Saturday, July 30, 2011

High-Speed Rail from the Railroad Industry Perspective

Google searches can turn up amazing information.  Here are a number of "finds" from railroad publications such as Amtrak, dating back to 2009, and while these emphasize freight and Amtrak services, they do make mention of high-speed rail in a number of ways.  It's a long read, but really interesting as context for high-speed rail and why it's such a bad idea.

The key information provider is the American Railroad Passenger Association (ARPA) and Amtrak's key supporter.

For example, here are a set of selections from a document entitled Arizona Rail Passenger Review, June 2009, which includes a high-speed rail discussion about California.  Remember, the Proposition 1A Bond issue passed the previous November, just 8 months earlier.

One of the lessons re-affirmed here is that American Freight operators are, shall we say, less than enthusiastic about high-speed rail. Furthermore, even Amtrak, in 2009 not yet considered to become a partner in high-speed rail, felt that incremental increases in speed and service would be preferable that launching an entirely new, self-contained HSR system on its own rail corridors.

When federal high-speed rail funding for Amtrak became highly likely, Amtrak's position quickly changed.  They hired a Vice-President for High-Speed Rail and applied for and received authorization to represent the entire Northeast Corridor's High-Speed Rail funding requests and HSR development.  That is, they suddenly realized enormous funding opportunities for themselves.

There is a discussion here about the emergence of Amtrak from the various passenger rail services owned by the freight operators, and this viewpoint is from that of the freight rail operators.  They point out that passenger rail declined dramatically, never was significantly profitable and that the evolution of inter-city passenger travel from rail to automobiles plus air carriers changed the rail landscape:

". . . . in the 1930s the number of passenger cars in the United States was around 65,000. By the late 1940s the number was down to about 30,000. Today, Amtrak stables less than 1,400 passenger cars. As regards the latest order for rolling stock from CAF USA, everything except the stainless steel will be domestic, since they could not find a domestic source."

This is a useful quantification of the decline of passenger rail, as well as the termination of rolling stock manufacturing capacity in the US. The point we need to understand is that the US, unlike all other high-speed rail supporting nations, has had a major decline in passenger rail use, even with the current ridership for Amtrak rising.  The overall transit population number using rail remains trivial.  

As one of the rail operator CEOs  points out, TGV was developed because their passenger rail system in France was unable to meet demand. HSR was an expansion of their capacity.  What we are doing is trying to bring back a much faster horse and buggy which we abandoned decades ago. 

Please understand that people like Boardman and Matthew Rose, and all the others quoted here are professional railroad men, not politicians with ulterior agendas.  They are protecting the profitability of their industry, or, in Boardsman's case, trying to keep Amtrak afloat.  Their advocacy of "incrementalism" in passenger rail recovery and growth should be taken very seriously.  I've said a number of times in these blogs, that HSR in the US is like laying on the icing with no cake under it.  That's totally unlike other nations with successful HSR programs.

In his speech, Matthew Rose talks about the CHSRA plan to begin construction and operation in the Central Valley.  The year is 2009 when he is saying this.  In other words, beginning in the Central Valley, not at the northern or southern population center ends of the rail route, has always been the CHSRA's intention.

Noel Braymer talks about the history of rail in the US and the circumstances under which it grew and then shrank.

These professional railroader executives -- even as passenger rail supporters -- are critical of the excess that HSR represents.  Too much, too expensive, too useless. Maybe they know something that all the politicians don't. 

What they all do want is incremental growth.  Bring back regular passenger rail service; increase speeds where possible, from 79mph to 110mph.  That would be a major improvement and could be affordable for the US.  Build up a base of rail ridership first throughout the US.  

That actually makes a lot of sense.


A long-standing ARPA position, that long-stance trains should be run daily, took a step closer to realization at the May 2 annual meeting of the Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada (RailPAC) in Los Angeles. 

Amtrak Interim President and CEO Joseph Boardman and longtime and well-respected Vice President Brian Rosenwald laid out the company's new direction.

