Amtrak has stalled out, and here's why

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Sunday, August 24, 2014

Thanks to all of you who read and responded to my blog The Joe Boardman-David Gunn Summit. I enjoyed all your comments. C.P. Crosby, in particular, made me reflect on something: Why haven’t states that subsidize Amtrak trains lavished more attention on them? To my knowledge, only Washington and Oregon have tried to manage the service, to the tune of buying Talgo trainsets and organizing a unique (and delicious) food menu in the comfortable cafe cars. The train I love to hate, the New York-Montreal Adirondack, begs for tender loving care of this sort but gets none.

But I want to get back to Joe and Dave’s summit, whenever it is. I think they should reflect on whether Amtrak will ever get out of the fix it has been in most of its 43 years. The fix is this: Congress grudgingly keeps it alive, but such is the American political system that it cannot supply the money needed to make it thrive, even in the Northeast Corridor (especially in the Northeast Corridor).

Like it or not, the U.S. is a low-tax, small-government nation; that’s the way our political system is wired, and I don’t expect it to change much, except for the squeeze on tax revenues to get worse. People my age are retiring and getting sick, and those two trends by themselves are doing in the federal budget. All the other demands for the federal purse are fighting over a smaller and smaller purse.

So like the addled old aunt who is kept out of sight in the attic, Amtrak is fed just enough to keep it alive, but never enough to become healthy or grow. The people who run the NEC are as smart and dedicated a bunch of railroaders as I’ve ever come across. They know what needs to be done to breath new life into it. It’s just that the money has never been there and, as the Amtrak and the political system are presently structured, the money never will be. So the NEC slowly falls into more and more disrepair; the trains are assuredly safe to operate, but the infrastructure they depend upon becomes older and more brittle each passing year.

It’s a lesson I’ve surely learned: Don’t depend upon a government to keep a business alive. Imagine what American freight railroads would be like today, with their almost unimaginable capital appetites, if they had been nationalized instead of deregulated in 1980.

So I hope Joe and David talk a bit, as they swish their drinks, about how to create a different business model, either for Amtrak itself or for the Northeast Corridor in particular. Several months ago in Trains Magazine, I floated the idea of a couple of veteran railroaders (who wished to go unnamed) for separating the NEC from the rest of Amtrak and leasing it for some decades to a private company, which would be compensated by user fees. The enterprise would be underwritten by a multi-billion Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing (RRIF) loan from the Department of Transportation, which would be used to begin the reconstruction of the NEC. The important distinction to make about a RRIF loan is that it’s a balance sheet transaction that is not part of the federal budget.

I sense that almost nobody at Amtrak wants to let go of the NEC, for any reason. That’s understandable; it’s their railroad. But going to Congress every year, hat in hand, to ask for money to even start the needed work in the Corridor is a nonstarter. How many years do you have to fail at this to understand?

Joe, David: Suggest some alternatives, please.—Fred W. Frailey

To leave a comment you must be a member of our community.
Login to your account now, or register for an account to start participating.
No one has commented yet.

Join our Community!

Our community is FREE to join. To participate you must either login or register for an account.

Search the Community

Newsletter Sign-Up

By signing up you may also receive occasional reader surveys and special offers from Trains magazine.Please view our privacy policy