Revisiting Privatization in Intercity Rail

» Amtrak, as always, is being targeted for privatization by conservatives. But what approach leads to optimized public benefit?

Over the past few weeks, U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) has convened a series of hearings on the failures of Amtrak, America’s independent — but fully federally owned — national rail operator. Mr. Mica has used the meetings to wage an ideological crusade against the railway, arguing that it is too inefficient and expensive to continue receiving subsidies. Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney has also advocated selling Amtrak.

Democrats have mostly shot back, arguing that privatizing the agency would result in a significant reduction in services provided and increase ticket costs.

Here is the confusing truth about Amtrak, however: The rail agency, fully government-owned, is in many ways already a privatized operation that receives federal subsidies. The organization does not seem to have the larger public’s interests in mind in setting policies: It has some of the highest fares in the world for services in the Northeast Corridor, it provides no discounts for people of lesser means, and it actively promotes the use of intercity buses for people who want to pay less, in effect strategically reducing its market share. These are not the actions of a government enterprise acting in the public interest; these are the actions of a private corporation attempting to maximize profit.

Amtrak is an agency that, in its existing form, can satisfy neither the left nor the right.

And of course, Amtrak is not making a profit — it operates at a considerable deficit every year. But “privatization” can mean many things — and is a private alternative any better than the current circumstances?

Over the past month, Stephen Smith has published articles on the failure of Britain’s rail privatization, the success of Japan’s effort, and the potential for privatization of Amtrak services. The overall conclusion from the articles seems to be that there may be benefits from the movement of rail services out of the public sector, but that without vertical integration — in other words, single-company control of both tracks and services — difficulties are likely to ensue, as in the case of the U.K. Smith points to the structure of Japanese National Railways (JNR), in which six private companies control services in different parts of the country.*

Smith suggests that with privatization, Amtrak could radically improve its efficiency. The biggest problems with the rail agency, he argues, are related to low worker productivity. Despite Amtrak’s privately motivated interests that I pointed out above, much of its labor rules remain affected by politics and can be altered by Congressional action. Are we willing to accept reducing the influence of democratic actors in agency decision-making? It would mean restructuring labor agreements — reducing the income and health benefits that unions have fought for decades to acquire — and firing huge numbers of workers (a third in the case of JNR’s privatization).

If privatization slashes the number of workers needed to do the same job, rail in the U.S. could indeed become profitable, since most of Amtrak’s costs are labor related. For the transportation public, that could produce cheaper ticket prices and fewer subsidies. But it means, fundamentally, that we are bringing private companies in to do the dirty work that the government is politically incapable of doing.

Assuming that some privatization is accepted as “needed” to improve American rail service, in what form should it be implemented?

In general, there are four rough frameworks for such privatization:

  1. Publicly owned tracks with competition for services. This is being implemented in mainland European countries under E.U. regulations; public sector track owners (such as RFF in France) allow operators — both public and private — to run competing services on the same lines.** This allows riders to choose operators on journeys with the same origins and destinations, just as can be done for airline journeys.
  2. Publicly owned tracks with competition for contracts. This is the network organization in the United Kingdom; public Network Rail owns the tracks but then leases the rights to operating rail corridors to private companies. In general, contracts last around seven years and give each operator close to monopoly rights over each corridor.***
  3. Privately owned tracks with competition for contracts. This was the system previously operated in the U.K.; the privately controlled Railtrack owned all tracks in the country between 1994 and 2002. The tracks were moved into the control of a public operator, as described in the second alternative.
  4. Privately owned tracks with one private operator. This is how intercity rail operations are managed in Japan.

Smith and other critics have argued that separating track ownership from rail operations — that’s what happens in alternatives 1-3 described above — result in inefficiencies and potential competing motivations. The U.K.’s attempt to privatize both tracks and operations (alternative 3) produced a number of failures, reducing the safety of the services provided. These difficulties led to the nationalization of the track ownership (a switch to alternative 2), but the contractual relationships between the track owner and the rail operators continue to be a cause for concern. In both cases, the U.K. government has subsidized capital upgrades and in some cases it has subsidies operations.

The problems have expanded over time. Operators have failed to follow through on their commitments. In some instances they have promised too much. In the case of services on the East Coast Main Line, operator National Express East Coast gave up its contract following higher costs and lower revenues than expected; the result was that the government took over operations directly through publicly owned (but supposedly temporary) Directly Operated Railways. National Express’ promises to the government for fees it would pay over the years were abandoned.

The government announced that FirstGroup (owner of Greyhound and BoltBus) would in December take over operating services from Virgin on the West Coast Main Line, Britain’s most popular, and profitable, railway line. But Virgin, which was hoping to renew its contract, warned that the deal was a “recipe for bankruptcy” because of FirstGroup’s inflated estimates of future ridership, which were used to determine how much FirstGroup would pay National Rail over the next few years to use the tracks. Last week, the government admitted it had made a serious mistake, revoked FirstGroup’s winning bid, and refunded all four bidders for their work upwards of £5 million. This was an unnecessary loss of taxpayer funds and will force the contract to be re-bid in the next few months.

These circumstances are revealing of the problems with separating ownership of tracks and operations. Track owners want to maximize the amount of money they can charge companies to run their services there, and so in places with profitable operations, they will accept the highest — and potentially riskiest — bids. Meanwhile, operators have an incentive to maximize profits — either in terms of inflating estimates of future performance in order to win a bid (in the case of the current U.K. system) or skimping on services or maintenance — in order to pay the operation charges to the track owners.

It is hard to see how mainland Europe’s approach, the first alternative, would be much better. The track owners are setting standard prices for track use by each individual train, which will likely encourage intense competition on the heaviest-traveled routes but a lack of interest in operating services on lines with less passenger travel. This will reduce revenues per train on the popular corridors, making any kind of cross-subsidies currently instituted by national operators less likely and probably requiring increasing government aid for the continuation of services to less popular areas.

Thus the explanation for Stephen Smith’s call for privatizing in the mode of Japan’s railway; by integrating track ownership and passenger services, conflicting incentives can can be negotiated, rather than fought out. Ed Glaeser, the Harvard economist, wrote Sunday that potentially profitable lines in the densest sections of the U.S. — including the Northeast Corridor and parts of California — should “follow Conrail into unsubsidized privatization.” This implies, like in Japan, giving one company rights over both tracks and the trains that run on them.

The problem with this approach is clear: It is a recipe for monopoly control of a railroad by a private enterprise. Conservatives berate Amtrak and other government-owned enterprises for being “Soviet“-like (in the words of John Mica), but private monopoly control of rail services is worse — and market conservatives should agree on that fact. After all, monopolized services can inflate prices, provide poor service, and in general be unresponsive to customer concerns. Unlike Amtrak, which must respond to political demands in our democracy, private monopolies must respond only to their profit-seeking shareholders, who clearly have different demands than the public as a whole.

Some might argue that rail services in the U.S., even if controlled by one company, cannot constitute a “monopoly” since they are competing with air and road services, which are owned and operated by other entities. Yet if it is in the public interest to encourage fast, relatively inexpensive services on intercity rail lines (that is what we want, right?), we are effectively arguing on behalf of massively increasing rail share on specific intercity travel markets — and significant government subsidies dedicated to investments in new tracks would back this approach. Once we have done that, we do not want people to move back to cars or airplanes, and we will have made those alternatives quite unappealing — thus benefiting the monopoly. Japanese rail operators do not have to compete with air or auto travel for most of their services because of the extraordinary advantages of rail along their routes, allowing them to act as transportation monopolies.

The presumptive development of vertically integrated private enterprises for the provision of new rail services in Florida between Miami and Orlando and in the Southwest between Victorville and Las Vegas has led to excited speculation that there is a potential for future American private investment in intercity rail. These investments would produce rail monopolies, but their overall market shares — at least at first — would make them small enough to avoid the prospect of developing into transportation monopolies. So they offer considerable benefits and likely should be supported by the public sector if possible — especially since neither Florida nor Nevada seem likely to be promoting state-sponsored public intercity rail projects in the short term.

Yet as a national approach the vertical integration of railroads into privately controlled monopolies is problematic policy that could encourage higher ticket prices and little concern for the overall public interest. There is an argument to be made that effective regulation of such services, much as is done with private energy utilities in most of the country, could limit the profits and destructive effects of such monopolies. But utility regulation has hardly prevented price gouging among energy companies. Can we trust that private railroads in the U.S. would work as well as those in Japan?

Moreover, private companies will only be interested in operating lines that are profitable. The reason Amtrak continues to serve places like Montana and Kansas is not that the agency has fooled itself into thinking that these can be profitable routes, but rather that its political support from the federal government has been premised upon the continued operation of trains to places that do not “deserve” it. But there are few transportation options available for these areas, and there is a political concern for continuing operations there. Would it make more sense to continue having Amtrak operate those routes, and, as usual, privatize the profits and socialize the losses? Or should such routes be contracted out to the lowest bidder, knowing that such contracts may fall apart, as they have in the U.K.?

If there are significant reasons to be concerned about private monopolies on rail services and there is a consensus that separate control of infrastructure and operations causes more problems than desired, what, then, is the option? Amtrak’s role as a public enterprise with seemingly very little interest in the public itself does not set a particularly helpful precedent. But if a monopoly over all rail services in a specific area is the only reasonable option, is the public sector the more appropriate place to turn than profit-motivated private groups? There are no easy answers.

* The “private” nature of these companies is worth questioning. Of six railway companies, three (Hokkaido, Shikoku, and Kyushu) are fully owned by the government entity Japan Railway Construction, Transport and Technology Agency. In other words, they are public enterprises, like… Amtrak.

** It should be noted that in some countries, like Germany and Spain, the historic nationalized rail company (DB and Renfe, respectively) has a separate division that controls the tracks, on which competing operators can buy running rights.

*** One of the odd consequences of Britain’s privatization schemes (which extend beyond rail and into energy and other services) is a significant expansion of government-owned corporations from other countries entering the U.K. marketCertain bus services in London are provided by Paris Métro operator RATP; certain intercity rail lines are operated by Germany national railroad DB’s subsidiary Arriva. Meanwhile, the U.K. itself has no such state-owned enterprises that have the capability of competing for services in other countries.

