Transit center - bay C
Photo by sparktography

I had a long conversation with Rick Olson of the Puget Sound Regional Council. He was not able to tell me which projects were shortlisted, but did shed some light on some of the workings for the transportation aspects of the stimulus bill. Some people have remarked to me that we’re in a good position for getting competitive stimulus grants because of a lack of investment in transportation infrastructure, and Mr Olson ensured me this was not the case. Rather, it’s the combination of a long-term lack of investment and the relatively recent passage of laws like Proposition 1, the Nickel tax and the 9.5 cent tax that has meant we have the a backlog of projects, but enough designs and engineering estimates done that we could actually spend the money.

When the US House passed an smaller infrastructure stimulus package back in November, local agencies started getting their projects in order and prioritized. The stimulus debate dragged on through the lame-duck session, and is only now finally passed, so even the PSRC has had a lot of time to review the projects. Once the bill is signed into law today, the PSRC will likely be able to announce the selected projects within a month, and the Washington State Department of Transportation should have a similar time frame. Generally about half the money needs to be oblidged within 90~180 days (depending on which bucket the cash comes from), and before that can happen, environmental impact statements and early designs need to be completed.

Below the fold I break down the specific funding categories, which ones the PSRC is going to distribute, and which will be distributed by the US DOT in all the wonky details.

The PSRC’s funding will come from two buckets, the Federal Highway Administration Surface Transportation Project (STP) and the FTA grants. Our state will get $490 mn in STP, 30% will go to Metropolitan Planning Organizations like PSRC. The PSRC expects to get $67~$80 mn from this side, and this money, despite its name can be granted to most sorts to transportation projects, ie roads, transit, freight, ferries, etc. 50% of the FHWA money is “use-it-or-lost-it” within 90 days, which means the projects have to be at the design phase by the time the grant is awarded, and the award needs to be completed with 90 days. If not, the money goes back to the US DOT for redistribution to other states. The other 50% needs to be obligated with in one year. The PSRC’s money comes from the one year half.

Seattle Transit Tunnel
Photo by Brett Hammond

The second bucket for PRSC funding is the Federal Transit Administration money. Here the state will get about $179mn for state, all of which will go to MPOs, and the PSRC expects to get about $150 million. The money here is given away by a ridership-based formula determined by the FTA. Based on 2007 ridership statistics, Metro (379,340 daily trips) will get the most money, followed by Sound Transit (50,150), Pierce Transit (48,017), Community Transit (37,999), Kitsap Transit (17,979), Everett Transit (7,741) and the transit portion of Washington State Ferries, whose ridership I wasn’t able to find. The formula could be based on different numbers, since ridership statistics were significantly different in 2008 than in 2007. For the FTA cash, it’s “use-it-or-lose-it” with 180 days for 50% of it, and the other 50% within one year.

There are several other pools of money that will be divvied out by the US Secretary of Transportation. These fall into four main buckets: $750 million for New Starts, $750 million for “fixed guide-way modernization”, $1.5 billion in competitive “discretionary grants”, $100 million in grants for reducing the energy footprint of transit agencies, and $8 billion for High Speed Rail. Our area likely won’t get any of the New Starts money, since only U-Link is currently in a New Start agreement with the FTA, and that agreement was only just approved. The fixed-guide-way modernization grant is a formula grant based on rail riders, and since our area’s rail ridership is slow low compared to other regions, we’ll likely get next to nothing from this grant. Metro is also asking for stimulus money for hybrid buses, and that could come out of the $100 million slice for “reducing energy consumption”.

The “discretionary grants” are for port projects, transit projects, local projects projects, freight projects and highway projects. The grants will between $20~$300mn, and the rules state that no one state can get more than $300 mn. Priority will be given to projects that will be completed by 2012, and the criteria for determining who gets the money will come from the USDOT within 60 days. It’s far too early to know whether any projects will get any money, since the USDOT has not mentioned its criteria yet. There’s also $1.3 billion for Amtrak, $450 of which is for capital projects to be spent within two years. Traditionally most of this has gone to the Northeast corridor – where the majority of riders are – but this stimulus bill requires that 40% be spent outside the Northeast corridor. Over the years, Amtrak has put very little into Cascades improvements, nearly all the money for rail improvements here has been spent by WSDOT, Oregon DOT, the cities and counties the stations are in, Sound Transit and the BC Provincial government. That could different this time, though we’ll have to wait and see.

