Amtrak National Network Campaign 2018, Commentary

Southwest Chief – Too Early to Claim Victory

Some of you may have received a post from Jim Mathews of RPA claiming a victory in the fight for the Southwest Chief.  We urge caution and continued vigilance.

Here’s a more realistic assessment from Evan Stair from Passenger Rail Kansas:

THE TRUTH COMES OUT – BUS BRIDGE WAS NOT FOR SAFETY

Apparently, and we already knew this, Amtrak was proposing a bus-bridge to reduce costs, not for safety reasons. When will profitability deception end?

Amtrak was created in a tailspin. It now seems to be ignoring the will of a bipartisan, bicameral group of federal lawmakers who are not asking it to make a profit, but to continue operating services defined in federal code.

Congress, aka representative government, should make decisions regarding what US passenger rail services are operated, not the OIG. The OIG here seems to support Amtrak’s tailspin business plan. Is the OIG, Amtrak board, and Amtrak executive staff still running on 47 years of momentum that says it must cut its way into oblivion?  What a circus.

Page 19 of OIG report:

“To help stem long-distance operating losses and to further increase the company’s utility for the traveling public, the company’s corporate planning group is reassessing the entire nationwide route structure. However, adjusting the route structure in ways that would reduce operating losses could be difficult. Making these changes will require balancing the company’s historical role of providing reliable intercity passenger rail service on a nationwide basis against the need to operate efficiently. For example, the company is considering a plan to eliminate part of its service on the Southwest Chief route between Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Dodge City, Kansas, and instead to bus passengers between the two cities. The company has identified the Southwest Chief as among the routes that generate the most losses—almost $56 million in FY 2017. As the company proceeds with its strategic assessment, it will likely encounter similar difficult choices that have substantial cost and customer service implications.”

Amtrak OIG Report Link:

https://amtrakoig.gov/sites/default/files/reports/OIG-SP-2018-011%20Management%20Challenges%20FY2019%20and%202020_0.pdf

For those of you who are on Facebook, watch Amtrak COO Scot Naparstek, continue to tell US Senator Tom Udall that Amtrak does not want the $16 million TIGER IV Grant… Amtrak just wants to continue discussing the matter.

https://www.facebook.com/senatortomudall/videos/290443504898417/

Evan Stair,President,Passenger Rail Kansas,Passenger Rail Oklahoma

The key here is Naparstek’s refusal to affirm that Amtrak will contribute the $3 million match to the TIGER grant so that work can begin on upgrading the track between Dodge City and Albuquerque.  As I read it, Amtrak is hoping that the so called “victory” will evaporate in the coming months through the budget and committee process so that Amtrak can continue with their policy of truncating the route.  Listen carefully to Naparstek’s answers, keeping in mind Anderson’s policy statements from the April Los Angeles summit.  There is no firm commitment to anything.  Amtrak “plans” to run the Chief until September 30, 2019, but of course plans can change.  Amtrak clearly does not say that they will honor their commitment of the $3 million and work with the other stakeholders to fix the infrastructure.

So where does RailPAC stand?  In the last issue of Steel Wheels Dick Spotswood called for Amtrak to be split, putting the Northeast Corridor (“NEC”) into a separate organization.  Remember that when Amtrak was created the NEC was still in private hands and was only dumped on Amtrak as a result of the bankruptcy of the northeastern railroads, notably PennCentral. No other entity wanted this extremely costly piece of infrastructure that had suffered from years of deferred maintenance.  Well, instead of sucking the lifeblood from the national passenger train network, it’s time for the NEC to find a new sugar daddy.  We MUST do all we can to ensure that business as usual does not rule policy decisions to be taken next year when re-authorization is due.  Simply renewing Amtrak’s current mandate and throwing money at them will not give us the service that we desire.

We have had preliminary discussions with like minded groups regarding forming a Steel Wheels Coalition to fight this battle, especially for the western states.  I’ll be traveling to Topeka Kansas next week for a rail summit with leaders from New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado and other states to seek common ground. Our success in bringing about the passage of Senate Joint Resolution 30, and language in the California State Rail Plan,  reassures me that at least California is firm in its support for the National Network.

Paul Dyson

pdyson@railpac.org

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