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 -

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Keep Up The Good Work

Meeting Amtrak's Southwest Chief (both 3 and 4) at the miserable excuse of a train station in Albuquerque, NM, this past week has reminded us just how much Amtrak is still doing with the budget whose bottom line is most easily described as "not enough."

Before we go off on what's wrong with the picture, here is what's right:

The trains were reasonably on time. We say reasonably because both delays were none of Amtrak's fault. Train 3 was delayed by a freight train engine failure, and Train 4 by wet roadbed resulting from the record rains in New Mexico.

The trains were reasonably beautiful. This train running behind two or three new diesel electric units still evokes memories of the Super Chief of the 60s with high level cars in all stainless steel. Inside, my visiting family had a family bedroom that was as luxurious as it was expensive and appeared to have been recently refurbished. REVAMP NOTHING!

The personnel we met were courteous and helpful, and my family reported that service enroute was exemplary. Even food service was praiseworthy, and that's saying a mouthful.

Station personnel were equally to be praised. The station agent was happy to describe his understanding of delays, and the baggage clerks were pleasant and communicative. No secrets were being kept, or at least one didn't get that impression. Amtrak take note! These are the loyal personnel of the Albuquerque station.

Now to what Amtrak is doing wrong with the limited budget.

Amtrak needs to break out only a small fraction of what they will spend for locomotive and car maintenance, for track maintenance, and for new equipment over the next few years and spend that money on dunderhead cities like Albuquerque. The station is a disgrace, and the dunderheads that run Albuquerque have seen fit to highlight the disgrace by sandwiching it between the brand new city transit station and the brand new city bus station. Both are less than magnificent unless stood up against Amtrak's hovel. Then they become palatial.

Yes, we know it was about forcing Amtrak's hand, but Amtrak and Albuquerque both dug in for a battle and both lost. Now the arriving passenger gets a bad impression, not of Amtrak, but of the City of Albuquerque, because by the time the passenger gets there, he/she already knows Amtrak is trying.

So get out of your foxhole, Amtrak, and put up a few bucks and build a decent station waiting room, ticket booth and baggage handling area. One that doesn't look like the roaches are going to eat the luggage as soon as the lights are turned off. The dunderheads that run Albuquerque will never do it.

What else? Amtrak should refuse to pay New Mexico to use the tracks until they are upgraded to a standard that doesn't look like a branch line from the 1930s. Now that New Mexico owns the right of way used by the Chief from Raton to Isleta, Amtrak should have the right to demand decent track or withhold enough payment to do it yourself. (The washout wasn't anybody's fault.)

Amtrak, playing second fiddle to state legislators for funding of many of its routes, needs to get some nads and be ready to put some feet to the fire when a state doesn't deliver. We have suggested before that using the right-of-way for free should be New Mexico's contribution to Amtrak's subsidies.

So there you have it. Amtrak is doing a truly remarkable job with the money they have, and they could use some stones, and if they stood up to some of the recalcitrant cities and states once in awhile, they just may have more money to play with. That's what we saw as Trains 3 and 4 rolled to a stop in Albuquerque.


©2006 - C. A. Turek -

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Second Hiatus of the Month

We regret with joy that we will be putting the blog on hiatus for the second time this month. Regret, because we enjoy doing this blog. Joy because we are going on vacation this time and not just to some meetings.

Best wishes to all. Our next post will be August 24, 2006.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Applause or Just Politics

We direct the reader's attention to this article originating with the Philadelphia Enquirer and posted on

We are not sure that we should trust either of these guys (Lautenberg & Lott would make a good name for a law firm), but their pragmatic and somewhat well informed approach to Amtrak funding makes much more sense than the current admin's "let the states do it" approach.

We say "somewhat well informed," because the Northeast Corridor isn't really high speed rail and won't be until it is ramped up to that status in the distant future. Right now it is just trains running at higher than average speeds on existing right-of-way. The latter has been revamped (REVAMP NOTHING) at some cost, but it is not high speed rail like the French or the Japanese know it.

Perhaps that is some of the problem. If our representatives believe that the Northeast Corridor rises or can rise to the standard of the true HSR trains, then we may not have any hope of reaching that goal.

The second half of their article makes much more sense and advances an argument to include more money for Passenger Rail in our transportation budget. The arguments are the same ones we have been making in this blog. It makes no sense not to have an alternative to air and highways, and it also makes all the sense in the world to have an alternate that is less vulnerable to attack. Though most of those with D after their names would deny it, we are in a war in which we are vulnerable to attack. Mr. Lautenberg appears to be one of the few who may recognize it.

As long as this is not just a way to get the Honerables Lott and Lautenberg into another press release, we applaud their efforts. Just don't follow it up with politics as usual.

©2006 - C. A. Turek -

Monday, August 07, 2006

Cost vs. Benefit - Overstating the Obvious

We thought we'd tackle the first post after Hiatus with an inspiration from the comment to NGR II - Train Control posted by Christopher Parker. Nice shot at cost-benefiting our argument out of existence! (Or is it benefitTing?)

But not so fast.

When we do cost vs. benefit analysis, are we always seeing the big picture? In Chris' case, we think not. He wants to integrate running of trains into signal systems and traffic control. And he wants the spent money to give us some benefit that will justify the expenditure.

For the last half century, the standard method used by industry (make that ANY industry) to reduce cost has been to reduce personnel. Why should it be any different for Next Generation Rail? Automation means reduction in the work force with corresponding reduction in the salaries and benefits that continue on the red side of the ledger until the employee lives out his or her ever lengthening retirement. There's your cost-benefit.

However, bless him, Chris also argues himself into the real reason why we should automate the train handling process. This is a reason we really haven't gotten to talk about in detail yet, and may not now for a few weeks. This reason is the increase in line capacity. (Think outside the box and ignore Chris' need to create rolling blocks and plan meets. Someday, these, too will be a skill needed only by the computer programmer.)

Railroading is a capital intensive business. Transportation industries, in general, are the only businesses where Service is the product but large amounts of capital must be put in place to provide these services. (Think about that: When the product is sold and used up, it is gone. It doesn't exist. It doesn't even have to be taken to the landfill. We can give you the same kind of service at a call center for self-repair of widgets with no more capital than the cost of a telephone system, not the billions of dollars railroads have to spend for land, taxes, track, trains and equipment.)

So the best approach is to get the biggest bang for your buck, and this would be to run the most trains on the least amount of track using the least amount of equipment to do so. We are not saying that only technologizing control systems can this be accomplished. But, if you take the cost of labor out of the equation, the numbers look a lot better. To do this, every other passenger transport segment has to spend way more money than rail. (Airlines would love to figure out how to land and take off without the pilot, and that's all they need him for right now.)

There are other cost-benefits, too. Because, like sending men into space, the development of the technologies leads to spin-offs that give immediate benefit in many areas. We are sure you can think of examples, but write to us if you can't and we will get you some.

Thanks, Chris, for your thoughtful comments.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -