Friday, August 8, 2014

If you think 2,000 ties is a lot, how about 28,000?


In our working days, well before the business casual dress code became universal, we had a sizable collection of ties.  Having come of age in the preppy era at a traditional and very old east coast college, older than even Bowdoin College, we were partial to button down collars, penny loafers (later, tassel loafers), and very traditional tie patterns, like rep stripes, foulard prints, and on occasion, madras prints and solid color knits.  Occasionally, whimsical patterns worked their way into our collection.

During the latter part of the shirt and tie era, we were buying our shirts via catalog (‘mail order’) at Lands End and Huntington Clothiers mostly, and would add to our tie collection as their sales and our whims moved us.  At our peak, we’re guessing we had roughly 100 ties in our collection, and to this day, we have somewhere in the range of 30 to 40 to choose from on those rare occasions where we put on a ‘sincere look’ for some event that calls for it.

We’re guessing that in the latter half of our collecting days, we paid in the range of $25 for a good quality silk tie, with a keeper loop on the back side of the front.

Recently, perhaps in a mailer of some sort, we came to find out that ties that would meet with our approval are $50 and more these days, and sometimes much more. Which makes us glad that we’ve retained several that still match many of the current offerings.  That must be what ‘traditional’ means, right?

Ironically, about $50 each is what we understand another type of tie goes for these days, and they are, as you can see, pretty traditional in design.  Railroads use them at a rate of about 3,200 per mile, and modern hardwood versions should be expected to last for 25 years or so.

Even in Maine, where as most of us know, we have harsh winters that effect not only our daily lives, but highways and railroad tracks.

This meandering introduction is our way of bringing you to the content of this recent article in a local newspaper:

It ran on July 29th, and opens with these words:

This July will be the Downeaster’s worst month since Amtrak launched passenger train service in Maine 13 years ago.

Eight trains will be canceled this week, bringing the total number of July cancellations to 51. The service’s on-time performance – usually more than 80 percent – is now running around 15 percent.

In addition, two pedestrians have been killed this month in separate train collisions in North Berwick and South Portland.

“All of these things have created a bad aura,” said Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which runs the service. “It’s been a real struggle.”

The article continues:

Addressing the authority’s board of directors on Monday at a meeting in Portland, Quinn said that Pan Am Railways, which owns the tracks between Brunswick and the Massachusetts border, has been replacing 2,000 rail ties. The ties were damaged due to age and the repeated freeze-thaw cycles that occurred during this year’s extended winter.

“The railroad was not left in good shape after the winter,” she said

Because the ties are scattered along the route, replacing them is time consuming, she said. Amtrak must cancel some midday trains to give the crews time to work safely, she said.

Note the use of the passive voice in the underlined sentence, as if some phantom interloper was responsible for the damage to the trackage, including the ties.  This is a subtle distraction from the fact that NNEPRA is responsible for seeing that the track the Downeaster operates on is inspected, per FRA regulations, a minimum of twice a week, and maintained to FRA standards for passenger rail at Downeaster operating speeds. 
NNEPRA contracts with the track owner, Pan Am Railways, to see that these standards are met, which are well beyond those required for freight rail use at lower speeds.

           Tie handlers remove old ties, and replace them with new ones. More than 35,000

Now the worst part.  In a classic ‘oh, by the way’ comment buried several paragraphs down in the story, we find this nugget:

Beeler said he expects the number of delays and cancellations will diminish after this week. However, more disruptions could occur this fall when Pan Am Railways is scheduled to replace another 28,000 ties. The work will be concentrated in a few areas, so it is expected to proceed more quickly and there should be fewer cancellations than what occurred this summer, he said.

Invited Guests Onboard the Inaugural Train

“Could occur???”  These are the kinds of pronouncements we’ve come to expect from some of our local benefactors, shown here in happier days aboard a celebratory Downeaster run.  The same sorts of ‘public servants’ are often nowhere to be found when things go all to hell, as it were.  Or, when pressed, adopt the same passive voice and other rhetorical dodges.

Which is why you’re glad you have us.  If 2,000 ties needing replacement were enough to cause something like 2 months of service disruption, we can only guess what trauma replacing 28,000 ties, or fourteen times as many, might cause.  Even if the work is more ‘concentrated.’  Anyway you look at it, we find it absurd to believe that replacing 28,000 could “cause fewer cancellations than what occurred this summer.”


Details aside, larger questions apply to this looming disaster.  As we pointed out above, NNEPRA has the responsibility to inspect and maintain the track to FRA standards for Downeaster operations.  Presumably, they contract with Pan Am to perform the actual work, and therefore have an obligation to effectively manage and oversee that subcontracted activity.                                              

It doesn’t sound to us like they’ve been particularly competent at doing so.  FRA reportedly issued ‘slow orders’ for 27 miles of system track this spring, which led to the recent repairs, and the need to perform a great deal more.  28,000 ties spread out over 27 miles would amount to a 34% replacement factor.

With a 25 year life and regular replacement as needed, the average replacement factor should be 4%.  So it’s entirely reasonable to ask NNEPRA just what is going on here?  They’ve been operating the Downeaster from Boston to Portland for 13 years or so, and the track between Portland and Brunswick was improved at a cost of $38 million no more than 3 years ago.  A similar amount was spent to improve the track below Portland.

This leaves a pretty thin set of candidate excuses for this ‘big surprise.’

We also can’t help but wonder when a breaking point could be reached in the contractual arrangement between NNEPRA and Pan Am.  We had come to believe that the former devotes roughly $1 million per year to maintain the trackage to FRA standards.

If ties do cost about $50 each, that means the 30,000 being replaced this year cost $1.5 million alone just in purchase costs.  We’ll wild guess that labor and overhead costs associated with replacement are at least as much, and so this year’s work might run in the range of $3 million, or well above what should be the allocated average annual costs.


Is there a breaking point in the arrangement?  We won’t know unless NNEPRA decides to be accountable and transparent in their stewardship of public dollars, will we?


We suspect that in the end, a more proven and reliable approach will be taken. So once again, we suggest you ‘brace for incoming.’


  1. Exceedingly brilliant! Keep up the good work keeping us all up to speed on this boondoggle, Mr. Poppycock, it appears no one else will....

  2. In the public sector when you think you have bottom, keep digging, you ain't there yet.