A 21ST CENTURY MODEL FOR AMERICAN PASSENGER RAIL
By: Dick Spotswood.
THE DILEMMA: It’s now obvious that Amtrak, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, and its new management under former Delta Airlines CEO Richard Anderson, regards its principal responsibility as making the Northeast Corridor America’s first true high-speed rail route.
That’s a worthy goal and no easy task. Running from Boston south through seven states and the District of Columbia, the Northeast Corridor is the central transportation axis for southern New England and the Middle Atlantic states.
The dilemma is that Amtrak’s mandate is not limited to the northeastern states. Amtrak’s official name is the NATIONAL Railroad Passenger Corporation. Some forget that the rail passenger corporation’s mandate has always been to provide a truly national rail system. Unfortunately, it’s a role that Anderson, the current Amtrak board and much of its senior staff gives mere lip service.
It’s time for America to have two intercity rail passenger operators: The current Amtrak in the eight-state/District of Columbia Northeast Corridor and a brand-new passenger corporation providing a high level of services for the remaining forty-two states.
Amtrak’s current priority, whether it is staff time, innovation, planning or allocation of fiscal resources, is the right-of-way between Boston and Washington. The reality is that the Northeast Corridor is perceived by the corporation as the prime reason for its existence. The national system serves as little more than a useful political device when it comes time for the public passenger carrier to seek federal subsidies.
When times are fiscally tough, those trains provide Amtrak’s current management with a convenient scape goat: blame deficits on long-distance trains. While based on erroneous data, it’s a task facilitated by Amtrak’s dysfunctional opaque accounting system and a political agenda that places the Northeast Corridor as priority one. A correct accounting that includes capital and fairly distributes overhead (management) costs, will demonstrate the Northeast Corridor isn’t a money-maker as Amtrak claims and requires substantial federal dollars. Of course that deals with the inconvenient fact that some of those states commuter lines use the Northeast Corridor far more frequently does Amtrak’s intercity trains.
Amtrak’s focus is on this 455-mile stretch of Middle Atlantic-Southern New England mainline trackage. That leaves than the remaining national system’s approximately twenty-one thousand route miles across the American West, Midwest and The South as an unwanted stepchild. So much for so-called “fly-over country.” Some of Amtrak’s limited focus is due to practical concerns; but a big part is an East Coast centric corporate cultural that overwhelms both staff and board. The final element is political
From an Amtrak management and board point of view it concentrating on the Northeast Corridor and especially their Acela high-speed train service provides a manageable project within the professional capabilities of their current staff. Acela has had its problems, not a wholly unexpected development given the pathetic lack of American-based high-speed rail expertise.
It’s even consistent with the innovative plan proposed seven years ago by House Transportation Committee chair John Mica (R-Florida) and Rail Subcommittee chair Bill Shuster, R-Pennsylvania, to privatize development and operation of the Northeast Corridor. Whether operated, as now, as a quasi-public agency or, as Congressmembers Mica and Shuster proposed as a private railroad, the Northeast Corridor has the volume of passenger traffic and the potential for increased freight services that should make it a viable stand-alone railroad under either scenario … if properly managed
CULTURE: The corporate cultural aspect of the dilemma is harder to quantify, but very real. The men and women who manage Amtrak are based in Washington, D.C. Most have spent the bulk of their professional lives in those very same Middle Atlantic States. When they, their friends and family think of rail, they naturally focus on what they personally are familiar with.
They ride Northeast Corridor trains with some frequency. When they look out the windows of their Washington Union Station-based national Amtrak headquarters, they see the Northeast Corridor fleet, along with excellent Maryland and Virginia commuter operations. The few long distance trains to Florida, the Midwest and the South appear as oddities with weak constituencies. They are easy to ignore and can even be entirely written off with little political or bureaucratic risk … so far.
It’s so easy for most of us residing in the bulk of the continental United States to forget but Northeasters suffer from a provincialism that regards much of America, even California, Chicago or Dallas, as a backwater. They vaguely understand that New Orleans, San Francisco, Chicago and for the well-traveled, perhaps Seattle or Denver, do exist. More often these far-off exotic locales are out-of-sight and out of mind. They consider us “the Coast,” “The Far West” or “the planes.” These are defined anywhere west of Buffalo or south of Richmond. We live in cities and town where Northeasterners go on vacation but certainly not where they perceive many Americans actually live.