Mr. Boardman spoke of Amtrak as momentarily feeling like "the dog that caught the car" with the recent stimulus funds – "What do you do now?" Yet, plans are moving quickly, with the $1.3 billion already 70% obligated. He said "a healthier Amtrak includes a better relationship with employees" and the May 1st employee appreciation day included due back pay.

Touching on the Obama Administration's high speed rail plans, Boardman explained systems like the French TGV only occurred after the existing networks were at capacity. America does not yet have a "high speed rail culture ... we are not ready for orphan systems" that do not have appropriate feeder networks including bus, streetcar, subway, and commuter trains.

Boardman described a high speed network emerging through incremental improvements using improved track such as"Class 6 at 110 MPH," and even using (relatively common) Class 5 mainline freight tracks at 90 MPH. And, "I don't buy the argument you can't mix passenger trains and freight at 110 MPH." This from the man whose immediate previous job as Amtrak’s interim president and CEO was the administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, whose primary role is that of the safety of America’s railroads.

BNSF: Passenger Rail Principles - 2009 [BNSF was to become a major purchase of Warren Buffett in 2010.]

Matthew K. Rose, Chairman, President and CEO, BNSF Railway Company, this April testified before the House Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, for a hearing on the future of High Speed Rail, Intercity Passenger Rail, and Amtrak. Selected quotes:

“As a freight railroad CEO, a member of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, and an early supporter of the One Rail coalition, I’ve had a lot of opportunity to think about what our country’s vision for passenger rail ought to be.
“I, too, have traveled to Europe and Asia and appreciate the perspective of those in the United States who ask why Americans can’t have what they have – 200 mph corridor service connecting dense population centers which, themselves, have efficient regional transit distribution. However, as I discovered in my work on the Commission, while many passenger rail advocates and policy makers at all levels of government are inter-city passenger rail advocates, they are somewhat skeptical of this vision. [meaning high-speed rail]
 Their appetite is for a more incremental approach of improving existing inte-rcity passenger rail service...
“The Commission clearly called for the kind of investment needed to support passenger trains operating at the highest speeds in sealed, passenger-only, separated right of way... this is a trillion-dollar funding proposition. Such a system may be beyond our current means...
“Importantly, the Commission report also specifically recognizes the contribution that less-than-highest speed passenger trains in corridors of fewer than 500 miles can make to the Nation’s transportation system. Existing Amtrak service outside the Northeast Corridor generally achieves 79 mph on freight rail tracks. Public investments made to enhance reliability of this service can yield tremendous on-time performance reliability benefits, which is often all that is needed to successfully satisfy demand for passenger service in certain markets...
“Speaking as a freight railroad CEO, it is possible to increase speeds from 79 mph to 90 mph on tracks that both freight and passenger trains use. Upgrades would include the implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC), which I’ll touch on again shortly. Track would need to be upgraded from Class IV to Class V track... At sustained speeds in excess of 90 mph, passenger train operations will need to be segregated from freight operations on separate track...
“In sum, the Commission’s model for inter-city passenger rail in this country is to develop the highest speed rail where feasible and economically viable, coupled with more reliability for 79-90 mph passenger service in other key corridors where it will continue to make sense from a density, utilization and cost perspective. We believe that this vision could finally generate the public support and political will necessary for a successful passenger rail system in this country...
“In closing, my recommendations to you are two-fold:
1. Observe the principles for passenger/freight joint use of rail right of way that the Commission recognized, and be realistic about the kind of passenger service that can be achieved, given the limitations of joint use. Generally, those limitations are based on nothing less than the laws of physics and the consequences that flow from them.
2. Develop a realistic vision for passenger service that works for all stakeholders – including freight railroads and the nation’s shippers – and fully fund it.
“It took $4-a-gallon gas to show us that passenger train options are important to providing a fuel efficient alternative to the highway for millions of Americans. In addition, though, a comprehensive passenger rail program may shift a portion of the congested short-medium haul air traffic to rail, expand employment in the passenger rail industry and engender vibrant economic development around these networks. The choice to fund passenger rail over the next 20 years can have as significant an impact on this country as funding Air Traffic Control and runways have had in the last 20 years...” [end quote]

