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Let’s Get On Board With High-Speed Rail

Practically every wealthy nation today is making major investments in building high-speed rail networks to transport their people: Japan, Canada, France, Russia, India, England, Morocco, Korea, Saudi Arabia, Italy, China, Mexico, Poland, Spain, Brazil, Germany, South Africa, Turkey and more. But not us, the wealthiest nation, with dozens of cities dotted across a continent with millions of people who need fast, convenient rail connection.

Why are we stuck in traffic on roadways and runways and left with a pokey, out-of-date rail system while nations with a small fraction of our resources — such as Morocco, Poland and Turkey — are cruising on HSR networks? Because our leaders sold us out to corporate hucksters who fed us ideological lies. Their fairy tale was that mass transit is creaky, inherently inefficient, and socialist — and that Americans deserve the independence that comes from a one-person-one-car doctrine.

As early as the 1930s, giant corporate consortiums formed to buy out more than 100 of America’s very effective networks of streetcars and interurban train systems. Not to run them, but to rip out the tracks and pave over the rail right-of-ways to make roads. Likewise, corporate profiteers mounted a new offensive in the 1990s to undermine the higher-speed potential of Amtrak’s Acela trains, hiring such Koch-funded front groups as Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation and Reason Foundation to spread hokey “analyses” that brand Amtrak as a slow train to collectivist hell. They also bought trainloads of politicians, who’re still promoting the fabricated studies and talking points of the corporate-cabal to derail HSR proposals.

Despite attempts to kill the notion of a national passenger rail system, trains are only getting more popular. Here are just a few things that HSR would offer our county:

–HSR construction creates a start-up economic boom (from the manufacturing of trains and equipment; the construction of everything from bridges to stations; the installation of high-tech control systems; the generation of renewable energy to power the electric engines; the development of new businesses to serve rail passengers, and more) and would be a sustained source of good, permanent jobs running and maintaining the network.

–HSR is a boon for passengers, providing a competitive alternative to airline rip-offs and traffic congestion. Travellers get access to more cities, safer and more comfortable rides and the ability to work or just relax on the road.

–HSR trains are powered by electricity, thus they substantially reduce consumption of grossly polluting fossil fuels.

–HSR crisscrossing America would be a monumental achievement by and for our people, on a par with the 10-year moon-landing effort launched by President Kennedy or the interstate highway system initiated by President Eisenhower. It would be a history-making project, worthy of a nation with unsurpassed wealth and under-used talent. Creating such a treasure for future generations would re-engage our people’s can-do spirit, and it just might rekindle some sense of national unity.

The U.S. is in the caboose of transportation innovation because special-interest politics continue to thwart our national will, leaving you and me with a rickety, malfunctioning rail system that is a national embarrassment. It’s unforgivable that corporate and political leaders have intentionally failed to maintain, much less improve, the quality of America’s rail infrastructure for future generations. And the cowardice of Congress critters, who take special-interest money to oppose the best policies for the common good, is not only shamefully corrupt; it’s a firing offense.

That’s where we come in. High-speed rail offers such huge benefits for us that we need to push it to the center of our policy demands, especially with a national election cycle already on us. To learn more, contact the National Association of Railroad Passengers (www.narprail.org) and US High Speed Rail Association (www.ushsr.com).

To find out more about Jim Hightower, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2015 CREATORS.COM

Photo: Rich via Flickr

Amtrak At Risk Of Disruption In Railroad Showdown With Congress

By Thomas Black, Bloomberg News (TNS)

DALLAS — Amtrak passenger service that runs on tracks owned by freight rail companies may be curtailed unless Congress extends a Dec. 31 deadline to implement a safety system that was mandated seven years ago.

December 2018 would be “more realistic” for implementing the technology, which automatically stops trains to prevent a collision or unsafe speeds, the Association of American Railroads said Tuesday in a statement. The system, known as positive train control, is to be installed on all lines that carry chemicals and passengers, a goal that the five major freight rail companies say can’t be done by the end of this year.

