Saturday, December 18, 2010

At Least Some Objections Don't Hold Water - Or Freight

A good many of the objections to spending money on Passenger Rail and/or High Speed Rail (HSR), now that Republicans will take over the House of Representatives, are grounded only in "don't spend money", and not in any sound logic.  The most illogical one is this:  Spend the money on improving freight rail, and the highways will get better because the trucks will be off of them. 

Yes, Virginia, it is true that getting trucks off the Interstates is a noble goal, both from the standpoint of congestion, and from a Green perspective.  But spending government money on the freight railroads isn't going to get us there.  For one thing, the freight railroads are still in competition with the truckers, last time I looked.  And there is a lot of money in the trucking lobby that says trucking will continue to get largesse from the gov't. for years to come. 

For another thing, the freight railroads still haven't figured out the formula to compete for short-haul freight.  And whether we like it or not, short-haul is what is going to continue to cause congestion in urban areas.

The gov't. could do two things that would not cost the taxpayer any money, and accomplish what there is to accomplish as far as getting trucks off the Interstates.  #1.  Stop allowing increase in truck size and weight (hopefully decrese weights) on the highways.  Any federal or local legislation that does this should also include a short rider that prohibits multiple trailers with 100 miles of an urban area of 75,000 people or more. 

#2.  Take half of what is already being spent on highway maintenance for 2 years and turn it over to Amtrak and/or short-haul commuter rail agencies like Caltran or urban transit districts.  Yes, there would be 2 years of deferred maintenance on some roadways.  If we didn't have to apply political correctness to everything, we could apply brain power instead and pick and choose which highways simply could not make it for another two years.  Spend the remaining half on them.  I bet there will still be some of the remaining half left over.

Before I started writing this post, Ohio had already opted out of the high-speed rail money form the Obama admin - okay, I'll stop calling it a regime, because that angers some folks.  That will go elsewhere, but it shouldn't be spent on freight railroads.  Not if we know what's good for us.

Before I completed this post, Mr. Obama had signed the tax bill that will give us two years to see if a continuation of the current income tax rates will stimulate the economy.  I bet it will.  Sadly for Passenger Rail, there will probably not be as much money offered to HSR projects for a long, very long, very very long time.  Happily, some people will now have a chance to think of better places to put the HSR money that remains in the hopper.

©2010 - C. A. Turek -

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Passenger Rail Project Funding In Jeopardy

Damn those Republicans!  Damn those Tea Party radicals!

Some of you will think I say this seriously, and others - those who know me better - will know I say this with tongue firmly implanted in cheek.  Yes, Republicans in control of the House and in control of more state governments will put Passenger Rail funding (read: stimulus money) in jeopardy.  For example, Wisconsin will suspend work on the high-speed rail project between Milwaukee and Madison until it is determined that it won't cost the state too much money.  And it will.  Ohio appears to be opting out of high-speed rail funding, too.  And for the same reason.

Another example is right here in my (adopted) home state of New Mexico.  Bill (never met a project I wouldn't fund as long as they put my name on it) Richardson will be out as governor as of January 1, 2011, and his longtime lieutenant gov Diane Den-eeesh (as Mr. Obama pronounces it) will not be taking over.  Instead, the intelligent electorate has chosen a conservative, Susana Martinez, to be the state's first elected female governor, and first female Latina governor in the nation.  She hasn't specifically targeted Railrunner Express and other rail projects, but you can bet she'll think long and hard before throwing in with those of us who would like to see the Denver (or Cheyenne) to El Paso rail corridor go forward.

That Passenger Rail projects are in jeopardy may be a good thing. I said may be, because I’m not sure it is. Building on what I have said in a previous blog, for which I was criticized as actually being anti-Passenger Rail, let me state a reason.

I don’t think anyone can disagree that funds for rail projects are limited. The conservative victories just shake us into this reality from the euphoria of finally having a national rail passenger system that didn’t have to beg for funds. Okay, it will always have to beg, but you know what I mean.

Given the reality that funds for rail projects will always be limited, and will have to be shared with freight railroads, a step back is what we need so that funds are not wasted on projects that cannot possibly succeed in the way we all dream they should.

The freight railroads, by the way, have a better handle on reality than Amtrak or than states that are simply taking money to do studies for high-speed rail because it’s there and coming to their states. How so? First, freight railroads have long resisted public money, then embraced it when it became inevitable. They are spending a lot of their own money on improvements, and it is unlikely they are going to take funds just for the hell of it. The funding they get will go to real improvements that are going to net them real bottom-line numbers. Freight railroads are not going to take money that makes them beholden to government unless they see a real upside.

Not so with Amtrak, which took the money long before it had any real idea what to do with it. Not so with state and local transportation departments and agencies, who are so used to taking money when it’s offered that they have ready-dug pie-in-the-sky holes they can throw it in, depending on the size of the check.

Conservatives putting the brakes on projects, wanting to get more for the money or be sure the projects aren’t really pre-dug black holes, may just be a good thing to let us step back and make sure the funding is directed to projects that, in the near term – say a decade – have a chance of success.

©2010 – C. A. Turek -

Sunday, October 17, 2010


It's amazing how a single development - make that a singular development - can change a lot of things and undo a lot of damage.  The feature article in the October 2010 issue of Trains, is about how the Staggers Act - deregulation - transformed railroading.  It is inspiring to know that, no matter how much damage an intrusive government has already done to a free enterpries, that the simple act of freeing that enterprise to compete in a free marketplace can turn almost certain disaster into good news.  Those among you who follow politics know what I'm talking about.

What does this have to do with Passenger Rail?  A sidebar to the article speculates on what railroading would be like if regulation had never been lifted.  Long before deregulation, government got into both passenger and freight rail where it deemed either or both too important to fail.  (See "bailout.")  Other than guaranteeing that there would still be private railroads with some reasonably good track on which to run Amtrak trains, deregulation didn't help Passenger Rail much.  There are still laws that limit what freight railroads can do, among which are the Amtrak reauthorizations that still require them to carry Amtrak trains.

Government will never get out of the railroad business completely.  As I have noted before in this blog, government has always had a stake, no matter how indirect.  But what would happen if government pulled out of Passenger Rail today?

Your first reaction is:  There would be no passenger trains!  But are you sure?  Are we so bereft of innovation and revolution in this country today that we couldn't figure out some way to make the trains stay, or even get better?  I have repeatedly said that Passenger Rail will never make a profit.  But I'm not so sure that this isn't just feeding on a defeatist attitude that permeates lots of our thinking today.

So I'd like you to think about it.  And comment please, or send me an email.  Let's see if we can come up with some ideas to sent to some private capitalists who may think differently, too.

©2010 - C. A. Turek -

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Shameless Self-Promotion

What good is a blog if you can’t do a bit of shameless self-promotion.  And, in that vein, I would like to announce that I have published my second novel as an Ebook.

A Tunnel Too Far is not about railroads or railroading per se.  Its setting, however, is Chicago of the early Depression Era, and the famous and sometimes infamous tunnel system that underlies the central part of the great city.  The story has plenty of tunnel train action, and railroad, streetcar, and Chicago ‘L’ background. 

The title above and the Important Link at right link to a web page for the book.  Or you can go directly to the Amazon Kindle Store, to download it to your Kindle eReader.

I also have the Ebook formatted for other eReaders, such as Nook (Barnes & Noble), Sony, and Microsoft Reader, but I have yet to set up a store for those versions.  If any reader of this blog is interested in getting a copy in a format other than Kindle, please email me (a comment also works) with your return email address and I will correspond with you about getting you a copy.

As an amateur historian and collector of railroad books, I can’t see that eReaders will ever supplant the printed and bound page.  But I really can see the attraction, and Ebooks are taking off like lightning in the bookselling marketplace.  In addition, I know that Kindle, Nook and MS Reader have versions that run on desktop or laptop computers.

Here’s the link to Passenger Rail:  If you ride a train or commute, you may be tired of standing in line to buy a newspaper on the way every day, or of carrying a book to read that weighs more than the sandwich in the pocket of your overcoat.  If so, an eReader is just right for you!  It’s the “ride home” entertainment of the 21st century.

And if you read my book and enjoy it, please recommend it to others.

Thank you to my readers and followers.

©2010 – C. A. Turek –

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Getting Too Conservative

From the very start of this blog, I have taken the position that U.S. Passenger Rail is one of the few exceptions to the conservative free enterprise rule.

Rail is a mode of transportation that has always been too important to the economy and general well being of Americans to allow it solely to free enterprise.  Witness the years that the feds have spent regulating railroads, first with antitrust action, next with the ICC, and now through the STB.  Well, some things are also too important to leave Free Enterprise alone in the same room with.  Passenger Rail is one of those things. 

Unfortunately, instead of alone with Free Enterprise, via Amtrak, we have left Passenger Rail alone in the same room with Government Excess.

Why are there no compromise positions any more?

For two reasons:  1.  Both the right and the left have decided that politics is no longer a system of compromise.  2.  Under the banner of political principle, the voting populace has gone along with them.

Where are the people who can see the Constitution as one giant compromise of many different political points of view?  It is a compromise that worked and that is still working.  A similar compromise for Passenger Rail would require free enterprise to invest in Passenger Rail just as much as it would require government to give free enterprise a helping hand.  The way I see it now, too much of the funding for Passenger Rail goes to government entities to spend.  What is spent on private enterprise – and there appears to be a lot of it vying for the right to build new HSR infrastructure – is spent on government connected companies working under government specifications.  This stifles innovation.

I am no more demanding that the government stop using tax money for transportation subsidies any more than I am asking private enterprise to fund new rail routes without tax money subsidies.  I am hoping for that grand comprise – embodied by our Constitution – that will get us there in new and innovative ways.  Without the political radicalism.

©2010 – C. A. Turek –

Sunday, September 12, 2010


I've recently been reading two books that have everything to do with Passenger Rail but nothing to do with Passenger Rail in the 21st century.  The first of these is a book called Super by Jim Lehrer.  Yeah, the same Lehrer who is a news commentator.  It's a novel that takes place aboard the Super Chief and environs in the 1950s.  I got an opportunity to board this train in Chicago a couple of times, and the book brings back the memories of the old low-level consists, before the high-level era and the addition chair cars to it.

What does this have to do with soup?  Let me tell you about the other book first.

The second book is Appetite for America by Stephen Fried.  It's a history of the Fred Harvey restaurant chain and how Mr. Harvey built the first "not fast food but good food fast" establishments in America - with the help of the Santa Fe.  Now to the soup.

Soup is made good or bad by what you throw into it.  But soup is never ever made with just one ingredient.  It's not even one main ingredient with a little spice, but many main ingredients worked in and cooked until the soup is just right.

Soup in something the Santa Fe had right.  Witness how the high-level concept became an Amtrak standard where the system could handle it.  Witness its ability to put together luxury trains that treated the passenger well and fed them better.  Fred Harvey was the food standard on the Santa Fe. 

In the 21st century, our ingredients for Passenger Rail soup are (in no particular order):  stimulus money (lots), antique equipment, plans for bit and pieces of a national high-speed rail system, plans to upgrade existing tracks to "higher speeds," performance contracts the the freight railroads are choking on, and a soupcon of new regular-speed long-distance routes.  Does anyone like paper soup?  Hope so, because 90% of our soup for the 21st century is paper.  Some of it stimulus money that hasn't been printed yet.  The dash of spice (the new routes) isn't going to help.

Are we going to choke on our soup like the freight railroads?

©2010 - C. A. Turek -

Saturday, June 19, 2010

High Speed Rail – Boom or Bust

The bloom is on the rose for HSR.  A lot of money is available to be spent on HSR projects, and still more is likely to come our way.  True or false?

There is no doubt that President Obama’s domestic policy includes favorable conditions for HSR projects.  Many communities are interested in HSR, and many private enterprises are prepared to offer their products and services to help build a high-speed system.  The element that seems on the fence is whether the most important private enterprise – the railroads themselves – are prepared to offer their products and services to make this happen.

I think it will happen, eventually.  And I hope something like a public-private partnership gets it done.  Public – so that capital costs that are too high for private enterprise to finance all at once can be borne by the public at large.  Private – so that there is always the possibility that somebody with an innovative mind and a new concept can make a go of HSR and make some money at it.  Money to be made not just by providing goods and services, but by running trains.

Railroads are big business.  And right now, big businesses are afraid of the government.  Look at big oil, and big manufacturing (read: the auto industry).  One false step and you jump from the gravy train to the shit list, without passing ‘go’ and without collecting $200.  Most railroads don’t like the FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) or the federal DOT telling them what they can and can’t agree with.  And that’s just what is happening in the process of granting the funds to get these projects moving.  There is a draft agreement that was created without private input, and the railroad involved must agree to it.  The private partners in the scheme are going to have to play second fiddle to the public (read: federal government). 

I predict that most railroads will not want to cross the Obama regime (word used intentionally).  They will, therefore, agree to the rules with little change.  That may be good for the regime, but it may be bad for business.  And to make these partnerships work, the private partner is going to have to stay solvent.

Oh, and even if the regime gets a second term, these projects will all still be only partially underway.  Don’t plan on riding a high-speed train next year, or even in 2016.  And if the railroads stop being scared and get pissed off?  I don’t know what will happen to HSR.  Neither true nor false, but wait and see.

©2010 – C. A. Turek –

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Passenger Rail: Everything Old Is New Again

Is it too unusual to blog my own blog?

Passenger Rail: Everything Old Is New Again gave some of you an idea of where I am coming from in this blog, and gave others the wrong idea.

Bottom line here, there are some areas where government subsidy and/or government intervention is desirable, and even where it is needed, and some places where it is not.  From a pragmatic point of view – that’s reality for you simple folk, and you know who you are – government subsidy is needed for Passenger Rail, for the foreseeable future.

Where’s the line to be drawn?  Those of us who see the line clearly get frustrated with those who don’t.  Those who don’t generally think everything should be subsidized by government, and, in some ways, everything is.  The purpose of limited government is to allow the rest of us to function productively in a free society.  That small feat costs money.  It has always cost money.  So in that limited sense, government is subsidizing every free activity of every man, woman and child.  Think about it!  For example, in order to maintain your freedom of religion, there must be a government system in place that guarantees you will not be persecuted in the practice of that religion, by anyone including the government.  That costs money, and the government must tax you to get that money.  Do they?

The federal government still has a lot of assets that it has chosen to bank for the people rather than sell.  It also includes a hell of a lot of assets that could be freed up to sell for the people, to support it’s primary function: to subsidize freedom.  In my state, New Mexico, more than a third of the land is held by the federal government. 

Don’t get antsy – I’m on my way to Passenger Rail.  Just let’s make a stop at rail in general.  Railroads would not be as they exist today in America without huge subsidies.  These came in many formats.  The largest were the land grants for the pacific roads.  More obscure, but still, in a way, subsidies, were the charters or franchises for construction of the earlier railroads, and the powers of eminent domain, sometimes given directly to the railroads, and sometimes exercised by favorable local government.  Most town governments wanted railroads to come through, so they didn’t hesitate to give them land, or take somebody else’s in order to accomplish that end.

So back to where I am coming from on the subject of Passenger Rail.  We have a choice of how it gets subsidized.  Not every choice is good for all situations, but government seems to have settled on a one-size-fits-all solution.  The quasi-governmental entity, I think, has seen its better days.  The primary reason: When the public is seeking efficiencies, the agency is just seeking more money and ignoring the possibility of efficiencies.

Can we place funds in the hands of private enterprise?  “Goldman Sachs” kind of excesses make private enterprise look as bad as, or worse than, government.  So what are we to do? 

In actual practice, rail transit agencies put money – in the form of operating contracts – into private enterprise all the time.  The operators are required by their free-enterprise contracts to perform their jobs efficiently, or lose money.  But in most cases, the transit agency still overlies the operator.

Would we save money by eliminating the middle man?  What if we just sold the transit agency to private enterprise with a guarantee of a contracted subsidy?  If they didn’t do their job efficiently, they’d go out of business.  Perhaps if there was the overlying threat of bankruptcy, there would be more efficiency and less waste.

Would this ever get us to so-called “profitable” Passenger Rail.  I think not.  But we need to try new things and stop whining about who stands for capitalism and who stands for socialism.  We are all in this together, and an even mix of all good ideas is probably the solution to a lot of problems, not just for Passenger Rail

©2010 – C. A. Turek –

Monday, April 12, 2010

Everything Old Is New Again

There’s a song title there, but that’s not where I’m going with this.

Let me preface my remarks by reminding my blog followers that I am a conservative patriot.  I believe that America is exceptional and the last, best hope for freedom in the world.  I believe in limited government, free enterprise, and no unnecessary taxation.  I am an American optimist, and I believe that The United States of America is and will continue to be a beacon for the world in all aspects of life.  That the world watches America closely and criticizes freely is a sign that we are doing something right!

Moving on to a theme I am hearing over and over again these days:  America has missed its chance to (fill in the blank here).

I first heard this about NASA and space exploration.  It goes something like, “We put a man on the moon over 40 years ago and where are we now?  We are scuttling the Space Shuttle, we have no new exploration projects on line, and we couldn’t put a man on the moon today even if we wanted to.”

What does this have to do with Passenger Rail?  I’m getting there.  But here are a few others before I do:
1.  We have let our manufacturing base leave us.  We couldn’t forge the steel to build another Sears Tower today, even if we wanted to.
2.  We built a magnificent highway system, and we are now letting it rot under the wheels of indifferent truckers.
3.  We have the best medical care in the world, but we are letting lawyers sue it into the ground until our only alternative is ObamaCare.
4.  We once built the best automobiles, but we have hamstrung the manufacturers with so much safety and environmental bullcrap that there will never be another car like (fill in the blank again).
Well, here’s the one involving Passenger Rail.  “We had fast passenger trains on a high-speed network with frequent service and good amenities back in the 1930s, and let it all go with clueless Amtrak, and now we're going to spend billions just to get a few trains over 100 mph again!"  That one hurts because it is true. 

My point.  I criticize the way we are approaching the task of improving our Passenger Rail, but I believe and trust that, when we do it again, it will be so much better than what we had in the 1930s.  It will be so much better we will think of our old trains with the same fondness as we will be thinking of the first moon landings as our Mars liner hits the runway at Mars City.
Now is not the time to stifle innovation.  Our free enterprises need to be free enough of government intervention to research and develop and invent, but they will always need the government as the last, best source of funding for that great leap into the new frontier.  Our government is – after all – the people.  And we, the people, will take us there.  I criticize, but I have no doubt.

©2010 – C. A. Turek –

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Conservatives Don’t Like Passenger Rail

Well, not all conservatives, as I consider myself one.

I ran across 'Defining Success: The Case against Rail Transit' by Randal O'Toole - Page 1 of 40 when visiting the Cato Institute on the Web.  This site links to a lot of great, politically conservative writing.  But this study makes me shudder.

If you like Passenger Rail as a transportation mode, you should read the whole study.  It’s a great example of good investigation, science and research.  Some of the climate-change people should take it as an example.  It doesn’t paint rail transit in a very good light for those of us who would like to see reduced government size and cost.

If you are a railfan, some of the criteria Mr. O’Toole uses for viable rail transit systems are quite laughable.  Even if the criteria are not chosen objectively – what a lot of researchers do to slant the outcome – how the transit systems meet these criteria is looked at systematically.  You can then throw out criteria that appear ridiculous, and you still get a very bad picture of rail transit’s future.

Okay, so these conservatives have an axe to grind with big government.  But I think those of us who advocate expanded railroad passenger systems are a bit guilty of wanting to put trains on ‘whenever and wherever.’

When I criticized the way that tax dollars would be spent on HSR, I got a bad reaction from some of you.  Some of the comments – not all shown on this blog – suggested that we should take anything that will bring on more trains.  That attitude is dead wrong and will lead to some of the situations that are grist for the conservative mill. 

First and foremost, there are some places where we shouldn’t be looking to put on more trains.  Not now, at least.  New Mexico’s Rail Runner Express was one of these, and now a very, very poor state is burdened with a very, very costly train that could have been done another way.  Rah, rah, for the train, but boo to the tax burden.  To even suggest that we put on more of these kinds of trains is going to work against us.

Second, we should stop looking at rail only in terms of “dollars of subsidy” per “passenger mile.”  Every mode of passenger transport is subsidized.  We should also have a “value” per “passenger mile” measure.  And we should have a spirited debate about what these values are.

Here are some suggestions:  What’s it worth to have the majority of travelers using a very low-polluting, fuel-saving mode?  What’s it worth to travelers to be able to look out a window and see where they are?  What’s it worth to have fixed guideways that will NEVER bring their noise and disruption to ANY OTHER than their nearest neighbors?  Buses don’t do that, you say?  Well just take a look at how easily a bus route can be changed!

These are just some of the talking points we could use to argue with Mr. O’Toole.

©2010 – C. A. Turek –

Saturday, March 20, 2010

NM commuter train expects 3 millionth rider - El Paso, Las Cruces - Weather, News, Sports -

Okay, So It’s More of a Success Than I Expected

NM commuter train expects 3 millionth rider - El Paso, Las Cruces - Weather, News, Sports -

The heavily subsidized commuter line that should have been called “The Bill Richardson Railroad” is a popular way for people to get from Albuquerque to Santa Fe and to a few other points, too. So I will eat crow and admit the following:

First, I didn’t think it would be up and running as quickly as it was. (Thank federal dollars.)

Second, I didn’t like the idea of running it down the middle of I-25, and still don’t. Instead of flattening it out as I thought they would, they built a roller-coaster profile that is a bit ridiculous, and more roller-coaster than the average railroad, but it works. Sorry guys, I go for the more conventional.

Third, I will never figure out how they do these “millionth passenger” things. Who is counting and how do they know that the millionth passenger will board at the Albuquerque station and not at, say, Rio Bravo?

Despite some of the comments I have received, I still think we should sell the thing to Warren Buffet.

©2010 – C. A. Turek –

Saturday, February 20, 2010

New Passenger Rail Company

APNewsBreak: Icahn Backs Passenger Rail Company.

I’ve recently been accused of being a little too curmudgeonly about the Obama administration’s support of high-speed rail (HSR). (Okay, I’ll use the hyphen.) So it’s time to give credit to the private sector for at least getting on the bandwagon, if not making the bandwagon move any faster.

I take exception to the remark the this is “Obama’s high-speed rail network.” If it comes to fruition, it will be America’s network, and not Obama’s.

America deserves the investment in time and attention to our rail network that, up until now, has always failed to materialize. And I laud Icahn and any non-governmental entity that wants to get invested and make this truly a project of the American free enterprise system.

As readers of this blog know, I am a political conservative, but I have repeatedly talked up the necessity of public subsidy for passenger rail. I am sure that Icahn sees the possibility of turning some of that public subsidy into return for stockholders, and that is the American way. It is the way our rail systems were built, and it is the way they will grow into the twenty-first century.

I give Mr. Obama credit no further than his ability to see the writing on the wall that was writ there by all the rest of us who have been screaming into the deaf ear of political and corporate inertia. The good news is not that Obama is giving away money for Passenger Rail, but that we now have at least two high-profile investors, Carl Icahn and Warren Buffett, who are willing to bet their not inconsiderable fortunes on railroads.

Could Burlington Northern Santa Fe become a test bed for new, non-Amtrak passenger service?

©2010 – C. A. Turek –

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Laughable Funding

I'm not in the habit of laughing at billions of dollars. I still find it hard to imagine paying over $40 thousand for an automobile. But spreading something like $8 billion for HSR over 31 states - see this link - is very much like trying to buy that $40 thousand automobile by paying $400 a year so that it is paid off in 100 years.

The cosst of any HSR project that is even close to actualization is sbustantially more than the per-state amount of money that each of the 31 states would get - if the money is divided evenly. (See this line from Wired for an idea of what HSR will cost.) So I'm wondering if Mr. Obama thinks we are easily impressed - a billion is still a billion - or just stupid when he characterizes this as a lot of money.

My first reaction is to characterize it as too little too late. Based on the costs in the link above, the feds should be considering 10 times this amount right away, and more later.

The other laughable part of this is the report that this will generate jobs. Again, not right away, especially because most of the states that get these funds are cash-strapped, and not as far along in their HSR aspirations as those represented in the link above. I count only 15 states involved in the projects shown in the Wired link, so where are the other 16? Unless these states come up with a lot more money soon, no immediate jobs are going to result.

After laughing a little, I may cry a lot.

©2010 - C. A. Turek -

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Incremental Versus The Whole Hog

One of the most intriguing (for me, anyway) questions about the future shape of High Speed Rail is: Will HSR grow incrementally from existing rail routes, or will we dedicate new rights of way? Rail going where no rail has gone before.

If this were the 1950s, I could envision HSR as being built something like the way we built the Interstate system. Step One: Decide on a general system design that will assure the interoperability of all elements. For HSR, this means train design, civil engineering, and yes, Virginia, even track gauge.

Step Next: Lay out the routes you want to serve the population centers you want to target.

Then start buying up right of way.

If this were the 1950s, this would work. In post-Obama, neo-litigious America, the interest groups, propery owners, etc., will be all over this. It doesn't matter whether this approach would be good for America, as long as it is not "bad" as defined by any special-interest group. Unfortunately, it doesn't matter whether the group is right, left, or in the middle, either.

But can you not see the great benefits of the Whole Hog approach? In many ways, the benefits would be similar to - but more 21st century than - those we got from the Interstate system. What were those? Foremost, they got a lot of people into, and out of, major population centers fast. Secondarily, they created markets. In the case of HSR, the market will be for surface transportation of people and goods. Yes, Virginia, goods! Express and package freight will find a home with HSR just as it did with the redundant passenger routes of the classic railroad past. Suddenly, rail would be an alternative for LCL freight. Nothing wrong with building HSR baggage-mail cars.

Thirdly, the Interstate system drew development out of the dead middles of small towns. Of necessity, the HSR stops won't be in many of the smallest of towns. But for small and mid-sized cities, HSR stations will be intermodal. The stations will not be where the current Amtrak stations are located. They will be near light rail and/or commuter rail, and if that is concurrent with Amtrak locations, so be it. Other HSR stations and terminals will be at or near airports. In the future, maybe even near spaceports. And, yes, major Interstate junctions. Park and ride to take the bullet train!

Finally, the Interstates spurred huge growth in trucking. Not just carriage, but the manufacture of trucks and equipment for moving the goods. HSR, if done right, should provide thousands of jobs in manufacture of high-speed equipment, technology, and in research and development to keep the huge investment up to date. Even development of new and better sources of the energy that will power the high-speed trains.

In my book, it will be a shame if we go for incremental. There's too much to lose by not going Whole Hog.

©2010 - C. A. Turek -

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Small Plans

This link (Amtrak Ready with Big Plans for 2010) shows up in todays news. It outlines what the author (or maybe the press release) sees as big plans.

First of all: Improvements on the Northeast Corridor. Reaction: What else is new?
Next: HSR incremental improvements. Everything else is still in the planning stage. Reaction: Nothing new here either.
Next: Station improvements. Reaction: Welcome!
Next: New locos and cars. Reaction: Still no plan. What trains get new equipment? Where does equipment go for new routes? Plans are apparently in limbo. This is too little too late.
Next: State partnerships. Reaction: Always good to get new trains off the ground. But can the cash-strapped states handle much of this? We'll see.
Next: PTC and general safety initiatives. Reaction: Safety good. PTC costly but necessary. Return on the PTC investment for Amtrak and rail in general only if it means increased train frequency.
Next and last: Security. Final reaction: Hope the security paranoids don't start up with airline-like security. That will discourage riders and negate the current round of humorous ads. (See previous blog.)

©2010 - C. A. Turek -

Friday, January 15, 2010

Amtrak Has a Sense of Humor

Showing uncharacteristic guts in using advertising that effectively says travel by Amtrak is less stressful than air travel, the national passenger railroad has targeted air travelers while they are in the middle of security screening. (Amtrak Takes Aim at Air Travel With Comedic O'Hare Ads NBC Chicago) The author of this link suggests that Amtrak needs to clean up its own act before this becomes less comedic and more believeable. As much as I would like to disagree, I can't.

Amtrak currently has no equivalent to the onorous airport security screenings, so there's a plus. We continue to hope it never comes to this. However, the inability of Amtrak to keep its schedules and conquer weather problems makes it no better than air travel as far as uncomfortable delays are concerned. Sitting for hours in a darkened Amtrak coach or sleeper is the equivalent of spending hours in an airport when the air traffic system gets backed up by weather.

Passenger Rail can and should be able to endure bad weather. There will always be some weather problems for all modes of transport. Mother Nature is just to big and strong for any mode to conquer. But Amtrak, as a surface mode, has all the cards when it comes to all-weather operation. It just doesn't have equipment designed well enough, built strong enough, and new enough to make it happen.

I think the advertising is well targeted. There will be a certain component of air travelers who see that ad in the bottom of the bin where they have exposed their belongings for all to see - a component who will say, "To hell with this," and who will try Amtrak next time.

Let's hope Amtrak is up to it when they do.

The first round of new equipment orders will be only the beginning. If Amtrak is to become a true all-weather mode, every current route needs new equipment and then backup equipment before we can even consider putting on new trains. But we have a sea change in federal attitudes toward funding Amtrak, and now is the time to get it done.

©2010 - C. A. Turek -

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

After a Long Time

Bet most of you thought I had given up on this blog.

Not so: I had unfortunately little time the past two months to put any thoughts together. Much as I would like, I do not earn a living from writing, so employment responsibilities took priority.

The I got sick Christmas Eve, and the damn infection nearly did me in.

So here I am recuperating and finally getting to write.

I see that Mr. Boardman has finally got off his duff and decided to order cars and locomotives for Amtrak. The reports that I have seen so far do not carry a lot of specifics, such as: Are there any plans for these cars and locos, or are we just replacing worn out stuff for now? But anything new for Amtrak is good news. As the economy starts chugging - still waiting - Amtrak ridership should pick up. Amtrak should plan to take advantage where and when it can. It will still be a long time before the states will be able to pick up any more tabs.

The situations with the states are getting worse. Those that weren't bankrupt last year are close to it now. There is a lot of reliance on "stimulus" money, a lot of which has not been spent. There's also a study out that says that stumulus money spent on roads does not generate jobs. I would bet this is not true of Passenger Rail.

North America has to make a decision on HSR. Is it going to grow incrementally from existing routes, or are we going to spend the money on entirely new tracks (right of way) that will complement freight rail but not supplement it or interfere with it. Incremental growth seems like the easiest way, and costs less in the short term. Because politicians don't see beyond the next election cycle, I think we will wind up with incremental. Too bad, bacause new right of way is the better choice for the middle to distant future.

Meanwhile, back at the outhouse, things are piling up. Amtrak's dismal performance in what was not the worst winter weather out on the plains (see,0,4322065.story ) demonstrates how close the trainsets and the operating personnel are to being just plain worn out. Any plans should include equipment that can scoff at winter weather and become a lifeline when road and air are snowed in.

Finally, federal regulation won't go away. (Edicts from above for passenger car strength and for positive train control in just the past two days.) History tells us that the freight railroads (read private enterprise) vigorously resists regs and spend money to do it, it also says that Amtrak tends to work within the regs. Lets hope that some thought is put into making the new orders for cars and locomotives compliant for not just the near future but for the life of the equipment, and equipment that, for the near term, continues to make the freight railroads happy and willing to forward Amtrak trains over the road in a timely manner.

©2010 - C. A. Turek -