writing with the bittersweet news that I'll soon be moving on and Vermont Rail Action Network will be looking for a new Executive Director. Do you know a candidate?
There are three reasons I'm ready to pass the torch. One is that our big goals for the last few years are on their way to being met: the Western Corridor, extending the Ethan Allen to Burlington is funded, bikes are carried on the Vermonter and progress is being made returning trains to Montreal. It's been nine years I've been doing this work and I'm tired and ready for something new. And I have new family commitments I didn't used to that make travel harder and take my energy in a different direction.
I have been so pleased to be able to work with so many quality railroad supporters in Vermont and I hope to keep in touch. I don't really know what I'll do next, but I'm open.
Amtrak's southbound Vermonter struck and injuried a tresspasser on the West River bridge yesterday just north of Brattleboro.
This is a hard way to learn the lesson not to tresspass and we are grateful the person was not killed. A bridge is an especially unsafe place to be or to fish, with no place to go if a train does come. Trains cannot quickly stop.
The brief story in the Reformer stuck to the facts but didn't mention the most central one: that the two people on the bridge were trespassing. Everything else is consequence..
Railroads are dramatically safer than driving, but 95% of the injuries and fatalities that do occur on the railroad are from trespassers and people who drive past signals at crossings.
There is a public education opportunity here. We can reduce future injuries and deaths by reminding people not to take chances.
Responsible citizens have a right to be concerned about crude oil trains on the railroads in Vermont given the publicity around derailments that have occurred.
The first thing to know is that at this time, no crude oil is moving through Vermont. So you can rest a little easier.
We do have some thoughts and information about the issue though.
Most of Vermont's energy fuel's arrive by rail. That includes heating oil, propane, gasoline, wood chips (renewable biomass for Burlington Electric). If you see tank cars in a train, the odds are it either shipping limestone slurry from Omya, north or Rutland or bringing energy that is used locally in Vermont. Some ethanol (corn alcohol) does travel across the state for other New England destinations from time to time.
Perhaps it would be better and more responsible if we didn't burn so much oil and gas. That's part of what motivates our work as citizens to promote railroads, since half of Vermont's greenhouse gasses come from transportation and shipping by rail uses one third the amount trucks would emit for the same shipment.
However, as long as we still live in a world that uses oil and gas, it is better and more responsible if it travels by rail. Better, because it is better for the environment, as noted above, and also because it is dramatically safer. The alternative is to truck it in (pipelines are not a realistic prospect other than the controversial Vermont Gas pipeline being built through Addison County). It is better for citizens if we don't have those trucks on our highways.
99.998% of rail tank cars arrive at the destination safely. Of those that don't, most suffer nothing more than the railroad equivalent of a fender-bender and do not involve a release of any kind.
Trucks have 16 times more haz-mat releases than rail (they haul roughly equal amounts).
In the last 10 years there have been 155 haz-mat releases in Vermont -- only 4 have been from rail transportation.
So clearly, the safest and most responsible course is to ship by rail.
Still, that is 99.998%, not 100%. Petroleum in all it's forms is dangerous and there is no getting around that. Railroads work hard to stay safe and be responsible.
I heat and cook with propane. This sometimes makes me nervous; I'm well aware of the dangers of having gas in my house. Every so often there is a news piece about a house that blows up. Yet still, I make this choice and continue to use propane and I know it is the right choice, at least for me. I think about rail safety in the same way: knowing that nothing is 100% safe, but knowing a lot of effort goes into staying safe and that it is better than all the other alternatives.
The Vermont Emergency Management Agency has real-time information on what is moving where and they have the expertise to responsibly handle any kind of incident. Local fire departments do not consistently have that kind of expertise.
I value our local citizen volunteer fire department tremendously. I guess I put my life in their hands. And I know them and know that I can have confidence in them. But I also know they are limited.
The Vermont Emergency Management Agency and the railroads do offer training to local first responders. I would encourage more local fire departments to avail themselves of that training (I'm surprised how many don't, but I know that time for volunteers is limited and the reality is train accidents are rare and unlikely to be the priority for local fire departments).
