A New Model For American Passenger Rail   July 17th, 2012

By: Dick Spotswood. Originally published in the Steel Wheels newsletter, May/June 2012.

THE DILEMMA:

In the past decade it has become obvious that Amtrak, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, regards its principal responsibility as making the Northeast Corridor America’s first true high-speed rail route.

That’s a worthy goal and no easy task. Running from Boston south through nine states and the District of Columbia, the Northeast Corridor is the central transportation axis for southern New England and the Middle Atlantic states.

The dilemma is that Amtrak’s mandate is not limited to the northeastern states. Amtrak’s official name is the NATIONAL Railroad Passenger Corporation. Some forget that the rail passenger corporation’s mandate has always been to provide a truly national rail system. Unfortunately, it’s a role that the current Amtrak board and its permanent staff gives mere lip service.

It is time for America to have two intercity rail passenger operators: The current Amtrak in the eight-state/District of Columbia Northeast Corridor and a brand-new passenger corporation providing a high level of services for the remaining forty-two states.

Amtrak’s current priority, whether it is staff time, innovation, planning or allocation of fiscal resources, is the right-of-way between Boston and Washington. The reality is that the Northeast Corridor is perceived by the corporation as the prime reason for its existence. The national system serves as little more than a useful political device when it comes time for the public passenger carrier to seek federal subsidies.

When times are tough, as they are now, those trains provides Amtrak’s current management was a convenient scape goat: blame deficits on long-distance trains. While based on erroneous data, it’s a task facilitated by Amtrak’s dysfunctional accounting system and a political agenda that places the Northeast Corridor as priority one.

Amtrak’s focus is on this 455-mile stretch of Middle Atlantic-Southern New England mainline trackage. That leaves than the remaining national system’s approximately twenty-one thousand route miles across the American west, Midwest and the South as an unwanted stepchild. Some of Amtrak’s limited focus is due to practical concerns; but a big part is an East Coast centric corporate cultural that overwhelms both staff and board. The final element is political

From an Amtrak management and board point of view, concentrating on the Northeast Corridor and especially their Acela high-speed train service provides a manageable project within the professional capabilities of their current staff. Acela has had its problems, not an wholly unexpected development given the pathetic lack of American-based high-speed rail expertise.

It’s even consistent with the plan proposed two years ago by House Transportation Committee chair John Mica (R-Florida) and Rail Subcommittee chair Bill Shuster, R-Pennsylvania, to privatize development and operation of the Northeast Corridor. Whether operated, as now, as a quasi-public agency or, as Mica and Shuster proposed as a private railroad, the Northeast Corridor has the volume of passenger traffic and the potential for increased freight services that should make it a viable stand-alone railroad under either scenario… if properly managed.

CULTURE:

The corporate cultural aspect of the dilemma is harder to quantify, but very real. The men and women who manage Amtrak are based in Washington, D.C. Most have spent the bulk of their professional lives in those very same Middle Atlantic States. When they, their friends and family think of rail, they naturally focus on what they personally are familiar with.

They ride Northeast Corridor trains with some frequency. When they look out the windows of their Washington Union Station-based national Amtrak headquarters, they see the Northeast Corridor fleet, along with excellent Maryland and Virginia commuter operations. The few long distance trains to Florida, the Midwest and the South appear as oddities with weak constituencies. They are easy to ignore and can even be entirely written off with little political or bureaucratic risk… so far.

It’s so easy for most of us residing in the bulk of the continental United States to forget but Northeasters suffer from a provincialism that regards much of America, even California, as a backwater. They vaguely understand that Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and for the well-traveled, perhaps Seattle or Denver, do exist. More often these far-off exotic locales are out-of-sight and out of mind. They consider us “the Coast” or “The West.” The later is defined anywhere west of Buffalo. We live in cities and town where Easterners go on vacation but certainly not where they perceive many Americans actually live.

The very notion that real live people live in small towns like Whitefish Montana, Ottumwa Iowa, Flagstaff Arizona, Meridian Mississippi or even Santa Barbara, are incomprehensible to the good folks of all socioeconomic classes who live and work in or between Washington, Manhattan or Boston.

As long as that East Coast culture represents the world view of Amtrak managers, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation or its privatized successor will be “national” in name only.

POLITICS:

The politics of all of this is understandable. In the eight Northeast Corridor states Amtrak and commuter rail is a big deal. Much of the Middle Atlantic States’ voting public utilizes these rail service and makes it known to their elected officials that they consider passenger rail a priority. Just like their constituents, their elected officials personally use the system and “get it.”

When he was a Delaware senator, “Amtrak Joe” Biden was famous as a regular rail commuter. Not to be forgotten is that his frequent seatmate was Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter, both of whom would regularly run into fellow Congressional rail commuters headed home after a hectic day at the Capital.