The very notion that real live people live in small towns like Whitefish Montana, Ottumwa Iowa, Lamy, New Mexico, Meridian Mississippi or even Santa Barbara, are incomprehensible to the good folks of all socioeconomic classes who live and work in or between Washington, Manhattan or Boston.
As long as that East Coast culture represents the world view of Amtrak managers, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation or its privatized successor will be “national” in name only.
POLITICS: The politics of all of this is understandable. In the eight Northeast Corridor states Amtrak and commuter rail is a big deal. Much of the Middle Atlantic States voting public utilizes this rail service and makes it known to their elected officials and the press that they consider passenger rail a priority. Just like their constituents, their elected officials personally use the system and “get it.”
The lamentable but inevitable secondary result is that federal support for rail passenger service tends to be aimed only at those services that Eastern Congressmembers and their constituents personally experience. Ditto for the good folks at NARP.
Unfortunately, the unintended result is that the national long-distance system and those corridors outside of the Northeast are ignored or wrongly dismissed as underutilized anachronisms.
That’s certainly the positions of Amtrak’s new senior management.
The negative effects of this Southern New England-Middle Atlantic orientation is visible on every Amtrak long distance train resulting in an inconsistent (at best) on-board passenger service.
Old equipment poorly maintained all staffed by a mixed bag of employees is the norm. While some Amtrak’s employees are highly dedicated and professional, too many – especially Amtrak’s new management led by former Delta CEO Richard Anderson – emulate the worst traits practiced by indifferent private passengers railroads or government bureaucrats, a scenario directly stemming from a management preoccupied with the Northeast Corridor.
To any impartial follower of the national rail passenger scene, it’s clear that unless a prompt order is made for new long-distance passengers cars, the national service will wither away within a decade. That’s how long the present roster of coaches, sleeping cars and diners have left before being hauled off to the scrap heap. Given the huge lead time in ordering any new equipment, the current delay by Amtrak management to address this critical need is appalling.
Likewise, senior Amtrak managements doesn’t even possess the basic budgetary tools necessary to evaluate the costs and expenses of long distance services. Their current muddled accounting system provides none of the methodologies widely available to regional transit systems, not to mention airlines, to analyze and accurately inform management of the incremental costs of each of segment of their services.
Wildly inaccurate information is disseminated that too often appears to be grossly biased against any passenger services not based in the Northeast and likewise biased in favor of Northeast Corridor trains.
As AMTRAK critic Andrew Seldon has long pointed out, accounting gimmicks were designed to minimize the costs and maximize the revenue generated in the Northeast Corridor, preordaining that one will always be perceived as a “winner” and the other a fiscal “looser.”
“Lying with numbers” is an old trick in the transit business. It’s the use of seemingly unbiased figures to justify actions that coincide with the agenda preset by staff and well-positioned board members.
While the Northeast Corridor address a crucial if limited segment America’s mobility needs, current Amtrak management tends to ignore other corridors. The mere fact that it is “understood” at Amtrak headquarters that the Northeast Corridor’s infrastructure requirements and operations will be financed by the national system, while California, Illinois, North Carolina, Maine or the Pacific Northwest need to be “partnered” with local state funding sources, is a classic example of the geographical bias inherent the current set up.
The causes of this failure are multiple and bipartisan, but its undeniable that zero progress has been made.
SOLUTION: TWO SEPARATE RAIL PASSENGER COMPANIES: Just continuing the status quo is not only unfair to the other forty-two states it puts untenable pressure on Amtrak’s current staff and board. It’s also a guarantee that American passenger rail will never be a competitive travel option as it is in so much of the economically advanced world. They are now being asked to serve two masters: the Northeast Corridor, and a national system of long-distance trains and “emerging” corridors. It’s too much to ask, and in the long run unsustainable.
