Friday, November 24, 2006

Hiatus Announcement

We're leavin' on a jet plane, won't be back again until after 12/1. Could have been a train, but employers don't think "train" when it comes to business travel. Pity.

Rather than lug the laptop through security or count on getting a decent connection on a hotel computer blah, blah, we are suspending the blog for a time. Our next post is scheduled for 12/4. Have a happy holiday season.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Sell The Seats You Have

The most recent issue of Trains carries an article that describes how Amtrak copes with the Thanksgiving Holiday rush. It's not a surprise that Amtrak no longer even tries to have enough seats for everyone who wants to ride. They just want to sell the seats they have at a price that goes higher with every sold seat.

Yes, selling more seats could produce higher revenues, but at what cost? This is the bottom line syndrome that has hit Amtrak hard, making it less of a public utility and more of a government white elephant.

T'was a time when Amtrak could find enough used, abused and just plain junk passenger equipment, service it, and put it on the rails for a holiday rush. Gone to sales or scrap, these venerable pieces of equipment have their modern counterpart in the scores of damaged or worn out passenger seats in Amtrak yards. There's no money budgeted for repairs and repairs don't appear to be on the radar screen.

Our theory of a proper course for Amtrak is Revamp Nothing. Go back through our archives to find out what Revamp Nothing is all about. But should Amtrak (or whatever form national Passenger Rail takes in the future) build enough new equipment to meet peak demands?

We say yes! Why? Because holidays and vacations are the make and break for any travel-related business in the US. Any business will get more repeat business and off-peak business if it can handle the peaks with style and class.

Case in point: Car rentals. Having a good experience when renting a car for a holday trip makes us more willing to spend that extra bit and rent one while our Mercedes is in the shop, or when our two-seater just isn't big enough to take four adults out for dinner. Having a good experience with the car itself will also sell more of the same car line off the dealer lots.

If we can call up Amtrak and get a reservation for a last-minute out-of-town Thanksgiving dinner invitation, we will be more likely to check out Amtrak when we need a last minute to go to a business meeting two states away. If the price is reasonable, we will be more likely. This is true of airlines, too.

Because we can't do this today is why we drive alot. It's why alot of people drive alot instead of take the train, which for trips of 1500 miles or less has comparable travel times.

We are talking to Alex Kummant: Get those government dunderheads to fess up enough money so that you can build some peak capacity. Stop playing games with numbers on tickets that should be flat rated. Get some balls and start serving the train-riding public like a real railroad! You may be surprised on how much new money you can make.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Monday, November 20, 2006

High Tech and Next Generation Passenger Rail

We have previously blogged the subject of Next Generation Passenger Rail and how high-tech control for locomotives and trains could be implimented.

The December issue of Trains carries an article about the recent federal mandate to convert to ECP braking. (Electronically Controlled Pneumatic braking)

On US trains on what is termed the "steam" railroads, the latest variation of the original Westinghouse air brake design from the late 19th Century is used. (Steam railroads are "heavy." They are not street railways, in general, and not light rail or rapid transit systems. However, many commuter railroads are steam railroads by this definition. Many rapid transit and street railroad systems also use regenerative braking, some use vacuum brakes and air brakes that are different from the Westinghouse system, and some use hydraulic brakes.)

With the US system, the brake pipe and air reservoirs on all cars are charged with compressed air produced by a compressor on the locomotive. Without going into exactly how this happens, we can say that a reduction in the pressure in the brake pipe going from car to car causes an application of the brakes. As this pressure reduction starts at the locomotive, it takes time to get to the last car of a long train.

ECP would add a control cable and control box to each car. A presumably digital signal would apply the brakes in all cars according to the brake application chosen by the engineer. Application for the whole train would be almost instantaneous and greatly assist in both control and stopping distance.

We think that anyone with an interest in railroading can see that this would take us one step closer to remote control of trains, with accompanying cost and safety improvements. (Some rapid transit trains are currently remote controlled. It is precisely because they use braking and power systems that offer better train control.)

ECP is an incremental change. ECP does not follow the policy of this blog, Revamp Nothing. ECP can be applied to existing systems without changing the entire system, and the cost can be spread out over the many owners of railroad rolling stock.

Following the informal guidelines of Revamp Nothing, a non-incremental change to a better form of ECP would allow for the following improvements: Either switch to vacuum brakes or allow for individual cars to charge their own reservoirs. Eliminate the cable and use digital (through the tracks). Let the train driver/engineer make one uniform application or apply brakes differently on different cars depending on conditions. Add regenerative (dynamic) braking on cars as it now exists on locomotives and on catenary systems.

Although Westinghouse had a good idea, pneumatic braking depends on not losing your air. The system has to be recharged. In vacuum braking, once you pull a vacuum, atmosphere does the work. And we think anyone who has ever operated a train or run a realistic simulator can see the advantages of being able to control where in the train you apply the brakes.

