From tragedy, let’s make a better train system

This has been a very tough week for everyone who cares about trains, we the passengers, and the organizations that keep them running. The amount of verbal garbage that has been spouted by people with no knowledge has been astounding. (Check out what’s being said about the engineer’s personal life if you dare, but I warn you, you’ll need a strong stomach.)

The administrators of public forums like Amtrak Unlimited, and the many folks who manage the train-related Facebook groups, have been glued to our computers almost nonstop since Tuesday night, trying to keep up. The AU moderators, in particular, deserve BIG kudos for what they have been doing, volunteering their time and energy because they care about trains, and the people who ride and run them.


Now, let’s make sure that the American passenger rail system becomes the best and safest that it can be. Take time out from writing here, and tell your elected officials that you support trains! NARP has made it easy to contact Congress, but also tell your state and local leaders.

If this tragedy leads to an improved and safer system, then the passengers who died will not have done so in vain.


Trains, Cities, and Equality

For better or worse, trains are inextricably linked to cities, and a healthy passenger rail system depends on vibrant urban areas.

Of course, trains are well-suited to serve locations of all sizes. But they have particular advantages in serving rural areas that have no other service, and in providing direct service to downtowns.

So it’s not surprising that Millennials want trains, and they want to live in cities with good transportation.

Those of us who participated in this year’s NARP Day on the Hill were pleased to discover that we got a much better reception than we did last year. There seems to be a glimmer of hope that we’ll return to seeing support from elected officials representing urban and rural, liberal and conservative districts, as has been the norm in the past.

But modern passenger rail won’t work if it’s surrounded by crumbling, hostile communities and infrastructure. Just like in the 1960s, trains will be left to rot if they are considered to be an urban amenity, and the better-off will retreat behind their gated communities and their locked personal cars.

These scenarios are already happening. Canada’s trains are not doing well because they are perceived as too elitist, despite their serving many places with no other transportation options.

So it’s too soon to expect a wholesale defection from the 20th century’s car- and airplane-centric ways of thinking. We have a lot of work to do.

The first step: Passenger train advocates need to build the largest possible tent. We need to welcome everyone: rich, poor; urban, rural; of all ages, abilities, races, backgrounds and political beliefs. That variety of support is imperative if we are to build a consensus for a modern, reliable, and efficient 21st-century rail system.

Trains need to become the place that people know they can be comfortable, and they need to travel and make connections between vibrant, healthy cities and towns.


What you can do to improve passenger rail

The recent vote in the House of Representatives shows that, while there is significant support for passenger rail, we have a lot of work to do to build the sort of robust, national rail network this country deserves.

Here are some suggestions for ways that anyone can do to help build that network, adapted from a discussion on Amtrak Unlimited.

  1. Join and support the National Association of Railroad Passengers. Please also join your state and local rail advocacy groups, since decisions on passenger rail are increasingly being made by state legislatures.
  2. Respond to newspapers, television, radio, blogs and social media posts about transportation issues. Correct misinformation whenever possible, and hammer home the point that people do ride trains!
  3. Contact your local, state, and national elected officials, and make sure that they understand how important passenger rail is to those who are not served by other modes, and/or who cannot or will not drive or fly. Make sure that they know about and understand the statistics showing that younger people are choosing not to be dependent on cars.
  4. Talk to your fellow passengers while aboard Amtrak. Encourage them to join NARP and advocate locally. NARP has business cards that you can edit to meet your needs, and print locally or buy online. Many passengers who rely on Amtrak have no idea how service decisions are made, and where the money is coming from.
  5. Testify before your state legislature, and even before Congress, about legislation that affects passenger rail.
  6. Write some emails, and follow them up with snail-mail to your local elected officials, whether or not they are “your party” or not. Hand address the envelope. Sometimes, you may not prevail in the short term, but the lessons to be learned about politics, PR, and back-room dealing will serve you well in the future. In summary, “If rail travel is your passion, at some point, you are going to have to get passionate!”
  7. Foster support for improved passenger rail in other groups you belong to.
  8. Foster diversity among rail supporters. Recruit members and supporters who don’t fall into the traditional “old white guy” railfan demographic.
  9. Word of mouth is gold. Post photos of your train travels on Facebook. Many of your friends will start asking questions and make comments about how fun it looks. The more that these friends start taking the train, the more their friends start doing it because they’ve seen the pictures and/or join them on their next trip.
    Getting the ridership numbers up is a good reflection on Amtrak and can create the demand for more service. Also, getting more people on the trains means more advocates for rail service.
  10. Push back against rail opponents who focus only on “subsidies” and costs. Transportation of all kinds is a public good, and should be evaluated in ways beyond dollars and cents. Steer discussions toward the points that Joe Boardman made recently.
    Amtrak President Joe Boardman…maintains a focus on income statements and balance sheets, but he is not single-minded. He considers equally important a responsibility to provide affordable and reliable intercity rail mobility to rural families, college students, vacationers, an aging population, city dwellers without automobiles, and a growing number of citizens now signaling that they clearly prefer public transportation.
    …Boardman is relentless in educating members of Congress on public opinion polls, validated by Amtrak ridership gains, that voters even in hard-core conservative districts are supportive of federal financial support for Amtrak….
    “Boardman advocates [that politicians] recommit themselves to advance and fund public works projects that have been the foundation of America’s financial, cultural and global strength—transcontinental railroads, inland waterways, an interconnected air travel network, urban transit, the Interstate Highway System, and, of course, a world-class national intercity rail passenger network.”
  11. Push for a robust, truly national system. Much of the country is served by one train a day or less, on one route, and this winter’s disruptions have shown how fragile such a system is. We need multiple daily frequencies on the routes we have, and then alternate routes, so that people can be served even when there are disruptions.
  12. Encourage hotels and convention centers to include train stations on their “how to get here” web pages.
  13. Participate in the many online communities that discuss passenger rail, such as Amtrak Unlimited and others, as well as the many Amtrak-related Facebook communities.

What other ideas do you have?

Edit: Some additional suggestions from NARP, from the January 2016 NARP Newsletter.

Ways To Help NARP in 2016
Thanks to NARP members, 2015 was a very successful year
for rail supporters. The association’s hard work will continue
in 2016, so we hope you’ll consider helping NARP continue its
work advocating for a strong rail system as part of the national
transportation network. To that end, are a few things you can
do to help the NARP staff during the year. You can see the full
list here:
1. Contact your congressional delegation. In 2015, we asked members to contact key legislators that led to, among other things, the defeat of anti-Amtrak provisions in the rail and transportation bills. If you didn’t send an email or make a
call in 2015, pledge to do so in 2016 when NARP sends eBlasts asking for your help.
2. Work with your local government. Now is the time to focus on grassroots outreach across the national network to
ensure that passenger advocates, mayors and state and local
officials are educated on the importance of rail as part of a
multimodal transportation system.
3. Encourage others to join NARP. “Over the long
term, NARP should have at least 100,000 members nationwide to amplify the voices of all of our citizens who support passenger rail as one of the most effective economic engines ever devised,” said President and CEO Jim Mathews. Tout the benefits of NARP membership and have them join here:
4. Make a donation. Your donations in 2015 helped us
achieve major victories, and we need to keep the momentum
going. You can do this with cash donations, securities and stock
gifts. Go here — — to see all the ways
you can contribute to NARP in 2016. And remember — it’s all
tax deductible!
5. Become a NARP leader. Applications are now being taken for those interested in being elected to the Council of Representatives as an At-Large Representative or those
interested in running for the NARP board (see page 5). The
deadline to apply is 11:59 p.m. (local time), March 31, 2016.
6. Join a local rail organization. NARP President and CEO Jim Mathews has emphasized the importance of grassroots efforts in the coalition for better rail. Check out this list of local groups to join.
7. Become a NARP volunteer. Are you looking to build your resume, add to your creative portfolio, develop new expertise or just trying to make a difference? We have a variety of volunteer openings available across the country right now.
Click here to see the complete list of available opportunities.

Will Amtrak trains run on time?

Most Amtrak trains travel on tracks that Amtrak doesn’t own. The legislation that created Amtrak in 1970 included a provision that passenger trains should have priority over freight trains. But that provision has expired, and today, passengers often get stuck behind coal, oil, grain and other goods.

Congress tried to rectify this by passing legislation that would create standards of on-time performance to which the private railroads could be held. But that legislation gave Amtrak, in conjunction with the Federal Railroad Administration, responsibility for writing the rules.

Which led to the case argued today in the Supreme Court. Is Amtrak a government agency that has the authority to write regulations, or is it a private entity that would gain unfair advantage over other railroads by such actions?

It’s up to the Supreme Court to make this decision. Congress could also change the law to remove Amtrak’s authority to participate in the writing of on-time performance standards. We’ll see what the decision will be in the upcoming months.

UPDATED: Press coverage of the court’s deliberations:

What next for passenger rail?

Now that the election circus is over, and the candidates don’t have to posture and bombast, maybe we can move forward to get something done on passenger rail.

You laugh? Don’t forget that not too many years ago, support for rail service was broadly bipartisan, and honest representatives of all stripes still understand its importance.

For most politicians, rail is not a central issue. So this is an excellent opportunity to sway their opinion. We should tell our newly-elected (or re-elected) representatives now that we support a robust, national passenger rail network. They’ll listen if they hear from enough of us.

Please vote. Yes, it does matter.

Passenger rail isn’t a major campaign issue in most places. But decisions about its future are increasingly being made by elected officials on city councils and state legislatures, as well as in Congress.

If your local candidates don’t talk about rail in their political platforms, ask yourself:

  • Will this candidate listen to me when I ask them to support rail in the future, even if I don’t come in with a pile of money?
  • Who will they hire in their office? Staffers who take the bus, or who fly first class?
  • Who are their major donors? Organizations I agree with, or companies that don’t care about the future of our planet?
  • Are they more interested in gerrymandering safe seats for their political party than ensuring that I and my neighbors are honestly represented?
  • Do they care about people like me, and about the people in my town (including folks who don’t belong to the country club)?

So yes, who you vote for does matter. Please vote, and vote wisely.

Some notes from the NARP Fall Meeting

The fall meeting of the NARP Council of Representatives was held in Salt Lake City over the weekend of October 18-19. There were some excellent presentations, and on the whole, I think that NARP is moving in a positive direction. But there is a lot of work to be done yet.

The good news

“We ask all 28,000 members to speak out for advocacy….There’s something about a train that is not only magic, it’s vital.”
— Jim Mathews

I am very impressed with Jim Mathews, the new President (what other nonprofits would call “executive director”) of NARP. I’ll let some of the slides from his introductory presentation speak for themselves. And I had a good private conversation with him that reinforces what he is saying publicly.

EDIT: Jim has kindly shared his presentation with us. PDF download here.

2014-10-19 12.58.04

2014-10-19 13.01.45

2014-10-19 13.07.55

And according to Larry Scott, the acting president who preceded Mathews, the NARP Board is solidly behind Mathews’ vision. “NARP needs to be proactive, not reactive.”

Joe Szabo, Administrator, Federal Railroad Administration, also had some positive things to say (complete speech here):

  • ‘We need predictable, dedicated funding for passenger rail.” Predictability is key, so they have asked for funding every year, but that funding has not been forthcoming since 2010.
  • On-time performance is a key piece of the success Amtrak had through 2012. We expect 95 percent OTP every day, on every train.
  • Travel is a fundamental civil right. This is not a Democratic or Republican issue, it’s just common sense.
  • The Southwest Regional Plan is the first of a series of planning documents. It was posted on the website yesterday (October 17). States are successfully pursuing the “PacMan approach” with little bites and plans.
  • Safety is central to the FRA’s mission. There have only been 4 railroad fatalities this year so far, down from 26 in 2013.

Ralph Becker, the Mayor of Salt Lake City, also made some good points.

  • Bringing transportation improvements is a war. The people who show up are the people who hate something. The folks who don’t show up are the people who like the changes.
  • Twenty percent will vote against anyone who raises taxes. You have to build your case to overcome that.
  • “Thank goodness for the millennials. They get it.”
  • Hearing from constituents is what will change the minds of elected representatives: constituents who come forward and demand accountability.

