Commentary by Russ Jackson, RailPAC
There has been much discussion in the past month or so about the immediate fate of the Amtrak long-distance trains. This writer provided his share of the verbiage in an article posted on www.railpac.org, titled “Amtrak long distance trains, the kinda good, the pretty bad, the really ugly,” which explained what was going on as of that time. That article was inspired by several sources, the work of Trains Magazine’s excellent writer Fred Frailey, who stirred up the rail advocacy community; by RailPAC Executive VP Bob Manning’s very successful trip to Washington, DC, and his personal visit with Senator Barbara Boxer among many others (his report is also on the website); and by RailPAC’s long commitment to the preservation of the long-distance trains as a needed economic part of the passenger rail transportation system in the country.
On December 7, 2011, a “Special employee Advisory” was published to all Amtrak employees by President Joseph Boardman. It begins, “I know that there is a feeling of uncertainty in the air for some of you, and that many of you have questions. I don’t have all the answers that many of you are seeking, but I want to tell you where the company is going….etc.” He goes on with a lengthy explanation of some of the changes he is seeking based on the Strategic Plan they published in October which calls on Amtrak to be “more bottom-line business focused.” He reported that 150 non-agreement-covered executive level people have taken the buy-out offered to help reduce costs and streamline the company’s operations, although the expertise of many of those folks is badly needed. He talks of improvements inside the Northeast Corridor, but outside of the Northeast Corridor he only speaks of cost cutting because, “Our operations outside of the NEC do not cover their basic operating costs,” so, “What should we stop doing?”
Now you can see where Fred Frailey and others like this writer heard alarm bells about the future of the long-distance trains. The Congress had just removed the provision in the Amtrak legislation that would have eliminated federal funding for the short-distance corridors. With the NEC Amtrak’s #1 priority, and these corridor trains #2, that left only the long-distance trains as the source of cutbacks when the Congress reduced Amtrak’s subsidy for the rest of this fiscal year. We all waited for the bombshell that we felt was coming.
On December 12, Trains Magazine’s veteran writer, Don Phillips, who has spoken at several RailPAC meetings in recent years, posted an intriguing article on the Trains news wire, titled, “Amtrak boss: Long-distance trains are sacrosanct.” That article, written following an “impromptu interview while touring mockups of new single-level equipment,” begins, “Amtrak President Joe Boardman says all long-distance trains will be protected as long as he is head of Amtrak, without any exceptions.” He goes on to tell Mr. Phillips, “We’re not cutting any long-distance trains…We’re not cutting any service.” Phillips then asked why he had not made such an unequivocal statement earlier when speculation was intensifying, and Mr. Boardman replied, “I’m not a bragger.” Well, knock us over with a feather. There it is. Or is it? Was this really “damage control” as some have suggested? Is he only trying to “improve his defensive game and is outright reacting to what Business and Politics and others are saying?”
Yes, Mr. Boardman has now promised that all long-distance trains will be protected as long as he is there. Yes, there is little doubt Bob Manning’s timely visit, Fred Frailey’s devastating article, Don Phillips’ interview report, and RailPAC’s long and vocal commitment to the long-distance trains were all instrumental in Boardman’s response. Maybe there was a political firestorm that descended upon the Amtrak President, but whatever happened we now have his word to rely on. We will give him the benefit of the doubt, and confidently use our tickets for our annual winter trip on the Sunset Limited. But, what happens when the Congress gets to working on the 2013 money for Amtrak? Eventually, they will have to. Will they give Amtrak what they say they “need”? Or, will another cutback be coming that will allow Mr. Boardman to throw up his hands and say “goodbye,” and/or “there’s nothing I can do now, it’s out of my hands?” You know he won’t touch the NEC or the state-supported short-distance corridor trains.
If Mr. Boardman means that the long-distance trains are “sacrosanct,” his Actions will speak louder than his words. Here’s where he could provide real assurance: 1) A contract to get the Sunset Limited daily; 2) A contract for purchase OR LEASE of new bi-level cars for the western long-distance trains; 3) A contract for continuance of the Southwest Chief on the current historic route; and 4) a realistic commitment to funding improvements to the quality of service and for GROWTH through added capacity. Then he should BE a “bragger,” telling the world how great passenger rail is through his company. In his interview with Don Phillips, Mr. Boardman said he is looking for ways to finance other equipment beyond the ones already announced, but “cannot yet announce any other purchases.” Let’s see that happen soon!
If we were instrumental in “saving the system” again, let’s be smug and proud, but skeptical. We have worked how long, only 30 plus years to get Amtrak to do what they should have been doing all along? Thank you to all who participated in this “victory,” if it does indeed prove to be one. Now let’s get back to work.