SUPPORT AMTRAK - INVEST IN AMERICA'S INFRASTRUCTURE
In mid-September, 2013, I took a long trip around the American West by plane, bus and trains. The photos here were taken from and on the California Zephyr on its last trip from Denver through the Rockies before the horrific floods (note the scary rain clouds) took out the tracks west of Boulder. The train itself was impressively full with folks from all over the world. The windows were spotless, the crew (and station staff) acted as though they had customer service training, and the food was surprisingly good and fairly priced. There were few glitches, though to this day I cannot figure out why the cafe was closed during much of the breakfast hour, when it was almost impossible for a humble coach passenger like yours truly to get a reservation and had to forego coffee until after I got off the train. Because of the floods I had to take a bus from Reno to Sacramento, where I picked up a Cap Corridor train to the Bay Area (and later took one back to Davis).
Though the Cap Corridor trains were up to their usual pleasant standards, I was surprised by the fact that the platforms in the Sacramento station have been moved almost as far as the Oregon border, and there was no help for those of us who got off the Amtrak bus (several passengers were very old or had disabilities) from Reno, with just a few minutes to spare. I might also add that the process of changing over from the CZ to an Amtrak bus was more complicated than using the new government healthcare website. The Amtrak people on the phone seemed clueless, though about 20 minutes on the cell phone got things sorted out.
One word to the wise. If you are planning to use Amtrak to cross the country check prices well ahead of time. My hope was to go from Boston to Emeryville in a sleeper, as I did several years ago. At $1700 one way I could probably ride the QE2 across the Atlantic in style. My round trip air fares on Jet Blue and Southwest, both of which are good airlines, cost less than $400. My coach tickets on Amtrak were well less than $200. I have been told that in the off season prices go down dramatically.
As for the photography, I used a small Olympus XZ-1.
Generally, children from 2 to 15 are half-fare when traveling with an adult.
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of the Capitol Hill newspapers estimated that I've taken more than 7,000 round
trips on Amtrak over the course of my career. But the one I made on Jan. 17,
2009 was a bit different. When I got there, there were 8,000 people standing
in the freezing cold. And I wasn't racing to reach the 7:46 a.m. Metroliner
(later, the Acela) that I had taken thousands of times before.
I was meeting up with the train that would carry President Obama and me to our inauguration.
That day, Gregg Weaver, a conductor who started riding Amtrak the same year I did--1972--introduced me to the crowd. As Gregg spoke, it struck me that over the years, Amtrak provided me with more than a way to get to Washington to serve the people of Delaware every morning and a way to get home to my family each night. It has provided me another family entirely--a community of dedicated professionals who have shared the milestones in my life, and who have allowed me to share the milestones in theirs.
And it has provided me with one thing more, an understanding of--and a respect for--the role of rail travel in our society and our economy.
Though I don't get to ride the train nearly as much anymore, those were the lessons I brought with me on that final trip to Washington as a United States Senator.
I began making the 110-mile commute shortly after I was sworn in as a Senator. It was the only way that I could have been a Senator at all. I had to be able to get home to spend evenings with my two sons after we lost their mother and sister in an auto accident a month earlier.
Since then, on those many trips down to Washington, I got into a routine. From Wilmington to Baltimore I'd read the papers and make phone calls. At Baltimore, I'd start preparing for that day's hearings, amending my opening statement or going through the list of witnesses. And by the time I arrived in D.C., I'd be ready to jump right in.
Getting home was sometimes a sprint, too. One year, on my birthday, my daughter had planned a party for me. She really wanted to give me a gift and blow out candles. Senator Bob Dole was the Majority Leader at the time, and we were voting that night. I told him that I really had to be home for my daughter, which meant that I needed to catch the 5:54 p.m. train. Senator Dole backed up the votes until 9 p.m. I boarded the train and, in Wilmington, my daughter was standing there on the middle platform. She and my wife sang "Happy Birthday," I blew out the candle, took a piece of cake, opened her gift, gave her a kiss, and caught the 7:23 p.m. going south--and managed to be there for the 9 p.m. vote.
Amtrak doesn't just carry us from one place to another--it makes things possible that otherwise wouldn't be. For 36 years, I was able to make most of those birthday parties, to get home to read bedtime stories, to cheer for my children at their soccer games. Simply put, Amtrak gave me--and countless other Americans--more time with my family. That's worth immeasurably more to me than the fare printed on the ticket.
I took the train every night--and I still do whenever possible--I always noticed
the lights on in the houses flickering in the passing neighborhoods, dotting
the landscape speeding by my window. Moms and dads were at their kitchen table,
talking after they put their kids to bed. Like Americans everywhere, they were
asking questions as profound as they are ordinary: Should Mom move in with us
now that Dad is gone? How are we going to pay the heating bills? Did you hear
the company may be cutting our health care? Now that we owe more on the house
than it's worth, how are we going to send the kids to college? How are we going
be able to retire?
I would look out the window and hear their questions, feel their pain. And every time I made that trip, it would inspire me to get up the next day, head back down to Washington, and give them the answers they're looking for. Those moments looking out the window and seeing the lights on, they told me things that the briefing folders in front of me never could. They gave color and meaning to the problems I've spent my career trying to solve. They reminded me why I made that trip back and forth 7,000 times.
