Commentary by Paul Dyson
President, Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada
House amendments to kill the Sunset and remove food service will accelerate the demise of the Superliner network. This is not a drill!
Let’s not kid ourselves. It’s easy to say we have been through this before, many times over the past forty years, and Amtrak is still standing, albeit in a shrunken state. It’s also tempting to think that, well, this is just one train and some kind of compromise might yet be found, or a grass roots campaign can change enough minds. Well, here’s the Paul Dyson version of the ugly truth:
1. The western Superliner network is already so skeletal that the withdrawal of any one of these trains loses so much connectivity, and burdens the remainder with so much overhead, that it means the beginning of the end. If the Sunset goes, the Chief will not be far behind. The Empire Builder is a daily disaster. This really is the end game.
2. Amtrak has made it clear that they see no future for the Superliner network. I say this without fear of contradiction because both at the RailPAC conference in January and the NARP Council last month Amtrak GM Mark Murphy stated that there are no plans to order new rolling stock for these trains. There can be no doubt that this is a death sentence, given the age of the existing fleet.
3. It has become almost impossible to persuade members of the House of Representatives to change their minds. Washington DC has become more “European”, with stronger divisions on party lines and a fear on the part of representatives to stand up to party activists who seem to be the only people that vote at primaries.
4. Locally, cutting the Sunset destroys any hope for service to the Coachella Valley as UP will argue that this is no longer a passenger route. The withdrawal of one train increases the unit cost of maintenance at the Los Angeles yard and will add costs to the Surfliner trains. And of course there will be job losses.
NARP and RailPAC still have dedicated members that will mobilize as they have for previous fights. Furthermore we have a new generation who are adept at using social media to communicate our message and to rally the troops. More important I think, we are recruiting more of these next generations who understand our fundamental message. But let’s not leave it all to them. Letter writing and ‘phone calls still work, and we must not leave it to others to carry the load.
If the House cannot be persuaded then the best tactic is to campaign for the Senate to hold the line and refuse to accept these amendments into legislation. That means education. Our Senators have to understand this same message. This is not about the Sunset, it’s about the National Network. WRITE TO YOUR SENATORS TODAY.
In the longer term we have to find a solution to this dilemma. As long as Amtrak owns the NEC infrastructure there is no future for the Superliner trains. We have to change the structure at Amtrak, and the leadership. Boardman refused to back his managers over the daily Sunset plan. He refused to elevate the dispute with UP to the STB and FRA. That is why we are once again in defensive posture. Boardman does not defend his own franchise but indeed blames it for his problems. This man must go.