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Could Amtrak Be Replaced With Something Better?


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#1 fredmcain

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Posted 17 May 2018 - 10:14 AM

Group,

 

I would like to share a message that I posted on another group.  I hope I don't step on any toes here.

 

What follows is my idea for replacing Amtrak but first I have to make it clear that it WOULD require Congress to pass new legislation.

The first part of that legislation would be to FREEZE the current system so that Richard “Doofus” Anderson can’t cut anything until the transition is complete.

Then the transition to turn back the passenger trains to the contracting freight roads could begin.  I know, I know, we’ve been down that road before and it didn’t work.  But first consider that times have changed AND new legislation could provide a new environment for intercity rail passenger service that would be more attractive to the companies than it was in the 1960s.

The first thing Congress would need to do is to completely and totally replace most of the equipment AND provide ENOUGH equipment to allow for expansion (both frequencies and possible new routes) as well as for maintenance downtime and wreck damage.

Then, the legislation could provide the railroads with low or no interest government backed loans in the future to help cover any further purchases.

The legislation could/should persuade or mandate the post office to move “head end” business back to passenger trains wherever feasible. 

The roads could also go after UPS or FedEx head end business.  Remember Ed Ellis tried that before but ran into extreme opposition from the Class 1s because they were afraid of losing a little bit of TOFC or COFC business to Amtrak.  But with the Class 1s on the engineer’s seat, that would not be an issue this time.  In fact, they’d probably like it.

What I like the most of my idea is that it would all but eliminate the “Our tracks and your trains” issue that exists between the Class 1s and Amtrak.  The trains could also be marketed in such a way as to boost corporate pride not unlike the U.P. Steam Program.  Maybe BNSF would consider revival of the Super Chief name.  Warbonnets?  Why not?

If this were ever to happen, something would also need to be done to address the issue of the Northeast Corridor – I’m not sure what.  Perhaps it could be turned over to some kind of multistate agency and managed much as the Port Authority manages the PATH trains in the New York/New Jersey area.  A similar kind of thing would need to be done in California.  But I think the “Joint Powers” board might be able to take care of that (where they have rights to the tracks, that is).

Another idea I had would be similar but instead of Congress passing legislation to turn the trains back to the Class 1s, they could turn it over to some kind of a Brightline-like business or a series of such companies.  Unfortunately, if they did that then we’d still be stuck with this “our tracks but your trains conflict”.

 

Regards,

Fred M. Cain,

Amtrak patron from Topeka, IN

 


​Regards,

Fred M. Cain


#2 MikefromCrete

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Posted 17 May 2018 - 10:40 AM

1. Class 1's don't want to have anything to do with running passenger trains. They don't want all the extra employees and other overhead expenses. If you paid them a lot more money, they would probably treat Amtrak better, much like the deal between California and UP in running the Capitol Corridor.

 

2. Having some private company in charge would probably work, but who would compensate them for their losses. Remember the reason we have Amtrak in the first place is that passenger trains don't make money, so congress would have to ante up a bunch of money for the private operator(s). In  the U.K. private firms operate the trains, but most of the routes get some kind of a subsidy. 

 

3. Forcing the post office to use passenger trains won't work if it raises costs for the Postal Service, which has its own money woes. The freight railroads already run hot trains for UPS, they'd have nothing to gain. 

 

4. Today's railroads seem to have little corporate pride. Their main deal is to make as much money as possible for their Wall Street overlords. UP is unique in its steam program, but all it would take is an executive changeover to scuttle that. Look to NS for that example.

 

I'm not trying to knock your ideas, but this is the 21st century, we can't go back to the 1950's to find ways to operate trains. The heyday of passenger trains was cut short by the Interstate highway program and jet airplanes. Now we're looking at  competition from robot-driven cars. 


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#3 Steve4031

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Posted 17 May 2018 - 11:08 AM

I was thinking that this was like going back to hehe 1950s.

I really think the solution to rail travel in the US is to focus on building a high speed rail system in the eastern half of the country.

The distance between many midsized and major cities is 200 to 500 miles. A dedicated interconnected hsr system would revolutionize travel patterns in the eastern half of the country. This would seriously reduce congestion on high ways and the air traffic system.

Think about it. China built this in 20 years in its country.
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#4 Mystic River Dragon

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Posted 17 May 2018 - 11:32 AM

I think there are two possibilities, and the outcome at the moment is out of our hands:

 

Brightline does well, and other private companies start falling all over each other to offer trains from one of their real estate ventures to another. (The Henry Flagler model--the train is simply a vehicle--in both senses of the word--to get people to the train company's restaurants, hotels, and other attractions and have them spend money--lots of it--there.)

 

Brightline does not do well, and no other private company will touch passenger rail.

 

In the first scenario, Amtrak coexists and gets whatever is left over that no one else wants.

 

In the second scenario, we are stuck with Amtrak in its current form, with perhaps lots of cuts.

 

I would love the first scenario. We will have to wait and see, though.


Edited by Mystic River Dragon, 17 May 2018 - 11:34 AM.

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#5 Bob Dylan

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Posted 17 May 2018 - 11:39 AM

Others nailed it with the fact that Class Is dont have any desire to run Passenger Rail ,( or even Commuter Rail such as,BNSF in CHI which they're trying to shed).

But please, no more NY/NJ Port Authority or Washington Metro type run operations for the NEC. This will prevent Politicians from getting their hands on the Jobs and the Money and making even more of a Mess than we have now when it comes to Rail.

Edited by Bob Dylan, 17 May 2018 - 11:42 AM.

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#6 TC_NYC

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Posted 17 May 2018 - 03:31 PM

Honestly, I think we'll see a successful case of the Brightline in Florida that will encourage some of the Class 1s to take subsidies in exchange for operating Amtrak. I think another strong option (that would improve Amtrak) would be contracting out all of the OBS on the train. Heck, contract it out to the Airlines who can tap into their FA pools to help man Amtrak trains and provide a higher level of service on board. 



#7 Devil's Advocate

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Posted 17 May 2018 - 04:01 PM

I hope Brightline does well but it also seems like a rather unique outlier compared to most routes and roads.  Their extremely well located real estate holdings, efficient mainline routing, high population density, and corporate determination are a rare combination in my view.  I'm also rather unsure as to how hiring a bunch of flight attendants would make things better.  In my experience they're often bossy and/or rude, mostly indifferent to customer needs, and prone to (sometimes severe) overreaction.  Even in premium cabins US flight attendants often come across as fake and manipulative rather than polished and genuine (IMO).  I can put up with that sort of thing for the 1-4 hours it usually takes me to fly somewhere in the lower 48, but it gets old really quick if I'm flying for 5+ hours.  Although I've run into some really annoying SCA's over the years I've also run into SCA's that were far better than the typical US flight attendant.


Edited by Devil's Advocate, 18 May 2018 - 01:43 PM.

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#8 Philly Amtrak Fan

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Posted 17 May 2018 - 08:23 PM

I was thinking that this was like going back to hehe 1950s.

I really think the solution to rail travel in the US is to focus on building a high speed rail system in the eastern half of the country.

The distance between many midsized and major cities is 200 to 500 miles. A dedicated interconnected hsr system would revolutionize travel patterns in the eastern half of the country. This would seriously reduce congestion on high ways and the air traffic system.

Think about it. China built this in 20 years in its country.

 

It would make sense and if the western/rural states' Congressmen would support it without demanding their share it could work. But good luck there. A nationwide high speed rail system that serves the whole country including the boon docks/middle of nowhere would cost 3 times as much and might not even serve twice as many people. If America can build a HSR system in stages it can gradually be successful. 


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#9 FrensicPic

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Posted 17 May 2018 - 10:33 PM

Iowa Pacific or X-Train?  :giggle:


Edited by FrensicPic, 17 May 2018 - 10:36 PM.

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#10 railiner

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Posted 18 May 2018 - 12:16 AM

When Amtrak was created to relieve the nation's freight railroads from their chronic money losing passenger train responsibilities, that ended that.   And there "ain't no going back"....sorry....


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#11 cirdan

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Posted 18 May 2018 - 05:16 AM

Brightline is a special case. We don't yet know whether it will be a success or how it will develop long term. Even if it does work out well, the model is not easily transferrable to other locations.

 

If it was that easy and that attarctive, we would have seen dozens such systems spring up all over the place years ago.

 

Passenger trains will only grow if a political climate emerges that is favorable for them.

 

There was a time, about 10 years ago, that I thought that was happening. Rising gas prices, peak oil, etc.

 

Now with electric cars and self driving cars and so on emerging, I think that opportunity has lessened.

