Monday, May 29, 2006

Memorial Day - Remember Railroaders

While traveling, visiting family, consuming hot dogs, and doing all the other symbolic, purely American things that we do on Memorial Day, let's remember our fallen heroes, and particularly fallen railroaders.

Beginning with the Civil War and in every war thereafter, railroads have played a large part and railroaders have given their lives for the war efforts.

In the American Civil War, both sides had a vision of what they thought the Union should be, and both sides payed a high price fighting for that vision. Railroads became life lines as well as supply lines. The military of both sides first realized the worth of railroads as people movers, and as strategic objectives. The first military batallions were formed. The fact that the North had a better rail infrastructure than the South contributed to victory.

Railroaders have joined up simply to fight, and given their lives in that way. Railroaders have been sent to every overseas theater of war where our Allies had railroads that needed to be run and where our victory meant capture and operation of the enemy rail lines.

On the home front, railroaders have suffered the many casualties resulting from overextended physical plants and the rush to supply men and machines for our overseas operations. Railroaders have served patriotic missions in all crafts associated with the railroad industries.

And remember, too, that today's railroaders go to war, and today's railroads can yet be called on to defend us in war and peace.

Honor those who have fallen to preserve our American way of life. Pray to Almighty God for their immortal souls. And thank that ever-loving God for the blessings of liberty that all of us in the United States of America would not enjoy if not for their sacrifices and His Grace. Amen.

© Memorial Day 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Similar and Different - Commuter Rail reports in this May 9, 2006, article that an agreement to build and operate commuter rail called Northstar between the cities of St. Cloud and Minneapolis and Rochester is now in place.

The similarities to our own RailRunner abound. First, they've picked a name that will forever be confused with a corporate trademark when somebody is trying to find them on the web. Next, they are running it on BNSF Railway track, although (technically) the track on which RailRunner is going to run is now in the hands of the State of New Mexico. Do you suppose that BNSF didn't think they could put one over on the City Slickers in the Twin Cities, as they did over on the sombrero-wearing populace of New Mexico? Time will tell.

Furthermore, the distance traveled from end to end will be comparable to the full route distance from Belen to Santa Fe, once in operation.

There end the similarities. Northstar is expecting to carry 5600 passengers per day by 2020. That seems a little low for such a heavily populated metro area. Under the current draft schedule for RailRunner, the trains (9 one way and 7 the other) each day couldn't carry that many passengers in their two Bombardier bilevel coaches per train if they sold every seat on every train at least once a day. That kind of thing doesn't even happen in large metro areas.

The establishment of projects similar to RailRunner gives a little more weight and credibility to New Mexico's fledgling. We have been critical of RailRunner and the approach to commuter rail taken by New Mexico, but we applaud any projects that will promote and encourage more Passenger Rail.

We were going to take a look at some other recently reported and promising developments, but time doesn't permit with this post. So we will take that up another time.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Monday, May 22, 2006

Chicago's Circle II

On May 11, we began telling our blog readers about the Circle Line being planned for Chicago. Please scroll down or click on the link at left to read that blog.

The second link in the circle is more problematic. As originally proposed, it would have to be an elevated link from Woods Curve (we have been told it should be Wood Curve) to Ashland-Archer on the Midway (Orange) Line. The Douglas Branch and the Orange Line are at their closest approach along Ashland. The link, however, would probably be aligned along or west of Paulina, as a proposed station would be located at Blue Island and Paulina.

To look at an aerial photograph of this area is to see what a massive project this would be. (As the good aerial photo sites don't let us do a direct link to the map, we suggest going to Windows Live Local and keying "1600 West Archer Ave, Chicago, IL" into the "where" line. That will get you to the Archer-Ashland station on the Orange Line and you will be able to grab the map and move north along Paulina to find Woods Curve.) Going straight south from Woods Curve would mean taking out residential structures for four blocks, and then there are existing industrial buildings. Going east, then south over the Paulina right-of-way makes more sense, as this would take out fewer residential structures, if any, and Paulina becomes an industrial backroad south of Blue Island.

