Introducing Amstak

Posted 11 days ago by Fred Frailey
We need a new business model for the passenger train, and I’m here to provide it. Let’s start with an interesting fact: There are at least 23,000 origin-destination pairs for intermodal trains in North America. Therein lies our opportunity. Over too much red wine during dinner on the Canadian last night, my tablemates and I began speculating. Our train’s schedule has been lengthened by a day, during this decade, and still we run late. (How late? Leaving Winnipeg this afternoon...

My new life in Young, Sask.

Posted 12 days ago by Fred Frailey
Last updated 945 a.m. Monday February 3, 2019 I’m coming to you from Young, Sask., population 240 since I became its newest resident an hour ago. I emigrated to Young from the United States aboard VIA Rail #2, the Canadian. I don’t know how long my tent will be pitched here but I know it’s damn cold, roughly minus 15 Fahrenheit. I do not much like Young, Sask., but I hope to soon qualify for permanent residency due to the length of stay. This trip, which began in Vancouver mo...

For the Metroliner, 50 candles

Posted one month ago by Fred Frailey
Half a century ago today, high speed rail as we know it in this country was born. The Metroliner made its first round trip between New York and Washington over Penn Central. The Metroliner was father of the Acela and grandfather of whatever Amtrak will call its successor when it enters service in 2021. A first-class seat in the club car cost $19.90. The occasion—at first, a single round trip, to be increased as more cars came from Budd Manufacturing—made page 93 of the next day&rsquo...

Programmed for failure

Posted one month ago by Fred Frailey
The mining giant Rio Tinto, after almost $1 billion and ten years, has automated its 1,050-mile railroad across Western Australia. Trains of 28,000 tons run from a dozen mines to four seaports with nobody aboard. Think: Robot Railroad. I mention this because we like to think America has the best freight railroads. What we have is a railroad network that is probably more prone to breaking down than any in the industrialized world. The problem is that we have way too many failures—pull-apart...

The mystery of Silverdale

Posted 2 months ago by Fred Frailey
I am always amazed at how rapidly nature reclaims an abandoned railroad. In no time at all—mere years, not decades—the hump of a right of way and all its other architecture (except perhaps intact bridges) just vanishes. I was reminded of this a few years ago when I veered west from U.S. Highway 69 on the former Katy (now Union Pacific) at Atoka, Okla., confidently expecting to find traces of the Oklahoma, Ada & Atoka, part of the Midland Valley (Muskogee Lines) network of regiona...

Meet the Grinch

Posted 2 months ago by Fred Frailey
             The reviews have been. . . well, not complimentary. Says Pete Hansen in Railroad History: “A cynic, wrote Oscar Wilde, knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing. He might have been describing the author of this book.” Kevin Keefe’s Classic Trains blog is more charitable: “I’m not a transportation economist, so I’m not qualified to go hammer and tongs after O’Toole’...

Wanna buy your own dining car?

Posted 2 months ago by Fred Frailey
Okay, folks, this is our chance. Amtrak has put its boneyard up for sale—scores of dining cars, baggage cars, Santa Fe high-level cars and other odds and ends it no longer needs. You’ll find the shopping list here -- look for Sales of Equipment - Railcars. Imagine the surprise on the Little Lady’s face on Christmas morning when trucks and cranes pull up with that new kitchen and dining room you promised her. You can look down upon your neighbors from your very own high-level c...

Who will fetch Lance's coffee?

Posted 3 months ago by Fred Frailey
Edited November 14, 2018 Union Pacific is hacking away at its management payroll . . . again. Just a few weeks ago it let go many of the 475 exempt employees (out of some 3,500) who were deemed unneeded and also terminated 200 contract workers. Now more of that targeted group is being hustled out of offices. It’s like torture by dripping water—it never seems to stop. One source calls it a “devastation of Union Pacific management.” Don’t say Chief Executive Lance F...

The future of Amtrak food

Posted 3 months ago by Fred Frailey
I’ve been telling everyone who would listen that boxed dinners and breakfasts on the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited are way stations on the road to the solution to Amtrak’s food and beverage problem. The problem is that Amtrak has been losing $90 million a year on F&B—all on its long-distance trains—and is under Congressional order to cease these losses by the end of 2020. It’s clear to me what the future does not hold: Meals cooked in the diner’s...

Hunter's triumph from the grave

Posted 3 months ago by Fred Frailey
Hunter’s triumph from the grave   Every big railroad is either following his game plan or under pressure to do so. Will that really change railroading?   In the year since Hunter Harrison’s death, Precision Scheduled Railroading, or PSR, has progressed from crackpot railroading (in the eyes of some railroaders and shippers) to the gold standard. And it happened so fast we are still trying to wrap our arms around what it means for the future of this industry. The fact...

