Thursday, April 27, 2006

Canada Dines on Passenger Rail

CNW Group is a Canadian news service (Canada NewsWire) that sounds like it should be a railroad. (It's not.) Their April 18 article reports the addition of enough equipment to add an extra 21-car trainset to the VIA Rail Canadian. The addition will give the thrice-weekly train a total of four trainsets. Hallelujah!

Imagine Amtrak taking a step like this.

Amtrak wouldn't know where to find the equipment. While the Amtrak board professes to be in a money-saving mode, they would prefer to have the extra crew costs associated with panic turn-around times and schedule recovery.

Horrors! A politically Conservative blogger is telling us all to look to Canada for an example!

You bet! (Sorry for one too many exclamation points here!)

Here's something else in the article. The Canadian is popular (they use the word legendary) for its "on-board fine dining, accommodations and attention par excellence." It operates full throughout he tourist seasons and it is one of the best patronized rail routes on VIA.

The last paragraph of the article spells out VIA's mandate. If you have read the previous post on this blog, you know what we think should be done with Amtrak's mandate.

Note to Amtrak Board: Buy more railcars including diners and sleepers, run your trains on schedule with equipment in good repair, put elegant meals before your patrons and give them a good night's sleep. The customers will come to the rails. © 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Monday, April 24, 2006

Thinking About Easter and Passover

All right. We thought about this a week ago on Easter Sunday, but the idea is so striking that we are going to pursue it anyway.

The start of Amtrak in May 1971 was a type of Passover. We are not saying that the Amtrak Board got out there and smeared sheep's blood on the routes and equipment that they were keeping. But that's almost how it happened. What was left has wound up wandering in the desert ever since, and we don't know if 40 years will be enough. The commandments under which Amtrak operates are not etched in stone, but rather in disappearing ink on water soluble parchment.

Maybe Amtrak and Passenger Rail need a type of Easter. Maybe we need a wholesale resurrection of the passenger train where all sins are forgiven and the slate is wiped clean. Maybe Amtrak needs to start from scratch with a new contract with the government and with the freight railroads, with new equipment, and with a new outlook on what can and cannot be done with Passenger Rail.

We will probably go to railroad Hell for this one (on the left is Hell Gate Bridge), but the analogy seemed so apt.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

If you enjoyed this blog, please visit Mister Trains' Google Page.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

If You've Got The Money, Honey, We've Got The Train

Almost as a "given," we have repeatedly stated that Passenger Rail cannot break even or make a profit.

What about the proliferation of Tourist Railroads, Railroad Museums, and Dinner Trains? (And combinations of these three.) Some, like the Strasburg Railroad near Lancaster, PA, have been around and making money for a long time. And what about rail cruises?

This month's issue of Trains makes note of the rebirth of the White Pass & Yukon Route. This rebirth has been facilitated by the countless Alaskan cruise liners that call to the port of Skagway, Alaska, and send great numbers of passengers ashore to ride the trains up into the Alaskan wilderness. They are making money running passenger trains!

Dinner Trains, if run well, give the lie to those in government that would cut the heart out of Amtrak by cutting out food service. People flock to the dinner trains just for the fun of eating on rail and on the go. Some Tourist lines make money for their owners, others are subsidized. The same goes for museums. Strasburg is a synergy of Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania and the old line itself that seems to work well.

The rally cry of all these money makers is: If you've got the money, Honey, we've got the train. They all put their product out there on the market and price their product to make a profit. The target demographic is narrowly defined, and the level of product satisfaction within that demographic is high.

By contrast, scheduled passenger rail has to have a product to market. Many passenger rail agencies - we don't know of any privately operated, regularly scheduled, year 'round passenger rail routes - including Amtrak do not know what their product is supposed to be. Is their product transportation? Is it service? Is it speed or reliability? Is it just a string of cars that you can ride if you want to?

Amtrak thinks it is some of all of the above. Even railroad passenger routes before Amtrak had this kind of split personality. Some commuter routes still do. In part, it is because they do not have a narrowly defined demographic. Amtrak's demographic is anyone who wants to use a long-distance passenger train at any time for any reason, including transportation, recreation, or just plain nostalgia. Because these agencies are quasi-governmental, they must serve "all the people."