But then comes the river/canal crossing. (The "river" that continues southwest at this point is really the canal that was built to reverse the flow of the Chicago River into the Illinois River system. The actual South Branch of the Chicago River turns due south before it gets to Ashland and dries up before it gets to Pershing Road where marshy land was filled in years ago in building the stock yards.) Unless the new line turns east along the north shore of the river and piggybacks on the existing Ashland road bridge, a new rail-only bridge would have to be built.

There are some fairly substantial industrial buildings on the Paulina alignment south of the river, so we surmise that the line would have to jog west and skirt their west perimeters, and then a wide turn due east to meet the Orange line west of the existing Ashland-Archer station.

The meeting of the new line and the existing Orange Line itself would be something of a feat, as there are steam rail lines in use at the same grade north of the Orange Line. The choices appear to be crossing at grade (not desirable, as one of the heavy rail lines is commuter Heritage Corridor) or a flyover wherein the new line gets its own station above the existing one. This could become quite a complex, with both a heavy rail and rapid transit station on one level above Ashland and another rapid transit station a level above that all connected with stairs, escalators and elevators for transfers: Circle to/from Orange Line, Circle to/from Heritage Corridor, and Orange Line to/from Heritage Corridor.

Remember that the Stevenson Expressway (Interstate 55) crosses Ashland between the stations and Archer on a very high bridge that takes it over all rail lines and the old South Branch of the river. All of this gets very futuristic with multiple levels of rail and road traffic all over the place if you start to visualize it.

This whole thing only makes sense as a Circle Line if they add something here, so in Chicago's Cirle III, we will tell you what that is.

©2006 - C. A. Turek -

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Defrauding Foamers

Charles K. Frodsham writes to us that he is having trouble getting his promised subscription to a magazine called Rail Travel News. Having had no experience with this particular mag, we are afraid that we were not much help. But it got us thinking.

First, the disclaimer: The title is not an attempt to disrespect railfans. We are railfans. Passenger Rail enthusiasts are automatically railfans. We perhaps actually have foamed at the mouth at the sight of a train, and we most certainly would foam at the sight of something like The Empire Builder tooling past at 60 mph along the 3-track out of Chicago.

More disclaimer: This does not imply that Rail Travel News is a fraud or has attempted to defraud Mr. Frodsham. It could all be a mixup. However.

It got us thinking about how many people and so-called organizations are out there just itching to con us our of our cash. And if we are a member of a recognizable group, we become more of a target. If that group is one involving some sort of enthusiast endeavor, like Passenger Rail, then we may as well have the target tatooed onto a butt cheek.

We like to think that members of our particular group, railfans, for instance, are not so low a life form that they would engage in defrauding other railfans. This is true of all enthusiast groups; we are sure that Winnie The Pooh lovers think that all other such Pooh lovers are above reproach.

Unfortunately, 'snot true. (See So beware of those magazine subscriptions, those mail solicitations, those "offers coming over the phone", and those unsolicited emails that offer everything from discount Amtrak tickets to sex in the sleeper. Passenger Rail enthusiasts are not above defrauding us, and they are not above being defrauded by others.

If you have been defrauded or simply want to discuss offers that are suspect, we invite you to join the Passenger Rail group through the link and start a discussion.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Monday, May 15, 2006

More Fantasy Rail

Peter Montgomery writes in an email of May 7, 2006:

The high-speed rail (HSR) route I want to see is Vancouver, BC - Tijuana, Mexico (or Bellingham-San Diego). Alas the California Assembly voted last week to delay a public vote on the initial HSR segment bond (San Francisco-Los Angeles) until November, 2008. Eight hours for downtown Seattle to downtown San Francisco (perhaps with a transfer at Sacramento, Stockton, or Merced) would be very good. We need both daytime and overnight trains.

Thank's for writing, Peter.