Finally, there’s a huge amount of money, $8 billion, for intercity High Speed Rail projects, this money has much longer time frame. The definition of High Speed Rail is entirely up to the USDOT, but traditionally it has meant trains that go at least 110 mph.  This money can be spent on stations, train sets, signal and track upgrades and virtually any other capital project for Intercity rail. Luckily, the EMD F59PHI locomotives that Amtrak Cascades uses can go that fast, so it’s possible that some of the money will make its way here. The time frame is much longer, until 2012 to pick projects, so we might not know for a long time.

Since we may know which projects get funding in a just a few weeks, I’ll stop speculating and the next post about the stimulus from me will likely be letting you know which projects are get funding.

41 Replies to “Stimulus Process Details”

  1. The rumour that i keep hearing is that the HSR money was inserted by Harry Reid, senate majority leader, to fund HSR from LA to his constituents in Las Vegas! What is the best way to lobby for some of that money being used to develop Cascades Incremental High Speed Rail?

    1. That rumor was invented by right-wing culture warriors. The Federal Rail Road Administration currently has no plans to put any HSR from LA to Vegas. Portland-Seattle-Vancouver is a designated corridor, however.

      1. Sen. Murray is a good place to start as she chairs the relevant Appropriations sub-committee. It is worth contacting Sen. Cantwell and your Representative as well.

        Sometimes contacting representatives outside your district can be useful but be sure you can point to a benefit in their district.

      2. I encourage people to make a personal visit to their office. I did that with all of my reps a year ago or so, and I think that makes much more of a difference than an email…which is usually given a perfunctory read and then tossed.

    2. Harry has said publicly he appreciates the good home town press on this, but it was really at the insistence of the President, through Emanual that bumbed the High Speed Rail from 2 to 8 Bil.
      Hows that for change! Bush did everything he could to kill Amtrak.

  2. What I would like to see with the P40s is they replace the prime movers with the newer model. Whether it is the 4000hp version of the GEVO that Norfolk Southern uses, or the 4400hp version that is standard. Might boost fuel efficiency of the Genesis, while providing some jobs in Erie, PA. Although I heard recently that GE is still landing some orders, in fact a few hundred more Evolutions from BNSF, but there might be a different motive for BNSF to do that. 1/5 of BNSF is owned by Warren Buffet, and Berkshire Hathaway has interests in EMD as well. One special model of the Evolution is the ES44AC4. It’s odd, but BNSF has use for it, on some stack and intermodal trains, 2 of the 6 Traction motors become useless at higher speeds, so they are taking a page from the EMD E-Series, and it’s A1A-A1A truck arrangement, and ordered an Evolution with 2 non-motored axles. Here is an irony, several railroads that hauled passenger trains over mountain grades, later found the A1A-A1As lacking tractive effort on mountain grades, and re-geared F-Units, which had B-B trucks, for passenger operations. Some of those railroads? Northern Pacific, Great Norther, and Atchinson, Topeka and Santa Fe, the 3 railroads that make up Burlington Northern Santa Fe.

    Also, I read Rush Loving Jr’s article in TRAINS Magazine recently about fixing Amtrak, and he had an interesting quote from a Wall Street Analyst about Amtrak buying new passenger cars. They might not get a return on investment out of it, but the cash loss Amtrak has would go down. I am sure Amtrak could use a couple extra Sleepers alone on the Empire Builder, the current summer sleeper schedule has 3, 2 on 7/8, 1 on 27/28. It is about 5 sets to cover a daily schedule, that is 15 cars alone in the sleeper complement. Another 15 would allow for 4 sleepers on the Seattle Section, 2 on the Portland Section. If Amtrak actually ran a 2nd Frequency on this route, especially since it is the only lifeline in some of the communities on the route, and even provides jobs in that part of Montana. I saw a map once of Amtrak Crew Change points on the Empire Builder, Seattle-based engineers take it to Wenatchee, a Spokane engineer relieves him/her and takes the train to Spokane, where conductors and engineers are changed. The Spokane Engineer is relieved at Whitefish, and 1 diner waiter is added(the position not needed west of Whitefish, so they overnight there), then at Shelby, Engineer and Conductors change. At Havre, a local resteraunt/bar owner provides some dinners to sell in the cafe portion of the lounge car, expanding on a business he provides for the Westbound train. The Diner runs through to Seattle, and meals are included in the Sleeper fare, and there is limited cooking provision in the lounge car(a microwave oven). This local businessman provides the breakfeast for the Portland Sleeper. A few years ago, the State of Montana did a study, when this train was under threat from budget hawks, to plead their case. They said that at least 30 jobs were attributed directly to the Empire Builder.

    Here is something interesting about passenger train matrix’s, using the Southwest Chief as an example.

