Amtrak’s decision is classically bad

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Monday, April 02, 2018

Norfolk & Western 611 passes Concord, Va., with a Lynchburg–Fredericksburg excursion in May 2017. Without a means to gather passenger cars from various locations, such trips would be impossible. Robert S. McGonigal
Amtrak’s announcement last week that it intends to shut down most of its haulage of private cars and its support for special trains was a stunner. Within hours, hundreds or perhaps thousands of people working in the heritage end of railroading scrambled to react.

It hasn’t taken long for a credible protest movement to take root. An official objection was made to Amtrak on behalf of the American Association of Private Car Owners, and a similar move is expected from the Rail Passenger Car Alliance. Railfan social media has erupted with protest exhortations. As of this morning, more than 7,000 people have signed a petition at change.org.

Meanwhile, in this moment of limbo, a number of plans have been put on hold. The Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society has postponed ticket sales for its September 15-16 “Joliet Rocket” trips on Chicago’s Metra, featuring Nickel Plate 2-8-4 No. 765. The operators of West Virginia’s famed New River Train fall foliage trips — a 51-year tradition — are faced with closing up shop. Like all private-car owners, the Washington, D.C., Chapter, NRHS, might wonder when its heavyweight Pullman Dover Harbor might once again turn a wheel. Countless other organizations face the same dilemma. 

Passengers walk down a platform at Chicago Union Station to board Milwaukee Road Skytop car Cedar Rapids in 2009. Under Amtrak's new rules, privately owned cars like the Skytop would be virtually immobilized. Peg McGonigal 
In announcing the new policy, Amtrak President and CEO Richard Anderson cited three main reasons why the company feels this move is necessary: operational distractions from providing for special moves, a failure to capture “fully allocated profit margins,” and delays to paying customers on scheduled trains.

One thing Anderson didn’t mention in his announcement, but should have: the subsidy the American taxpayer gives to prop up his corporation every year. In 2017, that largesse amounted to $1.495 billion.

Anderson’s complaints about the effects of special moves are specious. Amtrak has plenty of “operational distractions,” but most of them have little to do with factors related to private cars or special trains, the grateful operators of which strive mightily to make their moves seamless. As for delays, why isn’t Anderson pointing the finger at the real culprits, some of their Class I partners for whom delaying a passenger train is second nature? As for relative profitability, if it’s true that the “special trains” business operates in the black, how can Amtrak walk away from it? Where else does Amtrak make a profit?

Opponents trying to round up politicians to fight the decision are looking to the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, a section of which states: “Amtrak is encouraged to increase the operation of special trains funded by, or in partnership with, private sector operators through competitive contracting to minimize the need for federal subsidies.”

Four cars owned by printing firm Quad Graphics are on the rear of Amtrak's Capitol Limited departing Chicago in 2013. Robert S. McGonigal 
In the years since that provision was codified in law, Amtrak appears to have benefited greatly from this additional revenue stream. Estimates on the total vary, but some sources peg the total revenue at about $10 million annually, nearly half of which redounds to the company’s bottom line. 

One operating group, Friends of the 261, owners of Milwaukee Road 4-8-4 No. 261 and a large fleet of Milwaukee Road passenger cars, estimates its payments to Amtrak in recent years add up to $2.5 million. As 261 CEO Steve Sandberg puts it, “That is $2.5 million in reduced taxpayer subsidies paid to Amtrak.”

Although I’m no lawyer, I like the legalistic argument Amtrak’s critics are making. That provision in PRIIA seems pretty clear.

But I’d also make a more philosophical argument, and that relates to Amtrak’s status as a corporate citizen. Anderson would have us believe that Amtrak is just like any other company — free to make whatever decisions are necessary to maximize profits. And if those decisions fly in the face of the public interest, so be it.

But Anderson is wrong. Amtrak is not just another average corporation. Implicit in its very constitution (small “c”) 48 years ago was the promise that this soon-to-be passenger-rail monopoly would be obligated to make compromises and concessions in the public interest. Evidence of that is everywhere you look on Amtrak: in its choice of routes to be served, in its decisions on scheduling, in its equipment designs, and most of all in its acceptance every year of that big, fat subsidy check. Which, for 2017, bears repeating: $1.495 billion.

So why should a blogger for Classic Trains magazine care about this? Our mandate is to chronicle what we call the “classic era” of North American railroading, roughly the 1920s through the 1970s. Theoretically our interest ends there. 

Heavyweight bedroom-lounge car Dover Harbor, a true national treasure, faces a bleak future unless Amtrak revises its private car policy. Robert S. McGonigal
But it doesn’t. One reason we celebrate the classic era of railroads is because important parts of it survive today, thanks to the passion and dedication of thousands of people. These people are among Amtrak’s most fervent supporters. 

It’s baffling why Anderson would so casually toss aside such a constituency, a group Trains Editor David P. Morgan could have been describing when he wrote this more than 50 years ago: “No other industry in the land possesses such an audience. It is unpaid, inquisitive, full of good will, enthusiastic. There is simply no counterpart for it in America.”

I’m not ready to give up on Amtrak yet, and I hope you won’t. It appears there is still time to have your voice heard. Call your congressman, sign a petition, write a letter to Amtrak, find a productive outlet on social media. With a little luck, we might still be able to see Dover Harbor go sailing past the platform at Princeton Junction, hear the pulse of NKP 765 as it pounds out of Fort Wayne, roll into Thurmond, W.Va., with a trainload of happy passengers, or enjoy a hundred other classic moments. 

Richard Anderson, are you listening?

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