Amtrak's big little secret

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, October 1, 2009

Buried deep within the language of the Passenger Rail Investment & Improvement Act of 2008, passed by Congress and signed by President Bush 11 months ago, is some startling language that could affect Amtrak service four years from now. It boils down to this: By Oct. 13, 2013, any train or route of less than 750 miles outside of the Boston-Washington Northeast Corridor must be state-funded, or it will not be operated.
 
Did you know that? I didn’t, until told by Stephen Gardner, Amtrak’s vice president of policy and development, during the course of a recent interview.
 
My first reaction: Prove it. Stephen showed me the language in the legislation.
 
My second reaction: This is the end of the world! How will cash-strapped states come up with money to pay for all of these trains? Much rending of garments ensued.
 
My third reaction: This isn’t such a big deal. The vast majority of short-haul services are already state-supported.
 
But two states will definitely have to fork over big bucks starting in 2014. One is New York, whose Empire Service between New York City and Albany Amtrak has always funded in its entirety. Presently, a dozen pairs of trains operate on weekdays (not counting the Lake Shore Limited to and from Chicago), and three pairs of those 12 trains run to and from Buffalo. Ouch.
 
The other state under the gun will be Michigan. It does subsidize the Chicago-Port Huron Blue Water and the Chicago-Grand Rapids Pere Marquette. But Amtrak picks up the full tab for the three Chicago-Detroit-Pontiac Wolverines. I sure hope Michigan finds the money.
 
Speaking of money, the act also requires Amtrak and states to all agree on a common way to calculate state subsidies. Right now, some states have deficit-recovery formulas more stringent than others. The law gives the parties some leeway in setting subsidy levels. If agreement among all concerned cannot be reached, then the Surface Transportation Board must order that states pay subsidies based on fully allocated costs rather than just, say, direct operating costs. Should that happen, few short-haul trains would survive. Says Gardner: “Thus, I believe there is lots of motivation for us all to work something out together.”

If I've worried you, here's something to smile about: The pre-inaugural (top, Sept. 30) and inaugural (bottomn, Oct. 1) runs of Virginia's new state-supported round trip between Washington and Lynchburg. Both photos were taken in Alexandria, and my thanks to John Fuller. Like Virginia, any state that wants quality Amtrak service in years to come will have to become railroad-savvy.—Fred W. Frailey

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