Vote for rail supporters at all levels

For now, seven races shift toward Democrats:

Florida’s 7th District (John L. Mica, R) from Tilts Republican to Tossup

Representative Mica (R-FL7) has been known for micro-managing Amtrak for several years, but he is now facing a real struggle in his bid for re-election.

The National Association of Railroad Passengers has a list of local transit measures on their website here, but they can’t endorse candidates because of their 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. If anyone knows of candidates who are worthy of endorsement by passenger rail supporters, please post them here or on the Grow Trains Facebook page.

Don’t forget to vote for passenger rail supporters in the Senate, the House, in state legislatures, and locally!

Amtrak employees paid to report passengers to law enforcement

Amtrak employees have a responsibility to report suspicious activities to the appropriate authorities.

But according to the Office of the Inspector General of the US Department of Justice, some transportation employees (including Amtrak employees) have been participating in a poorly-managed Drug Enforcement Agency program that pays “tipsters” for information with very little accountability.

But the report indicates that the DEA is as interested in cash as it is in drugs, thus potentially leading to  questionable searches. It’s well-known in the train-riding community that such incidents happen frequently in certain places.

Balancing passenger safety with the needs of law enforcement is a tricky proposition at best. But this balance needs to be decided upon in the light of day.

Tired of advertising?

Advertising. It’s everywhere.

It was originally about paying newspaper writers, radio and television artists, and bloggers. But today, you and I post our comments and our photos to social media and don’t get paid…unless we work for Facebook, or Twitter, or the other platforms we use.

Sure, it costs big money to run big social media sites.  But maybe it’s time to think smaller.

We’re ready to start our own social media site, just for people who care about rail. 

Here’s the idea. The site will have no advertising. It won’t claim ownership of the text and images you post. It won’t collect and sell your personal information. It won’t have subscriptions.

To pay for the small costs it will take to run the site, we’ll ask those of you who can afford it to provide voluntary donations.

Will you join us?

A good choice, but don’t expect miracles

Amtrak’s announcement that retired Norfolk Southern executive Charles “Wick” Moorman will be the railroad’s next president has been greeted positively.

Railfans immediately started posting their wish lists for Mr. Moorman: resurrection of every route Amtrak ever had; return of old-style elegant food service; and so on…even a steam excursion program similar to Norfolk Southern’s.

Well, dream on. We’re pleased that Amtrak has selected a widely-respected executive. But Mr. Moorman is going to need our help to make our wishes come true. This fall, we need to vote for members of Congress, governors, legislators, and local officials who are willing to fund passenger rail.

So please, ask candidates if they support better trains, and let us know what you find out. Mr. Moorman needs our support.


Flying more, enjoying it less?

mka-nypI’ve seen a lot of posts like this recently. Train supporters are flying, because Amtrak is just not meeting their needs. Personally, I’m taking trains less and flying more this year.

This is bad news. We need to be making passenger trains more convenient, not less.

So now that the circuses in Cleveland and Philadelphia have done their jobs, it’s time to focus on electing candidates that support better infrastructure.

And we need to find and support candidates running for office at every level — US Congress, governors, state legislators, city and county council members — who recognize the importance of passenger rail.

Do you know candidates like that? Let us know! We’ll build a list of supporters, and share it soon.

Who should Grow Trains support?

Grow Trains is looking for candidates who support passenger rail.

It’s important to have strong supporters of passenger rail at all levels of government. So we’re looking for candidates running for election at any level, and they may be affiliated with any party.

Are you such a candidate, or do you know someone who is? Please tell us by completing the linked form.

We hope to publish a list of candidates we like soon. Thanks for your help!

Passenger rail and the party platforms

Support for passenger rail has always been bipartisan. But in 2016, it is not possible to pretend that “the parties are all alike.” Let’s give credit to conservatives like Senator Wicker (R-MS) who recognize the importance of passenger rail.

But such officials are working against the 2016 Republican platform, which seems to be more about restating conservative talking points than in providing sustainable passenger rail service.

America on the Move

Our country’s investments in transportation and other public construction have traditionally been non-partisan. Everyone agrees on the need for clean water and safe roads, rail, bridges, ports, and airports. President Eisenhower established a tradition of Republican leadership in this regard by championing the creation of the interstate highway system. In recent years, bipartisan cooperation led to major legislation improving the nation’s ports and waterways….