It’s time to dissolve Amtrak. It’s very name “Amtrak” has developed in the public such a negative, bureaucratic connotation that it should become the latest “fallen flag.” Why else does Amtrak in the East focus on the weird word “Acela” to describe their premier service.
In its place, two alternative models are suggested.
One involves transforming the present National Railroad Passenger Corporation into a new, slimmed down entity. Either remaining in the public sector which much state involvement or as a taxpayer assisted but private enterprise run corporation, this new NORTHEAST RAIL would be allocated the sole responsibility of perfecting a southern New England -Middle Atlantic passenger service stretching from Boston south to Washington or perhaps even to Richmond, Virginia. If the Northeast Corridor is privatized, there is little doubt that the needed management staff will be lean.
Note that NORTHEAST RAIL will assume all of Amtrak’s rights and obligations in the current Northeast Corridor. The current Amtrak staff so oriented to the Northeast Corridor – though significantly “right-sized” at the headquarters level – would form the core of Northeast Rail’s management team.
Simultaneously, a new rail passenger corporation needs to be established. For now, let’s call it AMERICAN RAIL. It too will assume all of Amtrak’s rights and obligations that exist outside the Northeast Corridor.
Its purpose will be to assume responsibly for all aspects of a new independent passenger railroad. That entity will operate and secure federal financing for all long-distance and corridor services in America west and south of the Appalachians. It should combine aspects of public funding with the actual service perhaps operated by private operators on a line-by-line basis.
It will better for all concerned if NORTHEAST RAIL concentrates on what it knows best – the Northeast Corridor. At the same time, much of America, particularly at a time when the understanding of the travel and environmental importance of AMERICAN RAIL, a truly national rail network, could benefit from an organization focused on its own needs and priorities.
The name AMERICAN RAIL signifies a fresh start and new direction. It should have its headquarters anywhere but Washington. Chicago, the traditional hub for western and mid-American rail passenger services, would be a fine location as would St. Louis or even New Orleans. With its own separate board of directors, new management and working with new private sector operators, AMERICAN RAIL would not compete with NORTHEAST RAIL but serve as its national connection. It will be the conduit for operation of all current state-supported services outside the Northeast Corridor.
With innovation the watchword, AMERICAN RAIL should lead to way to new routes and more frequencies all in new passenger cars and locomotives operated by a freshly recruited and trained staff and management equipped with a private sector-style customer-first approach. They be more like the customer-friendly cruise ship industry that the nickel-and-dime the passengers airline cartel. Is there risk of failure? Yes, but right now the risk of the ultimate demise of Amtrak’s long-distance service seems assured.
THE DIVISION The new railroad’s mission will be the operation of all American intercity passenger trains outside the Northeast Corridor.
Certain services ancillary to NORTHEAST RAIL’S heartland, such as the New York to Buffalo Empire Service, the Down Easterner Route from Boston to Portland, Maine and the once-a day service extending east from Richmond to Newport News would be subject to amiable negotiations. If NORTHEAST RAIL considers those lines essential part of their bailiwick … and the states involved concur … they should continue to operate them. This plan envisions a non-hostile division resulting in two new, independent but cooperating entities.
The private sector components of both plans is an acknowledgment of the new leaner 21st Century structure of government and the ruinous divide that in the past few years has seen with passenger rail identified with the Democrats and vilified by many Republicans. A serious effort needs to be taken to depoliticize the topic of passenger rail.
Creating allies in the private sector without alienating labor is a difficult but essential component of this strategy.
This approach will result in two new entities that should create their own new corporate cultures.
While some may consider that scenario optimistic, there is zero doubt that if Amtrak’s status quo is maintained no progress will ever come to pass.
The most difficult aspect will be the division of essential federal operating and capital subsidies between the two new companies. There is no doubt that even if there is significant private sector involvement, federal dollars will remain an essential part of the puzzle, just as it has decades when it comes to air, highway and barge modes of passenger and freight mobility.
Congress is entitled to a voice even with much private sector participation. Yet, there is no valid reason that rational minds can’t prevail resulting in mediated solution acceptable to Congress and the Administration without raising regional passions.