There is a reason why haz-mat movement is kept on a need-to-know basis. National security is the obvious reason, but more important is that these incidents should not be handled on the local level without involving the railroad and Vermont Emergency Management.
Most obviously, no fire fighters should be on a railroad without being in coordination with the railroad (unfortunately, what seems like basic common sense is frequently not heeded and there are lots of examples of disrupted responses when the train comes around the corner, not having been warned, and makes three short hoses out of one long one that had been stretched across the tracks. Or even occasionally demolishes a whole fire engine that is in the wrong place. You'd think this responsibility would not need to be explained . . . ).
When the fire department is in coordination with the railroad, they can advise what is on the train.
Also, hazardous materials tank cars (and trucks on the highway as well) have placecards on the tanks identifying what they carry (although empty cars also carry the placecards, in case there are any fumes remaining).
While crude oil does not move through Vermont by rail (or truck) at this time (it does move through Vermont in a pipeline), quantities do move through New York state, especially to the Port of Albany and quite a bit travels on the Western Shore of Lake Champlain.
Is this a risk?
Of course. Like I said, transporting petroleum is not risk free.
You should know that the amount of crude spilled per tons shipped by rail is lower than the amount spilled per tons shipped by pipeline.
You should also know that despite the significance of the Lac-Megantic incident in Canada, it is an exception: nobody in the United States has ever lost their life in a crude oil derailment. Still, it would wrong to say their is no risk.
In my opinion, shipping crude oil by rail - in general - is on a similar level environmentally and safety wise as shipping by pipeline.
As long as we use petroleum, we will have to ship it. If you are ready to stop driving, raise your hand! I might raise mine, but I haven't stopped yet. In the meantime, we have to make our choices with good sense and accept a risk.
Since Obama took office, domestic facked oil production has skyrocketed. Pipelines do not serve North Dakota and other new oil producing regions. Rail has seized the opportunity and has exploited some advantages to gain much of this new market.
Existing pipelines tend to run north-south connecting Oklahoma and Texas with gulf coast refineries. Refineries on the coasts (New Jersey, Delaware and California) have previously depended on imported oil. The economics of US oil have resulted in shipments of Bakkan crude to these refineries, running east and west where pipelines do not exist.
Tar sands from Canada are not moving by rail in as much volume. But while US oil is prohibited from being exported beyond Canada, tar sands is allowed to be exported, so accessing ports becomes a goal.
Shipping tar sands in pipelines requires a dillutant, while shipping by rail does not (or perhaps less dillutant, depending on unloading conditions). This gives rail an additional environmental and economic advantage.
On the highway, crazy drivers and uncertain enforcement make driving one of the most dangerous things most American citizens do.
The culture of responsibility on the railroad is quite different, and technology backs it up.
Railroaders have a long tradition of understanding the danger, which is a seriousness that is necessary in order to responsibly avoid it. The saying is "The Rule Book Is Written In Blood." The rule book is an inch thick and reflects the collective experience and lessons of the industry. Violations mean the end of a career. Minor violations mean 30 days off, unpaid. Violations are rare. Trains keep their speed limits. Tracks are inspected to insure they stay in spec for a given speed, and speed restrictions frequently issued when necessary.
The driving force of "money" - or lack of it - ultimately determines the levels of investment and service. Amtrak has always been financially starved and the current skeletal national system reflects the results of meager financial policy. Several nationally recognized trains have managed to survive, enduring through critical and sometimes timely stopgap funding, but long term investments have not been a priority. Sorely needed funds would address many of the crucial shortcomings in today's system, both to improve key infrastructure that has diminished over time, and a program to remedy the concerns building as to the age of equipment currently in use. This realization also underscores a program to address the overall number of cars available to haul people and the funding for aging equipment and facilities. The Amtrak re-authorization bill passed by the house Wednesday continues a scenario of limp anemic support. I can hear some of you protest: "But we can't afford to have the government spend more!" Or pose the argument: "If Amtrak didn't lose so much money, then it could be a success." The support for Amtrak in congress is less principled than these arguments. The re-authorization passed with bi-partisan support: 315 to 101 with 132 Republicans joining all 184 democrats in a "yes" vote. While the usual arguments on both sides were presented from the usual sources, looking at the map of congressional districts ultimately shows the real story: those congressman without Amtrak service tend to vote against Amtrak; those districts with Amtrak stations tend to have a supportive congressman. It's understandable why: trains matter to people; they tell their representatives; their representatives hear and respond to that feedback. People don't like losing something that matters to them and politicians don't want in any way to be blamed for any loss. On the other hand, in the districts with no train service, there is nothing at stake and no underlying reason for support. The conservative Heritage Foundation and Freedom Works did make an attempt to turn Amtrak into an issue, claiming that the national passenger service is a "boondoggle" because it loses money. No mention was made concerning subsidies that go to air infrastructure or that the gas tax covers only 20% of road costs. An amendment to this proposed bill was offered which would have eliminated all Amtrak funding. Both conservative groups made it a priority vote, part of their scorecard used to judge representatives for overall fidelity to the goal of lowering taxes. The amendment failed, 147 to 272. This meant that 46 members were able to have their cake and eat it too . . . they voted "correctly" according to the conservative scorecard (that ballot will be used to judge them later) and subsequently voted FOR the actual bill. A perfect "political" solution -- they could be on record in support of their constituents by supporting train service in their district. The actual demographic reason Amtrak has less Republican support reflects the proportion of districts without Amtrak service. These tend to be either primarily rural or situated in the sun belt that has historically had less train service -- and those districts tend to be Republican. So a critical mass of local Amtrak support is lacking in (some) parts of the party. The conclusion I foresee is that Amtrak would get more sustainable political support if it served more of the country. Large swaths of the U.S. (including some large cities) either have no Amtrak train or are served less than daily (or even in the middle of the night). A similar calculation exists in Vermont, where "both sides of the Green Mountains" often have to unilaterally enjoy the benefits of whatever is being proposed. The Passenger Rail Reform and Investment act just passed by the House is an authorization for funding. This legislation can later conflict with the annual finalized budget that actually allocates a dedicated amount of money to the different agencies(most times less than what is "authorized"). The authorization as legislated is to be for five years and lays out the principles under which Amtrak operates. The proposal now goes to the Senate, which does not appear to be in a hurry to undertake its passage.
I attended the Transportation Efficiency Network in Rutland on January 6th, meeting with other transportation advocates, bus agencies and planners. We met at the Rutland Regional Planning Commission. The group is led by staff from Vital Communities (in White River Junction).
The legislative breakfast was nice. Lots of good conversations. Big thanks to Dave Allaire and Charlie Moore and Herb Russell for staffing the event and lots of help. I was able to meet several of the new House Transportation Committee folks.
Unfortunately, the prior Sunday was a bad day for the Vermonter and every legislator seemed to know about it. I think Molly Burke's husband was riding the northbound. The southbound train never ran due to engine trouble. [Engine troubles are a systemic problem on Amtrak right now - partly because the engines are old and partly because they let go the guy who designed a good process for keeping them maintained]. The train stayed in Saint Albans while NECR tried to fix it. So Amtrak turned the northbound arrival in Springfield MA to make a southbound Vermonter back to DC and substituted a spare two car shuttle train sitting in Springfield MA for the remainder of the run north -- which only made it as far as Brattleboro before the cab car (in the lead) struck ice and disabled the brakes (which fail to on). A bus was called with a three hour delay.
Last weekend, Saturday and Sunday, I represented VRAN at the Amherst Railway Society train show in Springfield MA at the big E. Herb Russell helped too as well as representing Vermont Rail System. I also had help from Alex Formanek, the Bennington College intern who is working with Herb. We joined the Vermont Rail System and rail documentary filmmaker Jim Jones for a little VRS sponsored Vermont compound. It was a great networking event -- lots of railroaders were there (for example, VRS of course, Amtrak, Genesee & Wyoming folks, Pioneer Valley Railroad, Finger Lakes Railroad, Golden Eagle, Valley Railroad in CT).
