4

Amtrak's future: The short-distance network

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Amtrak and states that support its short-distance trains earned bragging rights over the past seven years. Between 2003 and 2010, ridership on this network of trains exploded, rising 77 percent. The honor roll goes like this: Chicago-St. Louis trains, up 192 percent in ridership; Chicago-Carbondale, Ill., trains, 135 percent; Chicago-Quincy, Ill., 92 percent; Downeaster (Boston-Portland, Maine), 88 percent; Hiawathas (Chicago-Milwaukee), also 88 percent; and Pennsylvanian (New York-Pittsburgh), ...
12

Roger, the man who loved trains

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
If you’re reading this, it means you have a passion for trains or the business and romance of railroading. That passion became evident in me at age 10 or 11, in a dusty Northeast Texas town with the improbable name of Sulphur Springs, its sulphur springs having dried up decades earlier. My father gave me little encouragement. Though he grew up the son of a Santa Fe Railway officer, he inherited little interest in railroading from his dad.   I felt like a caged animal....
15

World's dumbest rail-related headline

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
OnlineJournal.com is a web-based news service that says it has, since 1998, provided “accurate news, analysis, and commentary on the topics that matter most.” I’m not sure about “accurate,” having read the title put above the story. Following is story that appeared. Your thoughts? Amtrak Collision Avoided But Freight Trains Collide, Killing 2 Apr 18, 2011, 12:08 by John Steele A coal train rear-ended a train carrying maintenance equipment on Sund...
31

Who is the best railroad CEO?

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Normal 0 false false false MicrosoftInternetExplorer4 You tell me. I want to know. Let’s limit the selection to the top dogs of the six big North American railroads. If we opened bidding to the regional and short lines, as the chief justice I’d have to render a bench verdict and declare Indiana Rail Road’s Tom Hoback the winner. Okay, here are the contenders, in alpha order of...
19

The locomotive everyone loves to hate (updated April 20)

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
This morning I got off the Carolinian at Washington Union Station, and on the adjacent track stood four of Amtrak’s P42 locomotives, waiting head to tail, elephant-style, for assignments on trains to Virginia or points south. Walking past them, they sounded like a forest of chattering monkeys (or maybe large, sedentary old dogs) as they burbled, spat, farted, hissed, and popped. What a cacophony! The spectacle made my hard heart soften a degree or two. It occurred to me few...
15

Eastern long-distance trains to be (almost) fully reequipped

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Amtrak recently released revisions to its plans for replacing its aging fleet of cars and locomotives, first announced in 2010. Buried in those 89 pages (read them yourself by going here) is what we scribblers like to call breaking news. Let me begin with the bad news: You folks living between Maine and Virginia will have to put up with those icky Amfleet I cars a few years longer than you wished. Amtrak has postponed their replacement for several years, and some of these 444 trave...
14

Guess who wants high-speed rail money now?

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Jim Wrinn and Kevin Keefe, don’t take this personally, but your state is really behaving badly. First, the voters of Wisconsin had the bad judgment to elect to the office of governor Scott Walker, who campaigned that he was going to throw an $810 million high speed rail grant back into the face of U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. And he did just that. But you also elected to office a bunch of state senators who fled the state for weeks rather than allow the Wisc...
20

Amtrak’s long-distance trains as the walking dead

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Two issues Amtrak confronts today illustrate the problem nicely. Both relate to freight railroad capacity. Once upon a time, an Amtrak train meant incremental revenue to offset high fixed costs. Plus, incentive payments gave railroads extra money for meeting on-time goals. But now, both frequency and scheduling are proverbial third rails, electrifying Amtrak whenever it steps across the arc.The long-distance passenger train is imperiled, but just doesn’t know it.   The...
16

Asleep in the tower — why am I not shocked?

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
This week, a supervising air traffic controller, working alone, entered into a deep sleep shortly after midnight at Washington’s Reagan National Airport and could not be roused by radio shouts and telephone calls while jetliners landed without his supervision. This event became the lead story in the Washington Post. Railroaders everywhere must have smiled. It’s an occupational hazard most of them have at least witnessed if not participated in.   One recently reti...
22

Bad news for coal, really bad news for eastern coal

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
This week, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed new rules for limiting emissions of mercury and other toxic metals and acid gases from coal-fired power plants. Any way you look at it, it’s a disaster for eastern coal producers and the railroads that haul the coal to generating stations. However, the rules will probably have a less severe but still noticeable impact on coal mined in the Powder River Basin fields of Wyoming and Montana. The rules arise from a determina...
7

