Big news of the day, as previously noted on the Web and in other e- mail messages, was the word that the voices recently raised in our region on behalf of the threatened Texas Eagle (which had recently begun to appear as endangered as the feathered fowl Al Gore once mistook it for) are at last being heard. First came an announcement of the Eagle's indefinite continuance, in a statement from U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.), delivered by Cynthia Hall, regional director in the Senator's Dallas office. Then in the afternoon came an "official" news release from Amtrak itself, hot off the fax machine, read to the crowd by planning committee member Tim Geeslin of Arlington. Both announcements were greeted by enthusiastic applause (but not wild cheering and stomping, as one report said).
The meeting's chair and foremost booster, Ray Dunbar of Longview, set the tone for the day in an opening statement in which he pointed out the need for continued and expanded rail transportation in an era marked by increasingly crowded highways and airways. Ray, whose enthusiastic leadership gave this meeting its momentum, kept the proceedings moving along. He was first of several speakers to note the valued leadership in Washington of our own Sen. Hutchison as our strongest proponent of a strengthened Amtrak and its interstate train network.
Our keynote speaker was Mineola's dynamic mayor and Texas Eagle supporter extraordinaire, Celia Boswell. After an introduction by Griff Hubbard, Longview's popular Amtrak station agent, Mayor Boswell recounted her town's successful efforts to gain a stop on the Eagle route only to be informed soon after that the train was going to be canceled! Her firm steps to keep the train rolling (and stopping at her town) were at the forefront of recent on-again, off-again times as the Eagle teetered on extinction. She extolled her audience to become more vocal with public officials in support of the national train system, emphasizing the value of constructive suggestions and (where appropriate) praise rather than criticism and negativism.
Mayor Boswell was followed by Ms. Hall of Sen. Hutchison's staff, who read the statement that gave the first hint that Amtrak was at last listening to the Senator who chairs the Senate Surface Transportation Subcommittee. Ms. Hall cited Sen. Hutchison's work to get passage of Amtrak restructuring legislation while calling for sufficient capital funding to keep the system going -- something it has lacked for 26 years. Then she reported the welcome news that the Eagle would indeed continue operating past its latest September termination date.
Two reports followed that provided first-hand updates on Dallas' flourishing rail transit operations. Jack Weirzenski, manager of planning studies for Dallas Area Rapid Transit, reviewed events leading up to the recent completion of DART's 20-mile starter system, including opening of the last three miles of the "blue line" in South Oak Cliff. He sketched plans for further expansion to north and northeast suburbs with construction beginning in 1998 and due for completion to Richardson, Plano and Garland by 2003.
Robert J. Smith, newly named general manager of Herzog Transit Services, which operates the joint DART-Fort Worth "T" Trinity Railway Express commuter operation between Dallas Union Station and Irving, gave an illustrated report on the rail service featuring beautifully restored 1950s-vintage RDCs that are providing Dallas' first commuter train service. The line will expand westward to Fort Worth over the former Rock Island in two years and will add a connection (details yet to be determined) with D/FW airport early in the next century.
An "insider's report" by Austin Coates of Jacksonville, Fla., was next. Coates brought the first really bad news heard at the meeting, with a late-breaking report that the half-cent from the gasoline tax being sought for capital funding for Amtrak was "dead." The word was that it was to be replaced by a convoluted corporate tax refund scheme that -- provided a lot of "ifs" are overcome -- may give the train system $2.3 billion over the next few years in place of the hoped-for half-cent. Coates, founder and president of the national organization, the United Rail Passengers Alliance (URPA), is in constant close contact with the political powers-that-be who presently hold Amtrak's fate in their hands. He also admonished the group to be more vocal and better organized in its efforts on behalf of passenger trains, emphasizing the need for increased political clout because all politicians care about "are numbers" -- of votes.
Coates went farther than other speakers in voicing a pessimistic view of Amtrak's future. He predicted bankruptcy and eventual shutdown. Many politicians would like to kill Amtrak outright, he said, but they don't want to be known as the ones who "shot Bambi." He stressed the need for terse, pointed messages to elected representatives and gave a number to call to reach Capitol Hill: 1-888-723-5246. Coates cited as a typical example of bad Amtrak management the recent conversion of two East Coast-to-Florida trains into three -- adding not a single seat or room to the line's total passenger capacity but increasing operating overhead by 40 percent!
After a lunch break during which most people rode DART light rail to nearby West End restaurants, the program resumed with a decidedly more upbeat view of Amtrak's future presented by Jack Martin, president of NARP for the past 18 years. Martin was encouraged by the fact that while the 1/2 cent gas tax reallocation was no longer under consideration, congressional leaders had nevertheless recognized the need for sizable Amtrak capital funding over the next several years, and had devised a mechanism which would provide essentially the same amount of money (calculated in present value dollars) as had been anticipated from the gas tax. Martin noted that Amtrak management is striving to give the appearance of having gotten over their "obsession" with the Northeast Corridor. Although further evidence is necessary, they appear to understand the need for a national system. Based upon experiences of past years, however, most in the audience remained skeptical of Amtrak's motives. Martin revealed that the preponderance of NARP activity with Amtrak deals with long-distance routes rather than the Corridor, and he strongly denied a comment from the audience suggesting that NARP had little interest in passenger service outside the northeast.
