Wednesday, May 02, 2012

At ASLRRA meeting, talkin’ passenger trains

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From my perspective, you know North America is changing for the better when short line and regional railroad folks are talkin' passenger rail.

And, honest, I didn't bring it up even once. Attending the American Short Line & Regional Railroad Association Annual Meeting every year is one of my more pleasurable professional tasks, and ASLRRA officials (along with ASLRRA individual members) have plenty enough to offer just in terms freight rail innovation and updates; this year was no different.

Add to that my satisfaction in bestowing Railway Age's 2012 Short Line of the Year Award (Vermont Railway) and 2012 Regional Railroad of the Year Award (Indiana Rail Road), and, well, there's plenty to feel good about.

So it's the equivalent of an extra ice cream scoop on the sundae when so many serious North American railroaders among short line and regional brethren have no shame, indeed have keen interest, in talkin' passenger.

AMTK Heartland FlyerIt began innocently enough as I took a break with colleagues at the Simmons-Boardman display booth mid-Monday morning, only to have Oklahoma Department of Transportation, Rail Programs Division representative Johnson Bridgwater stop by and (cue the refrain) talk passenger—Amtrak's Heartland Flyer, to be specific (pictured at left). Bridgwater briefed me/us on the likelihood of extending the Flyer to Newton, Kan., thereby bridging a heartland gap between Dallas/Fort Worth (Amtrak's Eagle/Sunset Limited) and Newton and on to Kansas City (Southwest Chief).

Bridging that gap isn't likely at the moment, according to Bridgwater, who diplomatically allowed that Kansas was noncommittal about the extension. That's prompted rail advocates in Enid, Okla., to suggest Okahoma efforts perhaps might be better spent extending the Heartland Flyer, or some other train, to an Oklahoma terminus instead.

Stay tuned, Bridgwater said, and I said I would, marveling that this information was received not while I was at an APTA event or NARP meeting, or even an RSI gathering at Amtrak headquarters, but at ASLRRA.

After Tuesday, I simply added ASLRRA to that source list. I was talkin' passenger with ASLRRA's veteran volunteer photographer Kel MacKavanagh, also secretary of the New Jersey Short Line Railroad Association—perhaps no surprise, as I know Kel  and we both know New Jersey.

Kel and I also both attended a legislative update session Tuesday where a congressional scorecard on screen tallied the allies, adversaries, and no-shows for votes concerning renewal of any federal surface transportation successor to SAFETEA-LU. (My own rep was marked "not present" for the particular vote.) The focus of the session (and the vote tally) was on potential impact on short line railroads and, presumably, freight rail overall. But "darned if that vote doesn't look just the same for passenger," one attendee muttered to himself as the session ended. I checked my notes; the gentleman was right.

On my way to the ASLRRA dinner Tuesday night, I greeted Henry Posner III, chairman of the Railroad Development Corp., who certainly has plenty of rail issues to ponder (and in fact was doing so as I greeted him). OK, Henry knows me well, but it was his choice, his initiative, to (you guessed it) talk passenger—New Jersey Transit's Princeton "Dinky" and the threat posed to it by the line's hostile namesake university, if anyone cares to know.

At the ASLRRA dinner gathering itself, I shared some time with Vermont Rail System's Ed Fitzgerald and Brent Brewer, and while we recapped numerous freight-related topics, the talk turned once more to passenger rail on short lines and regionals, which in Ed and Brent's view was one more business facet, since Vermont Railway hosts Amtrak's Ethan Allen, linking Rutland, Vt., and New York via Albany, N.Y. The business angle? Hopes and plans to extend the Ethan Allen to Burlington, Vermont Rail System's headquarters city.

I don't claim such interest or discussion began only this year. Last year, Reading & Northern President Wayne Michel made it clear "passenger rail" were not dirty words to him or his staff when it came to future business prospects; indeed, the Railway Age 2011 Regional Railroad of the Year operates its own passenger excursions as a marketing tool, and as a goodwill gesture, to its clientele and surrounding communities. It was more than willing to host a regional ("commuter") or intercity rail service, if the opportunity arose and the fiscal numbers fit.

And maybe that's the key. Passenger rail is, at long last, once again a business option, a business proposition, for the rail industry—as my colleague Editor-in-Chief Bill Vantuono likes to say, we are one industry.

Yes, to be sure, passenger rail doesn't make money in the strictest sense; it needs some sort of government support, just as airlines and highway systems do (the latter in spades). But short lines and regionals, as well as other parties (Oklahoma DOT) are not just willing to weigh a passenger rail business opportunity, they're eager to tap it. And, as I found out this year at ASLRRA, to talk about it.

Douglas John Bowen

Douglas John Bowen is Managing Editor of RAILWAY AGE. He also served as Editor of Intermodal Age from 1989 to 1991, and has held various positions at Inbound Logistics magazine, High Speed Transport News, The Journal of Commerce, and CNN/Money. Bowen began his journalism career at the Asbury Park Press, a New Jersey daily newspaper. A graduate of Rutgers University, Bowen resides in Hoboken, N.J. He served as president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) from 1987 to 2000 and again from 2004 to 2010, serving on the NJ-ARP board from 1984 until 2012; he remains a member of the statewide organization.