Amtrak now in line for high-speed rail grants

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Here is a prediction I would almost bet my life on: When Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood redistributes as early as next month the $2.4 billion high speed rail grant that Florida’s governor rejected, Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor will get a sizable chunk of it. And when this happens, a major flaw in the HSR program will be repaired. Heretofore, only state departments of transportation could apply for high speed rail grants, and very little of the $10.5 billion alrea...
4

My race to the top — an update

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
On February 9, I posted a brief essay about my quest to achieve Select Plus status from Amtrak Guest Rewards during 2011. To do so requires 10,000 “rail points,” two rail points being awarded for every $1 spent on Amtrak tickets. Why do I try? More goodies from Amtrak Guest Rewards. More train rides. Lots of time on my hands. OK, I have no rational explanation for my behavior. Still, I thought I’d let you know how it’s going. If you read that ditty, you’ll rec...
58

The disappearing railfan

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
The Lexington Group is an annual gathering of men and a few women interested in railroad history. The presentations are always detailed and sometimes downright fascinating, so I enjoy going. But gosh, what a bunch of old dolts we are! I keep expecting the attendants to come in to tuck us in bed for the night. I also possess some circumstantial evidence that the average subscriber to trains is of grandparent age by now. Ever been to a National Railway Historical Society convention? These ...
6

Matt Rose succeed Warren Buffett? Not a bad idea

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
In its 10-K annual report filing Monday, Berkshire Hathaway revealed there are four possible successors to 80-year-old chief executive Warren Buffett. The filing doesn’t name names, but if you read Buffett’s annual letter to shareholders, released last weekend, it’s obvious that the Oracle of Omaha has his keen eye on BNSF Railway’s Matt Rose. Buffett’s letters are always fascinating, and you don’t have to earn an MBA to understand and apprec...
6

Colonel Gadhafi to Amtrak’s rescue

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
I enjoy making predictions. When I’m right, I’ll see that you never forget it. When I’m wrong, nah, I never said that. So to start the month of March, three predictions:   1. Amtrak will have a very, very good year. Thank the Libyan dictator for that. And Hosni Mubarak and all the other Middle East tyrants and oil barons who seem to be getting their due. Before the uproar in that region, gasoline prices had topped $3 a gallon in the U.S. and seemed destin...
9

At last, good news for the Amtrak Cascades

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Late this past week, Washington State, BNSF Railway, and the Federal Railroad Administration finally and at long last resolved all of their differences regarding the $1 billion project to increase Amtrak Cascade frequencies by 50 percent between Seattle and Portland, Ore. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago (see "One state's bad dream about fast trains," February 15), one of the sticky issues became that of whose data about train delays would be used, that generated by Amtrak's on...
12

Union Pacific's beauty amid the beasts

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
You’re tooling westward down U.S. Highway 30, just west of Silver Creek, Neb., on a gorgeous February morning. Beside you, on the Union Pacific double-track main line, is a doublestack container train doing a cool 60 mph. You’ve been pacing this train for 40 miles and would be content to do so another 40 miles, which would put you in Grand Island. Then, on the railroad radio comes this exchange: “Dispatcher, this is UP 1989 West. We’re starting to get flashing yellow...
9

Why California may yet see its high speed trains

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
My friend Ken asked me the other day, will Texas ever develop high speed trains? Ken is from Texas, obviously. The Texas High-Speed Rail and Transportation Corp. works tirelessly toward its goal. But I immediately answered no. Ken asked why not? Good question; why had I shot off my mouth? And when I began to reply I realized I had stumbled onto something. Texas won’t get a high speed railroad anytime soon, I said, because there’s not enough political support in that state to mak...
8

Trailer hitches on the Transcon: A report

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Carrollton, Mo., is not even a wide spot along BNSF Railway’s Transcon, that heavily traveled path between Chicago and California. But you turn off Interstate 70 and go 30 miles out of your way to reach this small community today, for two reasons. The first is personal. Passing the stone courthouse on the city square, you go two blocks on West Benton Street and pause beside the simple wooden house on the corner. Here your father was born 101 years ago. Your father’s fat...
12

One state's bad dream about fast trains

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Washington state’s ambitious, $1 billion plan to improve and speed up rail passenger service between Seattle and Portland, Ore., appears dead in the water, in more ways than one. The immediate danger is a move by congressional Republicans to take back $4.5 billion in high speed rail grants that haven’t already been distributed to recipient states. Washington’s $751 million grant from last year is caught in that trap, and a vote is scheduled in the U.S. House o...
14

My race to the top

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Move aside, people, or I will miss the train. This year I will qualify for Select Plus status with Amtrak Guest Rewards.   There was a time, when I was a hotshot magazine editor, that I could count on business travel by train getting me over the top, that is, amass 10,000 “rail points” in a calendar year. You earn two rail points for every dollar spent on Amtrak travel, and more than that aboard an Acela train.   Now I am but a lowly freelance writer, and sad to...
14

For high speed rail, manna from heaven?

