Commentary

New Amtrak Cars, But (sigh) Not For The West

Commentary by Russ Jackson, URPA/RailPAC

On October 24, 2013, Amtrak rolled out the new low-level Viewliner cars at the manufacturer CAF’s plant in Elmira, New York. The order is for 130 cars: 25 sleeper cars, 25 dining cars, 25 baggage/dormitory cars and 55 baggage cars, and Amtrak is excited. They should be. This is the first order for the passenger fleet since the Superliner II cars were purchased in the 1990s. That’s a long time. In a blog report, Amtrak was enthusiastic about “how cool” these new cars are. They will all be painted in “Phase III” red and blue stripes, which was Amtrak’s most popular design, and will have the heritage “pointless arrow” on the first cars to be released. See http://blog.amtrak.com/2013/10/coming-soon-new-long-distance-cars for pictures of the exterior and interior of these new cars. Will they increase capacity for the routes where they will run? Not much, because current plans call for all the older Viewliners to be withdrawn from service for upgrade to Viewliner II standards, and there is no funding for that yet. Remember, too, Amtrak is also buying new electric locomotives for use on the Northeast Corridor. It’s nice they are being built in Sacramento, though.

Now we get down to brass tacks. Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman and Board Chairman Tom Carper were at the Viewliner rollout, where it was made clear that these new cars are for the EASTERN (emphasis added) long distance trains. Of course, and since no mention was made of “this is just the beginning,” can it be assumed that this is the end of the purchases? Yes, as there was NO mention of the western trains and their needs. A traveler on the current fleet of Superliner cars can easily see that there are needs for finishing the job of rebuilding the Superliners as soon as possible. There is a big difference between the cars that have been rebuilt at Beech Grove, Indiana, and those that have not. The rebuilding was done with the stimulus money, TIGER grants, which Congress has not renewed. Where did the money for the new 130 cars come from? From Amtrak’s own allocation. Interesting, if one is building a case for suspicion about the future of the western long distance trains, and their capacity expansion.

CEO Boardman was the keynote speaker at Railway Age’s 20th Annual Passenger Trains on Freight Railroads Conference on October 15. He was speaking primarily to a freight railroad crowd, and had this to say,”There is a misperception that there are two kinds of railroad: a private one that hauls freight, and a public one that carries people. The reality is that our industry is a mixed collection of carriers, freight and passenger railroads, bound by agreements, arrangements, rules, and procedures, and by culture—largely an internal culture, but also by the constantly changing business and political culture in which we operate. It is our habits, beliefs, attitudes, and practices.” And, he went on to say, “The health of the passenger sector depends on the continued health of the freight carriers and the willingness of Congress to contract with Amtrak to pay the cost of long distance trains. That is an open question for the next Amtrak bill, I believe.”

Now those words are real brass tacks. Why is it an open question? Paul Wilson writes, “Maybe because Amtrak, for decades, has blamed most of its financial problems on those long distance trains? Maybe because Amtrak says the NEC is profitable when, in fact, the NEC consumes the lions’ share of the federal subsidy? Maybe because Amtrak has done little or nothing to promote, expand and grow the long distance system which would improve its ‘bottom line’?” That is it in a nutshell, westerners. H.Glenn Scammel writes, “All Congress has demanded for continuing funding of the long distance trains is a pro forma ‘grant-making’ process within the FRA. Amtrak goes through the motions, then it gets the money with no strings attached. Where Congress is really balking is at another Son-of-Stimulus multi-billion-dollar ‘capital blowout for the NEC. That’s the (real) ‘open question’.”

Amtrak’s successful inclusion in the PRIIA Section 209 of the requirement that all routes of less than 750 miles must be supported by the states has paid off for them big time, with little argument from the affected states, including California. Caltrans is the state rail program “banker,” and there is little doubt the state argued strongly against the provision, but got stuck with having to pay Amtrak $19 million more per year, and obviously that will increase each year. Luckily, the California legislature was generous and funded the program this year. In the past RailPAC has been told of the difficulty Caltrans has had in accepting the legitimacy of Amtrak’s costs, despite intense scrutiny by the state. It now appears the state, and all the other states now stuck with the requirement, will not be able to say anything. Just pay up and shut up. Where is that scrutiny in the Northeast Corridor? Those states aren’t concerned, just us out west.

So, Amtrak buys new low level equipment. There is no question that these cars are needed, particularly the new dining cars and baggage cars that will replace equipment that is long overdue its demise. But, the eastern bias, the NEC bias, and the let the states do it bias that Amtrak continually shows will become more and more evident in the next years. Is anyone at Amtrak HQ concerned about the future of the western long distance trains? There is little evidence of that, as the future of the Southwest Chief hangs in the balance, the Sunset Limited is still tri-weekly, there is no effort to expand capacity for added revenue. The condition of the current fleet of locomotives daily leads to train delays, and there is the belief that Congress must fund the long distance trains despite evidence the return from fares pays 80% of the operating costs. These arguments are nothing new for RailPAC; there is just weariness in having to fight to get Amtrak to do what it must do to succeed and that the NATIONAL Railroad Passenger Corporation (emphasis added) must be just that. As David Carleton writes, “If properly sized the long distance system could operate in the black. That’s exactly why it won’t happen.” Amtrak has to show it wants it to happen, publicly, and often, and that too is exactly why it won’t happen.

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