Fred Frailey Blog

A Republican governor who gets it

  • Comments 47

A happy group of people rode what I dub The Celebration Train to Norfolk this week, the day before start of daily Amtrak service between points on the Northeast Corridor and Norfolk, Va. Nobody was happier than I. You see, Virginians love passenger trains and prove it every day. And we have a conservative Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, who understands this and is supportive.

Six short-distance trains, all of them extensions of NEC trains to or from Boston or New York, now ply CSX and Norfolk Southern tracks in Virginia. Two go to Newport News, across Hampton Roads from Norfolk and Virginia Beach, two go to Richmond, the state capital, and one each run to Lynchburg in southern Virginia and to Norfolk.

I said earlier that Virginians prove they love trains. Here is what I mean: One of the Richmond trains, plus the ones to Norfolk and Lynchburg, are state-supported, meaning that Virginia pays Amtrak for the losses the trains create. But get this: So far, Virginia has not paid Amtrak a dime. Through the first 11 months of fiscal 2012, which ended this September 30, the Lynchburg train averaged 261 passengers each way per day, producing revenue of $11 million that after fully allocated costs left a profit of $3.6 million. This more than covered the small loss of the state-supported run to Richmond.

Come next October 1, Congress requires that states pay the fully allocated losses of all short-distance trains, plus a capital cost. That shouldn’t represent much of a problem for Virginia. Kevin Page of Department of Rail & Public Transportation told me the state has millions of appropriated funds in the bank that so far haven’t been needed for losses that never materialized.

Infrastructure investments Virginia made to NS tracks between Petersburg, Va., and Norfolk “bought” slots from that railroad for two more round trips to Norfolk. CSX has hinted that the price it will demand for its portion of future Norfolk runs, between Richmond and Petersburg, will be a new double-track bridge over the Appomattox River in Petersburg. Given the number of Amtrak trains already crossing the present single-track bridge (12 a day), CSX probably has a good case to make.

Bob McDonnell could have taken a leaf from fellow Republican governors of Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin, who spurned commitments to passenger trains (and brought very little glory upon themselves, I might add). But he did not. Instead, he boarded The Celebration Train near Suffolk and joined the party. Like I said at the start, we were a happy bunch. — Fred W. Frailey

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  • I seem to see a pattern of Republican governors not really seeking to eliminate existing passenger rail services, rather stopping any new initiatives. Increasing capacity for CSX at Petersburg is something that has to be done anyway. The real test of this commitment will be rebuilding along the old SAL between Petersburg and Raleigh. Although off topic, I wonder what input, if any, CSX would have on this initiative?

  • The man in the picture under the sign appears to be Greg Comstock, the General Manager of NS's Eastern Region, former GM of Conrail's Harrisburg Division.

  • Fred,

    I wonder how much of this attitude on the part of republican governers is due to compaign donations from the state Road Builders Associations? Is it possible that they "beleive" the way they do because it is profitable for them to do so?

  • Overall:  Your question was asked of Fred, and I look forward to seeing his response.  Permit me to offer a thought or two on the subject.  There is a difference between a conservative and an ideologue.  In the case of high speed passenger rail projects, the governors who rejected or returned federal funds tend to be ideologues.  Gov. McConnell of Virginia is a plain, old-fashioned conservative.  Campaign contributions from road builders or any other lobby are just that.  They are contributions intended to help the recipient remain in office and perhaps even bring a few like thinkers into the legislature.  You never will find a nexus between a political contribution and a governmental decision.  These guys are smarter than that.

    I have noticed lately in the railroad media that high speed rail projects are popping up all over the world, including some countries that probably cannot afford to keep the lights on -- but they all seem to be able to pour big money into infrastructure for greatly upgraded rail facilities.  I suspect the U.S. will end up playing catch up after others demonstrate that they can operate such systems successfully.  The best that can be said about ideology is that it allows the ideologue to not think at all.

