Category Archives: Commentary

How we can really make a difference for the future of passenger rail

On this Independence Day, let’s make democracy work for the future of American passenger rail.

Please contact your elected officials–Senators, US Representatives, state legislators, and local leaders (find their contact information here)–and tell them that you want a strong, safe and reliable network of passenger trains that serve the entire country.

Specifically, ask them to make the following changes to the current laws governing passenger rail:

  • Repeal Section 209 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA). This is the provision that requires train routes less than 750 miles long to be paid for by the states.
  • Repeal the provisions that require Amtrak to break even on food and beverage service.
  • Require that Amtrak give two years’ notice before discontinuing train routes. If any route is discontinued, this would be the minimum time needed for a single state or group of states to put together funding to replace the service. And if local funding is found for such a service, require that local agencies be given the same access to the Class I freight infrastructure that Amtrak currently has.
  • Codify that the existing services are the minimum that Amtrak can provide in order to maintain a national passenger rail network.
  • Split Amtrak’s Federal appropriation into three parts: the national network, the regional corridors, and the Northeast Corridor. Specify that income from one part cannot be used to subsidize another part.
  • Require that Amtrak use transparent accounting.
  • If a route must be suspended due to acts of God (mudslides, tunnel collapses, etc.) Amtrak is required to make substantial steps to provide alternative transportation (paid for by the host railroad, if applicable). Amtrak is required to restart its service as soon as feasible and track conditions permit.
  • Encourage Amtrak to pursue income from ancillary services, such as carrying private passenger cars (PV).

Remember, it’s we the taxpayers, and our elected representatives, who make the decisions about the future of passenger rail. So contact your elected officials, and don’t forget to register to vote! The registration deadline is coming soon in many states.

Amtrak Plans to Kill SW Chief with Bustitution

From: George Chilson

The following just in: Amtrak’s PowerPoint pitch to the Congressional delegation from KS, CO and NM. Not pretty and reflects Amtrak’s lack of comprehension of the impact their proposed bustitution between Albuquerque and either La Junta (336 highway miles and 5:40 driving time) or Dodge City (512 highway miles and 8:25 driving time).

Also attached:

  • Matt Fels calculation of what would happen to revenue and volume if Amtrak only ran Chief only between Chicago-Kansas City and Albuquerque-LAX. I’m going to ask him to revise to include Dodge City or La Junta as possible end points so we’ll know how much revenue Amtrak puts in jeopardy because of its proposed bustitution.
  • Matt Fels graphic representation of passenger volumes between O&D for all LD trains. Format may be a bit difficult to understand at first but it shows volume (not revenue) for passengers traveling between end points; those traveling between one end point and an intermediate end point and those traveling between intermediate stations.

Additional points in rejoinder to Amtrak’s presentation:

  • “Loss” is a pejorative term that implies the goal is profit rather than what it is: “essential, fundamental, basic and often the only mobility choice.” Amtrak ranks the Chief as #14 (out of 15 routes) in terms of total “loss” of $56 M in FY 17.
  • Amtrak uses the red herring “Loss per rider” metric in a deliberate attempt to mislead, ranking the Chief as #13. This metric devalues people who take longer trips. Federal cost per passenger mile is a more neutral and accurate term. At 17.3 cents, the Chief ranks #5 out of 15. If Amtrak were honest, it would report total taxpayer cost instead of including state payments as revenue. By this statistic the Chief would rank #26 out of 49. Not bad for what Amtrak is trying to portray as a “loser.”
  • Amtrak also ignores an obvious fact (that they should know): that approximately $23 million of the $56 million it claims the Chief “loses” each year represent costs that are either fixed or shared with other routes that would not cease with the Chiefs elimination but be reallocated to other routes.

We’re in a fight to save the national system. Amtrak needs to relearn the lesson that its plan to kill the national network one route at a time will cause far more pain than it is worth.

