City Government

Can AMTRAK Pay the Freight?

ALOCO
When it comes public rides, it is hard to find anyone opposed to “PASSENGER TRAINS IN IDAHO.” The politicos know this well, so they have asked AMTRAK to conduct some studies about returning train service to Idaho.

Senior Sen. Crapo and Mayor Bieter of Team Dave will hold a public hearing at the Boise Depot Monday noon Aug. 10 to share their information and listen to what will no doubt be a train friendly group. They already have Motive Power, the Chamber of Commerce, and “train enthusiasts” lined up.

The GUARDIAN is not on track with this one because it just doesn’t pencil out. We have offered our own AMBUS plan to Crapo to no avail. We fully understand public transportation seldom turns a profit, much less pays for itself. However, it is simply folly–like the trolley–to pour tax money into AMTRAK efforts when there is so little potential passenger traffic across the sparsely populated West.

Union Pacific charges AMTRAK to use its rails on a per track-mile basis with “on time” records and facility use tossed into the equation. If the economy ever recovers, those on time records will get derailed quickly. Meanwhile the expense continues. We expect Boise City to charge AMTRAK for use of its rails and the Boise Depot which is nothing but a city owned catering hall at present.

The photo above shows some of the 200 U.P. locomotives parked in Nampa–a fraction of the 1900 currently parked systemwide awaiting freight to haul due to the poor economic climate. Combine those with 60,000 freight cars currently being parked and you can get a picture of how crowded the tracks can get WITHOUT passenger trains.

Picture the congestion when a fast passenger train is trying to keep a schedule behind a slow freight on the same tracks.

Trains work in Europe because the government owns and operates the nuke plants that make the electricity that runs the trains that travel on the tracks financed with taxes in compact densely populated countries.

Mayor Dave Bieter often declares that Boise is the most remote city of its size in the country. He is correct and that means lots of miles with nothing but antelope and jack rabbits as possible passengers.

Comments & Discussion

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  1. Cover Blown
    Aug 6, 2009, 3:06 pm

    Your points on the rails already being crowded with freight traffic are dead-on, especially in the west where there are no alternative routes for freight traffic. Amtrak has little or no priority over the freight trains, which routinely leads to passenger trains running late (see the story on the Orlando to L.A. train that was 72 hours late). The Ports of Seattle and Oakland will continue to increase their containerized traffic that jumps right on a train to go to points east of the Rockies, furthering tying up the limited rail lines.

    The biggest problem with the national Amtrak debate is that, despite the near doubling of their budget, it doesn’t mean they should restore service to areas that cannot support it. This only leads to further co-opting by local elected officials who are train-giddy, and less effectiveness between large urban areas that can really support it. Amtrak should focus resources on sub-regional service (California, Midwest, Texas, Florida, Northeast) to major population centers that can reduce the burden on airports. The perfect example is the Seattle-Portland corridor cited in previous articles.

    Perhaps some type of service from SLC to Portland or Seattle, through Boise, would have some merit, but a long-haul trip from Chicago or Denver through the northwest is another colossal waste of money.

    Sorry, Boise-Meridian-Nampa-Caldwell, you don’t have enough of a population base to make the service work financially, unless the cities are willing to pay millions to subsidize the service.

  2. Having freight trains on the same tracks as Amtrak isn’t new — it happened back in the days of the Portland Rose and it happens today in many other locations. The northern route from Seattle to Chicago along Great Northern-Santa Fe rails actually has a good reputation for being on time despite large numbers of coal trains running between Montana mines and Minnesota power plants. The problem with a Portland-to-SLC segment comes when most passengers wants to get somewhere in the vicinity of but not real near the Amtrak line. That’s why something like the “Car Train” that runs from New York to Florida might work in an area like this. (Literally, you pay to relax while you take your car along and it’s unloaded when you get to an access point — like Pocatello for a trip to Yellowstone National Park, for example). That kind of creativity — and the increase in revenue it could generate — might supplement the currernt “riders only” approach being discussed.

  3. I live right by the Depot and I would use Amtrak if it comes back. There may be more people who would use it overall than you think.

  4. Den Brockway
    Aug 6, 2009, 6:06 pm

    Professor Frazier is impeccably correct in his analysis of the train controversy. To spend funds and expend effort on this “group nosepick” would be irrational.

  5. I think bringing back Amtrack at taxpayer’s expense is a silly idea. If it were worthwhile, private business would of stepped in.

    Rail service can be a highly effective and fast for both freight and people. Gone are the days of slow freight (2-3 weeks crosscountry). A few private companies have started operating their own trains with their own distribution facilities. Railex USA is one that specializes in fruits, vegetables, and nursery stock from the Northwest and California. Their 50 car trains make it to the Eastcoast distribution facility in 5 days.