Tom Hall, Amtrak Chief of Customer Service, had some blunt, but reasonably positive, comments about customer service in general, and food service in particular.

2014-10-18 12.48.41

2014-10-18 12.56.52

2014-10-18 12.59.15

2014-10-18 12.59.29

2014-10-18 13.16.42

The Point of Sale system was delayed due to the TJ Maxx data breach, which required the credit-card processing system to be completely rewritten. It has now been rolled out on the Surfliners, and is to be enabled in the Northeast Corridor within weeks.

One comment that was positively received: if you’re a sleeping-car passenger, please get the steak! The cost of each meal is transferred to the food and beverage account.

The not-so-good news

The administration of NARP is still struggling. The process of converting membership records from the ancient software NARP had been using to a new system has not gone smoothly, which is why many of us have not gotten newsletters and renewal notices in a timely manner. This, in turn, has caused a significant dip in the organization’s income. The NARP staffers I have talked to believe that this problem is on its way to being resolved, but they have asked me to let everyone know that if you have any membership issues, feel free to contact the NARP office, or message me and I’ll pass the information along.

Some of the NARP staff members were asked to do basic presentations about websites and social media, which were snoozers for those of us who know about such things. But it was evident that a lot of the NARP Council members found these presentations eye-openers, which tells me that many on the Council haven’t joined the 21st century yet.

There are still a number of vacancies on the Council, and anyone who is interested in volunteering is welcome to message me to talk about what the positions entail. I hope to find candidates that will expand the diversity of the Council — we have too many old white-haired guys in the group now, myself included.

What comes next

Over the next few months, the various Council committees will be working on some projects to increase the visibility of, and support for, passenger rail.

I will be at the annual membership meeting of the Washington state rail advocacy organization in Centralia, WA, on November 8 and at the western regional NARP meeting / RailPAC annual conference in Sacramento on November 15. Please join me.

As, increasingly, decisions about passenger rail are stymied in DC and being made on the state and local level, it’s imperative that passenger-rail advocates support both NARP and the organization in your state. Please help us out!


Poll: WI residents support passenger rail

Time to badger Congress for Amtrak expansion

In Wisconsin, 85% of residents say they want Amtrak funding increased or maintained at current levels, according to a new survey.

It’s been more than 150 years since railroad fever first brought rail service to the Badger State. And while just about everything else has changed in the last century and a half, one thing hasn’t: Wisconsinites still love trains and in particular are fans of our national passenger railroad, Amtrak.

new survey of Wisconsin residents sends a clear message that expanding Amtrak service must be a part of the state’s transportation future….

And those views transcend party politics and labels. Indeed, one of the only places where Amtrak is not in demand is in Congress, where some lawmakers are still peddling unpopular budgets for Amtrak that would bankrupt the railroad.

With Congress preparing to rewrite the law that governs Amtrak, now is the time for elected officials to listen to their constituents.

In Wisconsin, 85% of residents say they want Amtrak funding increased or maintained at current levels, according to the survey. Very few want to see its funding eliminated. Nearly three out of four Wisconsin residents want the option of additional service to Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago. There is overwhelming support for expanded service across all demographic groups, all of whom have no problem with the $1 billion yearly federal investment in Amtrak, and many who would like to see it expanded.

Interestingly, the strong support for Amtrak in Wisconsin comes despite the fact that residents currently have limited rail service options. Nearly 80% said they have not been a passenger on Amtrak in the past two years; no surprise here given that the carrier provides only one long-distance train and one corridor service. These views also contrast with Wisconsin’s governor, who, in 2011, sent $850 million in already approved passenger rail funds back to the federal government.

The popularity of Amtrak transcends blue state/red state divisions, offering a striking example of nonpartisan pragmatism that elected leaders would do well to emulate. In fact, Amtrak’s favorable/unfavorable rating was 66%-18% among Republicans and 67%-21% among conservatives. After all, providing passenger rail service is not a Democratic or Republican issue; it’s a public interest issue.

