William Vantuono

William Vantuono

With Railway Age since 1992, Bill Vantuono has broadened and deepened the magazine's coverage of the technological revolution that is so swiftly changing the industry. He has also strengthened Railway Age's leadership position in industry affairs with the conferences he conducts on operating passenger trains on freight railroads and communications-based train control.

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By Tony Kruglinski, Financial Editor

anthony_kruglinski_web.jpgAs readers of this column already know, the rail industry has enjoyed more than 30 years of seemingly limitless financing of its equipment needs by banks, insurance companies, and operating lessors. The result? Of the nearly 1.6 million railcars in North America, more than 60% of them are owned by non-railroads and leased to railroads and other industry participants under a variety of financing structures. The costs inherent in these financings have also been regularly subsidized by Uncle Sam as the owners have made use of the depreciation deductions that come with ownership of the equipment and passed a portion of the benefits on to the lessees in the form of lower rents—all in all, a win/win situation for all involved.

However, the financial crisis we have just weathered and a series of pending regulatory changes are likely to severely impact the amount and/or cost of this kind of financing available to the industry in the coming years. The 25th Anniversary Edition of Railroad Financial Corporation’s Rail Equipment Finance Conference, set for March 6 -9, 2011 in Palm Springs, Calif., is set to tackle this thorny issue of financial capacity for the next generation of rail equipment finance, along with regular agenda items profiling the status of the North American railcar and locomotive fleets.

Since many of our readers won’t be journeying to Palm Springs to be with us, we thought we would use this month’s Financial Edge to at least point out the issues involved in this financial conundrum so that you can track its development in your own situation.

Shrinkage of the operating lessor pool: Perhaps the most easy to observe evidence of a change in the circumstances facing rail equipment operators who do not wish to own their rolling stock is the reduction in the number of operating lessors willing to make substantial purchases of railcars and locomotives for lease to third parties. While the absolute number of rail equipment lessors has only shrunk slightly, the number of players willing to write a big check to take over a large order for an end-user seeking operating lease financing is down materially.

Why? The financial crisis has rocked several of them back on their heels to the point that they are still in the market but seeming reluctant to write big checks. The impact of this situation is somewhat muted at this time by the slow market in new building for railcars and locomotives. The issue, we believe, will become more apparent when the market for new building comes back in the next couple of years and the number and appetite of the operating lessors willing to make big equipment bets has shrunk.

Will this create a huge problem for the industry? Will rents rise materially to compensate for these changes and to lure new players into the market? Will end-users end up purchasing equipment for cash or with debt financing? These are all questions that we intend to examine in March.

Regulatory changes due to impact finance leasing: Over the past months and years, we’ve used this column to highlight pending regulatory changes likely to impact banks and other financial institutions that have been big players in the financing leasing market, which has supported billions of dollars in finance leasing for the rail industry. (With a finance lease, the lessee usually controls the future of the equipment at lease end. Not so with operating leasing, where the lessor recovers the equipment for release.)

For instance, we have warned that capital requirements inherent in the capital adequacy rules generally referred to as Basel II would have a significant impact on long-term leveraged financing leasing (the cheapest type of finance lease available to lessees due to its inherent low-cost debt component).

What’s happened during the past year or two? Virtually all leveraged leasing to the rail industry has been replaced by single-investor leasing (more expensive due to the absence of a low-cost debt component). You can still get your deal financed, but it just costs you more.

We are also awaiting the impact of as-yet-to-be-finalized changes to the account rules relating to just who records what assets and liabilities on its books relative to the kinds of finance transactions that have been the mainstay of rail equipment finance in North America.

The impact of these rule changes will likely be massive. What will these changes likely be when the rules are finalized? How will lessors and lessees react and tailor their transactions as a result? Most important, will the economics of finance leasing change for the worse? These are all questions that, as yet, have no answers, but we are sure to shed further light on them at Rail Equipment Finance 2011. We invite you to join us for this discussion and others that can shape the way you will be doing business in 2011 and beyond. See www.railequipmentfinance.com for information on the conference.

By Mike Ogborn

mjogborn.jpgThe Surface Transportation Board is about to embark on a series of hearings that could result in major changes in the railroad industry, including the way railroads compete, price their service, and make capital investment decisions.

The first hearing will be held in February and will review the long-standing exemptions for boxcars, commodities, and TOFC/COFC rate and commodity exemptions. The second hearing will be held in May and will “explore the current state of competitiveness in the railroad industry and possible policy alternatives to facilitate more competition,” including competitive access, bottleneck rates, terminal access, and reciprocal switching.

This announcement comes on the heels of an unsuccessful attempt by the Senate Commerce Committee to draft compromise legislation on these subjects in the 2010 Congress. While we do not know what the end product of these hearings will be, we do know that they will be wide-ranging and deal with issues that go to the heart of the railroad industry’s ability to compete for business and to adequately invest in its infrastructure.

The short line railroad industry will be full participants in these hearings. We have put together an internal process for developing and presenting our position on each issue so as to do everything we can to protect the interests of all short line railroads.

Most important, we will make a substantial effort explaining to the STB how short line ratemaking and service practices work, and how those things are weaved into the fabric of our relationship with the Class I’s.

These are very complex subjects, but a number of simple principles will guide our response to these hearings.

If we are not the problem, do not make us part of the solution. Short line railroad pricing and service practices are not the reason this debate is taking place. Applying blanket solutions to short line railroads will have virtually no impact on the outcome, but will have significant impact on the financial viability of our small businesses.

Short line railroads contribute to competition. The vast majority of short lines were created to preserve or enhance rail service where it otherwise was going to be abandoned or severely restricted. More than 300 of the nation’s 545 short lines connect to two or more Class I carriers, and this provides a significant competitive advantage to short line-served shippers. Enacting regulations that reduce our revenues will severely restrict our ability to maintain and rehabilitate these competitive alternatives.

Short line railroad transactions were predicated on established economics. Short line buyers purchased a given amount of traffic and a presumed rate. The goal is always to earn enough to improve and grow that service, and virtually all of today’s short lines have done so. Many of the ideas being discussed in the debate could destroy the economics of our transactions.

For instance, mandated terminal access would allow another carrier to service our best customers for a trackage rights fee. A typical trackage rights fee is no more than the direct cost associated with maintaining a particular segment of track. That is not what the short line owner paid for in the first instance, and allowing that to occur will turn these transactions upside down to the detriment of all the remaining shippers on the line.

A reduction in Class I investment and service will hit short lines hard. To the extent regulatory changes result in reduced Class I investment and service, those reductions will occur first on those line segments with the least traffic—where most short lines operate. This will reduce our traffic and our revenues, and we will in turn be forced to reduce investment and curtail service.

It is no secret that the impetus for these hearings is the unsuccessful effort of Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) to craft a compromise piece of legislation during the 2010 Congress. While the short line railroad industry had serious concerns with portions of that legislation, it needs to be noted that Sen. Rockefeller was attentive to those concerns.

Sen. Rockefeller and the Commerce Committee devoted substantial time listening to and understanding short line positions. In many instances portions, of the proposed legislation were altered to address those concerns. In every instance, they did their very best to understand the intricate financial and operating relationships between the big and small railroads.

We sincerely appreciate that effort and we hope the STB will give us that same consideration.

Mike Ogborn is Managing Director of OmniTRAX, Inc., a transportation management company that provides management services to 17 short line railroads and other transportation companies in Canada and the United States.

By Chris Taylor, for Railway Age

 

c.taylor_update.jpgWoody Allen once said, “I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.” Speed is compelling. From restaurant service to medical treatment, we use speed to define quality. Transportation is no exception. But as Allen illustrates, by focusing solely on speed you can miss other essential elements. U.S. passenger rail is a case in point.

Headlines often blare about the speed of European or Asian high speed trains. But those vaunted speeds are rarely sustained in practice, due to operating costs, logistic constraints, and maintenance requirements. The unspoken story is overall performance—efficient, reliable, and comfortable ways of getting passengers to their destinations, using rail as one well-integrated component of an overall journey. But performance can be hard to define and even harder to quantify. Speed becomes the defining principle by default. Unfortunately, U.S. passenger rail cannot afford to live by that definition. To advance passenger rail here, advocates should focus on high-performance rail (HPR).

