May Day, A-Day, Yea Day!

May 1, 1971: Amtrak begins operations. Its creation was an unprecedented taxpayer-funded lifeline to the freight railroads. They were given the authority to get out of the passenger rail business, in return for allowing Amtrak trains priority on their tracks.

Amtrak was not expected to last very long, since most people believed that passenger trains would be completely replaced by the publicly-funded highway and air traffic control systems. But forty-five years later, passenger trains are more popular than ever, despite chronic underfunding.

So let’s celebrate Amtrak’s anniversary by reminding our elected representatives that passenger rail is still an amazingly good value. The “Mayday” from the freight railroads that we answered in 1971 was the right thing to do. Tell elected officials in Congress, state capitols, and city halls to say “Yea!” to rebuilding a robust and reliable national system.

Next stop: the ballot box

Rail advocates, especially after yesterday’s results, must not fall victim to the temptation to “take the ball and go home.”

At least on the Democratic side, the party’s platform is still very much in play. Sanders has opened a debate, and we need to make sure that pro-passenger-rail voices are heard.

Meanwhile, the threat to the Heartland Flyer in Oklahoma shows us that we must fight to elect rail-friendly candidates at every level of the ballot, from city and county governments, to state legislatures, to the US House and Senate.

It’s going to be a continuing struggle to maintain and grow the national network until we can change or eliminate PRIIA 209. And that can happen, but only with strong support from both houses of Congress as well as the White House.

Broken rails and broken infrastructure

Authorities say they’re investigating whether an unreported vehicle crash may have damaged the railroad tracks before an Amtrak train derailed in southwest Kansas. Gray County sheriff’s Deputy J.G. Sharp says there was a separate vehicle accident that may have damaged the rails before the passenger train derailed early Monday outside Cimarron. A few people remain hospitalized.

https://www.facebook.com/ColoRail/posts/1007475709297985

Residents in Washington, D.C., were reeling Tuesday afternoon from the news that the region’s entire Metrorail system will close for at least 24 straight hours starting at midnight tonight in order to perform a safety check of hundreds of electric cables. The decision, made by the transit agency’s board of directors and newly minted General Manager Paul Wiedefeld, came after an electrical fire broke out in a tunnel near the McPherson Square station Monday morning, which led to a major service disruption. It also comes in the context of a fatal smoke incident caused by a similar electrical failure inside one of the system’s tunnels a little over a year ago.

http://www.citylab.com/commute/2016/03/metro-wmata-dc-shutdown/473910/

Our rails are broken. So is our infrastructure. When you vote for the candidate of your choice, make sure that they are committed to fixing our passenger rail system.

Support candidates who will get things done. We need all the sane people we can get.

Sometimes, it seems as though passenger rail supporters — for all our foibles — are the only people who aren’t going crazy in this campaign season. But think about our neighbors and friends — the bird-watchers, knitters, rockhounds, hikers, and even the science-fiction fans and cat people. They’re not any crazier than they ever were.

If we all get together to vote for candidates who haven’t gone off the deep end — and there are some! — we can go back to the business of improving our infrastructure. But we need to ensure that the White House, the Capitol, our state legislatures and our city councils represent us, not the kooks who seem to be out-shouting everyone else these days.

So please, support the sane people. Don’t give up and not vote. That’s what the crazies want us to do.

Your chance to advocate for passenger rail

These are some very exciting times for the National Association of Railroad Passengers. NARP will have an excellent opportunity to make the cause of improved passenger rail more visible in this year’s elections, on the national, state and local levels.

If you are a NARP member, and would be interested in representing the organization on its Council, we’re looking for representatives for the following states. Check the position description, and contact the NARP office if you would be interested in serving. The original deadline has passed, so please respond soon!

  • Alabama
  • Arizona (2 positions)
  • California (5 positions)
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Iowa
  • Louisiana
  • Massachusetts (2 positions)
  • Nebraska
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Pennsylvania
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Wyoming

We recognize that some folks won’t have the resources to contribute financially–in fact, we’re working on ways to provide support for those who need it. And you can certainly support the organization by providing your time and skills. So please consider helping out! Thanks.

–CH

Elect train supporters in 2016, starting today

The 2016 elections are a year away. It’s time to start advocating for improved passenger trains now.

Many candidates don’t have this issue on their radar. Others argue that would cost too much. Malcolm Kenton at Trains magazine argues that infrastructure spending is a matter of priorities.