Comments anyone? We'd like to hear from the engineers.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Politicians and Passenger Rail

As the mid-term election balloon deflates to a screeching, "Whatever," we thought it would be interesting and informative to do a survey of how our newly elected congressmen stack up for/against or indifferent to Passenger Rail. We will start with New Mexico, move on to neighboring states. As it would take 25 weeks to cover all 50 states in our twice-weekly blogs, we will omit those states where we cannot locate any credible information. Readers please feel free to email us any info on your congressman (yes, it's the right form of address, even if she is female.)

In New Mexico, Heather Wilson has voted both for and against Amtrak funding and continuation of funding. Whether this signifies a lack of knowledge of railroading and Passenger Rail is a matter of opinion. Many Republican voters think that Ms. Wilson simply votes with Mr. Bush.

A little research shows that Tom Udall has an understanding of the economies of using rail to transport both freight and passengers, at least insofar as these economies support his positions on the environment and independence from foreign sources of oil. Udall has historically been associated with keeping both Amtrak and local intrastate service on the front burner and recognizes the detriment to the country if Passenger Rail should fall by the side of the roadbed.

Congressman Steve Pierce of New Mexico has no discernable record on Passenger Rail.

Next time on P & PR, Texas.

© 2006 - C. A Turek -

Monday, November 13, 2006

On Time and On The Advertised

Would advertising by freight railroads, and better advertising by Amtrak and commuter railroads really help the cause of Passenger Rail?

Some of our readers and some readers of Trains think so. We are not so sure.

If you are old enough to remember the days when intercity Passenger Rail advertised (we are), you will remember that it was always in conjunction with freight. Santa Fe was "Ship and Travel Santa Fe." Amtrak still does advertise, but it doesn't do a very good job of telling anyone where it goes.

The good old advertising leaned heavily on destination. Take the Broadway Limited to New York, the Super Chief to Los Angeles, the Hiawatha's, the 400's or the Twin Cities Zephyr to Minneapolis. (You can guess we lived in Chicago in those days.) Amtrak's advertising leans on price, and that's probably all they have going for them.

We don't know if present-day ad agencies are ready for advertising passenger rail. We would guess that the average ad exec doesn't know Tallahassee from Timbuctu, let alone where they are or how to spell them. (There are three spellings for the latter, all correct.) Would it help if the advertising told us where the freight railroads went? We doubt it.

Then there is the need for graphics. (Exception: Radio spot announcements.) For print ads, do you show the destination? Or do you show the passenger train speeding along the high iron at seventy per? (Few US passenger trains do seventy per, by the way.) We have seen some TV spots from Europe that are quite disarming, charming, witty and just as likely to spark an interest in riding as are any airline ads you may have seen in the United States.

Should the advertising lie and never show an Amtrak train threading its way past freight traffic? Or would the public be better off to realize that Amtrak has to use the already overloaded freight railroad system?

Or should the railroads (all railroads) put their heads together to develop an all new approach to getting people interested in trains? Maybe take a cue from the negative campaign ads. "Did you know that Tarmac Airlines uses stinky jet fuel? You can smell the kerosene during those nasty 90-minute waits for terminal space. Tarmac Airlines is soft on the war in Iraq. It hasn't carried nearly as many of our Armed Forces as has rail. Amtrak. Whay wait to fall out of the sky?"

Railroads used to issue promotional films by the hundreds. These thinly disguised "educational" films were shown in thousands of classrooms all over the country and made school-age children aware of how railroads fit into the politics and industry of the country. We haven't seen any for Amtrak or Passenger Rail in general, and we wouldn't be surprised if films that are decades old are still shown in classrooms.

We would like to see a general council called together for the sole purpose of making the public aware of rail's part in the American economy. Perhaps one composed of representatives of Class 1 and Shortline railroads as well as of commuter agencies and Amtrak. But please add representatives of the shipping and riding public, and of the non-educated public.

Although this blog has advocated separating Passenger Rail from Freight right of way, this will separate it from one of it's greatest educational benefits. As long as Passenger Rail must share the way with freight, the rider can be educated and see for him/herself how freight rail serves the country.

As specialization becomes the norm, education becomes more narrow. If we lose the ability to educate the public on this subject dear to our hearts and vital to the country, pity us for more than just our damnable hubris.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Wrong Approach Update

Imagine you took the time and effort to go out and vote. On your ballot, you found a referendum on a tax for certain civic projects. The ballot not only listed the projects for which the tax would pay, but also specified an expiration (or sunset) date for the tax.

Imagine then if your city council (or similar governing body) covened a few months or years later and looked at the tax and the projects (not all of which or perhaps none of which have been completed) and then agreed that your city needed a Passenger Rail system more than any of them. Furthermore, they voted in public session (no shame) to extend the tax beyond the sunset date.

