Skip to comments.The Railroad to Nowhere (Amtrak)
Posted on 04/18/2005 9:57:12 PM PDT by neverdem
Nearly five years ago, as Amtrak officials were hailing their new Acela train as "a giant step forward" for America and "the kind of rail system we've all been dreaming about for decades," a former Amtrak official named Joseph Vranich offered another perspective.
"I say without equivocation," he told The Hartford Courant, "that the Acela program is turning into the world's worst high-speed program."
I quote him now not merely because he was right, but because he offers a useful model for coping with the latest Acela fiasco, the shutdown of service because of faulty brakes. The passengers left stranded are still stuck in stages of anger and depression; the politicians vowing to fix the Acela are still working through the stages of denial and bargaining.
Mr. Vranich has moved beyond all that and reached acceptance. He now sees that the dream of decent Amtrak service is dead.
It took him a long time to reach this stage, because he has been a rail buff his whole life. Now 59 years old, he grew up waving at locomotive engineers from his bedroom window. The room was right next to the tracks, above the restaurant run by his parents near Pittsburgh.
During delays on the track, train crews would stop at the restaurant and teach the boy their hand signals. At the age of 13, when he was bedridden for months, the family's porch was pelted regularly with get-well packages: bundles of train manuals, schedules and union newspapers hurled from passing trains.
The hobby became a profession when Mr. Vranich became a prominent advocate for Amtrak's creation in 1971, and he then worked for six years in its press office. His duties included accompanying a trainload of dignitaries and journalists on the inaugural run of a new train - and then explaining why the toilets were clogged and the train was hours behind schedule.
"You'd think Amtrak could at least get its act together when the train was filled with politicians and reporters, but every single inaugural train I rode was late," Mr. Vranich recalled. He dutifully kept promising that things would improve, and he remained a believer in Amtrak long after he left and wasn't being paid to make excuses.
But in the 1990's, after writing a book on foreign trains, he finally gave up hope. Japan and other countries were setting rail speed records and reviving their rail systems by turning them over to private companies, but Amtrak was still going nowhere. Mr. Vranich made the conversion from spokesman to scourge, arguing in books titled "Derailed" and "End of the Line" that train service would never improve as long as Amtrak had a monopoly on it.
He chronicled the Acela mistakes, starting with Amtrak's decision to build a new train instead of modifying an existing European one, and to build it as a working train without first testing a prototype. The result was a long series of problems, design changes and lawsuits between Amtrak and its Canadian contractor, each accusing the other of botching the job.
Aside from the latest problem with the brakes, the Acela has been plagued by cracks in its suspension system (which shut down the service in 2002) and goofs ranging from bathroom doors that don't work to cars that were built, oops, four inches too wide for the train to take curves at high speeds. It's a slowpoke by international standards even when it arrives on schedule, but it's on time on only three-quarters of its trips.
Amtrak officials no longer pretend that Acela is the future - they've vowed not to buy any more of the trains - but they insist that they still know the solution to passengers' woes: more money from Washington. Last week, though, the Bush administration adopted Mr. Vranich's idea of giving the federal money to someone other than the folks who brought us the Acela.
President Bush's plan is to give the federal aid to states instead, and turn over the Northeast Corridor to a commission of state and local officials. Amtrak would keep running trains for three years, but after that the commission could contract with a private railroad or run trains itself.
Mr. Vranich would like to see competitors on the tracks sooner, and so would I, but even Mr. Bush's gradual approach is a tough sell on Capitol Hill. Cutting off Amtrak's lifeline is too painful to imagine for many members of Congress. They still can't accept that the patient's brain has been dead for years.
Government entities, and government-sponsored entities, have NO incentive to do it right.
Stick a fork in Amtrak... it's WAY overdone.
Joe Biden is going to have to find a new way to get home to Delaware each night. Or he could retire from the senate.
A pro-free-market article from the NY Times? Will wonders never cease ...
The whole Acela fiasco started under the Duke (Dukakis) AMTRAK administration. What he did for AMTRAK he could have done for the US.
Is it a train? An eagle?
In a letter, an elderly couple, Mr. and Mrs. Delgadillo explained to Al Gore how much they rely on the government-owned Amtrak trains to visit their children and grandchildren in Chicago and on each coast. The couple reminded the vice president that President Clinton relied on train travel to reach the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. "The train has been our main-stay," the couple states. "Yet your administration is killing our Texas Eagle. This makes us sick."
The Texas Eagle is the Amtrak train that for years has operated between Chicago, St. Louis, Little Rock, Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio. But facing a $243 million shortfall in 1997, Amtrak President Thomas Downs recently targeted four Amtrak routes for elimination, including the Texas Eagle service between St. Louis and San Antonio. "What can you do to save our Eagle?" the couple pleaded to the vice president.
Gore responded with: "Dear Mr. and Mrs. Delgadillo, Thank you for your letter regarding the protection of the Texas eagle. I appreciate hearing from you. "I share your view that the urgent problem of species extinction and the conservation of biological diversity should be addressed. The first step in saving any plant or animal from extinction is to become aware of and respect the fragile ecosystems that make up our environment ... "Again, thank you for sharing your thoughts with me. I look forward to working with you for the future of our planet."
It's strange he should talk about the ecosystem and extinction since the Texas Eagle is a TRAIN!
(Sources: reported on Fox News Sunday on December 3, 1996, as well as quoted in the National Review and reported in the 12/6/96 Washington Times "Inside the Beltway" by John McCaslin)
I think the government should stick to regulation. It should not think it can operate businesses. And Congress should realize that it has its fingers in so many pies that it can't do any of it well.
I've never understood how they don't make money. The trains were always rather full; and they usually hauled 7 or 8 private cars (I think they were mail...or some other packages).
The first time, I went in the "regular" car (never again); the rest I had a sleeper room. I paid close to $1000 round trip, which is high, but I don't particularly like to fly if it's not entirely necessary.
The train is really kind of fun; I can see why it used to be such a big deal! The food was great; the employees (most of whom have been with Amtrak for YEARS) are really top-notch; and I enjoyed sitting in the "bar car" watching the scenery from the huge windows...oh, and you really DO sleep like a baby on a train! I met some really great old folks at dinner, too.
I know they lease track rights from the railroads; is that a large part of the cost, or is the administrative cost so prohibitive that they bleed money? By the way, they should get a total refund from some of the railroads from whom they lease tracks...the ones through Arizona were notoriously horrendous. It was always right at the late dinner; and the servers had tremendous trouble even keeping their balance!
I wonder if a private company could take over what I think would be a very lucrative market if the costs could be a bit lower? I doubt I'll get to it before they're defunct, but the NW route that goes through the mountains in Montana and Idaho would have breathtaking scenery.
With you 100%, and that regulation should be simplified and not designed to micro-manage.
This guy is Bill Safire's replacement. I don't he'll be writing liberal BS OpEds, more likely libertarian or conservative.
I've taken Amtrak a few times. Gainesville, GA to New Orleans. The service was great and the ticket price was reasonable. However, it was a 14 hour trip, and I can make it by car in 7 hours flat.
Passenger travel via railway belongs in a bygone era; meaning that if you want to do it, you should pay for it.My tax dollars have better uses.
I was going to a trade show...so it wasn't "really" a business trip...LOL! I just think it's a really fun way to travel if you don't have to get anywhere quickly...beats the drive as fast/long as you can; ten minute stops at the gas station; pull off at a hotel at 10:00 P.M. thing.
Unfortunately, the reality is that even if the cars are full, Amtrak still cannot make money on its routes outside the Northeast Corridor. It's the equivalent of maintaining an entire airline staff and running four planes a day; even if every seat is filled, the airline will lose money.
Agree to a point...I get annoyed when they bail out the airlines as well.
I think the thing is WAY too top-heavy, and private enterprise might just make a go of it.
Trust me, I've driven more miles than normal people do in an entire lifetime with my job. I just think the train is fun for a break from all that....and the scenery in some parts of the country is fantastic. Hard to look at the mountains when driving down a 7% grade in Idaho...trust me...been there, done that!
Agreed there too, FRiend.
I was royally pi$$ed when thGoobermint bailed out the Airlines after 9-11.
(Denny Crane: "Sometimes you can only look for answers from God and failing that... and Fox News".)
Skamtrack should have been privitized a long time ago. Of course, the BoWash portion would probably be taken over by a merged version of the MTA, SEPTA, the BTA, and whatever the hell they call the transit authority in DC.
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.