American Railroads

News each weekday of American railroads. Our focus is on freight rail, but Amtrak and commuter rail are also essential ingredients. Nothing published on holidays.

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Location: Middleburg (Jacksonville), Florida, United States

Published in Trains magazine, Railfan & Railroad, Passenger Train Journal

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Whither the Sunset?

The Florida Coalition of Rail Passengers (FCRP) says Amtrak’s Sunset Limited, train Nos. 1 and 2, are finished east of New Orleans.

The organization stated in an e-mail letter, “FCRP has received two letters from Amtrak, one from David Laney and the other from David Hughes, making it pretty clear that they have no intention of re-starting the Sunset Limited east of New Orleans.”

The letter added, “Their rationale is that a tri-weekly train that runs on its own schedule over a route that can be driven in less time is irrelevant. Requalifying the crews is a technicality to maintain crew currency until a final determination is made about the long-term future of the Sunset Limited route.”

The FCRP said communities between New Orleans and Tampa, where the eastbound train terminated, want the service restored.

“The success that FCRP has had with its grass roots campaign clearly shows that cities along the line want rail service in the panhandle. The only town that didn’t really care was Lake City.”

Charlie Dunn, a National Assn. of Railroad Passengers Region V representatives, said “Nothing short of direct Congressional intervention is going to change Amtrak’s mind on this. With the Sunset Limited being the whipping boy for what is wrong with Amtrak, I’d be surprised if the train survives in its current form west of New Orleans either.”

In law, the railroad’s action has been blatantly illegal.

The law states clearly what must be done in the event Amtrak wants a train-off.

TITLE 49 of the U.S. Code for Transportation states, in Subtitle V dealing with rail programs and Part C, Passenger Transportation (Chapter 247, Amtrak route system, Sec. 24706. Discontinuance

“(a) Notice of Discontinuance. - (1) Except as provided in subsection (b) of this section, at least 180 days before a discontinuance under section 24704 (1) or or (2) discontinuing service over a route, Amtrak shall give notice of the discontinuance in the way Amtrak decides will give a State, a regional or local authority, or another person the opportunity to agree to share or assume the cost of any part of the train, route, or service to be discontinued.”

The law continues, “(2) Notice of the discontinuance under section 24704 (1) or paragraph (1) shall be posted in all stations served by the train to be discontinued at least 14 days before the discontinuance.

(b) Discontinuance for Lack of Appropriations. - (1) Amtrak may discontinue service under section 24704 (!1) or subsection (a)(1) during - (A) the first month of a fiscal year if the authorization of appropriations and the appropriations for Amtrak are not enacted at least 90 days before the beginning of the fiscal year; and (B) the 30 days following enactment of an appropriation for Amtrak or a rescission of an appropriation.

“(2) Amtrak shall notify each affected State or regional or local transportation authority of a discontinuance under this subsection as soon as possible after Amtrak decides to discontinue the service.”

To our knowledge, Amtrak’s directors have done none of these things.

‘Sprinter’ arrives in West

Siemens Transportation Systems, Inc. (STS) on Tuesday delivered its first diesel multiple unit (DMU) in the U.S. to the North County Transit District (NCTD).

“Sprinter” regional transportation provides 22 miles of passenger service over a freight line that runs parallel with Highway 78, connecting Oceanside, Vista, San Marcos and Escondido, Cal.

The Sprinter, traveling at a top operating speed of 55 mph, will make triple the number of stops in less time than the existing express bus connection and can still save riders 16 minutes making the trip between Oceanside and Escondido in just under an hour, Siemens claimed.

Manufactured in Germany at Siemens’ Krefeld-Uerdingen plant, the Desiro family of trains allows transit agencies to operate regional rail as well as buses.

Coal demand challenges BNSF

Coal supplies at the nation’s electric utilities increased in June for the sixth consecutive month, according to a report from the Energy Information Administration (EIA). In addition, it was the first time in more than 20 years that coal supplies have increased from May to June, according to the report.

