Opinion by Noel T. Braymer
In Washington the Long Distance Trains get very little love or respect. There has been no service expansion of Long Distance Rail service since W. Graham Claytor retired as Amtrak President in 1992. In fact there is less Long Distance Rail service now than in 1992. There are no lack of worthwhile projects. These include among others a Daily Sunset, Daily Cardinal with a section to St Louis and Kansas City, the California Zephyr extended to Los Angeles overnight on the Coast, a section of the Southwest Chief to the San Joaquin Valley and San Jose, a combined new Pioneer and Desert Wind from LA to Salt Lake City and Seattle, a connection at Denver from the Zephyr to the Southwest Chief at Raton and extending rail passenger service from St. Louis- Kansas City to Omaha.
Any progress that can be made for now will be in simple incremental steps. Major problems for any improvements are lack of money, equipment and cooperation from the Class I railroads. What is most needed now are not new Long Distance Routes but connections to or extensions of existing services to increase ridership and revenues while taking advantage of existing overhead and equipment. As revenues increase faster than costs Rail Passenger service is less vulnerable to attacks. These four projects can also take advantage of existing efforts and local support to expand rail service.
The first project has been on the table for some time; extending the Heartland Flyer north of Oklahoma City to connect with the Southwest Chief. Studies of the project have found the most economical alternative would be to connect directly with the Chief in Kansas. There are proposals to run the Flyer all the way to Kansas City with daytime arrival and departure. This would be better for regional travel, but a connection to the Chief would cost less to do, produce more revenue and serve markets from Coast to Coast. This could be done with the existing Heartland Flyer equipment.
Service along the Gulf Coast of Florida with the Sunset east of New Orleans has been in limbo since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The damage to the tracks and stations have long been repaired and demand to bring back service along the Gulf Coast is growing along the towns on the route. What would make a great deal of sense would be to extend the City of New Orleans on this route to Florida with daily service. The City has poor equipment utilization with the train laying over in New Orleans for over 20 hours. With one additional trainset it would be able to go as far as Orlando maybe even Miami. Overnight this would create connections from the entire Mid-West to the Gulf Coast and Florida and north up the Atlantic seaboard. As with any new connection several trains will see increased ridership and revenue.
One modest proposal is to extend the Coast Starlight 157 miles to Vancouver, British Columbia. Vancouver is a major city with the surrounding metropolitan area having a populations of 2.3 million people and a connection with VIA Rail.
There is interest in running local service from Shreveport, Louisiana to the Dallas/ Fort Worth area. Such local services require high levels of subsidy and produce low levels of revenue. A simple old fashion solution would be to do this with a section of the Crescent spliting off at Meridian, Mississippi to Shreveport and on to Dallas and Fort Worth. This would open new markets for the Crescent to the these cities and well as possible connections to the Heartland Flyer, Texas Eagle/Sunset and the City of New Orleans .
To get these projects done will need the support of local groups and old fashion political pressure. The last 20 years have shown that most of the management at Amtrak has no interest in Long Distance Train service other than a political wedge used to get funding to keep the majority of Amtrak running on the very expensive operation of the North East Corridor. Yet expansion of Long Distance service would provide greatly improved revenue and broader political support leading to economic security for Rail Passenger service in this country. For the sake of the future of a national rail passenger service such improvements will have to be made. To continue as we have for the last 20 years will insure the slow death of Long Distance Rail Passenger service in this country.