Commentary, Reports

RailPAC-NARP Meeting Report

William “Bill” Lindley of Scottsdale, Arizona attended the joint RailPAC/NARP meeting in Los Angeles and files this report and personal observations. Mr. Lindley is an Associate Director/website maintainer for RailPAC.

Saturday, May 2, 2009 in Los Angles, Amtrak Interim President and CEO Joseph Boardman and longtime and well-respected Vice President Brian Rosenwald laid out the company’s new direction. The scene was an auditorium in the office tower adjoining Los Angeles Union Station, at the well-attended joint membership meeting of the Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada (RailPAC) and the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP).

Amtrak has had some good leaders before; and on occasion there has even been money enough to work with; but like the Chicago Cubs where everything so promising in Spring seems to not quite come together by the end of the baseball season, there has always been a missing link. On Saturday, though, one received the impression that – with folks like the determined and visionary, yet, realistic Mr. Boardman, and the experienced and capable Mr. Rosenwald – there might, this year, be a World Series to be had for Amtrak.

In a letter to Amtrak employees shortly after he arrived in his new position, Mr. Boardman wrote, “In my view, a national intercity, interconnected passenger rail service is critically important for the mobility and energy independence of the United States.” Saturday’s presentation was consistent with realistically expanding passenger trains’ role across the country.

Mr. Boardman spoke of Amtrak as momentarily feeling like “the dog that caught the car” with the recent stimulus funds – “What do you do now?” Yet, plans are moving quickly, with the $1.3 billion already 70% obligated. He said “a healthier Amtrak includes a better relationship with employees” and the May 1st employee appreciation day included due back pay.

Touching on the Obama Administration’s high speed rail plans, he explained systems like the French TGV only occurred after the existing networks were at capacity. America does not yet have a “high speed rail culture … we are not ready for orphan systems” that do not have appropriate feeder networks including bus, streetcar, subway, and commuter trains. Boardman described a high speed network emerging through incremental improvements, using improved track such as “Class 6 at 110 MPH,” and even using (relatively common) Class 5 mainline freight tracks at 90 MPH. And, “I don’t buy the argument you can’t mix passenger trains and freight at 110 MPH.” This from the man whose immediate previous job as Amtrak’s interim president and CEO was the administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, whose primary role is that of the safety of America’s railroads.

Concluding his remarks, Boardman characterized the discussion of revising the existing Sunset route as representing a “new way of thinking, not an announcement” and continued, “We recognize the need to reconnect Florida (to the West).”

Replying to questions from the audience, Mr. Boardman indicated there would be a Viewliner (single-level, as used on eastern trains) equipment order, of all types (Coach, Sleeper, and Diner); that “Diner Lite” never worked, and it would be eliminated this year; and that “we will have a long distance fleet plan.” He said Amtrak had begun to study new options for serving Phoenix, but that Las Vegas service would be further in the future.

Later, VP Brian Rosenwald spoke of several issues; of particular interest was the Sunset Route realignment proposal which is “within range of demonstrating that added revenue from daily service will offset the additional costs. Our only bias in developing this proposal is that there be daily service” with a primary factor being the highest projected revenue segment via Dallas to Chicago. He was clear this is all still a proposal, subject to further input, not an announcement.

As the proposal stands now, there would be a daily train operating from Los Angeles via San Antonio and Dallas to Chicago, with a cross-platform transfer to a daily train operating from San Antonio via Houston to New Orleans. Running time between Los Angeles and Chicago may be up to eight hours less than today’s Sunset Limited/Texas Eagle schedule. There would be daily through-car service with sleepers and full diner between Los Angeles and Chicago by extending the daily service between Chicago and San Antonio and tri-weekly service west of San Antonio of the Texas Eagle on the Sunset Limited route to a single train on the full Los Angeles-Chicago route, and dropping the two existing names of the Texas Eagle and Sunset Limited.

Departure from Los Angeles under this scenario would be closer to the Sunset Limited’s traditional one, perhaps 10:30 P.M., in order to offer better times at Maricopa (for Phoenix) and San Antonio. The desert Maricopa station “will do for the moment” until a better plan for serving Phoenix can be devised. Estimate a 9:30 P.M. arrival at New Orleans from the west. Also, by moving to the traditional departure time of the Sunset Limited in Los Angeles eastbound, this re-establishes the connection with the Coast Starlight with its “strong revenue potential” because of the matrix effect. Further, a single onboard services crew could operate between LA and Chicago, thus simplifying operations.

To describe this new service, the “Sunset Limited” name might be shelved in favor of, potentially, the “Golden State.” When equipment permits, Mr. Rosenwald was hopeful through cars between New Orleans and Los Angeles could be added.

In my opinion, the Sunset restructuring could bring a far stronger, functional passenger train presence to America’s entire south and west. Coupled with new and developing commuter-rail and light-rail projects widely perceived as successes in Sunbelt cities like Phoenix, Dallas, and Houston, the seeds of a “rail culture” could well germinate.

My impression was that Joseph Boardman knows when to be specific, when to be delicate, and when to be bold. Mr. Rosenwald has demonstrated ability to manage a train and work with the parties involved. Together, Mr. Rosenwald and Mr. Boardman represent an Amtrak that may at last find its balance.

Walter Smith, BNSF, General Director Commuter Contracts, also spoke, saying “We are in the passenger business.” Here are the
Highlights of BNSF’s Passenger Principles:

  • BNSF is willing to cooperate on passenger rail studies and provide state and local officials with information
  • Any passenger operation or service change must not negatively affect
    freight customers or our ability to serve them
  • BNSF must retain operating control of rail facilities used for passenger service. All dispatching, maintenance and construction must be done under the control of BNSF
  • Studies must reflect actual operating conditions and cost structures. BNSF will not incur any liability for passenger operations that it would not have but for those operations
  • This report also appeared in the May 5 URPA “This Week at Amtrak.”

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