Monday, December 05, 2005

Stability and Improvement for Amtrak

After rehashing my thoughts, other thoughts, all within the context of watching Amtrak for thirty-five years, I submit the following for the consideration of anyone, singular or plural, who desires to improve Amtrak.

Use the firing of David Gunn as a positive. No, the firing itself was certainly not a positive. But the subsequent dialogue is. Read and think about what everyone is saying. Wherever you come down, it is clear that the current Amtrak Business Plan is flawed. Agreed. Let's dare to drastically change it for the better.

Admit that Passenger Trains are NEVER going to make money. Ever. No matter how busy or crowded they are. Passenger Trains should be just like autos, barges, trucks, and airplanes. Subsidized. If you don't understand that all modes are subsidized, your credibility comes into question. Not only that, but whatever subsidy is given to Passenger Trains will probably be less than whatever subsidy is given to any replacement form of transportation.

Remove the Politicians from the Operation. Remove them all. Remove Congress and the Administration. Remove the Democrats and the Republicans. Remove the annual Amtrak Beg-a-thon for operating and capital budgets. OK, now what?

How about setting up a system that provides money under certain guidelines? Sort of like the FTA. If the Feds want some sort of framework that define what is required for appropriations, fine. Set it up, then give up the money when those parameters are met. Something like Amtrak will be there, and can certainly make it work. But maybe the State of California wants to do something. Great! The door is open. Areas with the need for Passenger Trains will figure out how to make it work.

I understand that the FTA is not an ideal model to follow. Maybe Amtrak becomes a combination of an operator and a funder. They're almost there now in certain operations. But think of the possibilities! It is not much of a stretch to imagine an SCRRA, or a METRA, or a Metro North operating passenger trains that cover greater distances. It can be done, if those people know precisely what ground rules cover their subsidies. Ah, but what happens to the long haul trains?

Rethink Accounting Systems to give a true Cost Statement. I've seen convincing arguments that Long Distance Passenger Trains are cost inefficient. I've also seen convincing arguments that Long Distance Passenger Trains are more than paying their way! What's the difference? Only how the Accounting System cooks the books. That isn't fair to anyone but the bookkeepers, who need this sort of discussion to hold a job. Whatever business model is selected, let's make sure that the question of "Train on or Train off" is answered with a realistic cost recap and projection.

Consider dedicated Railroad Right-of-Ways for Passenger Trains. This may be easier said than done. But it has happened, and the results are almost always impressive. Amtrak generally maintains trackage to a higher standard than a freight railroad needs. There is no argument or discussion about how much more it costs to build and/or maintain Class 3 (60mph) track versus Class 4 (80mph) track. Consequently, passenger trains impress their riders with on-time, high-speed performance.

The difficulty is that after long years of rail line rationalization and short years of traffic growth, many are running at capacity. There is scant little room for a passenger train on such a line, and when there is, there is no incentive for any railroad to run it any faster than the rest of the on-line rail traffic.

One of the reasons that passenger trains work better in Europe is that freights run shorter and faster, so it is much easier to move everything at a higher relative speed. Plus, there is nowhere near the amount of freight in Europe. European freight trains are shorter and European freight cars are much lighter. The United States rail operation is never going to be like the European system. That is not better or worse, it is what it is. With that in mind, we must learn from other failed systems.

Do NOT duplicate what happened in the United Kingdom. Didn't work there. Won't work here. It's that simple.

There are many other ideas that can help. Railroads may need more realistic and lucrative incentives to operate Amtrak more efficiently. Dining and Sleeping Car service should be eliminated; Dining and Sleeping Car service should be enhanced. Build more sidings. String up catenary. Lots of ideas. But don't loose sight of the bigger issues at work with Amtrak.

Let's think big. This is maybe THE one time to really change the Amtrak Paradigm, to really think out of the box. The firing of Gunn can be the catalyst. It should be. Our Nation owes it to itself to have better Passenger Trains. Let's do it!


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