  • Overall, I cannot speak for what goes through the minds of other people I do not know. I just judge them by their words and actions that I can observe. I would also agree with the esteemed Rail Pundit. Best,

    Fred F

  • @AMacIntosh: not completely off topic, as a significant portion of any potential SAL rebuild would occur in Virginia, and would provide some benefit to Virginians (although in a less straightforward way than fully intra-Virginia service). There's also a CSX benefit to this investment that's not quite straightforward to quantify (other than removing 2 Carolinian slots from the A line).

    @overall: I think part of it is that train riders are perceived as urbanites who tend to vote Democratic (and there's some truth to the perception although it's an oversimplication in my opinion). And while I also agree with Pundit's distinction between true conservatives and ideologues, I also think both tend to view "free market business development" in the more traditional sense of sprawl-based highway-dependent new development on undeveloped land at the metropolitan fringes than alternative models for exisiting-corridor-based or urban infill style development that tends to be more viably served by transit and passenger rail.

  • Thanks Fred and Rail Pundit for your candor. I appreciate it. I'm like both of you in that I can't read minds either.I probably should not make judgemants like that I do beleive that decisions about all transportation construction should be made by licensed professional civil engineers whose goal is to look at each situation individually and make a choice of a transportation option based on what will do the most good for the most people. There are situations where rail of any sort would not make sense. I understand that. I don't know if you followed the HSR story in Florida. Even though I don't live there I did. I won't bore you with all the details, but from what I read and heard as an outsider, the entire thing left me feeling like the decision to stop it was made based on relationships rather than reason.Maybe that wasn't really the case.

    Thanks,

    George.

  • There have been other Rep governors that "get it".  The one that comes to mind is Tom Kean of NJ.  The big modernization and expansion of NJT rail was pretty much his baby.

  • Here in Upstate NY there is bi-partisan support for passenger rail, on Tuesday night I talk with a fellow from the local county chamber of commerce who was a moderate Republican, but a big supporter of intercity rail and the NYS Barge Canal.

    He saw government involvement and subsidy as necessary for transport. He came to a public meeting in Mechanicville, NY to support local Amtrak service to Saratoga County, including the possible new service to Mechanicville, Bennington, and Manchester, Vermont.

    As a passenger rail advocate, you have to be able to sell trains to people of all political stripes, I find talking through transport issues with people will often bring about agreement, and support for rail. Business folks up here see airline service being cut back (no flights Albany-JFK) and know rail is the best alternative.

    Michigan is another great example of a GOP lead state government supporting intercity rail, look how much work has gotten done there.

    Here in NYS the former GOP State Senate Leader Joe Bruno was a big rail supporter, he help get the new Albany-Rensselaer station built and sponsored a very good rail study last decade.

    Of course Gov. George Pataki was a big supporter of HSR, and look where that got us in NYS. The state finally this morning sold for scrap the Turboliners in Scotia, NY, at the former Super Steel Plant. The spare parts went on Tuesday.

  • Just for the record, and as a Floridian, the same "Republican Governor" that axed the HSR tomfoolery also gave the green light to SunRail; the new commuter service currently being built for the Orlando area. The reasonings for building SunRail are just a solid as the rationale for mercifully cancelling the national HSR beta-test. To most on the outside this may seem duplicitous but to those of us who live here, and openly acknowledge our responsibility toward whatever is built, the decisions were sound.

  • D.Carleton,

    Why? Please explain your views on SunRail vs. Tampa-Orlando HSR. I think the big flaw in the HSR was it did not going to the coast to hook up with the FEC. The lesson of TGV, is incremental HSR, a new 100 mile HS line can upgrade service over hundreds of miles of existing upgraded tracks that feed passenger trains into the new HS Line.

    Wouldn't have cancaling the HS plan, but then exteending SunRail to Tampa have made a great deal of sense?

    Thanks for your imput!

  • HSR + FEC? Not sure how one would make that mental link. As for extending SunRail and other "what ifs," remember that SunRail is NOT running yet. After phase one is done comes phase two. After that we can talk about extensions and upgrades.

