Amtrak's Great Debate begins

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Amtrak is headed in a major new direction. The Wall Street Journal reported today that the company will reveal as early as next month its plan to redesign the route structure outside of the Northeast Corridor, with emphasis on the fast-growing South and West. The idea is to run trains between big city pairs in these regions during the times of day that people travel—in other words, during daylight. This comes with a problem for many of you: Many if not most of the long-distance trains along these corridors would be sacrificed.

I think it’s a debate we need to have. The country has changed mightily in the 48 years since Amtrak got started, but not so Amtrak’s route structure. In a blog several months ago I imagined a different Amtrak. My exercise, which I invited you to share, was to run the same number of trains miles on long-distance routes as now but run them differently. I found myself deemphasizing the overnight long-distance trains in many cases. This appears to be what Amtrak is doing now.

Stephen Gardner, Amtrak’s senior executive vice president commercial, marketing and strategy—is that a long enough title for you?—telegraphed exactly what’s in store during a 30-minute presentation at Rail Trends in New York City in November. Stephen didn’t lay out any specific suggestions, but he did state the problem. I’m going to skim you through his presentation.

“We’re looking at a different America. They do not live half in the city and half in the country. Now the vast majority live in major metropolitan areas. And those metro areas are shifting. The Northeast will be a net loser. Where growth is happening is in the South, Mountain West and West. And guess who lives in those metro areas? It’s Millennials, by far. [Gardner later states that Millennials are grossly underrepresented on long-distance trains.] What this creates is a mismatch between population density, transportation demand and our current network.

“The question is whether we can adapt and serve these markets. . . .Texas and Florida are two of the biggest and fastest growing states. We have negligible service. How do we get passenger rail in those markets? We have a bunch of products there that aren’t working.

“The vast majority of trips are short distance. And 85 percent come from the top metro areas. . . .Long distance trains will always be a key part of our business. But the vast majority of the riders of these trains go less than 600 miles. . . .Only 8 percent of the coach passengers go the whole distance. Only 250,000 people purchase a sleeper in our network, a very small group. Our long distance trains are being used for shorter distances, in our corridors. . . .We have a shrinking long-distance business over time. As a proportion of our ridership it gets smaller. Poor on-time performance is a huge liability, and we need better equipment and food. We have to appeal to a broader group of folks than just retirees who have the luxury of taking a trip once a year. . . . We are trading route miles for passenger trips by serving a lot of route miles but not a lot of people.”

What Gardner implied then and what the Journal reported today are that Amtrak wants to serve more people with the subsidy it receives from the federal government. The article used an example from my blog: Divide the City of New Orleans into daylight trains between Chicago and Memphis and Memphis and New Orleans. Also mentioned was Charlotte-Atlanta by daylight. At Rail Trends, Gardner lamented there is no Amtrak service between Dallas and Houston.

My in-box lit up today with angry emails. One friend says we need both today’s long-distance trains and short-haul trains within those longer routes. And Congress will pay for all this and President Trump will affix his signature? I don’t think so! Amtrak cannot count on a bigger government dole and appears to understand this. What I think you will see is a network that keeps the Empire Builder, California Zephyr, Auto Train, a combined Silver Meteor-Silver Star, a New York-Chicago or Washington-Chicago train (but not both) and not much else. But layered over that could be any number of short-distance runs—besides the ones just mentioned, perhaps Chicago-Kansas City, Mobile-New Orleans, Las Vegas-Los Angeles, Salt Lake City-Boise, Buffalo-Cleveland-Toledo-Chicago, Charleston-Savannah-Jacksonville-Orlando-Tampa, Tampa-Miami and Oklahoma City-Fort Worth-San Antonio (or Houston).

There are problems, the first of which seems insurmountable. Amtrak’s experience in starting new services or increasing frequencies is that it must pay to expand capacity on host railroads. Usually the bill is a Christmas wish list submitted by the Class I, CSX Transportation and Union Pacific being the worst offenders. Still, it’s their property and their capacity that Amtrak seeks to soak up.

The other problem is legal. These new trains would be almost all under 750 miles in length, and by current law the states they traverse are required to pay for them. Unless Amtrak thinks it can perform this magic (or unless I am missing something), there needs to be some change in federal law to let Amtrak run such trains as part of its national system. Amtrak’s authorization must be renewed by Congress in 2021, and this is probably where everything will be hashed out.

So this is where we stand: That train you were going to ride, someday? Ride it, soon. We’re going to have the Great Debate that is long overdue. You have your chance to have your say with your members of Congress. Fred will make a lot of money blogging and bloviating. Does life get better than this?—Fred W. Frailey

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