Posts Tagged ‘intercity railroad passenger service’

Making Sense of Amtrak’s Anderson

May 10, 2018

To paraphrase a well-known remark made by Marc Anthony in Act 3, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar, I come not to bury or praise Richard Anderson but to explain him.

Since taking the sole helm of Amtrak last January Anderson has become public enemy No. 1 among some railfans and passenger train advocates.

In short order he triggered intense anger by approving such changes as ending everyday discount fare programs, banning most special and charter movements, restricting operations of private rail passenger cars while sharply raising handling fees, threatening to suspend service on routes that do not meet the federal positive train control installation deadline later this year, and ending full-service dining cars on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited.

It is a common belief among his critics that Anderson doesn’t understand railroads because he came from the airline industry.

There may be some truth to that. It is probably true that Anderson does not view intercity rail passenger service in the same manner that many railfans and passenger train supporters do.

It also may be true that Anderson is overseeing a movement toward ending long-distance passenger trains that would leave vast swaths of the country without intercity passenger rail.

That doesn’t mean Anderson knows nothing about intercity passenger rail and its role in the nation’s transportation network as some of his critics would have you believe.

He is just not as convinced as many passenger train advocates that America needs 1950s style streamliners with full-service dining cars, sleepers and lounges.

Having spent much of his career in the airline industry, Anderson came to Amtrak with well-formed ideas about transportation that he would have expressed during his interview with the Amtrak board of directors.

During that interview he no doubt was asked to lay out his vision for Amtrak. He would not have been hired had that vision been incompatible with the board’s own views of Amtrak’s purpose and future.

Anderson may, indeed, have an air travel bias, which would not be surprising given his airline industry background.

He knows most long-distance travel in America is by air. Few business executives travel long distance by rail and most Americans who are not rail enthusiasts rarely, if ever, do so either.

If Anderson has a “bias” against long-distance intercity passenger trains, he would not be the first person in the transportation world to have that.

You can go back to the 1960s when Alfred Perlman of the New York Central acted as though long-distance trains were expensive dinosaurs to be removed.

Stuart Saunders of Penn Central infamy also declared that any rail passenger service beyond 500 miles was dead. So did a lot of other railroad CEOs.

Since Amtrak began in 1971 the U.S. Department of Transportation has ranged from outright hostile to benign indifference to Amtrak’s national route network.

What Amtrak appears poised to do under Anderson’s stewardship to the long-distance trains is not unlike the vision that Norman Mineta had when he was Secretary of Transportation.

Mineta pushed the corridor concept and said that long-distance trains should not stop at stations in states that do not help to underwrite the costs of those trains.

That vision did not prevail, but it is part of a long history of antagonism toward long-distance trains.

For that matter, Amtrak management itself has tolerated long-distance trains, but not since the 1970s has a new long-distance route been created.

There is much that we don’t know yet about Anderson’s views toward transportation and the role that intercity rail has to play even if he has been dropping hints about it.

Anderson said at a conference in California of passenger rail officials that Amtrak’s best marketing prospects lie in corridor services of no more than 400 miles served by DMU equipment.

During that same conference, he also was said to have emphasized the high financial losses of long-distance trains and that he must follow the law in making Amtrak a more efficient operation.

During his apprenticeship as co-CEO of Amtrak with Charles “Wick” Moorman, Anderson would have been schooled on the political realities that Amtrak faces, including why the long-distance trains remain in place decades after some believed their usefulness as transportation had expired.

Moorman would have pointed out that these trains continue to run because of long-standing political support. But maybe Anderson already knew that. Remember, Anderson is not necessarily a transportation neophyte.

Of late Anderson has come under fire from former Amtrak President Joesph Boardman, who has accused Anderson and the Amtrak board of launching a campaign to eviscerate long-distance trains.

In an interview with Trains magazine Boardman told an anecdote of how he responded when asked by the board to name Amtrak’s most important train.

“I told them it was all of the long distance trains. Did that ever make it out into the rail community? No, because it wasn’t my job to (do that),” he said.

