Amtrak to the West: Forget the future

Commentary by Russ Jackson, and a few photos
The future of Amtrak’s western long-distance trains became clearer after Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman issued his “Aggressive Agenda for 2012″ on January 11, 2012. The future is bleak.

Isn’t there an old adage that it’s not what you say it’s what you don’t say? Or is it the old adage that keeping silent is worth a thousand words? In the case of Amtrak’s premier showcase for most of the United States, the western long-distance trains, the silence in that report is deafening. Let’s review the past few months:

1. On October 29, Trains magazine writer Fred Frailey reported that at least five long-distance trains were in jeopardy, the Sunset Limited, Cardinal, Silver Star, Crescent, and Southwest Chief, and that Mr. Boardman had set the internal priorities of the company to be the Northeast Corridor #1, the state-supported corridor trains, such as California’s, #2, and the long-distance trains a distant #3. Mr. Boardman was quoted by Mr. Frailey, and it was in other publications such as RailPAC’s, as telling a U.S. Senator that the reason for Amtrak’s bad economic straits was the long-distance trains. See “Amtrak long-distance trains: the kinda good, the pretty bad, the really ugly” posted in October on www.railpac.org. In that article this writer concluded by saying “All rail passenger advocates like us must be aware of what is likely to be coming from Amtrak in the next few months,” and that decisions may have already been made “so watch out in January.”

2. On December 12 Trains writer Don Phillips reported an interview he had with Mr. Boardman after a meeting where the Amtrak CEO stated that company operations “outside the Northeast Corridor do not cover their basic operating costs, so what should we stop doing?” He included the state-supported corridor trains “until you add in the state support.” In the interview Mr. Boardman told Don Phillips that the long-distance trains are “sacrosanct,” and the trains will not go away as long as he is Amtrak President. See “We hear you, Mr. Boardman, now let’s see some Action” posted in early December on www.railpac.org. This information from Mr. Boardman was encouraging, and we looked forward to a brighter day.

Well, it’s January, 2012 and the sounds of silence appeared in “Amtrak Moves Aggressive Agenda for 2012,” where they say “America’s Railroad is building for the future.” That future appears to be a withering of the long-distance trains by neglect while the company pretends to “strengthen current services.” What is in this “Agenda”? As expected, the already announced order for 70 new electric locomotives (NEC), 130 new single-level long-distance cars (Eastern routes only), plus a high-capacity next-generation high-speed rail system (NEC), upgrading tracks, bridges and other infrastructure (NEC) (which he claims are essential for supporting our national network), expanding Acela Express capacity (NEC), additional capacity into Manhattan, NY, (NEC), improving ADA station accessibility (not specified), development of the on board e-ticketing and the next generation reservation system (NEC and Corridors first), new technology for onboard food sales (NEC and Corridors first), 160 MPH HSR upgrades along a 24-mile section in New Jersey (NEC) , Positive Train Control (NEC first), and expanding the Amtrak Police Department (NEC). Oh, they throw in a Seattle, Washington Maintenance Facility (for the Cascade Corridor).

Amtrak has police dogs! These two were being shown to folks who came to see the Amtrak 40th anniversary train at the Ft.Worth, TX Intermodal station on January 7, 2012. (Russ Jackson photo)

Did you see anything for the western long-distance trains in there? After this presentation, Mr. Boardman opened the press conference to questions and then the fun began. Here are the highlights:

1. As quoted by all reporters present, Mr. Boardman said that Amtrak “won’t push for negotiations with Union Pacific over the $700 million tab the UP wants to make the Sunset Limited daily,” noting that the UP “used an astronomical number for us to go seven days a week.” Apparently the UP set this in concrete, or we must ask did Amtrak just give up? The UP’s figure was exorbitant, everyone knows that, but as was learned in the California Capitol Corridor, you keep after what you want and you get most of it. Suspicious, in that Mr. Boardman admittted that Amtrak loses more money on tri-weekly than daily trains. Then he said that pursuing the UP “was not a priority and I’m not going to do it now, either.” So there goes the Sunset Limted and the Cardinal? The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires Amtrak to improve the performance of its long-distance trains. Each year they have been “studying” five, and this year the last five will get the treatment. When the Sunset Limited was studied the report said its performance could be increased dramatically with daily service. Now we have “hands up,” total surrender.

2. Then Don Phillips got in the act again, asking about the company’s plans to expand its railcar fleet beyond the already announced acquisitions, since there are no plans for anything other than what has already been announced. Mr. Boardman replied that they will NOT add equipment by piggybacking a separate Amtrak order for bilevel cars onto orders that California and Midwest states are ready to place. He said the company “intends (note that term) to continue rebuilding its Superliner fleet at its Beech Grove, Indiana shop. What you see is all you will get. Deplorable avoidance of future needs, so draw your conclusion.

A Superliner car sits on yellow shop trucks, without decals, at the Amtrak Beech Grove shop in October, 2011. (Richard Strandberg photo while on a tour of the facility)

3. The bombshell for western rail advocates then came in the quote that appeared on the Trains magazine report of the conference by Bob Johnston. “One of the things I learned in the transit business before I came to Amtrak,” Mr. Boardman said, “is that as I added more trains during the peak hour my losses increased. Right now, the business model that exists for long-distance trains is that as you add trains your losses increase, and that is our policy direction coming from the administration and Congress, so Amtrak believes that is achieved by rebuilding the equipment we have.” OH? Has he looked at Amtrak California’s corridors? Each time the number of trains increased so did the productivity of the system. They can’t do that in the NEC?

So, there it is. The Western long-distance trains get nada…bupkus… Comments have poured in. RailPAC President Paul Dyson said, “Boardman killed the Sunset, the rest of the western trains to die a lingering death.” A railfan said, “He stepped in it yesterday, now he is busy trying to wipe it off his shoes.” A major national railfan organization called the Agenda a bold step forward, saying Boardman also told them, “I believe that we are in for a rough time in keeping our long-distance network together and my focus is on that and not on expansion. I support long distance trains, a coast to coast border to border service to maintain the mobility and connectivity our nation needs.” Really? It does not look like it from here in the West.

Sure, if you live in the east you will have a lot of mobility and connectivity! Or, sure, if you live near a state-supported corridor where, incidentally, those organizations would like to be rid of Amtrak and allowed to pick an operator that they could trust more fully, you stand a chance of having train service. But, the rest of us who want to travel as a former colleague of this writer just did, ride the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle, then return to his Lake San Marcos, CA., home on the Coast Starlight because that is his preferred method of travel. How long will it take for the long-distance system to wither and die? Well, unless there is a major change at the top at Amtrak that day has now been hastened. Dead by neglect over a long period of time. Ride ‘em while you can. Does this remind anyone of what passenger rail faced in the 1960’s? Is it time for a NEW AMTRAK?

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