  6. So let’s see…I can spend $1800 and 5 days to ride the train to Washington DC or buy an airline ticket for about $500 and get there the same day. Humm. And how much fuel per person would the train use? More than the airplane. And like the failing bus system in Boise the train would have to be subsidized by TAX dollars. I stay with the airplane.

  7. My grandparents used to come to Boise from Oklahoma to visit back in the fifties. Trains were everywhere. Planes are a lot faster but if I want to see my family in Kentucky I have to fly to Nashville and have no way to get from Nashville to SW Kentucky. I have no interest in driving to Kentucky and it would be an exhausting trip.

    If trains were available I would go twice a year. I would also love to go to Sun Valley by train, using their shuttle bus from Shoshone.

    On trains you can walk around, read, eat when you want, take naps. I used to love to fly but the airlines have made that mode of travel a living nightmare, as well as an excellent place to pick up germs.

    I’m sorry, Guardian, to disagree, but I think more people would enjoy train travel than you think, particularly between Portland and Salt Lake City connecting through Boise.

  8. Casual Observer
    Aug 7, 2009, 9:00 am

    Every time I hear about plans to bring rail back into service in Idaho, whether it is Amtrak, or some other abomination, I am also reminded that there are people who still push the idea of travel by zeppelin, streetcar, and other throw backs to previous ages.

    I will admit to being a sucker for most of these things, as tourist attractions, and oddities at county fairs.

    However, there is a reason they now populate the dustbins of transportation history: They were supplanted by other, better, modes of transportation. And, I am appalled when the government turns into cheerleaders for things that are little more than charismatic junk.

    There is a reason Amtrak died. It should be left in its grave.

  9. Chris Blanchard
    Aug 7, 2009, 10:04 am

    Dave – you might want to look at some of the actual planning that has gone on regarding this issue.

    Newsweek just did a piece talking about a phased approach for creating a Trans-American passenger network. And there is already a set of recommendations out there for rail service throughout America. And there is already a plan for your “AMBUS” solution as well. You might take a look:

    http://www.america2050.org/2009/04/why-we-need-a-trans-american-network.html

  10. I’m with BG on this one. I just don’t see any kind of substantial demand for Amtrak running through Boise.

  11. Rail travel was not efficient when it was operational in the 1950’s. When I was a small child we used to travel from Evansville, Indiana to St. Louis to visit my aunt. A distance of around 180 miles took an entire day. Most of the time was spent in sidings waiting for other trains to pass.

    I wonder if those in favor of trains have actually traveled by train or is their reality in their minds.

    Dedicated passenger rail systems work really well in highly populated cities like Tokyo, Japan. Conectivity to busses and cabs is excellent and the system was a snap for a tourists to figure out. It was also very cheap realtive to other modes of transportation.

    Boise is a long way from having the need or ridership to support trains as a form of mass transit.

  12. Casual Observer said it masterfully: “… there are people who still push the idea of travel by zeppelin, streetcar, and other throw backs to previous ages.”

    I’m ON BOARD for a “novelty ride” to Portland maybe. There’s a fantastic little narrow-gauge steam engine over in Sumpter, OR. Guardian readers, and especially the Amtrak proponents, should give it a try. I’ve also ridden the nostalgia train in Heber, UT. (The best anywhere is supposed to be the Durango-to-Silverton in Colorado – it’s on my Bucket List.)

    Would I, or anybody I know, adopt rail for routine transportation? Highly unlikely.

    Now if Mayor Bieter and Senator Crapo could bring back passenger Zeppelin service, I might change my tune!! (But with helium instead of hydrogen, of course…)

    Toot! Toot!

  13. Once took Amtrak from Boise to D.C. (shortly before they killed it).
    Loved it, except that the train was so packed that we could get a sleeper for only one of the nights, and had to hunt for seats — so don’t tell me people won’t use it.
    Yeah, it takes a subsidy — so do airlines. Oh, and Butch wants a few million bucks for more roads, which are built totally with taxes.
    As for delays, we had a couple, but the train just sat there for half an hour or so, didn’t fall out of the sky. And we could walk around, eat, drink, whatever, both while it was stopped and while it was rolling.
    I enjoyed that freedom much more than being crammed into a metal tube and hurled through the sky.
    Also enjoyed seeing the country rather than just clouds below.
    Highways are crowded, airlines are going broke, trains cost money and are slower than planes (but don’t make you go from Boise to NYC by way of Phoenix, San Diego, Houston …
    Seems to me that until we can just ask Scotty to beam us wherever we want to go, we should use all three methods of transportation — air, rail, road.

