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The Business and Politics of Passenger Rail; 2013-12-23

December 23rd, 2013

A Companion Digest of Events, Opinions, and Forecasts to
This Week at Amtrak

By J. Bruce Richardson,
United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.

America’s foremost passenger rail policy institute

Jacksonville, Florida • United States of America
Telephone 904-636-7739, Electronic Mail info@unitedrail.orgwww.unitedrail.org

Volume 3, Number 4

Founded in 1976 by the late Austin Coates, URPA is a nationally known policy institute which focuses on solutions and plans for passenger rail systems in North America. Headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida, URPA has professional associates in Minnesota, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Virginia, Texas, New York, and other locations. For more detailed information, along with a variety of position papers and other documents and a compendium of This Week at Amtrak, visit the URPA web site.

URPA is not a membership organization.

URPA is publishing its first-ever calendar. Check www.unitedrail.org after December 30, 2013 for your very own 2014 calendar.

It’s that wonderful time of year – depending on whether or not at this late moment everything is bought, wrapped, and you’re at your final Christmas holiday destination – when we all have good will and hope for a prosperous and happy new year.

At the end of 2013, we see America’s first private passenger railroad well on its way here in Florida with the march forward of All Aboard Florida, with service planned from Miami to Orlando with 16 daily roundtrips. Most hurdles and obstacles seem to be out of the way, and it looks like not much can stop the upcoming launch in the next year or so.

In other parts of these several united states, we’re seeing seeds being sown for more private passenger rail. Just last week, the State of Indiana indicated it is putting out for bids from private operators the Hoosier State route, now run by Amtrak. Indiana only signed a one year contract with Amtrak earlier this year, and state officials have hired a well-respected consulting firm to help it identify and receive bids from private operators.

Other states, too, are looking at this scenario, especially after signing contracts for record amounts of state payments to Amtrak this year for all state-supported services on routes less than 750 miles in length. Oklahoma lawmakers held a meeting in November trying to decide what to do about the state-subsidized Heartland Flyer and expanding passenger rail service from Oklahoma City to Tulsa and also to Wichita, Kansas. Two potential private operators made presentations for Oklahoma lawmakers to consider.

On a sad note, Amtrak is banging the drum for three states along the route of the national system’s Southwest Chief to kick in money to keep that long distance train on its present route after next year. Host railroad BNSF has been talking for a while about wanting to downgrade the Southwest Chief route in parts of Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico to freight train speeds as the route is becoming less traveled. BNSF wants to move the Southwest Chief to another of its main lines which is maintained for higher speed trains.

It is difficult to describe how terrible of a precedent this would set for other long distance routes. We know the cities and towns along this historic Santa Fe Railway route want to keep their train and the economic impact from tourism and related businesses the train generates.

The obvious answer to this problem is to let BNSF move the Southwest Chief, but also for the three states to form a less-expensive compact to operate a regional passenger train system over the present Southwest Chief route. This is a have-your-cake-and-eat-it,-too scenario. The horrible precedent of states funding a national system train would not be set, which would give Amtrak the possibility of going to other states on other routes and demanding the same type of funding. It would establish a most likely more robust service for the areas of Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico which would be abandoned by the Southwest Chief, but could most likely be run more efficiently and effectively by a non-Amtrak operator, keeping passenger train service in those cities and towns.

So, it looks like 2014 will be an even more interesting year for passenger rail as the business side cranks up and appropriately muscles aside some of the political side.

And, again, at this special time of year, we extend our collective thanks to the thousands of Amtrak and other passenger rail employees who will be away from home for the Christmas holiday. For all of those train and engine and onboard services crews who will be whisking passengers to their holiday destination to be with family and friends, and those backing them up working in stations, reservations centers, the commissaries and maintenance shops, dispatching and elsewhere to keep the railroad running, we appreciate you forgoing your holiday time with your family so we may be with our families.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all.

J. Bruce Richardson
United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.
Jacksonville, Florida USA
Telephone 904-636-7739

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