Monday, February 27, 2006

So It Has Come To This

Reading just a small selection of the hundreds of articles about passenger rail that are available worldwide on the Internet, I am sobered by one realization: On what appears to be a global scale, western civilization is back to building short segments of passenger rail for limited populations with very selective end points and service areas.

We are back where we were in the United States and England in the middle 1800s. It was a time when few railroads had enough resources to be more than local, and the ones that were bigger became only regional. The dream of a transcontinental system with long distance routes was decades ahead. Each route struggled for its existence and had no future without the prospect of interchange with other routes.

Today, the remnant of our post-World War II passenger systems it itself in shambles. The Federal position on Passenger Rail is that the states or regional transportation authorities should handle the cost. Though there is resistance, the evolution of commerce requires that regions and local governments that want Passenger Rail take the pragmatic course of action and begin planning for it. This is resulting in local and regionally viable systems. Viable, though, only to the extent that they receive tax dollars from a willing public.

Though it is always impossible to predict the result of a trend except in generalities, the result of this is likely to be a passenger system similar to what the United States had in the 1800s. Small local carriers will reach out to nearby suburbs and to close urban center. For example, Chicago will probably be able to hammer out a system that includes passenger service to St. Louis, Detroit, Minneapolis and, perhaps Cincinnati and Kansas City. Albuquerque, without the population density and financial resources, will reach only as far as its nearest urban neighbors.

Regional carriers probably won’t get too much larger. The Northeast will probably have a dense but complicated network, just as it does today. California will maintain a passenger system centered on the state with a density of service similar to what California had in the last half of the 1800s.

In a decade or two, perhaps three, as regionals absorb local routes and spread out to include additional urban centers, there will be a hue and cry for consolidation of passenger service and the revival of transcontinental, single carrier service. I hope I am alive to see this. But whether this will be practical will depend on two things.

The first will be the willingness of those holding the purse to understand that long distance passenger service will never be self-supporting. As a business, it will always have to be subsidized by some other kind of business or by tax dollars.

The second will depend on whether there are still a set of assholes in the government who don’t recognize the benefits of Passenger Rail.

One thing I am sure of. Steel wheels on steel rail will always be one of the most efficient forms of transportation available.

And the beat goes on.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Tongue Firmly In Cheek - Let The UAE Run Amtrak

We see no reason to believe that our readers have not heard about the Federal Government allowing a Dubai-owned corporation to operate container ports on US soil. If you haven't, read this.

It got us thinking. Let's sell Amtrak to the United Arab Emirates. They are transportation experts on a world-class scale. We bet they would make a better job of it than the Federal Government. Of course, we might have to stipulate that they run it better than Congress has for the past 35 years.

But think about it! Luxury trains with legendary European efficiency run by a country with unlimited oil resources and plenty of cash. All the things that Amtrak has never had.

The Bush Administration says that one of the main reasons we let Dubai run the ports is that there is no American company that can do it. Well, they also say they want private corporations to run or compete with American Rail. If there is no American company wants to do it, we should let Dubai have them.

Something tells me they might do a good job. Maybe my tongue shouldn't be so far in cheek.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Amtrak and Historical Perspective

Please read THIS ARTICLE, which appears in the online edition of The Ithaca Journal.

Never mind that the author, Raju Chebium, is relatively young and has no easily uncovered background in railroading. He could have gained his perspective by studying history. (Scary enough, his alma mater currently requires only one history course for a BS in Journalsim that we can see, and that is in African-American History. Not likely to give one a perspective in railroad history unless one is studying the Pullman Company.) Yours truly gained his historical perspective in railroading by reading literally hundreds of railroad books over the past 40 years.

So now we have our credentials established.

Chebium's first demi-quote from Jeff Rosen, member of Amtrak's board, is about the board wanting Amtrak to "wean" itself from taxpayer subsidies. Mr. Rosen also wants the states to pay more. What does he think state funding is? Chopped liver? With the exception of a very few states, like New Mexico, where funding may be able to come from depletion taxes paid for mineral extraction, state funding IS taxpayer funding.

Mr. Rosen has no historical perspective. Passenger railroading has never been a break-even proposition and never will be. Even in the glory days, it was only slick accounting tricks that made it seem so, for the benefit of stockholders. Freight subsidized passengers.