The current target “is arbitrary, unworkable and unrealistic,” said the group, which raised the possibility that the industry may curtail service on lines in January to prevent being in violation of the law.

Only about a third of Amtrak’s 31.6 million passengers in fiscal 2013 traveled on its own tracks, so the majority may be affected if the freight railroads curtail or stop services. Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington will be ready by the deadline, said spokesman Marc Magliari. Positive train control is already on its line from Porter, Ind., to Kalamazoo, Mich.

Congress imposed the system on the railroads after a Los Angeles passenger train collided with a freight train in 2008, killing 25; a Metrolink engineer was sending text messages just before the crash.

The railroads face fines and penalties if the system isn’t operating by the end of the year. The Senate voted in July for an extension that requires having positive train control operational by no later than the end of 2018 in a transportation bill that needs approval from the House.

BNSF Railway Co., the railroad owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., said in July that it is analyzing suspending operations on rail lines that require the safety system. The obligation for railroads to provide service to customers “is not absolute” and can be halted for safety reasons, Daniel Elliott, chairman of the Surface Transportation Board said in a Sept. 3 letter.

For BNSF to comply with the law “means about 11,300 miles of track that needs to be equipped,” said Michael Trevino, a spokesman, in an e-mail Tuesday.

The freight railroads, which have spent more than $5.7 billion on the system, will be put in an impossible situation if the deadline isn’t extended, the railroad association said. “If they stop or reduce services to avoid being in violation of the PTC law, they may face claims or litigation related to those competing obligations to provide service,” the group said.

Photo: An Amtrak train. Problems continue to plague the ailing transportation behemoth. Visit Florida Editor/Flickr

Turnover At The Top Hits Amtrak At A Critical Time

By Paul Nussbaum, The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

PHILADELPHIA — As it recovers from its worst accident on the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak faces frequent management turnover and structural change, in addition to chronic financial and political challenges.

Former Amtrak executives say the turmoil at the top in recent years has disrupted railroad management and distracted employees from their daily duties.

Steven Ditmeyer, a former Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) executive and now an adjunct professor in railway management at Michigan State University, said: “Rapid changes in management are never good, unless they’re aimed at getting rid of nonfunctioning people. Management turmoil is of concern.”

With upper management in flux, former Amtrak executives say, Amtrak may not have worked aggressively enough after deadly train wrecks on other passenger railroads — on Dec. 1, 2013, in New York and on July 24, 2013, in Spain — to identify fixes on its rail network that could have prevented the May 12 derailment in Philadelphia that killed eight passengers and injured 200.

Both 2013 accidents involved speeding trains that derailed going too fast into a curve. That’s also what happened in the Philadelphia crash, at the sharpest curve between Washington and New York.

“After that kind of accident, everybody is put on notice,” said a former Amtrak executive, who requested anonymity, of the wrecks in New York and Spain. “You would think you would take a look at your sensitive points and say, ‘We don’t want that to happen here.’

“But people are more concerned with keeping their jobs than doing their jobs.”

Only after the Philadelphia derailment — at the order of the Federal Railroad Administration — did Amtrak quickly install automatic-braking circuitry on the northbound side of the Frankford Junction curve, which would have prevented the fatal derailment.

Amtrak had installed that braking system 24 years earlier on the southbound side of the curve and at several other tight curves on the Northeast Corridor, to automatically slow speeding trains if the engineer doesn’t.

“Certainly one of the reactions to the Metro-North derailment (in 2013) could have been, ‘Let me take a look at all my sharp curves and make sure I have protection for all my sharp curves,'” said rail expert Allan Zarembski of the University of Delaware. “With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it would have been a good idea.”

Amtrak president and CEO Joseph Boardman rejected the argument that Amtrak missed a chance to prevent the deadly Philadelphia derailment.

