Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The perfect Christmas gift … for YOU!

You like trains? Are you interested in the future of passenger rail in the United States? Or are you just looking for a great read? OK … run, don’t walk, to get a copy of Waiting on a Train … subtitled The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service … by James McCommons. I’m only two-thirds of the way through, but can already tell you it’s a must-read.

The author spent a year riding around the country on Amtrak to meet and talk with a whole variety of people who are, in one way or another, involved with passenger trains.

In one section, he writes about how the freight railroads have differing attitudes toward Amtrak trains. BNSF makes serious and successful efforts to bring Amtrak trains in on time, while Union Pacific …

Well, let me give you one of the more interesting (and almost shocking) paragraphs from the book. In this chapter, McCommons is writing about a conversation he had with Griff Hubbard, a long-time Amtrak employee who is one of the people overseeing the Texas Eagle. The Eagle has a terrible on-time record and, since it runs on Union Pacific track, at one point Hubbard sat down with a UP exec to see if anything could be done to improve things. Here’s the excerpt:

According to Hubbard, the executive snorted, “You know, Griff, you just don’t get it. Amtrak doesn’t get it. And maybe you guys will never get it, but we just don’t care … You need to understand this … if you’re right to the minute on time and an ass in every seat, we don’t care. If you are nine hours late, and nobody is on the train, we don’t care. If you have engine failure and are stuck, we don’t care. If you bring a few million to the table in incentives, we don’t care. We’re a $3-billion company, it means nothing to us. So no matter what Amtrak does. No matter what you do, we don’t care. WE DON’T CARE.”

I personally experienced this UP don’t-give-a-damn attitude a couple of years ago on a ride up to Seattle on the Coast Starlight. We got shunted off onto a siding and sat waiting for nearly 40 minutes while two Union Pacific freights lumbered by. When we finally got the go-ahead from the UP dispatcher, we proceeded less than a mile into the station.

Anyway, there are many fascinating insights throughout this book. And there is much more about the future of passenger rail in the U.S. It’s a terrific book … Buy it!

3 comments:

Mike said...

Just in time for Christmas, too.

Isn't there a fed law giving Amtrak priority on the rails? Clearly this UP guy doesn't know that, or, as he says himself, "doesn't care."

JIM LOOMIS said...

They don't care. The penalties, when or, in the case of the Bush Administration, IF enforced are not enough to matter. By contrast, the BNSF guy told McCommons that they consider passengers to be another form of freight being shipped by one of their customers, and all BNSF customers are considered important and their freight is given priority handling. Interesting difference in corporate philosophy, no?

neroden@gmail said...

This is why UP got the threat of a federal lawsuit from Amtrak for breaking the law regarding giving passenger trains priority. Penalties under the act actually include revocation of the license to operate a railroad. :-)

Apparently that got UP caring. We'll see how long it lasts, but apparently you have to threaten UP with corporate execution to get them to behave themselves.