Lee and I have drafts (not quite done) of a scope of work for the passenger and freight development task forces.
I attended a meeting of the new Vermont Community Alliance for Public Transportation. I met two people there who I think would be valuable to have on a committee to work on commuter trains in northern Vermont.
The Amtrak committee on transporting bicycles on the Vermonter continues to meet. Amtrak has designed a modification of the baggage racks so the shelves fold up and a bike (with one wheel off) can be hung in there instead. One bike, per car. Amtrak has created a business case which they are about to share.
The surface Transportation Board decided in Pan-Am's favor but now NECR and Pan-Am have to negotiate a new trackage rights agreement. In the meantime Pan-Am still isn't interchanging with the WACR in White River Junction.
It will be interesting what happens because of the drop in the price of oil.
Obviously, the railroads cost of fuel will go down. So will truckers - with greater impact. Trucks will become more competitive.
Oil movements were straining capacity and have caused a significant amount of investment in the midwest. Most significantly, Norfolk Southern will this month reopen the old Pennsylvanian Railroad Mainline east of Chicago through Fort Wayne. A little less traffic might actually make everything flow easier and more efficiently (which probably means more profitably). When trains get stuck in sidings, nobody is making money.
I've heard different explanations for what the Saudi's are up to. One explanation is that if they keep this up the wildcatters (not the big oil companies) that have developed the North Dakota fields will all go bankrupt and then Wall Street won't lend money the next time somebody decides to go develop an oil field. That may be true, but I'd expect that the bankrupt companies would be bought by the big players for pennies on the dollar and the oil will keep flowing. The big expense in producing oil is the drilling and it's already happened, though future drilling is being curtailed.
The Bakkan field in North Dakota has been developed relatively quickly. Less quick has been development of the Canadian tar sands. That may be held off, if the price keeps staying low.
While shipments of oil are a sliver of overall freight, they are not insignificant and measured by revenue they are even more significant, as oil moves are high-revenue.
Another dynamic is that the industry is buying new, safer, tank cars as fast as they can. A little breather for the tank car builders to catch up with demand might be welcome. And improve safety.
E. Hunter Harrison, President and improver at Canadian National Railroad and the Canadian Pacific likes to say his goal is to create a “boring railroad.”
He means that trains run on a predictable schedule problems are minimized and customers get better service. The railroaders trade stories they can tell for getting home at a regular hour.
In Vermont, the Vermont Rail System has mastered consistent operations and the feedback we hear from customers is good. We expect that regularly established freight trains run when they are expected to run on the same regular pattern.
In fact, the effect of E. Hunter Harrison coming to the Canadian Pacific seems to have been to reduce their consistency as they have tried to reduce costs. Vermont Rail System, which depends upon the Canadian Pacific for the largest share of its interchange with the national rail network has been observed having to bend it’s schedule around late CP connections.
Anybody who has flown on a day when a storm has messed up airplane schedules understands how in a system of schedules that connect to each other a problem one place ripples out elsewhere and forces the operator to scramble, sometimes delaying other runs or rescheduling misconnects.
The price of a erratic system is high. If schedules are not consistent, customers will have considerable variability in how long their rail shipments take. It’s obvious that if raw materials are delayed, plants must consider shutting down; it’s also a problem when shipment are early or arrived all bunched up and beyond the capacity of the customer to receive (railroads charge a fine if their cars are not unloaded in a day or two). Manufactures and retailers also seek consistency to maintain their own schedules.
If shipments are erratic it will take more cars to handle a regular shipment than would otherwise be necessary, raising the cost. It’s is more difficult to schedule crews and resources like locomotives.
The last 50 years of railroad history nationally has seen previously consistent freight schedules become more and more erratic. In a drive to cut costs, trains got longer and less frequent and have often been canceled when traffic is light. In the last ten years or so railroads realized the costs of trying to cut costs this way and have reintroduced scheduled freight trains and have benefited from that, as have rail customers.
Nevertheless on the railroad things often do not go according to plan. Running a scheduled railroad is not easy and sometimes is impossible.
The Vermont Rail System pulls it off. So does Pan-Am, the successor to Guilford transportation which has made quite an improvement.
I was asked recently about drug dealers taking the train to Vermont. This seems to come up from time to time. This is what I told him:
Well, lots of people like taking the train, as you know. Since it's a popular way to get to Rutland for everyone, it wouldn't be a surprise that it might be popular with drug dealers also. Of course they represent a fraction of the population.
That said, I'm going to guess that it's unlikely the train has more than 25 percent or so of the total market of people traveling from the New York City area to Western Vermont. It's important that it's there as a choice, but people have all sorts of considerations when choosing how to travel. I imagine it's the same for drug dealers and the vast majority of them are driving.
When it comes to drivers, the tools available to police are pretty minimal. Without probable cause, an offer can't stop a car and can't search it. By contrast, law enforcement has more power in regards to drug dealers on a train, beginning with [redacted - better not to post about methods used]. These things are happening, but are not particularly publicized, which is how it should be.
Clearly we support law enforcement's efforts for a safer Vermont.
Obviously we would oppose any attempt to single out the train when the overwhelming amount of drugs traveling into the state come by car. (Which doesn't mean we shouldn't continue law enforcement efforts with the train, it's more a matter of defining things in the public conversation).
As it stands, Amtrak and law enforcement seem to have a productive relationship. Obviously we would oppose law enforcement efforts that are primarily for show or harass passengers in a non-targeted way . . . but that hasn't happened and my opinion of Vermont law enforcement is that isn't something we need to worry about right now.
Ultimately this larger issue is big and complex and difficult and outside the scope of our organization.
My car is in the shop. I was on my way to meetings, joining board members to meet with Vermont’s Secretary of Economic Development and later, Vermont’s Treasurer. I wasn’t too pleased to not be able to make it, although glad our board could represent VRAN without me. I was even less pleased with how the day spun out, multiple calls to the shop I’d showed up at without an appointment (they never even looked at it) with me cooling my heals at the library trying to figure out a way to get back home. Eventually a friend brought me part way and Christine came and rescued me.
The circumstances deflated me. My inner kafuffle distracted me.
As I think it over this morning, I think I’ve learned something about why the circumstances of my life had such an impact on my feelings. Why should they? These things happen. Could I have made a difference by taking it to the shop earlier when I heard the noise? Maybe. Yes. (Actually I *did* take it to the shop – so early that my mechanic couldn’t hear the noise. I was getting ready to take it again. But my questioning myself wasn't the root of the matter.
I recently read an article asserting that a key factor in happiness is power. Not necessarily power over other people and society (although those people were indeed more happy), but also power over the circumstances of one’s life. Empowerment in an inner psychological sense, but also the ability to actually have power over the details of your life.
My sense of my own power was battered. Which indeed was an accurate read of the situation. Instead of making my own choices I was at the mercy of the shop.
All of a sudden, seeing how this went down, I realized how important this dynamic of having power over my own circumstances is a factor in my relationship. In work. In life. It’s not something I think about explicitly, but it’s big.
It’s also something I can directly influence sometimes in my dealings with others. I can empower or disempower others with my words and actions. I believe in empower others as a matter of respect, but this thought gives that more ummph in matters of supervision, customer service and other ways.
Also a powerful lesson here is how much having a working car gives me a sense of power and how its loss takes it away. I believe in public transportation and I’m interested in the psychological reasons why people like cars. “Freedom” it is often said. I don’t know why I hadn’t really thought this through, but I think “power” is a better word and better describes why there is such an attraction that is beyond logic.
A revival of train service to Cape Cod shows all the signs of success, has been extended until Columbus Day and is even reported to be making money.
Clearly something is being done right. What's the secret?
The first secret is starting small: the trains run during times of peak traffic on weekends only. If it didn't work out, the cost of failure would be small and because they run only at peak times the likelihood of capturing enough riders to be successful is high.
It helps that this is a good route. 5.25 million tourists visit Cape Cod annually, most from the Boston area or it's suburbs. Only two bridges cross the Cape Cod Canal, used by almost 100,000 people daily with backups of up to 6 miles at peak times. More than one million people live on Cape Cod. An hourly bus service now runs to Boston.
The service was simple to begin, being that the stations already exist and the tracks were in decent shape. A tie and surfacing program was undertaken to raise speeds from 30 to 59 mph (off-cape) and 40 mph (on cape). That's a relatively small expense. A new hi-level platform was built in Hyannis, but it utilized an existing mini-high handicapped platform, extending it with a simple wooden deck. The train remains slower than driving, but this is enough to be competitive, especially at peak times when traffic bottlenecks at the two bridges entering Cape Cod.
The next secret is marketing. A robust and active facebook presence, advertisements and lots of good press have brought results. It's amazing to me how little train and transit service is actually marketed. If rail service was soap, the world would be different. Good marketing should pay for itself, increasing revenue much faster than it costs.
The service has also been very well managed by the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority, with help from the MBTA. Problems (such as potential delays at the lift bridge over the canal) have been addressed and personnel are in place to ensure that passengers have a nice experience. A bike and food service car is provided. Costs are reduced by (brilliantly) using the same food service provider as the Cape-Island ferries. After working the train, the staff jump over to the ferry, and vise versa.
The goal was to attract enough passengers to "break even." This allowed an expansion of service even in a difficult budgetary environment. It's also a dramatic success -- few passenger train operations can claim this, competing as they do with free subsidized highways. This train has done this. How?
While marketing is one piece of ensuring enough revenue, so is a relatively high fare of $20 (one way). Sometimes transit doesn't charge a high enough fare, in my opinion. This is especially true in peak periods, when rail service has more pricing power. And weekends, going to the cape is peak.
The fare is not outrageous, not out of line with the $19 the privately run bus alternative charges -- but much higher than the highest MBTA fare of $11 for it's longest Wickford Junction to Boston run of similar mileage as the run to the Cape.
The truth is, this service is still heavily publicly supported, as is all passenger transportation. But in America, making money is a measure of success, and the service has met this test of merit. Meanwhile I doubt the considerable management effort expended on this train is billed. Nor is the cost of using the equipment, as it would otherwise just be sitting around waiting for the next Monday morning rush hour. For Amtrak, equipment is perhaps 40% of costs (depending on how you measure) so this is a considerable savings.
But in fact, this is a private sector way of thinking. Using equipment on the weekends doesn't increase costs. Faced with the opportunity to raise revenue more than expenses, few businesses would hesitate.
There is also public support for the infrastructure, which is owned by the state. While the train makes money, it is far too small of an operation to begin to make a return on previous investment the state has sunk in the line. Fortunately that return is in the public and economic benefits rail service provides.
So - from a public relations perspective - much has been done right in the starting of this service. From what I can see, much has also been done right in the management and marketing of the service.
Now that the service is a success, what comes next?
I was a Trainman on the Cape Cod & Hyannis, the previous state-subsidized operators of the service, so I have both an interest in this and some experience to contribute.
Back then we ran 4 or 5 trains a day from Braintree to the Cape. Some runs were empty. But the one consistently full (often 8 cars fully loaded) train ran out of Boston in the morning (just after rush hour) and back from the Cape at the end of the day. I think a single day train on this schedule would be a success and it too could probably use equipment that would otherwise be idle waiting for rush hour.
We also made a run to Attleboro (just north of Providence), connecting with Amtrak service to New York and Washington. This route also did well - Amtrak's weekend trains had good loadings and our daily run in it's first year carried about 100 people per train on a normal day.
We also got good ridership from Brockton, Holbrook and Braintree areas and I would think the train would benefit from serving them.
The Massachusetts DOT and Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority are blessed to have a mix of solid railroad experience, good political connections and support and wise leadership that understands the context in which they operate. Knowing some of the players involved, I'm not surprised they have made it a success.