Editorial by Noel T. Braymer
“In my view, a national intercity, interconnected passenger rail service is critically important for the mobility and energy independence of the United States.” Joseph Boardman
The above comments are from a letter to Amtrak Employees shortly after Mr. Boardman took over as Amtrak President back in late November. These are fine words which no Rail Passenger supporter would disagree with. Mr. Boardman is also quoted as saying in Railway Age “I not only want to preserve our coast-to-coast, interconnected system, but also want to see it prosper”. Again these are very reassuring words which this author can’t disagree with. Now from a column by Brian O’Neill in the December 11th Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after an interview with Joseph Boardman “Mr. Boardman sees an electrified American rail system, both for passengers and freight. The passenger side is well-established in the Northeast, and he’d like Amtrak to move south from Washington, D.C., and eventually electrify an East Coast line from Maine to Miami. Next up would be the routes from Chicago to Washington and New York.”
This discussion about rail electrification seems to reflect work done by the Federal Railroad Administration during Mr. Boardman’s tenure. I am not questioning the value of electrification but the issue is that of its priority for Amtrak. Amtrak only has two daily trains south of Washington to Florida. There is the Auto Train out of Virginia and a third train stops short of Florida at Savannah, Georgia. Three or four trains a day is thin justification for electrification. The fact is the majority of the intercity rail service in this country is served at best if at all by one daily train, if the service isn’t disrupted for long periods of time by natural disasters. But most amazing is the fact that the most populous state (California) is connected to the second most populous (Texas) by Amtrak only three times a week! This train, the Sunset is suppose to also go to the fourth most populous state (Florida), but that service has been suspended since 2005 with no sign of being restored even though the tracks have been repaired years ago.
The Sunset needs more than daily service from Los Angeles to Orlando. About 8 hours of running time was added to the train to try to improve on-time operation. This resulted in breaking connections with the Coast Starlight and terrible service times in Arizona. The Sunset is now unable to directly serve Phoenix, the 6th largest city in the county. It also goes past but doesn’t stop at the Riverside/San Bernardino Metropolitan area which is almost as large as the Phoenix Metropolitan area. The Sunset will be a much better service if it has connections with other trains on the West Coast at Los Angeles and the East Coast at Orlando.
There are calls from many states for new and or expanded rail services. Yet at this time Amtrak has less equipment (less than 1500 cars) than at any time in its history. The only new rail equipment ordered since 1992 has been the Acela trainsets delivered in 2000-2003 and the Surfliner trainsets (mostly paid for by the State of California) in 2000-2002. Recently Amtrak has received funding from the FRA to overhaul some 67 railcars in storage so they can be put back in service. This will help, but Amtrak will need more cars than this just to handle current demand.
Back in 1982 Dr. Ronald Sheck then of New Mexico State University wrote the ground breaking paper AMTRAK 90: A ROUTE TO SUCCESS. What Dr. Sheck wrote then still holds true today. Dr. Sheck’s premise was that Amtrak’s problem was that it was too small to generate enough revenue to pay for its overhead and it needed expansion not cut backs to break even. His paper laid out a plan to expand Amtrak with additional frequencies and new connecting services which with growing ridership and revenues rising faster than costs would lead to Amtrak breaking even in 8 years; by 1990. His plan would increase Amtrak’s route miles then from 24,000 to almost 39,000 miles. A major factor in this plan was an extensive expansion of the Long Distance services. Dr. Sheck’s proposal would have increased the 2,000 odd passenger cars in 1982 to over 4,500 in 8 years. These extra cars would have not only have added more services but would have added more cars to existing trains. Just adding more seats and selling them on existing trains is the first thing that can be done to improve Amtrak’s bottom line.
One of the best ways for the Obama Administration to meet its goal of expanding public transportation nationally, creating an economic stimulus and more jobs would be to order 2,000 Superliner type railcars over the next five to ten years. These are rough number, but easily 1,000 railcars based on the successful Surfliner equipment will be needed for corridor service nationwide. Over 100 such cars will be needed in California alone. Economics of scale will be achieved by placing a big order and standardizing equipment so common car shells and parts can be used for corridor and long distance services. Two thousand Superliner type cars in addition to some 150-200 locomotives will create a truly national intercity rail passenger service. This new equipment will bring train service to more places and extra frequencies on the busiest routes. Expanding Amtrak will save the Government money in subsidy payments in the future. With the additional revenue from these new cars Amtrak will be in a good position to order additional equipment with its own resources and keep the production lines open. The priority for Amtrak should be to serve more of the Nation, with more service and using economies of scale reduce or eliminate its’ need for operating subsidy.