In itself that’s a terrific situation giving passenger rail in general and Amtrak in particular high visibility crucial at budget times. The lamentable but inevitable secondary result is that federal support for rail passenger service tends to be aimed only at those services that Eastern Congressmembers and their constituents personally experience. Ditto for the good folks at NARP.

Unfortunately, the unintended result is that the national long-distance system and those corridors outside of the Northeast are ignored or wrongly dismissed as underutilized anachronisms.

The negative effects of this Southern New England-Middle Atlantic orientation is visible on every Amtrak long distance train resulting in an inconsistent (at best) on-board passenger service.

Old equipment poorly maintained all staffed by a mixed bag of employees is the norm. While some Amtrak’s employees are highly dedicated and professional, too many others emulate the worst traits practiced by indifferent private passengers railroads or government bureaucrats s a scenario directly stemming from a management preoccupied with the Northeast Corridor.

To any impartial follower of the national rail passenger scene, it’s clear that unless a prompt order is made for new long-distance passengers cars, the national service will wither away within a decade or two. That’s how long the present roster of coaches, sleeping cars and diners have before being hauled off to the scrap heap. Given the huge lead time in ordering any new equipment, the current delay by Amtrak management to address this critical need is appalling.

Likewise, senior Amtrak managements doesn’t even possess the basic budgetary tools necessary to evaluate the costs and expenses of long distance services. Their current muddled accounting system provides none of the basic tools widely available to regional transit systems, not to mention airlines, to analyze and accurately inform management of the incremental costs of each of segment of their services.

Wildly inaccurate information is disseminated that too often appears to be grossly biased against any passenger services not based in the Northeast, and likewise biased in favor of Northeast Corridor trains. Recent efforts are at best efforts to keep supporters of a national system at peace, are too obviously designed “to keep the troops happy.”

As critic Andrew Selden has long pointed out, accounting gimmicks were designed to minimize the costs and maximize the revenue generated in the Northeast Corridor, preordaining that one will always be perceived as a “winner” and the other a fiscal “loser.”

“Lying with numbers” is an old trick in the transit business. It’s the use of seemingly unbiased figures to justify actions that coincide with the agenda preset by staff and well-positioned board members.

While the Northeast Corridor address a crucial if limited segment America’s mobility needs, current Amtrak management tends to ignore other corridors. The mere fact that it is “understood” at Amtrak headquarters that the Northeast Corridor’s infrastructure requirements and operations will be financed by the national system, while California, Illinois, North Carolina or the Pacific Northwest need to be “partnered” with local state funding sources, is a classic example of the Upper East Coast-bias inherent the current set up.

2009 began with much hope. The Obama-Biden Administration proclaimed itself the friend of passenger rail. While their intentions were good, they failed to add one single mile of additional passenger rail service or even so much as one additional non-corridor frequency. Amtrak’s management failed to use any available opportunities to expand its role or by purchasing badly passenger cars to replace the aging long-distance equipment.

The causes of this failure are multiple and bipartisan, but its undeniable that zero progress has been made. Given political realities, even less can be expected in the coming 2012-2016, whoever is president.

SOLUTION: TWO SEPARATE RAIL PASSENGER COMPANIES:

Just continuing the status quo is not only unfair to the other forty-two states, it puts untenable pressure on Amtrak’s current staff and board. It’s also a guarantee that American passenger rail will never be a competitive travel option as it is in so much of the economically advanced world. They are now being asked to serve two masters: the Northeast Corridor, and a national system of long-distance trains and “emerging” corridors. It’s too much to ask, and in the long run unsustainable.

It’s time to dissolve Amtrak. It’s very name “Amtrak” has developed in the public such a negative, bureaucratic connotation that it should become the latest “fallen flag.” Why else does Amtrak in the East focus on the weird word “Acela” to describe their premier service.

In its place, two alternative models are suggested.

One involves transforming the present National Railroad Passenger Corporation into a new, slimmed down entity. Either remaining in the public sector which much state involvement, or as a taxpayer assisted but private enterprise run corporation, this new NORTHEAST RAIL would be allocated the sole responsibility of perfecting a southern New England -Middle Atlantic passenger service stretching from Boston south to Richmond, Virginia. If the Northeast Corridor is privatized, there is little doubt that the needed management staff will be lean.

Note that NORTHEAST RAIL will assume all of Amtrak’s rights and obligations in the current Northeast Corridor.

Simultaneously, a new rail passenger corporation needs to be established. For now, let’s call it AMERICAN RAIL. It too will assume all of Amtrak’s rights and obligations that exist outside the Northeast Corridor.

Its purpose will be to assume responsibly for all aspects of a new independent passenger railroad. That entity will operate and secure financing for all long-distance and corridor services in America west and south of the Appalachians. It should combine some aspects of public funding with the actual service operated by private operators on a line-by-line basis.

How much better for all concerned for “NORTHEAST RAIL to concentrate on what it knows best, the Northeast Corridor. At the same time, much of America, particularly at a time when the understanding of the travel and environmental importance of AMERICAN RAIL, a truly national rail network, could benefit from an organization focused on its own needs and priorities.