Maybe Boardman should have made it his job. And that brings me to what may be Anderson’s most significant shortcoming.

Boardman hinted at that when he wrote in an email to public officials across the country that “Amtrak is not really a ‘private business,’ it is a “state owned enterprise.”

It may be that Amtrak was set up in 1970 as a for-profit company and ostensibly it is expected to cover its operating expenses from the fare box.

But in practice Amtrak is more like a government agency, a reality that the U.S. Supreme Court recognized in a case involving a dispute over the efforts by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to establish on-time train standards that Amtrak could use to hold its host railroads accountable for excessive delays.

The head of a government agency does not have the luxury of thinking and acting like a Fortune 500 CEO if he or she wants to be successful.

Yet that is what Anderson has been doing by playing defense rather than offense.

Anderson has done little thus far to share his vision of Amtrak’s future with the public, let alone the constituencies that have lone manned the bulwarks to provide political support when Amtrak funding was threatened.

Boardman touched on this in his email when he said Amtrak “has begun to do surgical communications in a way that does not provide a transparent discussion of what they are doing.”

What Amtrak is doing, Boardman believes, is transforming Amtrak out of the long-distance passenger train business without saying upfront that that is the objective.

If so, it is because Anderson and the board that hired him have beliefs about transportation that are at odds with those held by many rail passenger advocates who don’t want to see Amtrak change much.

Rail passenger advocates have legitimate beliefs and visions, even if they are not always well-grounded in solid economic understanding. But so does Anderson and Amtrak’s board.

Anderson and his critics would agree that Amtrak is in the transportation business, but they have different views as to how that is to be pursued. It has nothing to do with lack of understanding of “railroading.” It has everything to do with ineffectively trying to sell that.

Budget Proposal Just a Starting Point

March 21, 2017

More than likely it is a waste of time to discuss the Trump administration proposal to eliminate funding for Amtrak’s long-distance trains.

A president’s budget proposal is just that, a proposal, and no president of either party sees the budget he sent to Congress come out without any substantive changes.

For that matter the House and Senate will have their own ideas about how to spend public money, including how much to allot to the national rail passenger carrier.

Amtrak has been down this road before, many times in fact. Past administrations have proposed zeroing out Amtrak funding only to see Congress time and again appropriate just enough to keep Amtrak’s skeletal national network operating.

If anything is a surprise that the Trump budget would seek to keep any funding for Amtrak.

Amtrak may have survived past budget fights but there have been route casualties along the way. A major restructuring in 1979 killed the only Amtrak service in Columbus and Dayton with the discontinuance of the New York-Kansas City National Limited.

A 1995 restructuring killed the Broadway Limited, which wiped Akron, Youngstown and Fostoria off the Amtrak map.

They later regained service for a short time when a revived Broadway operating as the Three Rivers ran between Chicago and New York.

Another budget fight took Athens and Chillicothe out of the Amtrak network when the Cincinnati-Washington Shenandoah was discontinued in 1981.

For a short time, that 1981 budget fight kicked Cincinnati out of Amtrak, but thanks to the political clout of the late Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the Cardinal returned to its Chicago-New York flight path in early 1982, albeit as a tri-weekly rather than a daily train.

Given the history of Amtrak funding, it would seem likely that some, if not all, of Amtrak’s long-distance trains will survive due to political wrangling.

What could happen is that the fight becomes one of percentages as in what percentage of the Amtrak long-distance network will survive.

If that is the case, Ohio could be in the middle of the fight when some modifications of the long-distance route network are proposed to consolidate “duplicate” service, e.g., the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited between Chicago and Cleveland.

I could see someone proposing reducing the Capitol Limited to a Pittsburgh-Washington service that connects with a combined Lake Shore Limited and Pennsylvanian between Chicago and New York. That would leave Erie, Pennsylvania, off the Amtrak map.

Already, Amtrak and the Michigan Department of Transportation have proposed rerouting the Lake Shore Limited through Michigan, presumably in lieu of an existing Wolverine Service train.

