. A. Turek -

Friday, November 24, 2006

Hiatus Announcement

We're leavin' on a jet plane, won't be back again until after 12/1. Could have been a train, but employers don't think "train" when it comes to business travel. Pity.

Rather than lug the laptop through security or count on getting a decent connection on a hotel computer blah, blah, we are suspending the blog for a time. Our next post is scheduled for 12/4. Have a happy holiday season.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Sell The Seats You Have

The most recent issue of Trains carries an article that describes how Amtrak copes with the Thanksgiving Holiday rush. It's not a surprise that Amtrak no longer even tries to have enough seats for everyone who wants to ride. They just want to sell the seats they have at a price that goes higher with every sold seat.

Yes, selling more seats could produce higher revenues, but at what cost? This is the bottom line syndrome that has hit Amtrak hard, making it less of a public utility and more of a government white elephant.

T'was a time when Amtrak could find enough used, abused and just plain junk passenger equipment, service it, and put it on the rails for a holiday rush. Gone to sales or scrap, these venerable pieces of equipment have their modern counterpart in the scores of damaged or worn out passenger seats in Amtrak yards. There's no money budgeted for repairs and repairs don't appear to be on the radar screen.

Our theory of a proper course for Amtrak is Revamp Nothing. Go back through our archives to find out what Revamp Nothing is all about. But should Amtrak (or whatever form national Passenger Rail takes in the future) build enough new equipment to meet peak demands?

We say yes! Why? Because holidays and vacations are the make and break for any travel-related business in the US. Any business will get more repeat business and off-peak business if it can handle the peaks with style and class.

Case in point: Car rentals. Having a good experience when renting a car for a holday trip makes us more willing to spend that extra bit and rent one while our Mercedes is in the shop, or when our two-seater just isn't big enough to take four adults out for dinner. Having a good experience with the car itself will also sell more of the same car line off the dealer lots.

If we can call up Amtrak and get a reservation for a last-minute out-of-town Thanksgiving dinner invitation, we will be more likely to check out Amtrak when we need a last minute to go to a business meeting two states away. If the price is reasonable, we will be more likely. This is true of airlines, too.

Because we can't do this today is why we drive alot. It's why alot of people drive alot instead of take the train, which for trips of 1500 miles or less has comparable travel times.

We are talking to Alex Kummant: Get those government dunderheads to fess up enough money so that you can build some peak capacity. Stop playing games with numbers on tickets that should be flat rated. Get some balls and start serving the train-riding public like a real railroad! You may be surprised on how much new money you can make.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Monday, November 20, 2006

High Tech and Next Generation Passenger Rail

We have previously blogged the subject of Next Generation Passenger Rail and how high-tech control for locomotives and trains could be implimented.

The December issue of Trains carries an article about the recent federal mandate to convert to ECP braking. (Electronically Controlled Pneumatic braking)

On US trains on what is termed the "steam" railroads, the latest variation of the original Westinghouse air brake design from the late 19th Century is used. (Steam railroads are "heavy." They are not street railways, in general, and not light rail or rapid transit systems. However, many commuter railroads are steam railroads by this definition. Many rapid transit and street railroad systems also use regenerative braking, some use vacuum brakes and air brakes that are different from the Westinghouse system, and some use hydraulic brakes.)

With the US system, the brake pipe and air reservoirs on all cars are charged with compressed air produced by a compressor on the locomotive. Without going into exactly how this happens, we can say that a reduction in the pressure in the brake pipe going from car to car causes an application of the brakes. As this pressure reduction starts at the locomotive, it takes time to get to the last car of a long train.

ECP would add a control cable and control box to each car. A presumably digital signal would apply the brakes in all cars according to the brake application chosen by the engineer. Application for the whole train would be almost instantaneous and greatly assist in both control and stopping distance.

We think that anyone with an interest in railroading can see that this would take us one step closer to remote control of trains, with accompanying cost and safety improvements. (Some rapid transit trains are currently remote controlled. It is precisely because they use braking and power systems that offer better train control.)

ECP is an incremental change. ECP does not follow the policy of this blog, Revamp Nothing. ECP can be applied to existing systems without changing the entire system, and the cost can be spread out over the many owners of railroad rolling stock.

Following the informal guidelines of Revamp Nothing, a non-incremental change to a better form of ECP would allow for the following improvements: Either switch to vacuum brakes or allow for individual cars to charge their own reservoirs. Eliminate the cable and use digital (through the tracks). Let the train driver/engineer make one uniform application or apply brakes differently on different cars depending on conditions. Add regenerative (dynamic) braking on cars as it now exists on locomotives and on catenary systems.

Although Westinghouse had a good idea, pneumatic braking depends on not losing your air. The system has to be recharged. In vacuum braking, once you pull a vacuum, atmosphere does the work. And we think anyone who has ever operated a train or run a realistic simulator can see the advantages of being able to control where in the train you apply the brakes.

Comments anyone? We'd like to hear from the engineers.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Politicians and Passenger Rail

As the mid-term election balloon deflates to a screeching, "Whatever," we thought it would be interesting and informative to do a survey of how our newly elected congressmen stack up for/against or indifferent to Passenger Rail. We will start with New Mexico, move on to neighboring states. As it would take 25 weeks to cover all 50 states in our twice-weekly blogs, we will omit those states where we cannot locate any credible information. Readers please feel free to email us any info on your congressman (yes, it's the right form of address, even if she is female.)

In New Mexico, Heather Wilson has voted both for and against Amtrak funding and continuation of funding. Whether this signifies a lack of knowledge of railroading and Passenger Rail is a matter of opinion. Many Republican voters think that Ms. Wilson simply votes with Mr. Bush.

A little research shows that Tom Udall has an understanding of the economies of using rail to transport both freight and passengers, at least insofar as these economies support his positions on the environment and independence from foreign sources of oil. Udall has historically been associated with keeping both Amtrak and local intrastate service on the front burner and recognizes the detriment to the country if Passenger Rail should fall by the side of the roadbed.

Congressman Steve Pierce of New Mexico has no discernable record on Passenger Rail.

Next time on P & PR, Texas.

© 2006 - C. A Turek -

Monday, November 13, 2006

On Time and On The Advertised

Would advertising by freight railroads, and better advertising by Amtrak and commuter railroads really help the cause of Passenger Rail?

Some of our readers and some readers of Trains think so. We are not so sure.

If you are old enough to remember the days when intercity Passenger Rail advertised (we are), you will remember that it was always in conjunction with freight. Santa Fe was "Ship and Travel Santa Fe." Amtrak still does advertise, but it doesn't do a very good job of telling anyone where it goes.

