Notes from Netroots Nation

Jun 17th, 2011 | Posted by

For the fourth year in a row I’m at the Netroots Nation convention, held this year in Minneapolis. It’s my first time in the Midwest, and I’m enjoying it here so far. Of course, it also means I’m busy, so posting is a bit more sporadic than usual.

I did get a chance to speak with Congressman John Garamendi, who represents California’s 10th District. We talked about the politics of high speed rail, and here’s some of what he had to say:

• House Republicans have been trying to claw back the remaining HSR funds for a while now. The recent plan to take that money and use it for flood relief is just the most recent example. Getting that money obligated and out of the hands of the House is a high priority.

• One reason it’s a priority: John Mica, the Florida Republican who chairs the House Transportation Committee, seems to oppose spending on HSR projects other than the Northeast Corridor. Garamendi speculated that once Florida governor Rick Scott killed that state’s HSR project, Mica became much less interested in national projects.

• Speaking of Mica, Garamendi said the notion of privatizing the Northeast Corridor and potentially gutting or privatizing Amtrak was a real threat. He urged activists to start organizing and rallying the public to contact their members of Congress to oppose cuts and/or privatization.

More broadly, one thing a lot of people are talking about here is the possiblity of Democrats retaking the House in 2012. It is a much greater possibility than many realize, although Republican gerrymanders in other states will be a new hurdle. Many HSR opponents in California assume that Republican control of the House is a permanent thing, that we can never expect any more federal HSR funding because of the Republicans. But that seems like a pretty flawed assumption to make. Depending on how things go, HSR funding could be in a very good position come January 2013.

  1. Alon Levy
    Jun 17th, 2011 at 15:45
    #1

    Sigh. You guys need to organize to get the Amtrak bill to include FRA reform, rather than to oppose it outright. Put it on the agenda; even if the bill fails, the Dems could pass a clean FRA reform bill later. This is way, way more important than what happens to the hagfish that is Amtrak; it has ramifications for regional rail nationwide.

    Peter Reply:

    Ok, then what do you propose FRA reform to contain?

    Drunk Engineer Reply:

    Here is a good place to start.

    Peter Reply:

    With “FRA reform” you mean reforming the rules?

    political_incorrectness Reply:

    Inded, the rules need to be revamped since the saftey requirements are based off the 1930s where weight is key. Time to move on to Crash Energy Management and collision prevention.

    Peter Reply:

    Ok, but that is not the same as reforming the FRA.

    There are be two (realistic) approaches for the FRA regulations to be reformed with the help of Congress.

    First, Congress could pass legislation instructing the FRA to implement some sort of regulatory reform in order to expedite and enable the implementation of high speed rail. In order for the reforms that we want to be made, Congress’s instructions should be quite specific as to what it wants.

    The other, still realistic, but less likely approach, would be for Congress to pass legislation specifically implementing the changes it wants by statute. This is less likely because normally Congress instructs the administrative agencies to implement some sort of regulatory reform, and lets the agency sort out the details. Congress then doesn’t step in and override the agency unless the agency drags its feet for too long, such as the EPA did when it was supposed to regulate a number of air pollution agents…

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Congress already did that, it’s called the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. In theory if you have PTC installed you can run lightweight cars.

    Drunk Engineer Reply:

    Only under extra, extra, extra special waiver, which most agencies don’t want to deal with. Then there is all the other nonsense (crew requirements, 100′ buffer from freight lines, etc).

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Because up until now every PTC system has been very very extra special.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    Because up until now every PTC system has been very very extra special–adirondacker12800

    There is a lot of truth to that. It used to be that every railroad had to have at least one division with what we might call PTC forerunners, intermittent automatic train stop, (used by NYC, Southern, Southern Pacific, and some others), and continuous inductive coded circuits for cab signals (which usually incorporated the automatic stop feature), but only the Pennsy really did muc with the latter. The few other roads to use it included the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac, the New York, New Haven, and Hartford, and I think the Long Island Rail Road–all lines that either connected with the PRR or were affiliated with it.

    In the late 1960s this requirement was rescinded, and that basically left only the PRR, RF&P, New Haven (which actually used both systems in certain locations), and the LI. All the rest of it–including NYC’s alternate system–went away.

    Drunk Engineer Reply:

    Because up until now every PTC system has been very very extra special.

    Huh? It is an off-the-shelf technology. It is only “special” in the US because of FRA stupidity.

    Peter Reply:

    But even in Europe the “off-the-shelf” ETCS is modified by each country to fit its needs, to the point where some versions are incompatible with each other. How is the US special in this, then?

