The Gods Help Those Who First Help Themselves

by Noel T. Braymer, RailPAC President

The gods help those who first help themselves: Or, It is easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.

Generally the state of rail passenger service in this country is bleak. Many large cities in this country have no service. Some of the largest cities in this country have three trains a week– when they are lucky. But there are bright spots. The brightest spot is right here in California. Most of the other bright spots have followed California’s example to expand rail passenger service.

What is the “secret” to getting more rail passenger service? In two words: “local initiative.” Waiting for a far-away bureaucracy in Washington or Sacramento to come like a knight on a white horse to take care of everything is a form of delusional thinking. The greater the local control, the greater the progress. A good example of this would be our Capitol Corridor. These trains are operated by Amtrak, but they are managed by Gene Skoropowski, who works for BART! Under this arrangement improved service has increased ridership and revenues so much that it was possible to run additional trains without increasing the subsidy budget! How we’d like to see this repeated around the country.

Most of the progress for rail service around the country has been for light rail and commuter trains, not intercity service. The reason is that these are local services which had local support to have them built. Grassroots efforts will work if you have a good idea that won’t bust the budgets. Large scale high priced projects are usually the favorite of bureaucracies and politicians. They have a poor record of getting built. If they are built they rarely live up to the promises made to get them built.

Amtrak has many hard working, competent, dedicated and very frustrated employees. Amtrak is a classic top heavy, micro-managing and overly centralized bureaucracy. The result is all initiative is squeezed out of the employees who deal with passengers every day, with decisions made by top management insulated from the problems they are supposed to solve. Many of the problems Amtrak has could be prevented if the people dealing with the problems were given authority to act! Too often simple things like opening a locked deadheaded car to relieve overcrowding on a train requires phone calls back east. Employees are afraid to do common sense things because they could get in trouble for not obeying orders.

About the only good thing Amtrak did in the 1990’s was to try to decentralize itself with the creation of three business units. California fell under Amtrak West. Under Amtrak West the Coast Starlight was allowed many innovations. The Pacific Parlor Car is an example of this. Upgraded service resulted in increased ridership and revenues. If more equipment had been available, more passengers would have ridden the train. Did Amtrak learn and repeat the lessons of the Coast Starlight to its other long distance trains? No, Amtrak has since been “recentralized” and most of the innovations on the Starlight taken away to “save money.”

It would be unfair to pick on just Amtrak’s bureaucracy. Most people work for organizations that share many of the same faults as Amtrak. The problem is that if we want better rail passenger service, we can’t allow things to stay as they are. Politicians are often part of the problem. They love to reorganize things in the name of efficiency by taking several bureaucracies and making one larger bureaucracy. Smaller organizations can concentrate on their core mission. Bureaucracies often have too many balls in the air to handle any of them well. A good example of this is the merging of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC) and the Southern California Rapid Transit District (RTD) into the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). The MTA did such a good job that construction of rail transit came to a halt with often delayed and over budget projects. The Pasadena Gold Line was finally built after years of delay by an independent local agency created only to build the Gold Line on time and on budget, which it did.