Monday, October 02, 2006

Things Wear Out

This is true of almost everything, unless it is made of diamond or some such very hard substance. This is definitely true for Passenger Rail in the United States.

We have been trying to avoid the subject, because we don't agree with current efforts to turn Amtrak into a Northeast Corridor service and liquidate everything else. But Amtrak is worn out.

It was worn out alot before it was formed. The freight railroads that existed at Amtrak Day One (few of them still exist) seemed to have conspired to wear out every piece of passenger equipment in the country. This wasn't totally true, of course, because Amtrak did find a pool of equipment that has served it well, some of it to the present day. Noteably, Rio Grande and Southern continued passenger service with well-kept trains that subsequently contributed to the pool of available equipment.

Today, the concept of Amtrak is worn out. We are not saying that the concept of a national passenger rail network is worn out, because we believe in the mission: Provide a national network of passenger trains for the greater good of the country.

The concept was that Amtrak would take the best of the equipment, the best of the available routes, and pay the freight railroads to run the trains. This has been modified from "run the trains" to "let the trains run," but the concept is the same. As we have already said, much of the equipment was worn out. Amtrak only got the best of any equipment by accident. The railroads, in anticipation of some kind of nationalization, didn't maintain anything old and therefore were busy wearing out the best when Amtrak time came. Amtrak didn't get the best of the routes, either. Many routes had already been abandoned and a whole lot of track no longer supported passenger routes, even on Amtrak Day One.

Paying the freight railroads to put Amtrak over the road was a mistake from the get-go. The mandate that said the railroads had to accept Amtrak was a cover-up for the fact that the railroads had been given freedom to do what they were making money at. They really didn't want to move passenger trains, and still don't today. The concept is worn out, and has to be replaced by dedicated rights-of-way owned and operated by the passenger network.

Amtrak has purchased huge amounts of new equipment along the way, and it is wearing out, too. Even the newest passenger equipment is woefully worn. Even the newest locomotives have mileages in the multiples of millions. The maintenance cycle is interrupted by shortages, and the cycle for putting new equipment into the mix is interrupted by budget cuts.

Like a Montreal overpass, Amtrak is going to collapse on itself and hurt a lot of people.

National Passenger Rail needs a model where Amtrak or whatever the new entity is called (My Railroad) owns the entire physical plant, trains and equipment. Preferably, Passenger Rail would not share any tracks with traditional freight rail.

The route structure needs to touch every state, with the exception of Hawaii, and it needs to serve major population centers in each state without using buses to do it. The budget needed to do this needs to be guaranteed for at least a decade, with performance bonuses built in, and with penalties limited to firing the asses of the first managers that fail to bring the trains in on time and the costs within the budget.

Scheduled service needs to be at least weekly, and preferably daily, and only the types of freight that can be loaded on/off at Passenger Rail stations should be carried. That will be mail and express. Passengers should be the priority, and no train should be held up to load/unload mail and/or express. If we are laying new track, the successful hub and spoke model could be attempted.

Costly? Hell yes! But not as costly as the majority of government subsidies in this day and age, and not nearly as costly as not doing it now and then trying to do it 25 years down the railroad.

But here's the payoff. If we give it the committment and the backing, there will be a time down the railroad when Amtrak (or some such) Incorporated can go public. There will be a time, as with Conrail, when private enterprise will actually bid for the profit-making potential of owning Passenger Rail.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -
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