 

But that doesn't mean the battle isn't worth fighting, or that there aren't special cases and situations where passenger rail won't expand.


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#12 fredmcain

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Posted 18 May 2018 - 07:13 AM

When Amtrak was created to relieve the nation's freight railroads from their chronic money losing passenger train responsibilities, that ended that.   And there "ain't no going back"....sorry....

If by "going back" we mean returning to the situation that existed in the 1960s, that's true.  That is probably why, when asked, top level Class 1 managers say "no way".

 

But, if Congress could change the environment for passenger rail through a combination of government backed equipment trusts, tax breaks and the possibility of new head-end business, then long-distance passenger trains could at least break even or possibly even eke out a small profit.  But the big payoff would come in corporate image.

 

As for the contention that the roads today are not interested in corporation image, I can point out the expense the UP is going to to restore a "Big Boy" locomotive. If they aren't doing that for image then what are they doing it for?

 

My question to the head of the UP or BNSF, et al, would NOT be "would you consider running passenger trains again?" but rather  "what would it take in order to make running passenger trains attractive again?"

 

As the people at the FEC already know, improving tracks for new passenger trains dramatically improves freight service as well.  AND the "our tracks but your damn trains" conflict is put to rest.

 

Regards,
Fred M. Cain


​Regards,

Fred M. Cain


#13 fredmcain

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Posted 18 May 2018 - 07:20 AM

There was a time, about 10 years ago, that I thought that was happening. Rising gas prices, peak oil, etc.

 

Now with electric cars and self driving cars and so on emerging, I think that opportunity has lessened.

 

But that doesn't mean the battle isn't worth fighting, or that there aren't special cases and situations where passenger rail won't expand.

I have my own ideas about electric cars and driverless cars.  Although I think that electric cars might be good for the natural environment over the long term, I also see these developments as loading new cars down with so much high-tech gobblygook that they are likely to become beyond the financial reach of the average American. Indeed, that trend had already started before these new technologies were being developed.

 

I can see where more and more people will choose to do without them or at the least downsize again from a multi-car family to a single car family.  This could actually boost the demand for public transportation as well as demand for Uber and Lyft.


​Regards,

Fred M. Cain


#14 cirdan

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Posted 18 May 2018 - 07:42 AM

 

There was a time, about 10 years ago, that I thought that was happening. Rising gas prices, peak oil, etc.

 

Now with electric cars and self driving cars and so on emerging, I think that opportunity has lessened.

 

But that doesn't mean the battle isn't worth fighting, or that there aren't special cases and situations where passenger rail won't expand.

I have my own ideas about electric cars and driverless cars.  Although I think that electric cars might be good for the natural environment over the long term, I also see these developments as loading new cars down with so much high-tech gobblygook that they are likely to become beyond the financial reach of the average American. Indeed, that trend had already started before these new technologies were being developed.

 

I can see where more and more people will choose to do without them or at the least downsize again from a multi-car family to a single car family.  This could actually boost the demand for public transportation as well as demand for Uber and Lyft.

 

 

True, but all that technological gobbeldeygook is just expensive because we're so early in the cycle and manufacturing methods are still inefficient. As mass production picks up this stuff becomes commoditized and prices come down.

 

Same as happened to smartphones, computers etc. 


Edited by cirdan, 18 May 2018 - 07:43 AM.

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#15 fredmcain

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Posted 18 May 2018 - 07:53 AM

True, but all that technological gobbeldeygook is just expensive because we're so early in the cycle and manufacturing methods are still inefficient. As mass production picks up this stuff becomes commoditized and prices come down.

 

 

 

Same as happened to smartphones, computers etc. 

 

 

I believe you're partly right but I can see the cost efficiencies of mass production as only bringing the price of a new car down so far.  An automobile is not a calculator or a smartphone.  Like I say, the cost of a new automobile was already soaring at a much higher rate than the average rate of inflation BEFORE the driver-less and electric car technologies.  Even the Prius hybrid is almost like a car for the rich.  So, I don't see these even newer options as bringing the cost down with or without mass production.

 

Of course, none of us can see the future. We'll just have to wait and see how this all plays out.  I just hope that  some politicians and lobby groups like RandalL "One L" O'Toole don't use the possibility of these new technologies as an excuse to cut passenger trains and urban rail transit systems under the premise that "we won't be needing them in the future".  As this point I don't believe that anyone really knows that yet.

 

Regards,

Fred M. Cain


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​Regards,

Fred M. Cain


#16 railiner

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Posted 18 May 2018 - 11:24 AM

Just prior to Amtrak, and even after, just look at the commuter train equipment.   Most, if not nearly all of them, were no longer owned by the railroads they ran over.  They had visible equipment trust plates affixed, and the train services were heavily subsidized by government agencies of one kind or another.  The railroads still had no desire to operate them.

 

You propose asking them:   "what would it take in order to make running passenger trains attractive again?"

 

I'm afraid the answer to that question would be:  "Much more than you can afford", or something along that line....in any event more than what Amtrak costs now.


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#17 Trogdor

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Posted 18 May 2018 - 11:32 AM

 

 

My question to the head of the UP or BNSF, et al, would NOT be "would you consider running passenger trains again?" but rather  "what would it take in order to make running passenger trains attractive again?"

 

 

 

 

The answer is going to be:  a lot of money.

 

The issue isn't that the passenger train itself does or doesn't cover its operating costs with revenue.  The issue is that a passenger train takes up capacity on a railroad that would be far more profitable if used for freight traffic.  This is something I think a lot of passenger rail advocates don't understand or appreciate.

 

Based on 2008 data, the average revenue for a bulk train was over $200,000, and the average revenue for an intermodal train was over $125,000 (those numbers are per train), with an average train distance of 700-800 miles.  Even adjusted for empty returns (on bulk trains, there's about as much empty running as loaded running), it means revenue per train-mile of around $140.

 

By comparison, the Southwest Chief earns around $27 per train-mile [rough calculation based on a quick Google search, $45 million in 2015 revenue, divided by (2265 * 2 * 365)].  So, the typical freight train earns five times the revenue of a typical passenger train, and runs at a far lower cost (crew of 2 on a freight train vs. crew of 8 - 10 on a long-distance passenger train, plus station staff where said staff exists, plus passenger cars would be more expensive to maintain than freight cars as they have a lot more stuff that is far more complex than a couple pieces of metal with a brake line running through it).

 

On top of that, passenger trains running at higher speeds and requiring "priority" over freight trains takes up far more capacity than a standard freight train running in line with everything else.  This is why freight railroads really would rather Amtrak go away.  Giving the passenger operation back to them doesn't fix this problem.  Only building new capacity will fix it.  And that costs lots of money.  Whose name appears on the side of the locomotive or on the conductor's hat is trivial.

 

So even if you paid a freight railroad enough to cover the direct costs of running a passenger train, it still wouldn't be worth it to them.  They'd rather keep earning $200,000 per freight train, without all of the headaches associated with passenger trains (or the passengers themselves) gumming up the mix.


Edited by Trogdor, 18 May 2018 - 11:33 AM.

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#18 Skyline

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Posted 18 May 2018 - 11:37 AM

No. No. No. No.

 

Instead of purchasing new equipment and letting the very railroads that are openly hostile to passenger trains resume their operation after 47 years of Amtrak, the Feds should do what the late Sen. John Heinz (R-PA) proposed in the first decade of Amtrak.

 

The Feds should assume control (maintenance and traffic control, plus some of the adjunct facilities) of all the trackage. Then allow any railroad that wants to pay to use those facilities do so. The private railroads would retain control of its own terminals, intermodal in most cases -- and compete with each other where appropriate, cooperate with each other where that is mutually beneficial.

 

This is not much different than the current model for interstate highways, especially those that charge tolls. States also are stakeholders, of course.

 

The result should be a more competitive rail environment -- one that could benefit passenger trains if there is the political will to do so. With the Feds scheduling traffic, chances are good that under this scenario OTP performance for passenger trains would improve, and opposition to increased passenger train frequencies would subside.


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#19 railiner

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Posted 18 May 2018 - 12:13 PM

 

The Feds should assume control (maintenance and traffic control, plus some of the adjunct facilities) of all the trackage. Then allow any railroad that wants to pay to use those facilities do so. The private railroads would retain control of its own terminals, intermodal in most cases -- and compete with each other where appropriate, cooperate with each other where that is mutually beneficial.

I am afraid that unless the government "stole" that property though "eminent domain", the cost of acquiring would be catastrophic... :unsure:


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#20 jis

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Posted 18 May 2018 - 12:19 PM

You do know of course that acquiring something through eminent domain does require paying market price for the property.


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