RailPAC invited Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson to present his vision for Amtrak in the 21st Century at the Annual Steel Wheels Conference in Sacramento, Saturday 29th September. A brief (terse?) response from his PA informed us that he is “unavailable”. No offer, as in the past, to send a senior officer in his stead. It has been clear from his dealings with politicians and other advocates that he has no time for opposing opinions, nor for those of us who are the true, loyal supporters of passenger rail. So the fight for the National Network continues.
Be sure to support the Steel Wheels Conference and Annual meeting. There will be plenty of interesting and informative speakers, and discussion as to how we continue the fight for the National Network.
ATK. That’s Amtrak, and here we are in the 5th decade where Amtrak has had the monopoly on rail passenger service in this country. There have been many positives over the years, but there have been many criticisms that recur year after year and never seem to be “solved,” all of which would have contributed to making Amtrak thrive and possibly prevented the dire straits Amtrak has found itself in. Some advocate organizations have whitewashed the shortcomings, preferring to tout the fact that we have a national system of trains for us to ride, and to be too critical risks losing what we have. Well, here we are in 2018 and what is the foremost problem facing us? Right, it’s the highest risk of losing the national system than at any time in Amtrak’s history. This writer congratulates RailPAC’s Paul Dyson, RPA’s Peter LeCody, the U.S. Senators from Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico plus Illinois and California, and the local community leaders along the route of Amtrak’s endangered Southwest Chief for the leadership they have shown to preserve that train, as well as those individuals and organizations in other states who have stood up and joined the fight on other issues from coast to coast.
OTP. That’s On Time Performance. When in Amtrak’s history has that not been an issue? Amtrak’s Anderson has said in effect that they are tired of pushing the freight railroads day after day about running the trains on time. We are tired of it being an issue, but it is inevitable that as long as the passenger trains are running on the lines owned by the freight railroads that conflicts will occur. The U.S. Senate has passed a measure “to analyze impact of Amtrak’s on-time performance.” And it passed 99-0. RailPAC’s Steve Roberts says, “OTP is a major driver of repeat ridership, hence ticket revenue and costs. Improved OTP would improve a lot of metrics for rail service. I think the lopsided vote is a testament to the heightened awareness as a result of the Southwest Chief situation. Maybe there is method (planned or unplanned) behind the Amtrak madness.” We await the results, but conflicts are bound to happen on any line at any time that are not preventable.
Fact Checking the Amtrak Proposal to Replace the Southwest Chief with Bus Service in Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico
The Southwest Chief would effectively cease to exist if the proposed bus bridge from Dodge City, KS or La Junta, CO to Albuquerque is implemented. While presented as a decision based in concern for passenger safety and cost reductions, the plan would make passengers less safe, dissipate the service’s economic impact across the corridor, and—given the resulting collapse of ridership and revenue—effectively save no tax dollars on operational expenses.
The plan to truncate the Southwest Chief with a bus bridge would also shift costs to states that have the most to lose from its truncation. In its presentation on the proposed bus bridge, Amtrak points to plans for service expansions in Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma as evidence of its commitment to the region. However, the cost of these services would be borne by the states under PRIIA Sec. 209. While the continued presence of the Chief would in fact facilitate the development of these services with valuable passenger connections, the development of these urban corridor services shouldn’t come at the the expense of rural communities that currently depend on Amtrak National Network service.
The bus bridge will worsen the performance metrics Amtrak is using to justify this truncation without lowering taxpayer costs
- The Chief’s ridership trends are steady: Amtrak’s earlier statement that the number of passengers using the Chief is “steadily declining” is false. Ridership volume in FY 2017 was down only 1% from its peak in FY 2015; it was up 14% from eight years ago in FY 2009.