George

Attachments:

Further comment 6/23/18:

This article is based on an Amtrak Power Point slide show presented to the Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico Congressional delegations. It showed Amtrak’s plan to replace through Chicago-Albuquerque-Los Angeles SOUTHWEST CHIEF train service with a stub train from Chicago to either Dodge City, KS or La Junta, CO; then a bus for up to 550 miles from Dodge City to Albuquerque; finally connecting to another stub train from Albuquerque to Los Angeles. As noted below the bus ride will probably mean sitting up overnight!

We have been lied to by Amtrak, which only last month promised the Rail Passengers Association (NARP) that it had no plans to cut any national network services. I am an RPA Vice Chair, although these views are my own. We have been played for suckers by the Anderson Amtrak management. But more importantly they’ve done the same to all their supporters in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico, indeed throughout the West.

This is the test case for trying Amtrak in trying to create a kind of “Balkan Track”–a train here and train there–but all services isolated and of only local use. Since the Amtrak law requires full state support of all routes under 750 milers, it’s easy to understand that such a disconnected network will never survive. Even the Northeast Corridor would wither if Amtrak served only the east coast, a few local lines in the Midwest and California, Oregon and Washington. Such a “network” would serve less than half the states and would never win a funding vote in Congress.

And assurances for the continuation of trains like the EMPIRE BUILDER and the CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR can no longer be taken as true either. If the SOUTHWEST CHIEF has to go because of largely PTC (Positive Train Control) exempt track, the others will follow, as they all have this problem on at least a few route segments. Already reliable sources confirm that Amtrak has asked the Union Pacific for costs to reroute the CZ thru Wyoming west of Denver. This would eliminate the stunning crossing of the Colorado Rockies by day, which is the great draw of the route. Yet this reroute bypasses tracks that are legally PTC exempt, which means Amtrak is not prohibited from running there. This is the situation on the great majority of the SW CHIEF line as well.

The former Santa Fe RR mainline used by the SW CHIEF is already fully equipped with a superb “heritage” safety system, automatic train stop. Already this pre-World War II system will stop any train that passes a block signal in violation of a green light, or exceeds the speed limit. PTC is not required under Federal law over lines with fewer than six passenger trains per day and less than 50,000,000 tons of freight per year. This perfectly defines the SW CHIEF line. The Raton Pass route is legally PTC exempt except in the Rail Runner district, yet Amtrak is falsely blaming the absence of PTC for removing 550 miles of service from Dodge City to Albuquerque. The Rail Runner is moving to complete PTC and should get an extension to 2020, yet Amtrak disingenuously uses this as an excuse to end service!

The incredibly long SW CHIEF bus bridge will obviously not work and Amtrak knows that very well. If they run the stub trains on a daylight schedule, as they suggest in the slides shown to the Congressional delegation, then the bus bridge would be an overnight trip! And this is very likely, as they could then can diner and sleeper service on the line if the trains ran only by day/evening.

And the day trains would effectively connect to nothing. To get from Los Angeles to Albuquerque by day means leaving Los Angeles at six to seven AM at the latest, before any connections could arrive. Westbound arrivals would be after ten at night. The same would happen to a purported day train from Chicago to either Dodge City or La Junta. Indeed to La Junta all by day/evening from Chicago is impossible.

And why these points, rather than Lamy, if PTC is the issue? At most the bus bridge would only be needed from Lamy to Albuquerque if the Rail Runner’s extension is denied. Why does Amtrak want to subject its passengers to over eight hours on a bus when it could be only an hour? And Albuquerque itself falls in the “PTC not ready” zone, which actually extends from the junction with the new Santa Fe Rail Runner line, just west of Lamy to Isleta, New Mexico, well west of Albuquerque. If they can get into Albuquerque from Los Angeles why not from Lamy?

We need to go beyond mere opposition to calling out the dishonesty underlying Amtrak’s double cross on the Tiger Grant, their misrepresentations to their users of their plans and the impossibility of the so-called substitute plan of working as purported.

A real truth is in the last slide in the Amtrak Congressional presentation. This is really an attempt to cost shift. Amtrak claims to favor new trains in Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma in lieu of the SW CHIEF. But it knows perfectly well these trains will never run.