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
It appears that what President Dwight Eisenhower did for highways more than half a century ago, launching an interstate, limited-access network, President Barack Obama is trying to do for the passenger train. The White House yesterday proposed a six-year, $53 billion plan for extending the embryonic network of high- and higher-speed trains. For details, go here. This follows $10.5 billion already committed in 2010.   Like many of you, I applaud the spirit of what the president...
15

High speed rail: In need of a break

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
It’s do-or-die time for President Obama’s high speed rail initiative, which badly needs a lift. Negotiations are stalled with three Class 1 railroads involving projects in North Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, according to informed railroad and government sources. The Federal Railroad Administration needs to come to terms soon with at least one of the railroads or risk having them walk away (or having the grant rescinded by Congress). The sticking point: Fear by railroads that th...
14

Amtrak trains that make money—really (corrected version)

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Rare as an albino pony is the U.S. passenger train that can recover its fully allocated costs from the farebox. “Fully allocated” means every little expense category is included, over and above the direct operating costs. In the case of Amtrak, those include headquarters costs, shop costs, and so forth, down to the kitchen sink. Okay, with that out of the way, a drum roll ...   Applaud, please, the nameless pair of trains that toil between Washington, D.C., and...
7

Snow: A love story

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Hey, you people in the Midwest: Did you have enough of the stuff this week? Pretty, wasn't it, when it stormed down upon you? Now comes the hard part. Myself, I have big issues with the fluffy stuff. Snow is exciting to anticipate. You buy ingredients for a stew, bring up a full-bodied red wine, and stock the fireplace with logs. Snow begins with little flakes, then intensifies. It’s fun to watch; you really can’t take your eyes off it for more than a minute or two. But...
5

Waiting on the Canadian

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
When VIA Rail Canada added eight hours to the schedule of its Toronto-Vancouver Canadian almost three years ago, making it a four-nights-out adventure, I was among the incredulous folks who wondered at the audacity of slowing down an already slow train. Today’s westbound No. 1 averages 32 mph on its 2,775-mile trip lasting almost 87 hours.   The problem, if you call it that, lies in VIA’s arrangement with host railroad Canadian National. It’s apparent that the ...
8

Why I keep going back to Canada

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Normal 0 false false false MicrosoftInternetExplorer4 In and of itself, VIA Rail Canada’s Canadian is not an extraordinary train. Come on, the equipment is 56 years old, soon to qualify as mobile museum pieces, like the carriages that survive as the Orient Express. Looked at in the cold light of morning, as I am doing this very cold morning in Winnipeg, the train is sort of dowdy. VIA, in fact, t...
3

The Commodore's railroad, then and now

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Born in Staten Island, N.Y., the great-grandson of an indentured servant from the Netherlands, Cornelius Vanderbilt earned many fortunes in ferries and steam shipping before coming to railroads late in his long life. In 1863, at age 69, he bought control of the down-on-its-luck New York & Harlem, supposedly to prove his prowess in the field of the iron horse. This he quickly did. In six tumultuous years, Vanderbilt assembled the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad to B...
11

I am just trying to help the president

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
President Obama the other day issued an executive order mandating “a government-wide review of the rules already on the books to remove outdated regulations that stifle job creation and make our economy less competitive.” Go here. That’s a fine idea, even though I am skeptical anything of note will come of it. After all, within a day, the Environmental Protection Agency announced all its regulations were good as gold. But if the president is really serious, the ...
12

Will West Coast exports be the salvation of coal?

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
My little piece on coal the other week (go here) generated a flood of responses. I’ve enjoyed the dialogue it fostered. Let me throw a few more shovels of incendiary into the discussion. Several of you, in company with BNSF Railway chief executive Matt Rose, think there is a rosy future for western coal. Ship it to China and India, you say. Maybe so, but you can’t just say that and wish it to happen.   First, international coal markets are fickle. The end users lo...

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