He said the lack of automatic-braking circuitry on the northbound side of the Frankford curve was based on Amtrak’s assumption that trains wouldn’t enter the curve at more than the 80 m.p.h. maximum speed allowed on the preceding straightaway.

“The notion that an engineer might actually accelerate into the northbound curve was not a circumstance we anticipated, and thus we didn’t mitigate for it,” Boardman told a congressional hearing last month. “It was a reasonable decision reached by reasonable experts under reasonable circumstances.”

An Amtrak spokeswoman said that after the deadly Metro-North derailment on Dec. 1, 2013, in the Bronx, N.Y., Amtrak followed safety recommendations from the FRA: reminding employees of rules against speeding; producing a video focused on safety and teamwork; and having supervisors hold face-to-face meetings with employees to discuss the rules reminder and share the video. Amtrak also increased operational tests to verify that its trains were following the speed rules, said the spokeswoman, Christina Leeds.

Boardman, meanwhile, defended Amtrak’s management reshuffle, the latest in a series of reorganizations in the railroad’s 45-year history to try to improve finances and operations and placate Congress.

The recent turnover has affected senior executives and key operational positions.

For example, Amtrak’s chief engineer, Rodrigo Bitar, started his job on May 11, one day before the deadly derailment of Train 188 in Philadelphia’s Port Richmond neighborhood.

He is based in Philadelphia to manage 4,000 people who maintain Amtrak’s tracks, communications, signals, stations, and bridges, and he is the third person in the critical post in two years.

Amtrak also has had three deputy chief engineers of maintenance in two years, in charge of maintaining track, signals, and traction power.

In addition, in the last two years, Amtrak has installed a new chief financial officer, chief transportation officer, controller, treasurer, chief of research and strategy, general manager for long-distance services, chief of customer services, general manager of state-supported services, and police chief.

“Knowledgeable people are leaving, and no one really wants to work there, just at a time when great things are needed to expand the infrastructure,” another former Amtrak executive, who also requested anonymity, said.

Boardman disagreed, saying that many of the railroad’s management changes are significant improvements, the result of the strategic plan he created in 2011 to reorganize Amtrak into four “business lines.”

“Change is constant,” the Amtrak CEO said. “But these aren’t turnovers, these are additions to try to continue to try to move forward in improving on our strategic plan … to improve safety, customer service, and financial excellence.

“And we’re making progress in all of those areas.”

Boardman cited ridership and revenue growth, new train orders and declining debt the last four years as evidence of that progress.
Amtrak carried 31 million passengers last year, its 11th increase in 12 years, while it collected revenue of $3.2 billion, also a record.

The railroad’s operating subsidy from the federal government declined from $565 million in fiscal 2010 to $250 million this year.
Amtrak has never been able to meet its congressional mandate to turn a profit. It received $1.4 billion from Congress this year to cover the operating deficit, as well as capital costs for construction, new vehicles, and debt payments.

Federal aid may be less next year: On June 9, the U.S. House approved a proposed budget that would cut Amtrak’s funding by about 17 percent, or $242 million.

U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., a former Amtrak board member, said: “There are some people where I work who would just as soon kill Amtrak.

“Amtrak needs investment. It needs certainty. It needs dedicated funding,” said Carper, a frequent passenger. He was on Train 188 on May 12, but got off in Wilmington shortly before the wreck in Philadelphia.

Because Amtrak relies on unpredictable annual federal appropriations, the railroad lurches from year to year in a constant state of near-crisis.

“It looks like a company, but it is really a government agency,” said Jim Mathews, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. “People complain that a ‘real’ company could be more responsive to markets and its customers.

“That’s like getting angry when frogs can’t fly.”

Amtrak inherited decrepit bridges, tunnels, and equipment when it took over passenger service from the private freight railroads in 1971. Since then, its backlog of worn-out infrastructure has been growing.

Now it would require an estimated $21 billion to restore just the 457-mile Northeast Corridor to a state of good repair. Amtrak and eight regional commuter railroads carry 750,000 passengers a day on 2,000 trains on the corridor.

