Tuesday, January 31, 2006

TTCI-AAR Research Review Set for March

Just received my mailing for the 11th Annual AAR Research Review. It will be held in Pueblo, Colorado on Tuesday March 14th and Wednesday March 15th.

After AREA and Roadmasters merged, and combined with other organizations as well, the Annual Technical Conference held by AREA was moved to September by its successor, AREMA (American Railway Engineering and Maintenance of Way Association). Years and years of meeting in March left a void in many railroaders' schedules that needed to be filled with the results of updated railroad engineering research.

The TTCI (Transportation Technology Center, Inc.) has done just that, and very admirably, too. This Annual Review has now become the March event that AREA used to be. Attendance has been significant, and is growing.

The AAR Review concentrates on research findings of Heavy Axle Load (HAL) experiments on track and car components, Wheel/Rail Profile Design and Maintenance, and more specific results involving Special Trackwork and Bridges. The first full day happens at the Pueblo Convention Center. The second half-day is spent walking the FAST/HAL Loop east of town.

Part of the fun of the track walk is never knowing what weather will occur. It has been anything from a near white-out blizzard to a balmy seventy degree beauty, depending on the year.

If you have any interest in railroad research, you can register here.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Amtrak CEO Headhunter is Chosen

Just got my internet update from Progressive Railroading, and there was an interesting tidbit there! Apparently, the Amtrak Board has hired an Executive Search Firm to find the next President and CEO! The firm name is Heidrick and Struggles.

A quick look at their website shows that Heidrick and Struggles is an impressive international firm that deals with consulting services as well as executive searches. A deeper check of their list of testimonials reveals many impressive letters from their past clients.

But look at the list of the "arenas" that these clients are in:

-Commercial Services
-Financial Services
-Media and Publishing
-Commercial and Investment Banking
-Manufacturing and Distribution
-Application Software
-Real Estate Management
-An Industry Association
-A Non-Profit Concern

Notice anything missing? Yep, transportation! I never expected to see "railroading", but at least I thought the firm might have had some experience with consulting or searching in the field of transportation!

By stretching the point, some of these fields are a part of Amtrak's business. But it is the juggling of the combination of such fields together with specific fields involving transportation in general, and Amtrak in particular, that makes the business of operating a passenger agency unique.

I hope Heidrick and Struggles finds someone suitable. My fear is that the cronies on Amtrak's Board have selected another group of cronies to find yet another cronie. I am trying to remain optimistic. But past experience with Amtrak shows that high powered execs not experienced with transportation become failures.

When Congress reconvenes, it will be interesting if anything is said or done in regards to the recent appointments made during their recess. The speed and intent of these apppointments and their work is unusual for DC. Let's watch Congress and see what happens.

Busy, Busy, Busy!

Apologies for a ten day interval between posts, but it seems like track material is a hot commodity these days! Usually things pick up after the first of the year, but in 2006 things have been crazy. There are many unexpected projects to keep up on, RFQ's, and other situations to spend energy on. In short, business is good, and most everyone I speak with on the Railroad Supply side agrees.

Why? Right now, it is commuter rail. Last Autumn's gasoline price increases combined with Iranian extortion has led many to seriously investigate some sort of rail passenger transportation. Tennessee, Minnesota, and Oregon are all looking. Others are farther behind, but "getting aboard". The Detroits and the Austins still seem to be a lost cause.

Understand the timeframe. Politicians are "reactive", not "proactive". So now, the time is right for their sudden interest. Obviously, that's OK with me, as long as something gets to the table.

There are rumors that the Feds are diverting monies once earmarked for rail transit and commuter projects to the needs created by Hurricane Katrina. That will mean that local governments will have to write their own check. If these rumors come true, I believe the more visionary governments will grab their pens and do just that.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The New York City Transit Strike

I was listening to the Hugh Hewitt Radio Show on my way home last night. I will be honest in saying that Hewitt was a big influence that got me started with Rip Track. He does his own blog, and has convinced many others like myself to start one as well.

It isn't often that Hugh speaks about issues regarding Amtrak, or Transit, or railroads for that matter. So when the subject of the New York Transit Strike came up as he was speaking with Mr. John Podhoretz, my attention locked on to the discussion. Podhoretz is a New York Post columnist who is a bit irreverant and more than just a little fun to hear.

You may want to read the whole discussion, which can be found on Radio Blogger. It is a word-for-word transcript of what was said on the radio show. Get to the January 9th entry and scroll down to a point just above the discussion the House Rules Committee (the Podhoretz interview covers several other topics).

If you do go to the site, you will read, among other things, that the Union was paid $131,700,000 to settle the strike (an amount verified by Dan Zukowski), that no one really know whether MTA has a $1 billion surplus or a $600 million deficit, that such financial irregularities are due to the tremendous amount of cash taken in daily, that the average NYC Transit Worker makes on average $15,000 more than the median income in New York, and that the term "thugs" as used by the New York City Mayor is a racist comment.

Another interesting observation was that when the MTA in particular, and government in general, wishes to come up with some money, somehow they find it if the government itself thinks there is high enough importance. This is an idea that appeals to those who vote against any tax increase or bond enabling measure.

Obviously, I cannot verify Mr. Podhoretz's allegations. No matter. I am going to be interested in seeing whether such information is reported in the New York Times, or other media outlets read by NYC citizens. If and when it is, the reaction of those people who were delayed and stranded, and those businesses who lost millions, will be very interesting, indeed.

The other lesson I am learning here is that bidding the supply of track material and labor to the MTA and looking for every nickel in my cost for each item submitted may not matter in the grand scheme of things with this particular agency. There must be other forces at work with them.

Friday, January 06, 2006

More on the Amtrak Board Appointments

Progressive Railroading has today's reactions from Congress and the Unions. These are reactions you would pretty much expect, but the questions are salient. Don't buy the nonsense that the President is a dictator, or worse, as you can read on some blogs. Bush is simply filling the void left by Congress with its inaction. Hopefully, some action will occur out of one or both Chambers of Congress.

TCP has some thoughts in the Comments Section of yesterday's Rip Track posting. He doesn't want to overreact to these two appointees, but joins many of us who would like to see real railroaders getting on the Amtrak Board instead.

What astounds me even more that these back door appointments, or whatever non-action Congress takes, is how Norman Mineta keeps singing the song that this is all being done for the good of Amtrak. Apparently, he still uses the ploy currently in vogue by some politicos of saying something often and long enough that it eventually is seen as truth. Not this time, Norman!

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Bush Tinkers with Amtrak Board Again!

Progressive Railroading has the overview.

Reuters has a little more detail.

Two things strike me. First, Mineta has alot of nerve to make such comments as quoted by Reuters that do not obscure at all what he is trying to do to Amtrak. Second, the ball is now fully in Congress' Court; those legislatures who stomped and screamed when Gunn was fired need to step up now and squash these new Amtrak Board Appointees.

Otherwise, it is politics as usual and Amtrak, once again, becomes a victim.

Monday Morning . . . on Thursday!

Yes, Thursday only because of the BCS situation, which has probably forever altered the designation of January 1 as “Bowl Day”. Congratulations to Texas and Vince Young, now everyone knows what the Big Twelve knows. Have you ever seen a player dominate a game like Young? Not me. Congratulations also to West Virginia, LSU, and Utah, who, like Texas, made the so-called experts look their worst.

In addition, here are some awards not normally noted on that particular, or any other, network:

Least Promising Broadcast Team: Ron Franklin and Bob Davie. You thought I would mention Brent Musberger and his “whoever my partner is this year” team. Everyone knows he is awful. Here’s a new name for you to bash: Ron Franklin! Good voice, but is he really watching the game? I can call his game watching my TV at home better than he can from the pressbox, and he has his team of spotters, back room analysts, etc! You can tell when Ron misses a call because Bob gets really quiet, apparently not wanting to draw attention to a play-by-play announcer who has missed something major. Yep, fumbles, first downs, penalties, time outs, Ron misses ‘em all. Pay attention, Ron.

Most Deserving Team that Should Have Been in the BCS but Wasn’t: It certainly wasn’t Oregon. Maybe LSU. Ohio State proved that they deserved to be there, beyond a doubt.

Most Disappointing Performance by a Conference: ACC, no doubt. Yes, I have much respect now for Florida State after an Orange Bowl where both teams left nothing on the field. But look at how the Miami Hurricanes got pounded, enough that substantial coaching changes resulted. Look at how Utah pounded Georgia Tech. Victories by Clemson over a Colorado team that was ready to play golf weeks ago, by NC State, and by a Boston College who wasn’t even in the ACC a few years ago don’t help the reputation of the conference. Big Ten? Maybe, but read below about what has happened with at least two sets of Game Officials, both involving Big Ten teams. And no Big Ten team got the drubbing that the Hurricanes or the Wreck did.

Most Annoying Crowd Chant: Close call, but it has to be that FSU Indian-War-Chant-Tomahawk-Chop thing they do, with that USC three note band extravaganza a close second. See also this previous post. Penn State knew they were doing fine when the FSU Band would start that Chant after a Nittany Lion incomplete pass.

Officiating Crew Not Ready for Prime Time: Dead even, between the Conference USA crew that botched the Iowa-Florida game and the Sunbelt Conference Team that “called” the Nebraska-Michigan game. Not just my opinion, the blown call on Iowa’s onside kick toward the game’s end was so bad that the NCAA is going to review their referee assignment to bowl game policy. And, the Alamo Bowl crew is often added to any reference made to that Conference USA officiating mess. Even ESPN commented about how bad the Sunbelt zebras were doing in San Antonio. Only hard-core Husker Nation card carriers have overlooked the bad officiating. But after watching how the Big Twelve refs nearly lost control of the Gator Bowl between Virginia Tech and Louisville did I begin to understand. Nebraska fans see this kind of game official ineptitude on a weekly basis during their entire Big 12 season; it was business as usual for them.

Best Officiating Crew: The Big East Officials who covered the Orange Bowl. Could you sense the intensity of that game? Everyone I spoke with on Wednesday morning commented on that game with a level of reverence not often seen. The fact that everyone stayed up way past their bedtime to see the outcome speaks to how intense the game was. The officials never lost control. A lesser group of officials, say a group from Conference USA or the Sunbelt Conference, would not have done so well.

Best Thing About NCAA Football: It remains the players, the coaches, the stories of success and of the lives changed for the better. Congratulations to all participants of all teams who take part in this most wonderful time of the year. Now that it’s over, I’m going to have to check out how the new NHL looks, at least until National Letter-of-Intent Day!

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Sad Surprise for AREMA in September 2007

AREMA (The American Railway Engineering and Maintenance of Way Association) is not scheduled to meet in Chicago at the Palmer House until September 2007. Some sad news will greet attendees at that time.

The Berghoff, a favorite restaurant of many, is closing soon.

Read the whole sad story here.

Tragedy in West Virginia

Like many of you, I went peacefully to sleep last night thinking that twelve buried miners had miraculously survived the mine explosion in West Virginia. Also like you, I was stunned to hear that this morning's news was, in fact, just the opposite. Indeed, only one survivor was found.

Hopefully, family and friends of the victims will somehow find peace during the coming days, months and years.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Fuel Surcharge Tyranny

Happy New Year to all! Of course, our prayers and thoughts are with the miners and their families in West Virginia. We all hope for a happy outcome to that disaster.

But on to the topic at hand today, and that is "The Fuel Surcharge, the new "device" used by Class One Railroads to accomodate fluctuating diesel fuel prices in their tariffs. Anyone who ships by rail today is aware of the "Fuel Surcharge", a tariff that is added to all published freight rates. Several months ago when the surcharge was initiated, rates would fluctuate somewhere between 2% and 4.5% to 5%. Then everything changed. As Autumn '05 approached, the surcharge ballooned to 10%, 11%, and 12%, finally resting at an unbelievable 18.5% for BNSF Shippers for December 2005!

One problem is obvious for Rail Shippers. If you work up a competitive quotation, and base your freight component on a lower surcharge, the increases which we have recently seen blow your bid out of the water. The difference between a 4% fuel surcharge and a 12% fuel surcharge will ultimately mean a financial loss for such a project as bid. And guess what? No owner who awards a contract based on your bid will cut much slack here. All things equal, you lose!

Another problem: The 18.5% Fuel Surcharge for the BSNF was announced to shippers on the first day of November. At that time, is was an accurate reflection of fuel prices. Guess what happened? If you recall, fuel went down in price. But the BNSF, in this case, did not lower their surcharge, it remained in place. The verbal abuse heaped on the BNSF in this case is similar to the abuse heaped on any Gas Station who raises the price for gasoline already in their tanks just because OPEC raised their price at the wellhead.

Here is a simple solution. Please, Class Ones, do this. If you are a high-powered exec, you can even take credit for thinking it up. The solution? Admit that fuel prices are not going back to the levels of late 2004. Simply raise your published tariffs so that the fuel surcharge can be lowered to a much smaller and more controllable percentage. Easy enough. It will make life much better for those of us who can take advantage of shipping by rail.