It may be that Mr. Chebium thinks he has struck some kind of balance in this article when he quotes an Amtrak passenger. The passenger just wants the government to leave her trains the way they are. In fact, the balance would be to ask other passenger modes to express their opinions as to how well they could function without government subsidy of some kind. These other eager "participants in the economy" as Mr. Rosen terms it, are easy to find. They are bus companies, airlines, and the driving public.

Mr. Airline would have to admit that he/she is already bankrupt and couldn't lift a shovel to build another control tower or flight service center without the help of government. Mr. Bus and Mr. Driver wouldn't be able to afford the maintenance on their vehicles, because without government subsidy, they would be driving them on dirt. Unpaved, ungraded dirt.

We did not arrive where we are today without a flawed transportation policy that favored political decisions over practical ones.

To try to pretend that Amtrak, or any other reasonable passenger rail network, could pay for itself is ludicrous, given any amount of historical perspective. To try to write a balanced article about how the Bush Administration doesn't hate Amtrak any more, without looking at what the Bush Administration is doing for other transportation modes, is just plain stupid.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Just Right and Just OK

While we would like this blog to cover all passenger rail in the United States and invite global comments, we find ourselves talking about RailRunner, the New Mexico commuter rail project, over and over again. Perhaps it is because the approach taken by NM Gov. Richardson invites criticism. Perhaps it is because the project is now indefinitely behind schedule. We are now four months past when Willie the Wet (see Rose Bowl Parade float) said we would have operating trains.

The trains sit in the bright Albuquerque sunshine south of the remaining Santa Fe shop buildings right about where the roundhouse used to be. The tracks needed to run the trains still belong to BNSF Railway. There is a draft agreement that calls for a horrendous burden of liability coverage and an enormous escrow for the same purpose if NM is to buy the tracks from Belen, NM to the Colorado border. There is a draft opinion that Willie wishes the AG, Patricia Madrid, would sign and make this coverage and escrow magically legal. (By the way, this writer’s background is in insurance. We know what is horrendous and what isn’t.)

There is a planned schedule that is already inadequate, in this writer’s opinion. More on the schedule later, and also see previous blog. And there are some parking lots being built without stations, because BNSF Railway won’t let Willie and the gang onto the property unless the sale is consummated.

Then there are two articles in the March issue of Trains, articles that make it perfectly clear to anyone interested in rail transportation that there are not enough tracks to carry all the freight trains. This means more heavily used tracks, either by virtue of expansion of track miles, signaling, or increased axle loading.

Why are these articles important? Because New Mexico has three transcontinental rail routes running through the state. Colorado used to have two, now it has one. Arizona has two, Big old Texas technically has only two, but Texas is really an Eastern State masquerading as part of the Southwest. (It has ports that take Atlantic shipping and no rivers that empty into the Pacific.)

The line that Willie is about to buy is one of the three transcontinental routes in NM. But NM is in poor position to capitalize on this unless we begin to recognize that BNSF Railway does not want it shut down. What they want to do is mothball it and save it for when their other transcon through Clovis gets too full. And then NM came along and wants the whole thing, and they are hoping we will invest our money, put in passenger train signaling and maybe some sidings, and then let them use it when they get in a bind. We will also be taking all that beautiful land off the tax rolls in not-so-prosperous NM counties.

(The third route is the Golden State Route from Tucson through El Paso to Tucumcari and beyond.)

Has anyone connected with the proposed purchase stopped to consider that NM is holding all the cards, not BNSF? Maybe, just maybe, we could get a deal wherein the state subsidizes the upgrading of this line in return for a stake in its future use. In the process, we get the right to run passenger trains, with no silly liability conditions other than insuring our own trains. The future use won’t come soon, but it will come. It will come because nowhere in the country can we build enough highways to handle our future economic growth.

If we can’t work a deal like this, maybe we should tell BNSF that we will give them first option to buy it back, when they have the need, in return for waiving the stupid liability rules.

Back to scheduling. The reason the schedule is inadequate is that the line is not signaled for commuter routes and we will have to add sidings and signals to make commuter trains really work, particularly at both ends. (In Albuquerque there are two main tracks.)

Nobody tells the public any of this. If only John Q. Public would read my blog.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -