Archive for the ‘On Transportation’ Category

Divorcing Amtrak is Hard to Do

February 6, 2017

The great Hoosier State privatization experiment is about to end. It started in July 2015 when Iowa Pacific Holdings began “operating” the quad-weekly Chicago-Indianapolis train.

On TransportationI put the word “operating” in quotation marks because, technically, IP did not “operate” the Hoosier State.

In practice, it was a partnership with Amtrak. IP provided the equipment and marketing support, and was in charge of on-board service.

But the operating crews were Amtrak employees and the nation’s passenger carrier handled the relationships with the host railroads, primarily CSX.

As it turned out, Amtrak has received most of the money paid by INDOT and its partner communities that fund the service.

For a while, Iowa Pacific received many kudos because of what it wasn’t, which is Amtrak.

Under Amtrak auspices, the Hoosier State was a bare-bone operation used to shuttle equipment between Chicago and the Beech Grove Shops in suburban Indianapolis.

By comparison, the IP operation of the Hoosier State was a luxury train, with business class, meals freshly prepared on board, and a full-length dome car for those willing to pay extra fare.

IP head Ed Ellis – who once worked at Amtrak – talked about expanding service and the need to cut the travel time.

He said IP would aggressively market the service, seeking to build markets that Amtrak had ignored.

One marketing gambit IP talked about was running a bus between the Crawfordsville station and Bloomington, the home of Indiana University.

IP correctly recognized the college market is a good source of passengers, but apparently the Bloomington shuttle never got on the road.

Iowa Pacific had a lot of people rooting for it to succeed with the Hoosier State, many of whom believe that a private operator can provide better service than Amtrak.

Some also want to believe that a private operator can make money on passenger service by providing better and more economical service than Amtrak. Ellis and IP apparently believed that, too, but the Hoosier State didn’t yield the expected financial returns for IP.

Ellis always knew the daily service and faster trains he desired hinged upon the willingness of government entities within Indiana to provide the capital funding needed to upgrade the slow meandering route used by the Hoosier State and Amtrak’s tri-weekly Chicago-New York Cardinal.

If IP could demonstrate that the Hoosier State was a success despite its route limitations, then perhaps Indiana officials would be amendable to funding track work in the same manner that the departments of transportation in neighboring Michigan and Illinois have.

But that has always been a long shot. Indiana has never been as supportive of intercity passenger rail as its neighbors.

Amtrak will take back the Hoosier State in Toto on March 1. Although INDOT said it has a verbal agreement that some of IP’s services will be retained, that is not a sure thing.

It remains to be seen if INDOT will seek an operator other than Amtrak and, for that, matter, how much longer the state and on-line communities are willing to pony up money to underwrite the operating losses.

One key take away from the IP Hoosier State experiment is that divorcing Amtrak is more difficult than it might seem.

Behind the Record CVSR Ridership in 2016

January 23, 2017

The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroads made headlines last week when it announced record ridership in 2016 of 214,063, shattering the record of 210,347 set in 2012.

On TransportationThe news made the front page of the Sun News weekly newspapers in Cleveland and merited mention on the Trains magazine website.

The record means a couple of things. First, there were no washouts or other service disruptions in 2016 to depress patronage.

Second, it was an aberration. Ridership over 200,000 has been rare on the CVSR.

If history is any guide, the CVSR will struggle to sustain its success. After carrying more than 200,000 passengers in 2012, ridership in 2013 fell to 186,270 and continued to fall in 2014 (185,912) and 2015 (185,500)

The 2016 uptick is due to a number of factors, including lack of service disruptions caused by weather or track work, the institution of new programs to attract new business, record ridership in the Bike Aboard! program, and good ticket sales for steam in the valley.

Excursions behind Nickel Plate Road 767 (a.k.a. NKP 765) sold out.

Like a fast food franchise, the CVSR must constantly introduce new products and promote those that it has.

It can be difficult to find ridership data for the CVSR before 1990, but a news report following the first year of operation in 1975 said that 7,000 rode 21 weekend trips, most of them pulled by steam locomotive 4070 in 1975.

In 1990, the last year that the 4070 operated, ridership was 9,300 on 32 trips.

The following year, there were 91 trips and ridership of 15,700. In 1992, ridership increased to 24,000.

Patronage took a massive jump in 1995 when 475 trips netted ridership of 61,000 compared to 42,000 over 300 trips in 1994.

Ridership hit triple digits for the first time in 2000 when 100,130 rode. By then the CVSR was operating 1,000 trips a year.

Since breaking the 100,000 mark in 2000, ridership has remained in the triple digits with the exception of 2003 when it plummeted to 93,000.

The drop in ridership that year can be explained in one word: flooding.

It knocked the CVSR out of operation when 14 miles of track suffered severe damage. Service was suspended for nearly three weeks.

Ridership can also be depressed by other factors.

In October 2013 a stalemate over the federal budget that shut down the federal government knocked the CVSR out of service for about a week during the busy fall foliage season.

That played a role in the 24,000 drop in ridership that the CVSR experienced in 2013 when compared to its record-setting year of 2012.

It took three years, but at least, the railroad has recovered from that.

Another Railroad Tradition Bites the Dust

April 25, 2016

Perhaps it was inevitable. Airlines haven’t issued timetables for years so it was a matter of time before Amtrak followed suit because there was money to be saved.

Last week Amtrak said it would no longer print its system timetable. It will continue to create a system timetable as a PDF file that you can download from the rail passenger carrier’s website.

It also will continue to print route-specific folders that will be available at some stations and aboard trains.

You could summarize the reason for ending printing of the national timetable in two words: changing times.

But what, exactly, changed?

On TransportationIn a statement Amtrak said it was its patrons. “Surveys have revealed that few customers want or use the printed System Timetable and expressed a preference to access information on-line,” Amtrak said in a statement.

It also said that “schedules, policies, and programs are ever-changing, and it’s impossible to keep the printed document up-to-date.”

The latter assertion is blowing smoke. Routes rarely change and the vast majority of schedule changes are temporary adjustments made when a host railroad is undergoing major track work.

Amtrak also cited being “environmentally friendly,” which has become a catch-all excuse used by every company in America when it is trying to cut and/or shift the costs of printing to its customers.

Saving itself some money is, I suspect, a primary reason for ending the printed system timetable. Amtrak of late has seen its patronage drop and has been looking for ways to cut expenses.

Ending the printing of the system timetable will save some money, although it probably won’t be a substantial amount.

But it will be one more thing that Amtrak can put on a list when it goes before Congress to show that it has been fiscally responsible.

If the surveys – the results of which we will likely never see – really do reveal that few passengers want or use the national timetable, it is not difficult to understand why.

Aside from the trend toward using smart phones as a primary way of accessing the Internet, the system timetable is bulky and inconvenient to use on the go.

It won’t easily fit in a pocket and the typical traveler probably doesn’t care about schedules for any route other than the one he or she is traveling.

Much of the time if you wanted a system timetable you had to ask for it because they seldom were placed in a rack for distribution.

The system timetable hasn’t always been as large or even as attractive as it has been in recent years.

Although Amtrak timetables have always had a color cover, the interiors were often bare bones offerings of page after page of schedules printed on newsprint paper.

Today’s Amtrak system timetable features color printing and photographs along with numerous display advertisements.

I had always presumed that the revenue from those advertisements paid for the expense of printing the timetable. If so, they didn’t pay for it enough, apparently.

I’ve always been a fan of timetables and I have a near complete collection of Amtrak system timetables dating to the first one issued on May 1, 1971.

I enjoy leafing through the timetable as a way of vicariously traveling by train to countless places in America.

I could still do that, but it won’t be as convenient. I would have to collect all of the route folders and that won’t be easy to do.

In my experience, Amtrak tends to distribute route folders by region, so the Cleveland Amtrak station is not likely to have folders for routes on the West Coast.

Ending the printed system timetable might draw a few letters or emails of protest, but that isn’t likely to have any effect. In the end, Amtrak is probably correct that few passengers care or use the system timetable.

And so another railroad tradition falls by the wayside and I’m going to miss it.

‘Accident’ or ‘Crash?’ Both Might Be Accurate Terms But Don’t Quite Mean the Same Thing

April 20, 2016

As a professional writer, I pay close attention to the words I use to convey information and express thoughts.

Hence, I took an interest in a recent discussion on a railfan chat list in the wake of an incident in which an Amtrak train struck a backhoe 15 miles south of Philadelphia.

Two Amtrak maintenance-of-way workers were killed and 30 passengers aboard the train suffered minor injuries.

The online discussion focused, in part, on the use of the word “accident” to describe what happened.

On TransportationA poster in the thread asserted that because events such as the one in which the train struck the backhoe are preventable many in the railroad and regulatory fields now call them collisions or crashes rather than accidents.

That’s because the word “accident” suggests that no one was at fault.

If the two construction workers had been killed after being struck by a meteor, that would be an accident because no rules were violated and, hence, no one was at fault. It would have been the proverbial act of God.

The poster was correct that the incident involving the backhoe was preventable. A piece of construction equipment doesn’t just happen to find its way onto a railroad track over which trains are operating at better than 100 miles per hour.

Someone made a mistake. A rule was violated and it is often said that every rule in every rule book of every railroad is written in blood.

But does that meant that if a rules violation leads to injury or death that it is not an accident, but a collision, a crash, or even an incident?

I would describe it as an accident because the event was unintentional.

The operator of the backhoe did not go to work intending to be struck and killed by a train.

The engineer of the train did not go to work intending to strike a piece of construction equipment and kill someone.

The passengers didn’t board the train intending to suffer personal injury.

It will be several months before the National Transportation Safety Board issues a final report that will specify which rule or rules were violated by whom and how.

Once the NTSB report is released, there may be some discussion about the adequacy of the rules and/or how they are practiced. Some might call for a revision of the rules in the name of safer practices.

In the meantime, the Federal Railroad Administration has ordered Amtrak to review its safety practices and retrain its workers.

All of this is oriented toward creating and maintaining an environment in which there are zero injuries and fatalities.

That is unlikely to occur so long as that environment involves humans because people are subject to such things as forgetfulness, lack of knowledge of the rules and procedures, lack of skill in following the rules and procedures, and engaging in poor judgment.

The business of assessing fault has consequences that transcend what caused the incident and what rule(s) were violated by whom.

Jobs might be lost, careers destroyed and thousands, if not millions, of dollars must be paid to repair damaged equipment and property, not to mention paying the medical costs for making the injured whole again.

Someone has to pay for those costs and the determination of who is fault goes a long way toward identifying who those people and companies will be.

In that context, whether the event is framed as an “accident” or a “crash” could be important in how that determination is ultimately made.

Such frames guide how people, including judges and juries in a court of law, think about what occurred and make decisions as to who owes what and how much to whom.

On the surface, the words used to describe an event might seem to be a trivial matter.

Arguably, “accident,” “crash” and “collision” all accurately describe the same thing.

Yet there can be subtle differences in how the meanings of those words are perceived and that might make a significant difference in sorting out the aftermath.

Maybe Harrison Just Wanted the NS Top Job

April 12, 2016

I’m going to miss E. Hunter Harrison. He was always good for at least one posting a week and journalists love colorful guys who like to talk a lot to the media.

Now that Harrison and his financier Bill Ackman – the majority stockholder in Canadian Pacific – have folded their tent and retreated to Calgary after their failed campaign to acquire Norfolk Southern, things are going to return to normal, whatever that might be in a world in which rail traffic continues to decline.

Thousands of words are going to be written and spoken during the coming days and months about why CP failed to win over NS.

Most of those treatises will zero in on what Harrison did or didn’t do right in his efforts to merge CP and NS.

On TransportationAlready, Trains magazine columnist Fred Frailey has weighed in by saying that Harrison’s greatest mistake was to lose the political battle.

Frailey said that rather than emphasizing an operating plan Harrison should have formulated a political strategy to win over shippers and key political figures.

Once CP’s plan to merge with NS triggered intense political opposition the game was over.

That Harrison emphasized his operating plan – which he calls precision railroading – didn’t surprise me.

Precision railroading is his legacy, his claim to fame among a dozen other railroad CEOs. He’s written two books about it and the CP-NS merger dance gave him innumerable opportunities to talk about it.

I always thought that one of Harrison’s primary objectives all along was to take personal control of one of the big four U.S. Class I railroads so he could impose his philosophy of railroading on a larger stage.

It was one thing to do it at regional railroad Illinois Central or at two Canadian carriers.

Now, CP and Canadian National are just as big time as NS or CSX, but they are still Canadian carriers that happen to own a significant number of miles of track in the United States.

They don’t have quite the same networks or business mix as the big four of U.S. Class 1 carriers.

Harrison strikes me as being on a mission to show that his railroading philosophy not only works but is superior to the approaches used by other Class 1 carriers.

Although associated in the minds of many with Canadian railroads, Harrison is actually a Southern guy, having grown up in Memphis, Tennessee.

The IC was a well-run operation and Harrison has won a lot of respect in the railroad world.

One former CP manager who was part of the management team that Harrison and Ackman ousted after taking over CP said that Harrison “gets it” when it comes to running a railroad. The ex-CP executive had other complimentary things to say about Harrison even if he thinks Harrison gets a little too much credit for the so-called CP turnaround.

What he understood is that railroads make money moving freight cars, not allowing them to sit in railroad yards or sidings. Keeping freight moving was a cornerstone of Harrison’s precision railroading philosophy, even if it meant tacking a few low-priority boxcars onto the rear of a hot intermodal train.

Harrison is not going away. He’ll still be running CP, still be giving interviews and speeches, and still promoting his vision of how a railroad should be run.

I was surprised that Harrison and Ackman bailed out before the NS shareholder’s meeting next month.

But they might have been “encouraged” to do so by the opposition of the U.S. Department of Justice.

The Justice Department didn’t oppose merging the two companies per se. Rather it expressed concern about the voting trust arrangement that CP proposed which had Harrison and some of his associates going over to NS at the start of the merger review process by the Surface Transportation Board.

Perhaps the Justice Department opposition and/or some back channel communication from the STB convinced Harrison and Ackman that regulators were not likely to rule in their favor in the STB review of a hypothetical voting trust arrangement that CP asked them to examine.

The fact that Harrison couldn’t wait a year or two for the merger review process to play out showed how much he wanted to be CEO of NS now and suggests that for him personally it has always been about influence, control and legacy.

He didn’t really need for CP to buy NS to do what he wanted to do. Perhaps the proposed takeover was just his way to get into the NS executive suite.

Harrison might not have cared all that much if the STB rejected the merger because he would continue leading NS and running it his way.

We can expect Harrison to continue to beat the drums about the need for further consolidation in the North American Class 1 railroad industry but his words will receive less attention than they did when he was trying to take over NS.

That is not to say that further merger talks aren’t down the tracks. The climate today may not be right for a merger to create a transcontinental railroad, but it is not to say it that won’t change.

For now the Class 1s seem content to rule their own fiefdoms. Goodness knows they have plenty of challenges at hand, including dealing with declining coal and crude oil traffic. Bulk commodities aren’t what they used to be and railroads might have to start competing for less than carload or short-haul business that they long ago all but ceded to trucking companies.

Finding other business to replace coal is much on the minds of railroad CEOs these days.

However, sluggish business conditions have a way of encouraging mergers in corporate America. It may be that NS is amenable to a merger but would rather have danced with another partner.

Saving Pennies to Bolster an Exective Image

April 10, 2016

Cancellation of the steam program, putting a posh executive resort up for sale and now not sending the executive train to the Masters golf tournament in Georgia.

None of those actions that have been undertaken by Norfolk Southern will do anything to improve the company’s bottom line, but they will have symbolic value in the months ahead as the NS board of directors continues to fight an unwanted takeover bid by Canadian Pacific.

Trains magazine reported last week that NS didn’t send its executive train to the golf tournament in Augusta, Georgia.

It remains to be seen, but chances are the executive train won’t be going to the Kentucky Derby either.

On TransportationIn both instances, NS has historically sent its executive train to both high-profile sporting events to entertain shippers, public officials and executives of other railroads.

Just as predictable as flowering trees in the spring, the NS executive train has departed Altoona, Pennsylvania, in the morning and passed through Northeast Ohio on the Fort Wayne Line about a week before the Derby, which is held on the first Saturday in May.

But when you are trying to cut costs, executive perks can become expendable. It is all about promoting an image.

“We do not have business cars at the Masters,” NS spokesman Rick Harris told Trains. “It was an internal business decision.”

CSX and BNSF do have their executive trains in Augusta, but they are not currently the target of a takeover bid by CP or someone else.

Norfolk Southern is not cutting expenses because it is unprofitable.

NS may be suffering from lost coal traffic, but it is not losing money. It is far from being Penn Central or Erie Lackawanna, two railroads that served the Eastern United States that lost a gondola load of money, seeking bankruptcy protection as a result.

No, the issue is a matter of how much money NS makes and whether it is doing enough to make more of it.

In that regard, the primary concern of NS executives is not just prevailing over CP as it is pleasing Wall Street analysts who can influence the buying and selling of NS stock.

That is not to say that the CP takeover bid in unrelated to what Wall Street analysts think.

When a company is unable to increase its financial performance with substantial new business, it often tries to make itself look good by cost cutting.

There is a saying that you can’t cut your way to growth, but you can make your financial statement look better in the short term, which is mostly what Wall Street cares about.

Hence, NS has announced a five-year strategic plan to achieve $650 million in annual savings and reduce its operating ratio to 65 percent or lower by 2020.

The plan also talks about finding new business. The strategic plan is filled with long-term goals and objectives, but it was created for short-term benefit.

Whether the five-year plan ever achieves its objectives is largely immaterial at this point. It shows that current management is doing something now to bolster the balance sheet.

In the short term, NS management is most concerned about the May 12 annual meeting at which interests representing CP will propose a resolution directing NS to discuss a merger with CP.

NS CEO James Squires will point to a laundry list of actions his company has undertaken to reduce costs as a way of arguing against the resolution and against the need to merge with another company.

Not operating the executive train to a golf tournament will save only a few pennies in the scheme of things, but keeping the executive horses in Altoona will be worth valuable debating points.

The last thing Squires needs is a dissident shareholder harping about how NS is spending money on “frills.”

Squires needs to create the impression that he and the current NS management are doing all they can to turn things around and that they know what they are doing.

It is all about building an image that instills confidence in the current management among stockholders.

That might be enough to persuade enough of them to vote down the CP-sponsored resolution.

Saving pennies is the sort of thing that you do when you are in a tough situation that has no easy or immediate solution. You play for time and hope to ride out the storm.

It must gall Squires and the NS directors that CP’s E. Hunter Harrison has all but called them incompetent by saying that if Harrison were the CEO of NS he could realize $1.2 billion in savings by implementing his precision railroading operating plan.

In time, NS will either chase Harrison away or succumb to him. In either case, it seems likely that the NS executive train will be back at the Masters in 2017.