The good old advertising leaned heavily on destination. Take the Broadway Limited to New York, the Super Chief to Los Angeles, the Hiawatha's, the 400's or the Twin Cities Zephyr to Minneapolis. (You can guess we lived in Chicago in those days.) Amtrak's advertising leans on price, and that's probably all they have going for them.

We don't know if present-day ad agencies are ready for advertising passenger rail. We would guess that the average ad exec doesn't know Tallahassee from Timbuctu, let alone where they are or how to spell them. (There are three spellings for the latter, all correct.) Would it help if the advertising told us where the freight railroads went? We doubt it.

Then there is the need for graphics. (Exception: Radio spot announcements.) For print ads, do you show the destination? Or do you show the passenger train speeding along the high iron at seventy per? (Few US passenger trains do seventy per, by the way.) We have seen some TV spots from Europe that are quite disarming, charming, witty and just as likely to spark an interest in riding as are any airline ads you may have seen in the United States.

Should the advertising lie and never show an Amtrak train threading its way past freight traffic? Or would the public be better off to realize that Amtrak has to use the already overloaded freight railroad system?

Or should the railroads (all railroads) put their heads together to develop an all new approach to getting people interested in trains? Maybe take a cue from the negative campaign ads. "Did you know that Tarmac Airlines uses stinky jet fuel? You can smell the kerosene during those nasty 90-minute waits for terminal space. Tarmac Airlines is soft on the war in Iraq. It hasn't carried nearly as many of our Armed Forces as has rail. Amtrak. Whay wait to fall out of the sky?"

Railroads used to issue promotional films by the hundreds. These thinly disguised "educational" films were shown in thousands of classrooms all over the country and made school-age children aware of how railroads fit into the politics and industry of the country. We haven't seen any for Amtrak or Passenger Rail in general, and we wouldn't be surprised if films that are decades old are still shown in classrooms.

We would like to see a general council called together for the sole purpose of making the public aware of rail's part in the American economy. Perhaps one composed of representatives of Class 1 and Shortline railroads as well as of commuter agencies and Amtrak. But please add representatives of the shipping and riding public, and of the non-educated public.

Although this blog has advocated separating Passenger Rail from Freight right of way, this will separate it from one of it's greatest educational benefits. As long as Passenger Rail must share the way with freight, the rider can be educated and see for him/herself how freight rail serves the country.

As specialization becomes the norm, education becomes more narrow. If we lose the ability to educate the public on this subject dear to our hearts and vital to the country, pity us for more than just our damnable hubris.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Wrong Approach Update

Imagine you took the time and effort to go out and vote. On your ballot, you found a referendum on a tax for certain civic projects. The ballot not only listed the projects for which the tax would pay, but also specified an expiration (or sunset) date for the tax.

Imagine then if your city council (or similar governing body) covened a few months or years later and looked at the tax and the projects (not all of which or perhaps none of which have been completed) and then agreed that your city needed a Passenger Rail system more than any of them. Furthermore, they voted in public session (no shame) to extend the tax beyond the sunset date.

If you voted for the tax, you probably would feel yourself ill used. If you did not vote for it and had been paying it these months and years, you would feel angry, disappointed and cheated. You may even vow never to ride the city council's damn train, no matter how convenient. You would probably be thinking about cancelling your carpool and buying a gas guzzler just for vengeance.

In a not-so-atypical move, the city council and mayor of Albuquerque, NM, have voted to manipulate our taxes in exactly the above way. Albuquerque will get a streetcar system (see previous blog) and the taxpayer will get the long shaft up the . . . Oh, well.

There's a good way and a bad way to promote Passenger Rail. The good way is to identify a need and a source of revenue. If that source includes private investment, so be it. Whether or not it does, any public investment should be for the benefit of the rate/tax payers. The bad way is to decide that your street would look good with a transit system, that developers will buy and develop in droves along its route, and that this is somehow good for the poor schmuck who lives nowhere near the streetcar line. (Environmental arguments are the hardest of this kind to swallow: "Even if you have to drive your car in to downtown, the streetcar will make for less traffic and pollution will be cut back by the clean electric service." Two lies: Rarely does new development result in less traffic, and coal-fired power plants pollute more, not less, than late model automobiles.)

Much is now being made by the drive-by media about the value of this decision. It is plain fraud and it will do more to taint Passenger Rail for the taxpaying public than it will to move Passenger Rail forward. We need passenger rail everywhere in this country. But not by means of fraud.

This is our opinion.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Monday, November 06, 2006

A Wrong Approach?

The Albuquerque Journal has recently reported on Mayor Martin Chavez's efforts to move a modern streetcar system to the front of the line of projects previously approved by voters. What is wrong with this? Voters didn't approve the streetcar system.

A little history: Albuquerque once had a streetcar system. It was not terribly extensive and served the older parts of town. When motor coaches became practical, the streetcar system fell by the wayside. Unlike some other systems, the tracks aren't even buried in the asphalt somewhere.

Albuquerque now has a bus system. It is not terribly extensive and serves only a limited part of Albuquerque (based on total square miles of the metro area). Politicians of late have seen public transportation as a steppingstone to votes.

The bus system is, in our Passenger Rail-tainted opinion, poorly run, dirty, inconvenient, and unsafe. Nonetheless, the city poured lots of money into a transportation center (glorified bus station) that looks like a Passenger Rail depot but isn't. The state poured lots of money into a stunted Rail Runner train that looks like a commuter train but isn't. (It is, in our opinion, a poorly planned, truncated white elephant that we will be lucky if it ever gets to the stated termini of Belen and Santa Fe.)

Now the city wants to pour lots of money into streetcars that will serve only the limited corridor of old Route 66 and the airport. Only people who live near the UNM campus or downtown will take these cars to the airport. For the rest of us, it will be too inconvenient. And the buses won't help and neither will the Rail Runner unless it pretty soon gets to where it is supposed to go.

The political trick is to get the city council to put the streetcars at the head of the list that the voters DID approve. The political problem is that the money is limited, from a tax that is supposed to terminate when enough money is collected for the specified projects. Putting the streetcars first will not only postpone the projects the voters wanted, but it will extend the term of the tax without voter approval. Unless the city council has some brains or balls or both.

We love Passenger Rail and would like to see extensive rail service including light rail and streetcar systems, whenever and wherever. But not at any cost. We love Passenger Rail, but is this, perhaps, a Wrong Approach?