    As for what really happened here, and with the Professor's continued indulgance: www.unitedrail.org/.../this-week-at-amtrak-2011-09-13

  • D.Carleton,

    What I’m talking about is the strategy behind the first TGV Lines…

    From “On the Right Lines: The Limits of Technology Innovation” by Stephen Potter (1987),a very good book on high-speed rail (in fact the best book I have read on the topic), its focus is on British Rail (HST and APT), but it also has good chapters on both the Shinkansen and TGV.

    From Chapter 5, page 85…

    "The key to this revenue-generating potential was that the new line (Paris-Lyon LGV), although only 415 km (285 miles) long, would act as a fast trunk route for trains operating on 1,625 Km (1,010 miles) of other lines linking with it. This meant that a limited investment in this new line would substantially upgrade a large part of France’s rail network."

    If you look at the at a map of the original TGV service, it’s like a upside down tree, you have a thick trunk from Paris to Lyon, and then it branches out to a dozen cities from Switzerland to the Mediterranean. On the new line the trains ran well over 150-mph, but on the upgrade older rail lines beyond the new high speed tracks, the TGV traveled at slower speeds of 75-125 mph.

    When the Tampa-Orlando HSR Project was touted I thought it was a awfully short line, that alone it didn’t make much sense, much better to just build a commuter line like SunRail.

    But looking at the map of Florida and using Google aerial images and street-view, I saw that it didn’t look that difficult to continue the new line from the Orlando Int. Airport to the Atlantic Coast, near Cocoa where it could merge with the existing FEC Miami-Jacksonville mainline.

    Now knowing that Florida was also studying a new passenger service using the FEC, why not I thought combine the two projects and get Tampa-Orlando-Miami service sooner, rather than later?

    After all, building a new high speed line from Orlando to Miami would take a very long time, and cost a lot. Even if that new inland high-speed link was built, linking with the FEC would still be good, since this intercity service would still be serve big communities bypassed by that inland line.

    Upgrading the FEC to speeds of 90-110 mph with averages of 65-75 mph would when combine with high-speed running Cocoa to Orlando and Tampa give good travel times that would be competitive with driving. You don’t need high speed all the way, just a good overall speed.

    Now I see the FEC with its “All Aboard Florida” venture doing just that, including a new line to Orlando’s airport, where the Tampa HSR project was to terminate. If the Tampa-Orlando project had been built, we could have had a Tampa-Miami Intercity Rail Service sooner, rather than later.

    You couldn’t use the very light FRA-banned overseas high-speed trains, but a 125/150-mph train like Bombardier’s JetTrain would work just as well.

    I feel that the two projects (Tampa-Orlando HSR + FEC Intercity Service) should have been combined and done together.

  • Overall (George):

    As I recall Governor Rick Scott of Florida was fearful that the state would be saddled with maintaining and running a rail line that would lose jillions of dollars - an unending liability. The federal government was going to pay for virtually all of the construction costs of the line, between Orlando and Tampa. Even John Mica, at times an Amtrak basher, begged him to accept the grant. I think in Scott's case it was fear of the unending liability of financing losses that held him, more than ideology. At least I'll give him the benefit of that doubt.

    I've noticed that in Virginia, the state doesn't do a passenger rail project until it has secured a source of funding to underwrite any operating loss. As I understand it, this is why Roanoke must want 3-4 years to have the Lynchburg route extended 50 miles to reach it. The Department of Rail and Passenger Transportation would seek the funding from the 2014 legislature and by the time you jump through all the hoops it is 2016 or 2017. Better that than do nothing.

    Fred

  • Many an American points to the European model for fast trains but they do not look far enough back. The first TGV built in France was overlain a rebuilt, postwar, vibrant passenger rail network. Nothing like that exists in the United States especially in Florida... for now. Recently Professor Frailey described what's going on at FEC as a "miracle." The true miracle is anyone other than a government entity talking about passenger trains. FECI had zero interest in passenger trains until after the latest HSR go-round had come to an end when they looked at the numbers, independently verified them and hashed out a possible plan. If it is built, and that is still a big IF, that could be the building block for something bigger. But until these "ifs" become reality then it is all conjecture... which is fun.

A Republican governor who gets it