Wednesday, November 30, 2005

New Links

Rip Track postings have been a little thin, lately. Work is getting a bit busy. That's good news!

But I have had a little time to uncover a couple of interesting links.

The first is written by a daily commuter on the Long Island. All the delays and red blocks are noted in the Blog Railroad Hell. No postings have been made since October. I hope nothing serious has happened. Patience is a virtue, indeed.

Second is a well written effort on Amtrak, specifically commuting between Philly and New York. So far, it is the only Blog I have found that treats Amtrak like the CTA Tattler treats the CTA, or Oh Metro treats WMATA. The blog is concentrated on the Northeast Corridor, but the viewpoint sheds light on the current condition of Amtrak as it impacts thousands of riders. Go to the cleverly named Amtraktrack Blog.

Finally, on a more official note, I discovered a site that tabulates election outcomes from around the country as they relate to transportation issues. You have to wade thru some bus related stuff, but the summary is worth it. It's at the Center for Transportation Excellence site.

I've been thinking about what can be done to put Amtrak on tangent track and zero cross level. A couple of thoughts may be worth someone else's time, so hopefully in the next few days I can write them in some intelligent fashion that might provoke some positive thinking.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Please Mr. Gunn:

Don't get chippy! In this article from the New York Daily News, he does exactly that. In a tone reminiscent of a scorned teenager, he notes that the New York City Transit Authority will be impacted soon just like Amtrak has with the recent Bush Administration posture.

Mr. Gunn does not need to use this tone to gain support, mine or others, when it comes to stating the obvious.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite Holidays. Spending time with friends and loved ones, as well as giving thanks for life's goodness, is a fine thing to do.

I remember several past train trips made this time of year, some with bad weather and some with good. But even if my trip carried over into Thanksgiving Day itself, the train crews performed their duties in good spirits, even during pre-Amtrak days on the Penn Central! I appreciated that, because I knew that in part due to their efforts, I would be able to spend much of the day with my Family. I hoped the crew had time with theirs as well.

I hope that you spend the day with many of your favorite people, too!

National Corridors Initiatives Has Amtrak Notes

If you have been keeping up with all that has been going on and said about Amtrak since the Gunn firing, you might want to visit the National Corridors Initiatives. I read some stuff there that I had not seen or heard anywhere else.

I am also going to link their site on the right for future reference.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Legislative Response to the Amtrak Situation

Representative Castle (R-DE) has proposed legislation to reorganize Amtrak's Board. Is this the start of Congressional Reaction to Gunn's dismissal? We are within one year of an election. You bet your boxcars it's the start!

Monday Morning V

What does The University of Southern California, The Ohio State University, and The University of Oklahoma all have in common? Each has a Band that plays an irritating little ditty during football games!

You've heard "Boomer Sooner" over and over again, ad nauseam during games in Norman, and even during some of their away games. It comes on over, and over, and over again, especially when the Band thinks that the chances of the team overcoming all obstacles against overwhelming odds is directly proportional to the number of times "Boomer Sooner" is played. Ditto for that simplistic three chord thing the USC Trojan Band plays, and for whatever it is that the OSU Buckeye Band plays, too.

I find myself hoping the opponent of either of these three prevails, no matter who they are playing. Team spirit is one thing, water torture by band music is another.



Monday Morning IV
Monday Morning III
Monday Morning II
Monday Morning

Friday, November 18, 2005

Amtrak: More Thoughts

Reading various posts and comments concerning recent events around the firing of David Gunn has led to discussions about Amtrak in general terms. Subsidies, viability, leadership, and the future are all fair game. A couple of frequently heard points are below, with appropriate responses:

"Long-distance trains are a drain on Amtrak. Let's stick to service on densely populated corridors."

This statement generally comes from people who live in the Northeast, or perhaps within a couple of hundred miles of Chicago. It may not be true. Past reporters have commented that accounting methods do not accurately reflect the cost of long distance trains. Within the past week, Mr. Andrew Seldon, VP Law and Policy of the United Passenger Rail Alliance, was quoted as saying,

"Much has been said about the long distance trains. They still produce the lion's share of transportation output, at a very small cost. An FRA study two years ago pegged the cash cost at well-under $100 million a year, at the time, less than 8% of Amtrak's annual subsidy. That is a GOOD return on investment, in fact the best in the whole Amtrak system. Only Amtrak's discredited accounting system artificially makes these trains look bad. (They continue to be well-used: their load factor varies from 50 to 65%, and they produce nearly half of all of the transportation output in the entire system.) The Amtrak Board cannot be blamed for its misunderstanding of them: if Amtrak's managers and its accounting system were your sole source of information on these trains, you would question them also. But this can be reversed. Splitting off the NEC infrastructure, and installing an all-new, objective and competent accounting system, both current Board priorities, will allow a very different understanding of the critical financial role of the long distance trains to emerge." Read the whole comment here.

There is no doubt that corridors in the Northeast, the Midwest, and California are important, heavily traveled, and need to continue. But the elimination of long distance trains will drastically reduce transportation options in cities and towns like Alpine, Texas, or Winnemucca, Nevada, or Hastings, Nebraska, or Popular Bluff, Missouri, or Danville, Virginia, or Greenwood, Mississippi. You begin to understand that a train from Chicago to Los Angeles is also one from Dodge City, Kansas to Winslow, Arizona. This is why those Senators and Representatives from outlining districts are so hot to defend their train!

These trains are not "pork barrel". The subsidy is small. The return is great. That leads us to the next comment.

"We'd be better off buying each person a plane ticket rather than subsidize their trip on the train. We can't continue to subsidize some nostalgic relic for the benefit of foamers."

If you do not know, the term "foamer" is a less than flattering description of a railfan. The implication here is that Amtrak exists solely for their benefit. Yeah, it's a crazy point of view.

Such a statement is the sort of argument you hear when a politician, or someone who looks like a politician, wants to score political points by showing a sincere desire to cut Federal Spending. The unspoken is this: Amtrak is an easy target. No matter how many times you read about what a pittance the subsidy to Amtrak is compared to Highways, or Airlines, or even waterways, the fact that Amtrak's subsidy is so exposed makes it easier to get after than the hidden subsidies to the hidden support of an airline ticket. Imagine the true cost of an airline ticket, or even a bus ticket if the whole cost of transportation infrastructure was included. So every time you read or hear such a statement, stop and reflect for a moment before you nod your head and say, "Yeah, that's right."

Finally, you might hear this sort of thing from fiscal conservatives:

"The government, either Federal or State, or local for that matter, has no business being in the passenger train business anyway."

The government is clearly in the transportation business, as noted above, and that should include passenger trains, too. Believe me when I say that I am as conservative as the next, even to the point of being a libertarian. But there are certain areas where private enterprise cannot do the job. Oh, there are dinner trains here and there, and don't forget the American Orient Express. That's all wonderful. That's also a nitch. And it cannot be done on a State by State basis. Sometimes, New York and New Jersey have a tough time working together just crossing the Hudson. Can you imagine getting Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan all working together to improve and then jointly operate a train from Chicago to Kalamazoo? It would be very, very difficult for them to agree. It is much less difficult for Amtrak.

If you are still not convinced that government should continue with Amtrak, read this posting from Rip Track made in the early summer. Yes, it has to do with Transit, but the logic applies to Amtrak as well.

These arguments come up over and over again. It's one of the reasons Amtrak has struggled. Amtrak has not struggled because of the lack of David Gunn's leadership, in spite of the GAO Report. David Gunn was helping. The Amtrak Board, Norman Mineta and The Administration are not. The real problems should be identified and corrected now, before Amtrak becomes more political fodder.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

iPod Hits BART

This is the sort of tech advances we like! Passenger Transport, the weekly publication of APTA, notes in its November 14, 2005 issue that the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) announced that it is now possible to download schedules and maps into your iPod. Just go to the BART website. It's free, and it might be available for other mobile devices as well.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

House Committee Discusses Amtrak Board: November 15, 2005

*** scroll for updates . . . 5:05pmCST November 16, 2005 ***

Much writing is now up on the web concerning yesterday's hearing held by the U. S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure concerning "Current Governance Issues at Amtrak". Read that to say, why did y'all fire David Gunn?