Dealing specifically with Texas Eagle problems, Martin noted the erratic and often deplorable on- time performance of the train, which is significantly influenced by Union Pacific dispatching practices. Commenting that Union Pacific's "corporate culture" seemingly does not place a high emphasis on Amtrak performance, Martin noted that other equally busy freight carriers had made a commitment to get their Amtrak trains over the road on time, barring unavoidable circumstances. Norfolk Southern's on-time operation of the Crescent was praised as an example of the type of cooperation Amtrak needs from the freight railroads. On the question of through cars between the Eagle and Sunset, Martin confirmed that the loss of through service had drastically affected ridership, noting that dialogue between NARP and Amtrak was ongoing with the goal of restoring the through cars. A request was made for additional detailed track information from San Antonio, so that viable proposals for switching both passenger and express cars could be developed. Reacting to a question over the rumored downgrading of dining car service, Martin reaffirmed that the full service dining experience was an important part of long distance train service. He suggested that privatization of food service (contracting out operations comparable to the Santa Fe - Fred Harvey arrangement) might be a preferable alternative to a return to snack cars or pre-cooked meals that have already been found unacceptable by passengers.
An interesting historical perspective on the Texas Eagle was presented by John Mills of Topeka, Kans., who traced the train from pre-Amtrak days on the MP/T&P through the launch of service by the Inter-American from St. Louis through North Texas to Laredo, and the present tri-weekly service cut back to San Antonio. Mills,an Amtrak manager for 22 years, provided insights into the company's policies and procedures, explaining the system's reluctance to utilize transition sleepers in revenue service because of details of the cars' design that he said make them unsuitable for such service without modifications.
Next, conference planning committeeman and Mobility Dallas research and development director Dan Monaghan of Garland gave the group a comprehensive and informative illustrated explanation of some of Amtrak's cost allocation methods that fail to accurately reflect true costs of operation and lead to flawed pictures of long-distance trains' actual financial performance. He put Amtrak's long history of financial problems into perspective and said actual losses incurred in the Northeast Corridor -- a fact that's next to impossible to convince national politicians (most of whom live or work in the northeast) -- make the entire system's position a precarious one. He called for a true accounting of above-the-rail operating costs for all trains and total separation of the NEC, essentially a transit corridor for short-trippers, from the interstate train network.
Monaghan present two route proposals that he and others in Mobility Dallas believe can be money-makers while expanding and improving service to the region. He described in detail and showed maps of the two routes: first, a proposed combined Texas Eagle-Cardinal route (creating "an improved bird") that would provide a shorter, faster and more direct route from Washington through Cincinnati,.St. Louis, Dallas-Fort Worth straight west on the Baird sub to El Paso and on to Arizona and Los Angeles.
The second proposal is for an all-new north-south train, of which Amtrak has too few. The route would originate in San Antonio, replacing service there and through Austin now provided by the Eagle, through Fort Worth north on the BNSF through Oklahoma. Beyond, it would traverse a route similar to the Rock Island's old Twin Star Rocket to Minneapolis- St. Paul, with a connection to Chicago via Galesburg. The revamped Eagle/Cardinal also would retain a Chicago connection with through cars.
Concluding the day's program were several reports from cities and states represented. First, Bill Pollard of Conway, Ark. (who along with Ray Dunbar, Steve Grande and others came to the meeting in style on the Eagle), gave a report on activities in his state on behalf of keeping the Amtrak service to Arkansas and Texas. He lauded efforts by such towns as Marshall and Mineola to get more passengers aboard the Eagle through promotions, special events and other initiatives. He noted that President Clinton's hometown of Hope was taking steps to fix up its depot and gain an Eagle stop. He cited the effectiveness of a Mayors' Coalition along the train's route in Arkansas in providing a unified effort to maintain and improve service, including better on-time performance.
Lou Bangma of Alexandria and Steve Romano of New Orleans, representing the Louisiana Association of Railway Passengers, reported on efforts to improve train service in their state, in particular the Crescent and the Sunset Limited. They cited a proposal for a state- financed train between Baton Rouge, the state capital, and New Orleans. Extension of the Crescent west to Houston, possibly via Baton Rouge, was also mentioned.
Sherm Frost pointed out that the National Corridors Initiative will hold its annual conference, titled "Intermodal Solutions for the Millennium: Funding the Future," in New Orleans Oct. 5-7, 1997.
Roger Carter related ongoing efforts by the Oklahoma ARP to restore Amtrak service through the state via Oklahoma City, reinstating a former Santa Fe/Amtrak route ill-advisedly discontinued in 1979. He described funding that has been established by the state legislature for such service, which may eventually include fast, frequent passenger trains between Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Other possible routes, including one from Tulsa to Fort Worth, have been proposed. David Hale also represented Oklahoma at the meeting.
Bill Lindley, representing Arizona ARP, reported that Phoenix, the nation's sixth largest city, has little prospect of restored Sunset route Amtrak service, despite UP's decision not to pull up the old SP line formerly used, which had been due for abandonment prior to the merger. He also related Phoenix's plans for a light rail system and intercity train service between Phoenix and Tucson.
Wrapping up the program was a presentation by Will Bozeman of Austin, who gave an illustrated description of the Texas capital city's plans for dieselized light-rail service by early in the next century over a northwest-to-southeast trajectory through town and eventually on to the new airport planned for the site of the closed Bergstrom Air Force base. He showed photos of the Regiosprinter, which has had test runs in Austin, and reported on proposed high-speed trains in the Austin-San Antonio corridor.
Participants in the day's gathering agreed that it had been a highly useful exchange of information as well as an invaluable opportunity for e-mail and Internet "pen pals" to get personally acquainted. A majority of those attending had come from outside the Dallas area -- some, notably Steve Grande, from far, far away (the west coast via Chicago; the Sunset was full). A consensus was apparent that the group should reconvene at some future date. Sherm Frost suggested his home town College Station, "a Station without a station without a train," as a possible meeting site.
-- John Weeks, Mobility Dallas
NOTE: A roster of conference attendees is being compiled. A copy can be made available upon request. Additional notes on the meeting will be posted upon receipt of more information, comments and suggestions. E-mail comments to: email@example.com
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Posted - 26 August 1997
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