Railway Age has an article by William Vantuono that rants in length about the Northeast Corridor privatization proposal. Although there are many problems with the proposal that deserve to be discussed, the article mentions none of them, instead preferring to repeat old-time railroader platitudes and Amtrak apologetics. I wouldn’t ordinarily write about a single article, but it showcases an attitude that is common among people involved in the industry and is a serious barrier to reform. For example, take the following lines:
Why dismantle Amtrak? Why create something extremely complex out of something that, though certainly not ideal, is straightforward and has worked pretty well for 40 years?
From Mica: “Amtrak has repeatedly bungled development and operations in the Northeast Corridor (excuse me, but isn’t Amtrak’s market share between New York and Washington close to 70%, and between New York and Boston close to 50%?), and their (“its”) new long-term, expensive plan to try to improve the corridor is simply unacceptable (didn’t you ask them for a plan?).”
Vantuono is simply wrong. Amtrak does not have a 70% market share between New York and Washington, or a 50% market share between New York and Boston. Both figures refer to Amtrak’s share of the total air/rail market, and exclude bus and car traffic. Amtrak’s total market share is much lower: its high-speed rail vision plan hopes that by 2050 the incremental Master Plan could increase the NY/DC and NY/Boston market shares to 26% and 21% respectively, and the $117 billion vision under discussion could increase them to 39% and 53%. To put things in perspective, Korea’s existing high-speed service, which is not particularly fast, had a market share of two-thirds from Seoul to Daegu and Busan.
Not all of Amtrak’s underperformance in terms of speed or price or profit is due to its own mismanagement, but most is. FRA regulations force the trains to be substandard and slower than they could be given the infrastructure, but Amtrak never even asked for a waiver; in contrast, Caltrain, a small regional railroad asked for a waiver in preparation for its electrification plan, and got it.
But let’s move on to Vantuono’s next impish attack:
So, what exactly are our good Congressmen proposing?
First is “Northeast Corridor Competition.” “Unfortunately, Amtrak’s Acela currently averages only 83 mph between Washington and New York, and just 65 mph between New York and Boston (that’s mainly because the trains make stops at major cities, and most passengers don’t ride the entire route, but in any case, the issue is not speed, it’s trip time).The Mica/Shuster initiative will end the Amtrak monopoly (actually, most NEC trains are commuter trains operated by transit agencies). It separates the NEC from Amtrak, spinning it off as a separate business unit (this has been tried before); transfers the title for the NEC to USDOT, including all assets, property, and trains; USDOT enters into 99-year lease with a Northeast Corridor Executive Committee; Executive Committee manages NEC infrastructure and operations (this all sounds way too complicated).
Next, we “bring private sector expertise and financing to the table.” The legislation “requires a competitive bidding process for development of high-speed rail on the NEC; allows private sector to recommend best PPP framework; and establishes performance standards for competitive bidding process.” The end result? “Real high-speed rail on NEC—less than 2 hours between WDC and NYC (nice objective); double total intercity rail traffic on NEC (you’ll need to double the amount of main line tracks to do that, and where are you going to put them?)’; highest level of private sector participation and financing (not without big government dollars); lowest level of federal funding (sorry fellas, but someone is smoking something); full implementation in 10 years or less (you want it when?).
Practically none of the facts Vantuono tries to interject with is true. High-speed trains in most countries make stops in the major cities. Between Seoul and Busan, not only do all KTX trains stop in Daejeon and Daegu, but also they run to those cities on legacy track; the average speed from Seoul to Busan is 170 km/h, or 106 mph. And all Shinkansen trains stop in the major cities, and yet the Sanyo Shinkansen express trains average 224 km/h, or 139 mph.
The other too-clever-by-half fact, “you’ll need to double the amount of main line tracks,” is also false. Amtrak runs 1-2 Northeast Corridor trains per hour north of New York, and 2-3 south of New York. Doubling that requires no additional infrastructure, with the exception of the tunnels between New York and New Jersey, which run 25 tph on two tracks at the peak – and even there, no extra concrete is needed. The capacity of two mainline tracks, even at speeds higher than those of normal commuter trains, is more than 30 trains per hour; electronics before concrete, as the Germans say.
Finally, Vantuono’s complaint about the lack of “constructive discussion about how rail operations in the Northeast should be managed,” is that “we’re not dealing with railroaders.” In other words: anyone with expertise outside the slow, unsafe, badly regulated, and unprofitable American mainline system is to be ignored – to have their grammar mocked for saying “their” in reference to Amtrak and to have legislative plans for competitive bids dismissed as “it’s all too complicated.”
In the early 1980s, SEPTA tried to reform itself, under a management schooled in urban transit. It had grand plans for SEPTA Regional Rail: it built a tunnel connecting its two halves and through-ran trains, it wanted to run trains frequently, and before building the tunnel had considered severing one half from the FRA-regulated network and running it under rapid transit regulations. The result: the unions and the old-time railroaders rebelled, considering management to not be real railroaders. The reforms stalled with the exception of lower payscales for train operators, SEPTA Regional Rail remained more like American commuter rail than like an S-Bahn, and recently even the through-running regime was ended.
There’s a large segment of rail activists who are wedded to the old way of doing things: those are the people who defend FRA regulations, think regional rail should be treated separately from urban transit, can’t conceive of trains operating with no conductors, and want to build concrete before electronics and organization. As seen in the example of SEPTA, those people are the real obstacle to rail revival in the US, much more so than transient right-wing populist movements such as the Tea Party. Rick Scott and Scott Walker are unlikely to still be around in five years; Vantuono and the tens of thousands of railroad workers like him will be around and pass on their business culture to the next generation, and no concrete should be poured until the organization that created this culture is reformed.