Sunday, March 30, 2008

Nothing Wrong With A Name

Thesis: Names that mean something are worth more than those that don't.

This thesis may have been false in the past. At a time earlier in the post-industrial revolution world when modern meant both new and unique, brand names that tangentially invoked their product's purpose or appearance were probably pretty popular. Otherwise so many of them would not have survived into the twenty-first century.

We are thinking Passenger Rail and comparing names like Amtrak and Metra to names like Rail Runner Express or North Star Express or even Metro North. The latter of which at least uses two words that were a part of the English language before the invention of the particular rail service described.

Every successful passenger system in the world names the really good trains. Those systems that are exceptional make use of system names that carry both bearing and pride, and that say, "This is a successful railroad."

We dislike the following railroad names: Metra, CSX, BNSF Railway, etc. We like Union Pacific, Kansas City Southern (even though the parent company tends to initialize as KCS Industries), Canadian Pacific, etc. We think a descriptive name is worth a thousand recognitions of the manufactured one.

Amtrak is a shortening of America and Track. Why it wasn't spelled Amtrack probably has more to do with the mindset of advertising agencies than with saving paint on one "c", but we don't know for sure. It's a misnomer, because we were saving passenger trains, not track. Amtrain would actually have been more descriptive, and we can go on to the realms of the ridiculous.

Were Amtrak to redo its image as something else, changing the name to something recognizable would be both valuable and important. Off the head-top, we could think of a dozen names that would at once be more descriptive, romantic, user-friendly and melodius. We aren't going to share all of them, but even something like North America Intercity Railway sounds better than Aaaaam-traaackkkk. Railway of the United States.

We could be truthful: United States' Taxpayer's Railway

We could be romantic: Great Eastern and Western Overland Route

We could be playful: Trains To Everywhere

Or truthful again if Amtrak doesn't shape up: Trains To Nowhere

How about catchy without going the acronym route? Fun Trains Rail

Or green: The Energy Saver Route.

Or satisfy the accountants: The Billion-Dollar Down The Hole and Western

We are just kidding . . . but you see what we are getting at. After all this time Amtrak is no longer a valuable name and needs to be dumped.

Nothing wrong with a name, if it means something.

©2008 - C. A. Turek -

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Nuclear Locomotives & Public Perception

A retired nuclear engineer from Sandia National Laboratories, no less, recently got a letter published in the Albuquerque Journal "Outlook" business section. We can't link you to the article here, but we will summarize. We won't name the engineer because it is not our intention to embarass him, just to point out some salient facts.

Mr. Retired Engineer wants to know why we don't just shift every bloomin' truckload off the highways and onto the rails. He has realized that the saving in crew costs and the savings in fuels would be tremendous.

Next, Mr. R.E. suggests that we pull the freight train with nuclear powered locomotives. (Then he goes a little off the deep end and suggests that the whole Navy should go nuclear and we should use nuclear powered desalination plants to provide fresh water.)

We are going to give Mr. R. E. the benefit of the doubt and assume he is a scientist and well educated. We are also going to assume that he is in the habit of applying logical thinking to problem solving.

With those assumptions, we can only conclude that Mr. R. E. looks at the railroad tracks in his neighborhood and assumes that, because trains are not flowing like trucks on the highway, the tracks are underutilized. This may be the case, but since he is in New Mexico and abreast of the BNSF Transcon, we can only assume that he is ignorant of what it takes in cost, manpower, maintenance and environmental impact to increase the capacity of our freight rail system. (The Transcon is always running at capacity.)

This is not a blog about Freight Rail, but this is true of Passenger Rail, too. The general public has no idea of the cost of increased capacity, or of the lead time necessary to create such capacity. This appears to be a problem with public perception in general and it applies to more than just railroads. (Think oil and gas and refineries.)

Then there are the nuclear locomotives. Mr. R. E., those of us in our 60s now all thought this would happen long ago. But there are a few problems, one of which is weight. Diesel power happens to be extraordinarily suited to the tractive force vs. engine weight equation. Yes, most diesels as they came from the factory will provide more tractive force with more weight and get better fuel economy. But weight increases track forces, track wear, and hence track maintenance.

Another problem with all of this is public inertia. The general public thinks "China Syndrome" and "Three Mile Island" when it thinks nuclear. The general public, thanks to the media, also thinks toxic hazardous material spill, death, and litigation when it thinks of railroads. That's why there is a movement afoot for cities to get railroads to build bypasses.