Things are different on this continent, and headlong implementation of European or Asian-style HSR may not be the best strategic choice for us. Different transportation corridors have unique needs and constraints. Choosing appropriate rail solutions by corridor is the key to our successful implementation of passenger rail. Appropriate phasing is critical to deliver early, visible gains and long-term potential. Credit the Obama Administration and the FRA for embracing that principle. Modifying the original High Speed Rail Strategic Plan, the FRA now recognizes three corridor categories: Core Express, 125 mph or faster; Regional, 90–125 mph;, and Emerging, below 90 mph.

This refocus is practical. Passenger rail is not a one-size-fits-all business. From political realities to legislative and budget constraints to market-capture issues, unique corridor conditions prevail throughout the U.S. Recognizing these complexities, the FRA has endorsed HPR for passenger rail. What exactly is HPR?

HPR is an approach that delivers an appropriate rail system for each market, and measures that system in terms of ride quality, frequency, reliability, safety, ontime performance, amenities, station environments, local transit and airport connectivity, and yes, speed. Using these criteria collectively puts rail in a new light. Rather than being a foreign, elitist, or extravagant expense, it becomes an attractive, effective, and affordable transportation alternative. Passenger rail can thus be transformed from an abstract indulgence to an urgent local priority.

HPR optimizes solutions by addressing the needs and constraints of individual corridors. In one corridor, 90–110 mph on a shared freight asset may be best. In the Northeast Corridor (where the existing system already operates at capacity), a separate, dedicated HSR system is preferable. In other corridors, new commuter service on existing freight assets might be the optimal solution (and HSR could develop later, once ridership is established).

HPR is also cost-effective—an important consideration since infrastructure funding is limited and the competition for funds is intense. Money is especially tight for major capital projects like HSR, for obvious reasons. For most Americans, HSR is a distant, theoretical construct. At full build-out, it would only capture a small share of the overall travel market. Taxpayers are reluctant to fund a system they perceive as “fast trains for businesspeople and tourists.”

Such perceptions have unfairly damaged the case for HSR; that small overall share is a critical, large share in key corridors, and HSR would free up capacity in other elements of the larger multimodal transportation network. HPR mitigates the perception problem by focusing on performance, efficiency, and corridor-appropriate solutions that benefit everyone. We need passenger rail travel to become a reality again for many taxpayers. And once the country accepts HPR, the step up to HSR will be easier.

Speed is compelling. But it is not always the best criterion. In truth, most transportation modes actually “sell” performance. Airlines never talk about how fast their planes fly, but they are expert at selling performance—legroom, in-flight movies, airport lounges, and so forth. We must bring that perspective to passenger rail by promoting HPR. By taking a holistic approach to rail, by shrewdly and fairly apportioning limited funds, the FRA is, in effect, advocating high-performance rail.

Chris Taylor is the New York–based deputy director for high speed rail at AECOM.

By William C. Vantuono, Editor

February 2009 

Twenty-nine years after the Staggers Rail Act freed the railroads from the shackles of excessive regulation and sparked a renaissance, the specter of re-regulation is stalking the industry. Now before Congress are two pieces of legislation that have been floating around Capitol Hill for the better part of two years. One, as its proponents propagandize it, is designed to “improve competition” for captive shippers. The other will eliminate the “anti-trust exemption” the railroads currently “enjoy.”

 

Dire and unintended consequences could ensue if thra_7.october.57_cover.jpgis legislation becomes law. Every stakeholder in the industry, freight and passenger, will suffer—shippers included.

This special edition of Railway Age is designed to reacquaint Congress and other opinion leaders with why the Staggers Act of 1980 was passed in the first place, and what it has accomplished—particularly, the capital investments that have enabled growth, productivity, and reliable, high-quality service. The reality is that most of the legislators who were present for the signing of Staggers are no longer around. And, almost no one in Congress remembers the dark days of the 1960s and 1970s, when America’s railroads were on the brink of collapse, and nationalization was seriously considered. 

Railway Age is not new to this fight. More than a half-century ago—Oct. 7, 1957, to be exact—we published our landmark “Outrage” edition, which spelled out how the combined effects of government regulation and government-funded competition had seriously weakened the railroads. 

Masterminded by Executive Editor Joe W. Kizzia, “Outrage” went into more than one million reprints and is widely credited with jump-starting the movement within the industry and on Capitol Hill that resulted in Staggers 23 years later. The similarity between our two magazine covers is intentional, only this time, we’re trying to stop history from repeating itself.

“By stripping away needless and costly regulation in favor of marketplace forces wherever possible, this act will help assure a strong and healthy future for our nation’s railroads and the men and women who work for them,” President Jimmy Carter said when he signed Staggers in one of his last acts as chief executive. “It will benefit shippers throughout the country by encouraging railroads to improve their equipment and better tailor their service to shipper needs. America’s consumers will benefit, for rather than face the prospect of continuing deterioration of rail freight service, consumers can be assured of improved railroads delivering their goods with dispatch.”

Staggers, as we well know, did exactly that.

There is no sensible reason trwafebcv1.jpgo turn back the clock—especially now, when America’s economic recovery requires investment in efficient transportation. Why destroy nearly 30 years of steady, hard-fought progress?

Our special report, “Renaissance—or Retreat?”, represents an industry that speaks with one voice.

william-vantuono-web.jpgBy William C. Vantuono, Editor

Good design, which evokes feelings of excitement, interecesar-vergara.jpgst, and admiration, is something that entices people to purchase a certain automobile, or a piece of furniture, as much as price and quality.

Good design will also encourage people to use and appreciate rail, mainly passenger, but also freight.
With railways, the caveat of “form follows function” is especially important. A vehicle or facility should be attractive and ergonomically sound. Equally important, it cannot be difficult or expensive to maintain. Also, it must be safe. It’s not easy to to blend all these requirements into a single package like a railcar or locomotive or a station. That’s where an industrial designer comes in.

m-8-mock-up-45-angle.jpgMy good friend and colleague, industrial designer Cesar Vergara (above right), in the grand tradition of legendary railway industrial designers like Raymond Loewy, Henry Dreyfuss, Otto Kuhler, and Paul Philippe Cret, has been contributing his designs to this industry for the better part of 30 years. Among his more notable designs are Amtrak’s Genesis locomotive and Cascades Talgo train, NJ Transit’s PL42AC locomotive, and Metro-North’s new M8 (pictured). These are just a few of the “Vergaras” (my word, not Cesar’s) out there. “If it costs a million, it should look like a million,” Cesar likes to say. “It doesn’t cost any more to design a railway vehicle or structure that is aesthetically appealing than it does to design one that’s unattractive or uncomfortable.”

Since he graduated from Konstfack University interiorrenderingm8cars.jpgCollege of Arts, Crafts, and Design in Sweden, Cesar Vergara has been plying his craft for others—National Railways of Mexico, Amtrak, Walter Dorwin Teague Associates, NJ Transit, Jacobs. Blessed with a personality as engaging as his creative spirit, he has (finally!) formed his own industrial design studio, Vergarastudio. With the railway industry in the midst of a renaissance, and passenger rail—including high speed—the priority of an enlightened (finally!) Administration in Washington, Cesar’s timing couldn’t be better.

Functioning in an advisory capacity to Vergarastudio are highly respected industry veterans like Jeffrey Warsh, Donald Nelson, and Peter Cannito. Like Cesar, they believe strongly in the importance of good design.

 Access to great design by one of this industry’s  most talented pralogo_vergarastudio.jpgctitioners is a mouse click away at www.vergarastudio.com, an email to cesar@vergarastudio.com, or a phone call to (203) 241-5264.

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By William C. Vantuono, Editor

vantuonoportrait.jpgMost catastrophes don’t happen as the result of a single failure. There’s usually a series of oversights or smaller failures that eventually lead to a much larger, more awful occurrence.