Services like the suggested “Front Range Corridor” from Cheyenne to Pueblo Corridor would require 100% state support, as would a new Chicago to KC mini Corridor. More improbably these new services would require multi-state compacts. This simply will not happen. Just yesterday the long planned New Orleans-Mobile service restoration collapsed when Mississippi and Alabama refused to contribute to the costs. Amtrak knows this, but as throughout this process fails to mention that in its disgraceful slide show on its plans to “restructure” the SW CHIEF and transfer as much as possible of its costs to the states.

If the SWC dies it will not be replaced, rather neglect of maintenance La Junta to ABQ will guarantee it won’t return even after the Rail Runner gets its PTC going. I applaud the opposition by the Congressional members in both houses and on both sides of the aisle. If Amtrak pulls this off it will die, as it will never win a national appropriation without a national network. This can not be allowed to happen. The SW CHIEF is the 5th most heavily used train in the United States. This travesty of a plan will devastate ridership, as Amtrak very well knows.

–Carl Fowler

Better ways of connecting with people like us

Privacy issues at Facebook and WhatsApp. The relentless onslaught of ads on Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. Social media is getting less welcoming by the day.

And yet, communicating with people like us–people who share our interests–is more important than ever, as we plan ways to build a better future.

So if you haven’t done so already, connect with us on private messaging platforms like Signal and Telegram.

And help us build communities on the ad-free, tracking-free social media site Toot.land. Let’s see if we can “communicate differently”!

Shrink Trains? No!

The current Amtrak management seems to be moving toward shrinking or eliminating the national network, despite being given increased funding.

  • Amtrak has bought out the contracts of many of their senior people, thus losing much knowledge about how to successfully run a passenger railroad.
  • Amtrak is using safety concerns as a cover for reducing service on the national network.
  • Amtrak is proposing replacing long-distance services with shorter routes that the states would be required to pay for.
  • Amtrak is reducing passenger amenities to the point that they’re driving high-end passengers away.
  • Amtrak is ending discounts for students and other groups.
  • Amtrak is reducing or eliminating staffing at many stations.
  • Amtrak is discontinuing significant revenue sources like carrying private cars.

EDIT: Malcolm Kenton has expanded this list in his post at Trains Magazine.

Amtrak management may have been directed to make such changes by certain voices on their board, in the US Department of Transportation, and in the White House. But you and I, as voters and taxpayers, are their bosses.

So what can we do?

  • Thank our US senators and congressmembers for their continued support of passenger rail.
  • Ask our elected representatives to communicate directly with Amtrak that they must continue to provide the long-distance services for which they are receiving public money.
  • Ask our state and local officials to communicate to Amtrak that it must continue to provide quality services that many states are paying for.
  • Ask our friends and family–especially our younger friends and family–to become members of the Rail Passengers Association and local rail advocacy organizations.
  • Participate in RPA’s upcoming Day on the Hill, where we can communicate our support for passenger rail directly to those who represent us.

Attempts to kill American passenger rail have happened many times before, and they have always been beaten back. We can defeat the train-killers again.

Photo courtesy walstib373. Used with permission. https://www.flickr.com/photos/walstib373/33837665434/

Passenger rail need not be about partisan politics

A recent post on a train-related Facebook group puzzles me.

I thought this site was about traveling on the Coast Starlight but I was wrong. It appears to be political also and disrespectful. I will leave you with my hope that this group will focus more on enjoying the ride sharing your experiences.

Is anyone naive enough to truly believe that train travel can be divorced from politics? Yes, we “enjoy the ride.” But passenger trains exist because lots of people support them, and fight for them.

We do not need to be disrespectful. Indeed, the passenger rail community is one of the few places where people who disagree on just about everything else can come together in support of better train service.

As we begin a new year, we need to focus on building a safer and more robust passenger train network. To make that happen, we need to work together on the local, state and national level. Please join and contribute to the Rail Passengers Association and to the rail advocacy organizations in your area.

Let’s make our resolution for 2018 to Grow Trains!

–CH

Celebrating Jim Hamre, and continuing his work

Yesterday (December 30, 2017) several hundred of Jim’s family and friends gathered at All Saints Church in Puyallup, WA, to remember and honor him. He was remembered for his tireless work for his church, his community, and for passenger rail.