Baltimore Sun editorial: Our view: Century-old infrastructure can’t continue to support passenger rail

Amtrak’s vulnerability [Editorial]
Our view: Century-old infrastructure can’t continue to support passenger rail service in Baltimore and the rest of the populous Northeast corridor

No doubt there were some lumps in throats at Amtrak headquarters last month when they heard the words “collapse” and “rail line” in Baltimore. As it happens, it was a CSX freight line that was affected by the loss of a 120-year-old retaining wall in Charles Village that sent tons of dirt, pavement and cars spilling onto the tracks below.

But it might have been the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel, Amtrak’s only passage through West Baltimore. It’s 140 years old and can’t accommodate more than two tracks, double-stacked trains or speeds above 30 miles per hour. The renovation of B&P, as it’s commonly known, is overdue, a $1.5 billion project that’s on the drawing board but not yet funded.

And that’s not even the biggest headache along Amtrak’s vital Northeast Corridor. Last week, Amtrak’s CEO reminded an audience in New York that the century-old rail tunnels beneath the Hudson River have less than 20 years of service left. That’s particularly worrisome, considering it would take “seven to nine years” to build new ones, Amtrak’s Joseph Boardman said, “if we all decided today that we could do it.”…

Amtrak has a new proposal with a 2030 completion date but currently doesn’t have the financing to move forward with it.

Congress and the Northeastern states can’t continue to ignore the region’s aging rail infrastructure, particularly tunnels and bridges that date back a century or more. …

Yet last week, House Republicans unveiled a budget for next year that would cut Amtrak’s capital construction allowance below this year’s amount. As current spending levels have already contributed to long-term neglect, it’s easy to see the proverbial track ahead — more landslide-like events and other catastrophes involving rail lines followed by finger-pointing and “you should have warned us” pronouncements.

Of course, Congress can always allow Amtrak to gradually shrivel up and die (indeed, conservatives have already called for it to be zero funded), but as the Northeast from Richmond, Va. to Boston, Mass. remains the nation’s economic powerhouse, that strategy could prove costly. Home to 50 million people and a $2.6 trillion economy, the Northeast is this country’s most densely populated region and the most dependent on rail service to keep going….

The bottom line is that there’s really not much choice. Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor must be sustained if only because the region lacks alternatives. And the sooner Washington replaces rail infrastructure that dates back a century or more, the sooner commuters can rest easy that a landslide isn’t waiting around the next bend….

We certainly don’t expect the B&P Tunnel to come crashing down any time soon, and perhaps the Hudson River tunnels have many years left — as might the aging bridges over the Susquehanna, Bush and Gunpower rivers in Maryland that are also slated for repairs. But it just seems foolish to risk so much by continuing a strategy of neglect along the Northeast Corridor, financing small projects like new signals here or catenary there, when so many major challenges are ignored at the public’s eventual peril.

May Day means Amtrak Day #1: May 1st, 2014

Commentary from

Once again, for the 43rd time, here we are on May Day, the anniversary of the official day of Amtrak operations beginning on May 1, 1971. It was the day most of the still-operating passenger trains in the country disappeared, and the freight railroads breathed a sigh of relief because the heavy hand of the ICC was no longer upon them forcing them to run trains they didn’t want to run “in the public interest.”

The almost exclusively all-male railroad management cadre of the day, many of them struggling to save their own freight operations from bankruptcy in a heavy regulatory environment, were happy to be rid of the cost of passenger stations, a fleet of cars and locomotives which were reaching what everybody thought was the end of their useful life (sadly, this was especially true of equipment built by Pullman Standard, which used a different assembly process and materials than its wiser competitor, Budd), and all of the expensive employees it took to run passenger trains. They could cascade many of their unwanted employees onto Amtrak’s employee roster (of particular note, the former Pennsylvania Railroad employees in Philadelphia who were sure they could run passenger trains better than anyone else), and, allegedly, finally do what they thought railroads should only do, turn themselves into corporate conglomerates (remember the various “Industries” titles tacked onto the end of railroad names?) focusing on moving products, not people, and buying and managing other businesses they didn’t know how to run.