Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Chickens Come Home to Roost

None of us with any knowledge of the business of Passenger Rail think that it is a walk in the park.  Start a passenger train, let alone a full schedule of trains, from scratch requires capital, hard work, luck and a loyal customer base.  Preferably that base is a broad one, drawn from a variety of demographics.  If you are running a train, you should also hope that both ends of your line originate traffic.

Readers of this blog will recall my skepticism and incredulity when then New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson went out of his way to fund rail passenger service for the Mid-Region Council of Governments, AKA MRCOG.  This service, one of Gov. Bill's "legacies", from Belen, NM, through Albuquerque, to Santa Fe, is now known as New Mexico Rail Runner Express.  Look on my second page to see some photos.

I wrote at the time that the route was too costly and that the whole project would eventually cost the taxpayers of New Mexico many millions of dollars in subsidies.  Albuquerque just isn't the kind of metro area that you find in places like Seattle or Dallas.  If done at all, the service could have used existing tracks instead of new ones, used DMUs instead of full-fledged communter rail equipment, and grown with demand rather than taking a "build it and they will come" approach.  Even now, with heavy rail tracks built all the way into Santa Fe, the equipment could be owned and operate by another entity under subsidy.  And New Mexico will now have the dubious distinction of trying to make BNSF Railway run the Lamy to Raton portion of the original Santa Fe Raton Pass line in order to keep just one long distance train, Amtrak's Southwest Chief, running. 

In the future, if you hear someone ask, "Who killed the Chief?" the answer will be either New Mexico or Railrunner Express. 

The Albuquerque Journal of Sunday, June 19, 2011, reports that the service averages "about" 4,500 passenger boardings on weekdays.  That's not a lot.  It's why the beginning of the whine has started, as the Rio Metro Regional Transit District board decided to cut weekends from the schedule.  Passenger boardings on weekend days of only 1,000 make this seem logical, but the politicians on the board see it as a way to speak to current Gov. Susana Martinez.  "Whine!  We need more taxpayer money.  Whine!  The businesses who depend on weekend recreational travelers will lose money.  Whine!"

Frankly, as a taxpaying NMer, I don't see why I should have to subsidize riders to the tune of an (estimated) $40 to $80 a boarding just so they don't lose the profit from that latte.  I don't think we should let them eat cake, but let them adjust their business practices to take advantage of the business that remains.  Or learn a lesson, which is:  Don't depend on the taxpayer to keep you in business.

But the better lesson is this.  When you're local politician starts to talk about his or her legacy, hide your wallet and your kid's wallet and your grandkid's wallet.  The state will be picking their pocket for the legacy forever.

©2011 - C. A. Turek -
Also posted on A Bit Off New Mexico.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Political Extremes

For a good while, I have been just flabergasted - check my spelling here - at the political extremes that have been reached in playing with the Passenger Rail football. This is one reason I haven't had much to say of late.   At the one extreme is the high speed rail initiative begun by the Obama administration and perpetuated by those government agencies that recognize they have a whole pot o' money to get power over if they somehow hitch their train to the high-speed bandwagon.

At the other political extreme are conservatives who can't recognize a good deal when they see one.  And, as most of you know, I am a political conservative, but, by God's grace, not as stupid as some, I hope.  And in the middle stands Amtrak, which has proven time and again that it can play at both games, but would be better off if the game didn't change every year or two.  I think this constant game change is one reason that Amtrak didn't pick up the ball and run faster with it, taking upwards of two years to decide what kinds of new engines and cars to order, and now it looks like it is too late.

I now agree with most pundits:  America has no high speed rail at this point in time, and is unlikely to have any true high speed rail at any time in the reasonable future.  So the administration's push for high speed rail is really a political subsidy for "higher" speed rail, which translates into the following:  If you have a political entity (such as a transit district) that runs passenger trains or is going to run passenger trains sometime in the future, even if you are only in the "study" phase, you can get high speed rail money as long as your trains will run faster in the future that they do now.  For the study-phase districts, that could be 1 mph. 

While we push ourselves to opposite poles of the political globe, we fail to realize that there is a real place in America for Passenger Rail, if not for high speed rail in particular.  Americans have been speaking about this to Amtrak with their pocketbooks for several years now.  So have millions of commuters who use Passenger Rail to get to work every day.  Yes, this involves a subsidy, but the conservatives among us should see that as an opportunity to start up a business and move the whole shootin' match onto the private, for-profit stage.  That is no less likely a scenario than having a true high speed line  (125 mph or more average speed) running between two major cities by 2021.

A good long vacation - the first in several years - has given me a bit of new energy, and I will be trying to post on this site more often than recently.  The vacation gave me a chance to start my next novel.  Will it have trains in it?  You betcha!

© 2011 - C. A. Turek -