    I recently heard Amtrak is promoting the Coast Starlight’s connection with Train 28 at Portland Union Station again. I wonder if it is declining freight traffic because of the bad economy making it harder to use freight congestion as an excuse to throw the Starlight into the hole and make it late? If it could be reliable, and Amtrak had the spare equipment, might make for a bigger revenue generator. Have a sleeper and a coach set out and added to Eastbound 28. Although Portland Union Station lacks a terminal switcher(currently not needed), but perhaps they can lease it out to UP and Portland and Western when they are not using it to make a little extra money off of it.(Especially if it is a GenSet.) If it were not for the incompatibility, I would go for the same being done at Amtrak, and sending some thru cars to Canada.

    1. I am astounded at the lack of vision Amtrak sometimes shows. Admittedly sometimes they just don’t have a choice and need to cut expenses to meet their budget.

      I hear there is some talk of bringing back the Pioneer and the Desert Wind. Having these split from the California Zephyr in Salt Lake City as they used to would seem to be obvious. As would running the Pioneer all the way to Seattle via Portland or splitting in Hermiston for Seattle via Pasco and Yakima

      I’d love to see more trains per day east out of both Portland and Seattle. An option instead of a second Empire Builder per day would be to revive the North Coast Limited between Chicago and Seattle using the former CB&Q and NP tracks. I think we also need some short run trains from both Seattle and Portland say to Spokane and Boise.

      It would be interesting to see what a full matrix analysis of the US rail network would produce and what sort of network could be operated with the current subsidy but vastly increased ridership (yes I’m punting on capital costs and getting train slots from freight railroads).

      1. Well outside of the NE corridor, amtrak mostly operates as a kind of cruise-ship alternative travel, not as a real people mover.

      2. Well the linked article gives an example of a few operational changes to the Southwest Chief that would cause ridership to jump from 212 passengers to 1,260 east out of Flagstaff. That many passengers would require 3 or 4 trains each way per day which would likely increase ridership even further. So I don’t think the potential of past, current, or potential future long distance trains really has been fully explored.

        Even without the long distance trains there are routes other than the NE Corridor that serve to move people. Pretty much any corridor with more than 1 train per day each way is likely at least in part a people mover rather than a cruise ship alternative. Certainly that applies to Cascades between SEA and PDX, Surfliner and Capitol corridor service in California.

        For that matter long distance train ridership has been increasing as well. To the point where the Empire Builder and the Coast Starlight likely justify a second trip each way each day.

      3. That’s still 4X as many trains to serve only 5X the number of passengers. Given the capital costs and the economic cost to the freight system it still doesn’t pencil out. It’s probably a bigger loser than what we currently have.

        Trains are fuel efficient once up to speed. Every stop along a route needs to be evaluated based on the lost time and cost of stopping and then accelerating the train back up to speed. Ridership numbers boosted by the handful of people that board the train en route are likely a drain on the bottom line.

        Top speed isn’t the issue so much as travel time. More to the point, travel via rail vs air. Overnight trips just don’t work for business travel and most people aren’t going to forgo an extra day at both ends of their vacation unless train travel is your vacation.

        Airlines are at an inherent disadvantage on short hops like SEA to PDX. Time getting to and through the airport usually favors rail. The huge percentage of fuel used in takeoff is another as is the fixed cost of landing fees. Not to mention you can bring your bike on the train. Try that sometime with Horizon Air!

        Given the relatively small amount of federal money available to Amtrak it’s almost criminal that any of it is spread out as political perks when routes that could be economically viable are left dangling from a shoestring budget.

      4. One of those trains would be doubling as a corridor train part of the journey, and given enforcement of United States vs. Southern Pacific with the priority, it will even work out. US vs. SP was the result of a chronically delayed Sunset Limited, now who owns and absorbed the mentaility to delay Amtrak trains? Union Pacific. Who does not just the Coast Starlight but several corridor trains in California and Missouri, which are constant late runners? Union Pacific.

        There is an overnighter on the NEC, the Federal, formerly known as the Twilight Shoreliner and the Night Owl. It used to have sleepers, but because Amtrak ordered only 50 of them, and some are not operational due to wrecks and other causes, they had to redeploy a few. Amtrak loses money when a sleeper line has to be dropped. The Florida service was still a moneymaker in the private railroad era too, and Amtrak still has several New York-Florida trains to this day, although they cut one daily frequency back to Savannah, Georgia a few years ago.