Here in Arizona, BNSF gave a brief presentation to ADOT at a recent meeting of the Stakeholders for Commuter Rail, including these points:

-BNSF is willing to cooperate on passenger rail studies and provide state and local officials with information

-Any passenger operation or service change must not negatively affect freight customers or our ability to serve them

-BNSF must retain operating control of rail facilities used for passenger service. All dispatching, maintenance and construction must be done under the control of BNSF

-Studies must reflect actual operating conditions and cost structures

-BNSF will not incur any liability for passenger operations that it would not have but for those operations


The California High Speed Rail Authority is talking about starting construction by 2011, with the first segment from Bakersfield to Merced operational by 2015. Between 2018 and 2020, the CHSRA plans to have service running between Anaheim and San Francisco. Running times of 2 hour 38 minutes from San Francisco to Los Angeles are planned. The next route would be service to San Diego via Riverside with the last route to Sacramento by 2030.

Virgin Airlines is also a major passenger rail carrier in Britain and has expressed interest in getting the operating contract for the California High Speed Rail service.

Controversy has arisen over complaints by the CHSRA that current plans for Caltrain’s extension to the San Francisco Transbay Terminal will not be able to also to handle CHSRA’s expected 12 trains an hour service into San Francisco. These last minute objections have upset years of planning for the Transbay Terminal extension. 

Union Pacific Railroad is objecting to any High Speed Passenger service on rights of ways used by its freight trains. And some local neighborhoods are starting protest against HSR service in their back yard.

Passenger Trains make money, but Railroads need Freight to be Profitable.

Editorial by Noel T. Braymer

The construction of the Interstate Highway System, starting in the 1950’s, caused dramatic changes in where we Americans lived, worked, and shopped. During this time the new highways almost put the railroads out of business; their construction created “Suburbia” and with it urban sprawl. Urban rail transit declined, even disappeared in many cities during this time. Not only was the new housing far from train stations, but the new shopping centers and work places were impossible to reach by rail, on outlying land.

An example is Orange County, California. In 1950, this mostly rural county near Los Angeles had a population of about 200,000. When Disneyland was built in Orange County in the mid-1950’s, the site was on cheap farm land near ramps for the brand new Santa Ana Freeway. When this highway first opened it had 4 lanes total, 2 in each direction. Almost immediately, a third lane each way was needed to handle the traffic. The population of Orange County today is almost 3 million.

From the beginning, freight has always been the main business of American Railroads. Passenger Trains generally are profitable, but not as much as freight. In many cases, passenger service was mostly used to develop land owned by the railroads. The railroads up until the 1940’s had enough freight business to justify high capacity rail lines to handle large numbers of passenger and freight trains. 

As the highways were built, the railroads quickly lost time sensitive, high value freight to trucks. New factories were not built near railheads. Furthermore, new natural gas and oil pipelines meant factories no longer needed the railroad for coal deliveries. By the 1950’s, the railroads were fighting to stay in business, and had to cut costs. Railroad employment dropped from a million and a half in the 1940’s to just over 200,000 today. Thousand of miles of unprofitable branch and secondary lines were abandoned.

The easiest way the railroads had of cutting costs was cutting back on its infrastructure. This meant in many cases deferred maintenance, pulling out tracks, switches, sidings, signaling, buildings or anything else they felt they could live without. The major obstacle to doing this was the Passenger Train for many railroads, for there was often public opposition to passenger service cutbacks.

Freight trains often are not on a tight schedule and long trains didn’t have to be run frequently. Good passenger service, on the other hand, requires a well maintained railroad, which is expensive. This is particularly true of commuter and corridor rail service, which often are in areas without much freight business.