Greater involvement by the individual states could assist in all of the above described goals. One dares to think that federal funds might even be allocated on a per-capital basis, rather than the traditional allocations which relied more on history than rationality.
MANY BENEFITS, FEW NEGATIVES: This concept is a win-win for all except some current management employees at Amtrak’s Washington headquarters who will find themselves redundant.
Rail labor will benefit. Not only will there be no layoffs of operating personnel, there is a distinct prospect of additional employment associated with more routes and greater frequency. Certainly the manufacturing sector will benefit from equipment purchases to replace worn out passenger cars and locomotive.
Small town America will benefit. Not just from additional routes and frequencies, but from American Rail, a new rail passenger company focused on their long-neglected needs. Likewise, larger Midwestern, Southern and Western states will be rewarded from attention to their emerging corridors linking major and medium sized cities.
Northeast Corridor states win from Northeast Rail, an operation undistracted by what’s proved to be an incompatible a long-distance system.
The bulk of America benefits from a new system focused on the needs of Western, Mid-western and Southern states needs and desires with new management open to innovative public-private partnerships.
MOVING FORWARD – NEXT STEP: It’s my suggestion that the Rail Passengers Association (RailPAC) of California and Nevada members contemplate this plan aided by the preparation of professional-quality research reports. The end result would be consideration of adopting the notion of dissolving Amtrak and replacing it with the two new entities, NORTHEAST RAIL and AMERICAN RAIL as RailPAC’s official position.
We would then urge other rail advocacy groups to join with us. Sad to say, it’s doubtful that NARP, almost as East Coast centric as the current Amtrak leadership, would be supportive. NARP’s history, understandably, has been to defend and justify Amtrak management. The time for that self-defeating approach has clearly ended.
An essential early step is to secure bipartisan sponsors in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives to serve as our proponents. It’s naive to think that Amtrak’s current board and senior management will not oppose this move. Substantial bipartisan Congressional and Administration support is essential if this proposal is to be taken seriously. Just getting the debate off the ground is not an easy task. We can’t do it with just the old friends of passenger rail. Simultaneously, we need to expand by adding others, e.g., Republicans and the business community, who have in recent years opposed or indifferent to passenger rail, but were supportive in the past.
WHAT’S TO LOSE? At the very least, debating this proposal will cause many in the rail community to think about Amtrak’s current dysfunctional structure and understand its long-term implications which include the ultimate demise of all long-distance rail. A vigorous public conversation will have the salutatory side effect that Amtrak management will likely never again take the West, Midwest and the South for granted as they have done so often in the last few decades.
At best, such a bold discussion will spark others in the rail passenger community to rethink old approaches and faulty assumptions. Ideally this will all lead to a more sustainable vision of a vibrant twenty-first century truly national rail passenger system.
Mill Valley, California
May 1, 2018
Take a look at the announcement for the Summer Train Fest:
As I write we have not received an invitation, even though we were regularly invited to National Train Day activities. Apparently we have to be approved by Metro, Metrolink and LOSSAN, possibly Amtrak as well although since Amtrak laid off all their marketing staff they are unlikely to participate. And since Amtrak is also doing its best to eliminate private cars from its trains I hear the organizers are having a tough time lining up much of a display.
Whatever happens, I’ll be there representing RailPAC, and I’ll have information to distribute about the Southwest Chief, and other hot topics. If you care to join me please contact me at email@example.com.
Amtrak’s actions regarding the Southwest Chief, threatening to stop running the train through western Kansas, Colorado and eastern New Mexico via the Raton Pass have run into opposition from the Senators for those states.
RailPAC will be asking California and Nevada Senators to write in support of their colleagues. Please support our efforts by writing to Feinstein and Harris, or Cortez Masto and Heller if you are in Nevada quoting the above news report. Any curtailment in the operation of the “Chief” sets a very serious precedent for the national system which we cannot let pass.
RailPAC Board members Doug Kerr and Steve Roberts attended this event, and their report follows. Chad Edison and State staff have been working hard to bring together the many State rail and transit agencies to make travel easier for the passenger, a long standing RailPAC goal.
