Just a while ago an AMTRAK Acela train left New York's Penn Station sans any passengers, speeding merely down the track towards Washington DC, leaving about 200 unlucky folks behind in the Big Apple. What the devil happened? It appears that the train set did not come in at the usual platform at Penn Station. Basically passengers were sent to platform "X", train was at platform "Y", departure time came and the train went off. Why the train conductor and the crew did not find it unusual that nobody boarded their train in New York City would be interesting to find out.
Of course the Twitter universe and all the various whiny message boards are just aflutter with indignation. Everybody is an expert and, as can be easily imagined, the prevailing mantra is this: "The government can't do anything right!"
Of course that all got me going on my own rant about private enterprise and AMTRAK.
Railroads in the United States have almost always been private enterprises since the beginning. And these "private" railroads have also from the beginning had their snouts in the trough of the public's tax money. During and after the construction of the transcontinental railroad the amount of graft and corruption would have made India proud. Safety on these nongovernment, private railroads was so bad, that Congress was finally forced to address the issue of railroad safety in the late 19th century with the Railroad Safety Appliance Act.
In the USA the privately held railroads always had a love/hate relationship with the passenger trains they were operating. Freight was the business to make tons of money with. Like one railroad famously stated: Freight did not complain about the coaches, or the bad ride, or the lousy food in the dining cars. When passenger railroading was at it's most unprofitable during the 1960's or so, the railroads were just too glad to hive off the revenue losing passenger services to the newly formed (1971) National Railroad Passenger Corporation, alias AMTRAK.
As a quasi government agency AMTRAK is being overlorded by the US Congress. Thus it has never been able to run itself as a "proper" passenger railroad. This constant interfering from members of Congress takes it's toll. The railroad has been heavily politizied and can not adjust it's route system to meet current demand and financial targets without some Representative or Senator putting up an uninformed fuss. Two of the worst and most uninformed prople meddling in Amtrak's affairs from the US Capitol are Mr. Mica and Mr. Issa. AMTRAK has no dedicated funding. Just about every year it is at the whim of Congress' appropriations process. It can not plan long term, because it never knows whether or not there will be any funds coming. The idiots on the Hill all want passenger trains in their respective districts, but they don't want to pay for it, because, so they heard, the private sector can run it and make money. Well, here is an inconvinient truth (sorry Mr. Gore): No passenger railroad in the world makes money. The much ballyhooed privatization of the British rail system has been an abject failure. In 2012 alone, the UK treasury (or whatever they call that over there) paid an astonishing 6.8 Billion Pounds for the country's rail system. That's roughly 11.8 Billion US dollars. It also has created imprenetable layers of bureaucracy with wonderfully obscure abbreviations like: PPM, TSGN, TOCS, ORR, DIRFT, NSARE, DFT, RSG, SRFI. The fare structure of the UK rail system is a disaster. Speak with three different rail ticket vendors and one gets three different prices for the same train, on the same day. God forbid one would get on the "wrong" train by accident. One could get hit with a multi-hundred pound fine. A friend of mine and myself can easily attest to that dreadful experience.
I am a big admirer of the UK, but I would not want their rail system structure in this country. Having said all of this I am quite aware that something has got to be done here in the US. AMTRAK's equipment, with few exceptions, is ancient. The locomotives used for the long distance services (see photo) are notoriously unreliable and require a lot of maintenance.
AMTRAK's timetable is mostly a work of fiction. Nary a train ever arrives on schedule. Just recently the "Empire Builder" schedule keeping got to be so bad that, instead of running the train 7 to 12 hours behind schedule, AMTRAK just cancelled the whole service. Now I know that for most of it's long distance services AMTRAK is dependent on the freight railroads upon whose tracks it runs, in the Empire Builder case it would be Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF). Again, I do realize that the freight railroads are busy! But by God, is it really impossible to run one small, little passenger train per day across your system within a reasonable approximation to the time table?
Not that AMTRAK wins many kudus regarding timeliness even on it's own North East Corridor. AMTRAK does own the North East Corridor lock, stock and barrel. There is no freight to speak of. So why are the trains routinely late? How a can a train leaving New York Penn Station, having left on time, get into Washington Union Station 45 minutes late? On a timetabled 2 hour 45 minute run?
AMTRAK is also constantly blabbering about initiating "high speed" service akin to what is happening in Europe and China. (For the definition of High Speed Service click here) I just wish that AMTRAK would work first on having decent "low speed" service on it's North East Corridor. The track between DC and New York City is so bad that it is virtually impossible to set down a cup of coffee without it being spilled all over the place. Trying to work on your computer is well neigh impossible while riding in one of the "Amcans". With the constant bouncing around one's fingers keep hitting the wrong key. The rolling stock is atrocious. The aforementioned "Amcans" are close to 40 years old, ride badly and have windows which remind one of window slits on a military tank.
To it's credit AMTRAK is attempting to renew it's fleet. The company has published a report on what it intends to do regarding rolling stock and it makes for some interesting, albeit rather dry, reading. (Click here to read the report) New electric locomotives for the North East Corridor are now being delivered and CAF has a contract to built several hundred new single level coaches, diners and baggage cars.
Siemens, in conjunction with Cummins, has also snagged a contract from AMTRAK to supply a number of new diesel-electric locomotives, eventually to replace the fleet of Genesis units.
Of course the big elephant in the room is still the matter of funding AMTRAK. The Republicans have been trying to kill AMTRAK for years. And, if they attain the majority in the US House and the US Senate this coming November as the polls suggest, things are going to look very bleak indeed for AMTRAK.
I love trains, I love riding them, but I also have always said: either fund the railroad properly so it can do a decent job, or get rid of it. This half assed stuff we have been doing with AMTRAK has got to stop. Further we will eventually have to decide whether it is really worth it to run a once daily train across the whole of the USA! It takes roughly 70 hours to cross the country from Washington DC to Los Angeles on a train. It takes just under 6 hours to fly (not counting TSA security theater, etc). Economically it does not make sense to do this.
Above are the current timings and prices for a one-way AMTRAK trip from Washington DC to Los Angeles.
And below is the cost and timing for a one-way flight from DC to Los Angeles for the same day:
Of course if we are intending running passenger trains as a social service in some of the hinterlands of this country, or to relieve congestion on the roads in the North East of the US all bets are off. That would be another whole discussion and blog entry.
OK, I am done ranting!