- Amtrak’s presentation highlights the fact that 96% of Amtrak trips are under 750 miles. But for the Chief’s 2,265 miles, conspicuously absent is the fact that trips on the Chief overlap along the entirety of the corridor. Having analyzed the Chief’s passenger load throughout its route, Rail Passengers estimates significant ridership and 70% of the trains’ current revenue is at risk under this proposal. The proposed bus bridge would be of a significant enough duration – 6-12 hours—to decimate high revenue sleeping car ridership. This is made more disappointing because;
- The Chief’s seat occupancy rate compares well even to the NEC: Amtrak’s earlier claim that the Chief operates “40% empty” fails to fully capture how busy the train is. The reality is that passengers filled 61.5% of the Chief’s available seat miles during FY 2017. This number puts the Chief within the top 20% of all Amtrak’s routes (8th out of 48), higher than even the Acela Express (In assessing “occupancy,” it’s important to recognize that trains do not operate the same as airplanes; trains do not make a single trip between a pair of end points, they make numerous stops along a single corridor. As a result, there is a constant turnover of seats. That’s the strength of a long-distance corridor train like the Chief; by connecting 36 stations, it provides a convenient, single seat ride for passengers traveling short, medium and long distances, serving 528 unique city pairs. This allows a single corridor to generate the volumes and revenues needed to serve people in urban and rural communities. In matter of fact, on the more heavily traveled segments of the Chief’s route, the number of passengers can be 90% or more of the available seats, causing “sold out” conditions for prospective passengers.)
- By using a Fully Allocated Cost methodology, Amtrak fails to fully capture the incremental cost of running the Chief. Had the railroad also employed Avoidable Cost methodology—as stipulated in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2005 (Public Law 108-447)—the cost would have been significantly lower. Rail Passengers’ estimate, developed using concepts developed by the Volpe Transportation Center for Amtrak in 2009, suggests that as much as 80% of the costs that Amtrak allocates to the Chief may represent fixed costs for shared facilities and overhead. These costs would not go away with the Chief’s elimination and would instead be allocated to other routes.
Amtrak is asking its stakeholders for more, after reneging on a partnership it has repeatedly and publicly committed to over the course of multiple grant applications
- States have already invested local funds in partnership with Amtrak: Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico have all invested over $9 million in state funds ($6 million in previous TIGER grant applications with another $3 million in the current round of TIGER grants), based upon an explicit agreement between Amtrak, Amtrak-served communities, and BNSF Railroad. For Amtrak to suddenly withdraw its support for the Chief in the middle of the preservation effort, without any opportunity for stakeholder input, constitutes a serious breach of trust.
- This sudden decision by Amtrak has stalled applications for additional infrastructure grants, including plans to apply for a share of the $1.5 billion in grant funding offered through the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) Transportation Discretionary Grants program. Given the BUILD program’s emphasis on supporting rural transportation systems, it’s safe to assume the Southwest Chief would have scored well.
The bus bridge will be less safe for passengers, less accessible to the public
- Amtrak’s justification of forcing passengers onto busses for lack of Positive Train Control will make them less safe; Busses have 3.04 accidents per million passenger miles, while intercity passenger trains only have 1.7, over 40% fewer accidents mile for mile.
- Amtrak has enjoyed considerable gains in ridership from the Accessibility Community, because Busses and trains are not equal options for these passengers. Bus Bathrooms are in no way ADA compliant, while accomodations can be made on Amtrak, a real factor for a 6-12 hour journey. Ingress and Egress issues are a significant area of risk addressed in the ADA, and multiple transfers increase the probability of injuries.
- Amtrak states that the $50 million, ten year-investment in infrastructure investment “does not include positive train control (PTC) installation and implementation costs.”
- The focus on safety is admirable and correct. However, the Federal Railroad Administration does not require PTC over lines with fewer than four passenger trains per day, and less than 15 Million tons of freight per year. (49 CFR 236.1019 – Main line track exceptions).
- Risks are limited because competing traffic is light in some places, non-existent in others. The absence of heavy axle load freight traffic should also make derailment prevention easier, given the reduced risk of rail breaks and freight braking-induced kinks. This segment should have lower overall risk, even without PTC, than most of the network.
- The Raton Route in question is considered safely exempt by the FRA, save for the Rail Runner district in Albuquerque; the Rio Metro Regional Transit District is currently working with the FRA to ensure that it meets all PTC requirements in a timely fashion.
The Rail Passengers Association represents the passengers and communities that depend on this corridor, and so we feel compelled to provide a broader and more complete context to help members of Congress evaluate the proper next steps to preserve this important transportation service for residents in the 36 communities across 8 states that depend on the Southwest Chief. We are available for any further elaboration.