On May 1 and 2 Steve Roberts and I (Doug Kerr) attended the California Integrated Travel Conference held on the UC Davis campus. Steve and I put together this summary. The conference was put on by the California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA), Caltrans, and the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority. The two-day conference contained a large amount of content presented by many speakers. This is just a short overall summary. The major factor driving this initiative is the need to fully utilize existing and planned transportation assets if the state is to avoid transportation gridlock. Population growth in California will continue. We cannot continue to offer the same disjointed product, continue doing the same things we’ve done for the last fifty years.
If one thinks of the service integration as a three step process – First, gateway with a single portal to link systems with information and service options, Second, specific travel/schedule choice, ticketing/payment and ticket verification, and Third, station navigation, train boarding and connections – this conference focused on the second step, specific travel/schedule choice, ticketing/payment and ticket verification.
The conference was a first step in providing a process to integrate travel across the many modes, jurisdictions, and agencies that exist in the state. The end goal is to provide methods to plan a trip using multiple modes (such as corridor trains, rail transit, bus transit, and rideshare) and provide a single method for fare payment. As was noted above the conference focused on journey planning choice, ticketing and payment. While it appears the overarching goal is to incorporate all three steps, the immediate focus is on step two because the fast evolving technology and protocols can be rolled out in the near future. These innovations will drive customer service improvements and lower ticketing transaction costs. Needless to say, full service integration would require progress on the other two steps especially schedule coordination. The terms used often at the conference were Urban Mobility and Public Mobility. Transit services are looked at as one part of mobility which also includes rideshare, bikeshare, and any other mode to get from point A to B.
While some integration exists today in the US, for example Bay Area Clipper Cards can be used on BART, Muni, SMART, Golden Gate Ferry and others, there are still many exceptions such as Capitol Corridor trains do not accept Clipper Cards. There is also some integration on travel planning provided by sites such as Google, but these often don’t include all options and pricing.
In Europe and Asia the technology and protocols are more advanced. Examples of successful travel integration were presented from London, Toronto, Hong Kong, Sweden, Switzerland, and Germany. In all cases the integration produced increases in ridership and revenue justifying the time and expense of producing seamless travel. It also generated improved customer satisfaction by eliminating the frustration of searching different carrier websites and buying multiple tickets in order to complete a single journey.
Some emerging trends:
- More robust stored value cards (Clipper Card, TAP card, etc.) linked to a customer profile and database that would allow not only multi-carrier use, but calculate a through journey distance discount, discounts based on usage in lieu of 10-ride and monthly fare plans, and passenger class discounts (students, seniors, seniors, disabled, etc.) without the need to produce multiple types of cards.
- Solutions for the unbanked customers are under development. One near-term strategy pivoting around the reduction of the number types of stored value cards (i.e. student, senior, disabled, etc.) is increasing the number of distribution outlets (i.e. retail stores, 7-11’s, etc.).
- Information standards to allow easy merging of data sources i.e. carrier fares, inventory and schedules, etc. across multiple transportation operators.
- Calculation of the best fare. An underlying goal is for the customer to have confidence that the fare/ticketing system will always calculate the best fare. This does not mean that parallel transit bus, commuter rail and intercity rail have the same fares, it means the fare/ticketing system will always generate the lowest applicable fare for the journey choices of the customer.
- Contactless use of a credit card for fare payment. This is the next wave for credit purchases not only for transportation fares but for small retail purchases (i.e. Starbucks). This eliminates the stored value card for most riders. Linked with a customer profile and database all the features of an advanced stored value card fare payment are available, just tap your credit card and go.
- Mobile ticketing. Travel and schedule choice, ticketing and payment and ticket verification will be done via Smart Phone. The phone will be virtual wallet electronically scanned as the rider passes the platform entry gateway or barrier. Smart phones as virtual wallets that may soon be available for lower value purchases in retail stores.
All of these emerging trends increase customer convenience, reduce ticket transaction and settlement costs, get cash out of the system and speed the platform entry process. However, there is a need for non-carrier funding to jumpstart the process.
