Other People's Rail: Amtrak, commuter rail, rapid transit news & views outside New England

F-Line to Dudley

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^This topic is continuing to hang around in the news of late. Here's a fairly substantive piece from the AP today (9/10):

Some of our rail buffs on here can do a much better job assessing the quality of the assertions therein compared to me, but there are seem to be some notable nuggets in there worth pondering (such as that this could be profitable with as few as 200 passengers per day on the route, even though they predict up to 1,000).

The article also sounds cautionary notes about low speed zones, serious track work needed north of the Canadian border, likely need for multiple crews per train, and need to negotiate with several other parties.
200 passengers won't break a dining-and-sleeper train even. There's decades of Amtrak and VIA Rail finances to debunk that one. Dining services in particular are a loss leader for passenger railroads worldwide, and particularly in North America. The fact that they're expecting 1000 riders, a figure (as noted in my previous post) TWICE the whole universe of multi-frequency BOS-MTL studies predict, probably sets the steeper bar for 'true' break-even. And then they go on to say in previous articles that they'd get 2000 boardings between Montreal-Sherbrooke-Portland, as if it's going to go Regional Rail-level ridership on the first half of the route at one-a-day frequencies. Their numbers are absolutely laughable.

They expect to get $100M in financing from parties in Province of Quebec, whose government hasn't followed through on decades of lip service to try to fish their miles of the Adirondacker/Montrealer route out of the 30 MPH gutter, has refused to do anything in support of the sizeable advocacy for restoring VIA Rail's 1994-discontinued Atlantic train over the same Montreal-Sherbrooke trackage, and refuses to expand Montreal commuter rail (including sandbagging a St. Jean-sur-Richelieu extension that would overlap the first part of this route). They expect to have smooth negotiations with 4 host railroads, including the continent's most notoriously passenger-hostile Class I carrier, CP. And they expect people will pay high prices for modern "luxury" despite having no identified avenues for acquiring modern luxury rolling stock (i.e. not a hodgepodge of rail museum pieces for the sleepers and diners). They expect a brand new Customs stopover to sprout up without red tape with open cooperation from the two national governments, since this service having intermediate stops on both sides of the border means they absolutely must have at-border Customs. They expect crew-change bases to effortlessly install themselves without excess overhead, which is going to be pretty much impossible unless Amtrak agrees to run the POR-BOS miles off their Downeaster spare crew board (meaning a 5th RR to negotiate with).

And they've been trotting out this Plug, Play, and Print Money scheme multiple times over the last 10+ years with a constantly shuffling cast of characters and investor hangers-on. I don't know why the press has gone so ga-ga over it this time other than PR is cheap in the papers these days, but the relative skepticism shown by the state governments in New England is fully warranted. The top and bottom lines on this particular proposal stink to high heaven, whatever you may think of the merits of somebody eventually trying for this market.


FWIW...there'd be a leg to stand on if the Atlantic, which does have a vocal advocacy for VIA Rail restoration in the Martitime Provinces, did get restored. Because then you wouldn't have to worry about the Montreal-Sherbrooke leg and the $100M they claim is needed for upgrades on the first half, and you'd have some frequency scale to glom off of on the densest-ridership intra-Quebec portion. It would simplify the ops negotiations to follow in VIA Rail's wake, simplify Customs because the administration of the Atlantic's two Maine border crossings would simplify the bureaucracy. And you could ensure fast enough passage through Sherbrooke to stretch the crews further (though they'd probably still need Amtrak's help for POR-BOS). But VIA doesn't care, and Quebec doesn't care about the Atlantic despite the Maritimes caring a lot, so there's no practical starting point on the public side. This outfit seems to be glossing over that by citing such wholly unbelievable numbers that they'd somehow be able to self-profit their way around all the logistical obstacles and lack of help. It's fantasy. Easily debunked fantasy.
 