RPA has done a good job here, and there are plenty of quotable sections for your letters to our Senators and Congressional Representatives. Paul Dyson
Mr. Anthony Coscia 13th July, 2018
Chairman of the Board
National Railroad Passenger Corporation
60 Massachusetts Avenue NE
Washington DC 20002-4285
Dear Mr. Coscia:
RailPAC is a 501c3 all volunteer California corporation that has, since 1978, campaigned for the improvement of mobility for all by increased passenger rail service. We support the National Network of overnight trains as well as regional and commuter services. We are recognized at State and local level as having been influential in the establishment and expansion of rail passenger service in California, and for having considerable expertise among our members.
It is our understanding that public policy, enunciated in legislation in 1971 and confirmed many times since, is for the United States to have a National Network of passenger trains, to be operated by NRPC.
It appears to us that, by his statements and actions, your recently appointed CEO Mr. Richard Anderson is not aware of the support for the National Network among many key constituencies, or the negative financial consequences and loss of political support if the national route structure is destroyed. In his interactions with the congressional delegates from Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico, he seems to have been so badly briefed by his staff that the presentation made by NRPC contained deliberately deceptive statements that amounted to falsehoods in their description of the performance of the Southwest Chief. It is hard for my organization to imagine that this is the intention of you and your board.
Over the years the National Network of overnight trains has been blamed for Amtrak’s deficits. We disagree. The National Network generates more passenger miles and revenue than the Northeast Corridor and is mostly hampered by being starved of investment and freight railroad issues for at least two decades. You and your Board should remember that the NEC was not part of the original Amtrak and that it was dumped on the company in 1976, because no other agency wanted to take on the crippling backlog of infrastructure repairs. With $300 – $400 million in yearly maintenance costs and $30 to $50 Billion in state of good repair and capacity needs, it’s the NEC that is the burden on Amtrak, not the National Network.
Part of Mr. Anderson’s announced policy is to operate medium distance corridors in “partnership” with the States. Again, he appears to have been given a very poor analysis of the State’s appetite for participation in such ventures. Surely the Board, in its experience, does not expect States like Arizona and Kansas to pay for a rail service which is currently a federal program? Look at recent events in Alabama. Yet this seems to be what he is proposing. Indeed, if the National Network no longer exists, and with high-speed rail on the horizon what need would California have for Amtrak? The National Network is a federal program and should remain so, even if this requires amending PRIIA legislation.
We cannot say whether Mr. Anderson’s statements and policies are the result of information he is receiving from officers of the company, from direction of the Board, or from other influences. NRPC Board should immediately issue a clarification. Is it still the role of NRPC to operate a National Network of passenger trains? If so, you need to give direction to your CEO to carry out that policy. You may also wish to institute some enquiries regarding the information that was given to Congress regarding the Southwest Chief.
RailPAC will not blindly support NRPC policy; indeed, we will actively oppose the destruction of the National Network, which is a national asset whose full potential is yet to be realized and make efforts to prevent the expenditure of any state funds to pay for interstate rail service.
Paul Dyson, President, email@example.com cc RailPAC Board and interested parties
818 371 9516
From Paul Dyson:
News is coming in thick and fast about the Southwest Chief and RailPAC is doing its best to keep you up to date.
As you probably know Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson has stated that he believes that the National Network sleeper trains (we don’t like the term “long distance”) are not viable, and he wants to replace them with short and medium distance “corridors”. At the same time he is concerned about safety, rightly so, but has overreached himself by stating that all Amtrak trains should run on routes with Positive Train Control installed. (“PTC”). The Federal Railroad Administration, who should know a thing or two about this, has indicated that waivers are appropriate in cases where non passenger traffic is minimal or non-existant.
The segment of route between Dodge City, KS and Lamy, NM has no freight service at present and is in need of heavy maintenance, such as ties and rails. For many years the States, line owner BNSF, and Amtrak have pieced together a deal, using various grants and pools of funds, to keep the line open and the trains running. I believe that BNSF wants to keep access to the line, either as a diversionary route for emergencies, or for future business not yet identified publicly. Certainly the States and the communities served want to see the train continue.
Thus the scene is set for a meeting between Senators of Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico regarding the future of the Southwest Chief:
From the Kansas 25th June 2018
Amtrak considering busses for part of Chief
Posted Jun 25, 2018 at 3:54 PMUpdated Jun 25, 2018 at 4:31 PM
There is a new threat to the Southwest Chief, a long distance Amtrak train from Chicago to Los Angeles with six stops in Kansas including Newton.
