On the Write Track Email #5 – All-weather travel

Dog at National Folk FestivalIt’s Tuesday, Sept. 12, and I’m heading back to DC after a fun weekend back in Greensboro, NC (where I grew up) to attend the National Folk Festival for its final time in the city (it rotates to a different US city every three years) before it transitions into being the North Carolina Folk Festival. Among the artists I most enjoyed this year were Dom Flemons, the Fairfield Four, the Treme Brass Band, Lurrie Bell and Bruce Dagrepont. I also enjoyed time with the family surrounding my 32nd birthday (which is a week from today, Sept. 19).

I was originally scheduled to leave Greensboro at 3:44 AM (as I’ve done many times before) and take Amtrak’s New Orleans-New York Crescent home. Among the reasons I tolerate the wee-hour wake-up call are the faster and more direct routing to DC (via Charlottesville instead of Raleigh and Richmond) and the nicer train (including more spacious seats and a full dining car). But Amtrak decided to cancel the Crescent, apparently just for today’s departure, due to anticipated tropical storm conditions between Birmingham and Atlanta. They rebooked me on the Carolinian, the longer-routed, lower-amenity state-supported daytime train, which is very uncrowded but is carrying crew members who would have worked the canceled trains on ‘deadhead’ moves to their bases.

What I’m thinking about

Let me preface this by saying that my thoughts go out to all whose lives have been upended by the recent hurricanes, including the railroaders and other transportation workers who are currently putting in long hours to get everything back up and running.

From where I sit, I’m thinking: Whatever happened to trains as an all-weather mode of transportation? Trains are usually able to keep running through conditions that ground planes and make road travel dangerous, such as snowstorms and extreme heat. I’ve heard many stories of trains like the Empire Builder rolling through blizzards that stopped traffic on parallel roads. But over the past decade, Amtrak seems to have become quicker to cancel or curtail service in advance of forecasted severe weather events like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. In Harvey’s case, it’s taking Amtrak till the end of this week to restore its thrice-weekly service between New Orleans and San Antonio through Houston. 

Amtrak and other passenger train operators (like Tri-Rail and SunRail, in Florida’s case), in conjunction with host freight railroads, are also unwilling or unable to provide additional equipment or run extra trains to help evacuate people from threatened areas, which would have avoided the massive traffic jams that south and central Florida experienced late last week. Many have commented that more robust passenger train service and the infrastructure for it in Florida and the Southeast would be a great boon to the region’s resiliency to storms that are sure to become more frequent and severe.

It’s not clear whether the trend towards hyper-cautiousness stems from host railroads acting out of an overabundance of caution (perhaps fearing liability, though passenger operators already assume complete liability for passenger fatalities and injuries even if a court determines the host railroad to be at fault) or Amtrak wanting to avoid trains being stranded or otherwise impacted with passengers aboard. If any of you is closer to the decision makers at a freight or passenger railroad impacted by Harvey or Irma, I’d be curious to hear what influences weather-related service decisions. However, I’m all but certain that the state DOTs of the affected states are going to greater lengths to keep major highways open than the railroads are to keep passenger trains running. As of this writing, one and half days of clear weather after the storm’s passing, Tri-Rail and SunRail service remains indefinitely suspended, though US 1 along the Keys has reopened as far south as Marathon and Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Orlando airports reopened today.

Instead of canceling trains, if track conditions are truly impassible, Amtrak should be able to run them to the closest point possible to the impassible section and turn them there. For example, the canceled Palmetto and Silver Meteor should be able to make it to at least Fayetteville, if not Charleston or Savannah, the Silver Star should reach at least Columbia and the Crescent should reach at least Greenville. However, Amtrak seems unwilling to turn trains at points where they aren’t normally turned, or the host railroads are unwilling to accommodate such movements. Again, I’m curious to hear from any of you who may know more about what affects these decisions than I do.

Storms like Irma should galvanize all of us to redouble our efforts to prepare for climate change — both in reducing carbon emissions and in making our built environment and transportation systems more able to withstand rougher weather — and to pressure our public servants to do so. Ramping up investment in passenger trains would bolster our offense on both fronts.

What I’m writing

  • I share the story of my friends and my frustrated attempt to ride an infrequent rural passenger train service in the rugged interior of British Columbia during our recent Canadian Rockies road trip in the Trains Magazine Observation Tower blog.
  • In a two-part how-to piece for the Travelers United blog, I share my tips and takes on apps and services that help people navigate metro areas without a car (or without needing one’s own car). Part two, covering carsharing, carpooling and peer-to-peer car rental services, will come later this week.
  • Look for another Observation Tower column later this week. I will also start drafting my Trains print magazine feature on the private railcar business.

A friendly reminder

I am here to help put more railroads, companies, agencies, cities and region on the write track with seasoned research, writing and multimedia communications talent as well as subject matter expertise in transportation, railroading and public policymaking. If you like what I do and know of someone who might benefit from my knowledge and services, please feel free to forward this email to them and ask them to check out my website, www.malcolmkenton.info. Thanks for helping me become better known in the field.

Where I’m Going Next

New York, then Oklahoma City, then central Pennsylvania, then Peru! After a brief birthday weekend visit with my aunt in the Big Apple, I’ll head to OKC for a week of work with my client, Herzog Transit Services, in preparation for the start of Oklahoma City Streetcar operations in 2019. Then it’s up to Rockhill Furnace, PA the following weekend for the annual Central Pennsylvania Ragtime Festival. Then, on Monday Sept, 23, I fly to Lima to join fellow Trains Magazine readers and writers for the magazine-sponsored, two-week Ultimate Peruvian Railway Experience tour. I’ve been excited about this trip for several months — it’ll be my first visit to the Southern Hemisphere.

A Musical Sendoff

One of my favorites of the earliest country blues artists to record their music is Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas, whose melodies and cadences harkens back to an even earlier era of African-American vernacular music. Dom Flemons covered one of his tunes at the National Folk Festival, accompanying himself on banjo and quills (a.k.a. pan pipes). Thomas certainly knew his way around the railroads of his native East Texas. Here’s his ode to train travel, “Railroadin’ Some.”

Take care and best wishes,

Malcolm