If NS triumphs over CP, it will be able to return to a sense of normalcy, which means wooing shippers, politicians and other railroad executives by taking them for a train ride.

If Hunter gets what he wants, he, too, will need to reach out to the same constituencies.

And what’s spending a few pennies to do that? It won’t affect the bottom line but could go a long way toward helping build a badly-needed positive image.

Tales From the Road of Late Amtrak Trains

March 26, 2016

I was riding Amtrak’s Chicago to Carbondale, Illinois, Illini when a passenger asked the conductor how the train was doing.

He pointed at me and said, “ask that guy. He knows everything that is going on.”

I don’t know if the passenger understood that the conductor meant that I was listening to the host railroad’s radio conversations on a scanner.

On TransportationI take my scanner when I travel on Amtrak because I learn more that way about why a train is late than I would from crew announcements made on the public address system.

What I’ve learned from years of listening to railroad radio transmissions is that the reasons why Amtrak trains are late are quite varied. It is not always because the host railroad gave preference to its freight trains although I have seen that happen.

Signals and switches malfunction. Accidents occur. Trains ahead are slow to get out of the way even when the dispatcher is trying to get Amtrak by.

I’ve seen situations in which every opposing freight train that Amtrak encountered is waiting in a siding and yet we still lost time due to slow orders and/or extended and unexpected dwell times in stations.

Dispatchers sometimes gamble that a freight train on the main ahead will clear up before Amtrak arrives. But it doesn’t always happen that way.

I once sat for several minutes not far from my destination of Mattoon, Illinois, because a Canadian National local ahead had not yet finished its work and gone on its way.

I was aboard an already very late Lake Shore Limited that halted almost within sight of the Cleveland station. A switch at Drawbridge on the Chicago Line of Norfolk Southern wouldn’t move.

The railroad tried running a freight train over the switch in the hope that that would pry it loose. It didn’t. A maintainer had to be summoned and it took time for him to arrive.

At least twice I’ve been aboard Amtrak when a freight train ahead of us struck something and the railroad was shut down while police and EMTs responded.

I had been dozing aboard the eastbound Lake Shore Limited when I awakened to notice we had stopped just east of Toledo.

I saw flashing red lights moving on a nearby highway. A westbound NS freight had struck a vehicle at a grade crossing.

Railroads say with some justification that in making dispatching decisions they look at the larger picture in an effort to keep all trains moving and not just Amtrak.

One morning on a trip to Chicago, the NS Chicago East dispatcher during a conversation with the engineer of Amtrak No. 29 said, “you have just the one train to take care of. I have one, two, three, four, five . . . trains to take care of” as he counted on his computer screen the number of trains that he was dispatching. It was more than 10.

The greatest good for the greatest number comes into play when one of two tracks is out of service for maintenance.

Inevitably, Amtrak waits while one, two or three freights in the opposing direction go by on the open track.

Delays occur because of freight congestion. One morning west of Waterloo, Indiana, Amtrak No. 29 kept getting a series of approach signals, which meant moving at restricted speed on Track No. 1.

A heavy freight train ahead of us was moving slowly on the same track. A parade of eastbounds went past us on Track No. 2.

In theory, the Conrail Toledo West dispatcher could have halted that eastbound traffic until No. 29 could run around the slow freight. I can only presume that that didn’t occur because the chief dispatcher decided that it was better to keep those trains moving.

They don’t say it out loud on the radio, but dispatchers probably think “this is our railroad and by gosh we need to keep our trains moving. Ten, 15 or 20 minutes delay to Amtrak won’t make that much difference.”

One Conrail crew member knew what was going on and quipped on the radio, “you’ve been ‘Calvinized,’ Amtrak,” a reference to the former comic strip Calvin and Hobbes.

From a dispatcher’s point of view, it is a matter of balancing competing interests.

Of course, I’ve seen many instances in which Amtrak was run around slow traffic ahead or a freight train was held “to get Amtrak by.” It all depends on the situation at hand.

I’ve also seen Amtrak gamble and lose big time, too. I was aboard a Lake Shore Limited trip that departed Chicago on time but with an engineer who had just over two hours to work before outlawing.

Amtrak had a relief crew lined up but rather than putting them aboard No. 48, it sent them by van to South Bend, Indiana, the next station stop after Chicago.

The NS Chicago West dispatcher told the engineer of No. 48 that heavy freight traffic ahead made it unlikely that he would reach South Bend before outlawing.

They agreed that No. 48 would stop at Amtrak’s Hammond-Whiting station and the relief crew would board there.

It took awhile to reach the relief crew by cell phone to tell them of the change in plans and by then they had already reached South Bend. They headed west on the Indiana Toll Road, but got stopped in traffic due to a serious accident involving fatalities.

We sat at Hammond-Whiting for more than a couple of hours, which reduced a busy NS mainline to a single-track operation.

The Amtrak crew never made an announcement about why we were sitting there for so long.