Eventually, somebody has to see that we in the United States, when still a developing nation, never should have been so hung up on the transcontinental passenger routes (which never were true transcons) at the expense of the north-south routes that could have or should have connected Canadian population centers with our populous cities and with either Mexico or The Gulf thereof.

Combinations of trains and single, mostly seasonal, tourist routes existed in the first half of the last century, but they were short of the mark. Southern Pacific probably came closest on the West Coast, but most of the Eastern routes started at the United States population centers, not the Canadian.

An interesting route to contemplate would be one from Toronto through to New Orleans. We'd venture that the best approach would be to avoid the existing crossings of the Great Lakes' river systems and build a high speed bridge or tunnel. Even better would be one all the way to Mexico City via any of the possible crossings in Texas. We are sure we would have to subsidize HS in Mexico. Wouldn't it make the route all the more viable to include Houston, which currently has no viable north-south passenger routing?

Montreal to Miami or Tampa also comes to mind, but route the service down the coast and avoid the current hodgepodge of freight railroads that make the Silver Service trains such a nightmare today. New track, and new trains. (The basic principle of Revamp Nothing.)

Have any of the readers of this blog ever been to Winnipeg? Winnipeg is a great railroad town with a beautiful passenger station. We know there have been historic Minneapolis to Winnipeg trains, but why not Winnipeg-Fargo-Sioux Falls-Sioux City-Omaha-Kansas City-Tulsa-Dallas-Houston-Brownsville-Matamoros-Veracruz? It's almost a straight north-south shot and hits a dozen population centers.

Does anyone out there with an itch to run passenger trains have the money to invest in a project like this? Where is Mr. Branson when you need him?

Once again, we invite readers to tell us about your some-day-it-may fantasy passenger railroad.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Chicago's Circle

In a way, this is another fantasy rail blog entry, and in a way it is not.

The City of Chicago and the CTA recently announced its plans to hold public hearings on the several possible Circle Line routes that will (and we emphasize will, not might) connect all rail, rapid transit and bus routes in the city.

The very early plans - going back 4 years or more - for the Circle Line were all rail. None of them involved Commuter Rail; they all called for extensions or renovations of elevated rapid transit lines.

The first projected part of the Circle was going to be a renovation of the Paulina Street Connector. We once rode regularly scheduled "L" service on this line, but once the Congress line was completed and opened into the Dearborn Street Subway, the line became the only connection between the Douglas Park (Blue Line in current jargon) and the rest of the L-subway system. The Connector is still the only connection between the Blue Line and the remainder of the third-rail system.

(Sidebar: At one time, the Blue Douglas Line ran north from Woods curve to connect with the Garfield Park (no longer existing) line to make a turn east and get into the Loop. When the Garfield Park was moved to street level during the construction of the Congress (now Eisenhower) Expressway, Douglas trains ran north all the way to Lake Street and then entered the loop. It is during this transition period that we can remember riding this route.)

So the re-opening of this connector became one of our Fantasy Rail lines. We could never understand why management didn't want to run some of the Blue Line trains through the subway and some into the Loop on the "L" structure. It just made more sense to us that commuters using the line could more easily reach a greater variety of Loop points without transfer or walking that way. But we digress.

The Circle Line may bring the re-opening of this line, with trains serving both a new transfer station at Lake and one at 18th Street that would make a connection with the Metra Burlington Northern Santa Fe line commuter route. This would bring another Fantasy Rail element for us, as the 18th Street station was probably our most frequent stop to visit the adjacent Leader Department Store. As both of this writer's parents worked there, it was also a spot where we had trainwatching rights by access to the roof of the three-story building. That took us just high enough to see "L" trains moving all the way from Woods curve on the south to the Racine (Medical Center) station, and to see the action under the truss that carried the "L" over the Burlington tracks north of 18th Street.

In short, we imagined what is now planned back in the day.

Time and tide wait for no man, and we are out of time to post this entry. So look for Chicago's Circle II on another day.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Monday, May 08, 2006

Time For A "Revamp"

We have heard this phrase over and over again. In the context of Amtrak, it means that we are going to see something old recycled again. We will soon see, according to the interim Amtrak president, a revamp of schedules and service.