MjolnirMan

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Reached out to RIDOT again today on the 1-year anniversary of the TransitForwardRI Master Plan being published
Did my annual follow-up with RIDOT about the December 2020 plan to cross-honor Zone 8 MBTA passes on Amtrak NER between BOS-PVD. In December 2020, they said:
Rhode Island Transit Master Plan Recommendations

Cross-Honored Fares with Amtrak will Fill Gaps in Service and Provide Access to Faster Service
RIDOT is planning to implement a cross-honor fare agreement with Amtrak that will provide the ability for Providence Line passholders to ride select Amtrak trains. This will provide more frequent service to passholders as well as access to faster and more comfortable trains, and fill gaps in off-peak service.

Fares Will be Integrated
Fare integration will enable transit riders to use a single pass to ride services provided by multiple transit providers. Four types of fare integration will be implemented to allow use of:
  • MBTA passes honored on Amtrak trains between Providence and Boston
  • MBTA passes honored on RIPTA buses
  • SRTA passes on RIPTA Newport-Fall River-Providence service
  • RIPTA monthly passes on rail trips between Wickford Junction and Providence
Transit Strategies: FARE INTEGRATION

Regional Pass
The potential improvements described above would all be implemented individually by RIPTA or RIDOT. However, collectively, they could lead to the use of the MBTA Zone 8 pass as a Rhode Island and Massachusetts regional pass that would be valid for:
  • All MBTA services up to Zone 8 commuter rail
  • All RIPTA services
  • Amtrak service between Providence and Boston
And they envisioned this happening quickly despite the pandemic:
Next Steps
1-4 Years: Use of MBTA Commuter Rail passes on Amtrak trains

COVID-19 and Its Impacts on the Plan
Many short-term improvements would be inexpensive to implement and could help draw people back to transit and should proceed quickly. Two examples include the use of MBTA monthly passes on Amtrak trains between Providence and Boston and app-based reservations, fare payment, and vehicle tracking for Flex service.
However, in December 2021, they replied:
RIDOT is very supportive of this concept and Amtrak has been very receptive. Amtrak at this time anticipates increasing train service to normal levels by mid-2022 as rail travel demand continues to increase. We hope if conditions continue to move in a positive direction this program would begin sometime mid-next year.
Amtrak service levels on this route have returned to normal since last year, and 2022 ridership appears to be at or near pre-pandemic levels. The current status is:
RIDOT continues to evaluate the potential for cross honor along the MBTA Providence Line, and there is no current timeline for implementation. While implementation remains a goal, additional factors are under consideration beyond the frequency of Amtrak service. This includes evaluating the usefulness of specific Amtrak trains compared to the existing MBTA schedule as well as a developing funding plan that brings most value to Rhode Islanders. RIDOT and Amtrak have kept the cross honor concept alive in discussions, and RIDOT will continue to consider next steps.
 
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Riverside

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Did my annual follow-up with RIDOT about the December 2020 plan to cross-honor Zone 8 MBTA passes on Amtrak NER between BOS-PVD. In December 2020, they said:
Yeah, I think my feelings on this have remained largely unchanged since our discusssion on this topic last summer and in December. I think cross-honoring seems unlikely at this point. I'd rather see RIDOT focusing on resurrecting an improved version of the Beacon Hill service, with a timetable something like this:

(a conceptual schedule for an additional morning northbound NEC train, making commuter stops in Rhode Island for a 9:15am arrival in Boston -- if memory serves, it should be logistically feasible to shift the schedule 20 minutes earlier, to allow for an 8:55am arrival instead)

CodeStation66proposed1902150
NYPNew York Penn Station, NY2:404:106:558:00
NRONew Rochelle, NY3:114:407:28-
STMStamford, CT3:335:007:518:47
BRPBridgeport, CT4:035:308:20-
NHVNew Haven, CT4:436:138:479:39
OSBOld Saybrook, CT5:156:459:16-
NLCNew London, CT5:357:059:36-
MYSMystic, CT5:497:19--
WLYWesterly, RI6:017:31--
KINKingston, RI6:187:4810:07-
WICWickford Junction, RI-7:51--
EGREast Greenwich, RI-8:08--
TFGTF Green Airport, RI-8:16--
CRACranston, RI-8:22--
PVDProvidence, RI6:568:3110:2710:59
RTERoute 128, MA7:348:5810:5411:26
BBYBoston Back Bay, MA7:539:0911:0511:35
BOSBoston South Station, MA7:589:1511:1011:41

A day trip to Boston from South County shouldn't require a lengthy automobile ride.