Past mega-projects eventually succeeded because enough leaders decided that they were important enough priorities that they found a way to pay for them, committing the necessary resources to them each year for as long as it took. The same could be said about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Like it or not, two successive presidents and majorities in Congress have decided that these war efforts were important enough to spend trillions of dollars, much of it borrowed money, for which nearly everyone could think of other (perhaps better) uses.
“For conversations to end with “we don’t have the money” represents defeatist thinking. Instead, we should all be making the case that achieving the improved mobility and connectivity.

Decisions on these sorts of projects will be made not only in Washington, DC, but also in state capitols and city halls around the country. So it’s up to us to make sure that our favorite candidates support passenger rail. The time is now.

-CH

Some good news for passenger trains. Help us make more!

Grants have been awarded for projects to expand rail in Vermont and New Mexico, and for public transit in Milwaukee and Tacoma. Many people worked hard behind the scenes to make them happen, in their home communities, and in Washington, DC.

The success of state organizations like the Vermont Rail Action Network and the Amtrak Southwest Chief Coalition, and of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, depends on the volunteer time and financial support of people like us.

One way you can help coordinate national and local rail advocacy efforts is to join the NARP Council. The deadline to apply is December 1. Please consider applying!

Amtrak is in the train business, part 2

The debacle surrounding this week’s rollout of the new Amtrak Guest Rewards credit cards from Bank of America prove, once again, that Amtrak is in the train business. And it sometimes has significant challenges doing that. So if Amtrak is going to venture outside of its core competencies, it should make sure to do such ventures well, and not in such a way as to have a negative impact on its core mission.

In today’s world, of course, it’s expected that any large travel-related customer-service business will offer the sorts of perks that its competitors do, like “frequent traveler” loyalty programs and co-branded credit cards. These can be significant money-makers, and can reinforce the predilection of a company’s customers to return.

But only if the perks are done well, which arguably, Amtrak’s are not.

The recent announcement of “Amtrak Guest Rewards 2.0” has not made many of its best customers happy, both because the perks have been significantly devalued, and because the new program is much less enticing for the majority of Amtrak passengers who don’t live in the Northeast Corridor.

Then, to top it off, the rollout of the new credit card was botched, due to an error that caused the online application system to reject everyone.

There’s no excuse for such a disaster. While it’s probably true that the application rejections were most likely due to programming errors on the part of Bank of America, Amtrak very obviously didn’t do its due diligence, both during the selection process for its new credit card partner, and the evident lack of any sort of beta testing before the application site went live.

Amtrak, with its chronic underfunding, antiquated equipment and facilities, uncomfortable tenancy with freight railroads, complex employment rules, and opaque accounting, has enough problems as it is. It doesn’t need “loyalty” programs that have the opposite effect of driving away its best customers.

The folks at Amtrak headquarters need to apologize to their customers who have been affected by their recent ventures. Then, they need to think seriously about getting their own house in order before getting into more ill-advised and badly-implemented side ventures. After all, Amtrak is facing significant competition as an operator of passenger rail for the first time in forty-five years. Time to get your act together, Amtrak.

–CH

Update:

I am not suggesting eliminating AGR or the credit cards. I’m saying that they need to be done right in order to meet the needs of both Amtrak and its customers.

I imagine that most of us would have been perfectly happy to participate in focus groups and beta tests before both the new AGR and credit cards were publicly announced. Which would have provided Amtrak with the feedback they needed to work out the bugs, and would have prevented it from getting an unnecessary black eye at a time when it is under scrutiny for other reasons.

Salad dressing and broken-down trains: No way to run a railroad?

I recently saw a letter that was sent to Amtrak President Joe Boardman, with copies to Rep. Mica and the writer’s Congressional representative. The letter focused on two complaints about the writer’s recent trip: how salad dressing was presented in the dining car, and that it was twelve hours late due to locomotive breakdowns.

The writer made the point that these are symptoms of larger issues pervading all of Amtrak, and I agree.

Management of a passenger railroad can’t afford to take their eyes off of any aspect of their operation, no matter how big or small. Amtrak cannot compete on travel time except in certain specific corridors, and they can’t compete on price, so they need to maintain a level of reliability, passenger comfort and amenities that will allow them to find and retain customers among those who aren’t necessarily time-sensitive, but want comfort, and want to get to their destination when they expect to.

In addition, Amtrak is, for better or worse, governed by our elected representatives in Washington, DC, and while most Congresspeople don’t pay much attention to trains, they do hear from constituents about the railroad that you and I pay for.

As the election season heats up, we need to make expanded passenger rail an issue. There are many good reasons that conservatives and liberals alike should support a robust rail network. All of us need to work with our favorite candidates and political parties to make sure that they include pro-rail planks in their platforms. And those platforms should be served by good and frequent trains! 😀

–CH