Jim Mathews of the Rail Passengers Association announced that RPA will create a fellowship in his honor for students pursuing graduate degrees in transportation. All Aboard Washington will be meeting on January 20, 2018, to discuss how we can continue his work.

My hope is that we can pursue these goals:

  1. Advocate for an appropriate memorial for Jim and Zack. I like Hendrik’s idea of naming the new Tacoma station after them, with an appropriate permanent plaque or other memorial.
  2. Make sure that the governor, WSDOT, Amtrak and BNSF follow through on their promises to implement PTC as soon as possible. Despite its limitations, it’s the best tool we have to make sure such a tragedy never recurs.
  3. Push for funding to allow WSDOT to purchase the Wisconsin Talgos, and get them in service ASAP to replace the equipment now out of service.
  4. Press the governor and the legislature to conduct the “official” studies of Stampede Pass service that we were told in Pasco would need to be the next steps.
  5. Press the governor and the legislature to give WSDOT the mandate to proceed with the Blaine station stop.
  6. Strengthen our fragile passenger rail network. Cascades service could only be re-started because the Point Defiance route was available as a backup. No such option would exist in Seattle and elsewhere.

Let’s do everything in our power to build a safer, more robust, and more sustainable system. Zack and Jim would, I believe, want us to do this.

–CH

Wishes for the future

A personal note from Charlie: Thank you, everyone, for the birthday wishes.

The best gifts you can give me, and you, are to the next generations. So please:

  • Support education. Make sure that our children and grandchildren have the knowledge and skills they need to understand the world and make good choices.
  • Support information. Keep diverse media strong: even the ones we don’t agree with. Don’t rely on our friends’ posts to broaden our outlook. Try my collection of sources at Feedly, and read articles from paywalled sources for a few cents each at Blendle.
  • Support travel. Mark Twain said “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” We understand each other better as we travel to other communities, states, nations, and planets. Which is why it’s my passion.
  • Support your passion. Give what we can, and communicate our enthusiasm to those around us. My passion, of course, is passenger rail service. Please consider supporting the organizations listed in my last post.
  • Register, research, and vote! Register to vote. Research the positions of the candidates (and consider running yourself!) And vote for every position on the ballot. They’re all important.

In the terrible events of the past few days, I’ve been thankful for the great support from my friends. And I’m thankful for today’s extra minute of daylight. Together, we can make 2018 a brighter year.

-CH

Remembering Jim and Zack

Sometimes, terrible news takes a while to sink in.

Leaving Kelso on Monday morning on train 502. Jim Hamre and Zack Wilhoite had planned to board and meet me in the bistro car. But they didn’t show.

I had already seen the images of 501 hanging off the highway bridge while waiting to board 502 in Portland. It looked bad, but those of us in line figured, well, at least we can detour over the old Point Defiance route.

The news dribbled in all morning. Three fatalities; no, six; no, three…No word from Zack and Jim. But maybe they were injured and in a hospital. Maybe they’d lost their phones.

By 2am Tuesday we’d heard, unofficially, that they were among the fatalities. And by the morning, it was official.

It’s too early to speculate on causes. But let me share some of the wonderful things that have been said about Jim and Zack in the press.

Seattle Times

New York Times

AP

KUOW

KIRO

OPB

LA Times

Tacoma News-Tribune

KPTV

Carl Fowler

Everett Herald

Jim Hamre’s obituary

Jim and Zack were board members of organizations that advocate for passenger rail. In their memories, please consider donating to

Rail Passengers Association

All Aboard Washington

Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates

The organization in your area

And our friend Hendrik has proposed an idea I like very much: He suggests that we push to have the new Tacoma station named for Jim and Zack, with an appropriate memorial located there. This would be permanent recognition for the two Pierce County residents. Contact us if you would like to help.

Thank you.

–CH

The Adirondack Scenic Railroad Decision and What It Means

 

The September 26th ruling from New York State Supreme Court Judge Robert Main, Jr was not only a welcoming for supporters of passenger rail across New York State, but also an act of common sense. I applaud Judge Main’s ruling and the efforts that Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi and others have done to ensure the rails stay in place. Rail advocates have long disagreed with Governor Andrew Cuomo and many others on the plan to remove 34 miles of rail line from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake, as it would destroy a vital transportation artery.

