What is Next for Amtrak?

Editorial by Noel T. Braymer

Amtrak was created by politics and remains a child of politics. The recent resignation of Amtrak President Kummant doesn’t come as a major surprise. It is doubtful that he would have the support of the new administration. There are stories of friction between Mr. Kummant and the Amtrak Board. Also the credit problems hitting the world economy are also having an effect on Amtrak which may be a factor in Kummant’s calling it quits. The issue of who will be the next Amtrak President is secondary as to what is to be done about the Amtrak bureaucracy. Presidents seem to come and go but the culture of the Amtrak bureaucracy stays the same.

Like most bureaucracies, Amtrak tends to concentrate its efforts around the areas employing the most bureaucrats. More than half of Amtrak is tied up on the North East Corridor, and its headquarters are in Washington. Because of this Amtrak has an East Coast orientation and spends more of its energies thinking about Washington politics than operating a good National Rail service. Amtrak has gone out of its way to justify its ownership of the NEC at the expense of the rest of the National Rail Passenger System. RailPAC for years has criticized Amtrak’s accounting system which charges costs from the NEC on trains of the National System to make the NEC look better. This creates cost estimates that make it almost impossible to get Amtrak to make basic service improvements. This same fallacy is behind the route cuts which never saves Amtrak money, but every time has cut revenues for Amtrak.

If left to themselves, the bureaucrats of Amtrak Management would cut most of the National System to the NEC and a few regional corridor services which they would charge States what they like to run. Often there is criticism that there is too much political interference on Amtrak’s Management. Yet too often the political intervention of elected officials is much more on the mark than Amtrak’s bureaucrats. Recently local congressional representatives have called for the return of the Sunset back to Florida, the return of the Pioneer to Utah, Idaho and Oregon and the return of rail passenger service to Southern Montana. These are all common sense services which should never have been eliminated. But Amtrak Management will claim they are all uneconomical.

The best chance for truly National Rail Passenger Service is from grass roots lobbying of Congress. Given a good case, elected officials who want to be reelected will respond and support a rational improved service for their constituency. The amount of money needed for the National System is fairly small; most of it is for capital for new equipment and will result in reducing the operating costs of Amtrak. There is increased excitement about higher speed corridors between large cities. While express trains have their place, they must me seen as part of a system. Corridor trains may carry a lot of passengers, but often with high expenses and low revenues. Long Distance passengers often pay much more than corridor passenger. This is because they both pay by the mile and long distance passengers run up more passenger miles. The result is long distance trains yield much more revenue per train than corridor trains.

The best thing that can happen for Amtrak is growth. More routes, more trains, more equipment and more passengers will mean more money, political influence and reduce the need for subsidy. The long standing games played by the Amtrak bureaucracy with its accounting must be replaced with an accurate measure of the incremental costs of expanding rail service. Amtrak needs to be part of a system, where its trains connect with local transit and commuter rail and its local trains connect with its long distance trains. Better connections and service translates into higher revenues and happier passengers. Local groups need to talk to their elected officials with concrete plans that will improve Amtrak’s service. In turn elected officials with be better able to propose steps that Amtrak can do to grow rail service. As history has shown we can’t depend on Washington to deal with rail problems in California, Florida or Idaho if it is left to the bureaucrats.