20.7.08

RUNNING OUT OF COACHES. Cold Spring Shops is not the only source of Amtrak information. The New York Times's Blog Runner has been keeping track of a number of stories. Evidently there is at least an Old Dominion version (via Trains For America) of the missing equipment story Bill Polley and I referred to last week.

Newsweek has also noticed the increased passenger volume, and takes advantage of the opportunity to perpetuate all sorts of errors.

The storybook plight of the Little Engine That Could, struggling to make it up a mountain, is a pretty apt metaphor for America's rail system. Limited access, outdated equipment and high ticket prices have been the sorry story of Amtrak, the nation's principal rail carrier, from its beginning—pushing most would-be riders to other ways of getting around. But $4-a-gallon gas and chaotic airways are working in Amtrak's favor. In an era when green is hip and mileage matters, trains can't be beat.

I kept my counsel over "Amtrak’s Midwest ridership steams ahead" in the Macomb Journal. Can't we have railroad reporting without hints of Casey Jones oiling around and Sim Webb shoveling all the coal in and Steve Broady found in the wreck with his hand on the throttle? Amtrak pushing would-be riders to other modes? Amtrak was Congress's response to the railroads' efforts to push riders to other modes, a push that Congress encouraged through its funding of highways and air service. (Because there's more payoff to ribbon-cuttings, public officials came up with the money for initial construction. The chaos is a consequence of government failure to maintain and upgrade.)

The story perpetuates another popular error.

Since the 1950s, America's vast inter-state highway system and love of the automobile has contributed to a gradual deterioration of its railroads—just as most of Europe and parts of Asia have been investing in swift and comfortable long-range trains. But duplicating those foreign systems here is not simple. Private freight railroads own most of the tracks Amtrak uses, so a broad expansion of the railways would require hundreds of billions of dollars in new infrastructure and decades of eminent domain lawsuits to acquire private lands. "We never invested in quality passenger rail travel like other countries," says Joseph Sussman, a professor of engineering and transportation systems at MIT. "It's almost impossible that the American network could ever be able to mirror those ultra-efficient models around the world."

Try this.

Since the 1980s, America's unwillingness to expand the road network has induced the railroads to upgrade their freight capabilities -- just as most of Europe and parts of Asia have been bringing in North American managers to improve their freight service. But duplicating those North American systems in Europe is not so simple. It's almost impossible that the European network could ever be able to mirror the BNSF Transcon or the Union Pacific - BNSF Powder River coal distribution system.

I could do a riff on fragmentation follies here, but that would get me too far off topic. There's a hanging curve ball begging to be hit over the left-field fence.

An expansive new system may not be in the cards, but the recent increased interest does signal hope for Amtrak to grow, especially along routes between cities that are too close to fly and, with high gas costs, too long and pricey to drive. A few hundred million dollars in improvements could bring certain routes to acceptable levels, according to Amtrak. Routes connecting Chicago to St. Paul, Atlanta to Charlotte, N.C., and San Diego to Los Angeles could replicate the speedy transit of the prized Northeast Corridor, where sleek trains running on newer tracks allow speeds up to 150 miles per hour in some zones, according to Amtrak CEO Alex Kummant. New rail cars and tracks would surely help, but trains could also run faster with newer signals installed at crossroads to stop traffic earlier. Improving station conditions in rural areas would also make the service feel more comfortable and contemporary.

Regular readers know what I'm going to say next. New readers, go here. There's no reason to spend money on signals and cars. Let's consider some of the examples. Chicago to St. Paul I've been all over for a long time. Baltimore to Boston on the Acela Express is no faster than the old Afternoon Zephyr St. Paul to Chicago.



Mike's Railway History, from which I obtained the picture, offers much of the same information I've been providing. The advantage of a train is precisely that it can make intermediate stops without an hour of landing and unloading, er, "deplaning" and boarding process and holding for takeoff. Bleah. It doesn't take advanced technology either. Left to right, in Chicago: a Hiawatha 4-4-2, a North Western 4-6-2, a Twin Zephyr, and an Alton locomotive, possibly the Lord Baltimore or Lady Baltimore for the St. Louis service. (The Great Western stack and smokebox door are deliberate flattery.) Any one of those conveyances could blow the doors off a Hummer. The Surf Line? Difficult given the canyons and beaches to run it much faster? Charlotte - Atlanta? Five hours on the Southern Railway's Southerner in 1954. But an Old Confederacy Passenger Transport Executive to operate it? Doubtful.
Critics of Amtrak, which is federally subsidized and has neither made a profit nor met ridership projections in its 37-year history, say the company should not be entrusted with the future of rail travel. Joseph Vranich—a former spokesman for the carrier who, after leaving, wrote two books criticizing the inefficiency of a federally funded passenger railroad—says that the government should stop funding the system and instead allow private operators to bid on existing tracks and equipment to provide competitive service. "If we want to have a good train system, we've got to get rid of the government monopoly on rail transport," says Vranich. Others who oppose government aid to the system, including President George W. Bush, think that private companies operating different routes could also bring down high ticket prices, which have long been a deterrent to using the service.
Again, we could do my inside-out-Europe comparison. The North American-managed freight operating companies have all sorts of trouble working with the owner of the tracks and the passenger operating authorities to offer a reliable freight service. As a Swiss colleague noted, analogies between railroads and express highways are strained at best. (You think that guaranteed delivery would work without sharp dispatching of the Z-trains?) To continue from earlier in the week, multiple passenger train operators might be less willing or less able to exchange equipment to deal with seasonal peaks. Early in Amtrak's existence, car maintainers on Eastern railroads had to adjust to unusual air conditioning systems and suspensions on ostensibly better but mechanically different cars Amtrak had purchased from the Western railroads.
Amtrak says it can handle increasing capacity along more popular corridors. All it needs, says CEO Kummant, is more money—on top of its almost $2 billion annual appropriation—to invest in additional infrastructure. A $15 billion capital-funding bill for Amtrak currently awaits agreement between both houses of Congress, and similar measures have passed both the Senate and House by veto-proof margins. Kummant says that with money in hand, the first improvement would be replacing older locomotives and rail cars with newer, more-efficient models. Existing tracks along popular travel routes could also be outfitted to accommodate higher speeds. "We're already growing incrementally," says Kummant. "And for the first time in history, the emergent transportation mode actually exists already." The earth might be relieved.
Ryan Avent takes issue with the article's focus on funding. There's merit in what he says. All the same, I have a suggestion for that next generation corridor coach.

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