Someone in Washington in an Amtrak office, a Department of Transportation office and/or a congressional office has probably been studying the Amtrak map with an eye toward finding a way to end federal funding of the Lake Shore Limited by making it into a state train.

Michigan and Pennsylvania already fund the legs into Chicago and New York City respectively. Why not tell Ohio that if it wants service it needs to fund the leg between Detroit and Pittsburgh?

And if Pittsburgh-Washington service is to survive then Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia or a combination of those three states will have to fund what would be left of the Capitol Limited.

Some lawmakers like to talk about offering “options.”  They may or may not know or may or may not care that Ohio is unlikely to agree to fund the middle section of the Lake Shore Limited route.

But if Ohio says “no,” well it was given an option and it voted with its wallet.

Buried in the Trump budget proposal is the rational for sharply reducing funding for programs that benefit public transportation: “Future investments in new transit projects would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects.”

Look for some in the coming months or years to begin seeking to apply this philosophy to funding for Amtrak long-distance trains.

It would be part of a larger effort to frame the narrative over passenger train funding as a local issue, not a national one even if the trains in question work to form a national transportation network.

Detroit-Grand Rapids Rail Service Being Eyed

March 19, 2015

A proposed Detroit-Lansing-Grand Rapids intercity rail service has reached the study phase.

The Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority approved a $100,000 contract with Transportation Economics and Management Systems for a ridership and cost estimate study.

The study also will examine demand and feasibility for the corridor that also would serve Holland. Planners will look at the economic and financial impacts of establishing the service.

AAATA is acting as a conduit for pass-through grant funding on behalf of the Michigan Environmental Council, which is taking the lead on the study.

“We provide public transit locally, and we are in general in favor of providing public transit to connect this region with other regions,” said Michael Benham, the AAATA’s strategic planner. “There are a number of cities in Michigan that are not connected with one another, and so this is kind of the beginning of an effort to do that.”

Benham said that Amtrak only serves a limited number of cities and the proposed Detroit-Grand Rapids corridor could increase the number of Michigan cities connected by rail.

On the eve of Amtrak, the Chesapeake & Ohio operated two roundtrips between Detroit and Grand Rapids via Lansing, but Benham said a number of alternative routing options will be considered.

One route might have the trains pass through Ann Arbor, although he conceded that might be difficult to do because of the lack of connections between the rail lines that the train might need to use.

For several years, Ann Arbor and state transportation officials have eyed establishing commuter rail service between Ann Arbor and Detroit, and between Ann Arbor and Howell.

The Michigan Department of Transportation even acquired former Metra bi-level commuter coaches for the service, which still lacks a funding source.

The cars are being stored in Owosso and the state is making lease payments on them even though they have nowhere to operate.

Of late there have also been discussions about establishing rail passenger service between Ann Arbor and Traverse City with intermediate stops in Cadillac, Mount Pleasant, Alma, Owosso and Howell.

That service would be a continuation of the proposed WALLY commuter rail line between Ann Arbor and Howell.

Reinstating Detroit-Grand Rapids rail service has been talked about at times over the past four decades, but the latest efforts began in 2010 when the Michigan by Rail team, made up of the MEC and the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers, collected public input for Michigan’s State Rail Plan that favored establishment of rail service between Michigan’s east and west coasts.

In the 2011 Michigan State Rail Plan, an alternatives analysis and environmental review were recommended for the Detroit-Lansing-Grand Rapids corridor.

In 2013, MEC and MDOT came out in favor of studying Detroit-Holland service. The AAATA received a $100,000 grant from MDOT for the study.

AAATA issued a request for proposals in November and received three from interested firms. MDOT must approve the study contract with TEMS before it can be signed.

Benham said it’s unlikely the Detroit-Lansing-Grand Rapids corridor project would involve new tracks.

“All the routes that are being looked at are intended to be routes that already have tracks between the two points,” he said.

AAATA board chairman Charles Griffith describes passenger rail service between Detroit and Grand Rapids as another piece of a larger puzzle.

Although he said he is encouraged that expansion of intercity passenger rail and the establishment of commuter rail have received much attention, there is still much to be done.

“A lot of these things are still in the study phase, so in some ways it doesn’t feel like we’re any closer to actually having rail as an option,” he said. “It hasn’t exactly become clear to me what the pathway is to actually getting the service up and running and securing the funding.”

As for those idle passenger cars, MDOT is considering subleasing them or getting rid of them. Through May 2014, MDOT had spent $9.5 million to lease and refurbish seven cab and 16 coach cars and is still on the hook for another $2.7 million, according to a state audit that concluded MDOT did not effectively oversee the lease. Planned restroom upgrades for some of the cars could cost another $3.7 million.

However, Benham described that spending as an investment. “We talk about public involvement. The railcars really give us an opportunity to involve the public in a hands-on way,” he said.

“People wonder what is this commuter rail thing. They see the cars, they get on them, they look around, they go, ‘Ah, this is what you’re talking about.’ Most people get pretty excited about that and it becomes more real and less of this abstract project.”

AAATA recently launched an 18-month feasibility study for the proposed WALLY commuter rail line using a $650,000 federal grant. Consulting firm SmithGroup JJR has been hired to oversee that study.

Sanders Publishes ICRR Passenger Trains Article

April 18, 2010

An article written by Akron Railroad Club President Craig Sanders about the decline of Illinois Central Railroad intercity passenger service has been published in The Mid-American, the quarterly magazine of the Illinois Central Railroad Heritage Association.

The article, titled “Into the Arms of Amtrak: IC’s Steady Retreat from Intercity Passenger Service,” focused on on the period 1969-1971. Like most other railroads, the ICRR trimmed money-losing trains and routes during this period. Unlike other railroads, however, IC made an effort to continue to market its service, particularly in the Chicago-Carbondale, Illinois, “Mini-Corridor. The IC was one of the few railroads in the late 1960s that still purchased advertising time and space in newspapers and broadcast outlets.

Fueled by the growth of three state universities located on or near the Chicago-Carbondale route, IC experienced ridership growth in the middle to late 1960s. However, the railroad said that much of the growth was college travel that was episodic, occurring on weekends and when schools were beginning or ending a term or vacation. During the week, the trains were far less crowded.

In his article, Sanders noted that the creation of the Mini-Corridor had earned the IC much positive press. Donald Stefee, author of an annual train speed survey in Trains magazine, described the Mini-Corridor as among the few bright spots in American passenger railroading in 1968.

But this meant little to IC Chairman William B. Johnson. “Our railroad receives no over-all benefit from handling sudden short surges of passenger traffic,” Johnson told a Senate committee in September 1969. Much of the time, the coaches used to handle that traffic sat idle. IC’s intercity passenger trains had an average load factor of 39 percent, or about 100 passengers per train.

Marketing campaigns, refurbished dome cars and relatively stable patronage were not enough to overcome the challenges facing IC’s intercity passenger service in its final years, Sanders wrote. Federal and state regulators might have delayed some train cuts for a while, but the IC would have continued to make the case for allowing these and other trains to die.

Sanders wrote that it is anyone’s guess as to how long it would have been until the IC prevailed in ending the trains it wanted to remove, but one thing is certain. The Illinois Central was unlikely to be in the intercity passenger business much longer without public assistance. If not Amtrak, then someone else would have to step in if service was to be preserved.

IC executives expressed a willingness, if not a requirement, to continue operating intercity passenger trains if the railroad received public funding. “On a private enterprise basis, I can’t see why the railroads should be forced to underwrite the cost of a public service,” said IC President Alan Boyd. He would later become the third president of Amtrak.

Two other Amtrak presidents also worked at the IC during the late 1960s. These included Paul Reistrup, who was IC’s vice president of passenger services, and David Gunn, who just beginning his railroad career. Since mid-July 2004, Amtrak has operated a train called the City of New Orleans longer than did the IC.

For more information on the Illinois Central Railroad Heritage Association, click on the link below.