Last month’s tragic wreck on the Washington Metro’s Red Line, a rush-hour rear-end collision at speed that claimed nine lives and caused numerous serious injuries, resulted from a combination of factors. While it will take several months for the National Transportation Safety Board to issue an official report on the crash, we can piece together a few parts of the puzzle.

The crash itself, NTSB investigators said the next day, resulted from a failure of the Metro’s automatic train control system to detect the presence of the train that was hit. That train had come to a full stop just north of the Red Line’s Fort Totten station. This condition is known by signal engineers as a blackout.

Train operator Jeanice McMillan, 42, had no chance to stop the following train as it rounded a curve at speed. She hit the emergency brake button, but it was too late. She and eight passengers perished as her train, equipped with the Metro’s oldest, original 1000 Series railcars, slammed into the stopped consist, telescoped, and tore open like an aluminum soda can. Both trains were operating in automatic mode.
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While the train control system failure apparently caused the wreck, the dead and the injured may have had a much better chance had the train been equipped not with 1970s-vintage 1000 Series cars, but with the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority’s newer railcars, which are built to recent, much stronger crashworthiness standards. In 2006, the NTSB recommended that WMATA accelerate retirement of its 1000 Series cars, but the agency said it could not. Why? As WMATA wrote to NTSB three years ago, it was “constrained by tax advantage leases, which require [us] to keep the 1000 Series cars in service at least until the end of 2014.”

Those tax advantage leases, better known as sale-in/lease-out or lease-in/lease-out, were, until outlawed in 2004, a method of financing that enabled funding-constrained public transit agencies to acquire new equipment that they otherwise would not have been able to afford and sorely needed funds for operations and maintenance.

As the Wall Street Journal reported on June 26, “Such agreements . . . typically involved banks buying or leasing municipal assets such as railcars and leasing them back to their original owners. They enabled the banks to claim tax deductions on the depreciation. Those deductions were otherwise worthless to the [transit agencies], since they don’t owe taxes. In return, the agencies got large slugs of cash. [WMATA] estimates it netted around $100 million from its deals. . . If the agency had wanted to break the leases . . . it would have had to pay penalties and fees on top of the cost of buying newer railcars.”

What we have here is an extreme case of unintended consequences. Money doesn’t necessarily buy safety, but it will pay for things like new transit cars and communications-based train control technology that could lessen the effects of a wreck or even prevent its occurrence.

One could forcefully argue that if WMATA, like most transit agencies, didn’t have such a hard time acquiring operating and capital support from its political masters, it may not have had to depend upon complex financing mechanisms to acquire new and better equipment.

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Comments? Email wvantuono@sbpub.com.

william-vantuono-web.jpgThose of you who have been involved in the high speed rail business for a while may recall, with acid reflux, Herb Kelleher, the man who, with some creative legal shenanigans, single-handedly succeeded in killing the Texas TGV in the early 1990s. Let’s go back to Don Itzkoff’s “High Speed Currents” column in the July 1991 issue of Railway Age (p. 14) for some perspective:

“[Its] emergence into the national spotlight parallels a new, broader acceptance of high speed ground transportation as a significant future travel option for Americans. But recent events in Austin . . . teach a lesson in reality as well—that changing the entrenched domestic, political, economic, and institutional order to accommodate new high speed ground transportation systems will not be easy.

“In Texas, the opposition came from Southwest Airlines. Southwest, which itself was an upstart carrier when it challenged the established majors two decades ago, tried to prevent both high speed rail franchise applicants, Texas TGV and FasTrac, and the Texas High Speed Rail Authority from continuing the application process (in part on the terms that the Authority’s directors were improperly staggered) and succeeded in postponing hearings for a week. Southwest attorneys also interposed literally hundreds of objections to evidence introduced by both applicants and other parties, creating such disruptions that FasTrac moved that Southwest be fined for abuse of process. At the Authority’s hearing that commenced on March 25, a small army of Southwest lawyers assaulted the applications of both prospective franchises on every conceivable front.”

It gets better: “Not content to leave the battle solely to his lawyers, Southwest Chairman Herb Kelleher waded into the fray, too. Kelleher derided high speed trains as ‘gussied-up prairie schooners,’ called the concept a ‘somersault backward into the 19th century,’ and threatened to move Southwest’s corporate headquarters out of the state of Texas entirely. The Texas High Speed Rail Authority ultimately rejected the arguments of Kelleher and his lawyers, voting unanimously to award the franchise to Texas TGV. But Southwest drew blood through its campaign of attrition, and the battle may only be beginning.”

Kelleher proved quite shrewd. He probably knew that, just like the TGV’s effect on French domestic air service, 200-mph trains streaking across the Texas prairies would send his airline, which at that time was still a mostly regional carrier, crashing and burning. His tenacity paid off for him. The Texas TGV died, as did other high speed rail projects, such as Florida Overland eXpress (killed by another Texan).
It has taken nearly 20 years to overcome the entrenched order that Don Itzkoff so eloquently talked about in these pages. We now have an enlightened Administration in Washington (thank you, Mr. President, for this month’s “leaner-meaner-cleaner” cover line), and a supportive Congress. It’s going to take a lot more money than Obama’s initial $13 billion to build a high speed network in this country, but it’s a good start, $13 billion more than we’ve ever had.

Favorable opinions on high speed rail are coming from unexpected places. Commenting on the state of America’s automotive industry in the July 2009 issue of Car & Driver Magazine, David E. Davis Jr.—the dean of automotive journalists—said: “If I were [Obama’s] car czar, I would strongly suggest that we can have no national automotive policy until we have fully comprehensive transportation and energy policies. This is serious business. We desperately need high speed transcontinental trains based on the European and Japanese models, just as we need some modern version of the old interurban rail systems.”

I had to take off my bifocals and hold Car & Driver up to my nose to make sure I wasn’t imagining things, especially since I’d gotten used to reading silly anti-passenger-rail rants from (thankfully) now-retired columnist Patrick Bedard, who once called the New York City subway the “electric sewer.”
Then there’s this from Association of American Railroads President and CEO Ed Hamberger: “America’s freight railroads support the goal of increased passenger rail investment. It’s good for our economy and the environment when more people and goods move faster by rail.” Our privately owned freight rail network, he said, “is the literal foundation for high speed rail in America.” And of course (and we agree): “We are critical stakeholders that need to be engaged from the very beginning of project planning and development. Passenger and freight efforts to grow and expand must complement, not compromise, one another.”

Be sure to attend our 16th Annual Passenger Trains on Freight Railroads Conference, Oct. 19-20 in Washington D.C. Click here for more information.

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By William C. Vantuono, Editor

One of the best ways to compare the performance of the railroads against the economy is to examine some of the data that economists—those people that practice “the dismal science”—crunch for a living.

william-vantuono-web.jpgThe Association of American Railroads Policy & Economics Department now makes much of this information readily available monthly on its website (www.aar.org) through Rail Time Indicators, described as “a non-technical summary of many of the key economic indicators potentially of interest to U.S. freight railroads.”

One indicator is of particular significance, and we offer examples in the charts at right. This is the Purchasing Managers Index (PMI), released by the Institute for Supply Management (ISM, formerly the National Association of Purchasing Managers).

The PMI, says AAR, “is a compilation of data on new orders, inventory, production, supplier deliveries, and employment, based on a survey of several hundred supply managers at manufacturers throughout the U.S. It is considered a key indicator both of actual ‘on-the-ground’ conditions as well as sentiment for what the near- to medium-term will hold.”

A PMI greater than 50 indicates that overall manufacturing is expanding. AAR points out that the PMI in July 2009 was up to 48.9 from 44.8 in June—the seventh straight monthly increase and the highest since August 2008. The “new orders” component of the PMI rose to 55.3 in July 2009 from 49.2 in June 2009. That’s the highest it has been since August 2007.

