By Noel T. Braymer
Long distance rail passenger service has been in decline in this country since the mid-1990’s. Without a major overhaul, sooner or later long distance rail service in this country will collapse. If the long distance trains fail, this will bring down Amtrak and create problems for the Northeast Corridor. Passenger rail service in this Country depends on long distance trains both economically and politically.
The long distance trains generally travel through and have many stations in rural America, what many call “the Heartland”. These places are generally represented politically by Republicans in Congress. Amtrak is often used by Republicans as a whipping boy over its costs to the government and as an example of failure of government management. Major urban areas are often represented by Democrats in Congress, some of which have local Amtrak service. This is particularly true on the Northeast Corridor where Amtrak operates most of its trains and has the majority of its employees. Most of the railroad that Amtrak owns and operates is on the Northeast Corridor. Amtrak’s long distance trains mostly operate on privately owned freight railroads.
Amtrak was created in 1971 to help bail out the bankrupt Penn Central railroad which was then the largest rail passenger carrier in the country. A major problem for the Penn Central was their operating costs for both intercity and commuter trains on the Northeast Corridor. In order to gain greater political support for creating Amtrak, its legislation expanded it into a national service by taking over most of the long distance trains too. It was only in 1976 that Amtrak was given ownership of most of the Penn Central’s Northeast Corridor as part of its reorganization as Conrail. This was done to improve Conrail’s chance of becoming profitable.
Amtrak’s survival from the beginning has depended on nation wide support. This support is depended on most States having at least token long distance passenger service. But Amtrak management going back to the 1970’s generally has ignored long distance service other than as a bargaining chip with Congress to retain its subsidy which is mostly needed for the Northeast Corridor. This despite pent up demand in many parts of the County for expanded rail passenger service.
The result of this is several long distance passenger train routes over the years have been eliminated to “save money”. But when this has happened, Amtrak’s deficit has increased not gone down. This is because many of the “losses” attributed to the long distance trains are the result of allocating Amtrak’s fixed costs to them. By cutting service, Amtrak lost revenue, but Amtrak saved little in reduced fixed costs.
The long distance trains often charge high fares, particularly for sleeping car service. Despite this, these trains are often sold out weeks and months in advance. These trains could bring in much more revenue if the trains carried more cars (both chair and sleeping cars) to carry more paying passengers. But Amtrak keeps these trains short to “save money”.
The American long distance trains can like most passenger trains around the world be operated economically at a profit, and be a major economic boost to the areas that they serve. If this were done, Amtrak would in much better economic shape with more revenue.This will not be done by cutting, but by expanding service. This will require more, new passenger cars to run longer and more trains to more places. Most of the long distance equipment now on Amtrak was bought in the 70’s and 80’s, the most recent (except for a small order now being delivered) was from the early 90’s.
First thing which is needed to make long distance trains profitable, is an accounting system which reflects the long distance train’s true costs, not their allocated costs. This means not charging cost’s for long distance trains mostly on the North East Corridor that won’t go away if a long distance train is eliminated. This is needed for a business plan that can see where money can be made by expanding service. This will help find the best ways to expand long distance passenger service that will get the best return on investment and insure a growing profitable service.
For this to happen will require new legislation and a major overhaul of how passenger rail service is operated in this Country. This is why Republicans must take the lead if anything is to happen.There has been no progress politically since the 1970’s, and Republicans need to break this deadlock since they represent the place most served by long distance trains. The long distance train operations could be reorganized as an independent subsidiary of Amtrak or as an all new organization separate from Amtrak. Either way long distance trains will still need access to markets on the Northeast Corridor.
There are at least 3 ways a new long distance train organization could be set up. The first could operate all long distance trains much like it is done now, only now free to expand and improve revenues with a new business plan. This would be like the for profit national passenger railroads in France or Germany. The second could franchise the routes, having private operators win the contract for a route for a fixed period of time. The private operator would be free to raise capital and improve service which would have the best return on their investment. This would be a akin to the British model. Third the entire operation could be fully privatized much like the railroads of Japan. No matter the solution, what will be needed is joint ticketing between long distance trains and short distance trains. Also schedules would need to be coordinated between all trains.
To accomplish any of these changes will require grass roots efforts from the many towns in the Heartland which have or want rail service and want improved and expanded rail passenger service. It is not enough to ask for more service. There has to be a plan to show how this can be done and the benefits of doing so must also be presented. States have long gone to Amtrak for more service and usually get an open palm instead of a helping hand. Members of Congress will have to be told what to do and how it can be done to get anything more than their sympathy. These efforts to fix the long distance trains will likely be met by bi-partisan opposition from States on the Northeast Corridor.
To make this work, changes also will be needed on the Northeast Corridor. Greater control and management by local commuter operators should be looked at. The vast majority of rail traffic on the corridor is from commuter trains, not Amtrak. The opposition to greater control by the Northeast States is fear they will be paying much more for the maintenance and operation of the corridor. There will have to be a continued Federal financial and capital support of the corridor. But there also needs to be Federal capital funding to upgrade the freight railroads to expand long distance rail passenger.