144 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Dylan

    High speed rail in the U.S. does not seem a likely candidate until it begins to see privatization. Amtrak has lost $800 million over the past ten year over food waste, employee theft, and lack of oversight. (Source: NY Times) If America is to gain any interest at all in HSR, there needs to be a spur from private companies — people who are willing to take the risk — and proof that such systems can work in the New World.

    Colorado’s Department of Transportation requested in July of 2012 solicited proposals from private developer’s to build a high-speed transit system between Denver International Airport and Eagle County, where the majority of ski resorts are. These proposals are solicited in hopes that CDOT will not have to expand the I-25 corridor due to traffic congestion, and seek an innovative way out of the decreased traffic times auto travel is seeing along the corridor.

    If Governor’s, like Rick Scott of Florida, wish to turn down federal funds to invest in enhanced inter-city rail, then it’s up to the free market to create these lines.

    Rail is something American’s seek, and our government can’t improve upon. Privatize Amtrak, or make it possible for private competition. Without this type of incentive our guided rail systems will not aim towards faster speeds and enhanced technologies.

    • gob

      “and proof that such systems can work in the New World”
      One of the stupidest comments I’ve ever read on this site.

      • Dylan

        The word proof was meant to refer to examples of true, modern HSR — speeds that reach 125 or higher — in the U.S. that other private companies are willing to develop elsewhere. Once one line is successful, others will follow in the footsteps.

        I’m glad there’s an internet troll out there to keep people who put thought into their posts on their toes!

        You’re reaction to the article was very informative…

        • Nathanael

          If such systems can work in the Old World, they can work in the New World. If people are imagining that the US is “speshul”, that’s just embarassingly stupid.

          • Woody

            New World? No problem. Brazil expects to have a true HSR line Rio de Janeiro-Sao Paulo in time for the 2016 Olympics, long before CAHSR goes anywhere.

            • ThomasD

              Woody,
              We know that there are nearly as many forces delaying CAHSR as for it. Those anti-HSR forces don’t want to see it become a successful 220 mph HSR program that can be expanded across the West.

              • Woody

                The point was, Brazil is in “the New World”. We’re gonna see HSR working in South America long before we see it in the US or Canada. Not criticizing CAHSR, or the route of the Acelas, or Amtrak.

        • gob

          Do you think the U.S. is some magical place where ridership decreases as speed increases? Of course not, faster trains would only mean increased ridership. Looking at ridership stats along the Northeast corridor, only an idiot would think an even faster ride would someone how be as successful as the currently-very-successful Acela.
          I also like how you slip in the strange stipulation that it’s up to private companies to build HSR. Just like pretty much every other country in the world with an HSR system, our government will be the main force behind financing & constructing HSR.

        • gob

          Do you think the U.S. is some magical place where ridership decreases as speed increases? Of course not, faster trains would only mean increased ridership. Looking at ridership stats along the Northeast corridor, only an idiot would think an even faster ride would somehow not be as successful as the currently-very-successful Acela.
          I also like how you slip in the strange stipulation that it’s up to private companies to build HSR. Just like pretty much every other country in the world with an HSR system, our government will be the main force behind financing & constructing HSR.

    • So what you’re saying essentially is that Colorado DOT is trying to build a 150MPH+ line to shuttle people between Denver and ski resorts.

      Is this line going to be operating throughout spring, summer, and fall? I’m not sure if I’m missing something here.

      • Dylan

        Henry,

        I had a much more in-depth post, but it seemed to have not been posted…

        CDOT is looking towards HSR on the I-70 corridor to relieve traffic congestion. Travel times increase quite noticeably during the winter season, as Colorado has a huge tourism economy. They’ve basically stated if they don’t have the system installed by 2025, they’re going to have to expand the highway corridor from 2 lanes to 3.

        I’m a graduate student, and HSR is going to be the topic of my thesis next year. So excuse me to all the commenters on this website if my ideas don’t come across quite eloquently the first time. I’m still learning about this great new infrastructure system, and how to implement it in the United States.

    • Allen

      I-70 not I-25, Dylan

      • Dylan

        You’re right, Allen. I made the correction in a follow-up post. However, there have been feasibility studies for the I-25 corridor as well! Fort Collins down to Pueblo.

        • Allen

          Thanks Dylan. Sorry, I didn’t catch the correction.

          @Henry, there have been various proposals over the decades for non-highway expansion on I70. During the last dozen or so years alone CDOT themselves have vascilated on what to do, if anything. I’m not sure at this point how seriously they’re looking at traditional HSR versus other solutions. The curves and grades any of these systems face present some challenges that likely rule out the usual approach.

  • I think the way that mainline Europe does regional rail deserves a look as well. It’s a system a bit of a mix of your 1. and 2. There is a public agency (often a “Verkehrsverbund”) making schedules, setting service requirements, fare zones and ticket prices. Then they will ask for bids for operation of lines (usually bundle of lines), with the strict service requirements. Whoever fulfils the requirements while requiring the least subsidies gets the contract. There exist different kind of agreements on how ticket revenue is shared. The private operator will operate the line, they provide their own rolling stock (which is standardized), and operate on the publicly owned network for which they pay the track access fee.

    This system allows public control of infrastructure, lines, schedules and tickets, while giving cheaper operating costs of private companies. For example, DB Regio used to operate virtually all regional lines in the 90ies after privatization, now with more and more competition for operations the costs are going down, meaning the public can provide more services.

    The problem in Germany, as Yonah mentioned, is that the long/medium distance rail market is completely unsubsidized, resulting in less populous areas loosing long distance rail access — this was partly mitigated by the states subsidizing longer and faster regional routes. Some rail activists in Germany for example are asking for all rail to be planned publicly and contracted out, and not just regional rail – together with complete separation of the rail network from DB.

    • Andre L.

      Those defending central planning in Germany are a fringe that I’d discount as partially fan-boys, part map-obsessed activists.

      Their major silly complain is not even about national schedules, but bordering regional schedules for things like light rail and buses that don’t match transfers, cherrypicking a couple cases in the process.

      Germany has more than 20 private rail operators, from open access carriers to international unsubsidized operators to DB.

      Finally, the networks of ICE trains has been expanded instead of reduced. They operate almost as a separate business unit, and are profitable. The complaints, that I dismiss on cherry-picking of small number of cases, are mostly about the demise of the IC, which was the former “fast” train network for Germany (with longer and more frequent stops) before the introduction of ICEs.

      Whenever you introduce new HSL lines like Germany did, and speed up services between key nodes, some station pairs will indeed see massive increases on travel time at expense of improvements elsewhere. Magdeburg and Bonn are two examples of cities whose connections deteriorated because of new high-speed lines and abolition of certain ICs, but dozens of other cities now have faster services.

      • Stefan

        I’d like to correct some of the theses mentioned above about Germany:

        - “Central (schedule) planning” is demanded by quite important players, e.g. the “BAG-SPNV” working group representing most organisations who order the regional train. They refer also to the Swiss philosophy where all national and regional passenger trains are contracted by federal or regional governments resulting in one of the best and most user friendly railway networks worldwide

        (Note: So-called “rail fans” shouldn’t be compared by my experience between the German speaking and some other countries, as there are quite many professionally well-informed “rail fans” in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.)

        - During the last 15 years or so, several IC lines were just relabelled to ICE with little higher comfort but much higher prices; most of the remaining IC trains have been replaced by state subsidised regional trains, only some still run as IC.

        - During the last 15 years, all former IR services (InterRegio as regional long-distance service) have been replaced by subsidised regional express trains or even been abandoned, although they always have been very popular among passengers; this political decision of DB was heavily critised by passengers. Although the IR rolling stock was completely financed by the state, DB achieved to prohibit the re-use of that rolling stock for any further services within Germany by private companies who had been interested in (e.g. Connex).

        - Germany has built much less HSLs than once planned; additionally, most ICE lines run on HSLs only within certain sections. Although real high-speed services have continously increased, the overall network and schedule density of all long-distance services (ICE, IC etc.) has rather decreased, e.g. by replacing through subsidised regional express trains.

        But still, Germany is a quite good example for “group 1 networks: Publicly owned tracks with competition for services”; the French example is only theory because competition in the passenger service sector is still protected against any (real) competition.

  • It’s important to remember that the NEC is only 700 miles or so, out of a network of about 18,000 miles. We can’t really follow the model of other countries, since the vast majority of track used by Amtrak is owned by the freight railroads. The NEC could be made to run much more profitably and act as a core of something new, but how many generations do you want to spend waiting for that to happen?

    The national passenger rail system really needs a period of sustained investment, probably several billion dollars a year for around a decade — and that probably doesn’t count some of the big projects like California HSR. Around 3/4ths of the Amtrak network only sees a single train per day per direction (some less than that). That’s really inexcusable, and many of those routes would die off quickly if Amtrak as a whole was spun off to fend for itself. Frequencies need to be increased (probably to a minimum of 3 trains daily in most cases — even Essential Air Service routes are usually funded for 2 round-trips daily) and speeds need to go up (few routes are competitive with cars, and even buses are faster in many cases).

    I do think there are some cultural problems at Amtrak that need to be reformed. Recent talk of workers skimming off the top of food purchases and apparent drug abuse reminded me of the story of the Toyota-General Motors NUMMI plant in California, which re-hired a workforce known as the worst in the industry and turned them into one of the best. I doubt Amtrak’s workers are a quarter as bad as the old GM Fremont workforce, but they exist in what is frequently a toxic environment as everyone from passengers to congressmen berate their abilities. I’m sure I’d have some pretty bad days if I worked there.

    While I think Amtrak could be reformed to some extent, trains will still be subject to the whims of the host railroads. Everything has to work together as a system in order to operate most efficiently, and unfortunately what’s efficient for a freight system may not be any good for passenger lines. There’s a lot of need for parallel passenger infrastructure — plus there are some major cities that don’t have any Amtrak access right now that really should have it. We have to recognize that goods don’t move in the same ways people do, and following the existing freight lines is not always the right way to go.