Some of the issues/barriers identified that hinder implementation include the following:
- Ease of use must be top priority. Often it is not. Sometimes what is done is what is most convenient for the operator. Focusing on this goal is important because the personal automobile travel often wins out because it is easier and simpler to use than figuring out public transit.
- The main impediments to integration are not technology based, but are tied to interagency agreements, governance, agency concern about loss of revenue and agency perceived threats of loss of independence.
- Public transit serves everyone, including those without smart phones, bank accounts and credit cards. Methods must still exist to accept cash payments.
- A multi-agency fare policy is critical. Fare policies, particularly involving discount amounts and requirements for various passenger classes (students, seniors, disabled, etc.) need to be “harmonized” across agencies.
- Integrated fares do not exist today. Transferring from one mode to another requires payment of separate fares and can become costly because the customer does not received the value of the distance based discount also known as a fare taper.
- The goal is to create one network consisting of multiple operators.
There were also some higher level discussions concerning the current poor utilization of urban streets, the need for right-of-way management and road pricing reflecting that road capacity is a scarce resource. Alternatives discussed were dedicated bus and bicycle lanes reducing the space allocated for personal automobiles.
Overall the conference, attended by over 100 people, was optimistic that integrated travel can happen in spite of the large amount of work to get there. CalSTA seemed willing to lead the way in the effort.
The recording of Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson’s presentation, plus audience questions, is now available. The Anderson segment begins at approximately One Hour and 46 minutes.
It seems to be taking an awfully long time for the implications of these remarks to sink in. RailPAC is currently reviewing the options, and sounding out potential allies, for a coordinated campaign to restore sanity to Amtrak policy. Stay in touch.
Why Anderson thinks he can, and should, destroy the National Passenger Rail Network
Paul Dyson, RailPAC President
Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson has interpreted PRIIA and other Amtrak legislation, and together with Amtrak’s flawed management information systems, has concluded that the national Network is a hopeless money loser. It is therefore his job to get rid of these losses by converting parts of the routes to “corridors”, i.e. day trains only up to about 400 miles maximum, and abandoning service on the rest. These corridors will be State subsidized or they will not exist. Do the Governor’s know this? I don’t suppose that Congress, especially the more rural districts with Amtrak service, expected this as the “thank you” for increased spending in the new budget.
The text below in black was provided by Jason Abrams. Amtrak Corporate Communications. It outlines the justification that CEO Anderson believes he has to convert the long-distance trains to shorthaul corridors, and thereby destroy the national network. Note that nowhere in the text does National network appear, nor overnight train, nor long-distance, in either a positive or negative light. Where were the passenger rail advocates when PRIIA was written, (me included)?
My comments are in Italics. Draw your own conclusions. As always your comments are welcomed. firstname.lastname@example.org
Amtrak’s Mission and Goals As Defined by the U.S. Congress through the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA) and codified in 49 USC 24101:
Our Mission “The mission of Amtrak is to provide efficient and effective intercity passenger rail mobility consisting of high-quality service that is trip-time competitive with other intercity travel options.”
Does Amtrak eliminate the route if not “trip-time competitive”?
Amtrak shall— 1) Use its best business judgment in acting to minimize United States Government subsidies, including— A) increasing fares; B) increasing revenue from the transportation of mail and express; C) reducing losses on food service; D) improving its contracts with operating rail carriers; E) reducing management costs; and F) increasing employee productivity;
2) Minimize Government subsidies by encouraging State, regional, and local governments and the private sector, separately or in combination, to share the cost of providing rail passenger transportation, including the cost of operating facilities;
For “Government subsidies” read Federal Government subsidies.
3) Carry out strategies to achieve immediately maximum productivity and efficiency consistent with safe and efficient transportation;
4) Operate Amtrak trains, to the maximum extent feasible, to all station stops within 15 minutes of the time established in public timetables;
5) Develop transportation on rail corridors subsidized by States and private parties;
Note that this ties in with Anderson’s remarks in Los Angeles 4/19/18. Convert a Federal program into a State program, keep the Federal money for….well guess where.