Being all things to all people necessarily means that the product satisfaction in any narrow demographic is going to be lower than it would be had the demographic been targeted.

So here's a proposal. Open up Amtrak's routes, and those of some of the commuter carriers, to bids from private "railroad event" operators. We are not proposing selling or leasing route structures. We think Amtrak should continue to operate a stable, coherent, and reliable passenger system. Just provide the trains and track (we know that the risk managers at the Class Ones are biting their nails at this), and let private enterprise pay as much as or more than it costs Amtrak to have the trains and track.

Boom! Suddenly Amtrak is breaking even, or making a profit. Let the private operators find something useful to do with the trains and track. Just lets be rail friendly. As we said in a previous blog (flag waving . . . just scroll down!) wave the right flag and make it so that the railroads and Amtrak have to bend in the right direction for the "something useful" to get done.

Something useful could be many things: Maybe just an express commute that's not being done now, but where the ridership would pay a premium for it. (Here in New Mexico that could be a train from El Paso to Denver. The Coyotes would pay a bundle. Ha, ha.) Perhaps new rail cruises, tours, historical outings, school field trips, etc., et. al.

Yes, we know it would take a little flexibility on the part of the operating railroads and a little know-how on the part of the contractor. (Rip Track, are you listening?) But it is not like they don't exist. And when was anyone with money and looking for a way to make more money on railroads afraid of running a railroad?

Just a thought.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Monday, April 17, 2006

What's Eating Amtrak?

Dinner in the diner. Drinks and snacks in the lounge. Activities revolving around food are part of the lore of the passenger train and certainly a big part of our everyday lives. When we vacation or travel for business, food becomes one of the perks. Even if we have to attend a stuffy business meeting, we can look forward to dinner in a new, if not fancy place afterwards. No matter how you got to the meeting, having new food experiences on the way and on the way back used to be something to anticipate.

Not if you fly or ride Amtrak these days.

What has happened to airline meals mirrors what happened to the great food service of Pullman Palace and Fred Harvey forty some years ago. In a funhouse sort of way. Because what is happening to airline food is grotesque.

George and Fred understood that eating is something we do naturally, compulsively, and almost always when we don't have anything else to do. These days, we also do it when we have nothing else to do but look at something, as in when we watch a movie or DVD, or when we watch the scenery roll by or pass underneath the aircraft. George Pullman and Fred Harvey built empires on the need of people to eat while traveling. They also saw the need for people to sleep, or to just get off the (fill in mode of transportation here) and stay still for awhile in a strange and exotic place. George wasn't into the food as much as the sleeping, and Fred only for awhile made sleeping accomodations available on trains. But Fred knew where to put a hotel.

But we digress, because my point is that What's Eating Amtrak is the same thing that's eating the rest of America. Politics.

Politics of late revolves around issues that mean nothing but hold the interest of a large group of people long enough that the politicians can slip something really important past that group. Amtrak is one of those "issues" that can be brought up at the drop of a hat when the discussion gets too hot on some other topic. Almost as many people have an opinion on Amtrak as they do on the War on Terror. Addressing Amtrak's "issues" is often done in rhetoric making it difficult to argue that anything is right about Amtrak.

Take the question of on-board food service. The rhetoric goes something like this: "Tax subsidies should not be used to provide services the public doesn't want. Amtrak diners do not cover cost, therefore, the public doesn't want dining car service enough to pay for it. If the public doesn't want it, then we shouldn't subsidize it." Does anyone see the falacy?

Amtrak riders want dining car service, and they are willing to pay for it. There is more than enough reason to believe that increased food prices accompanied by good food and good service would not deter ridership and may go further towards covering costs than cutting food service completely. Removing food service is undoubtedly one of the most idiotic things that the politicians and Amtrak's board ever thought of doing.

Removing diners and other food related services will undoubtedly reduce ridership, which will result in an Amtrak less ables to cover other costs. What will go next will be sleepers. This will reduce ridership further. The next thing they will take away is air conditioning, or seats, or . . . Amtrak.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Thursday, April 13, 2006

If You Are Going To Wave A Flag . . .