        Now some called the North Coast Hiawatha the Mansfield Special, and maybe it was deserved, but in his case, he was serving two constituencies. The rural folks in Northern Montana, and the the cities, which were on the southern tier, Missoula, Butte, Billings, Helena, and Bozeman. He was a good senator, and friend of my Grandpa.(Never met either him or the Senator, my grandpa passed away 20 years before I was born, and my mother’s family moved back to Washington). Now what Mansfield should have lobbied for, was a third route for Amtrak in his state, one that was cut in the ensuing decade before Amtrak, that was more of a series of routes. The locals between Great Falls and Butte should have been kept as connectors, combined with a Union Pacific Train that ran from Southern Idaho into Butte. Would have had a more effective network, but there was a rumor that Amtrak was supposed to last a few years, it was just to take the responsibility for who abandoned what was left away from the railroads. If you read Rush Loving Jr’s article, he mentioned that a business reporter was interviewing the chair of Burlington Northern at the time, and quoted Louis Menk saying that he was upset this agreement had not been fulfilled, then was upset when it was published.

        Now one thing Loving suggests is take politics out of it, which is what worked with Conrail. Rush Loving Jr wrote a book about those decisions that were made, it was called “The Men Who Loved Trains”.

        Passenger Train Journal did a good piece on Passenger Trains in Butte and covered a little on the potential revival of the North Coast. It will most likely bypass Butte in favor of Helena as the line East of Butte is out of service, but still in place, just needs an upgrade. In the old days, Northern Pacific did two services, the North Coast Limited which ran via Butte, and the Mainstreeter, which ran via Helena. Menk tried to kill the latter, but was stymied by the Chair of Northern Pacific, who was on record saying that as long as people rode the Mainstreeter, there would be no discontinuance threats, and people were still riding it. (Fred Frailey, an editor with Kipplingers Personal Finance and frequent TRAINS Magazine contributor wrote a book about his coverage as a beat reporter various passenger train discontinuances in the sixties, called Twilight of the Great Trains, it’s an interesting read.)

      5. Bernie,
        Amtrak’s funding over the past 15 years has been particularly anemic between Congress trying to kill it every year from 1994 to 2005 and an extremely anti-rail administration until last month. I have no reason to believe that will continue.

        In any case as far as I know all of Amtrak’s routes require subsidy. Some may cover operating costs, but none cover capital cost.

        Yes, keeping the long-distance routes is political, but consider that without them there likely would be no Amtrak and no passenger rail in the US other than commuter rail and possibly the NE Corridor.

        As for the study I cited, I wouldn’t get too hung up on the numbers. The study on the Southwest Chief was done in 1984. Given the changes in population and rail ridership since then a matrix study today likely would give different results. Though I suspect the increase in ridership would if anything be more rather than less.

        More ridership likely means lower operating losses and greater political and public support for Amtrak. As I said I was punting on getting the capital needed for say 4 Southwest Chief trains each way per day. But to some extent improving and increasing the fleet needs to be done anyway.

        Don’t get me wrong I think short haul trains that compete with driving or flying like Cascades service should be the focus. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to increase ridership and improve service on the long-haul trains.

        As for displacing freight, that is always going to be a problem whenever you increase the number of passenger trains. However most of the congested areas are near major cities which means the short haul passenger service or commuter rail is going to cause the same problems. Better signaling and dispatching would likely help utilize existing capacity better.

  3. I think the Cascades corridor has a good chance of seeing some of the 8 billion for high speed rail. It is one of the high-speed corridors designated by the USDOT. While it isn’t ready for 110 mph operation yet, there aren’t many places in the US that can be said of. Even the NEC and Keystone corridor have only limited sections with 90 MPH or greater operation.

    Due to prior planning by WSDOT, ODOT, and Sound Transit there are a fair number of projects in the corridor in a “shovel ready” state and a plan to eventually get to 110 MPH operation. The D-to-M and Pt. Defiance bypass projects would be obvious first priorities.

    I wonder if we could get a couple new Talgo sets and some Genesis locomotives to replace the F59PHI. The Genesis have a much better power to weight ratio than the F59 allowing for better acceleration. Also the Genesis match the low profile of the Talgo sets better than the F59.

    Upgrading the signaling to full ATC/PTC would be great and likely allow for more capacity on the line.

  4. I don’t think we should get “HSR” funding unless the tracks are at least their own ROW, hopefully grade-separated, and able to operate at 180 mph+. It would be a bad investment for the federal government. I don’t think “incremental” and relying on BNSF is HSR.

    1. The Feds definition of HSR has never been more than 90 mph. This is a federal law, so as long as Cascades can get above 90 mph, it’ll likely be called HSR.

      1. I’ll also note that the first “bullet trains”, the Shinkansen, only had top speeds of 120 mph. It takes times to get the technology in place, but I agree about not relying on BNSF.

      2. I don’t think there’s a reason for us to start on the lower rung of the tech tier for HSR — why not move near the top newer technologies and dedicated, electrified rail, etc? If it requires changing FRA regulations or the law, then we should do it.