Also, honestly, the 66 -- when it actually runs -- could/should make commuter rail stops in southern RI. The schedule already has significant padding both in terms of arrival at PVD and arrival into Boston. I think TF Green could be added today with some modest dispatching adjustments to swap track assignments; Wickford would require some construction to connect the platform track with the mainline, including across an overpass. I'd rather see RIDOT focus on those adjustments rather than cross-honoring, personally.
 

F-Line to Dudley

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Ethan Allen Express Burlington extension ridership is hugely blowing out its projections since opening this summer. Some of the increases are ridership diversions from the Vermonter (whose Essex Jct. stop is on the outskirts of Burlington and previously was the only available NYC-Burlington one-seat), but most of it is wholly organic growth which bodes well for further investment in Vermont passenger rail.
 

Roxxma

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Ethan Allen Express Burlington extension ridership is hugely blowing out its projections since opening this summer. Some of the increases are ridership diversions from the Vermonter (whose Essex Jct. stop is on the outskirts of Burlington and previously was the only available NYC-Burlington one-seat), but most of it is wholly organic growth which bodes well for further investment in Vermont passenger rail.
I wonder if this will spur a schedule change on either the Vermonter or Ethan Allen, maybe pushing one to leave the Burlington area later in the day to spread the schedule a little bit.
 

F-Line to Dudley

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I wonder if this will spur a schedule change on either the Vermonter or Ethan Allen, maybe pushing one to leave the Burlington area later in the day to spread the schedule a little bit.
Well, the NNEIRI study had that one sorted out with the Boston-Montreal train being timed at Springfield with an Inland Route slot for cross-ticketed transfers, and a third Penn-or-New Haven to St. Albans-or-Montreal short-turn frequency spreading the clock. But MassDOT needs to un-tank the East-West study to put that back on the table, since they excluded CT and VT from that planning process.
 

Riverside

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Ethan Allen Express Burlington extension ridership is hugely blowing out its projections since opening this summer. Some of the increases are ridership diversions from the Vermonter (whose Essex Jct. stop is on the outskirts of Burlington and previously was the only available NYC-Burlington one-seat), but most of it is wholly organic growth which bodes well for further investment in Vermont passenger rail.
Fantastic news. I wonder how much of this is displaced Adirondack ridership, which, AFAIK, is still out of service.
 

Arlington

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Fantastic news. I wonder how much of this is displaced Adirondack ridership, which, AFAIK, is still out of service.
I suspect part of this the competitive mix that's disfavoring driving and generally favoring trains (and bus), particularly where younger travelers are concerned: a mix of high gas prices and hard-to-get new and used cars.

Amtrak Virginia's new routes (a second daily frequency to Roanoke and an additional run to Hampton Roads) also did very well. Traditionally Amtrak does well in times of high gas prices, and that seems to apply now.

[EDIT/ADDENDUM]

The other optimistic note, most new rail services take 3 years to get to their "mature" ridership as people learn about the service, add it to their mental map of alternatives, and come to prefer it for trips.

Exceeding your goals in year 1 has traditionally meant that the service can continue to grow at above-forecast rates. Your mileage may vary, of course, particularly if gas prices plunge, but strong early growth means that more people will get it in their choice set, sooner, and that's a very good thing.
 
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F-Line to Dudley

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Fantastic news. I wonder how much of this is displaced Adirondack ridership, which, AFAIK, is still out of service.
Middlebury on the EAE might be making up somewhat for Port Henry on the Adirondack because they're a short driving distance away, but that's about it. None of the other stops on either corridor are really driveable to each other given the lakes. And the ferries really don't contribute...Port Kent, the Adirondack stop served by the Burlington ferry, has the worst train ridership by a mile on either corridor.
 

DominusNovus

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This is just a generic Amtrak question. Is there any impetus anywhere for Amtrak to acquire its own tracks, so they don’t have to compete with the freight lines?

As much as its fun to rag on the US intercity passenger rail system, the freight system is world class (and given the numbers, it does make sense for freight to take priority over passengers). Meanwhile, with a sample size of… 1, the Brightline does seem to look pretty good.
 

Brattle Loop

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This is just a generic Amtrak question. Is there any impetus anywhere for Amtrak to acquire its own tracks, so they don’t have to compete with the freight lines?
Certainly not on the long-distance network, the financials there would be a bloodbath (not that they're really in the same universe as good on the LD trains that aren't the Auto Train). There may well be some areas where it'd make a lot of sense for their state partners to acquire the lines (as Virginia is sort of doing, though I think that's only a partial deal with CSX with respect to the former RF&P), because those are the areas where service frequencies are high enough (or planned to be high enough) to potentially see some valuable returns on cutting down the freight interference (and the fees for hosting their trains, one assumes).

The freight system is world-class because that's where the money is (helped along by a big scoop of deregulation and consolidation); someone has to pay for all that infrastructure's construction and maintenance, and financially it makes more sense to offload that cost to the private sector (albeit at the cost of the Class Is treating Amtrak as an irritant) rather than requiring the government to take it on wholesale. (There are absolutely areas where more pro-passenger investments would make sense, but not simply buying lines to avoid the freights.)

Brightline vs. CAHSR, a case study in private versus public investments, or an indictment of just how terrible California is at project management?
In all seriousness, Brightline does seem to have done a lot of things right, though it helps immensely that there was already a high-quality railroad line already there. (And, if I recall correctly, Brightline's parent company is the FEC's prior owner, who were essentially capitalizing on their own asset to build a new business. I'm not sure how many other freight lines have the surrounding demographics - let alone the will - to do something similar.)
 

F-Line to Dudley

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In all seriousness, Brightline does seem to have done a lot of things right, though it helps immensely that there was already a high-quality railroad line already there. (And, if I recall correctly, Brightline's parent company is the FEC's prior owner, who were essentially capitalizing on their own asset to build a new business. I'm not sure how many other freight lines have the surrounding demographics - let alone the will - to do something similar.)
Brightline's profit model lies in real estate. They control large amounts of land near the stations (the FEC was one of the largest landowners in Florida), so are banking on the TOD coattails paying off for them. It's basically like a 21st century take on "streetcar suburbs" and the streetcar companies making back their initial buildout investments on real estate development. Very unique situation specific to them only, so the model is very hard to replicate elsewhere in the country where the RR's eons ago expunged their excess land holdings.
 

F-Line to Dudley

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This is just a generic Amtrak question. Is there any impetus anywhere for Amtrak to acquire its own tracks, so they don’t have to compete with the freight lines?

As much as its fun to rag on the US intercity passenger rail system, the freight system is world class (and given the numbers, it does make sense for freight to take priority over passengers). Meanwhile, with a sample size of… 1, the Brightline does seem to look pretty good.
The only places it makes sense for them to own outright are where they can pad their ticketing revenues by running fast. That's why they own the Michigan Line; it does 110 MPH and has ideal geometry for running fast. Freights generally don't see any additional profit margins at running faster than 60 MPH (i.e. Class 4 track, which is 60 MPH freight/80 MPH passenger), so it's up to passenger investment to push it higher than that. There aren't a whole lot of lines in the country with either favorable-enough geometry or outsized passenger volumes to allow 90 MPH, 110 MPH, 125 MPH. Pretty much California (where Caltrans has bought up a lot of the corridors), New York (where Amtrak has leased the NY-ALB corridor), Virginia (co-ownership), North Carolina (state ownership), Springfield/Keystone Lines (self-ownership), Michigan Line, Chicago-St. Louis, etc. They've already made lots of progress on the ownership-for-speed front. Future buys are likely to chain off of where they already own, such as more in the Southeast, more out of Chicago hub, and so on. And target specifically the corridors where 90-110 MPH are max-leverage gets.

Dispatch equity is not something that requires ownership. They need to cultivate a better working relationship with freight carriers so dispatching priority isn't so punitively against them. That's what harms the LD network and some bottom-barrel-OTP statie routes. A lot of the fault is simply "fuck you" freight carriers (Canadian Pacific the most notorious of the Class I's for that), and some of it is states that don't know how to deal with the freight carriers (the bad blood between CSX and the Gulf Coast states vs. the cuddly working relationship CSX has with the Northeast states). Some of it is Amtrak bureaucracy not being worth the freight carriers' time to put up with. But generally speaking, fair dispatching is something two mature parties can negotiate without resorting to draconian measures. And it doesn't require going scorched-earth and forcefully nationalizing the network to achieve...nor is that going to be worth it where passenger volumes are still dwarfed by freight.
 

DominusNovus

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Thanks @Brattle Loop and @F-Line to Dudley

I should clarify that I wasn’t referring really to taking over existing rail (that is an option for the 1960s), but building out their own lines.

I used Brightline as an example because they’re building a bunch of the tracks themselves (they don’t own all their own track, right?). Interesting that they’re relying on the revenue from the land development. Very old school, didn’t know about that. Any good sources to read up more on that?
 

F-Line to Dudley

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Thanks @Brattle Loop and @F-Line to Dudley

I should clarify that I wasn’t referring really to taking over existing rail (that is an option for the 1960s), but building out their own lines.

I used Brightline as an example because they’re building a bunch of the tracks themselves (they don’t own all their own track, right?). Interesting that they’re relying on the revenue from the land development. Very old school, didn’t know about that. Any good sources to read up more on that?
Brightline's building the West Palm Beach-Orlando Airport extension on mostly virgin ROW, and hopes to lease from Florida DOT space along the I-4 median for the Orlando-Tampa extension. Miami-West Palm Beach is all FEC tracks, where the most they did was add double-tracking segments. Of these, West Palm-Orlando is the most ambitious of their operating segments and the largest stretch of virgin ROW done in generations.

The real estate holdings fall under Florida East Coast Industries. The FEC railroad is now divested from it, but FECI encompasses Brightline, a bunch of shipping logistics companies, and a major commercial real estate developer. All of them were legacy businesses once wrapped up in the FEC railroad. The FEC has basically been operating on the "streetcar suburbs" development model in some form or another for 130 years, something no other railroad does. They were also one of the first to aggressively vertically-integrate their intermodal logistics. It's why they remained financially robust while nearly all other major RR's in the country hit the skids post-WWII; they've always been able to cash in on the Florida real estate boom and spot positive trends in the shipping industry. When private equity bought out the railroad about 20 years ago they aggressively restructured to separate the RR out from the other businesses, but still left the remaining operation dependent on the railroad to create value for the other businesses. Basically no other rail-adjacent entity on the continent has an operation like that, where they hold so much mixed-use developable land AND have the in-house entity to develop it all (i.e. no need to pre-sell to a developer). When they sell a property, they sell it fully-developed and fully-realized.
 

Arlington

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Somewhere on AB we've discussed the new alignment for the Connecticut River Bridge (50 feet south/seaward/downstream) from the current bridge and slightly higher and straighter. This will be a most-welcome renewal of infrastructure.
 

Arlington

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Also Amtrak has committed to replacing the Susquehanna River Bridge (a two-track movable span) with 4 tracks (twin two-track bridges)
Results in an increase in speed and capacity.
 

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