“Of all the economic indicators tracked in this report, right now the PMI might be the most optimistic,” AAR notes. “It’s now about at the level it was for much of 2007 and 2008. As such, it might be accurately foretelling a brisk upcoming turnaround—or it might be an unreliable outlier signifying nothing.”
(Of course, we all know it’s the former—right?)

Quoting ISM: “The . . . more leading components of the PMI—the New Orders and Production Indexes—rose significantly above 50%, thus setting an expectation for future growth in the sector. . . . Overall, it would be difficult to convince many manufacturers that we are on the brink of recovery, but the data suggests that we will see growth in the third quarter if the trends continue.”

What’s the PMI’s correlation to freight rail traffic? Says AAR: “Since January 2005, the PMI has corresponded reasonably closely with the following month’s rail carloads, excluding coal and grain. (Due to seasonality issues such as harvests, the role of exports, and other factors, carloads of coal and grain are more volatile and less closely tied to manufacturing than other commodity categories. And since the PMI focuses on manufacturing, it makes sense to exclude coal and grain when comparing rail traffic to it.) This close relationship has not always held in the past and may not hold in future. If it does continue to hold, rail carloads should swing more strongly upward to match the big recent increases in the PMI.”

Not too dismal, eh? 

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william-vantuono-web.jpgBy William C. Vantuono, Editor

Russia. China. Japan. France. Britain. Belgium. Germany. Spain. Italy. Taiwan. South Korea. The first two countries are the newest additions to the high speed rail club, which many in the U.S. have been wanting to join. Yes, we’ve got our own version of a high speed train, Amtrak’s Acela Express. But compared to the 200-mph-plus trains that rocket across other corners of the globe, our present service is, well, a beginning.

“The United States is a developing country in terms of rail,” Siemens Transportation Systems senior official Ansgar Brockmeyer told The New York Times last month, while riding Russia’s first true high speed train, the Sapsan. Developing country? Us, the United States of America, the nation that went, in the space of about a decade, from catapulting one astronaut into a 15-minute suborbital flight on top of a modified ballistic missile to landing 12 of them on the moon using purpose-built spacecraft during six missions and returning them safely to the earth?

I well remember the days, in the 1990s, when the major suppliers of high speed technology—Siemens, Alstom, Bombardier, and a few other companies that have since been absorbed by the “Big Three”—began declaring that high speed rail was dead here. With the exception of Acela, there was nothing to show for their time, efforts, and money except a trail of canceled projects, political opposition (or worse, apathy), and broken dreams. Opportunity lay elsewhere, they said, and they were right (see first paragraph).

But opportunity knocks once again in our third-world-of-passenger-rail nation. (Remember, we have the world’s finest freight rail system.) I’m sure the Big Three, and a few other potential players, haven’t forgotten the good old days of high hopes and nothing else, but I get the impression that this time, it’s serious business. The President of the United States is dangling an $8 billion high speed carrot, and while it won’t buy much more than a handful of upgraded freight rail corridors handling passenger trains not much faster than 110 mph, it’s a start.

High speed rail in the U.S.? I used to say, with a touch of sarcasm, “Not in my lifetime.” Perhaps I was wrong. I’d love to be wrong.

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By William C. Vantuono, Editor

william-vantuono-web.jpgThe Federal Railroad Administration is now evaluating a tall stack of applications for high speed passenger rail projects—roughly $100 billion worth for an $8 billion ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) grant program. Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo, based on his staff’s recommendations, will be the one to sign off on which projects are funded, and for how much. Given that demand far exceeds supply, he’s going to have to make some tough choices.

The selection process, says FRA, is “merit-based,” an approach Administrator Szabo reiterated during his luncheon address at Railway Age’s “Passenger Trains on Freight Railroads” conference last month. It’s in official documents, as well. From the Federal Register: “The evaluation and selection criteria are intended to prioritize projects that deliver transportation, economic recovery, and other public benefits, including energy independence, environmental quality, and livable communities; ensure project success through effective project management, financial planning, and stakeholder commitments; and emphasize a balanced approach to project types, locations, innovation, and timing.”

The selection process, as published in the FRA’s High Speed Rail Strategic Plan and in the Federal Register, spells out the requirements. A given project either meets the criteria, or it doesn’t. So it follows that the selection process is fairly cut and dried.

Or is it?

Let’s assume two things. First, Administrator Szabo has every intention of sticking to the letter of the law, and to the intent of the program, by awarding project grants based on merit. Second, any program involving government dollars is going to involve politics. That’s just the way it is. Anyone who doesn’t believe this needs a serious reality check.

In the case of HSR—actually, “HrSR” (“higher speed” rail, incremental improvements to existing freight rail corridors to enable  90-125 mph passenger trains)—the political game-playing will mostly come from the states. Case in point: A project in one Midwest state, we’re told, does not meet all the FRA’s criteria, in terms of project management, environmental and ridership studies, financial plan, technical score, etc. The state agency in charge of submitting the grant application asked the FRA for guidance. The FRA basically said, “You don’t meet the criteria; don’t submit the application.” We’re told, however, that this state’s Republican governor ordered the agency to submit the application anyway. Why? Because if it’s rejected, the governor can go to his constituents and claim that the Democrats running Washington won’t give his state the funds for a project that will create jobs.

Partisan politics as usual? Of course. Did you expect anything different?

Another disturbing thought: Will states that are worse off economically (i.e., high unemployment level) have their projects approved over those from other, less-beleaguered states, even if their applications don’t fully meet the FRA’s criteria? Put another way, will there be pressure from the White House to make exceptions for political reasons, thereby funneling money away from projects that are more deserving?

We’re not saying that one project may be better than another, and we have no firm evidence to suggest that the process will be tainted by political considerations. But there are examples of this happening with projects of national interest or significance. 

Recall that, following President John F. Kennedy’s bold directive in 1961 that the United States land a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth by 1969, NASA built its massive Mission Control facility outside of Houston, Tex.—900 miles away from Cape Canaveral, Fla., where the Apollo spacecraft were assembled and launched. Why? Because Vice President Lyndon Johnson, whom Kennedy placed in charge of the space program, wanted the facility in his home state. Talk about bringing home the bacon!

President Obama has said the $8 billion grant program is a “down payment” on HSR. Let’s hope the down payment isn’t on a sub-prime railroad.

Comments? Email me at wvantuono@sbpub.com.william-c.-vantuono-signatu.jpg

By William C. Vantuono, Editor

So, it looks like we’re going to have at least some form of high speed rail in this country, after all these years. Some of my European and Canadian supplier colleagues—you know, the people who build those really fast passenger trains, and who have been banging their heads against the wall for a very long time—are still pinching themselves. No, you don’t have to wake up. You’re not dreaming.

In October, when introducing the keynote speaker at Railway Age’s 16th “Passenger Trains on Freight Railroads” Conference in Washington, D.C., I looked out over a sea of about 180 people—nearly 50% more than what our conference usually draws. What recession? There’s opportunity to be grasped!
But how much? Are the freight railroads on board? After all, it’s their tracks these “higher speed” passenger trains will be using, with significant improvements, of course.

matt-rose-ptfrr.jpgBNSF chief executive Matt Rose (left), our keynoter, and one of the driving forces behind the industry’s OneRail Coalition, effectively spoke for the freight rail industry when he said that BNSF does indeed support higher speed passenger services. BNSF, he said, “is proud of its relationship” with the passenger services it either hosts or operates, and believes that new and expanded passenger rail, including high speed, is essential for economic, mobility, safety, and environmental reasons.

Great. So, how far will $8 billion go?

No amount of money will go very far if it’s not spent wisely, Rose said. Carefully targeted investments in our national freight rail infrastructure will be absolutely needed if higher speed passenger rail services are to be realized.

“It all comes down to the money,” Rose stressed. “If it’s not spent effectively, there is more risk of doing damage than the opportunity to help. We must invest at levels that will make rail better than the best alternative.”

In particular, Rose referred to Positive Train Control, which at present represents a $10 billion price tag for the federally mandated implementation, by 2015, of PTC on shared-use and hazmat-traffic rights-of-way. He said that the requirement, essentially an unfunded mandate, could siphon capital funding away from other capital investments in the railroads’ infrastructure.

