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There has to be a connection to make it work

September 21st, 1997

The topic of regional rail versus a national system leaves a lot of room for discussion. First, though, some realities and fundamentals must be discussed.

The key to any successful transportation enterprise is connectivity. This holds true with railroads, both passenger and freight, airlines, truck lines, and sea going carriers.

The components of a true network support each other, by a combination of feeding passengers via hubbing, and offering a smooth transition between various modes of transportation. Success in this critical area has not yet been achieved in this country, and forward-thinking consultants, planners, and transportation senior managers are finally beginning to focus on this important issue.

A true network not only provides passengers for each separate component, but also provides services at greatly reduced costs, such as reservations, maintenance, administration, purchasing, and marketing.

Also, equipment can be pooled and shared where it is needed by a combination of market demand, seasonal needs, and replacement for wrecked, damaged, or maintenance-impaired situations.

Once again going back to the old Pullman Company, one of its greatest accomplishments was the transfer or capital-intensive rolling stock from one part of the country to another to meet seasonal demand. They may have needed to change an exterior coat of paint or a car’s letterboard, but it sure was more efficient than purchasing equipment that would be grossly underutilized.

Amtrak is partly suffering from this problem, now. They essentially have four fleets of equipment: low-level, which is used on the NEC, California, and Midwest corridors; long-distance low-level, such as the Viewliners and Amfleet; the Superliners; and the AutoTrain equipment.

Regrettably, virtually none of this equipment is interchangable, costing Amtrak many revenue opportunities where market demand exists, but they cannot put present equipment inventory into use. The eastern long-hauls desperately need more sleepers, but only 50 Viewliners were ordered and delivered. Since the Heritage sleepers are long gone (and good riddance to these wonderful stalwarts of travel who simply outlived their marketability), Amtrak cannot add more First Class capacity to the Silver Meteor, Silver Star, Silver Palm, Lake Shore Limited, Crescent, or Twilight Shoreliner.

And, the Superliners have their limits, too, when in peak demand times there are not enough of them in service to meet market needs. Because of the need for transition cars, they can’t easily add a low-level car, even though this was the clumsy practice on the Capitol Limited before the advent of the Three Rivers.

AutoTrain is a closed system because of the freight brake system, and the corridor cars with their dense configuration are occassionally pressed into service on a long-haul, but at great sacrifice to passengers.

So, with all of these current problems (and we haven’t even addressed motive power), what would happen if in the future Amtrak were dismantled and regional railroads were the norm? We know that immediately after the Northridge earthquake in Southern California transit agencies from far and wide sent equipment to help Metrolink. But, would this happen on a regular basis? And would these agencies purchase extra equipment for storage until they could lease it to someone else?

And what about marketing? Yes, our European counterparts have solved the problem of marketing various national system under the popular Eurail pass, but could this easily be accomplished here? Amtrak currently has a terrible time keeping up with all of the various zone passes and fare structures. What type of chaos would result in marketing various regional railroads? Certainly this could be planned for and dealt with, but how efficient would it be?

The current travel agency community does a less-than-admirable job marketing Amtrak now (for vaious reasons, many of them not their own fault), would they do a better job marketing regional rail?

And what of routine maintenance concerns? Maintenance on a foreign road by contract? Many of us remember the old Pennsylvania Railroad constantly “borrowing” the Sun Lounge from the Silver Meteor and substituting an ordinary Pullman lounge when they needed a special feature car out of New York’s Sunnyside Yard. Will this problem reoccur?

And, what about uniformity of trackage rights, operating rules, and a million other day-to-day concerns when operating over more than one railroad. The single thing Amtrak does well is enforce its contracts with host railroads, keeping everything relatively uniform for operating procedures. What will happen to this issue?

Much of this can be worked out in advance with good planning, tight contracts, and honorable intentions. It does, however, pose some daunting problems when the operators and boards of directors of Metrolink, Septa, and Metra may not agree on any single issue and have to go to some type of arbitration.

Perhaps a reasonable solution is the enhancement of regional railroads, all operating routes that take less than, say, 12 hours to run in any one direction. And, perhaps all of these regional railroads (and perhaps host freight railroads) could commonly own and operate through another board of directors a national system. The key would be a national identity, with a regional flavor. As long as the traveling public could make one telephone call to meet all of their rail needs, then marketing would be greatly simplified.

There are a lot of possibilities. The important issue now is to rationally discuss all of the possibilities while not destroying what is in place now. We may want to build on top of what is there now and use it as a good foundation for something better, later.

And, one last issue. The last generation of private railroad passenger department employees are either retired or dead. Very few have taken their place or had the opportunity to learn at their knees. The best pool of talent today are either transit employees or freight railroad employees with a limited understanding of passenger needs. The only fully functioning pool of talent today is either running Amtrak or VIA Rail Canada. Some are running short lines, dinner trains, and tourist operations. But, when you work with these people, you quickly come to understand very few of those outside of Amtrak or VIA have anywhere near a complete understanding of the very real complexities of passenger rail operations.

Before we brand all Amtrak managers as incompetents, we better understand that Amtrak managers, like the police, they are the thin blue line between peace and anarchy.

Thanks for taking the time to read this.

Bruce Richardson
Jacksonville, Florida

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