THE magazine of railroading

SEARCH TRAINSMAG.COM

Enter keywords or a search phrase below:

Benchmark

5559 views
42 replies
1 rating 2 rating 3 rating 4 rating 5 rating
  • Member since
    December, 2005
  • From: Cardiff, CA
  • 2,013 posts
Posted by erikem on Saturday, September 01, 2012 6:48 PM

A Toyota Camry may get close to the same number of seat miles per gallon as an Amtrak corridor train, but I's rather be in full corridor train for a 60 mile trip than a full Camry. One other difference is that travel time may be significantly less with the train when the competing trip on the highway has to deal with congestion. Doing work on the train is a bit easier than in a car - especially for the driver.

As has been noted elsewhere, the CAFE comparison goes out the window with electrification, though EV's further complicate comparisons. Conversely, the train loses big time if one or both pf the endpoints are a significant distance from the rail route.

- Erik

  • Member since
    August, 2012
  • 3,727 posts
Posted by John WR on Saturday, September 01, 2012 7:05 PM

The reason the idea of the private sector running Amtrak is ridiculous, Sam, is because if passenger service could be run at a profit the freight railroads would be doing it right now.  There is nothing to prevent them from running passenger service on routes unserved by Amtrak and there are plenty of those routes.  

I agree with you that there are "heaps of legitimate opinions."  But it seems to me that dismissing Amtrak as a "broken business model" is just a rather academic way of saying it is ridiculous.  

  • Member since
    September, 2007
  • From: Georgetown, Texas
  • 2,823 posts
Posted by Sam1 on Saturday, September 01, 2012 10:16 PM

John WR

The reason the idea of the private sector running Amtrak is ridiculous, Sam, is because if passenger service could be run at a profit the freight railroads would be doing it right now. There is nothing to prevent them from running passenger service on routes unserved by Amtrak and there are plenty of those routes.  

I agree with you that there are "heaps of legitimate opinions."  But it seems to me that dismissing Amtrak as a "broken business model" is just a rather academic way of saying it is ridiculous. 

Don't share your notions about private operators not being able to make money running passenger trains with the investors who are planning to do so in Italy, Florida, and Texas. They might give it up.

Oh, since this subject came up, the Dallas Morning News had an article yesterday that a group of private investors are looking at the possibility of running a commuter service from Plano, Texas to DFW Airport.

If a private operator can scope the service to meet the needs of people who are willing to pay for it, they might be able to make money running passenger trains. However, one thing is for sure. If they follow the Amtrak model, they will lose their shirts.  

I don't share your likening a broken business model with ridiculous. A broken business model is a failed business model, i.e. one that over time has not been able to cover its costs. Ridiculous is pejorative. 

  • Member since
    March, 2012
  • 493 posts
Posted by DwightBranch on Sunday, September 02, 2012 2:26 AM

Sam1

Hopefully the private funded efforts in Florida, Texas, and Italy will be successful. I suspect that they will require some subsidies, but I would be surprised if they cannot offer a better outcome than what we are getting or likely to get from a government run monopoly. 

To call the FEC plan"private" is absurd, to start with they want to run it down the middle of SH 528 (five miles from where I live). Even if they somehow rent it (which you can bet they won't) they still aren't paying the cost of initial property acquisition, clearing the land, building through the marshes, bridges, etc.: to paraphrase an ad running round the clock down here, the government built that. And they also want help paying for the track. What we will essentially have is socialized costs and privatized profits, what is mine is mine but what is yours is ours. Further, on your point about monopolies, should it actually get built (the odds of which I have said from the beginning, knowing the political system down here, is 100 to 1 against) would they provide "open access" to other carriers? If not, it is just as much a "monopoly" as if Amtrak operated it.

No system of transportation anywhere makes a profit, regardless of its "business model", and there is little to be accomplished by pretending otherwise. If Amtrak has any fault it is that it has perpetually been underfunded compared to other government, socially-supported modes of transportation, that is to say, all of them.

  • Member since
    August, 2012
  • 3,727 posts
Posted by John WR on Sunday, September 02, 2012 7:58 PM

With all due respect, Sam, I don't suggest you intend to be pejorative with "broken business model" but I do think the phrase is when used with respect to Amtrak.  Since all forms of transportation are subsidized to some degree no "business model" can be created for any which will show a way to profit.  It is possible to pull out certain functions and operate them at a profit.  For example, at some airports private security services are being used instead of TSA people.  It is possible for business to make a profit there because the private security agencies pay less and give fewer benefits than the Federal Government.  

Perhaps we should have no government services at all and simply do without those that cannot be operated at a profit.  There is, however, a problem with such a plan.  If we did away with the Post Office, for example, private businesses could deliver first class mail for less than we currently pay but it could not  include remote areas.  For me personally that would be no problem; I live in a suburb of New York City.  But should I argue for repeal of the Postal Express statute so I can save a few bucks and now worry about people in rural Montana?  I choose not to do so.  