    Perhaps there would be a big enough network of state-owned and Amtrak-owned lines at some future point that it could be spun off and compete on its own, but we’re nowhere near that point today.

    • mike s

      In no way am i defending the fraud you mentioned by the OBS employees,(which has been squashed since the inception of the POS tablet system to 99% on converted routes),,but every business has some kind of internal abuse and will til the end of time. When you mention the workforce comparisons, on overhaul that is needed is the salary employees, on HSR alone there is 1 manager for every 3.5 hourly workers. (that’s just mechanical dept.) years ago when Alex Kummant called for a meeting of his 40 vice-pres ,,,82 showed up, then in turn tried to turn blame on the employees that actually maintain the equipment.

  • I agree with Ant6n that although “Framework 1″ is the intended goal of the EU guidelines, most countries are doing something at most similar to “Framework 2″. Also in the Netherlands, for passenger rail, lines are tendered out every couple of years. (Freight traffic, on the other hand, might look like “Framework 1″ then.)

    You can find true on track competition in passenger rail e.g. in the Czech Republic, Italy or Austria.

    Also, I would see reasons for preferring Framework 2: trains tracks are used at max capacity in many areas in Europe. If you split that to different operators, users who have chosen a preferred operator (e.g. via discount cards) effectively have their train frequencies cut at least in half.

  • FWIW, maybe British government related agencies aren’t operative in the for profit contracting environment for transit (bus, rail) services specifically, but they are in other mobility arenas, e.g., BAA runs airports and and concessions in other countries. Sertel is a company that grew out of a govt. agency and they made an offer to buy Montreal’s Bixi parent company and they’ve bid on bike sharing contracts in the US.

    And British Rail could have become such an entity if privatization hadn’t been specifically designed to destroy the company’s ability to continue in operation.

    I wrote about this maybe in 2005 and referenced this 2001 op-ed that appeared in the IHT:

    http://www.commondreams.org/views01/0222-04.htm

    I do agree with some of the points made by the commenters and of course you:

    - Amtrak barely controls any of the rail
    - there needs to be a real multi-level “national” plan for rail at the national, regional, state, and local levels
    - that would deal with infrastructure too, and update the operating agreements with the railroads wrt passenger rail. The agreement creating Amtrak only provides special treatment vis-a-vis passenger services to Amtrak, not any other passenger rail operation.
    - given that everyone reams Amtrak, it’s likely that it’s difficult to have a good working culture
    - Congressional oversight wrt unions makes it difficult to have a well functioning personnel environment (cf. USPS)
    - it’s a lot easier to have privatized rail services (or profitable ones) in places like Japan or Hong Kong because their mobility planning preferences rail service and they have the density to support it being successful in many places (in Japan, it’s dense everywhere in Hong Kong)
    - that being said, there is something to be said for the profit motive as a motivator for efficient and profitable services, which govt. entities don’t typically have.

    • Tom West

      One important difference Europe and the US is the nationalised operator does/did not operator commuter rail networks. Further, all commuter networks in the USA operate at a loss. (London’s commuter network operated at a profit before privatisation).

  • Tom West

    “The U.K. government has subsidized capital upgrades and in some cases it has subsidies operations.” The flip side is that other franchises pay a premium. (The government gets more in premiums than it pays in subsidies, but this excess is far less than it gives Network Rail each year).

    This model does help avoid the whole “privatise the profit, socialise the loss” problem… but unless operators are making substantial profits, there is little incentive for capital investment. The UK suffers this problem – profit margins are about 2%, and most capital investment by the operators is mandated in franchise agreements. (And this is paid for by the government in the form of reduced premiums or greater subsidy).

    The biggest differences between the UK’s system and the nationalised system before it are (1) operators are financially committed to ever-higher passenger numbers; and (2) there is much more variation in quality of service between routes (which hopefully leads to the best ideas copied across the network).

    Amtrak probably does employ more people than it needs in certain cases, but that requires fixing safety regulations – a private operator would have the same problem. In short, I don’t see what current problems with Amtrak would be fixed.

  • NCarlson

    Mike already pointed out a lot of this, but it really deserves to be repeated: the American rail network is already a vertically integrated monopoly but for Amtrak. Given the railroads don’t appreciate being required to host Amtrak today I can’t even begin to imagine how to get enough cooperation from them to make any form of competition in passenger operations viable. At the end of the day privatizing Amtrak can only possibly work by either contracting operation of routes operating under Amtrak authority (which seems to me unlikely to change much of anything) or reinstating a common carrier requirement to carry passengers (which has some very interesting possibilities, but would be one hell of a transition).

    • simple

      I agree. We cannot have a meaningful discussion of alternatives to Amtrak without including the relationships of the private freight railroads on which Amtrak trains (mostly) operate. That’s a big missing piece to this otherwise informative post.

    • Andre L.

      The issue is not only about “who owns the rail tracks”, but “to what standard will they be designed/improved/kept to”.

      The track standards for a railway focused on hauling coal and transcontinental 1.7-mile long double stacked trans are very different than those for “fas-ish passenger traffic”. It is not even a matter of making tracks better: the costs keeping load gauges for heavy freight trains on fast-speed tracks (say, 120mph) are very high. All of that before large-scale geometry (curve radii and grade) start being an issue.

      • Nathanael

        The track standards for intermodal freight are not that far off from passenger standards for short-distance traffic, but are rather far off from standards for high-speed / long-distance passenger traffic.

  • rollo

    The article you link to on British rail privatization is interesting, but sadly riddled with basic factual errors. I think the basic message is fair, but the general situation is that British Rail prior to privatization was in an appalling state; then it got a lot worse in the 1990s in particular with all the mess caused by Railtrack. In general now it’s a lot better and operates well (ignoring the recent problems with the ECML and WCML franchises).

    Note, incidentally, that the piece is about Britain, not the UK – Northern Ireland’s network is still nationalized.

    • Andre L.

      I’m also skeptical of using one single accident to pass a verdict on the safety of privatized rail, since those accidents are (fortunately) rare and, moreover, have happened also on state-controlled railways such as the Eschede crash in Germany.

      • Stefan

        As far as I know, some of those British accidents were the result of bad track conditions under privatised Railtrack while the Eschede crash (Germany) was the result of failures in how train wheels were produced.

        Hence, “rollo”‘s conclusion seems indeed coherent to me.

  • Rollo is correct. Privatization of British Rail has been a success: patronage had doubled and service has improved. Of course that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons and even better models elsewhere.

    Amtrak employee productivity would be dramatically improved if Amtrak had enough cars to haul all the people that want to ride — and to operate something more than a threadbare skeleton that cannot truly be called a national network. If you grow, you can increase revenue faster than an only modest increase in extra employees.

    • Woody

      Amtrak is trying to grow to improve productivity by growing. The plan to revamp the Acela train sets from 1-6-1 (power car-coaches-power car) into a 1-8-1 configuration by adding two more coaches would increase capacity by 40%.

      Sounds like same crew size, at most plus one. Electronic ticketing lets conductors work faster; electronic payments free up food staff from counting pennies and nickels.

      Bi-level cars ordered for the soon-to-be-faster St Louis-Chicago and Detroit-Chicago routes will have more seating, again improving the ratio of passengers to crew.

      More frequent departures on the long distance routes, two trains a day each way, or better, three a day, would make better use of the stations, spread overhead like advertising and the reservation system, and attract lots more passengers by having stops in waking hours and by making possible same-day go-and-return trips for many city pairs.

      Stimulus grants paid for the new cars in the Midwest. The additional Acela cars have not been ordered. The dream of better service and greater productivity on the long distance trains remains a fevered dream.

      But IF Amtrak could grow, it would become more efficient and its losses would be greatly reduced.

  • FG

    This discussion, somehow, begs the question, what competition do roads have with each other for vehicular traffic, with the answer being, for the most part, none, it’s all open to the public and publicly owned.

    The more serious question, about how to get the myriad of RR companies to agree to passenger rail, I look forward to reading about in coming weeks. And, does anyone know, are there other railroads like Florida East Coast who are even considering returning to the passenger market anywhere in the US on existing trackage?

    • Andre L.

      I think American RRs that own tracks that don’t see much freight use (where the real money is) might get interested in providing lucrative rail services where they can be so in the medium-term future. But such instances are rare.

      • FG

        But are they (actually considering it)? Some held out after Amtrak was started, but eventually joined, probably since it made more sense since feeder lines were dropping like flies.

      • Nathanael

        NS is actually considering passenger rail. (NS would really prefer to be a tenant, according to its CEO). BNSF is actually considering passenger. *Every* short line is considering it. CSX seems to be of two minds, but willing to talk.

        UP… “is a crusty old railroad”, as someone once said.

      • Allen

        RRs as a whole are not interested in providing passenger service regardless of frequency on their tracks. Even if the issue was frequency those tracks are commonly maintained to lower standards. Tracks with 25MPH and 40MPH speed limits for freight normally are not up to the standards needed for 79MPH passenger service.

        • Nathanael

          Let me expand on what I wrote.

          NS’s CEO has suggested that he would prefer NOT to own the tracks he runs on. He would prefer to be running trains as a tenant of a state government which maintained and owned the tracks. Under those circumstances, he sees no conflict with passenger trains — but he doesn’t want to run them himself, he wants to be a freight operator.

          While NS *owns* the tracks and has maintenance responsibility it has no interest in running passenger service. But NS is happy to sell the tracks.

          This is in sharp contrast to the attitude of UP, which at least in past years could be described as “We want to hang onto all our tracks whether they’re making money or not, because we like owning things. And we don’t like passengers.”

          BNSF has a third attitude; they want to own their key routes but are very happy to provide passenger service — for the right price, which is high. If they think it’s profitable, they’ll do it. They probably review the numbers every so often.

          • FG

            Do you have some links? I’d be interested to read a bit more on who and what their motivations are.

          • Don

            Definitely need to back up what you think is NS’s position. You couldn’t be more wrong. NS has absolutely no interest in becoming a tenant or in selling any of it’s network.

            NS has not ruled out being a contract operator of passenger services if the contract was profitable.

            • Woody

              Well, in one recent case NS did sell a route. And it’s all good. (The quoted paragraphs below are from 2011, before the sale was completed.)

