Monday, June 25, 2007

Congressman Boozman and me, everything you ever wanted to know about Amtrak

Congressman Boozman called this afternoon. The topic was today's Democrat-Gazette column on his Amtrak proposal. We talked for 33 minutes. He was courteous, so I will expect your discussion to reflect the same spirit.

These are portions of our conversation. You should not read this as a press release. We talked. The language is conversational, so no nitpicking his grammar or mine. I will concede that Congressman Boozman must have used the word “efficient” 200 times.

If you wish to quote, please give proper attribution: "Freelance writer Pat Lynch of Little Rock"

The Congressman and I have a real difference of opinions about Amtrak and the rights it receives on “host” freight railroads, but we started off on a note of agreement. He is very candid. I wonder if the truckers and highway lobby have heard him talk this way.

It’s really become critical for the rails, the highways, and then the rivers – the dams and locks – all of that to work together, And as you know, I mean, we’re at the point, in most parts of the country, you physically can’t build any more roads. The rail is at full capacity.

We discussed his proposal, which would eliminate Amtrak’s preferential access rights to freight lines unless the U.S. Secretary of Transportation first certifies that implementation of those rights would not cause increased highway congestion, fossil fuel usage, air pollution or greenhouse gas emissions. Boozman explained himself, or he tried to.

I wasn’t doing anything at all trying to hurt Amtrak. Amtrak has a preferential exemption that goes back to the 1970’s, and so as a result of that, no matter what when they’re in the middle of the country, I specifically took out the northeast because they’re much more efficient there and their trains are more efficient, you know their passenger service is more efficient, the whole bit. Took out the northeast corridor so we wouldn’t be dealing with that and just said..what we’re trying to do is to make it such that Amtrak and the commercial service get together and figure out what is the most efficient use of the train track. Not, again, to diminish Amtrak at all.

History buffs know that passenger trains carrying mail, which would have been the case for most Amtrak trains in the 70’s, have received priority treatment for many years, probably to the early 1900’s. Back in the day, railroads were serous abou the United States mail. The bottom line is that it is not a new things for passenger trains to get moved ahead of freight. Amtrak no longer carries mail, so far as I know.

I guess he knows that Amtrak owns the northeast corridor from Washington to Boston.

But it shouldn’t be that, just because I’m Amtrak and I want to run through a certain area, kind of like if you were working on the highway and you wanted to work at the busiest time of the day, you know that sort of thing, Just to look at that, and then again work out a system, the most efficient. We had several of the trucking companies, last year I’m talking about, because of the high price of fuel, they went in through GPS and looked at their routes, and were able really just through rerouting, running the most efficient route they were able to cut fuel costs in the neighborhood of 25%. So these are things that just haven’t been looked at in decades. So that’s what it was all about.

Sorry, sir. I’ll bet the congressman voted “aye” for the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act of 1997. It worked well into the current president’s term. For all I know, it may still be in existence. Amtrak is been politicized almost to death. Amtrak has been Congress’ favorite whipping boy since its’ inception in 1972.

Who is pulling Boozman’s chain? I think he is a sincere man who honestly think he is doing the right thing. You would have to be fairly intimate with the issues not to be taken in. There may be some clues in his continued references to “on time delivery.” That phrase must come from somewhere. Help me out.

The thing that is fueling this is a thing called “on time delivery” and the people like Wal Mart, the people who are very very efficient, a few years ago, made it such that when you went into a Target or a Wal Mart or just about anyplace, and you buy a product, that goes from the computer, ya’ know where they mark it up, into a distribution center, and instead of having a warehouse, and Little Rock is full of old warehouses that are sitting there empty, instead of having those warehouses, it’s very efficient, you just get a few of those products. So the new warehouses are the trucks on the road and our trains. And so they’re not only hauling that, they’re hauling toothpaste – you name it, and, like I said, the rail system is becoming a huge part of the “on time delivery.” I used to think of trains like, you got coal and stuff, but that’s really not true anymore. The train has really become very very efficient. So they’re hauling that stuff. They’re hauling a lot of produce. They’re hauling everything, and like I said, that’s another thing that’s added to the problem is that.

Here is a curious quote. Wonder who the “members” are? Perhaps they will be so proud, they will self-identify.

I had several people that were in the northeast corridor, members say to me “you need to increase, you need to do the northeast. And these were people who were very supportive of Amtrak.

Maybe he doesn’t know that Amtrak owns the northeast corridor and there are almost no freight trains on it anyway.

Our bus transit, if you will look at the chart, there was a chart that came out, by one of the environmental groups. They looked at car travel, looked at air travel, looked at train travel and bus travel. And air of off the scale so far as two people flying on a plane. It’s very very much as far as using energy. Bus and car is really very similar. The other thing that does very very well is bus travel. I’ve been a big advocate of trying to get people on buses. But we don’t have a lot of people on buses, but it is so important because the people that are on buses are the elderly. That, if they weren’t riding the a bus, would be in a rest home because they can’t get out and buy their groceries, go to the doctor. And single moms, things like that.

You mentioned things Amtrak needs, besides equipment, I wouldn’t argue with any of those things, but what Amtrak desperately needs are passengers, and to be honest, I just don’t know the answer to that. We desperately need, for our transit authorities in Arkansas more bus ridership, which would help greatly. But people are just very very resistant. Even here in Washington, the Metro’s very popular. They’re just very resistant to riding buses for some reason.

It may be that some of us are larger than pygmies, but that would only be a guess why inter-city buses are not more popular. Yeah, Boozman does drift a bit between Amtrak and local transit.

He got right into today’s column in the Democrat-Gazette. I suggested Amtrak needed more equipment in which to carry more passengers. He was not buying.

They desperately need a couple of things. One of the things that government does so badly is that a lot of our .. right now, Pat, if you look at your broadcasting equipment, if you look at any newspaper business or whatever, I suspect the way the type is set, this and that, you look at any of that stuff in the last 10 or 15 years, there’s been a tremendous amount of change, a tremendous amount of technological improvement. The problem is much of government, much of what we do up here, our agencies and things, they’re still doing it the same way they were doing it at the turn of the century. Somebody was telling me the other day that just until recently our visas were done on Windows 95. We’re just very very far behind, and so what we need to do, we need to look at these things, Again, not in the sense of trying to punish, displace, or whatever, but to make more efficient. We need efficiencies, so, yeah I would be interested in looking and seeing if we needed more whatever – more routes, this and that, if hat would make it more efficient. If they needed more equipment.

Efficiencies? That’s what Amtrak needs. Another round of budget cuts.

I do know the ridership throughout the continental United States is not very great. I would be a guy would be amenable to whatever. I’m a guy really trying to figure out, with “on time delivery” and a good economy, how do we get people, how do we get things were they ought to be. What’s the most efficient? How do we get the coal into the barges, if it can be done that way – as opposed to the other, and maybe the other products on the trains.

I asked about the railroad capacity issue. Today’s column cast that as the major issue facing rail carriers.

I agree with you completely and I am co-sponsor or a bill that gives a pretty massive tax credit to railroads, to trains, to build.

Then we had a little exchange. You figure it our for yourself.

LYNCH: And that is why I believe Amtrak should participate in improvements to the infrastructure…

BOOZMAN: It would be like all of us riding along and the police , with the siren, just all the time running down to pull you over, whether it’s crowded or not crowded. All I’m saying is that if you have the potential, if you have a crowded area, not that Amtrak shouldn’t take precedence, is that somebody look and say “well, let’s kinda’ schedule this here and schedule that there, and we’ll make it run most efficient.

LYNCH: You don’t actually believe, as a practical matter, that Union Pacific or BNSF, and I’m not painting them as corporate criminals, but you don’t actually believe that they actually give Amtrak preferential dispatching?

BOOZMAN: How do you mean?

LYNCH: In other words, that Amtrak would be somehow, could somehow, be moved ahead of freight trains that are already stopped on the main line, dead on their track?

BOOZMAN: Oh, they do for sure. Amtrak has preferential (audio interruption).

LYNCH: But you don’t believe, practically, that that happens?

BOOZMAN: Yeah, for sure I do.

LYNCH: Oh, boy.

BOOZMAN: I surely do.

LYNCH: I find it hard to imagine that you would belive that.I mean, considering that Amtrak trains, the Sunset is frequently as late as 12 to 16 hours into either New Orleans or Los Angeles, I mean they’re certainly not running that kind of on time performance getting preferential dispatching. I mean, Amtrak is stuck in the same gridlock with the freight trains.

BOOZMAN: But they really do, Pat. They really do. They get. I don’t know. Again, this couldn’t happen, but if two of them started out at the same time, then Amtrak would get there first. Because they do get preferential dispatching. And that’s really what all this is about.

LYNCH: Boy, I think that’s an interesting outlook. I think you’ve been sadly deceived, but I guess if that’s what you believe, that’s what you believe.

BOOZMAN: Well, it’s. Can you send me – Ya’ know I’m part of the deal. I’ve explained to you about “on time delivery, “ the fact that – whatever I’ve explained to you – that I’m trying to do something about the infrastructure, the tax credit, this and that, how all this works together – Can you send me a document that says that – are you just telling me what you think or are you telling me something that you based it on?

LYNCH: Well, I guess we just have a difference of opinion.

BOOZMAN: Well, that’s not an opinion.

LYNCH: I mean, well, you’re terribly

BOOZMAN: Pat, do me a favor.

LYNCH: Alright.

BOOZMAN: Now, listen. We had a discussion in the hearing, OK, Back and forth about whatever. You’ll be able to get the, in fact we’ll get it for you and send it to you, the transcript of that thing. Nobody in the course of that, and it was a great discussion about Amtrak, it wasn’t slamming. It was, how do we fix this thing? Mr. Oberstar, who knows more about this than anybody in the world, he’s been here a long long time, he’s a good guy, Democrat from Minnesota , a good guy, nobody took the course of action saying they weren’t getting preferential treatment. They do get preferential treatment.

LYNCH: It could be that the railroad is so crowded that it’s nothing but a moot point and a semantic difference because the preferential treatment makes you 12 hours late instead of 20 hours late.

BOOZMAN: And I’m really not talking about areas like that. Somebody was teling me the other day, and again, this was after I’d done this, somebody told me there are areas of the country where you might not have any of that going on, Pat. But, regardless, even though trains have to stop, Amtrak does get preferential treatment. This is just an effort to look at it, sort it out. I’m not … I guess the other thing … you have no reason to think that I’m somehow undoing, in a nefarious kind of way to get rid of Amtrak. That’s totally ridiculous.

He then went off on his support for local transit buses, with which I completely agree.

Stay tuned for more tomorrow.

I think he means "just in time delivery." It's a Wal-Mart pioneered concept, I think.
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