Saturday, July 14, 2007

Amtrak's capital budget

Amtrak President, Alex Kummant testified before House Transportation Committee last week concerning the national passenger rail corporations’s capital requirements. Since Arkansas representative John Boozman has been carrying the water for Wal Mart and Northwest Arkansas trucking companies to destroy the ability of Amtrak to operate its’ long distance trains, this is a relevant subject.

I have looked around on the web and have not yet located a complete transcript of Kummant’s remarks, but there are several stories, including an AP item in Forbes, which provide enough material for some quick observations.

Associated Press
D.C. to NYC in 90 Minutes? Not on Amtrak
By SARAH KARUSH 07.11.07, 3:50 PM ET

Even if it spent $7 billion on track upgrades, Amtrak couldn't reduce the travel time between Washington and New York to less than 2 hours and 20 minutes, which is only 25 minutes less than the trip now takes, the company's president told Congress on Wednesday.

The statement by Alex Kummant came during a presentation on the federally funded railroad's capital needs. During the hearing, members of the House transportation committee expressed frustration about the lack of truly high-speed rail service in the U.S.

The closest thing Amtrak has to high-speed service is the Acela Express, the railroad's premier Washington-Boston train, which travels at an average speed of 82 miles per hour and reaches 150 mph in parts of Rhode Island and Connecticut. In other parts of the country, where Amtrak runs trains on congested tracks owned by the freight railroads, speeds can be far slower and delays are frequent.

Much of the attention was focused on Amtrak’s primary mission, operation of the northeast corridor between Washington, D. C. and Boston, which carries over 20 million passengers annually. Apples and oranges were apparently flying around all over the place. Let me explain.

When improvements in the northeast corridor are laid out, it seems as if there is little recognition that many items requiring immediate action are necessary for safety or security. Several of the bridges and tunnels fall into this category, and one naturally improves the capacity when one builds new facilities.

Kummant correctly points out the rather high cost of gaining only a few extra minutes of running time. $7 billion will give you an extra 25 minutes Washington to New York. Here’s a thought. Instead of searching for the illusive increase in speed, why not work on capacity? Since most trips on the corridor are not end-to-end, it seems there could be substantial revenue added by adding frequencies. That means more equipment, improved right-or-way, and improvements to station platforms. This would probably result in some time keeping improvements also.

Amtrak’s new CEO deserves lots of scrutiny. He was appointed by the worst president in American history, but Kummant is probably correct in his assertion that Amtrak would not be able to absorb a $32 billion capital infusion. That should not be taken to mean that corporation is full of crooks and idiots, although it probably has a fair share of both.

Many businesses run into the biggest problems when they expand. Amtrak’s sorry record with the design and implementation of the Acela trains must lead us to believe that there is a lack of something at the top in Amtrak. If I recall, Amtrak was precluded form buying equipment from more experienced European manufacturers. Instead, a deal was imposed with a Canadian company by congressional pressure.

Amtrak has historically suffered from political interference. It is difficult to argue that a company that has made some of the horrendous decisions ought to get a pass from congress, but there must be some stability in funding and management. There seems to be a growing realization that Amtrak ought to be a more important player in the business of moving people.

Amtrak is an essential part of the transportation system in the northeast and the needed infrastructure improvements will be made, and they will be expensive.

Kummant’s testimony appeared to be light on any possible improvements in long-distance train territory out here west of Philadelphia.

Some thoughts on what I know and what has been reported.

The quiet move to eliminate or drastically reorganize the Sunset route (Los Angeles to Orlando, via New Orleans) needs to be brought out in the daylight before it is presented as an accomplished fact. Service east of New Orleans has not operated since Hurricane Katrina, almost two years ago. This is despite restoration of the CSX mainline.

Passenger train service connecting Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Pensacola, Mobile, and Gulfport to the national system is an issue impacting “interstate commerce” as much as operation of the northeast corridor. Of course, I am not suggesting the same magnitude of importance, only a philosophical and legal similarity.

There also seem to be whispers about the Sunset route west of New Orleans. A map displayed by the Amtrak CEO displayed the major intersections of congestion and conflict with freight railroads and there were not mentions of Houston or El Paso. This is suspicious.

Ridership statistics on the Sunset are past awful, at least on paper. Unwary readers and journalists need to be aware that this is a train which operates on a three-day a week schedule. It carries less than half of the available passenger inventory as any other similar train. Of course, it will have many fewer passengers. Additionally, several of the stations have declined to a deplorable condition.

I have some thoughts on this issue, but they should wait for another day. Every supporter of Amtrak has some sort of half-baked theory, and my operational suggestions may have no validity in the real world.

John Boozman and the Arkansas congressional delegation need to know that the destruction of the Sunset route will harm the Eagle, which provides a daily schedule from San Antonio to Chicago through Arkansas. Elimination of the Sunset gives Arkansans fewer destinations . It will also harm connecting trains in Los Angeles and New Orleans.

The highest agenda items for Amtrak in Middle-America is restoring the Sunset route east or New Orleans and providing daily service throughout.

Amtrak is lacking equipment, so this will not be easily achieved. It must be remembered that, once the essential passenger train infrastructure (signals platforms, etc.) is gone for 6 months, it will probably never be restored. The Sunset must be saved, improved, and perhaps reorganized.

There is often an argument made about “corridor” service being more important than long distance passenger trains. Let us consider the Sunset. Here are some of the corridors that exist on the route:

Los Angeles – Phoenix
El Paso San-Antonio
San Antonio – Houston
Houston – New Orleans
New Orleans – Mobile
Pensacola – Tallahassee
Tallahassee – Jacksonville
Jacksonville - Orlando

The Sunset provides the only rail passenger service on at least 8 significant regional transportation corridors.

Whether passenger trains and freight railroads can co-exist as Congressman Boozman frequently worries, is a non-issue. Amtrak has for over 30 years assumed the public obligation of “host” (frieight hauling) railroads to serve the traveling public which was explicit in the public-private partnerships in which they were born. Freight railroads accepted public lands and other direct and indirect subsidies in exchange for the right to operate what have become enormously profitably businesses. Amtrak carries the cost of “labor protection” for these companies and makes substantial contributions to the Railroad Retirement system.

Congress needs to authorize new conventional passenger equipment for so-called “long distance” service. It will take years to deliver these necessary cars, so we better get moving now. This does not envision TGV type trains such as operate in Europe. For now, America should take care of the minimal transportation system which is already in place.

A little leadership could vastly improve the facilities of both railroad freight shippers and the traveling public.

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