              “In summer 2011, the State of Michigan and Norfolk Southern (NS) came to agreement on terms of sale of the Dearborn-Kalamazoo portion of the Wolverine corridor. Michigan plans to carry out the purchase partially with $150 million from the federal High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program. This track segment joins directly on the west with the Amtrak-owned Kalamazoo- Porter segment of the same corridor.
              • Concurrently, the State received $196.5 million to upgrade and engineer Dearborn-Kalamazoo improvements to bring track speeds to 110 mph throughout…. over 200 miles of the corridor will be under the control of Amtrak and Michigan DOT, with the aim of reducing travel times between Chicago and Detroit from 5 hours, 15 minutes, to under 4 hours.”

              • FG

                That’s not quite the same thing as a contract operator or operating it on their own however. I can’t remember if they had a parallel route or got rights to it once it was sold, though it is a great benefit to Amtrak (and hopefully Via again one day once the Ann Arbor-Detroit mess gets rectified).

              • Don

                Woody-

                Yes, that line is being sold, but it is not a through route for freight. There are just a few locals that use any part of that route. The old Wabash mainline runs roughly parallel and is carrying the through freight traffic.

                None of the other NS routes hosting Amtrak trains or NS routes that are on the DOT’s “HSR” map fit this description.

                NS’s public policy concerning additional passenger service on it’s lines is:

                1. NS must be made whole on capacity and the addition must provide NS with a profit.

                2. Speed must not exceed 90 mph on shared track.

              • Nathanael

                Don: that’s the policy for *freight-owned* track. Go find Wick Moorman’s statement about a “new model” for railroads under which the freights would be tenants of the passengers. It was a public, widely-reported statement, and it’s not my job to do your research for you.

              • Nathanael

                I believe the statement was against the background of the North Carolina Rail Road.

                Where NS *is* a tenant, and has no authority to demand reduced track speed or anything like it. After being extremely hostile back in the 1990s, NS seems to have realized that the situation is OK.

            • Nathanael

              DS, google for the quote by Wick Moorman regarding freight as a tenant of passenger rail.

              I don’t need to do your homework for you. It was a public, widely-reported statement.

    • Stefan

      FG, thank you very much for this comparison rail/road:

      Indeed, I have always been wondering, why in the US, even public transport seems often being demanded to be financed completely by fare and other direct income while roads don’t seem to get fully financed by their users in most cases (except some toll roads)…

      Some of the greatest benefits of public transport to the public are:
      - reducing vehicles on roads (even applies for buses using the same lanes) making car traffic more fluent
      - reducing space use for transport infrastructure (parking spaces!)
      - reducing pollution and noise emissions in populated areas
      - guaranteeing mobility to all i.e. no drivers’ license necessary
      - …

      That’s also the reason, why some European and Asian countries/cities are in favor to let car drivers to pay for public transport improvements (e.g. London/UK, Switzerland, Singapore etc.).

      Anyone in favor of privatising publicly used railway infrastructure should also think about the overall consequences as well as about privatising public roads comparatively. (Note: Emergency services would only need minor roads, but that massive car traffic in the US demands broad avenues…)

      • FG

        I agree very much with your mobility argument – having transit (from the micro to macro, local to national) readily available is the very essence of freedom, not just the car, but true freedom of choice, mobility and desire.

      • Andre L.

        US isn’t Europe, nor should it be (national population density of US is 81% LOWER than in Europe).

        So the Swiss argument doesn’t apply.

        • Adirondacker12800

          The population density of the US includes places like Wyoming and North Dakota. No one is suggesting building high speed rail between Fargo and Laramie.

          • Andre L.

            But RIGHT NOW Amtrak operates services that are massive money drains between West Coast and Midwest that are plainly irrational.

            • david vartanoff

              And people put cash on the counter to buy tickets. The per rider subsidy is vastly lower than EAS AND the pollution per seat mile is too. One man’s irrational is another’s beneficial. One less B2 =4 years of Amtrak subsidy. No contest, we have more B2s than we need. Meanwhile, I plan a Coast Starlight trip for January.

            • Nathanael

              We have a malapportioned Senate, under which the depopulated state of Wyoming has the same number of Senators as California.

              Accordingly, the federal government subsidizes the empty states using money from the populated states. The Senate malapportionment makes sure of that.

              And now you know why the federal government pays for trains going through North Dakota, Kansas, etc. It’s actually one of the *smallest* subsidies the Feds provide to the depopulated states.

              Personally, I’ve found the Chicago-Denver and Chicago-West Coast services useful, and I think it’s worth the paltry sum spent on maintaining the skeleton service. But it’s the political situation which makes it definitive.

              FWIW, services of less than daily seem to have no political value, as well as being extremely hard to use for transportation. The two three-a-week services need to become at least daily within the next few years, and if that’s not viable they should be dropped. They are basically placeholders at the moment because they are running on freight-haulers who really dislike adding passenger service to new routes, so removing them would make it *harder* to get daily service.

  • Jim

    I do not think the Republicans want to privatize Amtrak (it is already nominally private). They want to abolish it. Mica says it doesn’t deserve its subsidy. Romney says he wants to zero it out.

    I think there is some possibility that, should the Republicans hold the House (a very likely eventuality), Amtrak’s appropriation will be zeroed out. The current authorization — PRIIA — expires at the end of FY2013. T&I have shown little ability to report out authorizations in a timely manner and there’s no pressing need to extend PRIIA (there’s no tax expires, for example). HAC could easily take the absence of an authorization as an excuse to refuse to appropriate and the Speaker and Rules Committee push that through.

    So one hopes that Joe Boardman has, in his bottom left-hand drawer, a plan for operating without a federal subsidy.

    It wouldn’t be a national network, of course. Few countries operate 2,000 mile plus train routes. Even fewer operate them daily. Amtrak runs four, three daily. Without a federal appropriation, those go. But the NEC and feeders, the Midwest corridors, California and the Cascades might continue, now that PRIIA has forced the States to fund short corridors.

    • Nathanael

      The Republicans are basically trying to destroy the United States entirely.

      If I were Obama, I’d just fund Amtrak out of the loose change in the military budget. With the Republicans in charge, the House has started to behave treasonously, and it’s not as if Obama was paying attention to legal niceties when he issued “assassination orders”.

      • Jim

        Actually he could fund Amtrak quite legally using TARP residuals. Amtrak would issue some special preferred shares which Treasury would purchase using TARP funds. Just like General Motors.

    • Travis

      “Few countries operate 2,000 mile plus train routes.”

      This is a truism. Few countries are large enough to require 2,000-mile-plus train routes. Those that are, generally do operate them.

      • Andre L.

        In Europe, there are very few (and count is dwindling) international routes of 3500km or more. Actually there are probably more >3000km routes in US than in in Europe.

    • Woody

      The Repubs do not want to abolish Amtrak. They like it just the way it is: with underinvestment leading to lousy results. That way it’s always Exhibit #1 in evidence to their claim that government can’t do anything right. They certainly don’t want to lose that showpiece.

      That’s why it gave them hissy fits when Obama got $10 billion in stimulus funds for passenger rail. And they will do everything they can to block the plans for fleet renewal. added Acela cars, everything and anything that could improve Amtrak. But the Repubs will not pull the plug. Too many of their voters ride it.

      • Tim E

        Which kinda of ironic considering Amtrak had its best year in ridership and fare box revenue which was 83% of operating cost. Conservatives should be looking at Amtrak as an model for the rest of the country’s subsidized transportation network

    • Stefan

      I’d like to make you think more about the comments regarding the length of passenger train routes:

      1) In Europe, numerous studies have proven that in a direct competition with airplane services, passenger trains are competitive within a range of 3 hours travel time (maximum 4 hours) between city centers including the time needed to go to and come from the airport etc.; as all important US cities feature an airport, this criteria can set the maximum range of highly used passenger rail services. High-speed routes like Paris – Lyon (France) or Madrid – Barcelone (Spain) (each 2 hours travel time) led nearly to a complete stop of air traffic between those cities. With a maximum speed of 300…350 km/h (ca. 190…220 mph) and an average speed of 200…300 km/h (ca. 120…180 mph) distances of up to ca. +/- 400 miles (and much less on non-high-speed lines) could be competitive to airplanes.

      2) There may be tourist-like trains on much longer distances than +/- 400 miles, but within an existing very attractive airplane network, they probably need to be subsidised by freight trains i.e. they will only face a sustainable future along freight train routes.

      3) Within metropolitan areas and along high-populated corridors, regional express trains and suburban rail services could be re-introduced where not being operated; with attractive intervals of at least every 1 or 2 hours (suburban services rather several times an hour) throughout the whole(!) daytime hours all days of the week, they could become an alternative to car travel where stations are located in higher populated areas and close to workplaces, shopping areas etc.. Intercity trains may also use these tracks making it possible to lower their track toll at least in these areas while high-speed trains using these tracks risk to loose their competitiveness compared to airplanes or even freeway routes.

      4) A good-working network with easy accessible and frequent railway services on all days of the week, optimised interchanges between different lines and between high-speed, intercity, regional and suburban services as well as a through-ticketing (one train ticket for the whole itinerary) form an *attractive integrated railway network* like in Switzerland.

      By conclusion, in the first phase, the US states should form their attractive statewide railway networks being based on federal customer standards (such as ticketing, minimum train frequencies, interchanges, service strategies) and federal technical standards (such as platform height, signal and train control systems); this allows them in a second phase to connect their networks easily with each other where not yet done.

      • FG

        That’s exactly what is happening in Illinois and Michigan – creating an attractive service which is well used, and useful. Ridership keeps going up with frequency and speed (and reliability) of the regional trains. Yet another route (Quad Cities to Chicago) is about to reopen, with potential extensions into Iowa – eventually Des Moines, hopefully one day, Omaha. After that Rockford (and on to Galena, Dubuque and maybe even Rochester through to Minneapolis) service is a realistic goal.

        One of the unique features of the Empire Builder, in particular, is that it links areas where airports are few and far between (and do not have commercial, or affordable commercial, flights).

      • Stephan, one correction.