Kansas City Southern in 1978

Posted 4 months ago by Fred Frailey
Sunday, October 15, 1978, was a big day for me. I flew from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City and began work on what was the biggest story of my 34-year-old life. It was my chance to crack open the pages of Trains magazine for the first time, and my subject was Kansas City Southern. The railroad had never been rich but fell upon bad times in the early 1970s. Earnings that should have been reinvested in the track went instead to diversify into other businesses (quite successfully, it turned out). ...

Mr. Armstrong's fine train

Posted 4 months ago by Fred Frailey
I’m just back from railing from Banff, Alta., to Vancouver, B.C., aboard the Rocky Mountaineer. . . my first such trip in 23 years. Then, it was eight or nine Silver Leaf coaches and a single Gold Leaf bilevel first-class car. This time, it was two coaches and five packed Gold Leaf cars. From the rail trip alone, I figure that Armstrong Group grossed a minimum of $600,000. Usually (but not this time) there’s a section of roughly equal length out of Jasper, Alta., that joins the Banff...

Why does the dog bark?

Posted 4 months ago by Fred Frailey
As our Rocky Mountaineer passed a house along Lake Shuswap (a beautiful part of the British Columbia interior), a woman of late middle age could be seen waving enthusiastically at our train. Our car attendant Amanda explained that she greets every Rocky Mountaineer in this manner. This became so evident to the crew that eventually they learned her name, which is Doris. Ultimately Doris became a passenger of the train, deepening her attachment to the Rocky Mountaineer. During her trip, Doris exp...

Union Pacific’s PSR moment

Posted 4 months ago by Fred Frailey
Union Pacific is the ideal lab rat for Precision Scheduled Railroading, practiced by the late Hunter Harrison on four Class I railroads, with great rewards for shareholders and mixed results for customers. UP, which will begin recasting itself October 1, is ideal for the role because it has too many employees, too many unproductive route miles, and too many expensive toys. Plus, it is less interested in increasing market share than in maximizing freight rates, which makes right-sizing the railro...

The Empire Builder dilemma

Posted 5 months ago by Fred Frailey
We all know about “taking the Fifth.” It’s our right under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution not to be compelled to testify against ourselves. In other words, a court cannot force us to admit to driving 60 mph in a 45-mph zone (or something worse). That amendment has another, less-well-known clause, which says government cannot take away our property without just compensation. Lawyers know this as the “Takings Clause.” The Fifth came to mind the other day...

Tell me a story

Posted 6 months ago by Fred Frailey
Time for a change. Put aside Amtrak, Richard Anderson, Hunter Harrison and operating ratios. Let’s consider railroad literature. I enjoy good writing and good storytelling, one reason being that there is so little of it. All the better if the narrative is accompanied by arresting photography. But first, tell me a story. As years go on, I find myself returning to the same books again and again. If you can find Archie Robertson’s 1945 groundbreaker Slow Train to Yesterday for less than...

The perfect day, until . . .

Posted 6 months ago by Fred Frailey
Saturday was one of those days you want to treasure. It was the second time Cathie and I had experienced the Cheyenne Frontier Days train sponsored by Union Pacific and the Denver Post. Thanks to a friend who buys tickets every year, we had seats in the dome car Columbine from Denver to Wyoming’s capital. From a year earlier, I knew that the place to be was in the baggage car three cars forward, where a bluegrass band played country and Texas swing, and you could lean out the open doors, e...

The next Southwest Chief

Posted 6 months ago by Fred Frailey
Amtrak is struggling to find a fix for the dilemma facing the Chicago-to-Los Angeles Southwest Chief. From Trinidad, Colo., to west of Lamy, N.M., 200-plus miles, it is by law solely responsible for maintenance of a 79-mph railroad, because BNSF Railway several years ago ended all freight service over this route it continues to own. The costs are significant: $3 million a year in normalized maintenance and $50 million in due course in capital needs, including positive train control over portions...

Commuters in the crosshairs

Posted 9 months ago by Fred Frailey
A handful of commuter-train railroads, chief among them New jersey Transit, may face a painful choice come January 1: Either cancel some or all trains or face crippling fines for operating in defiance of a law requiring their trains be protected by positive train control, or PTC. This could occur should they fail to qualify for a two-year extension to meet the PTC deadline. Jersey Transit’s predicament is dire. To qualify for an extension of the December 31 deadline for having PTC fully o...

My big, bad new Amtrak

Posted 9 months ago by Fred Frailey
Richard Anderson wants Amtrak’s national network to better serve markets (i.e., not reach big cities in the dead of night) and to recover more of the costs. As a group, the long-distance trains, by Amtrak's accounting, racked up operating losses of $500 million in the fiscal year ending last September. You can almost bet he’s looking at ways to reshuffle the deck. I’ve been doing just that myself, and challenge you to do so, as well. The challenge is this: How would you rearra...