6) Implement schedules based on a systemwide average speed of at least 60 miles an hour that can be achieved with a degree of reliability and passenger comfort;
Most long-distance trains average about 40mph. The corridors are not much better. How will this be done?
7) Encourage rail carriers to assist in improving intercity rail passenger transportation;
8) Improve generally the performance of Amtrak through comprehensive and systematic operational programs and employee incentives;
9) Provide additional or complementary intercity transportation service to ensure mobility in times of national disaster or other instances where other travel options are not adequately available;
10) Carry out policies that ensure equitable access to the Northeast Corridor by intercity and commuter rail passenger transportation;
Open access for a competitor intercity operator?
11) Coordinate the uses of the Northeast Corridor, particularly intercity and commuter rail passenger transportation; and
12) Maximize the use of its resources, including the most cost-effective use of employees, facilities, and real property.
Minimizing Government Subsidies — Amtrak is encouraged to make agreements with the private sector and undertake initiatives that are consistent with good business judgment and designed to maximize its revenues and minimize Government subsidies. Amtrak shall prepare a financial plan, consistent with section 204 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, including the budgetary goals for fiscal years 2009 through 2013. Amtrak and its Board of Directors shall adopt a long-term plan that minimizes the need for Federal operating subsidies.
Report – Richard Anderson, Amtrak CEO – Remarks to California Rail Summit and Questions and Answers
19th April 2018
Richard Anderson, CEO of Amtrak, gave a keynote address to about 150 passenger rail officials and industry professionals, plus a handful of advocates. I have the feeling he had not counted on there being any advocates in the audience. To the best of my knowledge there was no audio or video recording of the meeting, which is most unfortunate. I have done my best to give a reasonably concise account from my notes and from memory and have conferred with others who were there. I am reasonably certain that I have captured both the tone and overall content of his remarks and replies. I wish I had had the presence of mind to turn on my I phone, at least to capture my own question. I have used quotation marks when I have recalled actual words used, otherwise it is my best recollection.
Anderson had some positive items to report about reforms and initiatives he has undertaken. These include:
Union Contracts – All Unions are now covered with 7-year contracts which have been ratified with high percentage votes in favor.
OTP – He’s genuinely concerned about OTP and says they have achieved days on the NEC with 100% on time. He did not mention private cars.
Safety – He is also very concerned about safety and noted that airline safety is superior to rail. He seems to be shocked at the concept of dark territory, although he did not repeat his threat to cease operations on those routes. PTC implementation is continuing and is very complex as a tenant on 20 railroads. Amtrak is hiring more Road Foremen to help their engineers improve safety, and they have upgraded their route qualification rules.
Fleet renewal: His remarks on fleet renewal focused on the Amfleet Ones that are 45 years old and operating under FRA waiver, and the P42 locomotives. They will be replaced by DMUs and a few locos. The P42s are unreliable, forcing them to use two units instead of one. “I don’t like carrying a spare”. The locomotives are Tier Zero and operate with an EPA waiver, which “they would not get if a private company”.
Finance – He claimed that Amtrak is “debt free” and is “stockpiling cash” for fleet renewals.
Stations – Spending money on stations. I think he regretted saying that, as Amtrak doesn’t own many out west.
Operational Concept – Amtrak’s market opportunity is in corridors of 100 to 400 miles (he wavered a couple of times on that and said 300 miles) and would be operated by DMUs. DMUs are lighter weight, more environmentally friendly. His concept is something like an Acela with diesel power. This would need investment by the States and cooperation by the freight railroads. I noted that he did not specifically say that the long-distance trains would go, only that corridors are the future.
He hinted that spare Superliners would go to the Surfliner and other corridors.
Questions and answers:
There was a question by David Cameron of the Teamsters about enforcement of passenger priority on the Class Ones. His answer was that this has never been enforced but that they were “working” with the freights to improve matters.
I then had the mic and introduced myself as President of RailPAC, a nonprofit volunteer group that represents rail passengers. A lot of RailPAC members are regular customers of the ld trains and spend many thousands of dollars on tickets. There is a concept in business of having a “Unique selling proposition”. Passenger rail has many unique features, like dining cars, lounges, the Pacific Parlor car, which you seem to be destroying. I note that you have skirted the question of the long-distance trains. Does this mean there will be no more long-distance trains?