The other points are well covered by Dwight Branch.  I appreciate your concern and attention.   John

  • Member since
    January, 2001
  • From: Atlanta
  • 8,653 posts
Posted by oltmannd on Tuesday, September 04, 2012 12:28 PM

DwightBranch
No system of transportation anywhere makes a profit, regardless of its "business model", and there is little to be accomplished by pretending otherwise. If Amtrak has any fault it is that it has perpetually been underfunded compared to other government, socially-supported modes of transportation, that is to say, all of them.

I don't give a flip about "profit".  I only care about getting the most from our tax dollars and finding ways to increase and improve passenger rail transportation.  

Just saying "spend more" is no plan.  We could "spend more" and have trains that just go around in a circle at 10 mph, producing nothing, and then wave our hands in the air and say absurd things like "this train costs less than the land it took to built a 5th runway in Atlanta", or "it's less than a new Abrams tank".  But that would be silly.  We wouldn't be able to look our neighbors straight in the eye at cocktail parties and and say "thanks for your support".

If Florida wants to "give away" access to a state highway ROW to the FEC for the incremental cost of doing it and in turn get passenger rail service for their citizens with no ongoing direct operating subsidy from the state treasury, why not do it?  

In fact, I think it's a model that might work.  If you can cover the "above the rails" cost of operation, you might find some political will to fund the infrastructure, particularly where you can show that will cost less than any other equivalent capacity improvement.

So, unless your hobby is howling at the moon in righteous indignation, it's best to get behind something that might actually work, particularly if your interest is in there being more passenger trains.

-Don (Random stuff, mostly about trains - what else? http://blerfblog.blogspot.com/

  • Member since
    January, 2001
  • From: Atlanta
  • 8,653 posts
Posted by oltmannd on Tuesday, September 04, 2012 12:36 PM

John WR
Perhaps we should have no government services at all and simply do without those that cannot be operated at a profit.  

No, but we should measure the cost effectiveness of those services against the alternatives.

As for Amtrak....an analogy.  If you had a family member who you loved who continued to indulge in some self-destructive behavior, or at the least, refused to take responsibility for his own welfare, would you continue to enable that bad behavior or or would you intervene and work for their salvation?

-Don (Random stuff, mostly about trains - what else? http://blerfblog.blogspot.com/

  • Member since
    September, 2007
  • From: Georgetown, Texas
  • 2,823 posts
Posted by Sam1 on Tuesday, September 04, 2012 4:05 PM

The profit motive helps drive efficiency and effectiveness.  I worked for an investor owned electric utility for more than three decades.  Even when we were a regulated monopoly, we were constantly reminded of the need to meet the shareholder's expectations, i.e. profits to pay dividends and accrete the value of the stock.  With deregulation of the electric utility business in Texas, the profit motive became even more of a disciplinary force.

If a commercial enterprise (a common carrier transporting people for a rental fee is a commercial enterprise) is not governed by competition and the profit motive, what drives or helps drive efficiency?  Moreover, why should passenger rail, which is a commercial enterprise, be given a pass with respect to earning its keep?

  • Member since
    March, 2012
  • 493 posts
Posted by DwightBranch on Tuesday, September 04, 2012 4:52 PM

oltmannd

So, unless your hobby is howling at the moon in righteous indignation, it's best to get behind something that might actually work, particularly if your interest is in there being more passenger trains.

This post is offensive, and I have reported it to the moderators.

  • Member since
    July, 2004
  • 1,822 posts
Posted by Paul Milenkovic on Tuesday, September 04, 2012 7:11 PM

DwightBranch

oltmannd

So, unless your hobby is howling at the moon in righteous indignation, it's best to get behind something that might actually work, particularly if your interest is in there being more passenger trains.

This post is offensive, and I have reported it to the moderators.

There is a broader issue than whether a claim that the broader advocacy community "is howling at the moon" is on the face of it an offensive personal attack, in contrast with, say, responding with a four-letter word in response to a link to a Wikipedia page, clarifying that there are many near-200 MPH HSR lines in Europe but actual 200 MPH+ in regular service is more rare.

That broader issue is whether proposals of reform or improvement or increased efficiency of Amtrak are welcome within the advocacy community.  There appears to be a defensive reaction within the advocacy community to any change to Amtrak apart from increasing trains speeds and train frequencies.

Back in the day of the David P Morgan editorship of Trains, Trains Magazine was reform-minded in its editorial policy, both with respect to passenger trains trains and freight trains.  The editorial view was that not only were passenger operations in peril through the pattern of financial losses and ICC train-off petitions, but that the supposed profitable freight side of railroading was also at risk.  That risk came to be an actuality with the Penn Central bankruptcy that culminated in Conrail, a kind of super Penn Central of bankrupt or tottering Eastern lines.

The David P Morgan stand was "we are foremost railroad enthusiasts and we would like to see railroading continue so there would remain trains that we could be enthusiastic about.  What can we do to see that railroading survives?"  Hence that era of Trains gave page space to all points of view, but it gave a column to John Kneiling "The Professional Iconoclast", one that drew a lot of criticism, much as certain iconoclastic commentators here draw criticism from the main-stream passenger-train advocacy point of view.