The Chief has turned back multiple threats in the past decade, but this one could be the most serious according to Evan Stair, president of Passenger Rail Kansas and Passenger Rail Oklahoma.
“Most of the threats to Amtrak services in the past have been based upon congressional budget cuts or cuts from the president,” Stair said. “This is the first time, really, that you have the CEO at Amtrak … who is making broad-based assumptions about service.”
A plan to suspend rail service, and insert the use of a bus service in its place, in the middle of the route was presented to members of congress last week. A copy of a powerpoint presentation created by Richard Anderson, president and chief executive officer of Amtrak, for that meeting with legislators from Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico was obtained by The Newton Kansan.
“During conversations with members of the Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico congressional delegations, Amtrak indicated that we are considering various service options for the Southwest Chief in response to the significant host railroad costs facing Amtrak for continued use of the middle portion of the route between Dodge City and Albuquerque,” said Marc Magliari, public relations manager for Amtrak. “These options will consider the long-term operating and capital costs of continuing current service over the entire route and alternate bus and rail service combinations that would ensure continued transportation service and connections to the Amtrak rail network for all communities along the route.”
Towns that could lose train service initially include Garden City, Kansas; Lamar, Colorado; La Junta, Colorado; Trinidad, Colorado; Raton, New Mexico; Las Vegas, New Mexico; and Lamy, New Mexico.
According to Amtrak, those towns would be served by charter buses to connect the two stubs of the current Southwest Chief train.
It is not a plan that sits well with Stair.
“Every time you have what is called a cross-platform transfer, you lose 50 percent of your ridership,” Stair said. “That comes from an equipment provider. If there is a change in Dodge City or LaJunta, you cut your ridership in half. You change from a bus to a train again at Albuquerque and you take that half and half it again. You are talking about a dramatic drop in ridership.”
Over the past five years ridership on the Southwest Chief has risen — from 355,815 in 2013 to 363,269 in 2017. Ridership has declined the past two years after a peak in 2015.
Albuquerque is the largest station on the list of bus service, with more than 77,000 riders annually and the third largest stop on the Chief route, according Amtrak statistics. Newton is the 10th largest stop on the route, with 13,741 riders each year. Newton generates $1.4 million in ticket revenues for the route.
There are 33 stations served by the Southwest Chief.
“There are 992 city pairs, combinations for stops, on the Southwest Chief,” Stair said. “Seats and beds are resold multiple times on the trip from Chicago to Los Angeles. … There are segments of the route where you can not get a ticket because this train is sold out.”
At the heart of the struggle to keep the train moving is needed repairs and updates to about a 670-mile stretch of track — specifically a 216-mile segment in Colorado and New Mexico where there are no longer any freight trains operated — making Amtrak the sole user of the stretch.
That also makes Amtrak responsible for all capital and maintenance costs on that stretch of track, which is owned by BNSF.
“The Southwest Chief is unique in that it is the only route where a significant section of infrastructure is owned by a host railroad – BNSF Railway – but solely used by Amtrak,” Magliari said. “Significant future costs are facing Amtrak to upgrade the BNSF track. Amtrak is thoroughly analyzing the route and considering the appropriate strategies for enhancing safety for operations after the December 2018 federal deadline for Positive Train Control.”
According to Amtrak documents, annual maintenance costs for the sole use segment of track in Colorado and New Mexico is estimated at $3 million. The railway estimated capital costs and improvements of at least $30 million over the next five years.
“When Amtrak sees a challenge, a fiscal challenge, they get out their axe,” Stair said. “They do not look beyond the cost-cutting model for improving their service. That is what we are seeing here. That is a culture that started in 1971. These long distance routes consist of multiple corridors. People ride from Kansas City to Albuquerque. … That is a good thing. The train is being used for multiple transportation purposes.”
According to the American Railroad Association, positive train control is an electronic system designed to automatically stop a train before certain types of accidents occur. In particular, PTC is designed to prevent train-to-train collisions; derailments caused by excessive train speed;and train movements through misaligned track switches.
There is not Positive Train Control from Dodge City to Las Animas, Colorado, a spot just short of La Junta, Colorado. PTC is also not available from LaJunta to Albuquerque.
The Chief faced a similar problem in 2015 when there was not PTC available in Kansas City. At that time, Amtrak was able to come to an agreement with rail owners in Kansas City to get PTC installed. It is the host railroad’s responsibility to install PTC.
