Monday, February 18, 2008

Should the Hiawathas be run by a bistate authority?

Consider this: the Milwaukee-Chicago Amtrak service is one of the nation's most successful. There are 7 daily round-trips and an annual ridership of around half a million. The trip is almost always faster than driving and exceptionally reliable. And there's a ton of room to grow -- there really ought to be late night trips from both cities to allow car-less late nights. And imagine the traffic from ballgames! (If only the Bud Selig has put the new Milwaukee County Stadium for the Brewers downtown instead of surrounded by an asphalt ocean....that's a different story).

Here's how the Hiawathas work right now.

The States of Wisconsin and Illinois both contract with Amtrak to provide the service. Wisconsin covers 75% of the cost and Illinois covers 25%. Why 75%-25%? Seemed fair at the time and the deal has stuck. Amtrak essentially runs the service on a cost-plus basis, meaning they run the service and charge the states the difference between how much it costs and how much ticket revenue brings in. Therefore, Amtrak doesn't have any institutional interest in generating additional ridership or revenue, because any additional revenue just means that the States of Wisconsin and Illinois have a smaller bill to pay next fiscal year. The States thus do have an economic interest in generating more ridership, but since they don't directly operate the trains, it's a little awkward. Wisconsin does run a good marketing campaign (or rather, they fund the good people at Staples Marketing to run the Amtrak Hiawatha campaign for them) but there isn't anything like an annual report on the Hiawathas or a long-term plan for the service.

The State of Illinois has other Amtrak priorities (rightfully so): Chicago-Carbondale, Chicago-St. Louis and Chicago-Quincy. These lines run through most of the state, while most of the Hiawatha service runs in the State of Wisconsin. And the State of Wisconsin's Amtrak priority is figuring out how to get Madison linked into Amtrak and other Wisconsin infrastructure projects (like the fantastic remodeling of Milwaukee's station). It's easy to see how the Hiawathas get forgotten. It belongs to two states, and thus, neither one makes it a top priority.

There are other models for running intercity passenger rail service than two States paying for a proportionate share of an Amtrak contract.

One is in California. There, the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority is in charge of running intercity train service between Sacramento and San Francisco (really Oakland with a bus to San Francisco across the bay). There is a Managing Director (Gene Skoropowski) and a board of directors made up of two representatives from each of the counties along the line. They've got annual reports and business plans and they somehow figured out how to significantly increase service without increasing public funding in 2006. Because it is very clear who is in charge of the service, that institution is accountable and relentless focuses on improving the service and increasing ridership and revenue.

Sounds nice, doesn't it?

Another I learned about thanks to a commenter named Christopher on a post from a few weeks ago. The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority was created in 1995 by the Maine legislature to run Boston-to-Maine Amtrak service. It's called The Downeaster and that service is also a big success. Maine's Governor appoints the board members of the Authority, and they work with (but not as a part of) the Maine Department of Transportation. They have an Executive Director, monthly performance reports and a clear institution that is responsible for the service. It would probably be better if Massachusetts and New Hampshire had some skin in the game as well, since the service benefits those states too.

Now, we're fortunate in Illinois and Wisconsin to have some excellent professionals at our respective Department of Transportations. It's unlikely the General Assembly and Governor Blagojevich would have been in a position to double Amtrak service two years ago without the years of hard work by George Weber at IDOT to run a tight program with Amtrak. But at some point, there might be some Governor of Illinois or Wisconsin that might appoint political hacks to run one or both of the Departments, and it is certainly possible that the people 10 years from now in a position of influence in the Department won't be as good as the people we have now.

If we created an authority of some kind, however, then the professionals who would work for that authority to run that service would not ever be part of bigger political winds. The sole existence of a passenger rail authority is to run passenger rail. That's one benefit, to my eyes, of an authority.

Another is that since the Hiawathas tend to fall between the cracks of Wisconsin and Illinois, an authority can help to make the case for investment and build up the service to the hourly and under 60 minute service that a modern economy ought to have. (Imagine that for a moment -- every hour, on the hour, there's a chance to get from the Loop to the Third Ward in under 60 minutes. What else would strengthen the economic ties between Chicago and Milwaukee as much as that?) Right now, no one is really making that case. There are other priorities of both DOTs and there isn't any institution singularly devoted to making the Hiawathas a much better economic asset to our region.

What would a bistate authority look like? Well, maybe the Governors of each state appoint a few members, and the mayors of each city (Chicago, Glenview, Sturtevant and Milwaukee) also appoint a member. Maybe the counties do as well. And that authority then runs the service by contracting with Amtrak, starting with the same state appropriation from the States of Wisconsin and Illinois and they work from there. Maybe they would figure out that it would be cheaper to buy their own trainsets instead of using Amtrak equipment (as the Capitol Corridor has figured out), which would have the added bonus of relieving the equipment crunch that Amtrak is facing. Maybe they would get bonding authority and use a portion of expected ticket revenue to finance infrastructure improvements that generate increased revenue.

What do you think? If you'd rather not post a comment, please email me at to share your thoughts or ideas. But if you can, please do post a comment with your thoughts so others can learn from you as well.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Why isn't Amtrak part of the transportation reauthorization bill?

The federal transportation bill is up for reauthorization in 2009. This time the bill is likely to undergo major revision because the funding source for highways and transit -- the federal gasoline tax -- is not generating enough money to keep up with the escalating costs of maintaining highways and transit networks. Change is coming.

Intercity passenger rail, however, is not now part of the debate on the federal transportation bill.

That's an opportunity to strengthen both commuter rail and intercity rail, because investments in rail infrastructure often benefit both the commuter rail agency and Amtrak.

Take, for example, the stretch of track between Chicago's Union Station and Joliet Union Station. Metra's Heritage Corridor runs on this track (with stops in Summit, Willow Springs, Lemont and Lockport). Amtrak's Chicago-Bloomington-Normal-Springfield-St. Louis and points beyond (the Texas Eagle and Missouri service to Kansas City) also runs on that track.

And the track needs a lot of work.

We need a few bridges so that intersecting tracks can flow freely. We need tracks and signal systems that allow safe travel at 70 mph as soon as the train leaves the station. And we need safer intersections so that trains don't need to blow their horns all the time.

Investments in that track will benefit both Metra and Amtrak.

We need to build that political coalition around the track infrastructure investments that benefit more than one agency and thus more than one pool of riders and supporters.

That should be a priority for federal investment, because then we get at two-fer.

I think that, at a start, the National Association of Railroad Passengers and the American Public Transportation Association should identify all track investment projects that benefit both intercity and commuter rail. This list of projects should be compiled and presented to the electorate, ideally before the 2008 election, so the presidential and congressional candidates can decide whether funding those projects in total is a priority in 2009.

I'm sure there are other groups that should participate in developing the list of projects that benefit more than one rail service (I just happen to be a member of both of those organizations). The agencies themselves, including Amtrak, should develop the information and the state and federal legislators that are trying to build support for rail investment should be aware of this potential package of investments and help shape it.

Passenger rail -- both intercity and commuter -- will be stronger when we work and advocate together.

[cross-posted at Progressive Advocacy]

Monday, February 11, 2008

Senator Dick Durbin demands better on-time performance for Amtrak trains on Chicago-St. Louis route

It's nice to have the #2 man in the U.S. Senate really care about passenger rail.

On Friday, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin released the following letter to the Union Pacific railroad. The Union Pacific (UP, in railroad parlance) owns and operates the tracks between Joliet, Bloomington-Normal, Springfield and St. Louis. This route is probably the nation's best opportunity for high-speed rail in the next few years, since passenger demand is huge and growing with existing Amtrak service and there really isn't much freight traffic to block Amtrak trains.

There is only one track for most of the line, and the UP has let much of the infrastructure deteriorate below a state of good repair. The result is that trains are forced to slow down and often sit and wait in a siding for another one to pass by.

We need to find a way to generate some investment in that route, whether from corporate dollars from the UP's treasury, Amtrak funds or public dollars from the federal or state government. That investment will result in passenger trains that are faster and more reliable than driving (and with a bit of work, flying), which will make everyone better off by lessening the horrible traffic congestion and airport congestion that mucks up our economy, as well as by strengthening our regional economy with increased mobility.

Here's the letter and congratulations to Senator Durbin for his leadership. I look forward to the UP's response as the UP and the other freight railroads are our partners in finding a way to develop modern passenger rail in the United States.

February 8, 2008

James R. Young

Chairman, President, and CEO

Union Pacific Corporation

1400 Douglas Street

19th Floor

Omaha, Nebraska 68179

Dear Mr. Young:

Thank you for meeting with me this week to discuss passenger rail in Illinois. As we discussed, passenger rail operated by Amtrak has broken ridership and revenue records in Illinois. In our meeting we agreed that we must address an important issue standing in the way of the continued success of Amtrak in Illinois: on-time performance.

Sustaining robust ridership numbers depends heavily on Amtrak trains arriving on time and avoiding unnecessary delays. Late trains cost Amtrak millions of dollars in operating costs and untold riders, who turn away from frustration with late arrivals.

The Lincoln Service along the Union Pacific track from Chicago to St. Louis was late 53 percent of the time during fiscal year 2007. Amazingly, during that same time, ridership increased an impressive 56 percent. Clearly, there is strong demand for passenger train service in Illinois. Even strong demand, though, will not withstand perpetual delays. Lackluster on-time performance leads to lackluster passenger demand. That is an experience we cannot afford.

To eliminate these delays, Union Pacific must make the necessary capital investments and management decisions that will serve both the railroad and Amtrak service.

First, UP must improve track conditions along the Lincoln Service route. Rusty track and sidings along this corridor interfere with electric currents that detect the presence of trains and activate road crossings lights and gates.

The poor track conditions create significant delays on this route. Without being able to detect other trains, trains operating in sidings must come to a complete stop at some crossings. When this happens, a conductor must disembark and literally flag the train across a crossing with a red flag.

Flagging is an antiquated response to a problem that could easily be solved with investments, such as Incremental Train Control System technology. Fixing the track and updating the railroad’s technologies would increase on-time performance significantly.

Second, the signal system along the UP track is well beyond its useful life. In many places between Joliet and Manzonia, wiring hangs from poles and touches the ground. This situation has left the railroad vulnerable to theft of copper wiring and adds to delays for Amtrak trains. Bringing this signaling system into a state of good repair is essential to improving Amtrak’s on-time performance.

Third, UP must improve its planning, training and oversight to create clear routes for passenger trains between St. Louis and Chicago. Amtrak’s operating agreement with UP does not permit slow order delays along the route. However, poor dispatching procedures and subsequent slow orders have caused meetings of freight and passenger trains, causing regular delays along the route.

Finally, it is time to determine UP’s role in the future of Amtrak service along the Chicago-St. Louis route. This portion of track is unique in the national system because it does not have heavy amounts of freight traffic like most other Amtrak routes. This situation makes the line ripe for a high speed rail demonstration project that would move passengers to and from Chicago and St. Louis at speeds significantly faster than car travel. Eliminating the delays along this route takes us closer to the day we can make that possibility a reality.

Passenger rail is on the brink of a renaissance that could take cars off the road, relieve congested highways, minimize emissions that are harmful to air quality, and lessen our dependence on foreign oil. Ushering passenger rail into that renaissance requires a serious commitment from the freight railroads that own and maintain the track where Amtrak trains operate.

I look forward to hearing from you about UP’s actions to increase the on-time performance of Amtrak trains in Illinois. Thank you again for meeting with me this week. I stand ready to assist you in ensuring that rail passengers in Illinois are given the most reliable, viable and quickest train service possible.


Richard J. Durbin

U.S. Senator

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Monday, February 04, 2008

Heavy fog doesn't stop train service.

Midway Airport has shut down as a heavy fog has settled on Chicago. O'Hare flights are cut back as well, though not entirely.

Meanwhile, trains keep rolling.

It would be smart to have a redundant intercity travel network - like better Amtrak - to move people when the air network shuts down because of weather.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Excellent article on the riders of the Capitol Corridor

Sam Whiting of the San Francisco Chronicle filed an excellent account of the riders of California's Capitol Corridor. He gets on the train in Oakland and takes it to Sacramento, interviewing the regular riders and explaining the market that this successful intercity commuter railroad services.

By the way, we think the Chicago-Milwaukee service should emulate the Oakland-Sacramento service profiled in the article. There are 16 round trips a day in California. Only 7 in Illinois and Wisconsin. That's the direction we need to go and the way to do that is to invest more taxpayer dollars in rail instead of just in highways.

The City of Milwaukee is a leader on this issue, taking a formal position against expanding I-94 and for an intermodal approach. It's just shy of 2 billion to build more lanes on I-94 on the Wisconsin side and much cheaper than that to buy the 16 daily round-trips on Amtrak (not to mention building a Metra extension from Kenosha through Racine to Milwaukee).