There is nothing like The Professional Iconoclast in today's Trains Magazine.  John Kneiling was saying all of the brash and iconoclastic and to many people also offensive things to "save the railroad industry he loved as a train enthusiast", but David P Morgan, the train enthusiast's train enthusiast, was thinking many of the same things -- you just had to read Morgan's editorials that expressed many of the same ideas, although without the finger-in-the-eye critical-of-labor-and-management-with-a-broad-brush of Kneiling.  But today's Trains is pretty much in the main-stream passenger train advocacy camp, ladies and gentleman and for lack of a better word, passenger trains are good, passengere trains are powerful, and people who don't want to fund passenger trains in the style they are accustomed to are ignorant or maybe worse.

Is there any place for iconoclastic opinion in passenger advocacy?  I don't agree 100% with the (other) iconoclasts (I once called us as a group "heretics" and received outrage directed my way for using an "offensive" and "religious" term, although the word iconoclast has a religious meaning, and there was a decade long stretch where that word was a byline in Trains Magazine).  But I am of the opinion that the main-line passenger train advocacy position has not accomplished enough in the 40 years since Amtrak, and that we need iconoclasts if passenger train service is to survive.

If GM "killed the electric car", what am I doing standing next to an EV-1, a half a block from the WSOR tracks?
  • Member since
    January, 2001
  • From: Atlanta
  • 8,653 posts
Posted by oltmannd on Wednesday, September 05, 2012 10:40 AM

Gee, I thought "howling at the moon with righteous indignation" to be rather poetic - and benign.  I thought my "intervention" one might be a hair edgy. Wink

What I find offensive is the notion that it is apparently "sinful" to hold Amtrak accountable for anything.  I think we can, and should, expect better from them!

-Don (Random stuff, mostly about trains - what else? http://blerfblog.blogspot.com/

  • Member since
    January, 2001
  • From: Atlanta
  • 8,653 posts
Posted by oltmannd on Thursday, September 06, 2012 10:59 AM

Since the dawn of Amtrak, the advocate logic has worked like this:

1.  All passenger trains are inherently good.

2.  Amtrak runs the passenger trains, therefore, Amtrak is good.

3.  More money for Amtrak = more lines on the map = more goodness.

4. Critics of Amtrak operations, Amtrak funding, Amtrak priorities, Amtrak's productivity need only to refer to point #1 and if they are really insistent, point #2.

Has this approach worked?  I say, "mostly no."

Has Amtrak gotten more money for more lines on the map?  No.  They have just barely been able to retain what they have.

Was Amtrak targeted for any stimulus money?  Yes, but only to fix up the NEC.  Not a dime for any new service.  The so-called HSR money was specifically targeted AWAY from Amtrak.  Gee, I wonder why?

Has Amtrak demonstrated a "can-do" attitude?  No, Amtrak has been completely unsuccessful at maintaining their commuter rail operating contracts - even after their boss made it a priority.

So, clearly, the traditional approach to advocacy is pretty much a failure.  Instead, I believe we should applaud them when they do right, call them on the carpet for what the do wrong, demand they do more with what they have, defend what is demonstrably defendable and stop living and dying by "point #1."

-Don (Random stuff, mostly about trains - what else? http://blerfblog.blogspot.com/

  • Member since
    September, 2007
  • From: Georgetown, Texas
  • 2,823 posts
Posted by Sam1 on Thursday, September 06, 2012 1:05 PM

Oltmannd,

I agree with your points.

If I remember correctly, approximately $1.3 billion of stimulus money was appropriated for Amtrak.  Not all of it was spent on the NEC.  

As of the end of FY11 Amtrak had used approximately $460.7 million of its stimulus money for security and life safety projects. Amongst other things Amtrak used stimulus monies to make all of its Texas stations ADA compliant. 

Amtrak also used stimulus money to upgrade more than 80 cars and locomotives if I remember correctly. Two of the cars (a sleeper and a coach) are sitting in San Antonio as protect cars for the Texas Eagle through cars. And one locomotive and coach sit in Fort Worth for reasons that are not clear. Unfortunately, the operative word is sitting.

If Amtrak had an aggressive management team, they would have made the Texas Eagle a thrice weekly through train from San Antonio to LA, which would have required no more hoist capacity than the Sunset Limited, and implemented a coach connecting train from NO to SA, thereby eliminating the need for protect cars and switching in SA.  Unfortunately, because of the political climate Amtrak is forced to operate under, agressive management is not likely to be found amongst the rank's of Amtrak's executives and managers. 

Join our Community!

Our community is FREE to join. To participate you must either login or register for an account.

Trains free email newsletter
NEWS » PHOTOS » VIDEOS » HOT TOPICS & MORE
GET OUR WEEKLY NEWSLETTER DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
Connect with us
ON FACEBOOK AND TWITTER

Loading...