Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Phew....It's not just me.

Always a good read, Fred Frailey talks about Amtrak and their political masters - John Mica in particular in his latest blog post.

Fred Frailey's Trains blog: "The Tragedy of John Mica"

Of note:

"There are a lot of things wrong with Amtrak, some of them of its own doing. It’s almost impossible to get anything done, so hidebound (and scared) are its managers. The reorganization that (Amtrak) President Joe Boardman wants is almost two years in the making and still not finished. Onboard employees are unsupervised and bad habits are proliferating, particularly on the long distance trains. service on Amtrak trains loses too much money."

"Amtrak needs critics...What it needs are critics, particularly in Congress, who want to make it better and are willing to pick nits or even pick fights with Amtrak to make it better"

The most notable critic of late is Congressman John Mica, but he just wastes everyone's time grandstanding.  Fred concludes: 

"Like I said at the start, the man is not stupid. He just wants us to think he is."

So, there's the problem statement.  What's the solution?  Fred says:

"It (Section 210 into the Passenger Rail Investment & Improvement Act in 2008 ) instructed Amtrak to examine each of its 15 long distance routes and come up with ways to shrink the deficits. Many good ideas came forth, but very few were adopted; like I said, it's very hard to accomplish anything at Amtrak today. If anything begs for an Inspector General's report, it is Amtrak's refusal to take Section 210 seriously."

(A typical Amtrak update report is here)

Railfans tend to fall into two categories when it comes to Amtrak.  Some think Amtrak should just be killed.  They are a proven failure and in the way of profitable freight trains and innovative market financed High Speed Rail.  The other group think Amtrak is highly functional organization whose only problem inconsistent and chronically short funding.

Both groups have a bit of truth in their reasoning, but are missing the whole picture.  Amtrak, is not a highly functional organization.  A good chunk of the blame goes to their political masters who routinely whip-saw them and cut them off at the knees with funding.  However, Amtrak has been a great "enabler" of this behavior and in my opinion, have lost sight of what they are really supposed to be doing.  They are largely dysfunctional and because they have a "good excuse" just perpetuate the status quo.  This has gone on so long they don't even realize it.  It's just "how things are".

The "let the market build high speed rail crowd" has a point.  As long as Amtrak owns the passenger rail franchise in the US we don't get solutions driven by market forces.  We get what ever Amtrak thinks up on their own plus whatever Congress dictates.  Exhibit A is Acela.  It's a success just about every way you'd care to measure it, yet the trainsets are too heavy, overpowered, overpriced, too wide to take full advantage of their tilt mechanism, and rely on Amtrak's clunky, home-grown, backward-focused,  ACSES signal system.  But, don't be fooled!  Removing Amtrak would not have allowed a better version of HSR to occur in the Northeast Corridor.  There would have been zilch.  Nearly every attempt at privatized, profitable rail service in the world engages in a clever game of "hide the subsidy".  The rail operator may turn a profit because the the government owner of the track leases it out at below full cost.

Passenger rail is a useful tool in providing overall mobility in the US.  But, like it or not, the path forward is straight through Amtrak.  If we want better trains, we need a better Amtrak.  As advocates, we need to demand accountability from Congress AND Amtrak. ...and we need to start right now.


  1. Some good comments and I'm surprised and saddened by your description of the politics within Amtrak - I was aware that they're hamstrung by a hostile and micromanaging congress but the problems with the organization are new to me.

    I will say this: The clunkiness of the Acela is more because of the FRA/NTSB and the absurd crashworthiness standards they've set, and to be fair to Amtrak they're finally fighting back against this nonsense. At the same time, the crashworthiness standards are in no small part due to the success of a freight railroad industry that just doesn't care about passenger travel and the safety precautions needed to make it work. Supposedly the FRA are giving a little and have signalled they want some kind of procedure allowing proven foreign lighter-weight designs to be allowed on US rails, but much as this is an improvement, I'm struggling to see how the US is supposed to advance if it has to choose between the latest designs - made out of cast iron, concrete, and the finest superglue (I kid, but only slightly) - or cheap, efficient, and 40 years old but proven British Rail Class 43s.

    I'd also hesitate in suggesting that Amtrak is a barrier to getting the private sector involved in "HSR" (however it's measured, to be honest though anything that's significantly faster than a car is better than Amtrak's 45mph long distance trains.) From what I can see, the FEC's All Aboard Florida is a direct response to the success of the Acela (and Eurostar I guess.) It's obvious that linking small numbers of large cities that already have high intercity air service usage figures, charging fares that compete with airlines rather than buses, is a cash cow, especially if most of the rail infrastructure you need is already there and already making money, and the Acela has made that clear. My guess is that AAF will actually lead to a flood of interest from the relatively conservative Class 1s if it's a success.

    Whatever the case, I don't think Amtrak is _the_ problem. It's a large corporation whose history and dependence on government has resulted in a significant amount of dysfunction, and if it totally messes up it makes the case for passenger rail look bad. But it's done its job, it's kept the system up and running for 40+ years, and it's proven that - with the right trains and infrastructure - passenger rail can pay for itself. Or at least it's made a strong enough case that private entities are starting to take notice.

    1. I won't argue that it's not Amtrak's fault that they are what they are, but there's nothing to stop them from trying to be something better - except the inertia of their own corporate culture. They have often liked playing the "victim" role when they'd have been better off trying to be the "hero".

      Acela is a good example. Yes, the existing rules and regs and legislation caused them to be what they are. But, Amtrak behaved as a powerless follower instead of standing up and making noise for a more common sense trainset. There are signs that they are trying harder to be leaders now, and it has lead toward the current push toward relaxing collision standards.

      As for AAF. I don't get it. FEC is most certainly not stupid, but they have stated that it will cost $1.5B in capital and the GROSS revenue will be $150M a year. I don't see how those numbers work. There must be something else driving it - or additional value somewhere to pay off the $1.5B and have anything left for shareholders.

    2. I believe the logic with AAF is two-fold:

      1. Yes, it's 1.5B in capital costs for the rail infrastructure, but there's also a substantial amount of money coming in from the real estate projects that wouldn't be possible without it. The train just needs to pay for its operational costs and contribute towards the Orlando extension. The Miami station will bring in huge amounts of additional income which isn't included in that $150M.

      2. The eventual aim is to build out new track to Tampa (expensive, and I suspect not high on the agenda), and also run trains to Jacksonville (relatively cheap, perhaps $200-300M in track upgrades, plus $100M in new rolling stock.) Of the two, the Jacksonville extension is particularly promising, with the FEC going through such tourist traps as St Augustine and the Kennedy Space Center. In any case, network effects should also help here, improving income exponentially. (The Tampa connection I don't get, but supposedly even Mica wanted the Federal HSR line built between Tampa and Orlando, having seen the figures, and local businesses including Disney actually lobbied Scott at the last minute promising to pay for any losses the line made. So while I don't get it, supposedly there's evidence it's economically sound.)

      I'm fairly hopeful about it. As you imply, they have to answer to their shareholders for this. They're experienced railroaders who have a reputation for making their business profitable by trying new things. So the chances are they have done their homework. But I guess we'll see...

    3. Paul - I hope you are right! It's a pretty exciting development.


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