The real foundation of railroad safety, Rose said, is “good ties, track, and ballast,” investment in which has typically produced a good return. The ROIC (return on invested capital) for PTC remains to be seen, but it’s generally believed to be about $600 million, based on a $10 billion investment.

That’s not a very favorable return.

Should the feds shoulder much of the cost of PTC on freight lines hosting passenger trains? Yes, if it means that hard-earned capital dollars are going to be siphoned away from track, ties, ballast, new locomotives, new freight cars—all those things our railroads need to stay viable and keep growing, and which private investment dollars pay for.

Make no mistake: The industry, as Rose stated, will meet the PTC mandate by 2015. (Well, it is the law.) But there is good reason to be concerned. Let’s hope that those making the decisions and doling out the dollars on Capitol Hill have enough foresight to realize that our freight rail system must remain healthy and strong. If it doesn’t, you may as well forget about those fast passenger trains.

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william-vantuono-web.jpgLet me make this perfectly clear: Warren Buffett is not Snehal Amin. (Remember him? He’s the hedge fund honcho who tried, and failed, to hijack CSX.) Warren Buffett understands railroads. Warren Buffett likes railroads. 

If Warren Buffett can be compared to any railroad tycoon from yesteryear, it would be James J. Hill, the Empire Builder (bottom). Hill built what is today much of the northernmost portion of BNSF’s 27,000-mile system. He is said to have been ambitious but not ruthless, an idealist blessed with an incredible business savvy. He also is said to have possessed a great sense of purpose, a desire to create something with great social as well as economic value. Oh sure, Hill made a bundle pushing the Great Northern westward, bringing the Northern Pacific and Spokane, Portland & Seattle into his railroad portfolio, but who would have denied him his riches?

The modest Mr. Buffett, on those rare occasions when he grants an interview, is refreshingly down to Earth, and knowledgeable about what he chooses to invest in. If anybody actually deserves to own a railroad lock, stock, and barrel, it’s Buffett. If anybody actually deserves to be fabulously rich, it’s Buffett.

Buffett spoke at length about BNSF and the railroad industry with PBS’s Charlie Rose (no relation to Matt), who does not practice MTV-style journalism or scream in your face. Read on:

• “I felt it was an opportunity to buy a business that is going to be around for 100 or 200 years, that’s interwoven with the American economy in a way that if the American economy prospers, the business will prosper. It is the most efficient way of moving goods in the country. It is the most environmentally friendly way of moving goods, and both those things are going to be very important. But the biggest thing is [that] the United States is going to do well. I mean, we can’t move the railroad to China or India.”

• “You spend money in this business regularly every day. You’re spending a lot of money to repair track, add rolling stock, whatever it may be. So . . . it will continue to be capital-intensive and regulated. . . . [I]f we get a reasonable return on the added capital investment—because it will take added capital investment—we’ll do OK. A reasonable return is good. . . . We’re building things that are essential to society, and people need our services. . . . And we should get a decent return on that—enough to encourage us to keep putting money into the business, but we’re not entitled to spectacular returns.”

• “We will wean ourselves off coal over time, [but] we can’t change the 40% of electricity generation that comes from coal next week or next month or next year. There will be more grain to move, and there will be more [freight] of all kinds . . . whatever it may be. There will be more things moving around this country 10 or 20 or 30 years from now.”

Wow.

This isn’t Wall Street talking. Contributing Editor Larry Kaufman has a lot more to say about that in our cover story.

What may Buffett be thinking about, long-term? Think electric power generation—wind farms—transmission line rights-of-way—railroad rights of way—inexpensive electrification—electric locomotives—improved railroad efficiency and lower costs. Maybe even high speed trains.
Get the picture? It’s not too far-fetched.

By the way, in case you’re wondering why Buffett sold all his shares in Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern: “I’ve done that just to facilitate the [BNSF] transaction. I think they’re good investments, and I would have held them if [the BNSF transaction] hadn’t happened.” And oh yes, he does have a model railway in his attic: “I hope they don’t make me sell it for antitrust reasons.”

Happy Holidays. Prosperity, good health, and an excellent safety record in 2010.

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By William C. Vantuono, Editor

At 50, Matt Rose, Railway Age’s 2010 Railroader of the Year, is among the youngest of our industry’s top echelon.

bnsf_rose_3.jpgRose (left, with me in his Fort Worth, Tex., office) has two advantages. First, he joined our industry at a critical point in its history, around the time the Staggers Rail Act was passed. He had a chance early on to work under the experienced guidance of several highly regarded veterans, and learn from them. Second, he’s young enough to have many years to go—and a chance to help determine our industry’s direction, to nurture its growth, to provide guidance, to influence public opinion. Thanks to the dedication of Matt Rose and others, there’s a growing recognition that this old “smokestack industry” of ours truly represents the future of transportation, and is key to America’s economic stability and growth.

Just ask Warren Buffett. 

Rose has great respect for his predecessors, as he told me for our cover story: Upon his elevation to chief executive, “The first thing I did was spend time going around and seeing some of the former executives of the Burlington Northern and the Santa Fe, because they were a fairly large group. I commissioned Larry Kaufman to go out and do video interviews, which resulted in a book that he wrote about the past leadership of BNSF. (Leaders Count: The Story of the BNSF Railway, by Lawrence H Kaufman. Texas A&M University Press, 2005.) I got a glimpse into people like Dick Bressler and Bob Downey. I met Ben Biaggini, and of course I had worked under Rob Krebs. And so I had a lot of different glimpses into the leadership of railroads past.”

To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of railroaders—hired post-Staggers, tempered by mergers and cost cutting, disciplined by a committment to safety, proud of their heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the undoing of their ability to invest growth capital, to which this industry has always been committed.

An eight-year high: Railway Age’s annual survey of the passenger railcar market (p. 48) shows that 1,141 new cars valued at nearly $2 billion were delivered to passenger train operators in the U.S. and Canada in 2009, the highest number since 2001’s 1,332. On Dec. 31, 2009, builders had a backlog of 2,580 new cars on order and undelivered. The operating agencies told us that they plan to place orders in 2010 for an additional 1,382 cars. New railcar deliveries last year were nearly double the 596 cars delivered in 2008. In addition to new cars, manufacturers and company shops delivered 677 rebuilt cars in 2009.

Examine our tables, and you get a picture of a vibrant, growing passenger rail industry. There’s been a dramatic turnaround, and it’s picking up steam. We began our annual survey many years ago, after the production of passenger railcars reached such a low point that the American Railway Car Institute stopped counting them. Today, the monetary value of the passenger railcar market is approaching that of the freight car market—and may well surpass it next year.

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By William C. Vantuono, Editor

william-vantuono-web.jpgWhile Florida and California’s high speed rail projects are getting the most attention in the media (probably because 200-mph passenger trains are considered a whole lot more exciting than those that operate at “only” 90 or 110 mph), they’re actually receiving less than half of the $8 billion under President Obama’s HSR iniative.

Yes, $3.5 billion is $3.5 billlion more than we’ve ever had for “true” high speed, but it represents a fraction of the cost of a full buildout for either project.

Who’s going to benefit from the remaining $4.5 billion (and probably a substantial portion of whatever additional funding may be available for high speed)?

Amtrak.

Yes, you heard me right—Amtrak. The $4.5 billion has been awarded to state projects, most notably in the Chicago hub, and it supports incremental improvements to current or planned Amtrak services—creation of HrSR (higher speed rail, an acronym we should get comfortable using). The Northeast Corridor and its feeder routes benefit as well, with $500 million awarded for state-led improvements.

As expected, the grumbling has already started. As Managing Editor Doug Bowen points out, “Not content with his own state’s triumph, Florida Rep. John Mica took time to publicly disparage FRA funds of $1.1 billion bestowed to upgrade Chicago-St. Louis service to 110 mph. But other observers found the route, part of an eight-state plan advanced for the Chicago Hub, a good fit for HrSR opportunity, potentially reducing travel times between the two Midwest cities by up to two hours, compared with current schedules of 5½ hours or more. Less noticeably, the Chicago Hub also received $244 million to upgrade Amtrak’s Detroit-Chicago service.”