But my support for rail travel goes beyond the emotional connection. With delays at our airports and congestion on our roads becoming increasingly ubiquitous, volatile fuel prices, increased environmental awareness, and a need for transportation links between growing communities, rail travel is more important to America than ever before.
for Amtrak must be strong--not because it is a cherished American institution,
which it is--but because it is a powerful and indispensable way to carry us
all into a leaner, cleaner, greener 21st century.
Consider that if you shut down Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, it is estimated that to compensate for the loss, you'd have to add seven new lanes of highway to Interstate 95. When you consider that it costs an average of $30 million for one linear mile of one lane of highway, you see what a sound investment rail travel is. And that's before you factor in the environmental benefits of keeping millions and millions of cars off the road.
In 1830, the first steam-engine locomotive, the Tom Thumb, graced America's railways. Its first run was a rickety 13-mile trek from Baltimore to Ellicott Mills, Md., but it became much more than that. It marked the beginning of a new journey, heading straight into a better, more imaginative American future.
We are on a similar journey now. We are at the dawn of a new age, where the very best ideas of today will shape our tomorrow, where renewable clean energy and new transportation systems and more efficient technology will revolutionize American life the way the Tom Thumb did some 180 years ago.
On Jan. 20, 2009, pulling out of the Wilmington train station, embarking on that same short trip I made thousands of times before, I thought again about the journey America was about to take as a nation. And I saw our future the same way I always did: looking out Amtrak's windows.
by Bruce Watson, Oct 29th 2009
"On Tuesday, Subsidy Scope, a subsidiary of the Pew Charitable Trust, reported that Amtrak, America's passenger rail company, "lost" an average of $38 per passenger. Citing a new metric for train depreciation, the report suggested that the train line has been less than transparent in its estimation of its own profitability.
"While it is interesting that the government spends an average of $38 on each Amtrak passenger, this isn't really news. Over a year ago, in fact, Amtrak president Alex Kummant stated that each passenger on the train line represents a public capital expenditure of approximately $40, and similar figures have been bandied about for years. In fact, the only truly surprising thing is that some conservative think tanks and advocacy organizations continue to criticize the corporation for its failure to turn a profit. The underlying message seems to be that Amtrak is a financial failure, and that if rail travel were privatized, it would somehow be able to make a profit.
"The truth is that Amtrak is not designed to make money; rather, it is designed to provide a public service. The same could be said of the rest of America's transportation network: none of the country's transportation systems generate profit or pay for themselves. The airlines, for example, rely on a patchwork of municipal, state, and federal funding to finance the cost of airports. Meanwhile, federal funds pay for airport security and taxes pay for the FAA. Many pilots are trained by the military, and much of the avionics used in private aircraft is developed under military contract. If these costs were transferred to airline passengers, the price of a plane ticket would be prohibitive.
"And what about America's roads? The highway trust fund, which is ostensibly funded by gas taxes, still receives money from Congress, while the various agencies that oversee its administration and police its passengers are all funded by taxes. Again, if these costs were transferred to individual travelers, few people could afford to drive.
"Taken on a passenger-by-passenger basis, trains cost taxpayers far less than cars, planes, motorcycles or rickshaws. The big difference, as National Corridor Initiative president and CEO James P. RePass noted in a recent interview, is that "Subsidies for airlines and highways are far less obvious than Amtrak's single line item."
"The Subsidy Scope study also pointed out that some portions of the Amtrak infrastructure are more profitable than others. For example, the Northeast Corridor's Acela Express makes an average profit of $41 per customer, while the Northeast Regional, which is more heavily traveled, costs $5 per passenger. In Subsidy Scope's estimation, the biggest loser in the land is the Sunset Limited, which runs from New Orleans to Los Angeles at an average cost of $462 per customer.
"The Sunset Limited has long been plagued with problems and Amtrak is still working to increase its performance. However, the idea that one can parse a railway system into profitable and unprofitable lines is probably shortsighted. As Kummant noted, "it's an entire network that matters. And if you don't have an entire network, you end up with a ridiculous patchwork of short little lanes of things that make no sense from a national system." To put it another way, while certain portions of an interstate highway may be more popular than others, closing off several less-traveled miles would vastly reduce the overall effectiveness of the system, as some regions would be cut off from the grid and others would face longer, more costly routes.
"RePass addressed this point, stating: "The benefit of a transportation system doesn't accrue to the system itself, but rather to the economy and to the cities and citizens it services. Pew, by looking at the cost of tickets, reinforces the notion that transportation systems have to pay for themselves." As policymakers, pundits and politicians assess the value of America's passenger rail, they need to get past the idea that it must pay for itself. The measure of a rail line's profit is the energy and vitality that it brings to an area and the commerce that it supports."