Later, I woke up west of South Bend. We had halted short of a crossover because an NS freight was stopped ahead of us.

The Amtrak engineer had stopped short in the hope the dispatcher would line us to go around the freight. Instead, the dispatcher ordered No. 48 to pull ahead and stop just behind the stopped freight.

That might have been a bit of retaliation by NS for what had happened earlier at Hammond-Whiting. At least two NS trains following us crossed over and went around us, at least one of which was on short time.

No. 48 had to get another crew at Bryan, Ohio, meaning it took three crews to move No. 48 from Chicago to Toledo when it ordinarily takes just one.

I had plenty of time to enjoy a leisurely breakfast in the dining car on that trip and didn’t reach Cleveland until almost noon.

My experiences riding Amtrak and listening to the radio conversations lead me to conclude that much if not most of the time dispatchers want to move Amtrak along or at least keep a passenger train moving.

Some dispatchers on CN, for example, will alert Amtrak engineers to locations where they might encounter freight traffic and where they can expect clear sailing.

But things happen on the railroad and not just Amtrak is delayed.

I was riding the westbound Empire Builder as it crawled its way on Canadian Pacific tracks through Milwaukee because of congestion.

An Amtrak Hiawatha Service train along with CP and freight trains of other railroads were also caught in the morass.

The CP dispatcher was discussing the matter with the hogger of one of those trains and said about the situation, “sounds like piss poor dispatching to me.” I don’t know if he was talking about himself or decisions made by someone else, but at least he was being honest.

Kevin Keefe is Retiring. How Can That Be?

March 19, 2016

I never met Kevin P. Keefe except through a couple brief email messages we exchanged more than a decade ago.

Chances are many of you reading this post know little to nothing about him.

Maybe the name sounds vaguely familiar. Wasn’t he once the editor of Trains magazine? Yes, he was, between 1992 and 2000.

He retired on Friday (March 18) as vice-president of editorial for Kalmbach Publishing, which publishes Trains.

On TransportationThere was something about Keefe’s retirement that gave me pause. Isn’t he too young to be retiring? But he turns 65 this year and a lot of folks retire at that age.

I guess I must still be in a state of denial about this retirement age thing. I’m two years younger than Keefe.

There also was the fact that he has been a railroad journalist for nearly as long as I could remember. Retiring? That can’t be. But it is.

Although I doubt that Keefe remembers anything about me, I remember my encounters with him and how I “idolized” him because he was the editor of Trains.

Some guys in the railfan hobby idolize engineers of steam locomotives. I idolize railfan press journalists and book authors.

My first encounter with Keefe occurred in the middle 1990s when I wrote to him to pitch an article idea for Trains. He wrote back to say the magazine wasn’t interested.

I wrote a few more letters pitching articles and most of the time Keefe never responded. If he did, the answer was a brief “not interested.”

That was discouraging although probably to be expected. I was an unknown quantity and I’m sure the editor of Trains receives a lot of story ideas.

I wanted to get published in Trains and nothing I proposed seemed to interest the editor.

I knew what Keefe looked like having seen his mug shot in the magazine every month.

Late one afternoon during the 1995 National Historical Society Convention I was waiting to photograph a runby of Milwaukee Road steam locomotive No. 261 when I noticed that the guy to my left looked familiar.

It was Kevin Keefe, the editor of Trains getting the same photo angle that I got. I was impressed. It is the only time I’ve ever seen him in person.

I finally broke into Trains when I co-authored an article with Bill Stephens about Berea Tower that was published in 1995.

Five years later, I wrote to Keefe about another story idea, proposing doing an overview of the Wheeling & Lake Erie.

Not only did Keefe write back, he said Trains wanted to publish the article.

It was a big deal at the time because it would be my first solo byline in Trains.

Shortly after accepting my article idea about the Wheeling, Keefe moved on to various corporate positions at Kalmbach. I would see his name in the masthead of Trains, but I never envied the positions that he held.

He continued to write for Trains and while conducting research for my book Amtrak in the Heartland, I ran across articles he had written for Passenger Train Journal on Amtrak operations in Michigan.

I also saw his name pop up here and there as the author of a foreword in various books about railroads.

When you see someone’s byline that often you feel like you know that person even if you don’t. Keefe was this distant figure whose name and work I saw a lot, but I knew him about as well as I know LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Keefe will never have quite the stature of the late David P. Morgan, whose tenure as editor of Trains casts a shadow that perhaps no Trains editor will ever escape.

But like Morgan, Keefe had a large hand in directing the content and focus of the magazine that I still look forward to receiving and reading once a month. He played a gate-keeping role in determining what readers read and saw.

The rise of social media and online websites has diminished that gate-keeping role over the past two decades.

Today, even bit players in the railfan journalism world like me can, in theory, reach a national and international audience through such sites as Flickr, TrainOrders.com and this blog.