Add to all this Amtrak’s Cascades Corridor, which scored $598 million because Washington State’s DOT presented a strong case for incremental improvements linking Portland, Ore., with Vancouver, B.C., via Seattle; Wisconsin, $822 million, to improve service between Chicago and Milwaukee and extend it to Madison; North Carolina, $520 million, to upgrade the Piedmont route to 90 mph operation; and Ohio, $400 million, for the Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati (3C) Corridor.

True (“very”) high speed rail is long overdue. But as far what will be up and running first, I’m putting my money on HrSR, and Amtrak.

engine-999-front.jpgPlug and play locomotive: Norfolk Southern’s prototype battery-powered switcher locomotive, developed by the railroad’s Research & Test group, has been getting high marks. Vice President Operations and Planning Support Gerhard Thelen described No. 999 (pictured) as “very quiet and responsive,” with power “available immediately” and “evidence of better adhesion than a GP38.” Equipped with 1,080 12-volt AGM (absorbent glass mat) batteries, 999 can operate three shifts in a 24-hour period before needing recharging, which only takes two hours before she’s fully juiced and ready to roll again.

What’s next? A road version of this zero-emissions unit that will use regenerative dynamic braking to recharge the batteries, coupled to a conventional booster road unit that will supply extra power for starting a train. Impressive!

 

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By William C. Vantuono, Editor

 

william-vantuono-web.jpgMichael Ward’s reputation as a highly effective railroad manager is eminently well deserved as the cover story of our March 2010 illustrates. “As a company, we’ve done a great job at responding to this downturn, and we’re going to be ready when the economy comes back,” he told me in late January. “We’ve got the resources, and we can deploy them relatively rapidly.”

 

There are many ways to measure a railroad’s progress. The stock price is one of them. One year after U.S. Class I stocks reached their lowest point, we took a  look at how they have been doing. The Big Four had more than doubled in value. CSX was leading the way—up 135%. Union Pacific grew 104%; BNSF and Norfolk Southern, 100%. Quite an accomplishment.

 

One thing that the best managers cannot control is legislation that could drastically affect their company’s future value to shareholders. I became acutely aware of this while attending the railroad industry’s annual march on Washington, Railroad Day on the Hill. The organization and planning that go into this event is monumental, and I’m sure that it has some sort of impact.

 

Just how much impact—on a government mired in partisan gridlock and filled with politicians more interested in payback than progress—remains to be seen.

 

“Congress is a reactive body, not a proactive one. It talks in sound bytes. Most Congressmen and Senators are more concerned with how they spin an issue, rather than how they plan to deal with it.” Who said that? A railroader? No. A journalist? No. Then who?

 

A special assistant to Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). Need I say more?

 

How about this exchange: Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) was the only Senator who actually was present at one of five meetings in which I participated. We explained the issues of concern to the railroads. He listened politely, but overall seemed rather bored. As we were taking our leave, I jokingly remarked, “Well, Senator, it looks like we’re going to get a whole lot more snow in the Northeast than you get in Oklahoma.”

 

Inhofe promptly woke up, and climbed on his imaginary soapbox: “After seven years, I’ve won my battle with Al Gore! He’s been proven wrong! Global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people! THERE WILL BE NO CARBON CAP AND TRADE LEGISLATION! I GUARANTEE IT!”

 

Thank you for sharing that, Senator. Excuse me, but I need to find the men’s room (I didn’t actually say that). 

 

To be fair, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who usually makes it a point to be present at Railroad Day on the Hill meetings (especially for a delegation from New Jersey), was undergoing chemotherapy that day. His Senior Policy Advisor, David Garten, was very supportive, and said what I thought was the most encouraging statement I heard: “We will not support any legislation that hurts the railroad industry.”

 

Sen. Rockefeller, are you listening to your Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee colleague (and fellow Democrat)?

 

As the AAR’s Ed Hamberger has observed, the industry now needs to go back to Congress and keep pounding away at the issues. Railway Age will do its part. Next month, we’ll have a special feature on the AAR’s “Great Expectations: Railroads and U.S. Economic Recovery” report. Our working title is a similar take on Charles Dickens:  “Great Expectations;  Hard Times.”

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By William C. Vantuono, Editor

 

william-vantuono-web.jpgGas taxes aren’t the only way to fund public transportation programs, but it’s the route the State of New Jersey has taken, and up until now it’s worked pretty well. The state’s gas-tax-supported Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) is largely responsible for some of the most ambitious transit programs undertaken anywhere. Without it, where would New Jersey be?

 

The state is about to find out. As of 2011, the TTF will be bankrupt, with all revenue going toward debt service. Former Governor Jon Corzine temporarly averted a crisis a few years ago by restructuring the debt. Now, however, it may be time to face the music, and it’s not a pretty tune.

 

Despite the fact that New Jersey has the nation’s third-lowest gas tax-—a tax that hasn’t been raised since 1988 (which may be attributable in large part to the state’s heavy investment in public transportation)—the new administration of Governor Chris Christie is adopting that familiar old political refrain: “Tax-and-spend isn’t the way to go.”

 

What? Does this really make any sense  in a state that has been successfully taxing gasoline to pay for its transportation system?

 

New Jersey is faced with other problems, like a $300 million operating shortfall at New Jersey Transit. Like many North American transit agencies, NJT says it can handle that with service reductions and fare increases. But NJT is also considering, as Executive Director Jim Weinstein told me, delaying other important capital programs. Fortunately, one of them isn’t the new Trans-Hudson Express Tunnel (p. 38), a joint venture of NJT and the Port of Authority of New York  & New Jersey.

 

What about other critical capital programs? NJDOT Commissioner Jim Simpson (FTA Administrator under George W. Bush) told me that a gas tax increase is a “non-starter, off the table.” He also told me that “the state has a spending problem first when it comes to transportation infrastructure,” “there’s too much politics involved in infrastructure spending,” “if we doubled the gas tax we’d still have the same problem,” “we have to re-examine the entire capital program,” which the prior administration “bonded the heck out of,” and “we have to rein in spending.”

 

I’m sure that’s exactly what the people of New Jersey want to hear.

 

Sorry fellas, but it probably ain’t gonna work. How many times can you refinance debt? How are you supposed to maintain and expand your rail network, or fix your crumbling highways and bridges? Who’s supposed to pay for this? The federal government?

 

Yes—partially, at least. Simpson said SAFETEA-LU reauthorization should include “a new-starts megafund” and “more ability to flex highway funds over to transit.” A Republican appointee, he praised the Obama Administration for loosening some of the guidelines on federal funding, and the ability for states to flex money. He recommended public-private partnerships and design-build-operate-maintain projects—both good ideas—as a way to finance capital projects. NJT already has two very successful DBOMs, Hudson-Bergen Light Rail and the RiverLINE diesel interurban. He also said there are “too many federal programs. There should be just two categories, transit and highways.”

 

Based on his experience at FTA, Simpson said the FRA and FTA, to eliminate duplication, should be merged into a single agency called the Federal Railroad and Transit Administration (FRATA—sounds like a Starbucks drink). This agency would handle safety regulations and grant programs.

 

These are all good ideas, but the ones dealing with state transportation funding problems seem like a way to avoid the obvious, simplest solution: Raise the gas tax to where it needs to be. People may scream and yell that they shouldn’t be taxed for something they don’t use (“I don’t take the train. Why should I pay for it? I don’t have kids in public school. Why should I pay school taxes?”).

 

You may lose the next election, but at least you’ve done what’s neccesary for the greater good of your constituents. Isn’t that what being a public servant is all about?

 

Am I being disingenuous? Naïve?

 

Most people hate the word “tax.” It’s un-American, dammit! It’s one reason why we threw all that tea into Boston Harbor and sent King George III packing. Perhaps “gas tax” is a poor choice of words. Maybe it should be called a “transportation investment contribution.”

