Friday, December 23, 2005

Christmas and Trains

Please accept my wishes for a deeper level of peace and spirituality during this Season, however that works for you. Personally, I will be happily and thankfully celebrating Christmas. For me, part of the Christmas Season is recalling memories linked to the celebration. Of course, not all of these memories have some sort of deep spiritual significance. That does not diminish the value of these memories for me, especitally those memories that include trains.

Like many of you, not only Model Trains but also One-to-One Scale Trains provide me with many pleasant recollections. When I was seven or eight, I did not even know what an electric train was. Do you remember that they were "electric trains" then, not model railroads. During whichever year it was, I awoke Christmas Morning to find a brand-new American Flyer NYC Hudson circling the Tree! I was hooked. I watched it go round and round for hours. Ultimately, my Dad built a table downstairs with a double main, added a diesel passenger train, so that my Brother and I had that electric train set that was the envy of all the kids.

The Full-sized Trains are not slighted in my memories, either. There are many scenes I can easily recall. I met my girlfriend at the time by getting on a Wabash Railroad train, one that she was on from an earlier stop, to meet my Mom and Dad further down the line. I rode out of Grand Central Station on Christmas Eve in order to travel all night so that I could once again be home; traveling thru upstate New York in a snowstorm is a memory that shall not fade. Once in a while on Christmas, I found myself alone, so I would spend at least a little time in the afternoon at the local depot, where I could hopefully see a train. Once a train did pass, the feeling of loneliness seemed to go away just a little bit.

I am thankful for all of those railroad "Right of Ways" that criss-cross my memories of Christmas. I am also thankful for being a part of the wonderful Railroad Industry. My wish for you and yours this Season is to be thankful, too.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

LA Metro Mole Comments on Bus Riders Union

Interesting read, scoll down to December 17th. I wonder what the membership thinks about what is going on in New York these days.

Check our earlier comments made here at Rip Track.

Friday, December 16, 2005

What Amtrak Doesn't Need

An editorial in the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel nails it.

To paraphase, . . . Amtrak deserves the support of teh American People. What it doesn't need is underhanded attempts, like that of Congressman Knollenberg, to syphon off resources . . .

Well stated. At least one in Congress is no bigger friend to Amtrak than is the Admininstration.


UPDATE: Live from the Third Rail has more.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Thank You APTA for a Revelation

An article this week from APTA (American Public Transportation Association) opened my eyes to something. On the surface, the title of the piece sums it up: Most Seniors Worry About Being Stranded Without Transportation.

Any of us with older parents, or those of us who know older people, are fully aware that admitting the fact that driving a car is no longer a safe option is a tough ticket for Seniors. It is one of those demarcations in life when things change. Losing the level of mobility that we all take for granted these days is significant. So what the title of the article says is obvious.

My revelation as a result of this article may have happened because of another story I read that mentioned that the first of the Baby Boomers will hit sixty years of age this coming year. If it is true that the impact from this groundswell of aging people will redefine the retirement lifestyle as we know it, then a good transit system might be a deciding influence when these people decide where to live.

If a Senior who no longer has use of a car can choose to live in a home where it is possible to access a good LRT line that ultimately delivers them to whatever activity or function is available, I bet that is exactly where such a Senior will live. These Seniors could have much of what they like in the suburbs, but yet have access to the advantages of the urban environment, simply because of a good LRT System.

So that's my revelation, simple as that. As arguments are made in favor of spending money for LRT, this new argument will be that accessible, convenient, and safe transportation will result in an improved lifestyle for Seniors, a lifestyle and location that will be selected over something else. It's even more reason that cities like Portland, Denver, Salt Lake City, Dallas, and Charlotte, which are building these very Transportation alternatives, will add their names to San Francisco, Chicago, and the other Northeastern Cities as places desirable to live. Everyone will benefit in ways too numerous to mention here. Everyone, that is, except places like San Antonio, Kansas City, and Detroit, places that continue to listen to LRT naysayers.

The result will be that Seniors will avoid some places, and will actually decide to move to others, taking with them their vitality, time, and tax dollars, too. It is going to be just another benefit of the construction of viable LRT Systems.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Monday Morning VI

Each year about this time I watch more NFL than usual, because the NCAA Football season takes a bit of a breather before Bowl Games begin. And each year, I learn all over again how much better the NCAA game is than the NFL, in part due to specific rules.

The most obvious difference is Overtime! What is the statistic, something like the majority of all NFL games that go into overtime are won by the team that wins the coin toss, simply because the other team never gets its hands on the ball! Incredible. Of course, the goofy commentators rarely note the fact, because of the dim light that would be cast on the NFL.

NCAA Overtime is soooo much better. And I admit, it is not perfect. If a college team has an excellent field goal kicker, three-and-out means about a forty-two yard attempt, which is not out of the realm of doable. If the NCAA started each offensive position at, say, the thirty-five yard line instead, it would be an almost perfect overtime system. But even now, as I have said, it is still soooo much better than the NFL.

Even Baseball, the sport that true football fans love to hate, has a maturity in its rules that puts football to shame. If you have ever been to some kind of umpire school, you quickly learn that Baseball Rules are designed to penalize a player or team who does something wrong to gain an advantage. And The Rules of Baseball do just that.

But check out Sunday Night's Packers-Lions game. I know, I know, two rotten teams. But the Green Bay Packer player did something bad to avoid a Safety, which would have given the ball and two points to Detroit. He tried to lob the ball out of the endzone. By the quirk of a rule that says, if a passer is "out of the pocket", it is not intentional grounding, so the Packers ended up with the ball, and the Lions lost two points. Even the game officials seemed to meet for an extraordinary amount of time, almost in disbelief that the rules would have them do what they had to do. Eventually, the game went into overtime, the Lions lost the coin toss and the game.

I also know that both teams had their chances in regular time. But my point is that the NFL is too much controlled by the Rules Committee and Officials, and not enough by the play on the field. History has shown us that when the NCAA takes the lead with something innovative, say like the two point conversion, it can take DECADES before the NFL swallows its pride and institutes that same rule.

The NFL should once again, swallow its pride, admit that the NCAA is on to something, and redo their archaic overtime.



Monday Morning V
Monday Morning IV
Monday Morning III
Monday Morning II
Monday Morning

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!

Friday, December 02, 2005

Amtrak: Others Are Weighing In

It always amazes me what insights come out, if I can stay patient and interested enough in a situation to keep looking. Now that Gunn has been gone for a few weeks, others are coming forward. As an example, here are some very interesting comments from Paul Weyrich concerning the Amtrak story that came out yesterday.

Mr. Weyrich actually worked on the creation of Amtrak some thirty-five years ago, and has served six one-year terms on the Amtrak Board under three separate Secretaries of Transportation. He was also appointed to the newly created Amtrak Reform Council by the Senate Majority Leader. The man's word and opinion count for alot.

If you go to the above link, you will find many interesting observations from Mr. Weyrich, like the fact that the Bush Administration has shown little interest in Amtrak.

Like the fact that Gunn reduced the Amtrak work force from 24,000 to 19,000, that he reduced Amtrak's debt, that he increased ridership AND productivity.

Like the fact that Gunn had difficulties dealing with Transit Boards in Washington, DC and Toronto due to their unwieldy nature and subservient nature regarding local interests.

Like the fact that Gunn turned around the Philadelphis Transit System, and that it reverted back to its former self following his departure.

Like the fact that Gunn almost singlehandedly saved the New York City Transit System, with an amazing record of accomplishments.

Like the fact that President Bush demonstrated sound judgement when he asked certain cabinet secretaries to serve a second term, but that "The selection of Mineta did not reflect that. Bush had promised to choose a Democrat for his cabinet. Considering the hatred of many Democrats for Bush Mineta may have been his only choice." And, "Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta knows little and cares less about Amtrak."

Weyrich has a few ideas that can help Amtrak, noting that right now the future does indeed look bleak. Here's the list, with my comments in italics:

-Select a Secretary of Transportation "who could work hand in glove with the Amtrak Board and its President to make things happen. That is unlikely considering Mineta and his disinterest in Amtrak." Yeah, man, but I think we are stuck with Mineta until the next administration hits town. Maybe another reason to not vote for any Democrat nominee for President is that there might be a chance Norman would stay on for another four years!

-"We need a system of high speed corridors, such as those recommended years ago by the Department of Transportation. We need those corridors to be interconnected so longer trips could be taken within the system." Smart, very smart. Think of the airlines' Hub-and-Spoke mode. And for everyones' sake, think west Harrisburg and south of Richmond!

-"Let's see if we have any forward thinking candidates (in the next Presidential Election) who could make Amtrak an issue. Short of that Amtrak is a dead letter. And the one guy who knew how to run Amtrak returned to Nova Scotia." Enough said.

Where are the others weighing in? Go to Railroad News by Railserve. There, you will find links to several stories and opinions, including the predicable stuff from Vranich and Haswell that appeared in the Baltimore Sun.

I think anyone with some sense of cause and effect logic can see that Amtrak needs reform. And today, President Bush signed legislation which appropriates more money to Amtrak, a move that is not only inconsistent with the messages we have recently heard as Gunn was fired, but also delays meaningful Amtrak Reform (more on this in a later post). Another year from now, the same continuing situation means that those who like what they hear from Mineta will be able to say that they told us so.

Consequently, I believe now more than ever that the current Administration wants Amtrak to disappear. The enablers who applaud the firing of Gunn fail to realize that leadership is needed to reform the beast. Gunn would have provided that leadership.

A year or two of this Amtrak situation is bad luck. A decade or two is bad management. Both Congress and whichever Administration is currently at the helm need to look in the mirror, decide what they really want, and get politics as well as themselves out of the way. Until then, we will have either a bad Amtrak or no Amtrak.