        If we had the chance to lay down new tracks from Chicago to some other Midwest city, that can handle “real” and electrified HSR at above 180 mph, then that’s a much more transformative investment compared to improving Cascades. I mean, unless there is a path where we improve Cascades enough and then it can run electrified, 200 mph HSR. But I don’t want to back ourselves into a corridor shared with BNSF…

      3. I’m will you on this, but $8 billion isn’t enough to build real high speed rail between any three big american cities, with the possible exception of two eastern corridor cities.

        If you look at california high speed rail, it’s $6 billion just from Sacremento to Oakland, and that’s through some fairly low-population areas.

      4. The faster you go the more expensive both the ROW and the trainsets are.

        There are plenty of rail corridors where Talgo trainsets could easily do 125 MPH with good track and modern signaling. Similarly there are plenty of places where Superliner cars could do 90 MPH or better.

        Sharing track with freight sucks, but some of the corridors in question are double, triple, or even quad track mainlines which reduces the congestion issue substantially, especially when high-speed crossovers are installed. Many corridors have room for additional tracks which lets you get a track or two exclusively for passenger use. In fact this is the long-term plan for most of the Seattle to Portland corridor.

        I’m not sure there is a way to do 200 MPH between Seattle and Portland other than for some short sections. New ROW would be a problem for much of the route due to how built up much of the I-5 corridor is. Still it would be possible to electrify the route and to have some sections where Acela like speed could be achieved.

    2. Even the NEC doesn’t meet that definition. Max speed for Acela is 150 MPH. Much of the NEC is limited to 125 MPH. There are only a few sections of track in the US owned by commuter agencies or Amtrak where upgrading past 110 MPH would even be possible without creating new ROW.

      On the other hand with continuous welded rail, concrete ties, and ATC/PTC cab signals 110 MPH is quite possible in mixed traffic.

      Hell just being able to run at 79 MPH between stations would be a major improvement. Depending on the track geometry 90 MPH is quite possible with existing Amtrak rolling stock. The Southwest Chief makes 90 MPH with Genesis locomotives and Superliner cars on portions of its route.

    1. Are we supposed to live like sardines crammed into a can?

      Sounds like flying in coach.

      Hopefully the US gets serious enough about HSR so that is less necessary than before.

  5. I guess if you have to pick a number 90mph is as good as any for defining HSR in the US. I don’t think the focus should be on speed so much as economics. What routes are going to be able to compete successfully with air? SEA to PDX can do that with an average speed of 90mph. Investing in upgrades to the BNSF corridor (or UP) isn’t backing into a corner but developing a market which can in time expand north and south and/or transition to dedicated ROW.

    Spending money on trains like the Empire Builder so that it will lose money slower makes no sense. Spending millions to preserve 30 jobs in Montana? This really is paying one crew to bury $100 bills and another to go dig them up. Auction off mandated access to the rails on the excursion routes to private companies which will operate them like a business. In the end it will help states like Montana because the service will be directed toward tourism which was one of the original purposes of the railroad passenger service in these areas to begin with. The trains weren’t designed to take people through Montana on the way back and forth from Chicago to Seattle but take people from Seattle and Chicago to the great lodges along the right of way.

    1. Bernie,
      I agree about the short haul routes. There are plenty of corridors where even 79 MPH service competes well with flying or driving (SEA/PDX, Chicago/Milwaukee). Remember that for trips of 4 hours or less by car people are just as likely to drive as fly. If you can compete with auto travel times on those trips you will draw passengers.

      I would disagree about the long distance routes. I think managed properly the ridership on the long-distance trains could be significantly boosted and the operating losses reduced or eliminated entirely.

      For what its worth the two long distance trains with the highest ridership are the Coast Starlight and the Empire Builder.

      1. Here is some info from a group that attacks National Association of Rail Passengers for being too-Amtrak Apologist, and the critics that push HSR-only over a national system. So I give the URPA some credibility. They also every once in awhile push some ideas to upgrade the trains to bring in more revenue. One of their best brainstorms is Florida improvements, but another is Midwest out of Chicago and New Orleans. The City of New Orleans is the nominal Chicago-New Orleans service, but there is potential, according to them to improve service. Simply extending the Illini or Saluki past Carbondale and on to Memphis and New Orleans is one, but other ideas they push is bring back the River Cities, a connection the City of New Orleans had with St. Louis and KC.