In the early days, it meant we would have to ride in the legacy equipment from the contributing railroads. (See previous blog on the subject of "passover.") The riding public had to be content with the coaches, lounges, diners, and sleepers that were often already two decades old, poorly maintained, and worn out. We had to contend with the revamp of schedules then, too, because there were way fewer passenger trains than anyone could remember and somebody had to figure out how to make the remaining trains serve as many people as possible.

There have been equipment revamps. Credit Amtrak with ordering new equipment on occasion. For example, taking the Santa Fe high level car concept and turning it into the Superliner was a stroke of genius. But they have had to be revamped, over and over again. The Metroliners, the Viewliners, the Autotrains: All the popular concepts became pretty heavily used and had to be revamped.

Back in the day, the railroads would also revamp passenger equipment. They did this for their secondary trains, not for their flagship runs. Amtrak won't hear any of it, though. The flagships get the revamps.

Amtrak has had to "revamp" food service more times than we can count. From full diners to automat cars and back to full diners. Dive into the "airline food" concept. Dive back out and revamp for full meals cooked on board. Whoa! Wait a minute! They've invented the microwave! We should treat all Amtrak passengers to microwave meals. And back and forth. Revamp after revamp.

The brakes on the Acela trainsets had to be revamped before they wore through their first cycle, and before they killed someone.

The concept of carrying passengers was revamped to passengers and mail and express . . . and orange juice . . . and apples. Oh, lets try to revamp this again. The concept of being on time was changed from making tight schedules work to padding them enough so that the passengers won't notice the delays. The concept of repairing the trains before boarding passengers was revamped to "pull it out to the yard and fix it after leaving the station." And pad the schedule some more.

So Wonder of Wonders, it is again time for a revamp.

Railroad technology and railroading in general is so set in its ways that it is truly hard to imagine any really new concept. We understand that.

But here's one. We call it Revamp Nothing.

In Revamp Nothing, the public (me and you and everybody that pays taxes) invests (via government subsidy) in a Passenger Rail system that works. In Revamp Nothing, we start by deciding where rail passengers want to go and from where they want to start. We build tracks for high speed trains where we don't have them, and buy them from the railroads where they do. We put in modern, computerized, GPS located, controlled interval signaling that maximizes track capacity. We build locomotives and trainsets specifically designed for the routes. We use state-of-the-art energy-saving concepts but we don't listen to NIMBYs and BANANAs. (Not In My Back Yard, and Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything) We build in the amenities that the owners of the railroad (me and you and everybody) want, and we charge for these amenities. We run trains on time and we do not allow other (more heavily subsidized) modes of transport to tell us how to run our railroad. We charge the right price for our services to make the highest cash flow from our investment. Our stock rises and falls by whether the railroad is maximizing cash flow. (We own the stock.) And when the property finally earns a buck, we don't put it into some government account to cover Social Security (a ponzi scheme). The owners (me and you and everybody) earn a dividend. After all, we were the investors that built the damn railroad!

In just a light touch of vanity, we don't call it Amtrak. We call it My Railroad. "I'm taking My Railroad to my business meeting." "I'm riding My Railroad on vacation." It reminds us that we own it!

Revamp Nothing. (If anybody is interested in seriously promoting the Revamp Nothing concept, please let us know and we will be glad to set up a blog and/or a group discussion.)

We will shut up now.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Take Away The Seats

In this recent post about Amtrak, we noted that the next thing after taking away the diners and the sleepers would be taking away the seats. Somebody from Airbus has been reading my blog, because the next thing you know, the NY Times and others are reporting about taking away the seats on airlines.

Honestly, we were only being sarcastic. We can see it all now. And we quote.

"The fifth interim president of Amtrak, appointed by President Bush after four other presidents were fired because they couldn't find a way to scrap the property fast enough, today announced that Amtrak would be removing half of the seats from its remaining long distance passenger coaches. Interim president Mohammad Al Barwipe, who just started his job on May 1 after spending six years as interim president of Islamic Call Centers of Central Surinam, Inc., stated in a sixty-page press release that he had seen the idea on a blog written by some idiot named Trains who lives in the town of New, Mexico.