        Once NextGen VHSR trains are permitted to reach 224 mph and average 170 mph in France, Spain and China, they will cover 510 miles in 3 hours.

        et us hope that California HSR one day extends from Riverside to Palm Springs to Phoenix through desert perfect for 220 mph service.

        • Stefan

          Madrid – Barcelona HSL is already designed for 350km/h (ca.220mph). But the higher the maximum speeds, the much higher the costs. Benefit (incl. external effects) from increased speed should at least meet the additional costs.

          So, new intercity and HST tracks should be prepared for such very high speeds where easily (i.e. cost-efficient) possible; both intercity and high speed trains (HST) can usually share the same tracks.

          Stefan

  • Nathanael

    This article could be shorter.

    “1. Railroads don’t work well unless they are both vertically and horizontally integrated.”
    “2. Do you want an unaccountable private monopoly or an accountable public monopoly?”

    The Soviet railway system was actually really good, and in Russia it’s *still* government-owned and government-run. And the Trans-Siberian is electrified!

    We could do a lot worse than a “Soviet-style” railway! What “Soviet-style” systems don’t work for is consumer goods — and arguably also agriculture. For transportation, they work GREAT, as history shows.

    • Andre L.

      I wouldn’t call a system that works without competition (since the road network east of the Urals is between terrible and non-existent) “great” on that basis.

      • Nathanael

        Well, anyone is free to build private roads east of the Urals. :-P

        The fact is that transportation is a natural monoopoly. Suck it up and deal.

        • Andre L.

          I’d rather deal with the inneficiencies of private competition if only to weaken the power of governments to use transportation direct management as a tool to something else (such as picking winning and losers when it comes to regions of a country that will be developed or not).

          • FG

            What does that mean exactly? So you mean interstates and streets should be private in the US as well since that means government it picking winners and losers?

            • Andre L.

              The Interstates are there, but the vehicles that run on them (trucks, cars, SUVs, buses) are virtually entirely private.

              So the government could build rail tracks (as it builds airports), as long as it is forbidden, by federal law, to ever mingle with routing, schedule, fare prices etc. Like it builds airports but doesn’t have a say in airline schedules or price or mileage programs.

              • Nathanael

                Can’t do it.

                The fact is that the government regulates plane schedules. Why? Limited slots at the crucial airports (JFK, etc.)

                The same problem applies to trains, only more so. A well-run railroad system is a system with a top-down, centrally managed, unified schedule. Anything else is waste, gross waste.

                The Swiss know this. The Chinese know this. The Japanese know this. Etc. Even the British end up setting the schedules centrally.

                Transportation is a natural monopoly. Suck it up and deal.

    • Tea Party-led Republicans (not all Republicans) are still using Amtrak as a Whipping Boy. The last thing these critics want to see is a profitable, well patronized public utility that eliminates demand for high polluting, congestion-generating short flights.

      They won’t work with Obama to properly fund Amtrak route upgrades in the Northeast and MidAtlantic corridors to 160-200 mph, frequent train status because they know it would wipe out Amtrak’s need for an operating subsidy. Under those circumstances, Amtrak could lower prices for Acela Express to match competing airline fares in the NEC.

      Amtrak hasn’t done itself any favors floating a 3-phase $151B Vision proposal for a system instead of a 2-phase $70B alternative that accomplishes ~98% of the same patronage objectives, but broadens geographic coverage with Express HSR. Nor has Amtrak indicated that NextGen Acela would operate in a labor & energy cost/patron manner competitive with France, Spain or Germany.

      My 2-phase $70B cost estimate is higher than Alon Levy’s recommendation. But I include a significant fudge factor to cover more ROW acquisition and tunneling through Baltimore’s Central Biz District. I do not agree to tunnel through eastern downtown Philadelphia, which is away from Philly’s Central Biz District.

      My figure includes new HSR-only track for

      Providence-Hartford-New Haven
      Washington-Richmond-Norfolk
      Richmond-Raleigh
      Philly-Harrisburg
      Albany-NYC

  • Jim

    It’s worth remarking that PRIIA #209 may result in the privatization of some short corridor routes. It wouldn’t at all surprise me if BNSF ended up running the Cascades route, for example. Amtrak is forced to demand a formula based charge for operating corridor services: actual costs plus an overhead charge calculated as a percentage of labor costs. It would not be difficult to undercut that formula based charge. The rolling stock on the Cascades route is mostly owned by the two States. BNSF owns the tracks and also operates the Sounder commuter rail in and around Seattle, so has local experience in passenger rail.

    There are some other possibilities for “natural privatization”‘: some of the California routes and the Downeaster come to mind. But the Cascades is the most likely.

    • Woody

      Peel off the highest volume routes that will give a positive cash flow, leave the losers with Amtrak. In other words, privatize the profits, socialize the losses. Such as it ever was. Yes, I expect your forecast is correct.

      • Jim

        I wasn’t thinking of the Cascades as a big money maker. It isn’t. The route loses lots of money, which the governments of Washington and Oregon make up.

        The point is that the Cascades is separable. There’s little integration with the rest of the Amtrak system. Since it uses it’s own rolling stock, there isn’t even the possibility of swapping other Amtrak cars in or out of a Cascades consist. There’s little maintenance synergy with the long distance trains serving Seattle or Portland. The service can be plucked out of Amtrak and given to a lower bidder with little impact on Amtrak and with little infrastructure to be provided by the new operator.

        That’s a lot harder for most of the other routes. It’s hard for the NEC, too. Finding a privatizable chunk of Amtrak requires much more thought than anyone on the T&I staff has yet given it.

  • Richard Gill

    Most European countries are roughly the geographic size of typical U.S. states. That’s one reason why they work. Japan is a large country, but they have partitioned the rail lines into state-size systems. The 3,000-mile-wide US won’t have a financially viable national system, nor one that attracts passengers in requisite numbers on long-haul routes.

    In the U.S. states or clusters of states might be able to create socially/economically useful rail passenger systems, but they will have to be heavily tax-supported and therefore objects of political battles for ever and ever. More than 60 years ago, this country opted for highway and air travel and built massive infrastructure to support those modes. Does anybody really think that’s going to change?

    • FG

      If they long-haul routes don’t attract passengers, why are they always booked solid despite fairly high prices?

      I wouldn’t say that “the country” opted for road and air over rail, the government and business interests did, with a lot of anti-Robber Baron feeling left from the last turn of the century.

      • Andre L.

        It’s a niche, FG. Taking a 3-night transcontinental trip is an oddity for aficionados. Amtrak transports less than 0,7% of total passenger-miles in US, and almost 2/3 of those 0,7% are on the NEC.

        The handful of transatlantic cruises that remain in operation are booked year-round, which doesn’t mean they are of any relevance on the Europe-North America transportation market.

        In any case, since those Amtrak trains are fully booked, they should rack up the price to at least bring its FRR to NEC standards

        • FG

          Most of the passengers on the long haul routes are not going from end to end, but from point to point along them, hardly the travel of an aficionado.

      • Don

        Explain how a 55% load factor = “booked solid”, please.

        • Nathanael

          We mean: booked solid at the peak point on the route.

          Please learn something about load factors on railways. Suppose you start a train at Boston and run it to Washington. It’s likely to be absolutely full between Newark and Trenton.

          This means it’s impossible to sell more tickets from north of Newark to south of Trenton, but if you *average* the load factor over the whole route, it may will come out looking like 55%.

          • Adirondacker12800

            I’ve been on ones that are absolutely filled between New Carrollton and Newark. Don’t know what it was like between Newark and New York because I get off in Newark. Really bad between Baltimore and Philadelphia. I’m sure Amtrak would have loved to add a few cars to the train. But Amtrak doesn’t have the cars.

        • Nathanael

          For example, the route from Chicago to New York is frequently booked solid in the middle of Ohio, but if you randomly look at a different point on the route, there will be fewer people.

    • Albert Sprung

      I don’t think so either, Richard. Rail travel in the U.S. is destined to be a nitch thing. The U.S. is too big for it to work effectively, and unlike other countries, we prefer living in the ‘burbs instead of crowded cities. The bottom line is, for short distance travel (1/8 mile to 300 miles) we’ll drive on our excellent road/highway system, and for longer distances, we’ll fly. Taxpayers are not going to cough up more dough for renewed rail travel when we have perfectly good roads and air travel. Trying to put us back in the 30′s when everyone lived in dense settlements and took trains everywhere is a losing proposition.

      • gob

        Yeah, London, Paris, Berlin etc are just terrible.

      • Tim E

        I would argue differently, taxpayers and states will pay for options including transportation such as intercity options just as much as they are getting tired of congestion and security lines.

        State DOT’s are also figuring out that in some instances their is a better cost benefit ratio to reduce frequency then adding capacity. Intercity rail offer that option and one reason why even conservative states like Kansas, Oklahoman and Texas will explore it. Expanding capacity often means expanding ROW in ever more metropolitan areas which is coming in at ever steeper prices. This is doesn’t even account for the reality that DOT’s have been adding lane miles with a static revenue source that hasn’t been raised since 1993 on the federal level. Kinda of like adding to the house without extra income to pay the increased heating bill.

      • “excellent road/highway system”

        If by excellent, you mean potholed, crumbling, and congested highways, then yes, we have one of the best highway systems in the developed world.

      • Nathanael

        The bottom line is, we’ll drive if forced to, and we’ll fly if forced to.

        We’ll take railways if given the option of a direct route.

        The evidence is overwhelming. Oh, and the cities are getting denser, while the rural areas are depopulating (they had a larger share of the population in the 30s). I don’t know if that trend will keep up, but if it does, it bodes positively for rail.

      • Albert,
        You may be a bright person, but you are clueless about the benefits to costs of true HSR vs. more highway and airport expansion. The latter will cost taxpayers twice as much in direct costs, more productivity costs, more traffic deaths/injuries, more breathing illnesses from smog and a lot more CO2 contributing to global warming.

  • Andre L.

    The major example of a private competition on publicly owned tracks is Italy.

    There, you have Italo Treno, which operates truly open access competitor services on the Italian Y-shaped high-speed network (Turin-Milan-Bologna, Venice-Padova-Bologna, Bologna-Florence-Rome-Napoli-Salerno) against Trenitalia, both running on RFI tracks.