The NIMBYs control what happens next. Some of this goes back to the weight equation. So much radiation shielding would be required that weight would be prohibitive.

Only one way could be devised to nuke all locomotives. Build a land-based power plant and feed the power through standard catenary ala Northeast Corridor to electric locomotives. Voila! But see my comments re: costs below.

It's a real hoot to think of trying to drive a nuclear powered locomotive through any inhabited area, let alone also pulling a train full of potentially toxic materials through a heavily populated one. It's nice that Mr. R. E. still has the naive sense of the invincibility of science that probably brought him to become a research scientist.

Unfortunately, in the land of railroading, be it Freight or Passenger Rail, we have to get real. And reality is, we would have to quadruple the capacity of freight railroads, or pentuple it if we increase Amtrak routes, in order to even come close to carrying half the freight that highway trucks now carry. If we started now and spent TRILLIONS of dollars, it would take us at the very least a DECADE, and probably TWO DECADES to accomplish this. (Maybe three decades if we have to build new electric facilities, catenary and the locomotives to use it.) This writer and Mr. R. E. may not live to see it.

We are truly behind the eight ball. So you younger scientists out there, please come up with ideas that will work. But keep it real. And ABQ Journal editors, if you are reading this, please use your column inches for ideas that make sense.

©2008 - C. A. Turek -

Sunday, March 16, 2008


Mister Trains is gratified by all the recent responses (both comment and email) for the past week. Regrets that we have not had enough time to prep a subject to post. Seems we get less and less of that time which doesn't require working to make ends meet.

But thanks all for recent responses and keep hitting this page just to connect to other sites, please.

Happy train riding.

©2008 - C. A. Turek -

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Follow the Cash

Please read .

Who has most of the loose cash to spend? And who needs to find ways to keep getting people through the doors despite the faultering economy?

No, it's not a government subsidized polling place. It's Indian Gaming!

Amtrak and anyone else trying to get Passenger Rail and/or HSR going in this country needs to look at Indian Gaming as a potential partner. Routing new trains through or very near casinos, perhaps with connecting light rail or monorail lines (a la Vegas' successful/unsuccessful monorail), needs to be given heavy thought and probable priority.

We in New Mexico already have stops near Indian casinos. But Gov. Richardson missed the boat when he didn't ask them to pony up some of the costs. Maybe he still can.

In other places, like Minnesota, it's still possible to get them involved and get our train-loving hands on some of their cash.

We are being a bit course, of course, but this is a real win-win situation for both the tribes and the trains. We hope Amtrak and every state agency now thinking of sponsoring and funding passenger rail reads this. Readers please help by forwarding this post to any projects in your state.

©2008 - C. A. Turek -

Sunday, March 02, 2008


As the United States' prosperity grew and the fortune's of the freight railroads grew with it during the past two decades, we failed in making public policy that took advantage of our prosperity. It is now ironic that some in government would re-establish regulation of the railroads in the face of a faltering economy.

It is more ironic that, as the economy erodes, as the environment looms ever larger in concern, and as energy becomes harder to make and harder to buy, we will need the railroads, and Passenger Rail, more than ever.

We fear we have missed our chance, that a downturn in the economy will now make it both economically and politically impossible to start the projects we as a country need to keep our transportation systems viable.

It is also ironic that the passenger transportation mode that is most energy efficient - bar none - is the mode that gets shafted when it comes to both public funding and public planning. And let's face it, we can't convince our politicians to pay for something that is unplanned and spontaneous. We need a public policy that says the government will back plans that are good and viable, and in fact welcome those plans. No more of the "don't bother me with that" attitude from Congress and the administration - any administration - when it comes to Passenger Rail.

If you can't see the need for Passenger Rail, take a few airline flights. You soon will. If you can't see the need for Passenger Rail, ride an intercity bus. You soon will. If you can't see the need for Passenger Rail, drive an Interstate on a Sunday evening when the rested truckers are making their last haul to the Monday delivery point and clogging all lanes. You soon will. If you can't see the need for Passenger Rail, ride Amtrak and imagine what it would be like if the schedule you are on is multiplied to two to four trains a day, and on time. You soon will.

Please forward this post to every politician for which you are eligible to vote in your district. Maybe they soon will, too.

©2008 - C. A. Turek -