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fredmcain

Could Amtrak Be Replaced With Something Better?

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Business motives other than passenger rail have been in play for some time. With Pacific Electric (PE), the development of suburban communities around Los Angeles in the early twentieth century was the result. Transporting citizens to outlying areas for the purpose of selling (inexpensive) land was the motive!

 

"Railroads were one part of the enterprise. Revenue from passenger traffic rarely generated a profit, unlike freight. The real money for the investors was in supplying electric power to new communities and in developing and selling real estate. To get the railways and electricity to their towns, local groups offered the Huntington interests opportunities in local land."

...from Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pacific_Electric

 

There is, of course, more to this and it makes fascinating reading.

Edited by FrensicPic

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We all know what happens when railroads diversify into more profitable businesses including real estate....

It doesn't take the bean counters long to start bleeding the railroads, and put the profit into the sector's with the better return on investment, leading to deferred maintenance, and eventually...

(anyone remember the Penn Central?).

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I do not see Congress being able to do much with Amtrak considering what they have done over the past decades. At best Congress, that sees Amtrak as a profit corporation and not providing a public service, will force Amtrak to degrade its service a little bit every few years until there is no Long Distance, only in photos for our children to tell their grandchildren about. Then there may be a disaster of greater proportion than 9/11 with airlines out of service for even longer period of time, only there will be no long distance rail to fall back to.

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We all know what happens when railroads diversify into more profitable businesses including real estate....

It doesn't take the bean counters long to start bleeding the railroads, and put the profit into the sector's with the better return on investment, leading to deferred maintenance, and eventually...

(anyone remember the Penn Central?).

Anybody remember Santa Fe - Southern Pacific merger? They merged the holding companies in anticipation of the RR merger. All the non-RR assets, real estate, etc went into the merged holding company. When the railroad merger was declined, the new holding company, now essentially Santa Fe, kept all those assets and SP was spun out as a railroad only. Which was financially hobbled by the stripping away of other SP assets and never really recovered.

 

Railroads, at least the western ones, had always been big real estate holders and players.

 

I never noticed Santa Fe being an advocate of deferred maintenance, or not maintaining capital investment in the railroad.

Edited by zephyr17

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We all know what happens when railroads diversify into more profitable businesses including real estate....

It doesn't take the bean counters long to start bleeding the railroads, and put the profit into the sector's with the better return on investment, leading to deferred maintenance, and eventually...

(anyone remember the Penn Central?).

If I remember right, that was close to the model that the Northern Pacific used, where the railroad used subsidiaries to generate traffic, mainly in the timber and agricultural industries.

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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.

 

We must be flying in the skies of alternative universes. True, in-flight services is not as good as it was in the days of my youth, when flying coach on a pre-deregulated airline environment would get you full meal service on an east coast - Chicago flight, the ability to fold down the middle seat and get an extra-wide armrest (if the plane wasn't full, thanks, TWA!), and "stewardesses" who were deferential even to a pimply-faced college boy like me. But my recent flights had FAs who were polite and efficient, and generally didn't ruffle my feathers during what is now the stressful experience of a modern airline journey. I usually fly Southwest, but even on my marathon 14 hour UA flight to Beijing, the coach attendants were fine. I got the lousy meals (and such small portions, too!) served when they were supposed to, and they came around and refilled us with the rotgut plonk they serve in steerage or the surprisingly decent beer selection. The worst I can recall is a and Oakland - BWI flight on Southwest, when I ordered a glass of wine, the plane lurched, and the FA spilled the red plonk all over me. She was totally apologetic, almost groveling, helped me clean up and they comped me another glass of California's "finest." Maybe I'm just not so picky and demanding in my expectations from service workers, but I've never had any problems with airline flight attendants. Noiw, Amtrak dining carr staff -- well, there have been a couple of times where I've noticed that they were a bit "off their peak," shall we say, but never so bad that I saw fit to send a nastygram to corporate HQ.

 

You want bossy flight attendants, try El Al, circa 1972. But you did get bagels and lox for breakfast on the eastbound flights.

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I always get a kick out of suggestions that the federal government take over railroad infrastructure...seeing as how the federal government has done a generally shitty (am I allowed to say that on here?) job of managing and maintaining infrastructure everywhere else, and can barely keep an anemic passenger rail system running as it is.

I'd be curious to hear your non-government private party solution to improving passenger rail service in this country.

Brightline seems to be trying. Some states (I said "federal government," not government generally) are doing somewhat decent jobs at investing in rail infrastructure because they've made it their own priority.

Can you think of an example of another potential Brightline? FEC's passenger rail project seems like a unique one-off situation rather than a template for duplicating elsewhere. In the same vein can you name a country that has managed to deploy and manage modern passenger rail while leaving the national level government out of it? Both of these questions are neutral and sincere; if such examples exist I genuinely want to know about them.

 

 

We must be flying in the skies of alternative universes. My recent flights had FAs who were polite and efficient, and generally didn't ruffle my feathers during what is now the stressful experience of a modern airline journey. Even on my marathon 14 hour UA flight to Beijing, the coach attendants were fine. I got the lousy meals (and such small portions, too!) served when they were supposed to, and they came around and refilled us with the rotgut plonk they serve in steerage or the surprisingly decent beer selection.

By my memory airline stewards and stewardesses of the 1970's and 80's were extremely helpful and polite. They treated me so well I felt right at home and I think that's part of the reason I enjoyed flying even as a young boy oblivious to macro physics. Whereas today's senior flight attendants seem to view customers as little more than an unavoidable nuisance ripe for bossing and ridiculing. On a trip of a few hours nobody really cares but on a flight that's 10+ hours you start to sense the indifference and contempt. Ignoring requests, barking orders, pretending to offer you a better seat only to discover it's far worse, snapping at mistakes and misunderstandings, repeatedly ramming shoulders and feet with carts sans warning or apology, leaving nasty bathrooms uncleaned, etc. I still enjoy flying the likes of SQ, CX, TG, BR, etc. but that's not the labor pool from which Amtrak would be hiring.

Edited by Devil's Advocate

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I agree the flight attendants of earlier years were very customer oriented, but also the flying public had a different attitude compared to those flying today. When I flew heavy in the late 80's and 90's, the airlines greeted me with a genuine smile and greeting, upgrading me without asking. Most flight attendants were never bossy. Today, with a flying public that has no tolerance for anything and it is everyone by themselves at fault, flight attendants get abused so they find it hard to be genuine any more. I have heard the stories from three relatives who are senior flight attendants for AA and DL. Low pay with verbal and physical abuse. why do those in my family still do it, they have too much invested at this point.

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Rather than going back to the past, let's look at what's likely in the future...

 

...there is a very serious possibility that the cost of trucking will drop significantly due to electric trucks. To the point where the current freight railroads, who have to pay the full costs of track maintenance and dispatching, won't be able to stay competitive with trucks which use the roads for free.

 

It's quite possible that the "freight" railroads will need to be bailed out by government, AGAIN, like they were with Conrail.

 

This time, let's not make the same mistake made with Conrail (and Canadian National, and Grand Trunk, and the Intercolonial Railway in Canada). Let's keep the tracks public. Permanently. Like they do in nearly every country in the world. Wick Moorman even liked the idea. The main "thumb on the scales" in favor of trucks is that roads are public (trucks pay essentially nothing to use them, except for some toll roads) while tracks are private (so railroad operators have to pay a lot to use them). If this was fixed, then even with electric trucks, it would be clear that trains were much cheaper for hauling freight.

 

Once the tracks are public and treated as a public service like the roads, it's going to be really easy to get passenger service improved.

Edited by neroden

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Can you think of an example of another potential Brightline? FEC's passenger rail project seems like a unique one-off situation rather than a template for duplicating elsewhere. In the same vein can you name a country that has managed to deploy and manage modern passenger rail while leaving the national level government out of it? Both of these questions are neutral and sincere; if such examples exist I genuinely want to know about them.

I can think of examples where the state-level government was involved and not the national-level government, but I can't think of any examples where government wasn't the main passenger rail proponent and manager.

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We all know what happens when railroads diversify into more profitable businesses including real estate....

It doesn't take the bean counters long to start bleeding the railroads, and put the profit into the sector's with the better return on investment, leading to deferred maintenance, and eventually...

(anyone remember the Penn Central?).

Anybody remember Santa Fe - Southern Pacific merger? They merged the holding companies in anticipation of the RR merger. All the non-RR assets, real estate, etc went into the merged holding company. When the railroad merger was declined, the new holding company, now essentially Santa Fe, kept all those assets and SP was spun out as a railroad only. Which was financially hobbled by the stripping away of other SP assets and never really recovered.

 

Actually, you remember it wrong. I owned Southern Pacific stock.

 

They actually spun off ALL the combined real estate holdings, with the sole exception of railroad property then in use. The mining became "Santa Fe Gold". The rest became "Catellus", which owned nearly all the former passenger stations and lots of former freight yards and already-dismantled railway ROWs. I ended up with stock in both companies.

 

SP was then sold off (not spun out) to Rio Grande Industries, who merged the Rio Grande into the SP. This left me with Santa Fe stock. The remaining Santa Fe was eventually bought by Burlington Northern.

 

Railroads, at least the western ones, had always been big real estate holders and players.

 

I never noticed Santa Fe being an advocate of deferred maintenance, or not maintaining capital investment in the railroad.

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The fundamental problem with depending exclusively on private capital for development of passenger rail service is that they will concentrate on only the most populous corridors and leave vast swaths of area with no service. When the government tries to behave like a private corporation the results are similar.

 

If the construction of the Interstate system were left only to private developers one can bet that there would be no Interstate through places like South Dakota and Wyoming, and there would also be a considerably smaller trucking industry as an offshoot of that erroneous decision.

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Electric engines on trucks may be cheaper to operate locally, but long distance irregular routes may find charging stations hard to find and if one is found does the driver have time to charge the truck. An engine pulling a 40,000 pound load plus the weight of the rig, over the mountains will require some serious stored energy. I can see the electric trucks in the P&D, LTL, and Distribution city service where there are thousand and thousands of city trucks, but none of these will replace rail service.

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The fundamental problem with depending exclusively on private capital for development of passenger rail service is that they will concentrate on only the most populous corridors and leave vast swaths of area with no service.

 

Right now there's vast swaths of area in the US with no passenger rail service. How's depending exclusively on the government any better? If passenger rail were commercially feasible, I'd rather the market set who gets trains rather than Congress. Ideally you'd have both so everyone wins.

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I would too. But we already know how that worked out.

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If we had a government sane enough to treat railroad tracks the way we treat expressways, I honestly think everything would sort itself out rather quickly. I'm not a fan of private train operators like in the UK, but it works a lot better than private track ownership, which doesn't even work for freight service.

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To answer the OP question? No. Unless the freight railroads kept offering service. Who knows what would had happened if the Government offered to give a subsidy to the freight railroads instead of trying to take it over itself. I read in Trains that Santa Fe was willing to continue the Chief past 1971. So some RRs actually took pride in their pax services. The Crescent ran apart from Amtrak for a time too.

Edited by frequentflyer

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And yet the US appears to have chronic under-capitalization of the rail infrastructure with sever capacity issues on many routes, partly caused by strange tax laws admittedly.

 

Santa Fe would not have been able to sustain passenger service given how its finances of the rail portion turned out eventually, just like Southern was not able to sustain the Southern Crescent operations either. People who did not live through it don;t seem to realize what the depth of the financial crisis was in the railroad industry, even among the not so hard hit companies, again admittedly caused by regulatory and ICC policies to some extent, and the rest caused by plain short sighted, short term greed.

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And yet the US appears to have chronic under-capitalization of the rail infrastructure with sever capacity issues on many routes, partly caused by strange tax laws admittedly.

 

Santa Fe would not have been able to sustain passenger service given how its finances of the rail portion turned out eventually, just like Southern was not able to sustain the Southern Crescent operations either. People who did not live through it don;t seem to realize what the depth of the financial crisis was in the railroad industry, even among the not so hard hit companies, again admittedly caused by regulatory and ICC policies to some extent, and the rest caused by plain short sighted, short term greed.

You know, JIS, I have long wondered how much of an impact property taxes have on the rail industry as a whole. I think most of us would admit they have an impact but how much of an impact?

 

It's a generally known, accepted economic fact that high taxes discourage investment and if taxes are punitive enough they can actually ENcourage disinvestment. I have long suspected that in some states, high property taxes have led railroads to abandon many branches and secondary mainlines that could've been used as "pop-off valves". And now we have arrived at the capacity issues you mentioned.

 

In the Indiana county I live in, we once had THREE rail lines that criss-crossed the county. Now for all intents and purposes we have NO rail service at all. I blame the county and their high property taxes for this as much as the railroads for abandoning them. Now our county will never be able to attract any kind of business that would need to use rail. Not that they would ever want to but they have completely eliminated that as a shipping option. You might say they have burned their bridges behind them. Too bad, really.

 

Regards

Fred M. Cain

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And yet the US appears to have chronic under-capitalization of the rail infrastructure with sever capacity issues on many routes, partly caused by strange tax laws admittedly.

 

Santa Fe would not have been able to sustain passenger service given how its finances of the rail portion turned out eventually, just like Southern was not able to sustain the Southern Crescent operations either. People who did not live through it don;t seem to realize what the depth of the financial crisis was in the railroad industry, even among the not so hard hit companies, again admittedly caused by regulatory and ICC policies to some extent, and the rest caused by plain short sighted, short term greed.

 

I remember, its one of the reason Conrail was formed, and why railroads were deregulated in 1980. True, the RRs were not as stable as they are today. Sante Fe was at the time surviving or thriving on the LA-CHI route and the new thing at the time called "intermodal" service.

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Santa Fe would not have been able to sustain passenger service given how its finances of the rail portion turned out eventually, just like Southern was not able to sustain the Southern Crescent operations either..

You can add the D&RGW to them...it held out the longest...1983, before surrendering to Amtrak...

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You want to deal with the property tax issue? Put the tracks in the hands of the public, i.e. government.

 

Private roads and private expressways pay property taxes too.

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