    It is a very interesting case to follow since NPV Spa. (the holing operating Italo Treno) actually purchased 20 or so brand new AGV trains from Alstom (instead of merely leasing them from another Italian company/Trenitalia), put in US$ 1.8 billion on investments, built an own maintenance facility and rented its own lounge and customer assistance spaces on stations.

    It is true competition: operations are exclusive, tickets can’t be used outside their own trains, and no mixed tickets (Italo + Trenitalia) can be sold (passengers could buy two, but though luck if they miss connections).

    So it is an ambitious plan, much more than Hull Trains or Westbahn.

    The effects have been interesting. Trenitalia expanded the use of yield management and now the dirt-cheap elusive fares (such as 9 euros for any sector on the high-speed line) are now not so elusive anymore. Currently, both companies are fighting a price war, which benefits costumers.

    • Andre L.

      To those curious: this is their website: http://www.italotreno.it/EN/timetables-prices/timetables-connections/Pages/overview.aspx

      They should receive, commission and operate their full fleet in June 2013 (right now they have around 40% of it running already).

    • Adirondacker12800

      Price wars lead to cuts in service. Deregulation of the US airlines was supposed to bring us low low fares, It did, It also brought us low low customer service and seats so close together that your knees are in the back of the seat ahead of you.

      • Eric

        Airlines still have great customer service and spacious seats. You just have to buy a first class ticket, which I believe costs no more than a normal ticket did before deregulation. Since deregulation, you also have a low cost option.

        • Andre L.

          Exactly. If pre-deregulation prices were still the norm in US, a LAX-JFK flight would cost almost US$ 2,100 one-way. Europe-North America flights would start on the US$ 3,800-4,000 range. But yeah, the minority of current passengers flying would have far more “glamorous” services.

          In any case, the are less incentives for railways to cramp seats too much. High-speed trains are already very heavy (650-900kg total train weight/seat).

        • Adirondacker12800

          That’s gotta be the unrestricted fly now price. I used to fly to coast to coast in the 70s for 125 each way. Works out to 850 in today’s prices if I used the inflation calculator correctly. Planes have gotten more efficient. You don’t get the service you used to get in the 70s.

          • Andre L.

            Do you think regulated airlines would be screaming out for fare increases to account for massive oil price increases since the mid-1970s (in real terms)? And do you think aircraft manufacturers would be so focused on efficiency if their costumers could just ask for “increased fares” to the regulators?

            • To answer the second question, let’s look at plane development prior to deregulation: the inefficient 707 gave way to the 737 and 747, each of which improves efficiency in a different direction.

              Likewise, re prices, US-EU flights were only recently deregulated, but even before then airlines were free to set prices. The result: savage profiteering, and a customer-hating yield management system (invented by American, I believe). Within North America, or within Europe, you can buy reasonable one-way tickets; between the two regions, you can’t.

              • Andre L.

                Alon, the major reason one-way tickets are not sold on Transatlantic routes is for immigration purposes, since airlines are liable to take any passenger refused at the border back to where she/he came from.

                Moreover, there is a key difference on long-haul routes: majority of fuel is spent cruising, and cruising doesn’t offer many opportunities to save money except on labor (or using older – but less efficient – planes). The airline can slow the aircraft a bit, but they all did that and if they slow more their optimal cruising altitude falls (denser air, more fuel spent).

                Even if Ryanair wanted, their practices of fast-turning airplanes and expediting boarding wouldn’t do much for a 9-11h flight as it does for airplanes used for several short hops a day.

              • Do they really have a high percentage of people refused entry between the US and the EU?

                (By the way, I just checked and they do sell one-way tickets between Mexico and the US.)

                The long-haul issue is only part of the cost problem. NY-London is barely any longer than NY-LA, but the prices are much higher and less flexible. There is in fact something like a low-cost carrier across the Atlantic, Virgin, but it assimilated to the traditional fare system instead of changing it the way Southwest and JetBlue have; it added competition, but didn’t change anything on a fundamental level.

    • Stefan

      Italy is rather a bad example of competition; let me explain that on two examples:

      Example 1: Domestic competitors like “Arenaways” are facing interventions by RFI (infrastructure manager, originates from former state railways FS like major operator Trenitalia) which lead “Arenaways” into insolvency. (“mission completed”)

      Example 2: International competitors like German/Austrian DB/OeBB national train operating companies are still struggling to re-introduce former “EuroCity” cross-border intercity services between Munich (Germany), Innsbruck (Austria) and several Italian cities like Rome, Milan and Venice. After the national Italian train operator “Trenitalia” (ex-FS) opted out of the very long cooperation between these three railway companies some years ago, the chummily RFI (Italian infrastructure manager) tried to occupy all attractive slots for these EC trains on the Italian sections with phantom-like freight train slots — even though “Trenitalia” hasn’t shown any interest to run own EC-like trains in these slots!

      Both examples show, that Italy is still far from becoming a quotable example regarding fair competition in the railway operating sector.

  • Gauephat

    I’ve always wondered what the privatization of VIA Rail here in Canada would do. It’s something that some politicians and pundits to the right have been clamouring for for years, and part of me thinks they have a point. As much as a regulatory problem Canada has with heavy passenger rail (because the Ministry of Transport more or less copies FRA regulations, making the bureaucracy twice as impenetrable) VIA’s lack of employee productivity, refusal to modernize any aspect of their rolling stock, and general incompetence would make even Amtrak blush. I think that with a subsidized but private operator, most of the worst of the waste could be trimmed, and VIA Rail would stop being the go-to target for government inefficiency.

    • Bytowner

      I have to wonder if perhaps privatization wouldn’t make VIA’s operations shrink even further than has become the status quo over the past few changes of federal government.

      • Gauephat

        If VIA was simply privatized, and left to sink or swim on its own without any help, yes. I believe only the Canadian is a money maker currently, and with good operating practices Toronto-Montréal could be as well. Everything else would probably be binned unless provinces stepped in to subsidize routes.

        The regulatory situation means it’s very difficult or impossible to make money in intercity rail in Canada. But if VIA was privatized, I sort of wonder if it would make the MoT more amenable to changing its policies.

        • The Canadian loses money. So does the Corridor. In fact the Canadian has an operating ratio of 0.44.

          See page 4 here.

          • Gauephat

            Huh, for some reason I thought The Canadian was profitable. Well, I guess that means that VIA is incompetent at running both intercity rail and long-distance/tourism rail.

            The rumours are that the Rocky Mountaineer have been lobbying Conservatives to get VIA to ditch some of its long-range services. They could probably run The Canadian and those other services at a profit. As distressing as continually cutting funding to VIA is, how else are they going to be motivated towards competency? My only reservations about building HSR in Canada are centered on VIA’s ability to actually run the thing.

            • Nathanael

              VIA has basically only one long-distance service: The Canadian. This is basically a tourist train at this point, as its schedule makes it unusable for travel. This is the one the Rocky Mountaineer wants to take over.

              The Ocean (to Halifax) is called long-distance, but it wouldn’t be called long-distance in the US. Currently VIA is trying to destroy it by running it less than daily. And VIA has been concealing the passenger numbers from prior to the cuts, to hide the fact that it was popular.

              But as I say, Laliberte, the current VIA CEO, is a hatchet man appointed by Harper to destroy VIA. Hacking away at the Southwest Ontario services was the giveaway — *nobody* wanted those services cut except for Road Warriors.

              • Adirondacker12800

                If long distance trains are trains that travel more than 750 miles The Ocean qualifies. Wikipedia says it’s 836 miles from Montreal to Halifax on The Ocean.

        • Nathanael

          One of the problems is that railroads have basically never been profitable in Canada — this is because Canada is a low-population country with low transportation demand (freight as well as passenger).

          Study the history of Canada’s railroads. “Intercolonial Railway” — unprofitable, then nationalized! “Grand Trunk Railway” — unprofitable, then nationalized! “Canadian Pacific Railway” — unprofitable and subsidized! “Canadian National Railways” — nationalization of piles of bankrupt railways! “British Columbia Railway” — nationalized!

          It’s been a cycle of govenrment subsidy, bankruptcy, nationalization, privatization, government subsidy, bankruptcy, etc., basically forever.

          The railroads in Canada exist, quite explicitly, for *political* reasons — they were promises made to the smaller colonies during Confederation.

          Disturbingly, recent governments seem to have forgotten the political function of the railroads. Predictably, the Maritime colonies are starting to talk secession!

          The current profitability of the privatized, freight-focused CN and CP is based on (1) imports from Asia through western ports, (2) branch lines into the US, and (3) removing service to pretty much all branch lines in Canada, apart from a few mines and logging operations. This will work as long as the Asian import traffic continues. If that ever ends, watch for another round of nationalizations, or complete discontinuance.

    • Nathanael

      VIA’s incompetence is a deliberate choice by the governments which appoint its management. Don’t blame VIA — blame the PM. Before VIA, it was government-owned CN (and they privatized it because…. they thought, giving money to rich investors good, giving profits to government bad, I guess?). Passenger rail services have been a federal issue in Canada basically forever.

      Amtrak has actually managed to survive hostile federal governments, due perhaps to a more indirect system of management appointment which makes it less likely for a hatchetman to actually become CEO — but due mostly to continued Congressional and state support (tor which there is no Canadian equivalent). VIA really can’t survive hostile governments.

  • Moewe

    Refer to Railtrack experience in UK. Municipalities use up tax increment condeming property normally so co development is not the entire answer unless it is directly applied as a general local debt obligation. Local share otherwise will need to come from gen obligation OR separate assesment districts. Redevelopment fees to developers in PUD zone is also a good option but not leveragable usually. Hence. The primary answer is to do a kind of smog exchange ala NEPA transferring cash penalties from FHWA and FAA to FTA.

  • I’ve been a blogger on TMV since 2009 who writes about economic, political, social and environmental issues. I have multiple degrees and I have traveled extensively. I have worked in various private companies and have dealt with the public sector many times on transportation issues. I now better understand the world since I turn 50 years of age.

