Sunday, May 25, 2008

Passenger Rail and The Directionally Challenged

A large part of the job of any CSR working for a passenger transportation company - be it airline, rail or bus - is getting people to and from the terminal. People will get on the 800 number and use it like a free GPS to get directions.

It gave us the idea that Amtrak, in addition to publishing system timetables and train-specific timetables, should publish timetables that include every U.S. municipality. Not that Amtrak will probably ever serve every city, even with bus service. But in today's computer-driven age, there is no reason not to be able to publish your time from say Skokie, IL, to Union Station, Chicago, by car. And then at the other end by whatever means to whatever municipality. Sure this would take a huge book if published on paper. But on the Web, it would be child's play to design pages that would give the consumer this timetable.

This way a customer not only gets some idea of how long the total trip will take, but the customer also gets a sort of guide. Coupled with system maps, this should be an attractive draw for customers. We know there are many potential Amtrak riders that shy away from riding the train for the very reason that they do not know how to plan the non-Amtrak ends.

More specifically, in the Skokie example, the timetable could give the time at Skokie, representing the time the Skokie-ite had to leave home. Then perhaps the time at Lawrence Avenue, Chicago, and the Edens Expressway, maybe the time to park the car in some long-term facility. At the other end, a time would be shown for the transfer say from Oakland Jack London to a San Jose bound train, and then add the California train schedule with maybe time for cousin Joe to drive you from San Jose to his home.

Yes, some travel agents do this now, but only with the parts where you buy travel. If you are driving yourself, you are on your own to figure times.

Maybe this is already being done somewhere, and if it is, we would like to see Amtrak pick up on it and figure out how to do it with their own schedules.

© 2008 - C. A. Turek -

Sunday, May 18, 2008

When Will It Hit Them?

"It" being the train, that is. And by "Them" I refer to the entire United States Government, all branches and all agencies, and all state governments. Them Politicians.

It has already hit the general public and, to some extent, private enterprise. Consistently, the railroad press and the general media carry more stories about Passenger Rail than they did just five years ago. And they are all positive – for Passenger Rail.

The media attention is in a few distinct categories, but it all shows that the general public is either becoming more aware of Passenger Rail alternatives or being pressed to do so by keen observers. The categories:

News stories of startups of new passenger service, both Amtrak and privately run.

News stories about groups that advocate Passenger Rail improvements including the institution of new lines.

Editorials advocating improvements or new lines.

Opinion pieces stating what a bunch of transportation dunderheads we have in our governments. Them Politicians.

Meanwhile, back on The Hill, Congress continues its obstructive tactics to marginalize Amtrak and snatch as much money as possible for highways and air transport.

A local buffet restaurant once placed television advertising that suggested potential customers’ ignorance of the goodness of their product by smacking them in the face with a heavy frying pan and then having the question “When will it hit you?” running over the still-ringing gong of the frying pan. Well, when the hell will it hit the government? Them Politicians.

The way we see it, government must do several things, among which are:

Fund Amtrak in an enlightened and non-politicized way. That means realistic spending on new and improved equipment and services.

Continue and increase subsidies for increased service by private carriers. Include short lines in the bidding process and don’t prohibit startups from participating.

Stop the process of hamstringing railroads with re-regulation. Possibly the only reason private rail is healthy today is the de-regulation that occurred almost three decades ago. If the so-called re-regulation takes place, limiting rate-making and abolishing the anti-trust exemption for railroads, it will take another quarter century to kill them off. So look at another fifty years before we get back to what we have today - if the politicians have anything to say about it. Unfortunately, they do.

Wise up when it comes to implementing un-realistic risk management. No mode of transport is perfectly safe.

Educate the public that Passenger Rail does not make money up front. It is a necessary public service that helps everybody else make money, increases commerce, and improves government bottom line with a rising economy.

Stop listening to the tree-huggers and NIMBYs and let Passenger Rail be the green source of transport it has always been. It is ironic that the same person who doesn’t want a train running past the house won’t complain when the same number of folks drive by in heavy-polluting SUVs.

When will it hit them?

© 2008 - C. A. Turek -

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Transportation and Oil

Both are in crisis. Both are controversial. And in both cases, the United States Government is to stupid to see it.

These two crises are one - in more ways than one.

Both have been precipitated by long years of public and governmental complacency and by the inability of private sector businesses to see beyond the current quarter and the bottom line. Both are fed by the lack of public imagination of our politicians and by the ability of special interest groups to influence public policy.

Case one: Much of our government and most of the public doesn't think there is a transporation crisis or an oil crisis. They think of it more in terms of high prices and/or lack of service. They believe that the businesses that provide product or service can remedy any problems by not overcharging the public.

Case two: Controversy over the place for Passenger Rail in our society hasn't stopped for one second since private Passenger Rail fell in the late 60s. About the same time, controversy over whether we should be getting oil from our own shores began.

Case three: The public does not see and crisis unless it is presented as such by the media. Ditto for the government. Government and legislation chases problems that are in the news, not those that never make the front page or Nightline.

Case four: Investing in both transportation and oil production or refining right now is a risky business. The bottom line is months (many quarters) if not years away. The pension funds and the trust funds that control the equity won't stand for it.

Case five: If you can't think of an easy fix for the problem, oil or transportation, then no fix is better than a partial one. We can ride it out until a good fix comes along. This is foolhardy and won't work.

Case six: Fixes are going to cost money, and they won't come about if railroads (read Amtrak), airlines and oil companies just lower their prices. They are already all disincentivized by government, and loss of profit motive removes even more incentives for innovation.

Case seven: Environmental activists have done wonders for us since the 1970s. Think DDT and detergents in the waterways. But many if not most are now over the edge and looking for a cause that hasn't been tackled. Most of the causes are minor ones, at best, and don't require the heavy-handed approach that the major ones did. They need to pull back from both oil and transportation projects so we can actually get something done in this country. Dubai wouldn't be as spectacular if they had environmentalists to tell them they couldn't transform the pristine desert environs.

Just a few thoughts. We will shut up now.

©2008 - C. A. Turek -