BNSF System Map

The biggest railroad news in a while occurred yesterday when it was announced that Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway were purchasing BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe).  Buffett agreed to purchase the 77.4% of the company that he did not already own for $26 billion.

BNSF, which is a relatively new railroad as an entity, is actually a combination of many older railroads including the Burlington Northern and the Santa Fe.  The railroad covers 32,000 miles of track, 6,700 locomotives and 220,000 freight cars.  The company’s biggest clients are coal and agricultural product shippers.

That begs the question of why Buffett made the investment.  Is he betting on trains, coal, industrial agriculture, or all of the above?  Streetsblog’s Elana Schor takes a swing at that question:

That environmental rationale for Buffett’s deal struck some in Washington as dubious. Frank O’Donnell, president of the green group Clean Air Watch, wrote on his website that the BNSF deal was “the biggest climate story of the day,” bigger even than the political maneuverings of the Senate environment committee:

This is a $34 billion dollar bet that coal will remain the centerpiece of American energy policy in the future. Buffett clearly believes that coal use will remain strong – and possibly grow. So he is putting his money on a vision of America with no effective climate policy at all – or at least one that doesn’t slow coal growth.

BNSF’s reliance on coal is indisputable; the black stuff has accounted for nearly half of its tonnage this year, and MarketWatch estimates that 10 percent of U.S. electricity comes from coal hauled by the railroad.

As coal-hauling railroads go, however, BNSF has made an attempt to distinguish itself on the energy efficiency end. The railroad is developing an emissions-free hydrogen-powered locomotive, and in May started to test-run a group of GE locomotives that cuts emissions by 40 percent over previous, dirtier models.

My take (and part of Elana’s) is this purchase is a good thing.  I personally don’t care if Buffett is invested in coal – because it is admittedly not going anywhere any time soon – because Buffett will be invested in transportation and rail infrastructure.  He will be invested in making the rail infrastructure solid, having working trains and hopefully growing the network.

Passenger transportation gets the most news coverage, but freight transportation is equally important.  The effect of truck freight transportation on roads and the environment is well documented.  Moving more of our freight to rails is good for everyone, including driver safety and those living close to highways.

Moreover, maintaining high quality rail corridors is also good for passenger rail as Amtrak and many public transit commuter rail systems already run on freight-owned rails.  Expanding networks is good for the future of commuter and inter-city rail too.

Good for Buffett in seeing that America’s transportation future lies on the tracks, not on its asphalt roads.

Inside Philadelphia 30th Street Station

I have no idea what it costs to charter an Amtrak train, but I love the idea.  As I excitedly noted yesterday the World Series is coming and it’s a pure Northeast thriller with the Philadelphia Phillies taking on the New York Yankees.  Apparently the Phillies chartered a train from Philadelphia to get to New York.

Evoking a bygone era when rail travel was the main mode of transportation in baseball, the Philadelphia Phillies rolled into Penn Station on a chartered train about 6:03 p.m. Monday, but they were not looking to the past century for inspiration.

The Phillies previously took the train to the World Series in 1950, when they were swept by the Yankees. But that dreary omen did not deter the defending champion Phillies from using the same mode of transportation that Philadelphia’s Whiz Kids took 59 years ago.

The reason for the train was neither historical novelty nor an exercise in team building in advance of the World Series, which begins Wednesday at Yankee Stadium. It was pure convenience. The distance between Philadelphia and New York is too short for a flight, and a fleet of buses traveling up the New Jersey Turnpike could spend as much time on the approach to the Lincoln Tunnel as the entire train ride.

The only shame about this trip is that the Phillies got the pleasure of starting in the glory of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station but had to end their trip in the travesty that is New York’s New Penn Station.  That said, I hope this becomes more of a trend for organizations like sports teams as so many cities can be traveled between effectively on rail, such as Boston and New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, Chicago and Milwaukee and Los Angeles and San Diego.  I hope more teams partner with Amtrak for their own sake and as an advertisement for America’s train services.