    Except for a few U.S. states, Amtrak and passenger trains are of little or no concern to our Federal and state politicians and our wealthy elites who own most of them. President Obama’s call for HSR was a meager effort to change this dynamic but Congress determines national priorities and spending, and we shouldn’t expect its members to become suddenly enlightened anytime soon.

    It is very likely that no sophisticated discussion on national transportation policy will ever take place in the U.S. during our lifetimes except on such excellent blogs such as this one. I predict that in the next 2 to 8 years, Amtrak will be sold off to some private WS investment consortium that will promptly liquidate it – selling infrastructure, assets and equipment to the highest bidders and rendering most U.S. intercity rail transportation to the dustbin of history.

    The Federal government could transfer assets in an organized fashion for free to various states, but it can’t since its wealthy campaign contributors envision a private-sector bonanza selling off assets (obtained for practically nothing from the public) back to various multi-state public entities at a handsome profit. The U.S. public will pay twice for assets it already owns. Some locomotives and rolling stock will find their way to Canada and Mexico.

    Some intrcity trains will continue in about 6 geographic areas but under some new public/private ownerships. Private freight railroads who own the tracks will likely see the profits in such cooperation. Operations will continue in the following: 1.) California; 2.) Washington-Oregon; 3.) Texas-Oklahoma-Louisiana; 4.) Chicago with a pinwheel system to nearby states & cities; 5.) Colorado-Utah; & 6.) NE Corridor from Maine to Virginia with some lines extending thru NY, PA, MD & VA.

    AFter this massive public theft, the rest of the nation will never see intercity or even commuter trains again. We live in a rapidly declining Empire that is being destroyed from within by corrupt crony capitalism and stupid, extreme, and bankrupt economic and political ideologies.

    Too many in the U.S. Congress are completely bought corrupt puppets of our wealthiest individuals and corporations. Most of our leaders and most voters in the general public do not understand Modern Money or Monetary Sovereignty to see how things really work economically and how global austerity is ludicrous. Our current public policies are directed at increasing income inequality and augmenting the power and wealth of our oligarchy. Anything that benefits the 99% will be slashed or eliminated in order to return to a lawless fascist feudalism on a global scale.

    U.S. and global public policy is not set by a majority of voters, by intelligent people who write on this subject or comment on this site, or by what is in the best long-term interest of the nation or planet. It is only dictated by what makes the most profit in the quickest time for our corrupt, greedy oligarchy.

    Don’t hold onto your hopes or even your great ideas very long with respect to anything in the U.S. that rolls on 2 steel tracks designed to carry people – Wall Street & our greedy oligarchy are not interested in them. If you and I want to ride trains (conventional or HS) then we must travel to Europe or Asia instead.

    We might wait 10-20 years for the complete collapse of the U.S. to finally get the nation to seriously consider sane policies with respect to on our transportation, urban and farming land use, and global environmental policies – if we are still a viable species on this planet. Many humans cannot understand that the Earth has finite resources and an exploding population. Too many people delusionally deny the natural limits of endless promised growth and that we continually mis-allocate our resources, energies and public funds.

    Best wishes to all who regularly read this wonderful blog.

    • Nathanael

      You underestimate the political support for Amtrak.

      The regional systems you list will survive, and there is no substitute for Amtrak in most of them. Meanwhile, rural states like North Dakota and Montana are fanatical supporters of Amtrak, even among the right-wingers.

      While the collapse of the undemocratic US Empire as you describe seems to be inevitable, it’s perfectly possible for individual institutions to survive the collapse: and I actually think Amtrak is a likely survivor at this point.

      There are sharp distinctions between lawlessness, fascism, and feudalism. Modern fascists would maintain and expand passenger rail. Feudalism would also do so, although on a “privatized” (theft from the public) basis. Only lawlessness would actually destroy it.

      Now, our current 0.1%ers are neither fascist, nor feudalist, nor lawless. They are scam artists; kleptocrats. Their days are numbered, as their behavior is unsustainable. They have run *many* privatization scams (Conrail comes to mind) but I don’t think they’re going to get to Amtrak before the general collapse of the US.

  • I actually don’t understand where people get the idea that private companies can deal with unions and labor rules more easily than public companies. American Airlines is an example of a company with terrible union relations, and has suffered badly for it.

    At least in America, companies don’t deal with angry unions magically – usually, they have to be dragged through bankruptcy to achieve lower labor costs. Most major airline carriers in the United States have had to, and GM was also turned around after a stint in bankruptcy. Perhaps the one upside of privatizing Amtrak would be the ability to drag it through the bankruptcy courts – privatization on its own is not effective without major reorganization, but at the same time, I don’t believe Amtrak can be dragged through bankruptcy proceedings due to its status as an entity of the federal government.

    • Andre L.

      That is a valid point. However, not all labor allocation inefficiencies are locked-in on union contracts.

      What I think live many people outraged (me included) is that the operational surpluses of NEC operations are all burned on leisure transcontinental routes that serve a very specific niche.

      A train with a frequency of 1 service per day, subject to several hours delay often, is not even transportation of last resort, I’d say. But apparently the retirees who ride those routes are a powerful constituency, since talking of severing up all routes through the Rockies and the deserts is a third-rail on Amrtrak debate.

      • Nathanael

        It’s not “retiree travel”, though the sleepers get their share of that.

        I take it you’ve never been on a long-distance Amtrak train. You’d be surprised who the main population in the (full) coach cars is.
        Lots and lots of lower-middle-income people going to and from places where the airfare is not affordable. People who simply can’t stand the TSA.

        And most of them under the age of 40. With a smattering of the over-70s.

  • Rational Plan

    Opponents of Privatisation certainly beat Railtrack over it’s head about several accidents. But the actual death rate on British railways declined dramatically after privatisation. But that was mainly due to improved health and safety rules for workers and introduction of more modern trains.

    Railtrack was brought down when the government allowed the Health & safety executive to run out of control after one serious accident and it cause railtrack to spiral into collapse as the entire network was paralyzed with go slow zones. Now we have Network rail a semi stat owned group that has not become more efficient as promised.

  • Matthew Hall

    The U.K.’s rail ridership has grown enormously. If that is “failure” what does success look like?

    • Nathanael

      France.

      (I am required to make this comment longer.)

      • Richard T

        In France, on the TGV lines the service is great but go off on to the regional lines, those by passed by the TGV and the country trains like in the Auvergne the service is scant. Compare that with the UK or actually most other European countries and SNCF is pretty crap.

  • Andrew

    I lived in Japan in the 1980s and experienced the break-up and privatization of Japan National Railways (JNR) firsthand. As it went into effect, the improvements in quality of service were palpable. The price differentials with competing private lines closed as the new entities held their prices flat and competing private lines gradually increased theirs. A few random observations:
    In the post-war era, JNR was structured to provide maximum employment opportunities and increase labor/societal stability by absorbing large numbers of recently decommissioned soldiers. Inefficiency was a feature, not a bug. Right up to privatization, each ticket was hand-clipped by the uniformed employees who manned each gate. (Today this is handled by an electronic swipe system integrated with other private lines as well as buses, and even retail outlets; the train pass has become a form of electronic currency.) Thus, there was a huge space available for improving efficiency and productivity: lots of low-hanging fruit.
    Many of the important lines, such as those between Tokyo and Yokohama, faced long-standing competition from parallel private lines. The fact that commuters had options kept the post-privatization JR operators on their toes. They have continued to expand and improve services since the break-up/privatization.
    So I guess my point is that while the question of vertical integration is probably key to the success of any privatization, there are other, country-specific factors that need to be kept in mind and broad generalizations are (as always) risky.

    • Andre L.

      Up to a point, transit operations in North America (much more than in Europe, must be said) have some “inefficiencies by design”.

      By any possible means of analysis, many transit agencies grossly overpay employees or keep outright unnecessary positions in their operations (think of compulsory 2-men operations).

      If airlines were subject to that level of feet dragging, flight engineers would be mandated on all airplanes crews regardless of actual technological need.

      I’m not saying people who work jobs that don’t require college degrees and are repetitive work shouldn’t earn a “decent wage”, but when every other similar occupation is having its real wages slashed, but not those in key government-entity positions, the first group is actually getting a double dip as they have to pay more on fares (or taxes, it doesn’t matter) to sustain the living standards of people whose work positions are comparable.

      If truckers driving around large trailers full of hazmat are earning US$ 40.000/year on the top quartile, I don’t see why METRA or BART should pay lavishly train drivers US$ 70.000/year + generous benefits.

  • Allen

    “The organization does not seem to have the larger public’s interests in mind in setting policies:” – Yonah

    That is simply not true Yonah. Not only because of Amtrak’s infamously high operating costs ( $16 burgers, e.g. ) but because most of Amtraks routes, the Empire Builder for example, do not exist for business reasons, for the ridership and money they can make, but because they need touch as many states as possible for their political support. The political support is necessary to bring in the funds needed to operate.

  • david vartanoff

    @ Allen. You miss the reality of how LD trains function. I have visited friends in Eugene OR often over the last thirty years. It is a convenient overnight run from the SF bay area, and even w/sleeper space cheaper than air with the added bonus of no TSA fools. This is not a retiree cruise, this is simple vacation travel. As a second example, I have friends in Chicago and DC. again a pleasant overnight between points with the further convenience of stations actually closer to my destinations than ANY airport. As ridership grows, Amtrak’s car shortage is causing sold out trains.

    • Andre L.

      And here is where stupidity begins: if you have a product/service that is scarce, and you have the slightest business sense, you raise prices to earn more. But Amtrak is insulated from basic universal economic laws.

      • FG

        Ah, but their prices DO go up as the departure date gets closer and the trains fill up. I’m beginning to smell the scent of a Norwegian mythic….

      • david vartanoff

        false, sir. Amtrak does the same vicious yield management pricing as everyone else. They are subject to oil, and other consumables price fluctuations. The major differences are that subsidies are transparent and that the Congress, rather than either a regulatory commission or a self selecting BOD make major decisions.