    2. Have you ever rode the Empire Builder? It is a rural lifeline, that also happens to pass through Glacier National Park, and when they shutter West Glacier and East Glacier for the season, they shift service to Browning, providing crucial service about the time it gets to be very dangerous to use US2. I have heard about the Rocky Mountaineer, and they make it harder for VIA Rail to reconnect service between Vancouver and Calgary even though they will not be competing. The Empire Builder some say actually makes money, especially because there is something missing from the HSR is the only kind of train in the US’s Future crowd. AMTRAK Owns the NEC, they are on the hook for maintenance, and they have been doing a poor job of that, as it takes a lot more capitol. Those who ride in the sleeper on the Empire Builder are paying much more than those who are riding the Acela Express, the fares are pro-rated, and there is also a surcharge. Also, when I took the Empire Builder to a family reunion in Eastern Montana a few years ago, we had to book months in advance, so my grandma and mother could have a sleeper room. I chose to bear it out in Coach, because I would probably spend a lot of time in the Sightseer lounge car, thought it would be a waste. Speaking of the lounge car, Amtrak needs more of them, but one company that could build a better one, has folded.

      Also, overnight trains are not obsolete, or Deutsche Bahn, a big operator of High Speed services, would not be operating them on their domestic market, as well as into other countries. In fact, there is a potential for High Speed Sleepers, China is deploying some, and I think Russian Railways will eventually come up with one for the TranSiberian, it takes 8 days for the Rossiya, the fastest service on that route, to get from Moscow to Vladivostok. As for taking Aeroflot, I have not heard too much of RZD Engineers being drunk on the job like Aeroflot pilots have been.

      In fact, Amtrak got to standardized because of people like you calling anything outside of the corridors a waste of money. They also got too into owning infrastructure. I would like to see Amtrak provide a more luxury service above the standard sleeper like VIA Rail uses on the the Ocean between Montreal and Halifax(coincidently their only LD Train that runs more than 3 days a week), with a higher premium, better amenities. I would use the privately operated Indian Pacific and Ghan in Australia as one example, but they are cutting back from 2 days a week to one on both the Sydney-Perth Indian Pacific and the Adelaide-Darwin Ghan. Stations on the Empire Builder are unstaffed in many places, in some, not even really a station. In Malta, MT, a caretaker comes by and opens the door a few hours before westbound 7/27 come, and shortly after 8/28 goes eastbound.

      Bernie, you care about what loses money, o.k. you are right, Amtrak is technically a corporation, but it’s full name is National Rail Passenger Corporation, not a collection of high-ridership, low-revenue, short trip corridors. When it comes to profitably running a train, local populations get the short end of the stick outside of populated areas.

      1. I had to book well in advance for a mini-sleeper as well on the Empire Builder. This seems like a waste of potential revenue to me. Can’t trains be easily extended? It seems like it would be trivial to connect a few more cars on weekends.

      2. Failed initiatives like the Mail and Express drive(sold as a revenue enhancer and profit maker) and half-hearted initiatives like the Acela Express drained the budget to make a third buy of Superliners, as well as shortage of money to repair wrecked cars to put them back into service drained the pool of extra cars. I have heard stories over the years of anywhere between 20-100 out of service Superliners stored at Beech Grove needing repairs.

        By the way, promotions of Amtrak Trains, anybody see Extreme Trains on the History Channel. Two Amtrak runs were featured, the Acela Express and one Long Distance Train, the Empire Builder. I liked the show because the guy was doing hands on work, being a railroader himself in Maine. Maine saw it’s first American Passenger Train in 40 years when the Downeaster started up. VIA Rail’s Atlantic served Northern Maine until it was cut in 1993.(Political Payback by the Liberals against one of only two Progressive Conservative MPs to survive the election that year. Besides passing through that guy’s riding, the Atlantic skirted across Northern Maine en route to Halifax, and made 3 stops).

      3. I’ve never ridden the Empire Builder (I do have an HO model of the GN version ;-) but I did look at it for a trip this weekend to Spokane. As has always been the case when I’ve looked at travel by train it’s just not a viable mode of transportation. Return to Seattle at 2am? I don’t think so. Spokane to Seattle might be viable with more frequent service but running more trains all the way to Chicago isn’t the answer.

        Don’t get me wrong, I love trains and believe routes like the Empire Builder can be profitable. To it’s credit Amtrak has started matching frequency with demand (cutting it’s costs) and increased it’s emphasis on luxury travel (increasing revenue). Presumably frequency will be restored as demand warrants. I just believe that contracting the route to a private operator would have resulted in these changes much faster.

        The cruise ship industry has thrived over the last several decades. There’s no reason to believe long distance train travel wouldn’t do the same if driven by the market rather than politics. What would the cruise industry look like if instead of Norwegian, Princes, Royal Caribbean we had Amboat instead? Trains as a means of transcontinental transport disappeared around the same time that steam ships lost out on transatlantic travel.