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Elect a Dunderhead

We haven't hesitated to call a politician a dunderhead if he does something stupid with respect to Passenger Rail. By this definition, President Bush is a dunderhead.

The dictionary defines dunderhead by using only synonyms: Dunce, blockhead, numbskull. The Internet dictionaries go beyond this with more vulgar synonyms: S---head and f---head. Nonetheless, you get the idea.

Going back two posts to where we asked readers and fellow bloggers to ask some questions of your associates and send us the results, we have yet another use for the questions. In studying for next week's elections, you should study what your candidate's answers would be to those questions.

We would bet that every candidate out there gets a low mark when it comes to these simple questions regarding the utility of Passenger Rail.

Don't get us wrong, because we disagree with President Bush ONLY when it comes to his position on Amtrak. In general, we tend to agree with the conservative political point of view.

There is a commentary in the current issue of Railway Age. (The link takes you to the article.) The commentary is a certain expression of fear that there are no electable politicians that know enough about railroading to keep the industry rolling on a solvent, predictable, and positive path. We fear that the same is true for Passenger Rail in particular.

So, whoever (or whatever) you vote for in next Tuesday's elections, don't just assume that your Representative or Senator will do you justice when it comes to Passenger Rail. When the election smoke has cleared and all the dunderheads are firmly in office for another 2 or 6 years, start to write, email and fax them about where you want them to stand on Passenger Rail. And when you do, don't harangue about what you want, but educate them about the history and business of Passenger Rail.

Unfortunately, more and more these days, we have no choice but to elect a dunderhead.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Monday, October 30, 2006

Revamp Nothing But Your Blog

We will be updating, changing, and, with luck, improving the appearance and utility of this blog page over the next few weeks. We hope it doesn't take any longer than that.

During that time, we may be spending more time on redesigning the page than on writing the blog. Sorry for any inconvenience.

If you are in need of something to read about Passenger Rail, please go to the Google home page, enter Passenger Rail in the search parameter, and click the news link.

We're not saying we won't post, but don't expect the posts to be long or involved.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Thursday, October 26, 2006

No Business Near a Train Station

Sometimes, there are people you just know have no business near a train station. At risk of sounding horribly insensitive, homeless people and Islamofascists are among them. The natural human fear of the unknown and the uncertainty of the times do nothing to encourage any kind of travel, let alone rail.

Others probably shouldn't be near a train station because they have no idea how to use Passenger Rail as a mode of transportation. Take the young thing who would rather take a 90-minute cab ride through traffic than a comfortable and fast ride on a CTA EMU to get from the airport (ORD) to Downtown Chicago. Or the businessman who won't even consider a Chicago to Denver trip by rail because he wouldn't know how to get to/from the stations at either end of the trip. We need to educate these people.

We would like to propose a little experiment, something in the nature of a survey, and enlist your help. Ask your local friends and relatives, your associates on business trips, and anyone else you get the chance to ask, the following questions: (Try to get a "yes", "no", or "don't know" answer.)

1. Does your home town/city have Passenger Rail service?
2. Whether or not Question 1 is yes, is the nearest Passenger Rail service Amtrak?
3. Where is the nearest Passenger Rail station to your home?
4. Where is the nearest Passenger Rail station to your workplace?
5. Have you ever (we mean ever) ridden this service?
6. Do you know if it has sleeping accomodations?
7. Do you know if it has food service of any kind?
8. Do you know what you can carry with you if you ride?
9. Do you know how much it costs to ride?
10. If all 9 answers 1-9 are either "no" or "don't know", would you consider riding if you knew the answers to 3 and 4?

Ask as many people as you want and summarize the answers you get in an email to us. We would like to pass the results along to Amtrak and commuter rail agencies. Feel free to republish the questions on your own blog, but it would help if all of the summaries came to us.

We would like to make it happen that everyone has business near a train station. Please help.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Give Them Volume and They Will Come

We think that Passenger Rail will be around forever. As a nation (United States), we seem to think that that demand at least for commuter rail will continue to grow. Most also believe that intercity Passenger Rail in dense population areas will endure or grow.

What got us thinking was the announcement of new airliners going on line now and in the next few years. The airlines need to put on new airplanes, because the fleet is getting as ratty as an Amtrak heritage car. But the obvious slant to the new planes is getting more passengers into one with amenities that don't cost an arm/leg and flying it more cheaply. Bottom line: Move more passengers per unit using less crew, less fuel, and less infrastructure. Sound familiar?

What is Amtrak doing? Moving fewer passengers per unit using the same crew, same fuel, and questionable infrastructure. This brings the question: Is it possible to build the rail equivalent of the A380 by Airbus? (We love that name; it describes air travel with a delectable dullness that no other word could capture.)

Freight railroads are ever increasing axle loading, but we think that passenger cars will never hold the equivalent load of the Airbus. (Ambus? Trackbus? We have aready had Railbus and similar misnomers. Blunderbus?)

However, if we consider a unit train, then we are talking something else again. The concept of the unit passenger train pre-existed the streamliner and reached its pinnacle in the early 1950s with dedicated trainsets that added cars for extra loads but seldom subtracted them. For rail, the concept of permanently connected cars never really worked by reason of maintenance problems. Rail cars take a beating, just like any other form of transportation, and the temptation to pull a segment out of a permanently connected train to accomplish repairs on only one segment is just too great. Perhaps the connections were not permanent enough.

Nonetheless, Passenger Rail should be seeking ways of moving a higher volume of passengers using less resources, be the resources animal, vegetable or mineral. The argument against it is, of course, that there is no guarantee that passenger volume wants to grow.

Both private and public enterprise in the United States has always handled things on a "build it, and they will come" plan. This plan often fails. But the successes are never on a "wait until somebody walks through the front door and asks for it" plan. If Passenger Rail in general, and Amtrak in particular, waits for passengers to knock on a ticket window and ask for longer trains, better accomodations, and less cost for all, we will be waiting a very long time.

And remember, REVAMP NOTHING!

© 2006 C. A. Turek -

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Illinois Picks Up The Ball and Runs

Short of time and money this week. So we are just going to post links to two interesting articles from Illinois periodicals.

More next time, time permitting.

First article:

Second article:

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Monday, October 16, 2006

More About Maglev

First, let us make it perfectly clear that we do not consider Maglev to be equivalent to rail. We tend to dismiss it, as we did in our post of last Thursday. A thoughtful reader seemed interested, however, and we have done a little more research.