Amtrak Bridge

In last Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer there was an article on the sad shape of Amtrak’s infrastructure in and around Philadelphia.  As a particularly disturbing example of disrepair, the article first focused on the 108-year old 52nd street bridge, which carries both Amtrak and SEPTA traffic.  According to the Inquirer the bridge is in such sad shape that piers are cracked, holes are visible in the deck, and trees are growing through it.

Amtrak is of course is not entirely to blame for the sad state of its infrastructure.  The organization was set up doomed to fail as it inherited all its infrastructure from various private railroads who were desperate to get out of the non-profitable passenger business.  So goodness knows what condition the bridge was in in 1971 when Amtrak was first created and first underfunded.  That underfunding has led to the following infrastructure crisis:

Nearly half of Amtrak’s 302 bridges in the Philadelphia region have some elements rated “poor” or worse, according to Amtrak’s bridge-inspection reports, prepared over the last two years. The Inquirer obtained them under the Freedom of Information Act.

The inspections show that 143 bridges – 47.4 percent – received “poor” or lower marks for such defects as deteriorated metal plates or decaying stone walls. Some have eroded support piers, others badly worn girder elements and missing rivets. (The count does not include marks for painting or signs, which would push the number of “poor” structures even higher.) None of the bridges had any “failed” marks.

Amtrak officials say the bridges remain safe for travel. But decades of deferred maintenance mean the aging bridges will require hundreds of millions of dollars to bring them into good repair.

The situation is similar elsewhere in the country, where Amtrak owns about 1,400 bridges, largely in the Northeast. Lacking money to meet all of its repair and maintenance needs, Amtrak has deferred an estimated $5 billion in capital and infrastructure maintenance spending.

And regarding the need for repairs in Philadelphia and when they might occur:

As bridge elements deteriorate, they can cause the rails to bend or shift, making trains slow down or even derail.

Amtrak’s Yordy, standing under the 52d Street bridges, said that even with its litany of problems, the structure “is still serviceable.” But he noted that its age was catching up with it.

“One-hundred-year-old bridges should be considered for replacement,” he said, noting the corrosion and the possibility of steel fatigue.

As Yordy and Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black examined the structure recently, a pedestrian chastised them: “Why don’t you paint it so it looks like something?”

Black looked at the rusting bridges overhead and acknowledged, “These are ugly, just as that guy said. But they are safe. They may need some remedial work. But one bad member won’t bring them down.”

With more bridges than money, Amtrak has a challenge to determine which repairs can afford to wait and which must be made now.

Amtrak alwyas has had funding problems since its inception and that is not likely to change dramatically, even with Obama and Lahood allocating funds for rails at historic rates.  Amtrak has been so neglected for nearly four decades, and the rails it runs on for decades before that, that no one time boost is going to solve its infrastructure woes.

This is why Amtrak needs a railroad trust fund that is similar to the highway trust fund.  The highway trust fund provides resources for maintenance for the Interstate Highway System via fuel taxes.  A railroad trust fund could similarly provide for funding through taxes and an initial grant by the federal government.  It is insane to tax Amtrak riders or public transportation users.  However, perhaps each Amtrak rider could be charged an extra $1 that goes to the trust fund.

Moreover, given that drivers do not currently pay the fuel tax that provides for the highway trust fund, the oil that is essentially already taxed to be used by railroads should be provided to the railroad trust fund.  Rather than providing oil revenues used by railroads to highway improvements, such money should be directed to rail maintenance. Also, since many rails run on electricity, including Amtrak, perhaps there should be a small electricity tax.

These are partial solutions at best, but at least a start.

UPDATE: Apparently, I was not the first to come up with this idea and have been done one better with the notion of a national infrastructure bank.  Such a fund would allocate money to any mode of transit and be done so wisely, especially as the highway trust fund no longer pays for itself with low gas taxes.

Trinity Railway Express- Dallas, TX

Growing up outside of New York, the threats by Congress to do away with Amtrak in one way or another were always taken with serious alarm.  People in the metropolitan area understood the importance of Amtrak in terms of getting between Boston and Washington, D.C.  The area did not particularly care if no one rode Amtrak in Utah or Mississippi.  As I grew up I came to realize that conservatives hated Amtrak because passenger rail was somehow European (and hence effeminate) and weak because it was perceived to diminish the extreme masculinity of the American automobile.  After all, real Americans get themselves places, they do not depend on others to do it for them.  Of course we should all ignore the CEO’s and extremely rich with their chauffeurs and private jets.  The train made people seem less independent as they could not set their own individual course.

This is of course all hogwash.  Conservatives should be supporting transportation and infrastructure investment in droves.  Alex Kummant’s article at American Thinker on precisely this topic made me happy.  He makes several important points about the role of transportation in America’s economic success.  He also points out that the free market is not the best strategy for transportation planning.

The 250-year economic miracle of the United States has been enabled, in no small part, by the unparalleled transportation capability first found and then built on this continent. It began with the remarkable St. Lawrence Seaway and the harbor-rich East Coast, without which the coastal colony system and its robust trade would have developed very differently. This was followed by the western expansion powered first by the Ohio River system and then by the Mississippi and Missouri river systems. Technical development linked with geography (river banks and plains) then drove the railroad economy, followed by highway and air, always in the international vanguard. Today we falter, as we idle in traffic on the way to the local home building supply store, and have little or no transportation advantage over other nations and geographies.
In the passenger transportation world, conservatives have lost their way with the libertarian mantra of “let the free market work,” as though this absolves them of wrestling with the real details of real problems. Witness the chaos of the commercial airlines in the last 25 years, the 150-year boom-bust history of the railroads, and the gradual unwinding of major elements of the troubled British rail privatization.
He points out that “Few realize that on a per-passenger basis, Amtrak has had less capital input than auto transportation nationally.”  But he also issues a call to arms to conservatives that I welcome:
It is entirely appropriate for the federal government to create a detailed national passenger transportation plan and then to work with local, state, federal, and private sector entities to realize the proposed networks.
Conservatives should make this issue theirs. There are, no doubt, large political pitfalls with earmarks and bridges-to- nowhere, but that can always be an excuse to do nothing. The current approach of the right, basically ignoring the national competitiveness implications of transportation and the related energy issues, is an abdication of responsibility.
Conservatives have a critical role to play in any transportation discussion.  Conservatives have a huge stake in promoting business and the movement of goods, people and ideas that is necessary to keep the economy active.  Conservatives also depend on stability and transportation is critical to such stability.   This is why I’m so frustrated when Republicans like Senator John McCain seek to remove funding from public transit.  Fortunately McCain’s most recent efforts were defeated in the Senate.
Transportation is not a liberal folly not a conservative punching bag.  Transportation is essential for this country.  Roads are a critical part of that, but the nation needs forward-thinking transportation policies that are multi-modal, energy efficient, promote density and high public ridership and are efficient and cost-effective to operate.  These are not liberal or conservative values, they are American values.


As usual, Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic was much more thorough and mathematically ruthless in a topic I once considered.  Today he too wrote about the cost of high speed rail to the passenger (part 2) and how much fares should cost.  While I will provide excerpts of his post here, I highly recommend clicking the link to read his full essay for the mathematical detail and his graphical comparisons.  The following are some of the juiciest excerpts regarding Amtrak, Acela, the future of high speed rail and comparison to foreign high speed rail services.

On cost per hour:

But Amtrak’s problems are not due to the fact that it is particularly inefficient in the Northeast. The fares it demands per hour of travel are roughly on par with those charged by foreign rail operators. The American rail system’s problem, rather, is that its trains are too slow in general, increasing labor, maintenance, and operations costs. If U.S. rail services are to be successful in attracting customers at reasonable prices, in other words, one way to do so would be to offer services at higher speeds.

… Peer experience on specific high-speed routes demonstrates just how expensive Amtrak’s Acela trains are. Acela rides cost more than $0.35 a kilometer, compared to $0.20 for Milan-Bologna trains in Italy or $0.08 for Paris-Lyon trains in France.

On passenger capacity:

These issues are compounded by the relatively low capacity of the system’s existing trains — Northest Regional trains offer 5-9 passenger cars and Acela trainsets all have 5 seating cars. In 2007 and 2008, Amtrak was frequently selling out trains, and with no room to expand, the organization had an incentive to increase prices, especially since commuters on the Northeast Corridor subsidize rides on other parts of the system. Amtrak’s Acela trains have a capacity of 303 riders. Two French TGV Duplex trains coupled together can carry 1,024 passengers. The ability to move more people in one trainset allows for operational efficiencies — and, as a result, cheaper tickets for those who make it onto the train.

On future transit consumption:

If American high-speed services offered similar prices for time traveled as Amtrak does today — at $45 per hour of running time for standard fares and $15 at reduced prices — on faster trains, U.S. commuters would switch to rail in droves. The San Francisco-Los Angeles route being planned by the State of California, with a travel time of 2h40, would cost $40 for reduced-price tickets and $120 for standard fares; those costs seem perfectly acceptable for just about everyone. A renewed Northeast Corridor, offering travel between New York and Washington in 1h40 (at an average of 220 km/h), would cost $25 for customers buying reduced-price fares. People currently driving their own cars or riding buses between the cities would take a second look at those prices.

All of these points are valuable.  Any American who justifies any opinion regarding  high speed rail based on Acela experience is deluded.  Acela has a multitude of problems technologically (see the pantograph problem), logistically (sharing tracks), with funding and with the basic direction of the line (not enough straight track to reach speed).  However, that does not mean high speed rail in America cannot be efficient, appropriately priced for the American transportation consumer, and a boon to Americans and cities.  Freemark has masterfully shown how better systems can actually keep prices down while attracting more passengers.

Dutch_ICE

My friend Greg Moran alerted me to this article in the Wall Street Journal concerning state grant applications for part of the federal high speed rail funding from the Federal Railroad Administration.  While reading this I couldn’t help but wonder about how much planned high speed rail tickets in various parts of the country may cost.  Will rail be competitive with the cost of airplane tickets?  Will tickets be subsidized?  If so, by how much?  Will high speed rail be cheap enough to be bought by students, blue collar workers or white collar business travelers only?  Will high speed rail connect business communities only or schools, think tanks, families and contractors as well?

Picking a random day, a month from now September 25th, Amtrak tickets on the Northeast Corridor traveling from South Station Boston to Washington DC start at $65 and $149 for the Acela.  This is rather incredible given that you can fly the same route on weekdays for $120 according to bing.com.  Moreover, the flight is only 80 minutes, compared to 6 hours and 46 minutes on the acela.  Clearly Acela is a faulty example, because it is not really high speed rail, just higher speed rail.  One last comparison, AAA estimates that it will cost $82.60 (plus tolls) to drive that distance.

My point is that as states apply for funding to build high speed rail or improve their rail lines I want to know where future subsidies are coming from to keep the cost of travel on rail down.  In order for high speed rail to be competitive it must not only be fast and comfortable, it must be relatively cheap.  I wish the best of luck to all those who have applied for funding and are in the planning and construction phases.  I sincerely hope that rail is an option for all Americans, not merely those traveling on corporate accounts.

amtrak northeast corridor

I was on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor Line on Friday.  While traveling through the Connecticut I decided to call a long time friend of mine on my cell phone.  The call was dropped four times.  I have always known that there is spotty coverage along the line, but frankly this was ridiculous.  While on the call my friend noted that he had driven through rural North Carolina just a few weeks ago and his wife held a telephone conversation uninterupted for an hour.

This is just another example of how our highways have been favored over our railroads.  The lack of cell phone infrastructure is not Amtrak’s fault per se. However, they are not blameless either.  Amtrak should be working with Verizon and AT&T to build cell towers on or near their tracks, especially if they truly want to be known as a business-friendly line.  Amtrak could give easements to the telephone companies on their land in order to build more towers.  This is an agreement that would benefit both the mobile phone corporations and Amtrak.  Train rides are pretty luxurious when compared to a car ride or a plane ride.  It is a shame that one of the contemporary amenities of most highway drives in the Northeast–cell phone coverage–is currently partially missing along the premier passenger train route in the country.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.