Please wave one that will do The United States of America some good, won't you? Don't wave the "free market economy" flag at Passenger Rail.

The free market economy isn't always good for passenger rail, and that goes double for fuel, as in doubling the fuel prices since the runup started. And there appears to be no good reason for it.

We heard an economist appearing on one of the morning NewsTalkFluffCrapAdvertiseDrugsandStuffforSeniorcitizens shows. You know, like Good Morning Today The Morning America Show (omitting one The and one Show). Here's the excuse for high fuel prices: (Are you ready?) The oil companies can get these prices in other places in the world, so they are going to try to get them here.

Whatever the traffic will bear.

Many commuter agencies and Amtrak probably locked in fuel prices with contracts that didn't anticipate the huge runup. If diesel fuel goes over $4 on the retail market, just you wait and see if any of them get the chance to lock in prices again. If not, we can anticipate a scramble either to jack up fares high enough to cover it or to raise taxes. Government subsidies probably won't begin to keep up, because of the mush heads in Congress. Or we can expect to see something like butcher shop pricing at the ticket window.

"Today's Prices: Amtrak $1.45/mile NJ Transit $.89 Metrolink $1.38"

Fuel charges or surcharges will change by the day, if not by the hour, if the railroads can't lock in some contracts.

What's good for Passenger Rail is good for America. The United States has a long tradition of subsidizing transportation; from waterways to The National Road, to Union Pacific/Central Pacific, to the national system of air traffic control, to the Interstate Highway System. It has served us well for 230 years, (Yes, Virginia, it will be 230 years on July 4, 2006) and it can serve us well for the next 230 years, if we can just get the mush heads out of Congress.

Wave a flag for what's good for America.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Monday, April 10, 2006

Passenger Rail and Security

Is Amtrak safe?

We don't know, but there are a group of Federal agents here in Albuquerque that do a heck of a job finding people that should not be riding Amtrak.

Out in the West, Amtrak runs over hundreds of miles of unprotected railroad in the geographic center of the Middle of Nowhere, and it does OK. We recall one historical incident of sabotage on the old route through Phoenix, AZ, but none recently and certainly none after 911. Actually, there are probably more route miles in rural, unprotected areas back east, but we would have to do some calculation to verify this.

Were Amtrak not rooted in traditional railroading; if it had a true hub and spoke system and automated boarding like the airlines; if it were a more spectacular operation; and if it were perceived that a significant disruption of service would be viewed as a catastrophe; yes, we think Amtrak would have more problems with security than it now does.

We would certainly like to see Amtrak have a more spectacular, more frequent, more dependable reputation. We would like to see passenger rail that everyone could depend on. It would seem that, from the standpoint of security, that would come with some costs.

As with commuter rail, we do not think it would be possible to do airline-like screening. Were we to develop a spot-check method for rail that we could depend on, then we would also like to see it applied to the airlines. But not before the passenger railroads recover a bit of their ridership.

The probability of detection is higher on trains, even trains that are out on the line between stations. The possibility of thwarting an attempt aboard a train is also higher. Cars can be switched, shunted, and put out of the train. An inexperienced terrorist couldn't likely operate a train with the bludgeon-like accuracy of a novice pilot in a jet cockpit. Even a diesel locomotive full of fuel isn't the firebomb that a fully fueled aircraft can be. Hazardous cargoes are another story, but we are talking about Amtrak.

For a lot of reasons, Amtrak and Passenger Rail in general is safe, or safer than the airlines, maybe even safer than Greyhound, when it comes to terrorist threats. When you are on a station platform waiting to board or just watching trains, and when you see the armed peace officer watching you, remember how much nicer it still is to ride the train.

On a Similar Topic

Norm Mineta, who, in our opinion, is nothing if not bad for Amtrak, was tooting the DOT's horn about successful tests of so-called collision proof passenger cars. (They reduced interior collision damage zones by about 50% in 30mph plus collisions, meaning some passengers still would suffer injury.) The goodness of the new cars will only benefit commuters for awhile. They way Norm and Company view Amtrak subsidies, it will be (a cold day) sometime after 2015 when Amtrak has even a chance of having cars built to these standards.