We were right. Maglev has little in common with "rail" besides the fixed guideway. It takes just about as much capital to build a Maglev line as it does to build airport facilities to serve comparable passenger densities. This puts is far more costly than rail right-of-way. The guideway is far more costly than rail, because the motor is effectively in the guideway. The cars are much lighter, and therefore less costly, because they have no motors. There is no rolling resistance, but for high-speed, the air resistance is just as important.

Based on those lines already operating, research shows that the fuel savings are nominal compared to standard high-speed rail. At relatively low speeds, there is some fuel savings, and this steadily decreases with increased speed. For speeds comparable to what HSR can obtain, the fuel savings ranges from 20 to 28 percent, depending on who's talking.

Can Maglev be run down a freeway median? You bet it can, with the proper grading and separation. (See our comment to comment for previous post.) Maglev climbs better and turns can be banked more with proper engineering. However, the guideway also has to be protected from debris. So don't throw your Star----'s cup out the window of your car and into that median. We shudder to think what will happen when that semi goes out of control and crosses the median. Snow and ice are its enemy, just as with conventional rail.

Maglev is still somewhat experimental, though there are serious Maglevs in operation right now. Because it could theoretically reach speeds comparable to flight (600mph), Maglev should probably be written up as a successor to standard air passsenger transport, not to Passenger Rail. However, we see Maglev more as a possible robotic freight system that could shoot heavy loads of freight across the country in pipeline-like straight lines. Arthur Clarke's space elevator and mass driver concepts are both variations on Maglev.

Hey, this thing called Maglev could clear out the rail corridors that are clogged with freight and make them safe, and fun, for Passenger Rail.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Not Much Happening

There is not much happening in Passenger Rail. This seems to be the opinion of much of the railroad press these days.

Unless you are paying attention, that is.

Let's summarize what's happening, small to large and old to new.

Some of the smallest cities ever to have a commuter system have one now. Albuquerque and Nashville have one. Many other small cities want one. The larger commuter lines are upgrading and the largest are ordering new cars and locomotives on a regular basis. There should be orders to keep the car builders busy until at least 2012.

Many reports have it that nothing is happening or will happen with Amtrak until the Ds put the Rs out of power in the Pit on the Potomac. But Amtrak is moving forward with new initiatives to answer critics. If the Ds and Rs would put a gun to the testicles of the freight railroads, Amtrak may even make some money by 2012.

There is and will be a continued incentive to either split off state operations from Amtrak or privatize them. The states and private operators will explore more possibilities for making a buck, something Amtrak can't do under its present mandate.

If the economy stays hot and Boomers keep living longer, the rail cruise genre will continue to grow. Look for some really hot and elegant trains, not just revamps of Budd cars from the 50s.

The oldest of the commuter rail systems probably won't have trouble funding, but will have trouble finding new routes. The battle lines are drawn. Will that new right-of-way through the suburbs be a highway or a railroad? In the olderst cities where the oldest commuter lines still run, there is no room left for either. This will bring out the NIMBYs and the BANANAs and the Anti-Eminent Domain freaks. It should be fun.

New? We doubt the viability of Maglev in the United States. The reluctance to build new right-of-way even for high speed conventional rail seems to doom Maglev out of hand. But stranger things have happened.

Watch for political fights. The current administration versus a D Congress if the pundits have their way, the Environmentalists versus everyone, the above mentioned freaks versus the judiciary and most of the government, the freight railroads versus the anti-profit types. The states won't try to compete with private enterprise, but if private enterprise can make Passenger Rail a paying proposition, the states will try to limit it and tax it. It should be a fun free-for-all.

No, not much is happening.

©2006 - C. A. Turek -

Monday, October 09, 2006

|||Plan Ahed|||

Last time, we talked New Mexico's railroading future. Between then and now, the Albuquerque Journal published an editorial lauding the investment Union Pacific would make in Santa Theresa, including some facilities that will be moved from El Paso, TX. If you know anything about the geography of the area, El Paso Del Norte may as well be in Nuevo Mexico. This West Texas city of some 565,000 souls provides the only reason for any population density of any kind in the southern third of New Mexico. You may recall our comment last time about commuter rail being more viable thereabouts.

Nonetheless, it was our intention here to discuss how New Mexico just seems to blunder along in its railroad policy, never really knowing where its going. (Speaking of blunders: New Mexico has to cancel its railroad fuel tax by 2009 to make UP happy, not by 2007, as we stated last time.)

Case in point: Rail Runner. It didn't even have a name right away. It was just buy the trains, figure out where we want them to go, and everything will work out. We do believe that Gov. Richardson knew he would buy the Raton Pass line from BNSF Railway. He planned to do that when the railroad contributed to his campaign. Beyond that . . . we don't need no stinking plans.

It seems that nobody realized that tracks would have to be upgraded, switches added, and proper signals installed for passenger trains. Nobody knew how long it would take to build stations, or had even did a study to see how many people would ride. Currently, the management reports that it is waiting for "tracks" to be delivered. (We think they mean rails, but it's possible nobody there knows the difference.)

Because the grant money being used to start the service was readily available and had to be used up, the management took the generous position that they would run the trains for free for the first few months. They are over now, but nobody planned to collect fares. They are trying to figure out how to do it as we write this. Imagine! The train has been running for weeks, but nobody gave any thought to collecting fares!

Everybody wants Rail Runner to go to Santa Fe, a town that has not been a regularly scheduled stop for any railroad since the mid-1960s. There are good tracks into Santa Fe starting at the Raton Pass line near Lamy, NM. There were never any better tracks into Santa Fe; getting rails to a major population center that is at an altitude of 7,000 ft is not easy. Everybody's planning to get Rail Runner into downtown Santa Fe, but nobody has planned how to get there.

Some of the adolescent proposals are made by politicians and not by engineers. One: To run the line up the center of Interstate 25, is laughable. This route would be a major engineering feat and would seriously impact the beauty of the approach to Santa Fe for both rail and highway travelers. The profile could maybe be handled by a trolly, light rail, or rapid transit cars; definitely not by a full sized commuter train. Which is what the state bought before plans were made.

As we have pointed out in this blog before, there are only two realistic alternatives. One, you use the existing line from Lamy, slow trip but workable. Two, you design a transfer point and use light rail on the Santa Fe end, costly but a faster commute in the long run.

Nobody has, as yet, planned for a station in Santa Fe, or for the dozens of NIMBYs and BANANAs. (Santa Fe is the American capital for both.)

Next time: Other plans gone awry.