But few of those who contribute to those sites will ever have the type of influence and visibility that Keefe had during his 28-year career at Kalmbach, which started as an advertising copy writer.

When someone retires we often think that they are going away, perhaps to never be seen again, because they won’t be coming into the office every day as they have for years.

In a tribute to Keefe posted more than a week ago on the Trains website, the magazine’s current editor, Jim Wrinn, said readers can expect to see more of Keefe’s work in Trains and Classic Trains now that he is retired and has more time to devote to writing.

He has a book about steam railroading coming out this year that is being published by Michigan State University Press.

I expect to open both magazines in the future and find articles written by Keefe that will immediately draw my attention.

It will be as though he never left.

If You Want to be Ontime Aboard Amtrak, Then You Need to Get on or Off at an Endpoint City

March 9, 2016

Only once have I lived in an Amtrak endpoint city. Otherwise, I’ve lived in places at or near an intermediate station.

I mention that because in my experience your best chance for an on-time arrival or departure is at an endpoint city.

For 20 years I rode Amtrak twice a year to visit my dad when he lived in downstate Illinois.

The westbound Capitol Limited or Lake Shore Limited typically arrived late into Cleveland, but on several occasions No. 29 or Nol 49 were on-time or even early arriving into Chicago Union Station, where both terminate.

My connecting train, the Illini, almost always departed Chicago on time, but more often than not arrived late at my destination of Mattoon, Illinois.

I’ve observed this phenomenon on other routes, too. In May 2014, I rode the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle.

On TransportationWe left Chicago 1 hour, 12 minutes late due to being held for a more than four-hour late arriving Lake Shore Limited.

During the 2,200-mile journey we were upwards of two hours late at times, but arrived into Seattle 15 minutes early.

How was that possible?

The short answer is what Amtrak euphemistically calls “recovery time.”

It is built into the schedule to enable a late Amtrak train to make up time before arriving at an endpoint city.

You often find recovery time by examining the running time between an endpoint city and the next station.

The running time of the Capitol Limited from South Bend, Indiana, to Chicago is 1 hour, 54 minutes. The running time from Chicago to South Bend is 1 hour, 29 minutes.

For the Lake Shore Limited, the running time from South Bend to Chicago is two minutes longer, but exactly the same from Chicago as the Capitol Limited.

The City of New Orleans has a running time of 49 minutes from Chicago to Homewood, Illinois, a distance of 24 miles. Yet its inbound counterpart “needs” 1 hour, 16 minutes to travel the same distance.

As this is written, Amtrak and its host railroads are sparring in a rule-making proceeding by the Surface Transportation Board over on-time standards.

A 1973 federal law gives preference to passenger trains over freight trains and Amtrak is arguing for an absolute interpretation of that standard. The Association of American Railroads sees it differently.

The STB is not going to get involved in every instance in which an Amtrak train is late.

Rather, the issue is a repeated pattern of a host railroad favoring freight trains over passenger trains and/or the host railroad’s repeated failure to dispatch Amtrak trains in a manner that results in on-time performance.

Amtrak argues that when a train arrives or departs at intermediate stations should be taken into account when considering if a host railroad has engaged in a pattern of preferring its freight trains over passenger trains.

The ARR counters that Amtrak schedules are unrealistic given the operating and physical characteristics of today’s railroads.

Both parties want to have it both ways. It’s a bit cheeky for Amtrak to talk about on-time performance at intermediate stations when its own schedules are skewed in favor of endpoint cities.

When Amtrak and the State of Illinois were negotiating a contract a few years ago for the state to fund certain corridor trains, Amtrak refused to agree to an on-time standard for intermediate cities, insisting that only arrival and departure times from originating cities and terminus cities be included in the standard.

In short, if the Illini is late arriving in Mattoon, tough luck. Illinois only can reduce its payments to Amtrak if the Illini is late arriving in Carbondale or Chicago.

The AAR brief might have you believe that Amtrak imposes its schedules upon its host railroads.

The same brief mentions that individual railroads have negotiated agreements with Amtrak pertaining to on-time performance.

I find it hard to believe that any host railroad that has an “incentive” contract for Amtrak on-time performance would not have a major say in Amtrak schedules over its line.

Recovery time exists in part to benefit the host railroad so that it has a better chance of earning incentive payments.

The STB proceeding is about rules that may or may not have mean much in the daily performance of any given train on any given day.

Like any legal rules, the on-time standards the STB is considering would only come into play if Amtrak initiates a proceeding against a host railroad as it has done with Canadian National over its handling of Amtrak trains between Chicago and Carbondale.

Obviously, each party wants the rules slanted in favor of its own interests and positions of strength.

Amtrak hopes that if the rules favor it that will encourage host railroads to give Amtrak the benefit of the doubt more often than not when passenger trains and freight trains are in conflict.