By the early 1970’s, things for the railroads hit bottom with the bankruptcy of the PennCentral, which led to the formation of Amtrak. Even then, some railroads with long distance passenger trains refused to join Amtrak or joined reluctantly. Their reluctance wasn’t because they loved their passenger trains, but because they questioned whether Amtrak would be greater evil than running their own passenger trains. The point is, railroads were not going out of business at this time because of passenger trains, but for lack of profitable freight to pay for the railroad infrastructure.

The highways which were brand new 50 years are now literally falling apart. They are often jammed with traffic, and it isn’t practical to build more lanes. There isn’t enough money now to keep up with the repairs for the highways we have let alone to build new ones, especially in already-built-up areas.

The Business and Politics of Passenger Rail; 2011-07-29
July 29th, 2011

Volume 1, Number 13

"The final Shuttle flight raises the question: What does Amtrak have in common with the Space Shuttle?

Both cost far too much, did far too little, and led their industry to atrophy. Our space program and our inter-city passenger train network today lie shriveled and sunken, in need of a new and vibrant life.

The Space Shuttle was envisioned as an inexpensive way of transporting men and machines, with quick turn-around times on the ground and weekly launches. Yet, somewhere between concept and execution, the program became burdened with supporting so many different objectives, becoming so heavy and complex, that in reality each launch cost over a billion dollars – a hundred times the original budget – and across the 30 years the program averaged 11.5 weeks per launch – ten times longer than desired. 

According to the Boston Globe, the Shuttle program ran up a total budget $196 billion. Other than the Hubble Telescope and a few other major successes, the Shuttle program resulted in relatively little new science, at the cost of the loss of all crew on mission numbers 51 and 107.

Contrast this with the two highly successful and scientifically valuable Mars Rovers whose total budget to date is somewhere around one billion dollars. Yet, NASA, which has an effective monopoly on space exploration, has barely been able to build and operate programs like the Rovers, with the Shuttle devouring so much time, manpower, and money.

The net result across three decades was that few scientists and engineers were inspired to pursue space careers, and few new businesses were formed. How far ahead we would be if there were a hundred Burt Rutans competing to build spacecraft to the stars! Instead, our space program lies mired in bureaucratic muck.

Amtrak, too, came out of this eggs-in-one-basket approach. Like the centrally-planned NASA, there was one way to do things and Congress held all the purse-strings. Like NASA, almost everyone at Amtrak believed in their mission and their product, but the organization’s structure permitted little dissent or imagination.

Both Amtrak and the Shuttle were monstrous, ponderous programs that discouraged competition and co-operation.

I shed no tears for the Space Shuttle which drained the adventure and vitality from the Space Age I envisioned as a child watching the Moon Landing, and I shall shed no tears at whatever befalls Amtrak." – William Lindley

Volume 7, Number 22
October 18th, 2010 
A weekly digest of events, opinions, and forecasts from
United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.
America's foremost passenger rail policy institute
Jacksonville, Florida USA
Waiter, there's a High Speed Rail in my soup.
By Daniel Carleton

You know the party has only started when Charles "Wick" Moorman, Chairman, President, and CEO of Norfolk Southern Corporation, begins his statements in regard to passenger trains with, "Get the damn things off my railroad."

After the roar of laughter settled down, day one of this year's Passenger Trains on Freight Railroads conference, presented by Railway Age magazine, was underway. Afterward, Moorman acknowledged his appreciation for passenger trains, having ridden them to school every day in Great Britain. Hardly a stuffy or stodgy individual, Moorman proved to be quite congenial and self-effacing. He sees his company's relationship with Amtrak as "strong," a position this gathering of railroad professionals would not deny. He made one fact quite clear: passenger trains on his freight railroad means 79 mph, maybe 90 mph in certain circumstances, but definitely not "High Speed Rail." He also made it very clear that the increased track maintenance will not be borne by his railroad or stockholders.

Moorman was quite concise that every corridor and potential corridor for passenger trains is different; they are "not all the same." He pointed to three areas where current and future services are welcome: 

(1) Virginia — the increase of service by extension of a Richmond train to Lynchburg is seen as a success. Norfolk to Petersburg makes a lot of sense, but a connection will have to be built between the former N&W and SCL at Petersburg, after which one would "bounce your way to Washington" (a good-natured jab at his primary competition, CSX). The Commonwealth of Virginia is shouldering the cost of these services and upgrades. 

