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The Ends of Amtrak

9:02 pm in Uncategorized by BruceMcF

At the beginning of last month, Paul Druce of “Reason & Rail” discussed the possible impact of the pending upgrade of the Amtrak Acela route in Acela II is the path towards Amtrak operational self-sustainability:

The forthcoming Acela II isn’t just supposed to be significantly faster than the current Acela service, cutting 24 minutes from the scheduled time between Washington and New York and 38 minutes between Washington and Boston, but it will also represent a significant boost in capacity. …

With an increase in seating capacity, Amtrak will be able to garner significantly more revenue, even if it lowers the price of Acela seating somewhat. This added revenue comes with no significant increase in operational cost and quite possibly a lowered cost, as there should be a higher rate of availability and lowered mechanical costs for what is essentially an off the shelf train, along with significantly lower energy consumption. With current averages for occupancy and passenger revenue unchanged, an Acela II train service could see $742 million in revenue, with $447 million in operational profit.

This will have an even larger effect upon Amtrak’s financial deficit than initially appears because starting in FY2014, the states bear a greater responsibility for the short distance train corridors. This had the affect of reducing Amtrak’s FY2014 budget request to only $373 million for the operating grant; 2013’s appropriation, by contrast, was $442 million.

Note that what Paul Druce refers to as “operational profit” is what I have been calling “operating surplus” in the Sunday Train, the surplus of revenues from operations over operating costs. This is nothing like an operational profit, at present, since a profit is a financial benefit from a difference between revenue and costs, and there is nothing in the current organization of the Acela services that make a surplus on their operations into a distinctive financial asset for any purpose … whether public or private.

Whether or not all or part of this operating surplus should be made into an operational profit is a question that goes to the heart of what is the purpose of Amtrak. The way that this surplus is spent can be the means to service a range of ends … but what are the ends that are a legitimate use of these means?

Since Amtrak was established, and exists, as a political compromise, this is not a question about what is the proper “End” for Amtrak activities, but what are the proper “Ends” for Amtrak activities.

The Amtrak Tripod

Amtrak originated, and survives, as a political compromise, with both operational and political complementarity between the three legs of the Amtrak tripod:

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Carolina High Speed Rail & The Piedmont Service

8:24 pm in Uncategorized by BruceMcF

The Southeast HSR corridor can be divided between the “real” SEHSR corridor, where there is actual, ongoing work on improving the speed and, even more critically, the capacity of the corridor in support of services that will begin operating within the current decade, and the “notional” SEHSR corridor, the land of feasibility studies and preliminary planning, where even if a pedal to the metal intercity rail investment program were to commence in 2017, any new services entering into operation before the latter half of next decade would be subsidized conventional rail service.

And given the importance of state governments in the current bottom-up process of intercity rail development, it should be unsurprising that the boundary between the two part of the SEHSR runs quite close to a state boundary. As discussed two weeks ago, Georgia lies in the middle of “notional” SEHSR country, with Rapid Rail connections to Birmingham; Columbus, GA; Savanna; Charlotte, NC; and Chattanooga / Nashville / Louisville at various stages of being studied, but without active ongoing investment. By contrast, there is current active investment and planned roll-out of new service throughout Virginia and North Carolina, all the way through to Charlotte, NC.

One reason that Virginia and North Carolina are engaged in ongoing investment is that they are well positioned for incremental development of Rapid Rail passenger service, with a legacy of through Amtrak corridors providing a platform to build upon, urban development taking place along urban arcs in both states, and close enough to the growing major metropolitan center of Washington, DC to use Washington as an anchor for longer distance intercity transport.

The greatest current focus of investment in the “real SEHSR” is the Piedmont Corridor in North Carolina, which is the focus of this week’s Sunday Train.

North Carolina Intercity Rail Transport in the Amtrak Era

With the establishment of Amtrak, and the compact between the majority of freight railroads and Amtrak to take over the freight railroad’s passenger rail responsibilities in return for priority access to the rail corridors of those railroads, North Carolina retained two long distance passenger trains between New York and Florida, the Silver Meteor and Silver Star. The Silver Meteor is the direct train to Miami, traveling on a more Eastern route through North and South Carolina, while the Silver Star runs through a more central route in the Carolinas, including Raleigh, North Carolina, and in Florida runs between Orlando and Tampa, doubling back to connect Tampa and Miami.

Leading into the 1970′s, there were two intercity routes between Atlanta and New Orleans, via Mobile Alabama and Birmingham, Alabama. In 1970, the Southern Railway consolidated service into the Crescent route, which ran via Birmingham. When they entered into the Amtrak compact in 1979, the Crescent was the last privately operated long-distance passenger route east of the Mississippi. The Crescent included service through western North Carolina between Charlotte and Greensboro as a night train with a morning arrival in Atlanta southwest-bound and an evening departure from Atlanta northeast-bound.

In the mid-70′s, Amtrak established the Palmetto, which presently runs between New York City and Savanna, Georgia, paralleling the route of the Silver Meteor but making additional stops. At various times in its history it has been extended south into Florida. While it runs to the east of Raleigh, it includes a station in Selma, North Carolina, listed by Google Maps as a thirty three minute drive from Raleigh.

In the mid-80s, with financial support from the State of North Carolina, Amtrak introduced the Carolinian, which ran on the Crescent route from Charlotte to Greensboro, than ran across to Raleigh, then continued through Richmond, Virginia and Washington DC to New York City. While the service met ridership targets, it did not meet revenue / passenger-mile targets as most passengers traveled in-state, and North Carolina discontinued their support. In 1990, they tried again, and this time met their target, providing the fourth intercity train from North Caorlina to Virginia and the Northeast Corridor through to NYC, and the first connecting the major population centers of North Carolina’s urban arc. In conjunction with the Palmetto, the Carolinian provides a connection for an Amtrak throughway bus service connecting to Greenville, home of ECU, and through to the coast at Morehead City.

After the successful re-introduction of the Carolinian, the state of North Carolina sought to establish a second Charlotte / Raleigh train, and after some additional work to provide turn-around capacity at Charlotte and a service center in Raleigh, the Piedmont entered into operation in 1995. This was upgraded to two Piedmont Services in 2010.

So this was the intercity passenger rail landscape in North Carolina at the start of the current decade:

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