OTHERS LEAVE U.S. IN THE DUST ON HIGH SPEED RAIL - October 28, 2009
In a recent article in "The Baltimore Sun" Michael Dresser says that it came as no surprise "that the United States is far behind Japan or Germany or France in high-speed rail. We've known for years that visitors from these highly developed industrial nations have been laughing behind our backs at our woefully antiquated rail system." But Dresser sounds a wake up call when he notes "But it came as a shock to be confronted with the reality of how far behind we are in high-speed intercity rail compared with such countries as China, Turkey, South Korea and Brazil. Even Iran is planning a line from Tehran to Qom that will reach 200 mph - a speed that will make Amtrak's Acela (maximum 135 mph) look as if it were being pulled by Thomas the Tank Engine." And in Spain, "the service is so reliable that the operator will refund a passenger's full fare if the train is more than five minutes late. Riders also get their money back if the air conditioning or toilet malfunctions."
Imagine that in the USA?
Dresser goes on to say that "Much of the opposition to high-speed rail in this country stems from an ideological opposition to a government role in just about anything but fighting wars. But history shows that there has never been a significant advance in U.S. transportation without federal involvement on some level. Many of the same arguments made against high-speed rail could be made about the Erie Canal, transcontinental rail and the interstate highway system."
"This is all information gleaned at the inaugural conference of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association in Washington last week," writes Dresser. The association has a definite point of view. "It's advocating construction of a 17,000-mile high-speed rail network in the United States and parts of Canada - carrying trains at speeds up to 220 mph - by 2030."
How do we fund such a system?
Dresser turns to one authority for a possible answer. "Norman Anderson, chief executive of CG/LA Infrastructure LLC, suggested a way to fund such big projects. He supports the creation of a National Infrastructure Bank - a concept President Barack Obama has embraced and for which he proposed $5 billion in the budget. Anderson said that such a bank could be financed through the sale of federally backed bonds to private citizens, pension funds and other investors. The bank would finance the construction of rail lines - and other capital projects - that would be leased to operating companies. Without the burden of maintaining obsolete infrastructure like Amtrak's, he said, the operating companies could make a decent profit."
So there you have it, folks. Even Iran is surpassing us on creating a first class rail transportation network.
New York Times article of December 22, 2006 by Matthew L. Wald and Don Phillips
providing some very interesting reading. Here are some highlights from this
Amtrak could see a ridership growth spurt of 50 percent in the next five to
10 years, but it would require billions of state and federal dollars invested
in the tracks of other railroads, and millions more of private investment in
passenger rail cars, the new president of the railroad said Thursday in an interview.
...Mr. Kummant indicated that Amtrak was backing away from some ideas that had
upset Amtrak supporters, including putting the Washington-to-Boston corridor
under separate ownership. He also said he did not intend to slash the long-distance
network because it was a national asset that, once lost, would probably never
...Mr. Kummant, a former freight rail executive, said that the rail network
nationally was overloaded, but that strong growth in freight traffic, and the
interest in rail as a solution to congestion and
energy problems, opened the possibility for government investment in private freight railroad lines that Amtrak used."
our own concerns about frequent threats to cutback on our nation's long distance
trains, Kummant said: "We're not going to do anything radical there."
" ...The cost of cross-country trains comes to about a dollar and a half per American per year, he said, and they are irreplaceable. He compared trains like the Empire Builder and the City of New Orleans to assets like national parks. ?I haven?t had the opportunity to go to Glacier National Park since 1976, but I pay taxes every year in the hope that I have the option to go back," Mr. Kummant said.
AMTRAK SLEEPING CAR PLANS AVAILABLE ON FRIENDS OF AMTRAK WEBSITE, August 24, 2000. Friends of Amtrak now has a page that shows in JPG format the layout of Amtrak's sleeping cars. Amtravelers take note! I don't believe that I've seen such a plan anywhere on the net. http://trainweb.org/crocon/sleeperplans.html
THE SIX MYTHS ABOUT AMTRAK
Myth #1 - Amtrak can be profitable. No national rail passenger system in the world is profitable. Without public subsidy, there will be no passenger rail transportation systems in the United States.
Myth #2 - The private sector is dying to take over our services. Remember why we were formed. We are what is left of a once privately run enterprise.
Myth #3 - Long-distance trains are the problem. This is perhaps one of the biggest myths. If you eliminate every long-distance train, your avoidable costs would decrease about $70 million a year-after about a year and a half of making labor protection costs. On a fully allocated basis, after five years, you might save annually about $300 million. Focusing on this problem is not going to save Amtrak. This approach is a red herring.
Myth #4 - Amtrak is a featherbed for labor. Our wage rates are about 90% of the freight industry and are even lower when compared to transit. Wages are not the problem; generating a higher level of productivity, that is the challenge. It is management's duty to seek such improvement.
Myth #5 - The Northeast Corridor (NEC) is profitable. The NEC may cover most of its above-the-rail costs, but it is an extremely costly piece of railroad to maintain. The NEC is not profitable and never will be. Sure, private groups might be interested in having it, but they would take it only with the promise of massive capital infusions.
Myth #6 - There is a quick fix - reform. The word reform is like catnip to those interested in a quick fix to Amtrak. If the answer were quick and easy, we would have solved the problem long ago. What needs to be done is to tightly manage the company and its finances and begin to make incremental but critical improvements to plant and equipment.
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