Thursday, September 16, 2010

RSI Annual Meeting & Marketing Outlook Event Report, Part III

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Mike Franke, Amtrak Assistant Vice President-State and Community Partnerships and Senior Director, Planning and Business Development (below), presented on “The Future of High Speed Rail and the Role of the Supply Community”:


“Why do we need passenger rail? Competing modes are congested and getting worse. The number of urban areas with more than 20 hours of annual rush hour traffic delay increased sevenfold between 1982 and 2007. Between 2000 and 2008, the number of flight delays due to airport terminal volume increased by 42%. Passenger rail’s niche is the sub-500 mile intercity market, and it's a big one. More than 79% of total trips the USDOT classified as ‘long distance’ (50-plus miles) falls into this category, and the number of Americans living in urban areas is expected to double to 300 million by 2050. As well, passenger rail is a safer, greener, healthier choice.

“Amtrak currently partners with 15 states to offer service.The long-distance routes provide the national network. On top of this foundation, we are focusing on developing state-supported corridor services-isa foundation. The magic number for ridership growth is offering at least five round-trips a day, and the keys are service reliability and frequency. High speed is a noble goal, but unless we fix the terminal problems, there's little benefit to going 90-110 mph in the cornfields of Iowa.

“We've got to fix Chicago. It's key to the entire Midwest. The CREATE Project is designed to do this, and there are several of them critical to the Chicago Hub high speed and intercity rail network.”

As an example, Franke pointed to the $1.1 billion federal grant to the Chicago-St. Louis HrSR (higher speed rail) corridor, which usesUnion Pacific right-of-way. Completion of this project, including installation of PTC, will increase maximum speed to 110 mph and service frequency to eight roundtrips per day (it’s currently five). The federal grant is the third-largest award overall in the FRA’s high speed rail program. The initialinvestment will result in faster service by decreasing trip times by a little over an hour between end points.

Franke spoke about Amtrak’s fleet replacement program and implications for the domestic supply base:

“Amtrak equipment is run very, very hard. The age of equipment is at an all-time high. The average Amtrak car is now older than the average car we inherited from the freight railroads in 1971. Our Heritage Fleet equipment is pushing, and in some cases past, 60 years. Our annual car-miles are the highest in U.S. passenger rail. The lack of homogeneity—multiple classes of equipment for short and long distance and corridor service—complicates maintenance. Some classes have 300-plus cars, some 50 or fewer. Complete standardization will never be possible, but we need to reduce the number of classes and mechanically distinct variants. Mass obsolescence is a problem.

“The supply base for new equipment is limited, as a lack of market demand led to market exit. Transit and commuter rail have taken the attention of remaining manufacturers. Amtrak needs to take a lead, or the market will not offer equipment optimized for intercity service, the limited range of choices may lead to increased cost and risks, and the industry may continue to atrophy.”

Franke touched upon the Section 305 Committee, which was established under PRIIA (Passenger Rail Improvement and Investment Act of 2008) to the determine types of equipment and quantities needed for corridor service, establish an equipment pool to be used on corridors funded by participating states, and involve Amtrak in the process of design, maintenance, and rebuilding:

“There are a whole range of goals. Interoperability, and opportunities for economies of scale and all-around savings, are significant. Seeding the domestic railcar manufacturing industry is also important. There is a need to be able to provide production runs that will attract and sustain an industry. Creation of a specification for bilevel cars, which the FRA approved on Aug. 31, 2010, is an important step toward standardization.”

With regard to federal surface transportation reauthorization, which is now in progress, Franke said it “represents a major opportunity to address issues of national interest, including congestion, pollution, and energy costs. This bill can build on recent progress by establishing a policy foundation we will need for real growth in rail. This will establish a level playing field that will make up for decades of neglect by establishing a dedicated funding source for intercity passenger rail; embrace a mode-neutral policy framework as an end goal; define the Federal vision, define Amtrak's role; and identify and select strategic outcomes.”

Franke concluded by commenting on Amtrak’s relationship with its freight railroad hosts: “It gets a little cantankerous with the legislation that the railroads have had rammed down their throats, like PTC. However, day-to-day operation are on good footing, and there are mechanisms in place to address things like on-time performance isues. We are cognizant of the fact that the freight railroad franchise has to be protected. Unfortunately, some passenger rail advocates don't understand the importance of that. They mistakenly think that it’s simply a matter of selecting a section of railroad and putting passenger trains on it. It doesn’t work that way.”


—William C. Vantuono, Editor 

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