Writing in BNSF Today, the carrier stated “Electric power sector coal inventories in June were 15.3 percent ahead of June 2005, and registered an unusual 0.2 percent growth from May 2006,” according to an EIA estimate of electric power data released August 21. “This growth in coal inventories was the first increase between May and June since 1985.” EIA estimated the coal inventory at electric utilities at 133.5 million tons in June, up 15.3 percent from a year earlier.

According to a news release from the Association of American Railroads (AAR), the increase was made even more impressive by the fact that electric utility coal consumption increased 7.9 percent in June from May as electricity generation jumped 10.3 percent from May due to hot weather and the increased use of air conditioning.

“Railroads are moving more coal than ever before in history in order to keep pace with the demand from electric utilities for cost-effective coal,” noted Edward R. Hamberger, president and CEO of the AAR.

“New, more powerful and more fuel-efficient locomotives have been put into service to handle the increase. Rail lines are being double, triple and even quadruple tracked to keep up with the demand and ensure that U.S. coal producers and consumers have access to the most comprehensive and efficient coal transportation system in the world.”

The nation’s freight railroads this year are investing a record $8.3 billion to expand capacity to meet the future needs of a wide range of shippers, including coal. Freight railroads typically pump some 45 cents of every dollar of operating revenue into improving and maintaining their infrastructure and equipment, and their capital spending as a percentage of revenue is five times higher than the average U.S. manufacturer.

Railroads this year are on a pace to set records not just for coal but also for total freight volume and intermodal volume, all of which set records last year. Coal is up 4.3 percent from last year, while total volume is up 2.7 percent and intermodal is up 6.4 percent from last year’s record.


A Washington dirty little secret

By Wes Vernon

You won’t believe this. Or maybe you will if you run and hide when you hear, “Hi, we’re from your government, and we’re here to help you.”

In this case, the chilling greeting comes from the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), those wonderful folks who since 9/11/2001 (under strict orders from the recently-resigned Secretary Norman Mineta) have been wanding little old ladies from Keokuk, Iowa, at America’s airports – all in the name of political correctness. USDOT now has decided that it will apply the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in such a manner as to make it theoretically easier for the wheelchair-bound to board passenger trains.

There is just one problem, and in a metaphorical sense, it comes under the heading of the old gag, “The operation was a great success, but the patient died.”

DOT has proposed a rule requiring that every single passenger train platform in the United States stretches the full length of the longest train that serves the route, and provides level (no steps) boarding for all doors.

That would mean – for all intents and purposes – the end of most passenger trains in the U.S., commuter and inter-city. It would mean forcing the industry or publicly backed (read taxpayer-funded) commuter train agencies to see to it that all station platforms are “high-level” (so as to avoid having to use steps to board the train).

To give you an idea of the enormity of the problem, consider this: When you add up the intercity, commuter, light rail, and rapid rail (subway style) operations, the multi-millions of Americans riding trains on a daily basis are many times the millions who fly from America’s airports.

This by no means is a thin slice of the populace.

Two points about this allegedly well-intended rule.

First, an overwhelming number of train stations – especially in rural and suburban areas, but also many in big cities, as well – have ground-level platforms requiring steps to board and leave the trains. Many have built “lifts” to enable the disabled to enter and exit so as to bypass the steps. Not good enough, says USDOT.

I should know about the lifts. A few years ago, the drawn-out process of enabling a passenger to exit a light rail car in San Diego caused me to miss my connection with an Amtrak train just three blocks away. I had to wait another two hours for the next train. Even then, I was lucky. In other circumstances, an unplanned overnight stay would have been necessary. Nothing against San Diego, but that would have been ridiculous. Yet in some places where Amtrak runs just one train a day, that probably has happened to others.

In reality, the stations currently with high platforms are confined mostly to some (but not all) of those in a few large metropolitan areas.