        I suppose the same argument could be made for the short haul corridors except that these are much more aligned with public transit than vacation travel. I do believe though that once the public investment in infrastructure is made privatizing these operations is something that should be considered as there’s a natural synergy between air and rail travel.

      4. When you cut back frequency, you lose riders. Before Amtrak, Great Northern h had not one, but two trains on the Hi-Line, the Empire Builder, and the Western Star, the latter was more of a mail train, but carried coaches, sleepers and a diner. They also had a variety of accomodations, besides leg-rest,long distance coaches, they also had a higher capacity coach for short-distance trips. Something Amtrak got rid of when they took over. Also, the sleepers they kept from the single-level stock, were the 10-6s, the Great Northern had sleepers not too far different than what VIA Rail uses on the Canadians, with a variety of accommodations, from the Open Section to triple bedrooms. It even had for a promotion once for an en-route coach to sleeper upgrade with the open section, the Bed and Breakfeast option. Since the Ocean was upgraded with some used(but not too used) sleepers from Britain that ended up being a nightmare and VIA should have bought new, they have extra cars to add to the Canadian, sometimes the Tri-Weekly train leaves Toronto and Vancouver with nearly 30 cars, mostly sleepers. Amtrak has got to the point where it is one diner and one lounge, and sometimes that is combined into a single car. What VIA does, and I would like to see Amtrak try it, is add extra Sightseer Lounge cars to the Empire Builder, in between sleepers. The sightseeing space would be increased.

        Sure the cruise industry has done good, and I would like to have seen what they have done up in Alaska duplicated here, but you know who pulls their sightseeing coaches? An outfit called the Alaska Railroad, owned by the State of Alaska. Many of the cruise cars are hitched to the Denali Star, the daily summer train between Ship Creek(Anchorage) and Fairbanks. It did help get the ARR into providing their own service with those cars, and make their own service pretty good. During the off-season, the cruise trains are idle, and the Denali Star is suspended, replaced with the Aurora, which provides essential flag-stop service, once a week, augmented by a monthly run of the Hurricane. The latter is going to get more expensive next year with the forced retirement of the BUDD RDCs, especially during the summer when it increases frequency to 4 days a week. The Hurricane is it for the people that live along the route. It is mandated service, which they cannot get rid of. The ARR bought their ultradomes from CRC, but hesitated to buy new equipment for service that Alaskans use.

        Now for the National Network, Amtrak Cascades would have had to be suspended if the Empire Builder was not there, and the TALGOs are out of action. Remember when they were pulled because of microfractures in the axles? How did Amtrak get the Amfleet cars pulled from the Midwest and the Northeast here? They were deadheaded on their regular trains, including the Empire Builder. By the way, TALGO also makes a sleeper version. It is used on the luxury Trenhotel(a private run, I believe) in Spain, on some Deutsche Bahn routes in Germany(To be privatized, but the plan is suspended), and being proposed for a more effecient operation of the Berlin-Eastern Europe-Moscow overnight services.(Spain has both standard and broad gauge lines, so TALGO developed a variable-gauge axle for their train, more effecient than what RZD does, jacking up the trains at the border and switching trucks).

      5. All great points that point to why Amtrak, at least as it’s currently mandated is incapable of ever restoring long distance train travel. The State of Alaska partners with the tour industry because it’s run like a business. You know how it can be done. There may be people in Amtrak management that know what needs to be done. But even if they do they’re not allowed to do it. Running these routes like cruise ships would completely blow the political cover necessary to divert federal “transit” funds to the pork barrel favoritism which Amtrak currently provides.

        United Rail Passenger Alliance seems to be a pretty good arbiter of the facts. Their idea of a restructured Amtrak where long distance is separated from commuter rail is an interesting proposition. While I’d like to see it privately run the decades of federal mismanagement may warrant an intermediary solution. At least it would focus attention on the transit part of the equation where government has to play a role. A role much different than the “same old same old” which has been entrenched over the decades since Amtrak was created.

      6. The ARR should have also invested in the service for the locals too, and even those services have some tourist potential. I first learned of the Hurricane Turn from watching a travel show. Something interesting I learned when doing follow up reading. The Hurricane may be the most well protected train out there. The Conductor takes any weapons the passengers are carrying until they get out. If there were a James Gang up there, they would not get on board. Every passenger packs, because of the bear problems. The Hurricane itself could be a tourist train, and that could be something worth looking into when they go buying any new rolling stock for it.

