MYSTIC VALLEY RAILWAY SOCIETY

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THE ROUNDHOUSE

by Bill McCaffery

March - May 2020

 

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) Fiscal and Management Control Board used one unanimous vote to clear the way for the electrification of the state’s commuter rail system. The move will create better service to many communities in the state according to the MBTA press release.

In a second unanimous vote the board decided the Newburyport/Rockport line is best suited for the change and will be worked on first. The Newburyport/Rockport line connects Lynn, Revere, Chelsea and Everett to the city of Boston.(This is an exact quote from the press release. Most of us know that commuter trains do not stop in Revere or Everett. A better list of stations would have included Salem and Beverly). [Simmons-Boardman Publishing Inc.]

 

We have heard grandiose improvement plans for Boston-area commuter rail before. They are usually very expensive and do not always become reality.

 

Canadian Pacific is in the process of purchasing the Central Maine and Quebec Railway [CM&Q] from Fortress Transportation and Infrastructure Investors for $130 million. The sale is subject to the usual regulatory approval process. Most of the track is the former Canadian Pacific International of Maine Division. It was the route of CP’s Atlantic Limitedwhich also ran for a while as a VIA train. The original reason for building this line was to give Canadian shippers access to the ice-free port of Saint John in New Brunswick on the Bay of Fundy.The original name of the line was European and North American. In recent years modern icebreakers have kept the Port of Montreal open all winter. In the mid 1990’s CP decided to sell their lines east of Montreal to short lines and regionals.

 

Now CP sees potential for running intermodal trains into the ports of Searsport ME and Saint John NB. This will require quite a bit of track upgrading.This will not be an all-CP route like it was before. From Brownville Junction to Saint John the old route is now the territory of the New Brunswick Southern and Eastern Maine Railways shortlines, both of which have strong ties to CP’s competitor Canadian National Railways.As CSX retreats from New England it is good to see a major railroad returning. Otherwise New England is becoming a land of government-owned [both state and federal]passenger railroads and regionals and short lines.This line has sadly known recent tragedy. In 2013 an oil train exploded in the small Quebec town of Lac Megantic killing 47 people.

 

Wabtec is closing its Boise ID plant. The recent owner here was Motive Power Industries and before that Morrison Knudsen. Work will move to Wabtec’s former GE plant in Erie PA. Themove to Erie will take place during 2020.

 

Railpace reports that train riders in Northampton MA are unhappy with the cost of parking. The station parking lots are privately owned and charge $0.75 per hour, whichadds up to $18.00 for 24 hours.

 

After many years of serving Pepsi aboard trains, Amtrak has switched to Coca Cola. To advertise the change, ACS-64 electric locomotive number 606 has been painted red. [Railpace and several other sources]

 

Kiplingers’s: this consumer-oriented financial magazine rarely mentions railroads. However, the February 2020 issue had a two-page article called “Invest in a Landmark”. In addition to more usual picks such as the Empire State Building and Churchill Downs, they mentioned Norfolk Southern Railway [stock ticker symbol NSC]. Norfolk Southern made the list because it owns Pennsylvania’s famed Horse Shoe Curve. Kiplinger’s also liked its record of paying dividends for 149 quarters. Please do not make stock purchases based on this article alone.

 

Another interesting article came from Bloomberg Business Week on November 25, 2019 and carried the title “How to Save Amtrak or Ruin It”. The lead-off paragraph included “The head of America’s passenger rail system isn’t particularly attached to trains. Maybe that’s a good thing.” The article was about controversial Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson who came to Amtrak after restoring Delta Airlines to profitability as it emerged from bankruptcy. He works without a salary. He is the son of a Santa Fe Railway office worker and rode Santa Fe trains as a child. He has been subjected to much criticism from rail unions, railfan groups, passenger train advocates and members of Congress [especially those who represent rural areas].

 

He is strongly focused on cost cutting. In November he announced that Amtrak ridership rose to a record 32.5 million passenger trips. Losses dropped from the previous year’s $171 million to $30 million. The article did not go into enough detail to allow determination of whether any accounting tricks were used to produce these numbers.

 

Both Mr. Anderson and the article’s author, Devin Leonard, seem to share some similar attitudes, like that the normal way to travel long distancesis flying on a commercial airliner. Mr. Leonard took one sleeping-car trip from New York to New Orleans. He spoke with a few passengers asking why they were on the rails and not in the sky. He found some with a fear of flying or a love of trains, and one recovering from knee surgery who knew that sitting in a cramped airline seat would be torture. Mr. Leonard tried to convince the Amtrak CEO to accompany him on a train ride but that did not happen.

 

Mr. Anderson’s cost cutting measures have included laying off 600 Amtrak managers and replacing some of them with former Delta and Northwest Airline executives. He also closed a 550-employee call center in Riverside CA and has made many downgrades in Amtrak food service.

 

He has said the future of public transportation in rural areas is probably in driverless vans. What happens if a passenger has a heart attack? What happens if a driverless van gets stuck in a snowbank?

 

On the more positive side he has been fighting a battle with freight railroads to give Amtrak trains priority over freight trains. In June the Association of American Railroads lost a court battle to prevent the Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak from establishing on time performance goals. He has also asked Congress to give Amtrak the right to sue freight railroads that delay Amtrak trains.

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Revised: Feb 2020