 

In any case, how much money are we talking about? Ten cents a gallon extra? I’m already paying close to $3.00 a gallon for premium. What’s another 10 cents—about $1.50 every time I fill up? What will I have to give up? Half a Grandé FRATA at Starbucks?

 

So, you drive to work? Why should you pay for my commuter train, you say? Here’s why: I’m not forced to drive, thereby freeing up valuable highway space that your car could be using. Yes, by you forking over that extra 10 cents a gallon, I won’t be staring into your rearview mirror in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

 

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By William C. Vantuono, Editor

william-vantuono-web.jpgChina is well ahead of the United States in high speed rail, with plans to invest nearly half a trillion (that’s trillion with a “t”) dollars through 2012 on a national network of rail lines, most of which would be dedicated (“true” or “very”) high speed lines with passenger trains operating at speeds up to 220 mph. Some 1,200 miles of HSR will open this year alone, at a cost of $50 billion. The country’s longer-term plans call for high speed routes expanding beyond China’s borders, linking Shanghai to Singapore and New Delhi and connecting Beijing and Shanghai to Moscow, Tehran, Prague, and Berlin. The Beijing to Shanghai system will be finished by early 2012, cutting travel time to four hours from 10 (pictured, a Chinese high speed train on the Zhengzhou-Xi’an line). By comparison, traveling by Amtrak from New York to Chicago on the Lake Shore Limited, a similar distance (about 1,000 miles), takes about 20 hours. 

Now, following the Obama Administration’s $8 billion in starter funds for U.S. HSR systems, the Chinese want to leap across the Pacific and export and license their HSR expertise to the U.S., supplying technology, rolling stock, engineers—and financing. They’re attempting a jumpstart in California, where in the 19th century the Union Pacific hired thousands of Chinese laborers to build westward the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. The Golden Spike ceremony of 1869 at Promontory Summit, Utah, is a long time and distance away from San Francisco and Los Angeles, but those two cities, separated by 465 miles, represent an initial, $43 billion HSR link in a statewide system envisioned by the California Rail Authority. The Authority,which received $2.25 billion in federal HSR grant funds, needs up to $12 billion in private financing for this project, and the Chinese Ministry of Railways has taken a first step, signing cooperation agreements with the State of California and General Electric.

The MOR’s deal with GE is described as a framework agreement to license MOR technology. GE says the agreement stipulates that 80% of the content of locomotives and related control systems would have to be sourced from U.S. suppliers, with final assembly occurring in the U.S. The MOR would license its technology and supply engineers as well as up to 20% of the components. This agreement is similar to those that rolling stock suppliers to the domestic rail transit market like Siemens, Alstom, Bombardier, Kawasaki, and Hyundai-Rotem have with U.S. transit agencies.

Described by a World Bank transportation specialist as “engineering driven— they know how to build fast, build cheaply, and do a good job,” the Chinese Ministry of Railways says it is “the most advanced in many fields ... willing to share with the United States.” In an extensive interview with The New York Times, Chinese MOR HSR program chief Zheng Jian said his agency “can provide whatever services are needed. ... HSR requires a lot of high technology—we would send many high-end engineers and high-end tchina-hsr.jpgechnicians.”

The State of California seems highly interested in China’s plans, but at the same time the HSR Authority is looking at other proposals from the railways and suppliers of Japan, Germany, South Korea, Spain, France, and Italy. In these cases, the railways are closely aligned with suppliers—for example, SNCF/Alstom/SYSTRA; Deutsche Bahn/Siemens; or RENFE/Talgo.

But besides domestic content requirements, any effort the Chinese attempt to make in U.S. HSR will be filled with requirements and obstacles they don’t have to deal with in China: elected politicians, labor unions, U.S. Immigration, EPA, OSHA, ADA, etc., etc. Aside from exporting goods on container ships, the Chinese have virtually no experience dealing with U.S. regulatory and political bodies. By contrast, railway suppliers like Bombardier, Siemens, Alstom, Talgo, and Ansaldo already have years of U.S. experience behind them. According to The Times, “Zheng said repeatedly that any Chinese bid would comply with all American laws and regulations.”

Easier said than done.

Then there is the issue of intellectual property. Zehn indicated that all of the HSR technology would be Chinese, but according to The Times, “State-owned Chinese equipment manufacturers initially licensed many of their designs over the last decade from Japan, Germany, and France. While Chinese companies have gone on to make many changes and innovations, Japanese executives in particular have grumbled that Chinese technology resembles theirs, raising the possibility of legal challenges if any patents have been violated.” There is some precedent, as this is similar to a scenario the U.S. freight rail supply community has dealt with in the past. For example, several domestic suppliers have grumbled to Railway Age that, after licensing agreements expired, Chinese suppliers continued manufacturing patented, U.S.-design, AAR-approved freight car components without permission.

China is well-stocked with capital and appears ready to bring it to the U.S. HSR table. According to The Times, “China’s mostlystate-controlled banks had few losses during the global financial crisis andare awash with cash now because of tight regulation and a fast-growing economy.The Chinese government is also becoming disenchanted with bonds and looking to diversify its $2.4 trillion in foreign reserves by investing in areas like natural resources and overseas rail projects. [The MOR] has already begun building HSR in Turkey, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia, and is looking for opportunities in seven other countries, notably a route sought by the Brazilian government between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.”

Interestingly, an automobile assembly plant that until late last week turned out Japanese and American cars—the General Motors/Toyota NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing Inc.) joint venture in Fremont, Calif., which produced the Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe sport-compacts plus other Toyota models—is shutting down after 25 years, eliminating nearly 5,000 jobs. One idea under consideration is converting the factory to the assembly of HSR equipment, according to California HSR Authority Board Member David Crane, who is also a member of the state’s Economic Development Commission. Instead of Japanese auto parts, Chinese-sourced rail equipment components would arrive through thenearby Port of Oakland.

Regardless of how the Chinese interest in U.S. HSR pans out, swapping automobiles for high speed trains is something the State of California and the Obama Administration would love to see happen.

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By William C. Vantuono, Editor

william-vantuono-web.jpgThough safety is always good business in the railroad industry, the Railroad Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which kicked-started the industry down the path to Positive  Train Control, was never meant to be a business proposition.

For the purposes of the 2015 deadline and the technology that the railroads and their suppliers are scrambling to develop, PTC is about safety. Period. Anyone who tries to soften the blow of the financial burden of this unfunded mandate by claiming that the railroads will reap “business benefits” from PTC is barking up the wrong logic tree.

Business benefits could come, eventually—provided the railroads move well beyond the basic overlay systems they will install over the next few years to a true moving-block system, which involves a wholesale replacement of existing signaling and train control technology.

The AAR commissioned Oliver Wyman to conduct a study, “Assessment of the Commercial Benefits of PTC.” It’s 93 pages long, but to understand what they’re talking about, just look at p. 2:

“Outside of safety benefits, two key assumptions underlie the majority of projected commercial and operational railroad benefits from PTC: that it will increase rail line capacity and network velocity. Benefits ranging from reduced capital investments in new track, to reductions in customer safety stock levels, are all tied to predictions related to these factors, which are expected to be realized through two primary means: 1) implementation of ‘precision’ or ‘optimized’ dispatching, which would greatly reduce train delays and allow more trains to move over each rail line; and 2) improved over-the-road train performance through improved train control information/signaling, supporting reduced spacing between trains, which ultimately would reduce train delays. The largest benefits calculated to date for PTC derive from the assumption that precision dispatching can be used in conjunction with PTC to achieve greater line capacity on U.S. rail routes. We found no direct relationship between precision dispatching and PTC.”

Various cost-benefit ratios are being lobbed (or lobbied) about; the worst of these is the FRA’s own 20:1 (though an AAR official has told me that “we’re looking at a ratio as high as 24:1”). At least the FRA is not trying to paint an unrealistic picture.

Here’s what the industry is saying: “No one is against improving safety—we especially. We’re not questioning that PTC can improve safety, and we’re committed to getting it done. However, only 3% of all train accidents are train control-related (i.e., PTC will not prevent accidents caused by broken rails or broken axles). We have existing, far-less-expensive technology at our disposal that will deliver essentially the same safety benefits, at a much lower cost. Much of it is already in place. PTC, which will decrease capacity and slow us down, will have to be paid for by our customers. If they’re unwilling to do that, they’ll take their business back to the highways. Care to guess what happens to safety, in terms of transportation-related casualties? You folks want PTC? Then you need to help us pay for it. Period.”

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Have you seen the headline on the latest press release from CURE (Consumers United for Rail Equity), written in bold capital letters? It‘s rather shocking:

“BNSF CEO REFUTES CRITICISM OF RAIL REFORM”

Saints preserve us! Has BNSF Railway’s chief executive, Matt Rose, changed direction, broken away from the rail industry and endorsed CURE’s cure for the monopolistic actions of the big, bad railroads? Do Bob Szabo and company really, truly desire a healthy rail industry?

Well, just read CURE’s press release. Here it is, verbatim:

“Many freight rail company representatives and advocates have resorted to scare tactics and misrepresentations in an attempt to undermine the Surface Transportation Board Reauthorization Act of 2009 (S.2889), bipartisan reform legislation that would remove barriers to competition in the rail industry and improve rail customer access to protections in law against monopoly rail pricing and practices. But in a recent interview with the Nightly Business Report, Matthew Rose, CEO of Burlington Northern Santa Fe, made a statement that refutes that criticism, saying reform would still allow the rail road (sic) industry to effectively operate and make profits. Specifically, Mr. Rose said:

“‘But certainly we believe that a free market approach to transportation has served this country very well. And you can still have partial changes to the regulatory environment and allow the railroads to do what they need to do.’

“‘Mr. Rose’s comments demonstrate that, despite the heated rhetoric of opponents of legislation, Congress can pass rail reform that protects consumers and shippers while continuing to ensure a vibrant rail industry,’ said Bob Szabo, executive director of Consumers United for Rail Equity (CURE). ‘S. 2889 is bipartisan legislation unanimously approved by the Senate Commerce Committee that achieves this careful balance by restoring fairness for rail customers without damaging the industry’s ability to achieve continued growth. We urge Congress to ensure the enactment of S.2889 at the earliest possible date in 2010.’”

I’m not sure whether to be angry or laugh. I’m more inclined to choose the latter, but what bothers me is that people who don’t know any better might actually believe CURE’s line of, er, gobbledeegook.

groucho_marx.jpgAs Groucho Marx once said, “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.” He also said, “The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you've got it made.” Or, “Those are my principles, and if you don't like them ... well, I have others.” Finally, “Why, a four-year-old child could understand this report. Run out and find me a four-year-old child. I can't make head nor tail out of it.”

If Groucho were still around and were asked to comment on the goings-on in Washington involving railroads, he’d probably resurrect these gems. He’d probably appreciate Norfolk Southern’s Wick Moorman, who recently referred to a group of “cynical and short-sighted shippers” who with the enthusiastic help of Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, are attempting to win reduced freight rates by tinkering with rail regulation, and a Washington attitude toward railroads that “is verging on schizophrenia.”

I asked Railway Age Contributing Editor Larry Kaufman to weigh in:

“Typically, CURE takes Matt Rose out of context, and in doing so, it ignores his rather direct statement:  ‘. . . we believe that a free market approach to transportation has served this country very well.’ Nothing in Rose’s statement endorses CURE and its hand-crafted effort to set the railroads back to the pre-Staggers era when railroads were financially crippled. Rose certainly did not refute any criticism of rail reform. On the contrary, a reading of his entire interview makes it clear that he does not disagree with justified criticism of the CURE bill.

“Congress may, in fact, be able to pass legislation that protects consumers and shippers while continuing to ensure a vibrant rail industry, as CURE claims, but the Rockefeller bill, S.2889, isn’t it. Szabo seems to think that calling something ‘bipartisan’ gives it dignity, whether deserved or not. The fact is there is no Republican or Democrat transportation policy, so a statement that a measure is bipartisan qualifies as meaningless. While there is much in S.2889 that would warm the cockles of a utility or chemical company’s heart, there is nothing in it that benefits railroads. Some compromise!

“As for ‘heated rhetoric,’ the railroads have been quite circumspect in their pronouncements, especially as they continue to try to work with Senate Commerce Committee staff to develop an acceptable bill. No, the heated rhetoric comes from CURE, which has been unable for 29 years to persuade the Congress that the Staggers Act needs amending.”

In American politics, anything goes, distortions included. Matt Rose, and for that matter all railroad chief executives, the Association of American Railroads, or any rail industry organization, have far too much class to resort to such tactics.

As Groucho Marx once said, “Quote me as saying I was misquoted.”

—William C. Vantuono, Editor, Railway Age

William Vantuono | Railway Age

By William C. Vantuono, Editor

More than a century ago, one of this magazine's chief editors remarked, “It may be true that experience is the best teacher. But a man is damned fool who cannot learn from anybody’s experience but his own.” This is perhaps the most important reason for a trade publication'“s existence, but it also applies to trade associations, and their annual expositions.

 After 18 years at Railway Age, I've attended dozens of industry trade shows. In recent years, two observations have caught my attention. One comes from suppliers, who expend a lot of time and money on these events: “The turnout is a bit disappointing. There should be more of our customers here.” The other comes from the railroads: “There are far too many trade shows. We’re too busy and have far too little staff to send people to every one.’

Points well taken. What’s the solution, Railway Supply Institute, Railway Systems Suppliers, Inc., Railway Engineering-Maintenance Suppliers Association, and American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-way Association?

Here’s your answer, railroads and suppliers: Railway Interchange 2011, Minneapolis, Sept. 18-21, 2011. Everybody-RSI, RSSI, REMSA, and AREMA-in one location, at the same time. All the railroad disciplines-mechanical, C&S, engineering-under one roof (Minneapolis Convention Center) and at one outdoor facility (Canadian Pacific’s Humboldt Yard). New technology. A wide variety of technical sessions. Best of all, the opportunity to see firsthand what your colleagues are doing.

Railway Interchange 2011 will be the biggest, most important railway industry exposition since the massive trade shows held "“back in the day” in Chicago. It has been close to a half-century since we had one of these events in the U.S. We strongly suggest you start planning for it, because September 2011 will be upon us sooner than you think.

railway-age-pullman-car-1883.jpgRailway Age’s own history is closely associated with such industry extravaganzas. In 1883, Chicago hosted the very first one, the month-long National Exposition of Railway Appliances, at the Inter-State Exposition Building, also known as the “Glass Palace” (where the Art Institute of Chicago now stands). The Exposition’s chief proponent and principal organizer was Railway Age President and Editor Elisha Hollingsworth Talbott, who joined forces with industry titans like George Westinghouse and George Pullman. The latter was responsible for building an opulent railroad car (pictured, below) for the Exposition.

John H. White, Jr. wrote about this car in the Winter 2010 edition of Chicago History magazine: “The most elegant form of railway travel was represented by a private car named Railway Age. In an interview with a New York Sun reporter, George Pullman explained that the car was one of the most luxurious ever placed on a pair of trucks. The car incorporated the best-of-the-best wheels, paneling, and lamps. It was painted Talbott Blue, a special blend of exterior paint mixed by Sherwin, Williams & Company and named in honor of the Exposition’s secretary and chief organizer. The observation room was paneled in oak, the floor covered in velvet carpets. The parlor was mahogany with inlaid panels and carvings from rare woods imported from all over the world. The bedroom was paneled in maple, the floor covered with amaranth (a purplish red) carpet. It would cost $75,000 to reproduce the car, and it was given to Talbott as a thank you by the exhibitors. Talbott and his wife took the car on a trip to Yellowstone and the Pacific Northwest. But the gift was too expensive for him to keep up, so within a few years, he sold it back to the Pullman Company, where it was used as a rental car.”

I wonder what happened to Railway Age’s first and only Pullman car. If you happen to know, drop me a line at wvantuono@sbpub.com.

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