©2006 - C. A. Turek -

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Rolling Down The Rails in New Mexico

New Mexico announced yesterday, October 4, 2006, that the Rail Runner commuter currently running from Downtown Albuquerque to Bernalillo with one intermediate stop will continue on the current schedule for the time being. Extension of the service to Isleta, Los Lunas, and Belen has been pushed back to November 1, 2006, at the earliest. Also pushed back is the seemingly simple process of charging to ride the train.

As it becomes more clear that the state and Mid-Region Council of Governments overreached and underplanned, the service seems to be doing a bang-up job of attracting free riders.

The extension of service south of Albuquerque hinges on getting rail that must be installed to upgrade the freight-only tracks that haven't seen a passenger train between Isleta and Belen since before Amtrak. The order didn't get in soon enough to guarantee delivery before the proposed start date, and New Mexico doesn't have the bidding power to outbid the Chinese or the Class Ones for the existing supplies. Rail has been in short supply forever, and it has something to do with the fact that there is only one viable rail plant in the United States and that most steel production has migrated overseas. Outfits like BART, which has an RFP out for over $4M of running rail, have more clout than New Mexico will see in a long time.

Although the state may have made amends with its other Class One, Union Pacific, by promising to cancel the railroad fuel tax by 2007, it is still in the doghouse for its sweetheart deal to buy the otherwise virtually useless Raton Pass route from BNSF Railway. UP will build (when it is ready to) an engine service facility and transfer facility in Santa Theresa, NM, near the Mexico border. UP must have felt like the odd man out when BNSF snookered the taxpayers on the Raton Pass line, so they must be happy to have snookered the taxpayers of NM on suspending the fuel tax with promises of new jobs in the southern tier.

That has nothing to do with passenger rail, however, unless somebody gets wise and realizes that there is more potential in Commuter Rail in and around El Paso than there is around Albuquerque.

Meanwhile, BNSF will continue with its now well-along plans to upgrade and double-track Abo Canyon. This will be one of the last portions of the transcon to double-track.

If Amtrak survives the next two years of Bush Admin, we predict that the Southwest Chief will be using the Belen cutoff and exchanging stops in Colorado and northern New Mexico for stops in Amarillo, TX and Clovis and Belen, NM, where we Albuquerque idiots (Mayor Martin Chavez included) who didn't build Amtrak a new station (along with our tranportation center) will have to drive to get on board. Perhaps there will be parking near the Amtrak station in Belen.

It's an interesting time in which to observe Passenger Rail in NM. (Yes, Virginia, New Mexico is a part of the United States of America.)

Next time: What else didn't get planned?

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Monday, October 02, 2006

Things Wear Out

This is true of almost everything, unless it is made of diamond or some such very hard substance. This is definitely true for Passenger Rail in the United States.

We have been trying to avoid the subject, because we don't agree with current efforts to turn Amtrak into a Northeast Corridor service and liquidate everything else. But Amtrak is worn out.

It was worn out alot before it was formed. The freight railroads that existed at Amtrak Day One (few of them still exist) seemed to have conspired to wear out every piece of passenger equipment in the country. This wasn't totally true, of course, because Amtrak did find a pool of equipment that has served it well, some of it to the present day. Noteably, Rio Grande and Southern continued passenger service with well-kept trains that subsequently contributed to the pool of available equipment.

Today, the concept of Amtrak is worn out. We are not saying that the concept of a national passenger rail network is worn out, because we believe in the mission: Provide a national network of passenger trains for the greater good of the country.

The concept was that Amtrak would take the best of the equipment, the best of the available routes, and pay the freight railroads to run the trains. This has been modified from "run the trains" to "let the trains run," but the concept is the same. As we have already said, much of the equipment was worn out. Amtrak only got the best of any equipment by accident. The railroads, in anticipation of some kind of nationalization, didn't maintain anything old and therefore were busy wearing out the best when Amtrak time came. Amtrak didn't get the best of the routes, either. Many routes had already been abandoned and a whole lot of track no longer supported passenger routes, even on Amtrak Day One.

Paying the freight railroads to put Amtrak over the road was a mistake from the get-go. The mandate that said the railroads had to accept Amtrak was a cover-up for the fact that the railroads had been given freedom to do what they were making money at. They really didn't want to move passenger trains, and still don't today. The concept is worn out, and has to be replaced by dedicated rights-of-way owned and operated by the passenger network.

Amtrak has purchased huge amounts of new equipment along the way, and it is wearing out, too. Even the newest passenger equipment is woefully worn. Even the newest locomotives have mileages in the multiples of millions. The maintenance cycle is interrupted by shortages, and the cycle for putting new equipment into the mix is interrupted by budget cuts.

Like a Montreal overpass, Amtrak is going to collapse on itself and hurt a lot of people.

National Passenger Rail needs a model where Amtrak or whatever the new entity is called (My Railroad) owns the entire physical plant, trains and equipment. Preferably, Passenger Rail would not share any tracks with traditional freight rail.

The route structure needs to touch every state, with the exception of Hawaii, and it needs to serve major population centers in each state without using buses to do it. The budget needed to do this needs to be guaranteed for at least a decade, with performance bonuses built in, and with penalties limited to firing the asses of the first managers that fail to bring the trains in on time and the costs within the budget.

Scheduled service needs to be at least weekly, and preferably daily, and only the types of freight that can be loaded on/off at Passenger Rail stations should be carried. That will be mail and express. Passengers should be the priority, and no train should be held up to load/unload mail and/or express. If we are laying new track, the successful hub and spoke model could be attempted.

Costly? Hell yes! But not as costly as the majority of government subsidies in this day and age, and not nearly as costly as not doing it now and then trying to do it 25 years down the railroad.

But here's the payoff. If we give it the committment and the backing, there will be a time down the railroad when Amtrak (or some such) Incorporated can go public. There will be a time, as with Conrail, when private enterprise will actually bid for the profit-making potential of owning Passenger Rail.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Thursday, September 28, 2006

And Who's Being Too Careful

We thought that this article from Central Illinois would be a good follow-up to our rant about unreasonable judicial practices and liability for accidents costing Passenger Rail a lot of money. It's about the high-speed corridor from Chicago to St. Louis that has been in the mill for almost a decade now.

The article rightly points out that this line has been ready for an increase in speed for some time. We know this personally, as we have seen the high-speed protection gates and other amenities that were added in the late 90s. Still there are no high-speed trains. Not even higher-speed trains.

Besides costs related to high insurance rates and unreasonably high settlements and/or judgments, this is another way that unreasonable claims hurt Passenger Rail. The operators and the government have to be way too careful because of the possibility of lawsuits if there is an accident.

