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 -