“Amtrak is now weaponizing Positive Train Control,” Stair said. “They are using this as an excuse to take more federal dollars and move them to the northeast corridor — the Boston to Washington D.C. segment — and force the states to pay more for services that are historically federally funded.”
The Southwest Chief operates on two host railroads — the BNSF and the New Mexico Rail Runner, owned by the New Mexico Department of Transportation.
Over the past few years communities have been able to get federal grants to improve sections of the rail.
“Newton, as well as a lot of other communities on the route — these are small communities that depend on this service as their primary transportation to connect to other outside locations — all put money into this effort to preserve and improve the rail from Newton all the way to La Junta, and now we just abandon that,” said Barth Hague, a county commissioner who has worked on rail issues. “It feels like an afront to all those communities that have fought to preserve this service in good faith with Amtrak. Now they are willing to scuttle that?”
Over the course of the past five years TIGER grant funds have been poured into the Southwest Chief route for rail improvements. In 2014 the Kansas Department of Transportation pumped $3 million into a grant, matched by $2 million for the BNSF, $4 million from Amtrak, $300,000 from municipalities and $9.3 million from the federal government to improved tracks in western Kansas.
A year later, KDOT committed $1 million, Colorado $1 million, New Mexico $1 million, Amtrak $4 million the feds $9.2 million to make improvements in Colorado and new Mexico In 2017 Colfax County, New Mexico, put forward a grant application for improvements in New Mexico following an unsuccessful grant application in 2016. For the 2017 application, which would be a total of $25 million from all sources, to be completed a comprehensive plan is needed for maintenance. That plan has not, according to Amtrak, been received.
Evan Stair is an Oklahoma based advocate who has worked for many years to bring passenger rail ot Okalhoma and Kansas, including extension of the Heartland Flyer to Kansas, and service between Oklahome City and Tulsa, OK.
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
This could be a template for YOUR letter to your Mayor, County Supervisor, Congressman etc.
Hon. Eric Garcetti
Mayor, City of Los Angeles
Dear Mayor Garcetti:
Thank you for your support of passenger rail, including the Amtrak National Network. We believe that this system of trains and connecting buses is a great asset, providing essential mobility and links between both urban and rural America. Amtrak was set up in 1971 to provide a national system, paid for by farebox revenue and federal tax dollars. Amtrak is carrying record numbers of passengers on ALL its routes, many of which serve communities where there are no longer alternatives such as local air service or intercity bus. Many people choose rail, even with a longer journey time, because of the greater comfort and on-board experience, and many people simply have a fear of flying.
We know that Amtrak is not a profitable operation. We do know that most public support goes to maintain the expensive infrastructure of the North East Corridor (“NEC”), which Amtrak had foisted on them in 1976, (no one else wanted it!) We also know that the State supported corridors are either a break even or profit center for Amtrak. The National Network of long-distance trains are a bargain for the taxpayer and represent about a third of Amtrak’s business. Without them the States would be paying far more for their corridor services, especially California.
Amtrak management, using metrics and policies based on airline experience, has recently decided to destroy this National Network and replace it with disconnected corridors, paid for by the States. They recently outlined this to Congressional representatives from Colorado, New Mexico and Kansas. Amtrak plans to discontinue through train service between Los Angeles and Chicago and use buses between Albuquerque and a location in Kansas to be determined. Furthermore, Amtrak is demanding State subsidies for the residual parts of the route. We should not pay twice for less service.
Recently retired Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman has just issued a statement with the same message. By cutting on board dining and other amenities and failing to invest in locomotives and coaches for the past twenty years, they are deliberately downgrading the service and driving away customers. We believe they are doing this in attempt to squeeze more money from the States, to fund the backlog of infrastructure projects on the NEC. The NEC is important, but not at the expense of passenger rail for the rest of the country.
We believe that investment in and improvement of the national system is the way to go. California can build the locomotives and passenger cars needed to expand and replace the existing fleet. A positive approach from a new Amtrak management team will attract more business, including tourists, as well as a growing population of retirees. Travel is a growth industry!
Please tell our State congressional delegation, especially our Senators, to work to maintain the National network and stop the break up of Amtrak.
Paul Dyson, President. 818 371 9516 firstname.lastname@example.org