Competing standards for automatic train stop do not help here either. Competing designs are great for free enterprise, but pick the wrong one and you are stuck with a Betamax or an 8-track. (And perhaps with a Blu-ray.) So there are reasons to be careful in making a choice, but to delay a choice because to not have a standard would leave you open to liability is just pathetic.

A reader posts a point that 79mph or 110mph in a collision probably does not make one helluva difference. We agree. So while waiting for competing standards to resolve, the real reason for the wait is probably political, not safety as stated. "Safety" just gives the politician a good excuse.

Some other reader comments are informative, though some are just plain stupid. There's one from a NIMBY that doesn't make any sense, and some suggesting that drivers that attempt going around gates get what they deserve. That's stupid, too. Do passengers get what they deserve if the train derails at high speed when Dumbo does it around the gates?

There is one perceptive comment from The Emperor Has No Clothes that goes back to what we have been proposing in these blog posts. But let's not just give Passenger Rail priority, let's separate freight from passenger. There will be no true next-generation, high-speed or not, if we don't separate freight from passenger. The Illinois project isn't going to do that, and it is just a revamp.


© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Monday, September 25, 2006

Who's At Fault?

In our real profession - the one that pays the bills - we had to be in Federal District Court on mediation of a lawsuit involving a car and a semi tractor-trailer rig. If your gut reaction was that the truck driver was at fault, don't read any further. You do the transportation industry a disservice by your attitude and we don't need any more readers like you.

However, any reasonably sane person, one without pre-conceived ideas about truckers who get away with murder, would have looked at this case and seen that the trucker was absolutely not at fault for the accident. It got us thinking about how the railroad industry and Passenger Rail in particular gets a bum rap whenever something goes wrong.

Put a trespasser on the tracks and let him get hit by Amtrak and you can bet there will be a lawsuit against Amtrak. Why? We don't really know, because the trespasser knew he/she was trespassing and there is no constitutional right to walk in the middle of a busy rail line. We think it is immaterial whether Amtrak was on or off schedule, whether the engine crew sounded the horn, whether there was adequate control of speed, and whether or not the brakes were applied soon enough, if at all. Get off the d--- tracks!

But that's not the way the judicial system sees it, and that's one reason why it costs more today than ever before to subsidize passenger rail. You look at all the passenger-miles (or ton-miles for freight/cargo) that are put in every single day, and you have to conclude that the system works and that there are only a microscopic percentage of personnel on railroads who are negligent and/or wilful about the performance of their jobs.

We are researching the figures, and may have more to say at a later date, but the point is this: Passenger Rail is daily paying the costs of this warped judicial system in insurance premiums and in unnecessary settlements. These are settlements where the transportation company is looking at spending high five- and six-figure sums to defend a lawsuit that no judge has the stones to throw out of court because it may take a different turn if a so-called "fact-finder" (read member of the jury) doesn't like the cut of the transportation company's jib.

It's not entirely the judge's fault, because he/she is bound by precedent that says this is what you have to do, and hamstrung by a general impotency in the legislatures of this land to stand up and do anything about it.

We rant, but here's one of those things that could help make Passenger Rail solvent (hear us well, Misters Kummant and Bush), and every day it is just business as usual. Who's at fault? Often it is NOT the railroad.

Next time you see a trespasser on railroad property, tell that person to GET OFF THE D--- TRACKS!

©2006 - C. A. Turek -

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Technical Difficulties

As a result of technical difficulties, the blog post originally scheduled for today will be posted on Monday, September 25, 2006.

©2006 - C. A. Turek -

Monday, September 18, 2006

Does U.S. Passenger Rail Compare to Anything?

We'd like to thank Christopher Parker for his thoughtful comments on or previous post Conservative Logic on Passenger Rail. We once had a long discussion about this with a railfan and patriot who spent time working for SNCF, the French national railways. He saw absolutely no comparison to French rail anywhere in the United States.

But it got us thinking. Is there a comparison to U.S. Passenger Rail anywhere in the world? We are not talking about comparing Amtrak to anything else. We are talking about track, route miles or potential route miles, structure, demographics and potential for growth.

Right out of the gate, the comparison would have to be in a developed country with a Western or westernized society. This would leave out most of Central and South America, Africa, the Middle East, much of Central Asia and all of Antarctica and Greenland. As island nations go, most would also have to be eliminated, but England, Japan and New Zealand would continue to qualify for this round.

Next, the comparison would have to have lengthy coastal areas with population centers clustered on the coasts and inland only in areas of high commercial/agricultural interest. The island nations no longer qualify. Neither does most of Europe. Russia and China still fit, as do Australia and Northern Europe - Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden.

Let's talk track. The gauge has to be Standard Gauge. Anybody want to guess which of the above are disqualified? Russia and Finland are out. Many other potential candidates would have been out on this one, too.

China and Australia are the only comparisons left with enough route miles or potential ones for Passenger Rail. We are stretching the term "westernized" for China. We also don't see a demographic comparison for Australia. Large portions of the interior are still primitive. Nothing like the U.S.

Oh, Canada, you say? We saw you in the back of the room with your hand raised. We thought you needed to go to the bathroom. Canada has less than half the route miles and it has a virtually useless northern coastal area with absolutely no population centers. No, Canada doesn't fit.

We would like to hear from readers on their opinion as to a comparison for U.S. Passenger Rail anywhere in the world.

©2006 - C. A. Turek -

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Passenger Rail and Security - Who Is and Who Isn't

Five years and counting.

Much has been made in the weeks leading up to the 9/11 fifth remembrance of the question: "Are we safer now?" We have written previous posts on this blog about Passenger Rail and security. With this post, we would like to look at answers to this question from several different sources.

Amtrak passenger: Amtrak always felt like one of the safer modes of travel. You didn't have to walk through scanners, baggage handling was loosely organized, and coach seating was not assigned. Not much has changed in this respect, so the "feel" of Amtrak is comfortable and easy. Sweeps for drugs and the unexpected "departure" of drunk and abusive passengers have been going on for years. The heightened awareness of post-9/11 and the station and on-board personnel security measures have made an already safe Amtrak safer.

Big city commuter: We are much safer now, because there is a station presence of security that wasn't there before and there are even some searches. Even if these aren't deterring terrorists, they are deterring common criminals that used to prey on commuter riders. Commuters are safer.

Medium city commuter: Not much has changed, and there doesn't seem to be much more that has to be done. Not a high priority target. These trains are just as safe as before.