Main points from his answer: His demeanor was angry and agitated. The long-distance trains cost $750 million a year to operate. Corridors are better. Only 4% of passengers travel end to end. Under PRIIA he believes that he has to operate at lower cost and more competitively. “That’s what the law says”. He angrily challenged me on that, expecting me to tell him to break the law. He said “There is some room for experience travel” but did not elaborate.
Another person in the audience asked “What will you do about the studies from a few years ago of the Pioneer and Sunset? Answer: “Nothing, they don’t make economic sense.”
Next came a question from Dana Gabbard: What about the National in NRPC? Are you not supposed to operate a National System? Are not these corridors going to fall into the category of State supported trains? Anderson was fuming by this time and again stated, I am following the law. “Anyone have a question about policy?”
I thought our questions were about policy! I suppose he was expecting some softball questions.
Editorial: There we have it. This is how Anderson will restructure Amtrak and destroy a connected national system. I have the feeling he expected the audience to be in agreement with him as many there represented the State Corridors. We’ll see what the reaction will be, if any.
The objective of the policy is obvious. By terminating the long-distance trains and establishing state supported corridors in their place there will be a further transfer of dollars to the NEC. It also means that Amtrak will not have to expend any of its capital budget on renewing or augmenting the Surfliner fleet and P42 locomotives. Any replacements will be charged to the States with their cost plus formula.
I will be writing further and discussing with the RailPAC Board and other like-minded organizations what our actions should be. Watch for more postings.
FOLLOW UP MEETING SATURDAY 28TH APRIL, 2018 AT 10.00AM AT PHILIPPE’S, LOS ANGELES.
WE’LL BE ATTEMPTING TO SET UP A FOLLOW UP MEETING IN THE BAY AREA. WATCH FOR ANNOUNCEMENTS
I was recently asked by a member about our policy towards investments, particularly regarding High Speed Rail versus conventional incremental improvements. Below is my attempt at a brief answer. I’d be interested to hear from you, and let me know if I have your permission to post your comments.
1. Passenger rail is under invested in California. Examples in southern California include lack of double track on the LOSSAN corridor and several Metrolink routes, and failure to build the Los Angeles Union Station run through tracks. There are many similar examples in the north. These investments are not just vital but represent a bare minimum commitment to an efficient passenger rail service.
2. In my view, and shared I think by most members, is that there are key routes, built in the 19th or early 20th century, that are simply not competitive for modern transportation needs. These include Los Angeles to Bakersfield, Los Angeles to the Antelope Valley, and the northern San Joaquin Valley to the Bay Area and Silicon Valley. No amount of investment will be sufficient to upgrade the existing lines, and new construction, especially tunneling, will be necessary to facilitate the kind of service we believe is needed.
3. When the High Speed Rail Project was first proposed our concept was to see investment in electrified regional networks in both northern and southern CA which would be the anchors of a trunk line linking the two. If the project survives after many missteps I think this will be the course finally taken. It will be a long time before Los Angeles and Bakersfield are finally linked by fast rail service.
4. As for the money, California has a similar sized economy to Spain, Switzerland, or the Netherlands. These countries have made the decision to invest large in modern rail systems, and I don’t see why California should not be able to do the same. Both Spain and Switzerland have similar topographical challenges to California, and they were not daunted by the cost.
5. The national network (long-distance) trains are nice to have, and represent some useful mobility options as well as leisure and tourist opportunities. The trains urgently need new rolling stock, which should be funded at the federal level from the large sums Amtrak receives every year, and chooses to spend elsewhere.
I hope that helps, and I’d certainly be interested to hear your opinion.
Paul Dyson. email@example.com
By Steve Roberts, RailPAC Vice President – Policy and Research
ACE – Well short of its potential to move more people – Photo By Arne Brown
- More Frequent Service
- Faster Trains
- Better Connectivity
This post is being updated with new statistics and information and will be republished soon.