Just to complicate things a little more, many stations host trains whose cars have doors of differing heights above the rail. So, how do you build a platform that can grant “level” access to different model cars on the same train?

Are you following me on this? If so, you are apparently way ahead of some rule-making bureaucrat at USDOT. It is as if he awoke one morning and decided to call attention to his importance by playing the bull in a china shop with an industry of which he possesses a profound ignorance.

David Johnson of the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) told this writer, “Our opinion is that if the [rule] is adopted as is, there will be no more passenger rail expansion in the United States – when we need it more than ever – and that most existing services would be in danger.”

Back in 1990, when the ADA bill was being debated in Congress, I interviewed one of its strongest advocates – left-wing gadfly Ralph Nees. He argued that any inconvenience it might cause should take a back seat to “civil rights.” (Little “inconveniences” like shutting down an entire industry and/or service to the public. Sorry, their “civil rights” don’t count.)

Later, an original architect of the law, former Sen. Lowell Weicker (R-Conn.), told me “common sense” would surely prevail in the law’s implementation. This came in answer to a question about a lawsuit demanding handicap facilities for crippled dancers. (I’m not making this up.)

Industry and rail advocacy groups have protested to USDOT urging that the rule not be adopted, and suggesting a blue-ribbon study in search of better and more practical real-world ways to facilitate wheelchair-bound passengers’ use of the trains.

One hopes they find a solution that squares with common sense for the truly “disabled,” but when you have obese people demanding larger seats in theatres… and then there was that lawsuit in the name of crippled dancers, you have to wonder about what goes on in the heads of bureaucrats whose anonymity is fiercely protected. Just try to get the name of anyone in government who writes a weird proposal. He can write a decree that the cow must jump over the moon and leave you to cope with the details – but you will never learn his name.

NARP in its statement to USDOT said that, “regulations regarding wheelchairs will best serve the needs of both disabled persons and the general public if they promote the improvement and expansion of passenger rail transportation.” The proposal “does not meet those guidelines.” In fact it would cause “a reduction in convenience [and] quality of safety, [for] the general public, including passengers and railroad workers.”

The American Public Transportation Assn. (APTA) told USDOT the idea “would require significant practical, operational issues, as well as greatly expanded costs,” and would “lead ultimately to a reduction in transportation alternatives for both the disabled and the general population.”

The dramatic increase in costs would be compounded by the fact that “full length boarding” with bridge plates for persons in wheelchairs would have to square somehow with the fact that many stations lack platforms at any height and also that many stations have infrequent service or very low traffic volumes; but that would not matter.

USDOT’s ivory tower theorists make no distinction between Penn Station, New York, and Essex, Montana.

This is what happens when politicians on Capitol Hill write laws with deliberately vague wording.

“Why would they do that?” you ask.

Answer: They simply let the faceless bureaucrats do the heavy lifting behind their anonymity. You see, unelected regulators won’t have to face the angry voters in the next election. That is one of Washington’s dirty little secrets as to how so many in this town avoid accountability. The buck stops nowhere and everywhere.

Ex-Senator Weicker was actually a strong supporter of passenger trains when he was on Capitol Hill. One cannot help wondering what he thinks of this result of his legislative crusade.

BTW: Weicker is now backing Ned Lamont (D), the far-left peacenik running against Sen. Joe Lieberman (D) in Connecticut. It figures. Lieberman ousted Weicker 18 years ago. Now it’s payback time, and not just against Lieberman. Perhaps one could say – only half facetiously – that the USDOT rule may be Weicker’s revenge against the voters who booted him out of office. There are lots of train riders in Connecticut.

Washington-based writer Wes Vernon is the former Washington DC Bureau Chief of the National Corridors Initiative, which publishes the passenger rail website “Destination: Freedom”; and veteran broadcast journalist retired from a 25-year career at CBS. This piece originally appeared in and is republished here with the author’s permission.


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