Friday, June 27, 2014

TRN: The unexpected, the erroneous, the self-absorbed; not to mention unseemly



It’s no secret by now that Side finds many of the details associated with the operations of NNEPRA and The Downeaster, and the activities of their devoted ‘creator’ - the non-profit’ affiliate TrainRiders Northeast (TRN) - to be of concern on many different levels.  From the specifics, to the connections, to the optics, to the finances, to the publicity, and oh so much more. 

We remind you that in spite of awards for being a stellar “business,” NNEPRA is an activity of Maine State Government, and the staffers are state employees.  Amtrak is operated by the Federal Government.  So make no mistake about it; whatever you think of them both, they are money sinks for both state and federal taxpayers, and we are compelled to keep them running, no matter the cost, until something changes.


Events of this week provided us with a new stick or two with which to beat the same old horses, and who can resist such an opportunity?  Certainly not this loveable pup.  You’ve got to take your exercise where you can get it; so we’re going to think of this as ‘occupational therapy.’


On Monday of this week, NNEPRA held a regular Board Meeting in Portland, which we’ve already reported on in part.  Saint Wayne the Visionary, Vicar of TRN, was on hand to make sure the proceedings were conducted in accordance with accepted ritual.  He filed a report shortly thereafter.

Saint Wayne manifests his vanity in any number of ways, including his obvious love for his image, and his role in coming up with the idea of a Downeaster, creating it’s infrastructure and administrative authority, and of course, requiring that Governors of Maine obtain his approval before nominating anyone for NNEPRA’s Board. 

Other than that, he’s just like you and I, except he likes to play with very, very expensive trains.  From time to time, he invites his followers to help him in maintaining and operating his layout, and to preach from the book of Wayne.

You’ll get a glimpse of the ‘chemistry’ between NNEPRA and TRN in his report, which is posted below, along with our comments.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly - Today's NNEPRA Board Meeting

Parent Category: NNEPRA
Published on Monday, 23 June 2014 19:37
Written by TRN Webmaster

The Downeaster has had more than a decade of uninterrupted, successful growth. However, these past few months have reminded NNEPRA that setbacks come with heavy-handed results. Let's get the 'ugly' out of the way first.

The Ugly

The recent spate of slow orders, the PanAm right-of-way rehabilitation of a road-bed that was pummeled by the harsh winter AND the ongoing construction of the Haverhill bridge finally showed up in the numbers this month. April's On Time Performance registered 35.6% with no train making it into the 80% category. May's OTP was 8%! There were additional factors that all combined to see 4,500 fewer regular passengers on the train ( group numbers-3,400 were withdrawn for this calculation): May saw some 24 trains annulled (cancelled), two trespassers struck, two fire department 'holds' due to grass fires (one of them was a false alarm) and no Bruins/Celtics playoff games in North Station's TDBank Garden.

Currently, PanAm is in an urgent tie-replacement triage that will eliminate some of the slow orders, but requiring the annulment of train #686 Wednesday, Thursday & Friday of this week. Some 2,400 inconvenience vouchers were issued to customers during the April-May period.( Must have been the right move because Amtrak has asked NNEPRA for details of this program with an eye to implementing it in their national system.)

The above is what we alluded to with the use of “unexpected’' in our post title.  Lots of bad luck, a winter no one told them about, and as you can tell, lots of ties that need replacing.  We’re not sure who is responsible for allowing the ties to get to the stage where they needed to be replaced, and caused slow orders to be enacted.

We’re pretty sure of this, however: ties that were in good, serviceable shape last fall likely did not become replacement items because of cold weather.  More likely, ties that need to be replaced now were already ‘deferred maintenance’ items last year.  If you’ve ever owned or shopped for rental property, you should know what ‘deferred maintenance’ is – a euphemism for the consequences of poor stewardship. 

As we understand it, standard railroad practice calls for weekly inspections of trackage (including ties.)  You’ve seen railroad ties; it’s hard to believe they could go from fine condition to needing replacement in a matter of months.  At 3000 plus ties per mile, that’s a lot of timber to neglect to inspect regularly.  Not to mention the bedding and rail itself.

Ugly?  You betcha.  But in our view, not in the sense the Saint implies.

The Bad

The Town Manager of Brunswick spoke on behalf of a unanimous Brunswick Town Council decision that NNEPRA address the diesel soot and fumes emanating from idling Amtrak engines at the Brunswick Station. In addition, a local resident testified to the impact she experienced living just a block and a half away from the station. Both the town manager and the resident expressed support for the Downeaster and encouraged NNEPRA to quickly address the problem. The NNEPRA board thanked both and Chairman Marty Eisenstein requested that the staff expeditiously present the board with recommendations - from head-end 480v power to reducing the amount of power used by the idling train set (power is needed to keep the Cafe Car refrigeration 'on' and for light cleaning of the coaches). In the winter, the engine has to idle outdoors in order to keep critical systems from freezing. It was pointed out that the Brunswick Layover Facility will resolve this issue but construction has yet to begin and is expected to take at least 18 months.

“The Bad?”  Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, TRN?  Oh, wait, we get it: heretics who don’t worship at the altar of Amtrak challenging the sanctity of Chief Loco. 

This item is what led to ‘erroneous’ in our title.  The town council decision, and the letter that sparked it, did not refer to engines idling at the Brunswick Station.  They referred to the diesel soot and fumes emanating from the engines idling in the Cedar Street lot directly across the street from a residential neighborhood, and immediately adjacent to the Mid-Coast Hunger Prevention Program food bank building.  This wasn’t about a 10 minute layover at the station; it was about 5 hours of idling while parked there.

Apparently, responding to serious and credible health and environmental concerns is ‘bad’ when you’re a Choo-Choo lover.  Which is why they call any objector a ‘train hater.’

The Good

The Federal Railroad Administration gave the go-ahead for NNEPRA to begin construction of the Brunswick Layover Facility. The FRA accepted the environmental assessment - prepared by NNEPRA and its outside consultant to FRA standards - by issuing A Finding of No Significant Impact. The West Brunswick Neighborhood Coalition had led a fight against using the 130 year old freight yard for the Brunswick Layover Facility.  Executive Director Patricia Quinn commented that funding would now be committed and a construction schedule developed. Once this is done, the Community Advisory Group will be reconvened and briefed.

Patricia Quinn reported on the 3rd quarter of FY2014. Year-to-date some 411,498 passengers have been carried from July of 2013 through March of this year. FY2013's comparison was 386,910 passengers. Revenue numbers were similarly impressive: $6,557,559 for FY2014 and $6,123,664 for FY2013. One more quarter to go in FY2014.


As the meeting ended. A cake was brought out to celebrate Wayne Davis' birthday.

Wayne thanked everyone for singing "Happy Birthday" to him, but reminded everyone that this week marked a far more important anniversary - the creation of NNEPRA by the Maine legislature in June of 1995. This was the result of Wayne's steady hand on the throttle of this grass-roots organization.

Best to acknowledge both!

(emphasis above is ours; we rest our case, you might say)

It’s not hard to understand why the Saint labeled this “The Good.”  The photo pretty much says it all.  The Saint and his disciple glowing for the camera, while our own Interim Mr. Manager, referred to in “The Bad” just above, is bathed in the flattering light of a PowerPoint presentation.


This section is why we included the words ‘the self-absorbed’ in our title.  Frankly, we find the very thought of a government agency providing a cake to celebrate the birthday of their devoted and pompous lobbyist, at a public Board Meeting no less, unseemly beyond the pale.

If you think unseemly is a poor choice of words, you can pick a better choice from these: improper, unprofessional, unprincipled, fishy. 

We considered each and every one, because they all apply.

You know the old saying; sometimes words fail you.  Why don’t you go to your Thesaurus and see if you can find one that fits better.


And if that doesn’t work, you can always look in your Tyrannosaurus.  It’s from the age when passenger trains actually made sense.


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