Boardman, Amtrak’s chief executive since 2008, has repeatedly pleaded with Congress for more money to prevent what he warned last year could be “a bigger, costlier, and far more damaging failure than anything we have seen.”

Boardman, 66, a former New York state transportation commissioner with a master’s degree in management science, has responded to Amtrak’s financial straits and congressional demands by redrawing Amtrak’s organizational charts and shifting managers’ responsibilities.

Amtrak board Chairman Anthony Coscia, a New Jersey lawyer who formerly chaired the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, said the changes have made Amtrak more efficient, though “it’s a work in progress.”

“I think we can run the company better than we do,” Coscia said. “I think we run it better now than we did last year, and we ran it better last year than the year before. But we’re definitely not out of the woods yet.”

Others, including the union that represents 2,000 Amtrak workers who maintain the tracks, electric lines and other equipment, are much more critical.

“Our senior managers have little or no experience in operating or building a railroad,” said officials of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, which is in negotiations for a new labor contract.

“The union’s struggle to maintain safe working conditions is hampered by Amtrak senior management’s lust for complete control and railroad inexperience,” they said in a recent union newsletter.

The union also cited the problems with Amtrak’s “Safe-2-Safer” program identified in a report this year by Amtrak inspector general Tom Howard.

Howard found that reported employee injuries at Amtrak increased from 695 in 2009, when the program began, to 1,301 in 2013, while employee injury claims increased by about 80 percent from 2009 through 2013, with a cost of $80 million.

Boardman dismissed the union leadership’s complaints as self-serving.

He said the union’s “concern has to do with negotiating the next contract and finding an enemy … and there’s no enemy here,” he said. ” … We have very excellent relations with the unions.”

About 85 percent of Amtrak’s 20,000 employees are represented by 14 unions.

Leeds, the Amtrak spokeswoman, said the employees’ reportable injury rate has dropped by 7 percent since October 2014, and the injury severity rate of employee injuries is down by 26 percent since then.

A Republican appointee who headed the FRA before being named Amtrak president, Boardman reduced management in late 2011 with 150 buyouts. That was the year he drafted the five-year strategic plan with a stronger focus on the bottom line and customer services.

Those moves prompted his major overhaul of the management ranks at Amtrak, which through the decades has seen many such restructurings.

Boardman’s supporters say he is under constant pressure from Congress and the Amtrak board to cut costs and increase revenue.

“He’s got a board of directors of 535 people,” said Mathews, the passenger advocate, referring to Congress. “When you have a congressman deciding the price of a hamburger in a dining car, how can you possibly make the best decisions for the customer?
“When you’re in a reactive mode, you’ve lost control of your destiny. I think that’s where they are.”

Boardman, the second-longest-serving president in Amtrak’s history, said he waited longer than his predecessors to reorganize the railroad “because I wanted to understand the problems.”

He acknowledged that he has encountered resistance from certain managers and employees, but said most have embraced his changes.

Howard, the Amtrak inspector general, reported last year that Amtrak had made “significant progress implementing its 2011 strategic plan and accomplishing positive results,” while noting that “a number of challenges remain to be addressed.”

Those challenges include attracting and keeping key employees, “and this challenge will intensify as experienced employees in key positions retire or migrate to other business opportunities,” according to the inspector general’s report.

In another report, Louis Thompson, a former Federal Railroad Administration official and a railways adviser to the World Bank, said last year:

“Over its lifetime, Amtrak has had just enough political support to survive but never enough to invest properly or to prosper in any single market, and there is no convincing reason to think this will change significantly with the existing organizational structure.”

Photo: Investigators examine the train derailment site on Wednesday, May 13, 2015, after a northbound Amtrak train crashed in the Port Richmond area of Philadelphia the night before. (Alejandro A. Alvarez/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

California’s Bullet Train Might Rank Among Cheapest In The World

By Ralph Vartabedian and Dan Weikel, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LOS ANGELES — Riding California’s bullet train from Los Angeles to San Francisco would cost “about $50 a person,” supporters wrote in ballot arguments seven years ago when voters approved billions in funding for the project.