For years I have been part of the argument that the rails should be restored to allow trains to travel the full length of the line from Lake Placid to Utica to connect with buses and Amtrak service. While I understand that the state is under fiscal stress right now, such a dream should stay alive. The railroad brings campers into the Adirondack Park. The railroad has been used in the past to fight fires and even to install and maintain power lines. While the long-term goal to rehabilitate the line would cost millions of dollars, I still think it is a cause worth pursuing, and so does the state, as NYSDOT has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Adirondack Scenic for vital improvements. While the need for trails is an important issue to the Adirondacks (and one I can appreciate), tearing up a perfectly good railroad is an inappropriate way to do so.

In his current frustration,  Adirondack Rail Trail Advocates (ARTA) board member Lee Keet took to the Adirondack Almanack to voice his disappointment, claiming that Judge Main might have been bias in his ruling. Unfortunately, I expect the ruling to be appealed, as the region, the DEC, the DOT and the governor’s office are extremely eager to see the line come to fruition.

I have to disagree. While New York State law is mind-boggling to say the least, Judge Main has been known to uphold the law. Had Main ruled in favor of the APA, DEC, DOT and ARTA, I view it as having opened up a Pandora’s box which could have threatened many tourist railroads operating across the country.

ARTA’s site claims that:

The seasonal tourist train between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake was provided for in the 1995 Unit Management Plan as an experiment that had to prove itself through market development for the benefit of the local economies.  In addition, the operator was committed to upgrading the entire line from Lake Placid to Old Forge to Class III service (60 MPH max) at its expense. This experiment has failed: ridership has never exceeded 14,000 per annum and the New York Department of Transportation continues to expend massive amounts to keep the corridor open and the limited train service running. 

The Adirondack Scenic Railroad operates on a revolving 30-day agreement between the State and the railroad. It is near impossible to get funding and support when the state could tell you at a moment’s that your operating rights are not being renewed. While the state owns the tracks, ARPS (the Adirondack Rail Preservation Society, the Adirondack Scenic Railroad’s parent organization) if I recall correctly owns the equipment to operate. In recent years the organization has gone through an adolescence, paying off debts, bringing in a young and dynamic executive director. Far from an organization without aim, the ASRR has become a far better operation.

As someone who finished high school and college outside of the Adirondacks, the line is dear to my heart. The father of a friend of mine from college has been a longtime volunteer for the railroad. When I came back to the region last fall to ride the train, I had a very delicious lunch at the Downhill Grill. The train made that in part possible.

While I know that many of us will not change the opinions of Keet and others on the railroad, I hope that they can appreciate that there are many of us who believe that preserving the railroad (and a vital part of the region’s past) is the right thing to do, and that a rail-with-trail is perfectly sensible (and also benefits the rail riders as well!). I understand why so many people in the Tri-Lakes support the idea for a trail linking the three villages, and I am strongly in favor of economic development for the Adirondacks and the North Country as a whole. My disagreement stems from the method to achieve that economic development and the trail to drive it. Tearing out a perfectly good rail line, even if it is need of rehabilitation, makes little sense.

What bothers me and other rail advocates is the groupthink in the Adirondacks, that the railroad is a significant nuisance, dishonest entity that does nothing but inconvenience the people it serves. That being said, the Adirondack Scenic Railroad should make a public relations campaign to highlight the benefits the railroad brings to the Tri-Lakes to quell the negative opinion people have of the railroad.

Rail travel and the pursuit of happiness

Taking a train may not give us life or liberty, but, ah… it’s a great way to pursue happiness. My trip last week on the Empire Builder reminded me that trains are the best way to enjoy our spacious skies, amber waves of grain, and purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain!

No matter what your political beliefs are, we need your help to keep the trains running.

Happy Independence Day!

-CH

Photo: “Dawn with fruit trees, Wenatchee, WA,” C. Hamilton