Chair of the Railroad Subcommittee Steven LaTourette (R-OH) has this to say in a Statement. The basic slant is that the "key issue" is the legality of Amtrak's Board, but there are other between-the-lines observations, too.

For the summation of the Subcommittee's Hearing, go here. There is testimony from Jeffery Rosen, DOT's General Counsel, from Amtrak Board Chair David Laney, from Amtrak's new Acting President David Hughes, and, surprise, even testimony from David Gunn!

Everyone's statement says pretty much what you would expect. Rosen provides a wonderful overview of the creation and reformation of Amtrak's Board itself. Laney denies that the Administration is trying to dismantle Amtrak. Hughes verifies that Amtrak will work to insure the success of whatever form whoever wants Amtrak to take. And Gunn recounts his achievements with a great deal of pride.

Two things struck me. One, even though Gunn has had experience operating and improving various public transit agencies, he was able to do so within the framework of his experience on private Class One Railroad properties. Amtrak is a public transportation agency of quite a different color.

Two, it is hard to accept at face value what Laney has to say, considering some of his comments that came to light during questioning by Subcommittee members. Railroad News by Railserve has the links, you will see the two under"latest headlines" that are the most interesting. Seems Mr. Laney actually spoke with people about taking over the Northeast Corridor. Of course, he cannot recall who they were!

I still remain hopeful that more good than bad comes out of all this. What say you?

UPDATE: Progressive Railroading has an article.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Amtrak Board versus US House re: David Gunn

Read this article that appeared in the New York Times. There is a lot of detail concerning the makeup, authority, and future of Amtrak's Board.

As noted here last week, and by others as well, the fun is just beginning.

UPDATE 9:30am November 15, 2005:

Trainweb has a copy of a letter sent to Mr. David Laney, Chair of the Amtrak Board of Directors from the U. S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. The first line reads, "We write to express our outrage at the Amtrak Board of Directors' decision to fire . . . David Gunn earlier today." The rest of the letter is just as intriguing.



Mr. Mineta: Firing This Gunn Will Backfire!

Monday Morning IV

Country Pundit has a new web address, and a new look to his fine Blog. This is the updated link, and it has been updated over on the right as well.

One recent Country Pundit post has to do with NCAA Football, and there are several observations of the sort that make College Football so much fun. But I have to comment about his notation that LSU's victory over Alabama was a bad thing.

Some were amazed that Alabama was ranked #3 last week in several polls. The often heard comment was that the Crimson Tide probably wouldn't rank third in either the Pac Ten or the Big Ten, or even the SEC East, for that matter!

Remember how just three weeks ago the so-called experts were wondering what was going to happen with the BCS, because surely there would be at least four if not five unbeaten teams. The cream has risen to the top, and it looks like, once again, it will be the Pac Ten versus the Big Twelve for the National Title.



Monday Morning III
Monday Morning II
Monday Morning

Another Transit Blog, this time in Los Angeles

We'll take a break from the David Gunn story. Reactions are adding up on the side of those who see Gunn's firing as a political gambit rather than a "build Amtrak up" move.

On another note, keep up with events regarding the Los Angeles County MTA by reading LA Metro Mole. At last reading, the Mole did not allow comments; feel free to expound here at Rip Track.

It is also now linked on the right.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Mr. Mineta: Firing this Gunn will Backfire!

***scroll for update...3:55pm CST today***

After reviewing many comments, articles, quotes, and reactions during the past few days, it is obvious that the chasm between Congress and the Bush Administration over rail passenger service will widen. It is also obvious that those who have studied this situation realize that firing Gunn was due to politics, not performance.

Here are several points that must be considered:

-Amtrak was never, NEVER set up to make money. Amtrak was set up to preserve rail passenger service.

-Amtrak is not a commuter railroad. Never was intended to be. Oh, there may be some who ride from Trenton to New York, or Oceanside to Los Angeles, or Glenview to Chicago on a round trip basis five days a week to their job, but Amtrak is not a commuter carrier. New Jersey Transit, Metrolink, and Metra are commuter carriers.

-Amtrak has never had consistent financial support from Congress. Even a fraction of the bailout of United Airlines Pension would have been an improvement. And Trains Magazine reported that Amtrak's budget has actually decreased 29% from 1982 until 2005!

-Understand that I generally support the Bush Administration. Until Howard Dean and Harry Reid are stiffled, I am a "Rattlesnake Republican", that is, I will vote for a rattlesnake before I vote for a Democrat, at least in any election for a National office. Anti-Administration venom is not a part of Rip Track.

-In September, Amtrak Board Chair David Laney said, "Mr. Gunn has done, as far as I am concerned, a splendid job". However, in November, Mr. Laney said that Amtrak needs "a different type of leader who will aggressively tackle the company's financial, management and operational challenges." This remarkable turnaround happened in the face of record Amtrak ridership with a much reduced payroll. Laney's about face is even more absurd in light of comments from DOT General Counsel Jeffrey Rosen, generally an Amtrak critic, who noted, "In 2005, the independent audit was completed in March, instead of September and no material weaknesses were found. While Amtrak's auditors still find significant areas for improvement, they comment favorably on developments over the last three years."

-How many Amtrak Board Meetings has Secretary Mineta attended in the more than four years of his appointment? Exactly the same number of vetos that President Bush has affected since taking office. When combined with the fact that the Amtrak Board is supposed to have seven non-partisan Board Members, it is clear that the Bush Administration does not have the best interests of Amtrak at heart. That's because there are now only four members, of which two are recess appointments which expire with Congress's adjournment this year. Thanks to the National Association of Railroad Passengers for this information.

-Senator Carper (D-DE) has been quoted as saying, "His (Gunn's) departure is not going to convince anyone in the Senate that selling off the Northeast Corridor is a good idea." Correct. To the point. Obvious. And combined with the Senate's recent 93 to 6 (!) vote in support of Amtrak, there must be plenty of GOP Senators who support Gunn rather than Mineta here.

-On the other hand, Mr. Gunn did much to improve Amtrak. Without Mr. Gunn, Amtrak may not have been around today. Once again, thanks to the NARP for this.

-Amtrak is not perfect. Improvements are needed. But when the government doesn't feed the patient, and then condemns it for being weak, there is responsibility to be taken in other places besides Amtrak's headquarters.

So, where does all of this lead? Amtrak can be made more efficient. Amtrak does need help, not only from Congress and the Administration, but from a strong leader who knows how to run a railroad. But progress was being made, and it was coming about in large part because of a strong leader, a better leader than had been in place for some time. Gunn has shown he can make a positive difference. Mineta has not. But Gunn worked for Mineta, and maybe that is the problem. With government money comes government control.

Amtrak's issues were not due to David Gunn. Amtrak's issues are due to politics.

Mineta and Laney have made a hugh mistake. The "release" of Gunn will not solve Amtrak's issues. To those who support this "release", don't be surprised if the prediction of many comes true. The Bush Administration does not want to improve Amtrak, they want to dismantle it. Unless Congress reacts, it's going to happen.

Amtrak will not be better. It will be gone.

UPDATE: I finally found the post-firing interview with Mr. Gunn by Railway Age Editor William Vantuono. It's on the Railway Age Breaking News website, and it is worth the read. Scroll down a ways to the headline, "I did the honorable thing." But hurry, I don't know how long the link will work.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Amtrak and David Gunn: From the Eyes of a Supplier

Before addressing some of the comments, e-mails, and other news that has crossed my desk, I want to look at the effect that David Gunn had on Amtrak from my perspective as a track material supplier.

In a word, it was positive. In two words, very positive.

It was positive because there were noticable improvements in efficiency, in decision making, and in the responsibility taken by those in authority. Was it perfect? No, indeed. But improvements had clearly been made. The snickers that once were heard at the mention of the name "Amtrak" are heard no longer.

In short, dealing with Amtrak became much more like dealing with the Class One Railroad Properties who are now, incidently, reporting record profits. Dealing with Amtrak became much less like dealing with the inefficiences and bureaucracies of any other government agency you can name.

My observation is verified by the selection of Mr. David Hughes, formerly Amtrak's Chief Engineer, as Acting President. The improvements noted above were the vision of Gunn, and were implemented by Hughes and his staff. I am sure he will do a fine job. But, of course, his hands are tied by that "acting" in front of his title.

So the Amtrak discussion is now intensified. I am glad of that. I am glad for comments I have received. There will be a response soon. But this short observation was worth noting right now.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

David Gunn Released!

*** scroll for updates...6:10pm CST, November 9, 2005***

According to this page from Amtrak's site, David Gunn is no longer the President of Amtrak.

Norman Mineta had this predictable response.

Dan Zukowski has more.

Notice that the date on the Amtrak news release is the day after tomorrow. Oversight, or interesting insight?

My first reaction is that Mr. Gunn was the victim of political pressure from Mineta and others who saw things quite differently concerning Amtrak. Amtrak's Board initiated the "release", or at least that is the appearance. So, I am guessing that the Board caved in, because after hearing and reading quotes from Mr. Gunn over the past few years, I think he was proud of what he accomplished up until now, but probably felt he had more to do.

We will have to see now who is selected for the vacant position. If it is someone with a railroad background, we will know that there will be issues once again with Stormin' Norman. But I really doubt that scenario. I bet that the new Amtrak Prexy will be more political than practical, more in-step than out-of-step with the Administration, and will unsuccessfully try to implement Mineta's Amtrak Strategy.

UPDATE: Some more thoughts and reactions are coming in, and it is interesting to see which side of the aisle both supporters and detractors of this move by the Amtrak Board are on. Both Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Trent Lott (R-MS) surprisingly had the same reaction, that of disappointment.

The best summation so far in the press can be found on Bloomberg.

Once you see that Norman Mineta is on the Amtrak Board, along with four Bush appointees, it is easy to interpret their comments, which have to come thru the filter of the Administration's plans for Amtrak. Interestingly enough, the number is far short of the Congressional Mandate for Board Membership, allowing easier lockstep with these plans. Interestingly enough item two, the four of them have combined no more railroad experience than a snipe.

Board Chairman David Laney is quoted as saying that, "Amtrak's future now requires a different type of leader." I translate into something like, maybe, Mineta wants Gunn out.

I believed I noted the problems of the Administration's plans in this posting, which speaks to organizational flaws, as well as this, which speaks to funding issues.

I also have read a few naysayers, notably a gentlemen by the name of Joseph Vranich, who claims to be akin to an early supporter of Amtrak, and who claims to have the support of Anthony Haswell, who was a prime mover in the creation of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. You can google for his site on your own, I will not give him the honor of a link. All I can say is that his outlook is shallow, but one which can add fuel to Mineta's fire.

Mineta has created the situation he wanted. We shall see what he does with it. My guess is that the mess becomes messier.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

BNSF Now Updates Powder River Track Maintenance

The BNSF now has updates concerning track maintenance on the Powder River Division on their website.

This is in addition to updates on the Union Pacific Railroad's webpage.


Work on the Powder River Basin
USA Today on the Powder River Basin

Monday, November 07, 2005

SAFETEA LU: Getting Busy!

While Kansas City and Detroit try to figure out what the transit future should look like, and while SEPTA in Philadelphia deals with a strike, others are seizing the day, now that SAFETEA LU has been signed by President Bush.

For some, like Valley Metro in Phoenix, UTA Commuter Rail in Utah, DART in Dallas, the Eastside Project at Los Angeles County MTA, Portland's Tri Met commuter rail (!), Sounder Light Rail in Seattle, and even the New York City Subway, it seems money cannot come fast enough to keep up with what their citizens are demanding.

Even Class One Railroads are participating. The Dakota, Minnesota, and Eastern is looking at SAFETEA LU Funding to kick-start their attempt to get into the fun of the Powder River Coal Basin in Wyoming. After the derailment problems of the past months on the BNSF, it should be hard for the Feds to deny one more railroad into the area. There is plenty of coal to haul away, and a reliable carrier will do well.

There is not one of these projects that remotely resembles the famous "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska. These projects are worthy. SAFETEA LU is working, and forward looking Agencies and Railroads are getting busy!