The transportation section of the platform starts well, although anyone who has read the history of the Interstate Highway system knows that while President Eisenhower supported the concept of a national highway network, but was concerned about the details of the proposal.

The current Administration has a different approach. It subordinates civil engineering to social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit. Its ill-named Livability Initiative is meant to “coerce people out of their cars.” …

We could argue that there were decades of policy that supported highways to the exclusion of all other modes. Was that “social engineering” meant to “coerce people out of trains?” As late as the 1950s, passenger rail was the most efficient way to get many places, and that only changed because governments decided they preferred cars over trains. That’s social engineering.

Now we make the same pledge regarding the current problems in transportation policy. We propose to remove from the Highway Trust Fund programs that should not be the business of the federal government.

More than a quarter of the Fund’s spending is diverted from its original purpose. One fifth of its funds are spent on mass transit, an inherently local affair that serves only a small portion of the population, concentrated in six big cities….We propose to phase out the federal transit program…

Many in the Republican party seems to have a distaste for cities. That’s beyond the issues we focus on here, but it should be noted that many Republican lawmakers, especially those representing suburban areas, have been consistent supporters of rail and transit, if only because they feel that the more other people use rail, there will be more room for their own cars on the highways.

[We propose to] reform provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act which can delay and drive up costs for transportation projects.

This is an area where bipartisan support could definitely be found.

We renew our call for repeal of the Davis-Bacon law, which limits employment and drives up construction and maintenance costs for the benefit of unions.

Again, this is beyond the scope of this post, but what about benefits to the workers that unions represent?

Recognizing that, over time, additional revenue will be needed to expand the carrying capacity of roads and bridges, we will remove legal roadblocks to public-private partnership agreements that can save the taxpayers’ money and bring outside investment to meet a community’s needs….

Passenger rail supporters recognize and support the usefulness of public-private partnerships. But history shows us that some sort of subsidy will continue to be needed to maintain and grow the passenger rail network.

Amtrak is an extremely expensive railroad for the American taxpayers, who must subsidize every ticket.

All forms of transportation are subsidized. Taxpayers pay much more for highways than what comes from the Highway Trust Fund. We pay for the air-traffic control system, and we subsidize some very expensive flights through the Essential Air Service program. Why should roads and air service be given preferential treatment over passenger rail?

Amtrak was created in 1970 because the private railroads were no longer willing or able to provide passenger service, and President Nixon recognized that without rail, highways (especially in the Northeast) would be unable to take the additional traffic.

Passenger rail advocates recognize the limitations of Amtrak. But given its chronic underfunding, it’s little short of amazing that it’s done as well as it has for 45+ years. And the level of subsidy it receives has been shrinking steadily.

The federal government should allow private ventures to provide passenger service in the northeast corridor. The same holds true with regard to high-speed and intercity rail across the country.

Provisions for such ventures are already in place, as part of the PRIIA Act. But it should be noted that no private entity will want to operate the Northeast Corridor before a century’s worth of deferred maintenance (like the Hudson River tunnels, the Baltimore tunnels, and many more) have been completed, and even then, some sort of operating subsidy will be needed.

We reaffirm our intention to end federal support for boondoggles like California’s high-speed train to nowhere.

This is not the place to discuss the pros and cons of the California high-speed rail project. Many of us believe that “higher-speed rail,” that is, improvements to existing rail services, would be useful. But it is far from clear that the California project is a boondoggle. The small chunks of Missouri and Kansas interstate that opened in 1956 probably looked like highways to nowhere at the time.

So again, it is unpleasantly clear that the Republican platform is not supportive of passenger rail. Please check with your local candidates, and vote for folks that are more willing to support rail than the national platform is.


Trains bring people together

In the lounge car, travelers who might not ordinarily come together due to economic, geographic or social stratification suddenly find themselves sharing tables. They are “people you’d never put together, but on a train you can, and it works,” [59-year-old Chicagoan Vivian Lonak, our sleeping-car attendant, who has worked for Amtrak for seven years,] said.

Chugging west on Amtrak, family-style

Why do I work for better trains? Because I believe that bringing people together improves understanding, and understanding makes it easier for all of us to live together on this world we share.

We can no longer accept a world where people travel in their own little bubble cars, ignoring the humans around them. We can no longer accept a world where everyone gets “news” that reinforces pre-existing beliefs.

Haven’t been on a train in a while? Join me and my friends from the National Association of Railroad Passengers. Now is the time!


Let’s get our priorities straight

I am so tired of people bitching about Amtrak’s accounting. None of us really know what their figures really look like. And you know why? Because Amtrak inherited accounting that led to such scandals as Credit Mobilier 150 years ago. Because Congress, including those on both sides of the aisle who would normally be screaming for independent audits, don’t want to know! They don’t want to know how they’ve let our infrastructure go to hell for a century.

They don’t want to know how much it’s really going to cost to rebuild when the Hudson River tunnels and the Baltimore tunnels collapse. They don’t want to know what it’s going to cost to rebuild when the tens of thousands of deficient bridges collapse. They don’t want to know what it’s going to cost when the air traffic control system’s ancient computers die. They don’t want to know what it’s going to cost to rebuild the Washington Metrorail system. They don’t want to know what it’s going to cost when we have no American manufacturers who can rebuild SEPTA’s broken cars, and Amtrak’s dying fleet.

The politicians think that infrastructure is not sexy. And it isn’t, unless they can put their names on a nifty bridge or building…but even those little plaques are awfully ugly when they’ve rusted away.
How much infrastructure could we rebuild if we killed even one of the Pentagon’s shiny new aircraft? We’ll never know, unless we elect people who have their priorities straight!
4876 laying in Union Station
4876 laying in Union Station. From

Last week, we lost Eric “GG-1” Minton, a great friend and rail enthusiast. He, like many others, recognized that while no one person can turn around decades of neglect, but all of us together can make a difference. So stop complaining, and start advocating…and most of all, start voting!


Header image:  Collapsed Kinzua Bridge

What the new Siemens Chargers mean for riders

From Railway Age:

The first two Siemens SC-44 Charger diesel passenger locomotives have arrived in Colorado for the start of testing at TTCI’s Pueblo, Colo., facility.

Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) awarded Siemens a $228 million contract in 2014 to supply 32 of the 125-mph diesel-electric locomotives for use on Amtrak services in the states of Illinois, California, Michigan, Missouri and Washington. The locomotives are being assembled at the Siemens plant in Sacramento, Calif., and the first units are due to be accepted by IDOT in December.

The first options for additional units were exercised in November 2015, when the states of California, Illinois and Maryland ordered a total of 34 locomotives.

In September 2014, Florida East Coast Industries subsidiary All Aboard Florida ordered 10 Charger locomotives to operate its Brightline higher-speed passenger service from Miami to Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, which is due to be launched next year. Assembly of these locomotives is now under way at Sacramento.

The four-axle, AC-traction Charger is the first locomotive to be equipped with the Cummins QSK95 prime-mover. The 95-litre, 16 cylinder engine is rated at 4,400 hp (3.28 MW) and is equipped with Cummins’ Modular Common Rail Fuel System (MCRS) with quad-turbocharging. The QSK95 is also equipped with Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) exhaust aftertreatment, enabling it to meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Tier 4 emissions standards.

For the last few years, Amtrak’s diesel fleet has been pretty static, excluding the rebuilt stimulus P40DC locomotives. However, weather extremes have not been kind to the fleet, and on numerous occasions a host railroad’s locomotive is leading an Amtrak train. I can only imagine the frustration a host railroad has when an Amtrak locomotive has failed on a section of their track, no less the passengers.

The new SC-44’s, as the Chargers are being called, will free up in the Midwest upwards of about 20 locomotives that Amtrak should have overhauled immediately. When Amtrak’s fleet is at peak performance, passenger satisfaction improves. Coming home from the 2014 NARP Spring Council of Representatives meeting, the locomotive I was on (all but certain it was an AEM-7) experienced technical issues a little north of the Metropark station. Eventually the issue was fixed enough so that we could continue on our way, but we were an hour late into New York City.  I have read that the ACS-64 have very good reliability.

Furthermore, as locomotives are being retired, Amtrak should encourage transit agencies across the country to purchase them and even save them in the interim should a state out of the blue decide to start an intercity service or a commuter rail service. Equipment should see as much re-purposing as possible.

Hopefully in the next few years we will see much more reliable and comfortable equipment coming for Amtrak. But that means all of us in the public bring to light that Amtrak and all passenger rail operators in the United States need proper funding and regulation that allows for innovation and growth.