The name AMERICAN RAIL signifies a fresh start and new direction. It should have its headquarters anywhere but Washington. Chicago, the traditional hub for western and mid-American rail passenger services, would be a fine location as would St. Louis or even Denver. With its own separate board of directors, with new management and working with new private sector operators, AMERICAN RAIL would not compete with NORTHEAST RAIL but serve as its national connection.

With innovation the watchword, AMERICAN RAIL should lead to way to new routes and more frequencies all in new passenger cars and locomotives operated by a freshly recruited and trained staff equipped with a private sector-style customer-first approach. Is there risk of failure? Yes, but right now the risk of the ultimate demise of Amtrak’s long-distance service seems assured.

THE DIVISION

The new railroad’s mission will be the operation of all American intercity passenger trains outside the Northeast Corridor.

Certain services ancillary to NORTHEAST RAIL’S heartland, such as the New York to Buffalo Empire Service, the Down Easterner Route from Boston to Portland, Maine and the once-a day service extending east from Richmond to Newport News would be subject to amiable negotiations. If NORTHEAST RAIL considers those lines essential part of their bailiwick, they should continue to operate them. This plan envisions a non-hostile division resulting in two new, independent but cooperating entities.

The private sector components of both plans is an acknowledgement of the new leaner 21st Century structure of government and the ruinous divide that in the past few years has seen with passenger rail identified with the Democrats and vilified by many Republicans. A serious effort needs to be taken to depoliticize the topic of passenger rail.

Creating allies in the private sector without alienating labor is a difficult but essential component of this strategy.

This approach will result in two new entities that should create their own new corporate cultures.

While some may consider that scenario optimistic, there is zero doubt that if Amtrak’s status quo is maintained no progress will ever come to pass.

The most difficult aspect will be the division of essential federal operating and capital subsidies between the two new companies. There is no doubt that even if there is significant private sector involvement, federal dollars will remain an essential part of the puzzle, just as it has decades when it comes to air, highway and barge modes of passenger and freight mobility.

Congress is entitled to a voice even with much private sector participation. Yet, there is no valid reason that rational minds can’t prevail resulting in mediated solution acceptable to Congress and the Administration without raising regional passions.

Greater involvement by the individual states could assist in all of the above described goals. One dares to think that federal funds might even be allocated on a per-capital basis, rather than the traditional allocations which relied more on history than rationality.

MANY BENEFITS, FEW NEGATIVES:

This concept is a win-win for all except some current management employees at Amtrak’s Washington headquarters who will find themselves redundant.

Rail labor will benefit. Not only will there be no layoffs of operating personnel, there is a distinct prospect of additional employment associated with more routes and greater frequency. Certainly the manufacturing sector will benefit from equipment purchases to replace worn out passenger cars and locomotive.

Small town America will benefit. Not just from additional routes and frequencies, but from American Rail, a new rail passenger company focused on their needs. Likewise, larger states will be rewarded from attention to their emerging corridors linking major and medium sized cities.

Northeast Corridor states win from Northeast Rail, an operation undistracted by what’s proved to be an incompatible a long-distance system.

The bulk of America benefits from a new system focused on the needs of Western, Mid-western and Southern states needs and desires with new management open to innovative public-private partnerships.

MOVING FORWARD – NEXT STEP:

It’s my suggestion that the Rail Passengers Association (RailPAC) of California and Nevada members contemplate this plan aided by the preparation of professional-quality research reports. The end result would be consideration of adopting the notion of dissolving Amtrak and replacing it with the two new entities, NORTHEAST RAIL and AMERICAN RAIL as RailPAC’s official position.

We would then urge other rail advocacy groups to join with us. Sad to say, it’s doubtful that NARP, almost as East Coast centric as the current Amtrak leadership, would be supportive. NARP’s history, understandably, has been to defend and justify Amtrak management. The time for that self-defeating approach has clearly ended.

An essential early step is to secure bipartisan sponsors in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives to serve as our proponents. It’s naive to think that Amtrak’s current board and senior management will not oppose this move. Substantial bipartisan Congressional and Administration support is essential if this proposal is to be taken seriously. Just getting the debate off the ground is not an easy task. We can’t do it with just the old friends of passenger rail. Simultaneously, we need to expand by adding others, e.g., Republicans and the business community, who have in recent years opposed or indifferent to passenger rail, but were supportive in the past.

At the very least, debating this proposal will cause many in the rail community to think about Amtrak’s current dysfunctional structure and understand its long-term implications. A vigorous public conversation will have the salutatory side effect that Amtrak management will likely never again take the West, Midwest and the South for granted as they have done so often in the last few decades.

At best, such a bold discussion will spark others in the rail passenger community to rethink old approaches and faulty assumptions. Ideally this will all lead to a more sustainable vision of a vibrant twenty-first century truly national rail passenger system.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 17th, 2012 at 5:23 AM and is filed under Commentary.