Friday, May 9, 2014

Tracking the Downeaster track problems: questions, we have questions.

Number 1: is this any way to run a railroad?

Given recent events, this seems like an appropriate question.  But before we get to some other questions, here’s some background on track bed design, etc.






Just in time for a national celebration of trains, serendipitously enough, Maine’s own NNEPRA revealed they have significant track infrastructure problems along the Downeaster route they manage.  We refer to the item we posted the other day:


In that post, we made the point that severe winters are not exactly an unknown phenomenon here in Maine.  It’s why we have so many snowmobiling, skiing/cross-country skiing, and ice-fishing enthusiasts, and why the more frigid and long-lasting the winter, the more they love it and those who do business with them cheer.

But let’s get ‘in the moment.’

Saturday, May 10th is National Train Day, and the Amtrak Downeaster (or ‘Downeater’ as the ‘industry group’ TRN sometimes refers to it) will be at the Brunswick station for tours and complimentary goodies from the cafeteria car, starting at 12:30.  The event is ‘free.’

This assumes, of course, that the tracks are in good enough condition for the train to make it to the station on time for the event, which it most probably will not.  Presumably the free goodies from the cafeteria car will have a negligible impact on the operating deficit for ‘Downeater” food service.

The recent articles about the NNEPRA managed Downeaster infrastructure have caused some insomnia as we pondered the conundrums, consequences, and legitimate points of inquiry that ensue.

We’ll break them down into these categories:

Details of the Reported Problems:

  • Brunswick to Portland: how many of the 27 problem miles and 25 problem spots apply here?  This stretch is of recent engineering design and upgrade, and has been carrying the Downeaster for only 18 months or so, which means ‘fatigue’ and other usage related mechanisms have barely had a chance to kick in.
  • And how many apply to the stretch from Portland South to the Maine/NH border?  This stretch has been in use for 13 plus years, and its engineering and upgrade were a separate project.
  • How many road grade crossings are involved and need repair?
  • Who has responsibility to make the repairs and recertify the problem areas?
  • Who will pay for the repairs and recertifications?
  • Were Maine winter-time conditions of sufficient severity not taken into account?
  • How can a copy of the problem reports/slow orders be obtained?

Responsibilities, Obligations, Contracts, etc.:

  • Does NNEPRA have the core competence to oversee the problems and their correction?
  • Who at NNEPRA has direct accountability for detailed technical direction and compliance?
  • Who did the original engineering design and construction work?
    • Do they have any current/ongoing relationship with NNEPRA?
  • Who is responsible for inspections?  How often?  To what standards?
    • What are the consequences when standards aren’t met?
  • Who owns what, and who pays for what?
    • What contractual assurances are in place?
  • Are roles and responsibilities and financial exposure abundantly clear, or is litigation likely to ensue?
  • What is taxpayer exposure?


Regulatory Requirements and Specifics:

  • What is the top-down hierarchy for regulation, oversight, enforcement, and certification?
  • Will flawed design and/or construction work be reviewed and corrected rather than simply repairing problem areas to their original basis?

Impacts on Service:

  • What are plans for regaining passenger confidence & trust?
  • Will alternate modalities/services be arranged to compensate for cancelled runs?
    • If so, what services will they be?

The Fiscal Consequences:

  • Who will pay for the repairs as they are billed?
  • Who will pay for the engineering analysis and redesign?
  • How will the loss of operating revenue be covered?
    • Will employees be furloughed/laid off? Or will all continue to be paid as if the full operating schedule is in effect?
  • Annual operating losses are 45%; how much larger losses can be sustained?
  • Will future expansion plans be deferred and/or cancelled to compensate?
    • Will repairs eat into planned funds to build  the MLF in Brunswick?
  • How will ‘unexpected repair costs’ be compensated for in the overall financial plan for the Downeaster?


  • If two round trips caused this problem, will larger and more widespread problems be caused by five round trips?
  • Are problems only with tracks, or also with crossings, meaning repairs will affect traffic flow?


  • How many days of service stoppage will occur during repairs, including blocked crossings?
  • What do these problems infer about the integrity of the EA for Brunswick West MLF location?
  • If basic track infrastructure design and construction work was flawed, how likely is it that MLF engineering design and construction is headed for bigger problems?
  • If weather/load is a problem, what will effect be at Brunswick West location for five round trips per day, long term engine idling/vibrations/tamping, and weight of a huge building on soils known to be ‘squishy?’
  • At this point, how much confidence is warranted for Brunswick West location engineering work, project design, and cost estimating?
  • As the old saying goes, “who you gonna believe?  Downeaster zealots, or your lying eyes?”



Along these lines, we were particularly impressed by this statement from Patricia Quinn, NNEPRA’s Executive Director, in this week’s print media reports:

“Winter-related track damage isn’t unusual, she said, but the delays it is causing this year are particularly severe because the damage occurred in places where the trains normally run fastest.”

Quinn likened the issues with the rails to the effect frost heaves have on roadways. The tracks routinely go through maintenance after the spring thaw, but the severity of this winter has caused more damage than in years past, said Quinn. That’s led to more repairs, and thus delays.

Much of the repairs include adjusting the rail ballast, and also tie replacement and some rail replacement, said Quinn.


Quinn said she is unable to pinpoint when repairs to the track will be completed.

“It depends on what gets accomplished,” she said.

In response, we can only ask whether you’ve ever seen the ads and promos for glorious train tours across the American and Canadian Rockies, and similarly frigid regions.  Maybe we’re just extra gullible, which taxpayers often are, especially at the hands of experienced public servants.  But we’ve come to believe that the knowledge base for sound engineering of passenger train rails is well developed, well known, and reliable and safe, even for the Downeaster’s ‘fastest’ speeds, when properly engineered, constructed, and overseen.

The alternative, it would seem, is that the Downeaster should be relegated to just another form of warm-season sight-seeing trains.

Lastly, should you attend the gala event at Maine Street Station tomorrow, perhaps you’d be kind enough and inquisitive enough to ask the gathered Amtrakerrati to respond to some of our questions, and some of yours.  We’re certain that the well-known saints of the sect will be on hand to regale one and all, and deflect attention elsewhere when called for.



Herewith some reference materials for those interested in more reading:

Brian Beeler, manager of passenger services for the rail authority…… said repairs are being handled by the track’s owner, Pan Am Railways, which is responsible for maintaining the 138 miles of rail between Brunswick and Boston. The line runs for 116 miles between Portland and Boston.

Amtrak owns and operates the Downeaster trains, and the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority manages the transportation system.  (emphasis ours)

We’re not sure what ‘the transportation system’ means in this statement, and even worse, what ‘manages’ means in regards to the ‘system.’


A bit more:

Bill Lord of Kennebunkport, who used to ride the Downeaster to his teaching job in Boston, doesn’t ride the train regularly any longer, but he serves on the board of directors for TrainRiders/Northeast.  No one wants to be delayed, but people need to realize that this is a safety issue,” Lord said. “It is not going to be a quick fix. The reality is, these things take time.”


From TRN site:

Slow Orders & Annulments:

The Downeaster is now dealing with an unexpected challenge to ridership/revenue/on-time-performance as significant speed restrictions (27 non-contiguous miles) have been put on the PanAm section of their route from Brunswick to the Massachusetts state line. This is the result of an Amtrak Geometry Car inspection which detailed serious track safety issues attributed to the harsh winter and spring thaw. NNEPRA has now cancelled trains #683 & #686 for the remainder of the week. Ms. Quinn said, "It will likely take several weeks until we get back to where we were." PanAm crews are working to eliminate these 'slow orders' a quickly as possible.

Growth isn't easy in the middle of a New England winter, as people tend to stay home because of snow and numbing cold, but the Downeaster continues to hold on to its regular riders and attract new followers. Guess that's why it's been labeled "America's Favorite Train."

So there you have it: “unexpected!”  And whose fault is that, Wayne?  Isn’t the purpose of sound engineering design and sound construction to eliminate ‘unexpected’ problems?

And “serious track safety issues.”  Yup; sounds like great stewardship in ‘managing’ the ‘transportation system.’

Which really underscores why it deserves to be ‘labeled America’s Favorite Train.’

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