The good news is that the frequency of collisions resulting in crushing damage to Amtrak cars has been very low. They incur far more damage and far less passenger injury in ordinary derailments.

We still think Amtrak is safer, but we don't know if it's safe.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Living Without Railroads

Let's start with the many.

We think it is safe to say that many people in the U. S. think they could live without railroads. It is even safe to say that many could. There are regions of the country where there are virtually no railroads, and never have been, and the people get along just fine. Historically, these were areas where self-sufficiency was a valued character trait and where travel occurred rarely. Today, these are areas where you don't live if you don't drive a motor vehicle and if you are not prepared to wait out the weather for one reason or another.

Logically, the number of people who today actually can live without railroads is probably much lower than the number of people who think they can live without railroads. The latter number probably includes some people in Congress, though the former number assuredly does not. (Self-sufficiency is a trait most politicians have only when you ask them if they have it.)

Let's move on to the few.

There are a few of us who know what life would be like in this country without the freight railroads, so living without them does not appear to be an option. Fortunately, there are also many who think that freight railroads are a necessary evil, or a silent part of our infrastructure, like sanitary sewers. So it is not likely we will have to live without them anytime soon.

There are also a few of us who believe that this country cannot do without passenger railroads, even knowing that passenger rail in all of its many forms has never proven to be a profitable enterprise. (The exception to this is tourist rail, which has proven over and over again that it has a life of its own.) There are a few of us who see the bleak future as commercial air travel goes through the same crises once reserved for the private passenger trains. There will only be a few of us able to travel around this country once the airlines are reduced to a government entity. (Perhap AmAir flying from the nearest AmPort by flapping its AmWing.) There won't be enough passenger rail cars left on wheels to go around. (Will Congress one day mandate that AmAir make a profit? Perhaps by stopping at airports along the way to pick up containers of Parcel Post?)

We see two routes past the same problem for passenger rail. On the one, Federal and State government cannot turn its back on passenger rail. Our country must have a viable system when a crisis strikes. On the other, private enterprise must not desert the concept of passenger rail, either. Will it ever earn a profit? We doubt it, if kept in its present form. But if the Few in Congress ever decide to level the playing field, we just might invest in passenger rail stocks. We won't say that, given the level of subsidy found in air travel, passenger rail could be profitable today. But tomorrow?

Write to Congress, and tell them you are one of the few who believe in passenger rail.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Monday, April 03, 2006

Sharing Railroad Goodies

Some of them are keepers.

We have been neglectful in posting some of the most interesting railroad things we have found on line.

We should have posted a link to the New Mexico Rail Runner screensaver long ago. It starts out with an almost Looney Tunes kind of roadrunner, and then goes on with the train running along several different stretches of New Mexico Track. Even if the train turns out to be a flop, this is a neat screen saver, and the Feds have already paid for it.

One of my favorites for just a lot of railroad photos and information is Fallen Flag Railroad Photos. This is a mix of just about everything, but there are some very good photos of passenger equipment to be seen.

Heavy on the Passenger Rail side is Dave's Electric Railroads. This is just full of photos of all kinds of electric railroading, including streetcar lines and rapid transit.

On the subject of rapid transit, check out if you are even remotely interested in the Chicago Transit Authority and its history. This site isn't so full of photos, but it has a lot of text and some spots where visitors can post their memories.

We don't know how to quantify it, but this one is one of the top five for just plain fun. Live Railroad Radio Communications has live hookups with train radio signals from all over, many of them on passenger routes. The latter include BNSF Railway in Chicago, BNSF Metrolink, Los Angeles, and Harrisburg, PA. There are, unfortunately, no direct Amtrak or commuter rail hookups.

Finally, for another interesting screensaver, go to this link, for an easy screensaver called Train Maniac that is just plain escapist fun to watch. It starts out with a maniac laying track over your desktop with the contents of the desktop showing behind it only in blocks where track is placed. Shortly, the little train comes running and tries to catch up with the maniac. Never does. Train Maniac is a bit of freeware.

We ask that you honor the copyrights of all of the goodies that we have linked in this blog.

Next time we share, we will try to find some interesting sites for those of you who are into simulations.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -