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 -