        I had high hopes for the Colorado Railcar DMU, and the ARR would have been a prime example for showing off potential flexibility. The BUDD RDCs have been retired due to wiring problems not economically repairable.(I saw old footage once of them kicking the engine to get it started. They had been rebuilt once or twice since then). CRC was offering a low-floor trailer, would have helped out in some of the rural areas, as well as in Anchorage. They have one DMU coming, for the Chugach Explorer, but if they had made an order one to two years ago, they could have replaced the Budd cars, and had a few for proposed Commuter Rail in Anchorage, and the Chugach Explorer.

        RailPac in California from time to time proposes building new corridor coaches out of Metrolink commuter cars. One of two of them modified for the Hurricane might be worth trying.

        VIA Rail in Canada operates a real anachronism on behalf of a First Nation band in rural Manitoba. A mixed train, the last one in Canada after the Ontario Northland separated the freight and passenger components of the Little Bear. It runs between The Pas and Puskatawagen(forget exactly how it is spelled), connecting at the Pas with the Hudson Bay running to Winnipeg. One time the local passengers staged a revolting protest over VIA catering more towards the land cruise portion of it instead of the local passenger traffic, but VIA settled it by shaking loose a coach or two they held in reserve at The Pas. The Mixed Train, 290/291, was something I was hoping could be tried on branch lines if gas prices get any higher, so rural communities can still be connected. The last US Mixed Trains operated by the Georgia Railroad were discontinued in the early 1980s. Ironically, it was a tax exemption if they offered passenger service that kept that service operating so long.

      7. I don’t know that you’d need to rebuild Metrolink coaches unless Metrolink has a surplus (sort of like how extra Sounder gear is leased out all over the place).

        As far as I know Bombardier is still making new bi-level cars. I’m sure they would be more than willing to do a custom interior configuration for corridor trains.

  6. Australia actually has one railway that is a balance between city and rural services, and even includes what can be considered for that area, High Speed Rail(they are planning an upgrade to 125MPH). Queensland Rail, which has freight, two passenger networks(one for the outback, one for Brisbane), and electric tilt trains. The outback services run under a different name, and some only run a few days a week. Now inter and intrastate services from the operator standpoint in Australia are a nightmare, got to have dual-gauge rails because in some areas, they have not gone Standard. Got Broad Gauge in Victoria,(but a dual-gauge rail for the interstate route), Standard for the Transcontinental including the route the IP runs on, Standard in New South Wales, Narrow-gauge in Queensland. The Darwin line was not even completed until 2004. Before the 1970s, there was a Break of gauge near Adelaide where passengers had to transfer, Mark Twain, upon visiting it, had an interesting saying. “What stroke of parliamentary paralysis dreamed this up?”, plus, he was transferring in the early morning hours, so they woke him up.

    The Great Southern Railway lacks one interesting aspect to it, and it might be a cost saver for them, locomotives. That is provided by a Hook and Pull contract with Pacific National, the freight operator. Although it might be interesting to see if they went into the business for themselves. Some Australian Freights carry a coach for the crew, because crew change points are not exactly near civilization in some places. Might be interesting if the operator decided to sell a few seats to get some revenue out of that car.

  7. Australia actually has one railway that is a balance between city and rural services, and even includes what can be considered for that area, High Speed Rail(they are planning an upgrade to 125MPH). Queensland Rail, which has freight, two passenger networks(one for the outback, one for Brisbane), and electric tilt trains. The outback services run under a different name, and some only run a few days a week. Now inter and intrastate services from the operator standpoint in Australia are a nightmare, got to have dual-gauge rails because in some areas, they have not gone Standard. Got Broad Gauge in Victoria,(but a dual-gauge rail for the interstate route), Standard for the Transcontinental including the route the IP runs on, Standard in New South Wales, Narrow-gauge in Queensland. The Darwin line was not even completed until 2004. Before the 1970s, there was a Break of gauge near Adelaide where passengers had to transfer, Mark Twain, upon visiting it, had an interesting saying. “What stroke of parliamentary paralysis dreamed this up?”, plus, he was transferring in the early morning hours, so they woke him up.
    (It’s a travel info site, but he provides links to Queensland Rail, Great Southern Railway, Countrylink, and TransWa)

    The Great Southern Railway lacks one interesting aspect to it, and it might be a cost saver for them, locomotives. That is provided by a Hook and Pull contract with Pacific National, the freight operator. Although it might be interesting to see if they went into the business for themselves. Some Australian Freights carry a coach for the crew, because crew change points are not exactly near civilization in some places. Might be interesting if the operator decided to sell a few seats to get some revenue out of that car.

  8. Sorry about the double post, I did not know the first one went through with the two links.

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