Transit rider: Some of the same kinds of security measures that work on commuter rail have also been applied to transit. The massive movement of riders to and from unpredictable and unticketed stops makes transit a target ripe for abuse. Security cameras, both on and off trains, along with living, breathing guards are our best security measures. We are probably somewhat safer.

Tourist rail rider: Sucks that we have to pay more to cover insurance, but it doesn't seem like tourist rail is doing much in the way of security against attack. Perhaps just the heightened awareness of everybody concerned is making us safer.

Rail cruise rider: Don't think we are paying that much more for insurance and we don't see any real evidence of increased security. But you can only do one of these once every few years, unless you are rich. They cost so much. So it's possible that there was less security before 9/11. Just don't know.

Railfan: The security measures encountered by railfans and photographers are laughable. Railroad security is spending too much time making us safe from ourselves and keeping us from enjoying our hobby. I suppose it is good to see more and vigilant railroad people around when we are near the tracks, but to questions a citizen on public property trying to take a photographs is just too much. I don't think we are any safer.

Are we safer? There have been no Passenger Rail related terror attacks on US soil since 9/11, so we would have to say yes.

©2006 - C. A. Turek -

Monday, September 11, 2006

Conservative Logic On Passenger Rail

Please read this article and our previous blog post, then please read this post for more about Dr. Utt's article.

To summarize, Dr. Utt - we are told this is the correct form of address for a Ph.D. - doesn't much like the way Amtrak is run, and doesn't much like the way he thinks Congress is going to run it. He would have us believe that any increase in federal subsidy for Amtrak is too much and that all of Amtrak's current woes have nothing to do with the fact that it has never been given enough of a subsidy to accomplish its mission and gain the holy grail of profitably, however defined by the accountants.

Dr. Utt's solution to the problem, summed up in less words than it takes to abstract an article from a medical journal: Let the states take up the burden, and privatize the rest.

We agree that this would lessen the burden on the federal treasury. But what about the states? What about private enterprise?

We will state the basic premise of this blog again: Historically, without the accounting tricks that Dr. Utt decries when used by Amtrak, Passenger Rail has never made a penny of profit for the railroads. As always, we are talking about regularly scheduled common carrier Passenger Rail routes, not tourist rail and definitely not rail cruise operations.

Nonetheless, Dr. Utt wants to use rail cruise operators as an example of Passenger Rail that turns a profit. But first let us laugh at his other examples of profitable operations.

Japan, UK, and Germany are poor examples, because nowhere in the United States do the population density, the proximity of major cities and the demographics compare with any of these locations. The gross contrasts increase in the western United States.

Canada is a better comparison, except that politics in Canada differ so greatly from politics in the United States that the mission of VIA cannot be compared to that of Amtrak.

Yes, Los Angeles, Boston and California - last time we looked Los Angeles was part of California - have privatized some services previously provided by Amtrak. But again, we are talking about densely populated urbanized areas where higher population makes for higher numbers of riders.

LOL. There's more to come, for Dr. Utt wants us to come out of our fantasy world when it comes to Amtrak.

Fair Share of Public Subsidy. The highway program is solvent. Ha! Using Dr. Utt's example, the highway program is solvent because it can tax fuel. How is this not a government subsidy? Using this logic, Amtrak should be able to become solvent by taxing something it happens to use a lot of to stay solvent. OK, we've got it. Since Amtrak uses a lot of rail, made of steel, let's tax every pound of steel that is sold in this country. Every penny of the tax should go to Passenger Rail, and Passenger Rail will, we guarantee, be solvent. By Dr. Utt's definition of solvency.

And then, oops! The FAA trust fund failed to make a profit. Imagine that! People don't want to ride in metal tubes facing forward so much any more. No so much. Airlines use a lot of air. Maybe the FAA trust fund should tax air.

We get off the track when we are facing ridiculous arguments.

REVAMP NOTHING! Frankly, we would like to see the entire premise and mission of a national passenger rail system changed. New trains, new tracks, and new routes, with new sources of funding and little reliance on the old. Dr. Utt does have it right when he says that the old model for Amtrak is archaic. We disagree that it is socialist. It is merely outdated.

But, and this is a big but, if we are to have a true National Passenger Rail network, one that serves all regions, there must be long distance routes. If we cannot figure out a good way to fund them, and find the political resolve to do so, then we get what we deserve. Oh, wait. We already have it, and it is Amtrak.

©2006 - C. A. Turek -

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Critique Conservatives on Passenger Rail

Usually, when we pick on a point of view - usually somebody else's - we will mention an article or two that needs to be jabbed a bit about the writer's position on this or that subject. This time, we want to particularly critique an article published on-line for The Heritage Foundation. The article is called Will The Senate Raid The Treasury for Amtrak?, and is thoughtfully written by Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D.

First off, Mr. Utt is not a railroader or a businessman. He is a conservative economist steeped in research in a science that many still consider a pseudo-science.

We agree with Mr. Utt, however, on many points. None of this means that we agree with some of his assertions regarding how different modes of transport are subsidized by the public. We also disagree with his assertion that Amtrak's financial failings are the result of squandering its resources.

In fact, this is the same argument the railroads used to justify the demise Passenger Rail back in the 1960s. Let the system go to pot by denying it a fair share of your operating budget, then cry all over the tracks about how its not making money. People won't pay the good money he wants Amtrak to make if they can't ride some good trains. They won't pay any money at all if they have to ride what Amtrak has to offer for much longer.

Then Mr. Utt brings up the old cry about Amtrak breaking Federal Law (caps are mine) by not breaking even on food and beverage service. Various Amtrak boards and managers have fallen on that sword over the years, and it just doesn't die. The truth is that we have never given Amtrak a budget with enough in it to make the food and beverage service the premier experience that it truly could be. When it becomes that, it will also become break-even, or profitable.

OK, Mr. Utt, we get it. You want to eliminate sleepers and diners and possibly go back to stopping for a 12.5 minute Fred Harvey belch-o-rama at the next station, in the name of reducing the government subsidy to Amtrak. Let's turn all transportation into riding in uncomfortable chairs face forward in a metal tube that contains no incentive to get up and walk around for, God knows, you may fall over in the aisle and increase the cost of liability insurance.

We get worked up like this and start to be ashamed of being politically conservative.

Ok, Mr. Utt, we also get it that you think Amtrak should cut off its left nut by eliminating unprofitable long-distance routes. (By the way, they are all unprofitable, so that reduces Amtrak to another commuter agency.)

