What Do We Need From Amtrak?

by Noel T. Braymer, RailPAC President — Amtrak over the last thirty plus years never seems to change. Amtrak always seems to want more money from Congress, and threaten to shut down most or all service if it doesn’t get what it wants. Most of the money Amtrak gets goes to the NEC to run a railroad which it is a minority user. Amtrak keeps trying to develop expensive high speed rail service in intercity corridors which are low revenue producers. Service on Amtrak doesn’t seem to get better, only slowly to get worse. And Long Distance Trains remain the stepchild of Amtrak, even though they brings in over half of Amtrak passenger income!

This June only one Amtrak train, The City of New Orleans had a better on-time record than in June of 2003. Last fall Amtrak redid the schedule of its “flagship” Acela Express trains, adding padding to try to bring on-time performance to over 90%. This June the on-time performance for the Acela was slightly down from last June.

In the news has been the efforts by some Democratic Senators to block the nomination of three Amtrak Board members pending since September. The point seems to be to stop a new Amtrak board from implementing the Bush administration’s proposals to overhaul Amtrak. Time is not on the side of those trying to stop a major overhaul of Amtrak. Even a board with 2 members out of 7 seats under Amtrak’s bylaws can do business. A truncated board with a majority of Bush administration appointees can still vote in the Bush Plan.

What is the Bush administration’s plan? Over the next six years Amtrak would be split into three separate companies. One to operate trains, one to maintain the Northeast Corridor and the third would retain Amtrak’s rights to operate passenger service on the freight railroads. The property of the Northeast Corridor would be leased to a coalition of the states in the Northeast. This plan would open the door for bidding out operation of service to private companies or public agencies. This is how service is provided by most commuter rail services today like Metrolink, Coaster, Caltrain and ACE. The federal government would not pay operating costs for trains, the states would be free to do that at their discretion. The federal government would pay 50 percent of rail infrastructure costs.

The last part, that the federal government would not pay subsidy to train operations is the scariest sounding part of the proposal. But the fact is most Amtrak trains already cover their operating costs. Most of Amtrak’s subsidy goes into its overhead, which is largely from ownership of the Northeast Corridor. When the passenger service is cut loose from ownership of the Northeast corridor, you will no longer hear stories of it costing $300 dollars a passenger in subsidy to ride a long distance train. The thrust of this proposal is to turn over control of rail service to the states. This makes sense for emerging corridors such as we have in California.

My main concern is over the future of Long Distance trains. What would happen to a route if one state doesn’t sign on to continue service? A well managed system with on going capitalization can be self-supporting and would see massive ridership growth. My other concern, and the concern of many States, is that this plan doesn’t turn rail passenger service into another unfunded federal mandate for the States. I would like to see adequate federal funding for capital improvements for rail throughout this country which will benefit passenger and freight rail service.

We will need an Amtrak so that we can have seamless interline ticketing and coordinated scheduling between trains so passengers can transfer between trains. We need Amtrak’s power to continue to have the right to operate passenger service where needed over any and all of the Nation’s freight railroads. We don’t need Amtrak to peddle fast corridor service between major city pairs. If the Acela is the best Amtrak can do, then Amtrak should get out of the express train business. Regional rail services are social services best handled by the States themselves. To serve most of America, since after all Amtrak is the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, it should concentrate on it’s core business which is the Long Distance service, which supplies most of its income and if run well could produce a great deal more.