  14. sam the sham
    Aug 7, 2009, 10:25 pm

    are “they” really considering Amtrak or is there just a lot of slight of hands being done so that our pockets can be picked with the right hand as we are being distracted by the left hand?

    “But you wanted Amtrak, that’s why your taxes have gone up…” and they attach something to the bill they know we don’t want.

    No, no, no. They are good honest politicians. We voted them in…..

  15. Jimmy D Bus
    Aug 7, 2009, 11:14 pm

    It’s great the Guardian was able to get that shot of all those Union Pacific (UP) engines in storage in Nampa. That photo, as good as it is, probably won’t be gracing the UP calendar anytime soon.

    But the Guardian, or any of us for that matter, won’t be able to take photos of AMTRAK trains from stations unless we first get permission from AMTRAK to do so. The exception is if you have an AMTRAK ticket. Then you can take a couple of quick snaps before hopping on the train. That policy, recently adopted, is probably unconstitutional but has yet to be tested. AMTRAK’s chief bull (that’s railroad police for you non – railroad types) has indicated that policy won’t be at the top of his enforcement priority list.

    By law, freight railroads must give AMTRAK priority on their tracks. AMTRAK is dependent on freight railroads for providing most of the track over which it operates. About the only place AMTRAK owns the track it operates on is the Northeast Corridor (NEC) between Boston and Washington, DC. And the NEC is reported to be the only place where AMTRAK actually covers its operating, but not capital, expenses. About half of AMTRAK’s revenue comes from the Federal government – our Federal tax dollars.

    Freight railroads receive incentive payments from AMTRAK if predetermined on time performance measures are met. If freight railroads fail to provide priority to AMTRAK trains on a consistent basis they can be fined. That rarely, if ever, happens.

    AMTRAK’s long distance train on time performance is dismal but improving. A national magazine which reports on railroad happenings seems to agree with the Guardian that the improvement is due mainly to fewer freight trains on the tracks because of the economy. Reports seem to indicate that UP has sidelined, as of June, about 25% of its locomotives.

    AMTRAK also has been pressuring the freight railroads for better priority and it seems to be working. On time performance for the California Zephyr (which the Pioneer was once part of) is now about 60% compared to about 40% a year ago. AMTRAK’s on time goal for the Zephyr is 70%.

    And Gordon, I suggest that AMTRAK can compete with, and beat, airplanes in short haul (corridor service) markets. New York City (Penn Station) to Washington, DC (Union Station) on AMTRAK’s NEC Acela (high speed) service is scheduled at just under 3 hours. Regular (slower) service is about 4 hours. Downtown to downtown. No long TSA screening lines. Large comfortable seats with power outlets for computers or whatever. No extra fees either.

    But bring back the Pioneer? As much as I’d like to see it I know my Federal tax dollars could be better spent elsewhere on the AMTRAK system improving infrastructure and attracting new riders in more densely populated markets.

    Time to park the idea of restoring the Pioneer on a long siding – just like those UP engines. At least for now.

  16. Folk complaining about crowded lines miss the point that serious devotes of passenger rail often fail to make. I do not desire an old series of trains chugging along on ancient rails..I want a real modern high speed train on new tracks zipping along at 200mph or so going from Boise to Seattle or Portland in 2-3 hours and not stopping at every small town or out house on the way. If Europe can figure this out, so can we.

  17. “So let’s see…I can spend $1800 and 5 days to ride the train to Washington DC or buy an airline ticket for about $500 and get there the same day”

    Don’t you mean, ‘maybe get there’ and of course, you forgot to mention the baggage lottery where your luggage not only costs in addition to the ticket but too often does not even show up…Now add in the absolute awful, cattle car type of service one gets on that plane, the complete lack of comfort and civility, a schedule that is really little more than a wish list, and I managed to get from Portland Maine to Spokane in 3.5 days, not 5 in comfort and with all my baggage while flying would have been hell…well, I can only say you must not have ever ridden a real passenger train.

    EDITOR NOTE–Jim, not bad. AMTRAK got you within 350 miles of your destination in Boise…only a short day taxi or bus ride to Boise. We checked yesterday and it looks like nearly 4 days and $428 one way to Washington from Boise to Washington. Realistically one can’t ride that long without either a hotel overnight or upgrade to sleeper car etc.

  18. Gordon wrote:

    … but don’t make you go from Boise to NYC by way of Phoenix, San Diego, Houston …

    Yeah, but trains do make you go to NYC from Boise via Mountain Home, Shoshone, American Falls, Pocatello, Ogden, SLC, Heber City, Green River, Grand Junction, you get the picture.