If you voted for the tax, you probably would feel yourself ill used. If you did not vote for it and had been paying it these months and years, you would feel angry, disappointed and cheated. You may even vow never to ride the city council's damn train, no matter how convenient. You would probably be thinking about cancelling your carpool and buying a gas guzzler just for vengeance.

In a not-so-atypical move, the city council and mayor of Albuquerque, NM, have voted to manipulate our taxes in exactly the above way. Albuquerque will get a streetcar system (see previous blog) and the taxpayer will get the long shaft up the . . . Oh, well.

There's a good way and a bad way to promote Passenger Rail. The good way is to identify a need and a source of revenue. If that source includes private investment, so be it. Whether or not it does, any public investment should be for the benefit of the rate/tax payers. The bad way is to decide that your street would look good with a transit system, that developers will buy and develop in droves along its route, and that this is somehow good for the poor schmuck who lives nowhere near the streetcar line. (Environmental arguments are the hardest of this kind to swallow: "Even if you have to drive your car in to downtown, the streetcar will make for less traffic and pollution will be cut back by the clean electric service." Two lies: Rarely does new development result in less traffic, and coal-fired power plants pollute more, not less, than late model automobiles.)

Much is now being made by the drive-by media about the value of this decision. It is plain fraud and it will do more to taint Passenger Rail for the taxpaying public than it will to move Passenger Rail forward. We need passenger rail everywhere in this country. But not by means of fraud.

This is our opinion.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Monday, November 06, 2006

A Wrong Approach?

The Albuquerque Journal has recently reported on Mayor Martin Chavez's efforts to move a modern streetcar system to the front of the line of projects previously approved by voters. What is wrong with this? Voters didn't approve the streetcar system.

A little history: Albuquerque once had a streetcar system. It was not terribly extensive and served the older parts of town. When motor coaches became practical, the streetcar system fell by the wayside. Unlike some other systems, the tracks aren't even buried in the asphalt somewhere.

Albuquerque now has a bus system. It is not terribly extensive and serves only a limited part of Albuquerque (based on total square miles of the metro area). Politicians of late have seen public transportation as a steppingstone to votes.

The bus system is, in our Passenger Rail-tainted opinion, poorly run, dirty, inconvenient, and unsafe. Nonetheless, the city poured lots of money into a transportation center (glorified bus station) that looks like a Passenger Rail depot but isn't. The state poured lots of money into a stunted Rail Runner train that looks like a commuter train but isn't. (It is, in our opinion, a poorly planned, truncated white elephant that we will be lucky if it ever gets to the stated termini of Belen and Santa Fe.)

Now the city wants to pour lots of money into streetcars that will serve only the limited corridor of old Route 66 and the airport. Only people who live near the UNM campus or downtown will take these cars to the airport. For the rest of us, it will be too inconvenient. And the buses won't help and neither will the Rail Runner unless it pretty soon gets to where it is supposed to go.

The political trick is to get the city council to put the streetcars at the head of the list that the voters DID approve. The political problem is that the money is limited, from a tax that is supposed to terminate when enough money is collected for the specified projects. Putting the streetcars first will not only postpone the projects the voters wanted, but it will extend the term of the tax without voter approval. Unless the city council has some brains or balls or both.

We love Passenger Rail and would like to see extensive rail service including light rail and streetcar systems, whenever and wherever. But not at any cost. We love Passenger Rail, but is this, perhaps, a Wrong Approach?

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Elect a Dunderhead

We haven't hesitated to call a politician a dunderhead if he does something stupid with respect to Passenger Rail. By this definition, President Bush is a dunderhead.

The dictionary defines dunderhead by using only synonyms: Dunce, blockhead, numbskull. The Internet dictionaries go beyond this with more vulgar synonyms: S---head and f---head. Nonetheless, you get the idea.

Going back two posts to where we asked readers and fellow bloggers to ask some questions of your associates and send us the results, we have yet another use for the questions. In studying for next week's elections, you should study what your candidate's answers would be to those questions.

We would bet that every candidate out there gets a low mark when it comes to these simple questions regarding the utility of Passenger Rail.

Don't get us wrong, because we disagree with President Bush ONLY when it comes to his position on Amtrak. In general, we tend to agree with the conservative political point of view.

There is a commentary in the current issue of Railway Age. (The link takes you to the article.) The commentary is a certain expression of fear that there are no electable politicians that know enough about railroading to keep the industry rolling on a solvent, predictable, and positive path. We fear that the same is true for Passenger Rail in particular.

So, whoever (or whatever) you vote for in next Tuesday's elections, don't just assume that your Representative or Senator will do you justice when it comes to Passenger Rail. When the election smoke has cleared and all the dunderheads are firmly in office for another 2 or 6 years, start to write, email and fax them about where you want them to stand on Passenger Rail. And when you do, don't harangue about what you want, but educate them about the history and business of Passenger Rail.

Unfortunately, more and more these days, we have no choice but to elect a dunderhead.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -