Amtrak’s Nightmare Scenario

On the one hand, it’s difficult to argue with American citizens who believe that their national rail system should provide fast and frequent service between major cities. Metropolises like New York and Boston, for instance, are national engines of economic growth; smaller cities like New Haven and Providence provide similar benefits at the regional and local levels. Such municipalities certainly do need, and deserve, timely commuter service.

But on the other hand, it’s also difficult to argue with individuals who believe that the natural environment shouldn’t be sacrificed on the altar of economic growth. Connecticut and Rhode Island, the small states that occupy the geography between New York and Boston, possess magnificent beachfront shorelines, deep bays, and mighty rivers. The lands and waters that are now preserved for fishing, farming, eco-tourism, and passive environmental uses may be irretrievably harmed by massive transportation construction projects.

When urban cities exist side-by-side with suburban and rural communities, Amtrak is faced with the nightmare scenario of serving both interests simultaneously. Last month, when the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) unveiled its vision for the northeastern United States rail corridor, it tried to meet this challenge.

Did it succeed? It attempted to please both constituencies by vowing to maintain its existing scenic (but structurally outdated) rail line along the shoreline of the Long Island Sound while building a massive new high-speed rail tunnel further inland. According to its vision, the existing line would continue to serve waterfront communities between New Haven and Providence, while the tunnel would facilitate dramatically faster travel times in a visually unobtrusive manner.

Perhaps predictably, constituencies attacked Amtrak from both directions. In Connecticut, for instance, urbanists at the Business Council of Fairfield County complained that the proposal did not visually enhance the Stamford train station, “which is an eyesore to the community.” Likewise, the city of Hartford failed to receive a direct rail line to its airport.

Environmentalists were similarly critical of the proposed pathway of the new inland tunnel, which would slice through many small towns. According to Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, “A rail line that … proceeds through historic and environmentally sensitive areas is a non-starter — dead on arrival.

If you are optimistically presuming that the release of the vision statement may settle this debate in the near future, Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed has corrected your impression. He “… noted that the FRA expects detailed engineering and environmental (studies) … on the various pieces of the new plan … (to) take many years if not decades …

Decades? In that case, northeasterners won’t experience the economic benefits of modern rail service between New York and Boston any time soon. Of course, with the possible threat of a massive construction project lingering over the farms and villages of rural Connecticut and Rhode Island, environmentalists won’t be able to attract any new projects either.

In other words, both constituencies will find themselves locked in a continuing state of perpetual gridlock. It’s simply another reason why many Americans feel so frustrated about the dysfunctionality of their government agencies.

New Jersey Bans Tesla!

Less than three months have passed since the infamous George Washington Bridge – Port Authority traffic scandal exploded across the headlines. Despite Governor Chris Christie’s attempts to move beyond the controversy, political and criminal investigations are imperiling his political future.

Wouldn’t it be reasonable, then, to expect the Governor to steer clear of any controversial transportation industry decisions? Instead, Christie’s administration leaped into a national debate last week by banning electric automobile pioneer Tesla from maintaining company stores in the Garden State.

Apparently, New Jersey requires automobile manufacturers to sell their products through independent dealership networks. Tesla, as a relatively young firm with no such network in place, has opted to distribute its electric automobiles through “Apple style” company owned retail stores instead. Many of these outlets are actually located in luxurious shopping malls!

Tesla founder Elon Musk, outraged by New Jersey’s ban, charged that Governor Christie “cut a backroom deal (with) the auto dealer lobby.” Then, referring to the GWB / PA scandal, he added “If you believe (him), Gov. Christie has a bridge closure he wants to sell you!”

The dealership lobby claims that restrictive sales laws are needed to prevent unfair competition and ensure consumer protection. It is difficult to imagine, though, why a Tesla company store would be any more threatening to the economy or to consumers than an Apple company store.

Interestingly, New Jersey has also banned self-service gasoline stations from its territory for the past 65 years. Claiming that such stations create safety hazards, the state requires that all filling stations offer full service gasoline pumps only.

So it appears that the Garden State has been promulgating unusual transportation policies for a very long time. But would the general public experience an economic and social benefit, or a commensurate risk, if the State continues to do so?

If you were Jessica Rich, the Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection of the Federal Trade Commission, would you support New Jersey’s right to ban Tesla company stores? As well as all self-service gasoline stations?

In Connecticut, Has Risk Management Gone Awry?

Connecticut has always been known as the Land of Steady Habits. Last week, however, it also became known as the Land of Miserably Unhappy Commuters.

That’s because the high voltage feeder cable that powers the New Haven (Connecticut) to Grand Central Terminal (New York City) commuter train line failed last week. Stranded passengers were told to expect little or no train service for up to three weeks.

So why is this a prime example of risk management gone awry? It appears that the Metro-North rail system has always maintained a secondary electrical system. But two weeks before the failure, engineers removed the secondary system from service for maintenance upgrade work without replacing it with any other temporary resource. Thus, when the primary feeder cable failed last week, there was no other system in place to power the train line.

Regrettably, Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy noted that Metro North officials appeared to have been taken by complete surprise. He said that “there appears to have been little plan(ning) for this type of catastrophic failure.”

The discipline of Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) embraces a few key principles. Organizations must identify potential crises before they occur. For crises that are relatively likely to occur, preventive controls must be implemented to reduce the likelihoods. And for events that will be relatively costly if they occur, crisis response functions must be implemented to contain the costs of failure.

Did the folks at Metro North follow these principles? Because a failure of the primary feeder cable could inflict so much damage on commuters, one may question whether the secondary system should ever have been removed without the temporary implementation of another crisis response function. And because the severe aging of the electrical fleet and infrastructure makes such failures relatively likely to occur, one may ask whether the primary system (as well as, or perhaps in place of, the secondary system) should have served as the focus of preventive maintenance work.

In other words, Governor Malloy’s own observations reveal that the public transportation agency was following a risk management plan that was bound to go awry. And now the commuters of Connecticut are bearing the brunt of that failure.