Next time, we critique Mr. Utt's suggested solutions, and let you know if the White House has invited him to dinner yet.

©2006 - C. A. Turek -

Monday, September 04, 2006

Extend a Hand to Alex Kummant

The appointment of Alexander Kummant as Amtrak CEO and President should be good news. We now have a replacement for David Gunn and there will no longer be ineffective interim operating officers responsible for what happens to Amtrak. Amtrak's board has seen to it. We who are interested in Passenger Rail should welcome Mr. Kummant as a breath of fresh air for the passenger train.

So much for optimism. We have run out of positive points.

Railway Age has already invited Mr. Kummant to be a keynote (if not "the" keynote) at the 13th Annual Passenger Trains of Freight Railroads Conference 10/16-17 in DC. That ought to be a hoot! As Forbes has noted, passenger rail experience is "palpably absent" from his (Mr. Kummant's) resume.

In a previous career - his was currently moving toward selling heavy Japanese equipment - Kummant was responsible for "premium operations" at Union Pacific. Putting the best possible light on this responsibility, he probably did interact with Passenger Rail in a positive way: He was the man most responsible for keeping Amtrak from taking up too much of Union Pacific's time and money by demanding on-time performance for its trains. We guarantee that when Mr. Kummant's premium trains were on the railroad, Amtrak took second, third, or fourth priority. This was positive for Union Pacific's bottom line, not for Amtrak.

So maybe the fox knows how to keep other foxes out of the henhouse. We doubt it.

Another plus is the reportedly heavy Kummant contribution to the Bush re-election. We guess he should have the ear of President Bush, if the contribution was big enough.

Most Internet reports are trying to put a positive spin on Kummant's appointment. Calling him a "veteran" railroad executive, they ignore the fact that "executive" is more important in his career than "railroad." As far as we can see, Kummant has not devoted his career to railroading and has never planned to do so. Further, there is no evidence that Kummant is even a railroad enthusiast. In our humble opinion, it takes at least an enthusiast to run a railroad.

We see a dark future for Amtrak under Kummant.

But let's give him a handshake and a welcome, and let's challenge him to prove us wrong. It could work out. Couldn't it? After all, he is apparently and experienced heavy equipment salesman . . . Uh, oh. . . . . .

©2006 - C. A. Turek -

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Out There On The Edge of Control - NGR: Third Section

We were prepared to go into the not-so-nutty nuts and bolts on the signal/dispatch/schedule side of Next Generation Rail, but things intervene.

Much flak has come our way about the concept of Driver Elimination: Trains can be run like a DCC-controlled model train layout with no engineer on board.

First, we are not against any of the Brotherhoods. We see this more as easing the stress of driving a train, reducing it more to monitoring systems somewhat like the flight engineer on a large aircraft.

The biggest argument against Driver Elimination has been economic. Why eliminate engineers (drivers) when we don't need to? This is kind of strange, as reduction of employee rolls is seen by corporate management as a way to increase the bottom line. But most who have approached me see Driver Elimination as costly. "Why invest in all that extra technology when everything works right as it is?"

This is a spurious argument and one that needs closer attention. Why invest in the wheel, when dragging stuff along the ground on sticks works perfectly well? Why invest in fast horses when slow oxen still get us there? Why invest in steam locomotion when horses are adequate to the task? Why fly when you can walk just as far; it just takes longer? Why watch TV when you can get the same information from a newspaper? Have we given this argument the attention it deserves? You bet! It deserves no more.

We don't get progress in any form if we stick our head in a sack. Change is good. What doesn't change, stagnates.

Some have also approached us and said that computer control of locomotives can only be justified from the point of view of safety. Only if we eliminate driver error can we justify the cost. We also disagree with this argument.

Technology has its ups and downs where safety is concerned. In railroading, the historic advances in safety were knuckle couplers, air brakes, and telegraphically controlled signals. Each also came with its own set of potential errors. We think most of our readers know what these were. In general, however, once everybody learned the new technology and how to deal with the new potential errors, the technology made things safer. More importantly, however, each of these advances (and a hundred other technological advances we can name in other forms of transportation - challenge us, please) made for a better transportation system in general. In Passenger Rail, anything that made for a smoother, faster, more on-time and perhaps coincidentally safer ride was well worth the dollars spent. This is true in other modes as well.

Finally, a lot of people have suggested that there is probably no way to fully integrate driverless locomotives into a railroad system where switching and shunting has to be done on or near the same tracks where scheduled service is happening. The cost of segregating these operations becomes high when separate infrastructure has to be provided.


But the reason it is hogwash has to wait until we get a chance to write about track and signals, and the technology that, we think, could be used to enhance both freight and Passenger Rail and to increase the efficiency of our infracture from three to tenfold.

Watch for our next blog on the subject of Next Generation Rail.

(Our apologies to any readers interested in our other sites and blogs: We just haven't had the time lately. We have kept Passenger Rail as our priority. More soon.)

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Monday, August 28, 2006


Confession is good for the soul, and confession about passenger trains is good for the soul of Mistertrains.

After watching my family come and go via Amtrak, we stepped back and studied our own use of Passenger Rail in the recent past. There is one word: Pathetic!

The last time we rode Amtrak ourselves was in February 2001. The last time on any commuter rail was that same year when we did a little riding of Metra while visiting near Chicago. Recreational? Non-existent! We visited the Cumbres & Toltec the winter before last while it was shut down. We have done a little train station photography in Las Cruces and Phoenix, and we have watched the New Mexico Rail Runner commuter train go by without riding. Pathetic!

Why? We suppose it is the same problem that most people have in today's world. Not enough time or not enough money. And to get enough money we have to spend way too much time.

The cost of transportation, in general, is out of proportion to the wages earned by a normal individual when compared with the golden age of passenger rail. If you care to argue with that without citing Government Statistics, be our guest. We don't believe the Labor Department, because if the Labor Department Statistics were true, we would be earning $500K per year, and we are not. Nobody we know is. Nowhere near.

So to get enough money to ride, we have to work harder. This is whether that ride is in a car, plane, bus or train. And work harder we do. Getting close to the end of five decades on this planet, we can't remember when we have worked so hard to stay afloat, and when we have spent so much of a percentage of every day doing it.

Makes us wonder if any form of transportation will be affordable in the next decade, or whether we will all have to live in a company town across the street from the call center where we will all be employed 18 hours a day (with no vacations or "self-financed" ones) because all manufacturing jobs will be overseas. Who needs passenger rail then?

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -