Save Cornwells Heights
Saturday, March 31, 2007
Today's Internet Radio Broadcast
Today I'll be the featured guest on the Internet radio talk show "Let's Talk Trains" broadcast at www.worldtalkradio.com. I'm scheduled to be on from 1:40pm to 4:00 pm EST.
To listen live, go to the www.worldtalkradio.com website during the show (which actually starts at 1:00pm EST with 40 minutes of other matters) and click on the "Listen Now" link next to the show title.
To listen later, visit the show's archives where the show will be stored indefinitely. It may take several days, though, for the show to appear in the archives.
I'll be talking about my 20 months of Amtrak-related rail advocacy, starting with keeping the Cornwells Heights station on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor line, and continuing through my lobbying efforts in Washington to repeal the law Congress passed in November, 2005, to actually force Amtrak to raise fares sky high on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor job commuters.
As a key addendum to the show, I strongly recommend also listening to the departing interview Mr. David Gunn gave on NPR just after he was fired from Amtrak's presidency by the Amtrak Board. It's available here: David Gunn on NPR.
What happened to the Amtrak daily job commuters was a clear case of bad politics messing up America's national railroad. I'm looking forward to telling the story. Things can still be changed.
Thanks for your interest.
Wednesday, January 3, 2007
The Original Home of the Northeast Corridor Amtrak Monthly Pass Fare Fight
This new YouTube video is the latest attempt to get Amtrak and Congress to do the right thing.
The URL is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Apn5xlaQ5RI .
For an overview of what this website is about, please browse through the archives.
New YouTube Video to Promote Commuter Fare Justice
On Christmas morning, I finished and uploaded a 3-minute video onto YouTube to make a public statement about the injustice of what has been done to Amtrak's job commuters these past 16 months. Commuting fares now stand 90% above the levels they were at two years ago. Amtrak commuting from Philadelphia to New York City now costs more than triple what Trenton-to-NYC costs on New Jersey Transit. Amtrak's fares used to ride a reasonable 25% to 50% above New Jersey Transit's fares, mile for mile, and that was quite appropriate, considering the speed and comfort of the rides on better train cars.
Amtrak had a virtual monopoly on rail commuting from Pennsylvania to other states and even Washington, DC. Then the railroad decided, in September, 2005, to change a nearly century-old tradition of carrying commuters at reasonable (i.e. marginally profitable, but not exorbitant) fares and abandon the Northeast Corridor commuters. My best current understanding is that the "hit" on commuters was ordered by an administration or Congressional insider in order to prepare the railroad for privatization of operations (subsequent to the planned bankruptcy breakup of Amtrak, most likely), and the commuters' "cheap seats" were considered a liability. Private operators would much rather "cherry pick" the full fare riders and Acela. It was Washington dirty politics at its worst.
The "fight" over fares is now being conducted mainly on www.senatorsonatrain.com, and on YouTube. I'm hoping the video protest message will benefit from "viral distribution." I tried to make the video both entertaining and provocative. By all means, please feel free to spread its URL around by e-mail: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Apn5xlaQ5RI. It's entitled "Amtrak Whac-a-Mole", and I've posted it on YouTube under my username, dc3rdrail. (And FYI, for those who might be interested, I've also posted an old non-train-related video I made in 1988, a 30-minute documentary entitled "Dynamic Text", broken into 14 easily digestible clips: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 . It's about the stuff that was my chief creative fascination before the politics of Amtrak came along.)
Meeting with Amtrak's Chairman, Mr. David Laney
Not many people are familiar with the members of Amtrak's board of directors. They generally keep a low (or, in some cases, completely hidden) profile. The chairman of the Amtrak board, David Laney, is a practicing Dallas attorney. He was a big fund raiser for President Bush (classed as a "Bush Pioneer" for his fund-raising success) and formerly served under then-Governor George W. Bush as the chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission. For each of the past four years, Texas Monthly magazine has awarded Mr. Laney the honorary title of "Texas Super Lawyer." Most of his experience in Texas concerned roads, and he gained a fair amount of fame for overcoming federal clean air regulations to get billions of federal dollars to help fund Texas highways. The Texas legislature even proposed to name a big, new five-level highway interchange in Dallas after him. The day before Amtrak blasted the Northeast Corridor commuters off the trains with its 67% fare hike announcement of September 9th, 2005 (subsequent to Board approval and/or commandment the previous week), he published a PowerPoint presentation on his law office website detailing the need for more money for roads, and suggesting how Texas could get its cut over the next twenty or so years.
One of the really cool things achieved under Governor George W. Bush and Texas Transportation Commissioner David Laney was the continued growth and improvement of the Dallas DART System (the Dallas Area Rapid Transit System, connecting the Dallas-Fort Worth-Plano area with both light rail and bus transportation options). Dollar for dollar, it's perhaps the most heavily subsidized metropolitan transit system in the country, where riders only pay 10% of the system's cost of operation. It only costs $400 per year to get a ride-all-you-want commuter pass for both trains and buses. That's about 3% of the $12,948 per year that Philadelphia-to-New York City Amtrak job commuters are now forced to pay to get to work -- if they still work in New York at all!
You can buy 32 12-month passes for Dallas-area Texans to commute to their jobs any time they like for an entire year for what it costs for 1 Philadelphian to commute to New York City on Amtrak! (And as you may have guessed, I have a very big problem with the hypocrisy with which the current administration has wantonly abused the job commuters of the Northeast Corridor.)
In late July, and again in early October, Mr. Laney agreed to meet with me to discuss commuter issues, but he never quite got around to setting a date. So instead, I cornered him briefly at a lecture he was giving at Rutgers in early December, and he then agreed to meet with me more extensively the following week. We ended up meeting at Club Acela at 30th Street station in Philadelphia for about 90 minutes on December 12th. Mental images of fangs, breath of fire, scent of asphalt, and lizardly tail notwithstanding ;-), he turned out to be a very pleasant man, and we had a very good conversation. He now knows a lot more than he did about the commuter fare issue. I was able to demonstrate, using Amtrak's own published reports, that as a result of its fare hike, Amtrak has likely lost half or more of its former commuters, lost revenue, and driven Northeast Corridor ridership significantly down in the process. (He hadn't been aware that Northeast Corridor ridership was in decline, having lauded Amtrak the week before in his Rutgers speech for helping take people off the roads under high gas price conditions. Virtually every other rail corridor in the country grew in ridership during 2006, while the Northeast Corridor declined.)
No promises were made, but at least now I know that the guy who pulls Amtrak's strings for the administration knows what's up. I am hopeful that this dialogue will continue to good effect.
Amtrak's Contemptuous Letter to Congress
Though I've been asked not to publish it in its entirety, I have in my possession a copy of an utterly contemptible letter sent on September 20, 2006, by Mr. Alex Kummant, Amtrak's new president and CEO, to three members of Congress who had previously requested information on the effects of the huge commuter fare increase on the Northeast Corridor job commuters. Among other things, Amtrak mangled its numbers by mis-counting the number of months for which it was analyzing data, misrepresenting one NEC rail spur corridor as having been affected by the fare increase when it was not, forgetting two other small spur corridors which were affected, merging pre-incease statistics with post-increase statistics to minimize the apparent statistical impact of the fare increase, combining monthly pass and ten-ride ticket sales totals into a meaningless numeric mess (apples and oranges), unsubstantiated waving of hands combined with inarticulate mumbling about how seats "freed up" by commuters abandoning Amtrak's trains can be resold (extremely rarely) at a higher price when trains sell out, and an utterly false conclusion that revenue has gone up as a result of blasting commuters off Amtrak's trains. (Month-to-month trend lines derived from Amtrak's own monthly reports clearly show loss of both riders and revenue by year end, but the Amtrak letter entirely avoided any sort of accurate or fair trend analysis.)
I gave a copy of Amtrak's contemptuous letter to Amtrak's Chairman, Mr. Laney, along with my scathing critique of its falsehoods and misrepresentations. Such a blatant piece of double-talk and smoke would get anyone working at a Fortune 500 company summarily fired by an enraged manager. But in Washington, apparently, it's the norm to fake out Congress and blithely assume that the folks on Capitol Hill are either too dumb or to busy to figure out that they've just been hosed. Corruption, thy name is Amtrak.
I'm hoping that one of these days I'll get to testify in Washington, with that letter in hand as Exhibit A, about the many ways Amtrak spins, lies, and misrepresents itself.
October Stats May Nail Amtrak for Incompetence and/or Lying
In the next couple of weeks, Amtrak is expected to release its monthly performance report for the month of October, 2006. This has tremendous significance for the commuter cause. October, 2005, was the very last month that all Northeast Corridor job commuting passes were sold at pre-increase prices. And because Amtrak allowed job commuters to buy passes that month for rides all the way through September, 2006, at pre-increase prices, October, 2006, is the very first month that all NEC job commuter passes were purchased at post-increase prices. Comparing ridership and revenue statistics for October, 2005, with October, 2006, will show, for the first time quite cleanly, what the commuter fare increase did to job commuters and to the Northeast Corridor.
As of September's monthly report, NEC ridership on Amtrak's Regional trains (the main "commuter trains") was already down by 10.4% versus September, 2005. Total revenue was also down by 2.2%. I know for a fact that many job commuters abandoned Amtrak in October when their supply of affordable monthly passes ran out. The October report, more than any other, will show the carnage.
Amtrak has so far been playing it very coy about releasing any accurate, definitive numbers showing how many passes and of what type (monthly vs. ten-ride) have been sold on its corridors. In the face of what I expect to see in the October report -- significant declines in both ridership and revenue on the NEC commuter trains -- I hope to be able to lobby to get Amtrak to release honest numbers to show the horrendous damage done not only to commuters' lives, but to the railroad itself, by the ridiculously ill-considered raising of commuting fares 67% at a shot and 90% in less than two years.
Thanks to the Internet, I should be able to rub this stuff in the collective Washington nose until the message gets through: A horrendous wrong was done to the NEC job commuters, and reversing the fare increase is absolutely, positively the right thing to do.
A Tiny Schedule Change
For those who may not have noticed, the scheduled arrival of evening train 655, the 6:30 Keystone out of New York, at Cornwells Heights has been pushed out four minutes to 7:39 p.m. from 7:35.
It's an odd truism that Amtrak improves its "ontime performance" figures not by running its trains faster or more reliably, but by slowing down the schedule. The price of neglected infrastructure is the continual reduction of expectations and capabilities on the railroad. Generally speaking, trains run slower now than they did in 1940.
I trust it's only a rumor that Amtrak's next new marketing slogan will be "Stay Home!" ;-)
That said, a happy new year to all!