    More here on why it failed:

    http://www.trainweb.org/washarp/sosapt.html

    But in summary, FY 1995, total daily boardings on the entire Pioneer Route, thats Seattle all the way to Chicago was only 238. Let’s say $100 per ticket that’s revenue of about $24,000 daily. Now that’s for more than one train, I’m not sure how many trains probably 4. Regardless, it was a big money loser. We already have subsidized air travel and highway travel. Isn’t that enough?

  19. “EDITOR NOTE–Jim, not bad. AMTRAK got you within 350 miles of your destination in Boise…only a short day taxi or bus ride to Boise. We checked yesterday and it looks like nearly 4 days and $428 one way to Washington from Boise to Washington. Realistically one can’t ride that long without either a hotel overnight or upgrade to sleeper car etc.”

    I had a compartment and had arranged to buy a car on arrival in Spokane (Post falls Idaho actually). Now figure the service had not been improved since the 1950’s….I am for real, cross country high speed train..a day or so to get anywhere, 200mph or more, modern comfortable trains, and first class service…consider, while the train has managed to creek along into old age with style and comfort, aviation has become a cattle call, worse by far then the worst of travel half a century ago.

    When I lived in Portland Maine there was a decade long drive to resurrect Portland to Boston service. We were assured it could not possibly work. On the 4th year of return to service one had to get reservations a week in advance as every train was sold out.

  20. Lucas Baumbach
    Aug 8, 2009, 11:44 pm

    The trains in Europe do not run on electricity, not the majority I rode on. And, they are all subsidized. End of story.
    http://www.wired.com/autopia/2009/02/germany-is-know/comment-page-1/#comments
    The comments section is more critical than the article.

    EDITOR NOTE–As a candidate for public office it is important to be offer FACTUAL information to the public. You are welcome to challenge the GUARDIAN who travels to Europe at least annually or even WIKIPEDIA, but it won’t change the following truth from WIKIPEDIA:
    “Electric locomotives are ideal for commuter rail service with frequent stops. They are used on ALL high-speed lines, such as ICE in Germany, Acela in the US, Shinkansen in Japan and TGV in France. Electric locomotives are also used on freight routes that have a consistently high traffic volume, or in areas with advanced rail networks. Electric locomotives benefit from the high efficiency of electric motors, often above 90%.”

  21. Lucas Baumbach
    Aug 9, 2009, 3:57 pm

    Dave, I have lived in Germany. Check the graph I sent you that says only 57% of rail lines in Germany are electric. I should have said that not all trains in Germany run on electricity. The intercontinental express is electric.

  22. Serendipity
    Aug 10, 2009, 8:02 pm

    I’m with Gordon and Baumbach. Every major mode of public transportation in this country is subsidised, one of the few worthwhile subsidies that we have to pay for. Air travel has become a nasty nuisance, what with too tight seating with no leg room and cattle-car packing of each flight. Getting anywhere on time going east from Idaho is a dubious proposition, especially if connecting via Denver. What a crummy airport that is.

    I traveled a lot via RR when I was kid and it was a relaxing and elevating experience for the most part. I’d love to be able to catch a train to visit my sister in Portland. That drive is a royal pain in the butt, as are most drives on our major hi-ways, thanks to the hordes of chicken-playing trucks and their drivers. In the 15 years since I’ve been here I saw only one truck stopped by a cop on I84.

    I am totally FOR restoring train service between Portland and Boise. If it ends up connecting to Salt Lake and points east, so much the better. The Depot should be restored for the use of passengers and trains. As an exclusive party place, and ornamental object above Capitol Blvd., it’s original architectural motive has been subverted.

    AMTRAK needs reforming, but that’s another story.

  23. EDITOR NOTE–As a candidate for public office it is important to be offer FACTUAL information to the public. You are welcome to challenge the GUARDIAN who travels to Europe at least annually or even WIKIPEDIA, but it won’t change the following truth from WIKIPEDIA:
    “Electric locomotives are ideal for commuter rail service with frequent stops. They are used on ALL high-speed lines, such as ICE in Germany, Acela in the US, Shinkansen in Japan and TGV in France. Electric locomotives are also used on freight routes that have a consistently high traffic volume, or in areas with advanced rail networks. Electric locomotives benefit from the high efficiency of electric motors, often above 90%.”

    ALL freight and passenger locomotives in service in the United States and Canada run on electric motors. The diesel locomotive is actually a diesel-electric in which a diesel generator provides power for the for electric traction motors that power each axle on the locomotive.

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