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    There was nothing comparable to ERTMS a decade ago. You can’t expect the FRA to look in it’s crystal ball in 1995 and enact regulations pertaining to a technology that didn’t exist until years later.

    Drunk Engineer Reply:

    I don’t expect FRA to enact regulations in this area — not in 1995 and not now. Not having ERTMS did not (and does not) prevent Europe or Japan from running modern, lightweight trains.

    Miles Bader Reply:

    … and anyway, it seems like historical silliness like that shouldn’t have too much impact on HSR, as HSR is likely to use new tracks, and can just choose a modern system.

    Joey Reply:

    Miles: In places like the NEC (which we were sorta talking about), this is definitely not the case. Even in places like California where most of the track has to be new, it would still be beneficial to be able to share tracks extensively with systems like Metrolink which will not be going non-compliant anytime soon. Mostly or entirely separating freight is usually a good idea anyway, but being able to run mixed operations (with PTC of course) without jumping through a lot of legal hoops would be a good idea for everyone.

    Andre Peretti Reply:

    It’s difficult to compare FRA and UIC.
    UIC is a non-profit association funded by the contributions of its members. It has no link with any political entity or government. Any rail operator or industrialist willing to pay their yearly contribution can apply for membership.
    UIC standards are, in fact, developped by people totally immersed in real-life industry. That’s why they reflect current technical progress.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    like the members commonly known as Amtrak, the FRA and USDOT?

    Andre Peretti Reply:

    The only US members I could find are AAR (affiliate) and Amtrak (associate). They pay very cheap membership fees (€10,200 for affiliate, €20,400 for associate).
    The real work is done by active members like DB, SNCF, and others. They are the ones who fund the research and set the standards.
    Associate members receive UIC communications and are entitled to attend forums but can only participate in working groups if invited by active members.
    You may conclude that Amtrak’s influence on UIC standards is practically zero.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Sort the list by country. USDOT is right after National Railroad Passenger Corporation ( aka Amtrak )
    Mailing address is
    US DOT
    U.S. Department of Transportation
    New Jersey Avenue – Room W33-322
    DC 20590 WASHINGTON DC
    United States
    website address is
    http://www.fra.dot.gov/

    at 10,200 Euros a pop they must be getting something useful out of the membership.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    10,200 Euros is not a lot. An order of toilet seats for a large warship costs more than that. Members of Congress waste hundreds of times more money funding studies for things that will never be built, and that’s for domestic policy.

    thatbruce Reply:

    A newsletter, and invitations to conferences.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    What I’d propose is that Congress mandate that off-the-shelf trains from Europe and/or Japan become legal on US tracks, with the FRA’s role reduced to coming up with rules to let Japanese and UIC trains share tracks. (For example, there should be a way to equip an E231 with ETCS, or a FLIRT with D-ATC.) There should be language in the reform bill saying that foreign imports with a track record of safety should be legal in the US with minimal modifications such as loading gauge and 60 Hz electrification.

    thatbruce Reply:

    The ‘track record of safety’ that you refer to for foreign imports isn’t just a function of how those foreign trains are designed and built. Its also a function of the environment in which they run, including such niceties as PTC and so forth which are generally applied to all vehicles running on ‘their’ tracks. Without those niceties being applied to other vehicles on US tracks, then their track record of safety won’t be imported as well.

  2. morris brown
    Jun 17th, 2011 at 23:04
    #2

    Robert:

    As a student of history, you don’t seem to think history tells us much.

    When the Republicans took over the
    House after the 1994 election, they controlled the House for the next 12 years. The election of 2010 saw a change in the House majority of about the same proportions as the 1994 election.

    Why you would think that only two years later, in 2012, the majority is going to swing back to the Democrats I can’t imagine. what is more than likely to happen is the Senate may very well go to a Republican majority in 2012.

    wu ming Reply:

    it is a testament to your ignorance that you cite a single historical event and claim that it “proves” that 1994 will necessarily happen again in 2012 because, uh, it happened once in 1994.

    because american society, politics, the electorate, economics, are all static and unchanging, from decade to decade to decade.

    John Burrows Reply:

    In 1994, just before the mid-term elections, Congress had an approval rating of around 23%—And, as we all know, in that election the Democrats got their clocks cleaned.

    The current Congress has an approval rating of 17%. If it stays around 17% until Nov. 2012 Republican clocks are going to sparkle.

    .