In the years since, the state high-speed rail agency has projected the fare would be $83, $105 and, most recently, $86.

The current estimate would be one of the world’s cheapest high-speed rail trips on a per-mile basis, assuming that it reflects a typical fare between downtown stations in Los Angeles and San Francisco, a Los Angeles Times analysis found.

As a practical matter, no one can say how much an end-to-end ride on the bullet train would actually cost if and when the system becomes fully operational, a milestone the state expects to reach some time in 2028. At that point, ticket pricing will be set in consultation with a private company hired by the California High-Speed Rail Authority to operate the system, said rail agency Chief Executive Jeff Morales.

Fares will be one of the most important factors in the decisions that millions of travelers will make when choosing to fly, drive or ride the bullet train. And they are central to revenue calculations for a system that by state law must operate without a taxpayer subsidy.

Morales and other state officials say the system will quickly become profitable. But critics and some experts warn long-range financial and ridership forecasts can be unreliable, and the high-speed train could prove to be a financial yoke on the state.

“Any time you are trying to project more than five years out, you are just spitballing,” said Lisa Schweitzer, a University of Southern California associate professor in transportation and urban planning. “So many things can change dramatically in five years.”

According to official ridership estimates, between 18 million and 31 million passengers annually will board the train in its early years. And the project’s most recent business plan predicts that by 2030, two years after L.A.-to-San Francisco service begins, ticket sales will hit $2 billion annually, or roughly $700 million a year more than operating expenses. Even at the low end of ridership projections, state officials say, revenues will more than cover operating costs.

The current $86 fare is calculated in 2013 dollars based on a formula that prices tickets at 83 percent of average airline fares to help attract riders. The rail fare is an average that includes economy and premium seats, nonstop and multi-stop trains, as well as last-minute and advance purchase tickets. A premium, same-day nonstop bullet train trip would cost more than $86.

But compared with current average prices on high-speed rail systems in Asia and Europe, $86 would be a bargain, equating to about 20 cents a mile or less, the Times review found. The analysis was based on a 438-mile route in the mid-range of what state officials expect the final alignment to measure.

The average fare on Italy’s 434-mile bullet train from Milan to Salerno was 25 cents a mile. The fare on China’s 809-mile line between Beijing and Shanghai was 22 cents per mile. China discloses little about its high-speed rail finances and many academic and transportation experts say it heavily subsidizes its fares, as do many other foreign operators.

The French bullet train from Paris to Lyon is often cited as a line that is profitable, but it has a fare of 52 cents a mile. The German bullet train from Hannover to Wurzburg charges 46 cents a mile. The price comparisons were based on tickets purchased at least one week in advance, averaged over various times of the day and classes of service.

On the East Coast, Amtrak’s Acela system, the closest thing to high-speed rail now operating in the U.S., charges an average of about 50 cents a mile for the 454-mile trip between Washington and Boston.

Louis Thompson, chairman of a state-created review panel for the bullet train project, said California’s projected fares are low by world standards. Thompson’s panel is pressing the state to clarify how fares and other key business decisions will be made in the future.

The authority expects to generate additional revenue from leasing its right-of-way to utilities, advertising and concession fees at stations. But some outside experts questioned whether California’s bullet train fares will be able to cover the system’s full operating costs, as state officials maintain.

“The train will lose money and require a subsidy,” said Joseph Vranich, former president of the national High-Speed Rail Association. “I have not seen a single number that has come out of the California high-speed rail organization that is credible. As a high-speed rail advocate, I am steamed.”

William Grindley, a former World Bank executive and an opponent of the project, has warned the system will fail financially unless demand skyrockets and ticket prices increase sharply. “Can the proposed California bullet train break even? The answer is unequivocally no,” he said.