(2) Chicago — the grade separation at Englewood, which will raise a Metro commuter line over a busy NS freight line (also shared by numerous Amtrak trains), is one of many great projects in that area, improving freight and passenger service. 

(3) North Carolina — work continues in this state to continuously improve passenger service, and NS is committed to this work.

Then Moorman addressed two areas that have caused great concern to the industry, those being the now reconsidered Federal guidelines for high-speed rail, and Positive Train Control. He described the Federal guidelines as "surprising to us" and "frightening to us." The reward of passenger trains is slight, to the freight railroads. Then a call to any seeking to run a new passenger service: "Keep the word `risk' in mind." Whereas many may see the benefits of running passenger trains, it is the freight railroads who weigh the risk. As for PTC, it is a well-intentioned but bad piece of legislation, with an estimated price tag of $10 billion for the industry. This is going to be a big distraction to the railroads for the next five years. NS has estimated two-thirds to three-quarters of its track will require PTC.

Following that was a panel discussion on the National Rail Plan, chaired by Al Engel on his first day as Amtrak's new Vice President for High Speed Rail. The Plan is a project by the FRA. As it is limited to 120 pages, the Plan is a strategic vision for the future, and an answer to Congress when it asks, "Show us your High Speed Rail plan?" FRA replies, "We don't have an HSR plan, we have a National Rail Plan." Even so, there were many useful tidbits of information brought out in this two-hour segment. The freight hauling system in the United States currently moves 40 tons of freight per person, per year. The goal of the Plan is to realize an increase of intermodal (trailers or containers moving greater than 500 miles) on the railroads from about 23% today, to 50%. The largest roadblock to building new intermodal terminals is not NIMBYs, but the environmental permitting process; this is a critical issue for the Plan. The expected cost of applying PTC to a single locomotive is $60,000-70,000.

Don Itzkoff, who will be moving to GE Transportation, then gave us an update on how things stand in Washington, DC. Simply put, HSR is now a higher political target. Everyone is feeling his way around this new scheme of transportation with the mindset of "play the game, then write the rules." 

Of the more than $10 billion (soon to be over $11 billion) set aside for HSR, only $1 billion has been spent; however, rail is now very visible on Capitol Hill. Rail is now very much part of the surface transportation discussion, and rail is now speaking with one voice.

Our luncheon speaker was none other than Joseph Boardman, President and CEO of Amtrak. He started off by joking that his education in Agriculture Management at Cornell qualified him for Amtrak's top spot. 

Despite his wit and spry manner, he looked tired and concerned, as though the weight of the whole world was on his shoulders. Even so, he did attend the entire morning, and most of the afternoon sessions. 

He was quick to point out that despite the conference title of Passenger Trains on Freight Railroads, talk of High Speed Rail kept "sneaking" in. Unlike most of the participants who stuck to the 'where and when', Boardman seemed compelled to answer 'how and why' he is, where he is, and what he intends to do about it. His appreciation for public transit came with the gas lines of 1973 and a national lack of desire to fix the problem. 

Even now it is already too late to provide balanced transportation for the nation. Amtrak needs a fundamental change in its culture — it has visibly lost support due to its arrogance – and to this end, Boardman seeks to instill the three parts of humility into those in his charge: inclusion of all, being collegial, and pursuing continuity. He said later on that he wants the people in key positions to be able to make those decisions on their own with the proper input. Is this perhaps a move away from the micro-management so prevalent in state agencies? Time will tell.

Boardman acknowledged that his work is cut out for him. He noted that in the 1930s the number of passenger cars in the United States was around 65,000. By the late 1940s the number was down to about 30,000. Today, Amtrak stables less than 1400 passenger cars. As regards the latest order for rolling stock from CAF USA, everything except the stainless steel will be domestic, since they could not find a domestic source.

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