Living the life

Posted 9 months ago by Fred Frailey
I’m fascinated by on online piece this week in the New York Times about a gentleman named Mario Salcedo, a onetime business executive who burned out after 21 years of roaming the world. For the past two decades he’s made his permanent home aboard cruise ships. A resident of Royal Caribbean Cruises boats, he has lived 7,330 nights at sea. . . so far. The crew of Enchantment of the Seas calls him Super Mario. Writes Lance Oppenheim, who with his film crew spent five days with Salcedo,...

Meals on wheels. Oh my!

Posted 9 months ago by Fred Frailey
Nothing should surprise us anymore. Yet you’d have thought that Little Green Men had landed at the Richard J. Daley Center and planted their Martian flag on the Chicago Picasso. No more dining cars! Soon, no more long-distance trains! The world is ending! It calls to mind a magazine writer, Thomas Frank, who has a habit of starting his long articles by saying, “If such-and-such is true, then. . .” and launching into his thesis. I usually say to myself, “No, Tom, such-and-...

Mr. Anderson’s awkward start

Posted 10 months ago by Fred Frailey
Richard H. Anderson has been sole CEO of Amtrak for three months. He’s a skilled airline guy who heads a public utility that has been largely rudderless since Graham Claytor retired a quarter century ago. He must be feeling as if he stepped into a time warp. Anderson goes to see his fellow CEOs at two Class I host railroads. They are dismissive. One tells him bluntly that Amtrak has a “broken business model.” The other simply calls Anderson’s company a “nuisance.&rd...

Room H

Posted 10 months ago by Fred Frailey
You’ll find me tonight on the southbound Silver Meteor, bound from Philly to Jax. It’s been a busy day. I started in Toronto, flew to Dulles Airport outside Washington, Ubered to Union Station, Acelaed to Baltimore for lunch with a friend, Acelaed again to Philadelphia and changed directions to go south on the Meteor. What a super room I have. I’d never explored a Viewliner sleeping car’s handicapped room, called Room H. It is awesome. I could sleep spread-eagled on the ...

Father and daughters

Posted 10 months ago by Fred Frailey
“Dad, why are we going so slowly?” That’s my daughter Barbara, head of academics at a Seattle girls school. “Because we’re in a siding,” I reply. “What’s a siding?” That’s the fun of a father-daughters vacation. I expected them to be curious about the intricacies of railroad operations as the three of us crossed Canada for four days and nights. After all, that’s their father’s obsession. But it’s obvious that if Bar...

Inside a CN meltdown

Posted 10 months ago by Fred Frailey
The chief executive of Canadian National Railway is reported to have lost his job over scenes such as I witnessed today, Canadian National was growing, but its ability to handle that growth fell behind across the Canadian prairies—too few tracks, too few people, or maybe poor management of both. In any event, what ensued this winter was a meltdown. And not one meltdown, but an unending series that simply sapped the railroad of its resources, and its vitality. Maybe you think I exaaggerate...

Guess who treats Amtrak best?

Posted 11 months ago by Fred Frailey
From Day One, the bane of Amtrak’s existence has been the freight train. (Ha! You thought I was going to say the U.S. Congress. That, too.) I’ve written about freight train delays to passenger trains until I’m sick of it. Congress mandates that Amtrak trains have priority, to a point. Amtrak has sued host railroads, to little effect And still, the problem persists, as of course it will—freight train-passenger train conflict is inherent in the private-public arrangement un...

Surviving in the face of adversity

Posted 11 months ago by Fred Frailey
Railroad financial results look awesome, better than ever. But the reality of this business is deceiving. The business is shrinking, or at best treading water, and in a booming economy. Non-coal carloads are down almost 13 percent from their peak in 2006, coal loadings roughly 40 percent. And market share versus trucks? In a presentation for clients of Stifel Capital Markets, the analytic firm of Transportation & Logistics Advisors put it this way: Rail carload volume today would be 40 to 75...

How to really fix the NEC

Posted 11 months ago by Fred Frailey
Lost in the fight between President Trump and U.S. Senate minority leader Schumer over fixing Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor—the blood between them now so bad that whatever one of them wants, the other opposes—is the fact that a credible solution to the steady deterioration of this asset lies in front of us. In theory, at least, this solution would not cost taxpayers anything. So you have to wonder: Why can’t this idea get a public airing? That idea is for Congress to order...

Isn't CSX fascinating?

Posted 11 months ago by Fred Frailey
Obliterate it, and the railroad world would be boring indeed. In two decades, we have gone from the uninspiring leadership of John Snow to the railroad’s revival under Snow’s successor Michael Ward, to Ward’s own ultimate bewilderment on how to move the company forward, to Ward’s being thrust aside to let Hunter Harrison work his magic, to Harrison’s death after nine months of chaos at the company, to Jim Foote’s ascension to a job he frankly wasn’t prep...

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