With Stanford University management professor Alain Enthoven and Silicon Valley financier William Warren, Grindley wrote a 2012 report — updated last year — that concluded the system would require “a subsidy forever,” in the range of $123 million to $1 billion or more annually.

Morales, the rail authority’s chief executive, said past analyses by Grindley’s group have been wrong and included errors in computing the operating costs of foreign systems. He declined to elaborate, but said his agency’s ridership forecasts have been vetted and approved by a panel of outside experts, chaired by Frank Koppelman, an emeritus professor at Northwestern University.

In a series of reports, the panel has praised the ridership estimates, calling them “commendably high quality” in one report, and urging improvements other times.

“When we say we can hit the break-even point, we have a lot of reliability in the statement,” Morales said.

The ridership estimates have fluctuated significantly over the years, at one point reaching a high of 117 million annual passengers, several times the current estimate.

Shortly after the ridership figures were updated last year, a problem was found with the complex mathematical model used by Massachusetts-based Cambridge Systematics, a state consultant. It predicted more short trips than seemed logical, according to Cambridge. One example: The model suggested travelers would drive from Sacramento to downtown San Francisco and board a bullet train for the airport. Koppelman’s panel agreed to an adjustment and urged Cambridge to develop a new version of the model.

Even if the projections aren’t entirely accurate, bullet train proponents argue, the system represents an important investment in the state’s future mobility. California’s population will continue to grow, they say, increasing the need for an expanded transportation network and greener alternatives to the automobile and jetliners.

By 2040, 77 percent of bullet train riders will come from personal vehicles and 16 percent from buses or conventional rail, the state estimates.

While officials have based projected fares and a promised top speed of 220 mph on the need to compete for air travelers, only a small fraction of passengers — about 6 percent or 2.3 million riders — would be diverted from airlines.

Last year, about 10.7 million people flew between the five airports in Los Angeles and Orange counties and the three airports in the Bay Area, one of the nation’s most competitive markets, according to federal figures. Recently, one-way fares between L.A. and San Francisco have been as low as $68, but can exceed $200 for next-day travel.

Koppelman said that although it would be a small fraction of the bullet train’s projected ridership, shifting even 25 percent of air travelers to high-speed rail, as the state projections suggest, would be a significant achievement.

However, like other experts interviewed, Koppelman said even the best ridership projections are only estimates. “People don’t realize how difficult these things are and how many things can change that aren’t in the model,” he said.

One variable is how airlines, no strangers to price wars, might respond to new competition.

“It is a vastly important market to the airlines and one they have fought hard to establish,” said Robert Ditchey, a former airline executive and a co-founder of America West Airlines. “Somebody in that market is not just going to walk away.”

He also noted airlines offer numerous direct and frequent California connections that will be difficult for rail to match, among them Ontario to San Jose, Santa Ana to San Francisco and Burbank to Oakland.

Predicting how many travelers will leave private cars decades from now presents its own challenges. Fuel costs could rise sharply, pushing travelers to a fast rail option. Or the convenience of more efficient, possibly even self-driving, cars could entice people to use the road.

Just how many people drive between L.A. and San Francisco is itself an unknown, state transportation officials say. The full cost of operating a car over the 383-mile trip is about $222, based on federal government figures. But if drivers simply consider fuel costs, they would run about $65, based on the average national fuel economy of 24 miles per gallon and current fuel prices.

“With a family, it’s four train fares versus one car, and taking the train may require a car rental at the other end,” said Genevieve Giuliano, director of USC’s Metrans transportation program. “I don’t see high-speed rail as competitive in the family market.”

Questions about fares and ridership are likely to persist. But Thompson, the system’s independent review panel chairman, said the uncertainty has become less relevant, now that the state is committed to building the system.

“We will not know until late in the game how everything will turn out,” he said.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: The Acela is the closest thing the United States has to high-speed rail. A high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco is planned for 2028. Ryan Stavely via Flickr