Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Another Worthwhile Blog to Read

Check out Passenger Rail. There's some good thinking here.

I'm going to link it over on the right.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Where Are the Railroad Track Engineers Going?

Recently, I was discussing with a colleague of mine the fact that there will be a significant loss of Railroad Track Engineering talent from one specific Class One Railroad within the next two to three years. Where are they going? Retirement.

There are a few people coming up thru the ranks to fill these vacancies, but not nearly enough. This particular railroad is not alone. If you don't believe that, go to any AREMA (American Railway Engineering and Mainenance Association) Meeting and see how many young turks are in the group.

The problem is seen by others, too. Railway Track and Structures Magazine, in their February '06 issue, features a salient editorial from Mr. Tom Judge that asks simply, "Enough Engineers?" Answer: No! Mr. Judge says that railroads need to recognize the problem and get involved.

His three main points are, railroads, get involved with colleges and universities that support the needed training and support them, get promising people involved with AREMA by sending them to technical conferences and seminars, and get acclimated to the idea that the twenty-four/seven lifestyle now demanded won't cut it with today's people.

This is not the first time such a need for young engineers has been discussed. Even here at Rip Track it has been noted. I hope railroads will not fall into the trap that has tripped up other disciplines that now must rely on untrained and incapable people to do a job (consultants to Transit Agencies, are you reading?) The railroads may not, but it will take a major wake-up call to change their current paradigm. And that's too bad.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Fun Web Sites

All work and no play, you know the story. So here is a fun site that lists the #1 Song on any particular date. Find your birthday, graduation day, wedding day, whatever, using this site, and mentally hum the hit. Unlike astrological claims, these songs should have no impact on your personality. Or maybe.

HT: Hugh Hewitt.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Bush FY '06 Appropriation for Amtrak

The National Association of Railroad Passengers has the most comprehensive writeup that I have yet read about the Administration's Amtrak Appropriation Proposal. You will note that the Administration gives itself a political "pat-on-the-back" by earmarking $900 million in '06 versus ZERO in '05.

However, you will also notice that $900M is $400M LESS than Congress appropriated last year. Some have said that Amtrak needs last year's $1.3 billion, plus another $700M for a total of $2B, just to perform needed repairs to infrastructure that has been deferred.

Deferred Maintenance is an accounting method used to preserve capital by cutting expenses. It was common practice for Railroads to do this during their Dark Ages of the fifties, sixties, and seventies. The idea of spending capital as an investment to create profits is a concept almost entirely lost on the previous generation of Railroad Execs. Only recently has that concept been put into practice again.

So now, the Executive Branch and the Congress should, once again, take their cue from private enterprise and create funding for a passenger system that would be a big part of President Bush's plan to fight our "oil addition". Down the road, it might even lead to a break-even proposition. And, the United States would have a fine way to move people quickly and safely.

By the way, we all realize that "Accounting" is a four letter word, right?

There just isn't alot more to say about this $900M Appropriation, plus $400M for "incentive grants" as Stormin' Norman Mineta calls them, except that it is politics as usual. Some members of Congress are getting vocal, but let's remember what Mark Twain once said:

"Thunder is good, thunder is impressive, but it is lightning that does the work."

Here's hoping for a little lightning.

Friday, February 17, 2006

AREMA Recommends, but Consultants Must Specify!

But what happens when AREMA recommendations from years ago become unchanged by Railroad Engineering Consultants, or Transit Agencies? Short answer, what happens isn't good.

Changing the direction of momentum is a tough thing to do. Both Consultants and Agencies can have their own built-in momentum to continue going with what has worked in the past. Even ISO 9000 can give force to this momentum. Problem is, momentum isn't changed. New technology goes unused. Old products prevail. Money is spent that might be saved.

As an example, I am told that Committee 30 of AREMA (The American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association) has updated the standard for Tie Plugs. Right, this is a small item, but it does show some of the momentum that can take hold. The current AREMA Chapter 30 notes a standard for an old wooden plug that was obviously designed for timber ties. For years, now, railroads have been using various other materials and methods to fill the holes in timber ties left by a pulled spike. So if a spec writer from today calls for Tie Plugs that meet AREMA Chapter 30, all new technology is eliminated!

Sometimes, AREMA Committees rewrite their various chapters in advance of new developments. Sometimes, these committees are reactive. No matter, these rewrites are pertinent and valuable.

Then, it is the job of the consulting spec writers to take these AREMA Recommendations and turn them into good Project Specifications that are precise enough to get the required level of quality, but simple enough to avoid "frightening the bid".

So, spec writers and users have to be vigilant. It is important that Consultants keep up-to-date with industry developments, and update their specs accordingly.

It is equally important that Agencies review the specs submitted to them, and not rely on something outdated in lockstep fashion. Their staff must hold consultants responsible for providing an up-to-date and quality specification.

It does take vigilance. That's what billable hours are for. But the results will be worth it, for everyone. Most of all, the taxpayers will benefit, because they won't be paying more for outdated material.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Amtrak and the Constitution

I could not figure out why certain Senators were not very vocal about President Bush's two recent "appointments" to the Amtrak Board. So I thought I would read the Constitution, specifically Article II, Section 2:

"The President shall have Power to fill up Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the end of their next session."

These Presidential Appointments have been going on for as long as the Republic has existed. I don't understand why a legal challenge has not been issued regarding the fact that it can be interpreted that such a vacancy should have happened DURING the Recess, rather than a vacancy that existed BEFORE the Recess. Be that as it may, I am sympathetic to the Framers' desire to keep the Legislative Branch from paralyzing the Executive Branch.

Regardless, I do now understand why there has been no public outrage by various Amtrak-supporting Senators over these recent Bush Appointees.

I haven't had time yet to fully digest the recent Administration Budget Proposals for both Amtrak and the FTA. Hopefully, that will happen before the end of the week.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Ridership: Up, Way Up!!!

By checking various sources, including Progressive Railroading and APTA, some impressive ridership increases from '04 to '05 are showing up, to wit:

-Amtrak California Capitol Corridor up 6.5%
-Amtrak Sacramento to Richmond up 9.4%
-Amtrak Surfliner up 4.6%, with the LA to San Diego portion up 6.0%
-Metro North up 3.8%
-Nationwide Transit ridership up over 3%, with specifics as follows,
-Philadelphia up 9.5%
-Dallas up 8.3%
-St. Louis up 6.9%
-Denver up 6%
-Boston up 5.5%
-Los Angeles up 5.2%
-Chicago's CTA up 4.5% for the highest increase since 1985

You might remember the "Rule of Seventy" from class, as it applies to percentages. The rule simply states that by dividing the percentage of increase into seventy, you arrive at a number that indicates when the base number will double. For example, if Amtrak's Capitol Corridor ridership continued to increase at a rate of 6.5% per year, ridership will doubled in 70 divided by 6.5, or in 10 years 9 months!

You can argue that ridership will not continue such growth. You may be right. Or, it might actually increase, if fuel prices go up, or if any number of things happen.

Let's assume that ridership increases average 3.5% over the foreseeable future. That means we will need roughly twice as much capacity in twenty years as we have today. I don't think we'll have to double our infrastructure, but I do think we'd better get busy!

And combined with the fact that carload freight increases are happening, these ridership increases show me that a lot of effort and material will be heading toward our railroad infrastructure over the next few years.

Who would have thought twenty years ago that railroads would be a growth industry?