  • DBX

    Amtrak privatization at this point is a terrible idea, especially if Japan and Britain are being held up as the examples. As Yonah points out, a large chunk of Japan railways operate on the same basic business model as Amtrak does now; so how does that constitute change? And as for the British disaster, forget it; quadrupling government subsidies while massively increasing fares and reducing service reliability, with the only payoff for the customer being generally newer equipment.

    Politicians who were serious about addressing Amtrak’s operating costs would be looking at solutions that would actually lower costs and/or improve margins. You know, things like service expansion to achieve economies of scale and customer-generating choice and reliability; changes in safety regulation to allow rail cars that actually follow modern standards for light weight, fuel efficiency and effective crash resistance; changes in everything from rail station design to union work rules so that trains do not have to be more heavily staffed than a trans-Pacific flight; changes in Amtrak’s contractual relationships with the freight railroads so that passenger services cannot be jerked around on the slightest pretext; changes in the federal government’s relationship with the railfreight industry so they are no longer the transportation funding step-child that feels they need to jerk passenger services around in order to cope.

  • Don

    Amtrak is a hot mess.

    They seem to think they are in business to “run trains” and “get subsidized”. Outside of the NEC and state supported routes, they seem to take zero interest in developing and serving passenger transportation markets. They do a horrible job with the routes and equipment they have.

    They only react when pushed from the outside. The latest PRIIA stuff is just the most recent example.

    Record passenger loads? About 2/3 of the growth was on the NEC. Money for new equipment? Let’s buy baggage cars! And crew dorms! And diners!

    Amtrak is fixable. They just need to be reconfigured so that they are rewarded for being an efficient, effective passenger transportation company. Then, they need a real CEO who understands the business and can make it go. They will always need some form of subsidy, but, we could get a lot more bang for our buck than we get now.

    • Don,
      You make salient points to improve railroad regulation, Amtrak management & labor practices, as well as the need to increase the number of passengers per unit of labor and energy. But there are other factors limiting Amtrak, beginning with Anti-HSR forces who never even wanted the NEC to run at a profit.

    • Woody

      Don,
      The 130 upgraded cars will replace Heritage equipment, some dating from the 1940s, (!) , on long distance trains using the NEC.

      This minimal order, for 25 sleepers, 25 diners, 25 crew dorms/baggage cars, and 55 baggage cars, will help things a lot: More efficient a/c, heating, and lighting; outlets for electronic toys; ADA compliant; even bike racks in the new baggage cars, more capacity for excess baggage to be carried for an extra charge.

      Best of all they won’t drag ass on the NEC. The old cars delay really fast trains behind them and threaten to bring down the catenary. Amtrak promises they’ll “improve on-time performance”.

      The new dorm cars will move crew out of the sleepers, which they use now for lack of dorms, thus adding more high-priced sleeping car tickets to the inventory.

      Sweet. Sleeping car passengers make up only about 15% of all long distance riders, but provide 35% of the revenues.

      You are quite correct that the order includes no new coaches.

      In July 2010, the 130 cars were ordered, and deliveries should begin later this year. After a few months for testing, they’ll begin to enter service in 2013.

      Also in 2010, Amtrak proposed a fleet renewal plan involving hundreds of new coaches. Control of the House went to the Repubs in the election later that year. No fleet renewal has been authorized or budgeted.

      Amtrak has also proposed to add more coaches to each Acela train set, adding capacity and improving productivity. But this plan to improve service on the NEC has not been authorized or budgeted.

      Amtrak was able to make the down payment on the 130 sleepers etc from $62 million of unbudgeted funds coming from higher-than-forecast passenger revenue.

      Amtrak’s CEO was smart not to wait to order them as part of the larger fleet renewal. He did what he could, with what he had. Good move.

      • Woody

        An option for 70 more!

        Yesterday, Amtrak’s Chairman of the Board, Tom Carper, casually mentioned this 130-car order “with an option for 70 more”. (That option had gone almost sub rosa for so long, I’d forgot about it.)

        Now we’re talking!

        With sleepers and diners so often “sold out”, especially in the busy summer season, Amtrak could easily add another couple of the high-revenue cars to its most popular trains. (Since 2007, ridership is up 24% and revenue up 35% on the long distance trains, so they sure need more capacity.)

        The option definitely means enuff cars to take the Cardinal daily, to slash the per-passenger loss on that three-times-a-week NYC-DC-Charlottesville-Charleston-Cincinnati-Indianapolis-Chicago route.

        There’d be enuff cars to take the Sunset Limited daily too, again chopping the subsidy-per-passenger on the single worst performing route.

        In a wonderful world, another 70 special cars could also allow adding or extending a few routes. Think restoring service on the “suspended” Sunset route from New Orleans to Orlando, a second run on the Adirondack, overnight (9 hours) NYC to Montreal and on the Maple Leaf to Toronto (12 hours), a Palmetto extended from Savannah to Miami, and other possibilities.

        Amtrak will still need more coaches to put more daily trains on these routes. Some used coaches will cascade off the St Louis-Chiacago and Detroit-Chicago routes when NextGen bilevel cars (from another small stimulus-paid order) begin replacing the existing rolling stock in three years or so. But if we want to get serious, Congress will need to move forward soon to fund Amtrak’s fleet plan for 1,000+ coaches.

        Meanwhile, Amtrak will need to confirm that 70-car option pretty soon, to give the manufacturer a realistic lead time before the assembly line starts to shut down after beginning work on only 130 cars.

        • FG

          If Amtrak were to add cars to trains, what effects does this have, beyond things like platform length, on freight coordination does this have, or is it minimal?

          • Woody

            Iirc, (almost) every Amtrak train has fewer cars in the consist than the trains on the same routes 40+ years ago when Amtrak was formed. A recent report on the Southwest Chief (L.A.-Albuquerque-Kansas City-Chicago) said it had two coaches and one sleeper, where the Santa Fe R.R. used to run 18 cars!

            I’m sure a few complications have arisen over the years, with old stations abandoned and tracks rerouted. At a number of stations, work is underway to make them ADA compliant, which often involves building or lengthening the high level platforms.

            One station that simply couldn’t handle longer trains is Atlanta. It can barely handle the Crescent as it is. Not that anybody with power in Atlanta gives a damn, as Rhett would say. Also, Maricopa, standing in for Phoenix, blocks a highway while it sits in the station. Somebody is working on that one.

            I doubt if freight interference is a big issue. The sidings where Amtrak trains have to wait for the more important freights to pass (yeah, that’s illegal, whatchu gonna do about it?) almost always are used by freights being passed by other freights, so they’re long enuff.

            The plan to add 40% capacity to the Acelas involves construction. Iirc the costly part of that is making the maintenance sheds long enuff for 10 cars instead of 8-car train sets.

            Meanwhile Amtrak has plans to rebuild parts of Penn Station, and almost all of Union Station, and some of South Station, to prepare for more trains as it nears real HSR operations. So if they spend a few billion on Union Station, it won’t be to take longer consists on the Silvers to Miami.

            In any case, even with a few deliveries of sleepers etc beginning next year, it will be years before Amtrak has enuff cars in its inventory to have really long trains. So there’s plenty of time to get ready if Congress will let Amtrak grow.

            • david vartanoff

              about capacity of Amtrak LD trains. In general they are shorter than in the “Golden Age” and of course 1/day whereas back then there were more trains on each route let alone more route choices. That said, I did a comparison of CZ consists in present times w/ the CZ in 1961 based on actual conductors consist data. When one computes the trains at full occupancy of both coaches and sleepers it is nearly a wash. This is because the Superliners seat just short of double the coaches on the CZ in ’61 and the sleepers of today also, if fully booked, sleep 40 where the classic 10-6s slept 22. This increased capacity does not translate for single level LD trains such as the Lake Shore or the Silver trains where the capacities are virtually the same as 50 ears ago (Amfleet LD coach 60 v NYC coach 56 or ACL/SAL 52-56.

              • Woody

                David, I think Don was suggesting that I’ve been drinking Amtrak’s Cool-Aid, while you have not.

                Well. I don’t mean to be a big apologist for Amtrak. Don is probably correct to summarize that it’s a “hot mess”.

                I do think he misfired to complain about the puny 130-car order to enter the fleet commencing next year.

                Don exclaimed, “Record passenger loads? About 2/3 of the growth was on the NEC. Money for new equipment? Let’s buy baggage cars! And crew dorms! And diners!”

                I tried to justify and explain at length why I think the puny order was the right thing, the best thing that Amtrak could do at that time.

                Seems that many old hands and Amtrak critics have become so frustrated over the years that they fall into a refrain that Amtrak management can do nothing good.

                Maybe because I came so late to these conversations, I’m still open to the possibility that Amtrak and its CEO Joe Boardman can sometimes do good. In fact, looks to me like they are doing a pretty good job overall given what they have to work with.

                Anyway, I’m convinced that Amtrak management has very little power compared with its bosses in Congress. I would not be surprised if Congress told Amtrak to place the toilet paper rolls in the ‘under’ rather than ‘over’ position. I’d be astonished if Congress would invest enuff in Amrtak to allow it operate at maximum efficiency and public benefit.

            • Don

              david-

              No Amtrak cool-aid for you!

              • david vartanoff

                not sure how to take this.
                However, I should add that I have stood trackside watching/ridden very long single level pre and Amtrak trains years ago which DID have greater capacity than is currently available on the same/similar routes. And, more importantly in many cases there were multiple departure times so that one was not forced to boarde/detrain in the middle of the night as for instance when going to from Cleveland today.

  • Andrew in Ezo

    @DBX-
    Yonah I’m afraid emphasizes too much the finances of the three smaller JR companies in Japan which are indeed suppported by the government, as they are saddled with rural lines and lack profitable intercity and high density commuter lines. They are not a “large chunk” of the total railways in Japan. In fact, the other three (larger by far) companies, JR East, JR Central, and JR West, are private companies listed on the stock exchange, and are profitable enterprises. Not to mention the dozens of private railway firms in urban regions that have always been private and and for-profit.

    • Nathanael

      JR East, Central, and West, are “profitable” after the government assumed all their prior debts from when they were nationalized (and before, when they were originally private).

      In short, JR privatization was a “privatize profit, socialize losses” scheme which is nothing to be proud of.

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