    VBobier Reply:

    Oh yeah, Skinned Repugs, 17%, My that is pretty low, hopefully that can go much, much lower. After all, their not about to stop going after Social Security as they’ve already shown, the best thing for Democrats and Independents is to see the repugs make their base happier and happier as that is the repugs greatest weakness, their tiny brained dinosaurian base.

    YesonHSR Reply:

    As a fossile of history ..please explain how American minds have become such self centertd assholes?

    Miles Bader Reply:

    Probably Nixon’s fault.

    BruceMcF Reply:

    Its hard to say which is more likely ~ the Senate changing hands or the House ~ but they are both likely. Unemployment is going to be above 8% next election. Its not going to be a good time to be an incumbent in a swing seat. And thanks to 2010, most House incumbents defending swing seats are Republicans.

  3. Kenb
    Jun 17th, 2011 at 23:44
    #3

    Has anyone considered starting an overnight train between so cal and nor cal as a way to offer a temporary rail option until hsr is operating? It makes a weekend length trip doable, costing no daylight hours. This has been popular in Europe.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    Overnight service certainly has its place, but how do you pay for it, and how do you get cooperation from freight railroads for it? An awful lot of people are spooked about spending money because of the recession, even if it pays off in getting this country a little less dependent on oil.

    Some of this reminds me of a labor union leader who was criticized for “not having enough guts” to call a strike or otherwise be confrontational with management. His reply was that the average man had about 8 ounces of brains but about 8 pounds of guts–which was more valuable?

    He eventually lost his office in an election.

    Peter Reply:

    There already is the Coast Starlight. It’s quite expensive, though, if you get a room in a sleeper.

    J. Wong Reply:

    Yes, except the Coast Starlight in both directions between LA and SF travels during the day. The overnight section is between SF and southern Oregon.

    Joey Reply:

    Unless you’re looking for something in particular along the coast, don’t bother with the Starlight. You save almost four hours by taking the San Joaquín and transferring to a bus.

    BruceMcF Reply:

    But transferring to a bus in the middle of a sleeper service is less than desirable.

    The Starlight corridor requires additional work to allow for a second passenger train through, though with upgrades to the portions of the corridor useful for the northern end of an upgraded Surfliner and the southern extension of an upgraded Capital Corridor, it could be a good transit time for a sleeper as well as for the proposed Daylight service.

    Joey Reply:

    If the journey is less than 8 hours (on the San Joaquín it is), a sleeper has little utility.

    Peter Reply:

    CA used to have the Spirit of California, too. Killed by, drumroll please, a Republican governor.

    YesonHSR Reply:

    An over- night train LA-SF..almost as good as HSR

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    An overnight train LA-SF — almost as useful as a chocolate dildo in a desert.

    BruceMcF Reply:

    It depends heavily on both transit time and cost of competing red-eye flights. It would take substantial work to get the transit time down to a better fit for a SF/LA sleeper, and of course while the cost of competing red-eyes is obviously going to be trending up, kerosene needs to go a bit higher as well.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Bruce, it’s 9:00 at night. You can get on the 9:00 HSR and be at the other end of the line by midnight and be in your own bed by 1:00. Or you can get on the sleeper and get to the other end by 8 in the morning. Or you can get on the 6AM HSR and be at the other end by 9:00. There isn’t going to be a whole lot of demand for SF-LA on a sleeper. Is there going to be enough demand at the intermediate stops, especially if the train is toddling in at 2AM, to make it worthwhile?

    BruceMcF Reply:

    Thats why the transit speed and the cost of air travel are critical ~ if the HSR corridor is shut down 12pm~6am, then the train would have to leave sometime 10pm~12mid and arrive sometime 6am~8am to have a market at all, and the cost of air travel would have to be substantially higher for that potential market to be large enough to consider a service.

    If the current route SF/LAUS is about 12 hours, its four to five hours long for the first, which renders the second part moot. And since that service would not justify the upgrades for that transit time, it would have to be leveraging upgrades made for other purposes, such as speeding up the Surliner and a southern extension of the Capital Corridor.

    Kenb Reply:

    This idea is meant to be temporary. Once hsr is up and operating, I don’t think an overnighter is needed.

    Miles Bader Reply:

    The thing is, though, that such an overnighter is pretty much unrelated to building an HSR system. If Amtrak or somebody else wants to try such a train, more power to them — but it’s not something the HSR people should be wasting time thinking about.

    BruceMcF Reply:

    But the work for a Coast Daylight suggests that capital investment is required to run additional passenger trains on the corridor ~ and capital work for a temporary service has a weaker case to make.

    Unless it can be rolled into upgrades for the Surfliner and a southern extension of the Capital Corridor to Salinas, its hard to see works for a SF/LA Coast sleeper.

    Kenb Reply:

    Long term plans include upgrading the coast route.

    Mad Park Reply:

    There simply is no Amtrak equipment available event to take care of current trains let alone introduce any new trains. A minimum of 1000 new bi-levels are needed for the west, and another thousand single level cars for the east merely to get to “adequate”, interconnected service. Fun to dream and speculate, lots more work to convince state and federal legislative bodies of the importance of properly equipping a national passenger railway service.

    Kenb Reply:

    Any upgrade of Amtrak service in this state always has to come from Caltrans subsidy.

    Kenb Reply:

    This train could actually travel between San Diego and Sacramento. That serves many more people in the state. How about finding a corporate sponsor for this train to cover some of the cost. For the company it might be a cost effective form of marketing and PR. Say a major hotel chain, or Starbucks, Pepsi or whatever. Viagra wouldn’t be a good idea. The name would imply people would be up all night.

    Risenmessiah Reply:

    You actually have it backwards. An overnight service isn’t competitive between the Bay Area and Southern California because the demand would never be there to support it over the Coast Starlight model which uses that central coast ridership to defray spending the overnight hours through sparsely populated areas in Oregon and far northern California.

    Instead, what’s more probable is that a night train will complement HSR between Sacramento and Eugene for those individuals who can’t get a flight but don’t mind going overnight. Then the Coast Daylight can resume for the coastal communities in CA cut off by HSR. (San Jose to Los Angeles via San Luis Obispo.)

    Kenb Reply:

    This train would not go north of Sacramento. It makes rail travel around California more flexible and car competive in the near future – not in 10 yrs. or however long it may really take before hsr is fully running.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    You have some sleeping cars out in your garage that you can lease to Amtrak?

    Risenmessiah Reply:

    So you would propose a overnight train between San Diego and Sacramento? You know, right, that the Coast Starlight paired with the Surfliner needs about 18 hours to travel between Sacramento and San Diego? And even if you just do San Jose to Los Angeles that’s 11 hours. That’s not a night train, and hence Amtrak never opted to switch the service to night over day.

    Of course, you ask, what about using the CV…and in that case the problem is the same…the Union Pacific won’t let anyone use their route through Tehachapi. But if, somehow you got them to…it would still be a good eight hours from Los Angeles to Sacramento, nine to Oakland and then add at least two hours from San Diego… Again…not quite a night train….

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    See the next edition of “Steel Wheels” out in July. Build 1,000 railcars!

  4. Kenb
    Jun 18th, 2011 at 00:05
    #4

    Idea for funding — California creates its own tax to build this train. How would it pass? By being voluntary. The tax is proposed with the stipulation that if you oppose this tax or the rail project you can get a rebate, thus making it voluntary. A coalition of the willing can proceed. Those who are against it have no reason to vote it down. Could this work?

    political_incorrectness Reply:

    The question I would pose, how much money? How many people would step up? Why not make vehicle drivers actually pay for the externalities on the environment?

    Kenb Reply:

    Taxing vehicle drivers is one good idea. Studies have been done that suggest you get a high compliance rate on something voluntary if you use a policy of “implied consent”. For example, if the state assumed that you agreed to be an organ donor, you would be more likely to be an organ donor. You would have the right to request to not be an organ donor, but you would have to take it upon yourself to make that request. Your right to choose still exists, but with this one change of procedure the compliance rate is much higher. Perhaps its a psychological thing. Compliance would require no effort but dissent does. Anyway it is estimated that the compliance rate for organ donors would be 80%. This is roughly the number you get for most things. Would it work for a special tax? Maybe.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    This is an interesting proposal, although I’m not sure you would get such a high participation rate unless the rate was pretty low on gas or something else that was consumable. A special license fee, such as that for vanity plates, might also be a possibility, as could a special sticker.

    Another question: Doesn’t California have a 2/3 majority requirement for something like this? How hard would this be to get through the legislature? And despite some optimistic thoughts about this being “voluntary,” which it technically is (you can “opt out”), you can bet the people who hate the rail idea in their bones will still fight tooth and nail against it.

    VBobier Reply:

    Yes fees have a hated 2/3rds requirement now, But that could be changed from 67% to 55% with an initiative, But then someone needs to fund raise & then gather enough signatures to put It on the ballot. And yes those that oppose HSR & other things would still fight tooth and nail against it.

    Kenb Reply:

    There will always be opponents for everything and they will always fight, but would they have as much of a tax paying public behind them? Could this pass directly from a public vote as a state initiative? Besides the personal opt out provision, there could be a provision where the whole tax could be scrapped if there is a changed policy in Washington. If a major commitment for hsr is made and federal funding reached a certain agreed upon level this tax would be sunseted unless people voted to retain it for other things.

    VBobier Reply:

    Scrapped or sunseted if a change in policy in DC? I don’t favor that to fund HSR, As all it would take is a fickle admin or a new admin hostile to HSR to change policy and there goes HSR, right down the tubes…

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    If you want a sunset provision, set it for completion of the lines in question, and/or payoff of the bond issue you will have to use to get the cash for construction. That’s the traditional way this sort of thing has been done in the past–most notably with toll roads.

    Of course, in the case of the toll roads, you then had maintenance to pay for (and so the tolls stayed on), and you also might have changes or improvements to make such as bridge replacement (which requires the sale of bonds again, and so the tolls stay on), or you might have a tollway authority (like the one in West Virginia) that is also charged with economic development, in which case it builds tourist facilities or even goes into real estate to generate revenue, but to get the capitol for this, it has to issue more bonds (and so the tolls stay on, which annoys all the drivers), even though maintenance is still an ongoing cost. . .

    How I wish more people had a better understanding of how much our road system really costs. . .

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Tolls as a proxy for costs has it’s problems. Median toll, last time I checked is 5 cents a mile wihich works out to about a buck a gallon. …. Unless you want to use the Delaware Turnpike which is roughly 35 cents a mile….

  5. D. P. Lubic
    Jun 18th, 2011 at 05:35
    #5
  6. JJJ
    Jun 18th, 2011 at 11:55
    #6

    Today’s Fresno Bee included a full color HSR section. The HSR section is so big, it’s actually bigger than all the other sections put together. I havent read it all yet, but it looks to be 100% pro-HSR (which may in fact be an issue as it will allow opponents to label the bee as biased). It calls itself a “custom publication” and I don’t quite understand if it was funded by the HSR paper, or the Bee. There are ads in it.

    Click my name to see a few pictures of what the segment looks like. I cant find it online.

  7. Roger Christensen
    Jun 18th, 2011 at 16:00
    #7

    It appears to look like an advertising supplement with ads from Van-G Logistics Truck Rail Warehousing, United Local Credit Union, the Caglia Family, Fresno County Transportation Authority, Kiewit Granite High Speed Ventures, Precision Engineering, the Fresno Madera Tulare Kings County AFL-CIO building trades, and Siemens.

    Lots of articles refuting HSR myths generated from the antis.

    Expect Devin Nunes to whine about our taxpayers forced to pay for this propaganda.
    I doubt if there’s a case for that.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    He can’t whine. The party line is that Citizens United was the bestest thing the Supreme Court did in ages. Corporations should be free to spread as much propaganda as they choose.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Only if the propaganda is for Republican purposes. When rich people and corporations spend money on liberal causes, for example George Soros, it’s practically an international Jewish conspiracy.

  8. D. P. Lubic
    Jun 19th, 2011 at 03:41
    #8
  9. D. P. Lubic
    Jun 19th, 2011 at 18:13
    #9

    Comments by Bruce McF on the Mica proposal:

    http://www.midnight-populist.blogspot.com/

    Additional comments by me on the subject, based on the observations of Bruce McF:

    One of the things no one speaks of is that a number of Amtrak trains are long distance jobs that also run on the NEC. Examples include the Lynchburg train and the service out to Newport News and Williamsburg, the Crescent Limited, the Florida trains, and the service to western Pennsylvania. Other trains may not run through, but make connections (i.e., the Capitol Limited). What happens to the finances of the NEC if these trains go away? Depending on how expenses and revenues are accounted for, it could be that there is some revenue going into the NEC; certainly the loss of through passengers and their share of the revenue will not help it.

    Then there is this bit:

    “Under Mica’s proposal, all of the state corridors will be required to put service out to tender, with the winning bid having to involve less federal subsidy than under Amtrak. The long haul routes that are intrinsically subsidized public utility services when operated at conventional rail speeds will be subject to privatization if a private operator submits an expression of interest ~ and again, the winning bid will have to be at less than the Amtrak level of subsidy.”–Bruce McF

    This can be almost be interpreted as a way to make state support for and/or partnerships with Amtrak illegal, and it also breaks their connecting services. At the very least it amounts to kicking the states that have supported rail. I have to say this makes me very cynical of Mica.

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