From a passenger perspective, Amtrak’s position has appeal. The eastbound Capitol Limited is scheduled to arrive in Cleveland at 1:45 a.m. If it arrives at 2:15 a.m., it is a half-hour late as far as passengers getting off are concerned. It doesn’t matter that it arrived in Washington on time.

The interests of passengers might seem to be central to the STB proceedings but that isn’t necessarily the case.

Amtrak has already decided that although all passengers have an interest in arriving and departing on time, the interests of some passengers outweigh those of others.

That is why it is advantageous to get on at an originating city and get off at the end of the line. You’re more likely to leave and arrive when the schedules says that you will.

Is Amtrak’s NEC Profitable? It Depends on How you do the Numbers, What You Want to Believe

March 5, 2016

In his column in the April 2016 issue of Trains, Don Phillips asserts that Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor is a big money loser but some who should know better continue to say that it is profitable.

The column is interesting for a couple of reasons.

First, Phillips uses an argument that used to crop up a lot back in the 1960s when America’s freight railroads wanted to get out of the intercity passenger business.

On TransportationRailroads and regulators used to distinguish between “above the rails costs” versus “fully allocated costs” when discussing the economics of passenger trains.

Above the rails means only those expenses of operating the train itself, e.g., fuel, crew wages. On that basis some trains did fairly well, meaning that they earned enough in ticket and head end revenue to cover their operating expenses.

But the term “above the rail” was coined for a reason. Railroads must pay to maintain the track and infrastructure used by passenger trains. Some argued that those were a cost of providing passenger service as much as the conductor’s salary.

So, if the Great Atlantic and Great Pacific Railway had to replace a bridge, a portion of the cost was charged to each passenger train that used it.

Phillips wrote that if the costs of maintaining the rails and infrastructure of the Northeast Corridor are factored in, then the NEC would not be the profitable operation that many believe it to be. In short, Phillips is arguing for fully allocated costs as the measuring stick for how much passenger trains cost.

And that leads to the second point in Phillips’ column that I found interesting. In the introductory paragraph, Phillips writes that he is dumbfounded that anyone could believe that the NEC makes a profit.

Maybe that was just a figure of speech or a rhetorical statement to attract the reader’s attention.

If many believe the NEC is profitable it is because they’ve been told that by Amtrak and seen that claim repeated ad nauseam in the media.

More to the point, though, they believe it because they want to believe it and even have to believe it.

Many who are critical of public funding of Amtrak’s long-distance passenger trains argue that there is no need for those trains because of their low market share.

They always argue that rail passenger service only makes economic sense in densely populated urban environments such as the NEC.

Someone who is not well versed in the economics of transportation would look at the number of trains and passengers carried in one day in the NEC and wonder how that market can’t help but make money.

If the NEC can’t make money then no intercity rail passenger line in the country can make money. Or so the thinking goes.

Further feeding that perception are periodic Government Accountability Office reports about Amtrak that pronounce triple digit losses per passenger of some long-distance trains.

The conclusion that is often drawn is that it would be cheaper for the government to buy airline or bus tickets for those wanting to take, say, the Southwest Chief, than to continue paying Amtrak to operate a daily train from Chicago to Los Angeles.

Those arguments make good sound bites and sound authoritative during a debate, but they gloss over the political realities of transportation funding.

People think the long-distance trains lose massive amounts of money because they believe that the service is not necessary if it needs government funding to stay alive.

Phillips writes that it is not possible to quantify losses on long-distance trains but then asserts that they are not massive. How does he know that if he can’t do the math?

Instead, he blames Amtrak’s accounting practices. He has a point. I’ve seen reasonable arguments that Amtrak’s accounting is so opaque and convoluted that even those who do understand accounting and finance can’t figure out what specific Amtrak trains actually cost.

The widespread belief is that Amtrak uses its NEC “profits” to cross-subsidize the titanic losses of the long-distance trains. If the long-distance trains went away, then the NEC would be even more profitable and those profits could be used to cover the route’s capital costs.

Of course, the same argument that Phillips makes for “fully allocated accounting” of the NEC can be applied to the long-distance trains.

If asked, the freight railroads would say that they might not necessarily maintain their tracks to 79 mph operation or keep super elevation in curves were it not for their use by Amtrak.

Railroads have whined for years that the money that Amtrak pays them doesn’t cover the “true” costs of hosting passenger trains.

Presumably, if Norfolk Southern, for example, maintained the Chicago Line to 59 mph standards it would save money on track maintenance costs.

Is that really true? Maybe, but we’ll never know for sure. I’m not sure even the railroads know that, either, but take it as an article of faith.

So many decisions in transportation get made not because of numbers alone, but a combination of what the numbers are believed to mean and what decision makers want to believe is true.

Policy makers, journalists, transportation analysts and some who have a casual stake in transportation want to believe that passenger service works best in urban corridors and that long-distance trains are about as useful as stage coaches and paddle wheel steam boats.

So, is it any wonder why so many believe that the NEC is profitable or should be?