"The first seats to go will be those nearest the bathrooms at the ends of the cars. This will create the potential for selling approximately double the number of tickets for that area. However, President Barwipe noted that this may also give the company the opportunity to sell premium 'bring your own table and chairs' areas. Accomodations for not more than two folding chairs and/or one Samsonite folding table per group of six people may be sold at approximately 20 percent more than the standee price.

"Al Barwipe also observed that the popularity of standing near the bathrooms while waiting to get into one that works convinced him that this was the right approach. 'Eventually, we may wipe out seats altogether and just hang a bunch of nylon straps from the walls for sleeping while standing purposes,' Barwipe said in a later interview.

"One the the three Amtrak passengers that boarded the Empire Builder last month was asked what she thought of the idea. Leda McChinsky of Utica, Minnesota, who rides regularly for her health, said she knew exactly where Mr. Barwipe could put the spare seats. 'Most of 'em smell like they been up there, anyways,' she observed.

"Asked whether Amtrak would also consider accomodating livestock in the extra space, Mr. Barwipe said he thought he would wait until this summer's Ride on the Side sales initiative that includes eliminating air conditioning on routes of less than 300 miles. 'We will have to see if this makes a dent in ticket sales first,' he was quoted as saying."

Believe me, we think it's coming. It's only a matter of time.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Monday, May 01, 2006

Mayday! Amtrak Goes Interactive

We don't know if you would like to have Macromedia Flash Player (version 8) installed on your computer. We don't particularly care and hadn't thought about it until we received an email from Amtrak. The electronic missive suggested that we would enjoy shopping for our next Amtrak tickets using the new Interactive Route Atlas. Warning: Following the preceding link may result in the installation of Macromedia Flash Player.

I'm not against "high tech." But I do agree with the aphorism that says: Reject the labor saving tool if the operating manual weighs more than the tool. To paraphrase: Reject the "fun, interactive web pages" if it takes longer to load the viewer than it does to phone the call center and make a reservation.

Amtrak has had a web page for as long as we can remember. It has never been a particularly flashy web page (no pun intended), just a utility through which you can get to know Amtrak without having to deal with a call center or a live ticket agent. (Let it be known here that we have dealt with many Amtrak ticket agents and all are good people doing an admirable job under sometimes the worst of conditions. For the baseline on bad conditions, check out the current Albuquerque Amtrak station some day.)

In our opinion, there are a good many ways that Amtrak could have coded their interactive feature without making us download a player. We are going to go out on a limb and suggest that better than 50% of people logging on to the Amtrak site are not particularly computer literate. Most of them probably use their browser regularly but don't know much about plug-ins and players. We know quite a few of these folks, most of them likely Amtrak passengers, who keep their firewalls set on high and their scanners ready to block any hint of a program that may be harmful to the well being of their daily visits to the stock page or the online poker site. Having to decide whether Macromedia Flash Player is a good thing or a bad thing will not sit well with them.

Frankly, we'd be more impressed if Amtrak had done an upgrade of the entire site. While there is something to be said for keeping up an appearance, there is more to be said for improving on an already tarnished image.

Amtrak needs to spend less advertising cash on Internet advertising and email newletters and more on the kind of multiple media exposures that guys like Richard Branson go in for. Get a major celeb to ride the train, cover it on Good Morning America, and make sure they tell everyone how much elegant fun they are having. Launch a major sales initiative and get The View to comment on the comforts of rail travel. We don't think anything like this is being done, and if it is, it is not making enough of an impression. We are particularly attuned to anything referring to rail travel, and if we don't notice it, nobody is noticing it.

We hope that the people who made the decision on the shape and format of the interactive route map are not the same people who get to decide on technological upgrades for the trains. We'd be better off with steam heat and link-and-pin couplers.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -