Sunday, April 22, 2007

New bloggers for rail advocacy wanted -- will you sign up?

Want to help spread the word and contribute to the discussion about improving Amtrak in the Midwest as we work towards high speed rail?

Can you focus on the activities and efforts in your state?

Then sign up as a blogger!

Email me at if you're willing to blog about rail in the Midwest.

Pricing Amtrak for host railroads - a market-based approach

The Illinois Rail Industry Committee had a hearing Friday morning. Chairman Elaine Nekritz convened three panels, including the Chairman of the Amtrak Board of Directors, David Laney. The last one was the shortest, unfortunately, but could have been the most interesting, as representatives of the Union Pacific and Canadian National were there to testify and discuss on-time performance on the expansion of Amtrak service. (BNSF has a schedule conflict).

Amtrak -- or intercity passenger rail in the United States outside of the Northeast Corridor -- has a tricky policy problem: privately financed and operated infrastructure for publicly-financed passenger service. No other mode of travel is like that. Air travel is the opposite: privately-financed service providers (if you ignore the post-9-11 bailout) with publicly-financed infrastructure (airports and air traffic control are financed largely by taxpayers). Cars and buses are privately-financed service providers (the car that you own, or Greyhound) using publicly-financed infrastructure (the roads and highways are financed by taxpayers).

The status quo policy for Amtrak service is for the government to require the host railroads essentially subsidize Amtrak's operations by not charging them much at all to use their tracks. Amtrak charges the "incremental cost" of using the tracks, which is another way of saying they don't charge much at all. It gets complicated, because Amtrak's appropriation helps to subsidize the freight railroads' pension obligations. However, Amtrak pays the freights much less than UPS or a coal train does for a time slot on their tracks. So, naturally, the freights are not that excited about Amtrak as a customer. They would rather have customers who pay them more.

So in the big scheme of things, when one of the host railroads is trying to figure out how to keep their trains moving, if it comes down to an Amtrak train that is paying next to nothing or a coal train that is paying top dollar, most freight railroads are going to keep the coal train moving before the Amtrak train. There's a federal regulation that requires the railroads to grant a "preference" over their other customers, but a top-down regulation that isn't ever enforced isn't likely to change the fundamental dynamics at play. Publicly traded corporations are in business to make money, and they are likely to ignore the "preference" as long as they can to serve their customers who pay them well. If they don't, their shareholders (like Warren Buffet, it turns out), get unhappy.

Amtrak needs to have faster, more reliable, more frequent service for the nation to confront our addiction to oil and address climate change. The best way to do that, it seems to me, is to line up the incentives of the host railroads with the incentives of Amtrak to build ridership and try to break our addiction to oil a little bit. Now the incentives are at cross-purposes. If we try to double frequency on Amtrak, the freight railroads will lost a valuable slot and thus lose money. If we try to get Amtrak service to speed up to shave an hour off each trip of 500 miles or so (easily doable with current equipment, by the way), the freights will have more more work and more hassle without any real incentive.

The freight railroads should be making money off of moving Amtrak trains -- as much money as they do with moving coal trains or trains full of merchandise. The faster they can move those Amtrak trains through their network, and the more reliable their on-time performance, the more money they should make.

Claire McCaskill of Missouri signs on to support Amtrak by co-sponsoring S 294

Good news from the Midwest -- Missouri is represented on the list of co-sponsors of S. 294. Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri signed up last week.

We are still, however, under-represented among the 35 co-sponsors, so continue to call your Senators and ask them to sign up.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Amtrak has a 5% market share of the total air traffic

I thought this was a neat little nugget from Amtrak's national fact sheet here.

If included among U.S. airlines, Amtrak would rank 8th (2005) in the number of passengers served, with a market share of nearly 5%. On average, there are nearly twice as many passengers on an Amtrak train than there are on a domestic airline flight.


That core efficiency of carrying more passengers than an airplane is a key asset that passenger rail enjoys.

Plus, unlike a flight where you have to start in one place and end in the other, with a train, you can serve all the people between the two end points and let them get on and off. It's simple, but a powerful enhancement to the network.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Barack Obama co-sponsors the pro-Amtrak bill! There are 33 Senators on the bill now

Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) signed on to Lautenberg-Lott Amtrak bill yesterday!

To thank him, contact his office with a quick note here:

That brings the total of U.S. Senators signed on as co-sponsors to 33.

Here's the list of co-sponsors and the day they signed on:

Sen Baucus, Max [MT] - 4/10/2007
Sen Biden, Joseph R., Jr. [DE] - 1/16/2007
Sen Boxer, Barbara [CA] - 1/16/2007
Sen Brown, Sherrod [OH] - 2/15/2007
Sen Burr, Richard [NC] - 1/16/2007
Sen Cardin, Benjamin L. [MD] - 1/16/2007
Sen Carper, Thomas R. [DE] - 1/16/2007
Sen Casey, Robert P., Jr. [PA] - 1/22/2007
Sen Clinton, Hillary Rodham [NY] - 1/16/2007
Sen Cochran, Thad [MS] - 3/14/2007
Sen Collins, Susan M. [ME] - 1/26/2007
Sen Conrad, Kent [ND] - 3/5/2007
Sen Dodd, Christopher J. [CT] - 3/28/2007
Sen Dorgan, Byron L. [ND] - 1/16/2007
Sen Durbin, Richard [IL] - 1/16/2007
Sen Hutchison, Kay Bailey [TX] - 1/16/2007
Sen Inouye, Daniel K. [HI] - 1/16/2007
Sen Kennedy, Edward M. [MA] - 1/16/2007
Sen Kerry, John F. [MA] - 1/16/2007
Sen Levin, Carl [MI] - 2/6/2007
Sen Lieberman, Joseph I. [CT] - 1/26/2007
Sen Lott, Trent [MS] - 1/16/2007
Sen Menendez, Robert [NJ] - 1/16/2007
Sen Mikulski, Barbara A. [MD] - 2/28/2007
Sen Obama, Barack [IL] - 4/10/2007
Sen Pryor, Mark L. [AR] - 1/16/2007
Sen Rockefeller, John D., IV [WV] - 4/10/2007
Sen Schumer, Charles E. [NY] - 1/16/2007
Sen Smith, Gordon H. [OR] - 2/28/2007
Sen Snowe, Olympia J. [ME] - 1/16/2007
Sen Specter, Arlen [PA] - 1/16/2007
Sen Stevens, Ted [AK] - 1/16/2007
Sen Tester, Jon [MT] - 2/28/2007

That means the following states have both Senators supporting the bill:

Connecticut (Dodd, Lieberman)
Delaware (Biden, Carper)
Illinois (Obama, Durbin)
Massachusetts (Kerry, Kennedy)
Maine (Collins, Snowe)
Maryland (Cardin, Mikulski)
Mississippi (Cochran, Lott)
Montana (Tester, Baucus)
New York (Clinton, Schumer)
North Dakota (Conrad, Dorgan)
Pennsylvania (Specter, Casey)

And the Midwestern states need to catch up.

Let's get more co-sponsors and invest in rail infrastructure!

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Steve Hallock calls for Amtrak "priority" not "preference" on freight tracks

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Southern Illinois University professor Steve Hallock points out that the host railroads have been doing a worse job moving Amtrak trains on-time over their tracks.

As he writes:
The private freight companies that own most of the tracks used by Amtrak outside the Boston-New York-Washington corridor fail to yield the rails to passenger trains — despite a federal regulation that Amtrak is supposed to have “preference over freight transportation” in using tracks. According to an Amtrak spokesman, the only way for this to change is for the Justice Department, acting on behalf of Amtrak or under its own initiative, to file a lawsuit.

Such a suit is unlikely for a couple of reasons. First, there’s the Bush administration’s hostility toward Amtrak, as demonstrated in its continued substandard budget proposals and its call for privatization of the train service. And then there’s the wording of the regulation, which uses “preference” rather than “top priority” or “maximum priority.” This language is vague enough to stymie any successful litigation.

We should improve the FRA regulation and require the host railroads to invest Amtrak trains -- which are the only trains in the network with a timetable to keep, as freight trains are not on any schedule besides asap -- with a "maximum priority" over all other traffic.

The Lautenberg-Lott bill (get those co-sponsors, readers) also invests the Surface Transportation Board and not the Department of Justice with the ability to enforce the regulation.

And we should take this a step further. Those host railroads that do a good job moving Amtrak trains on time should be financially rewarded. They ought to make more money moving an Amtrak train through their network than they do moving a coal or UPS train. And if a host railroad does a bad job moving Amtrak trains, they ought to be fined a significant amount of money.

Unenforced regulations clearly are not working. It's time for new policy solutions to the problem of getting the host railroads to move Amtrak trains on time. Market incentives have to be part of the solution.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

350 mph. On a train. In France.

Can you imagine? Yesterday a train in France flew at 350 miles per hour.

Here's a story on the record-breaking run.

There's a huge market for high-speed trains, particularly since China is smart enough to invest in high-speed rail instead of just airports and highways (as a huge hedge against rising oil prices). California officials were in France along with Chinese officials to check out the product.

Can you imagine shooting in a 300 mph train in the United States? Maybe between Chicago and New York City -- take that 800 mile trip in, what? Three hours by train? From the Loop to Manhattan in three hours. Make it four with intermediate stops. Even five. It's a five hour trip from the Loop to Manhattan right now. And given how much oil airplanes burn, and how much coal and nuclear power we have in the United States, it makes a lot of sense to start using home-grown energy to power intercity travel instead of foreign oil.

The barrier to high-speed rail isn't economic or technical. It's political. We haven't figured out how to price or fund travel correctly yet. We don't include the cost of oil to the nation in the price of oil to users. When we figure that out, much more investment in passenger rail will follow.