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Commentary

RailPAC’s Senate Joint Resolution is Adopted by Both Houses

This was our first attempt for many years to obtain legislative support for our position re the National Network interstate trains.  It was heavily amended by Assembly staff and some of the stronger language removed.  I would have pushed back on some of the changes but we had only two weeks to line up support before the session ended at the end of August.  It’s still a useful statement and a powerful contribution in the fight for the National Network.

http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billTextClient.xhtml?bill_id=201720180SJR30

 

Amtrak National Network Campaign 2018, Commentary

Another unanswered letter – RailPAC to Amtrak Chair Coscia

In this letter I tried to be polite, and not as hostile as I might have been.  At about the same time as this was sent the New Jersey ARP wrote specifically calling for Anderson’s dismissal.  There is now a clear pattern, as reported by Bill Vantuono of Railway Age, of simply ignoring the media and advocacy groups.  Difficult questions?  Easiest answer is to ignore them.

Here’s what I wrote to Coscia:

Mr. Anthony Coscia                                                                                                            13th July, 2018

Chairman of the Board

National Railroad Passenger Corporation

60 Massachusetts Avenue NE

Washington DC 20002-4285

 

Dear Mr. Coscia:

 

RailPAC is a 501c3 all volunteer California corporation that has, since 1978, campaigned for the improvement of mobility for all by increased passenger rail service.  We support the National Network of overnight trains as well as regional and commuter services.  We are recognized at State and local level as having been influential in the establishment and expansion of rail passenger service in California, and for having considerable expertise among our members.

It is our understanding that public policy, enunciated in legislation in 1971 and confirmed many times since, is for the United States to have a National Network of passenger trains, to be operated by NRPC.

It appears to us that, by his statements and actions, your recently appointed CEO Mr. Richard Anderson is not aware of the support for the National Network among many key constituencies, or the negative financial consequences and loss of political support if the national route structure is destroyed. In his interactions with the congressional delegates from Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico, he seems to have been so badly briefed by his staff that the presentation made by NRPC contained deliberately deceptive statements that amounted to falsehoods in their description of the performance of the Southwest Chief. It is hard for my organization to imagine that this is the intention of you and your board.

Over the years the National Network of overnight trains has been blamed for Amtrak’s deficits.  We disagree.  The National Network generates more passenger miles and revenue than the Northeast Corridor and is mostly hampered by being starved of investment and freight railroad issues for at least two decades.  You and your Board should remember that the NEC was not part of the original Amtrak and that it was dumped on the company in 1976, because no other agency wanted to take on the crippling backlog of infrastructure repairs.  With $300 – $400 million in yearly maintenance costs and $30 to $50 Billion in state of good repair and capacity needs, it’s the NEC that is the burden on Amtrak, not the National Network.

Part of Mr. Anderson’s announced policy is to operate medium distance corridors in “partnership” with the States.  Again, he appears to have been given a very poor analysis of the State’s appetite for participation in such ventures.  Surely the Board, in its experience, does not expect States like Arizona and Kansas to pay for a rail service which is currently a federal program?  Look at recent events in Alabama.  Yet this seems to be what he is proposing. Indeed, if the National Network no longer exists, what need would California have for Amtrak? The National Network is a federal program and should remain so, even if this requires amending PRIIA legislation.

We cannot say whether Mr. Anderson’s statements and policies are the result of information he is receiving from officers of the company, from direction of the Board, or from other influences. NRPC Board should immediately issue a clarification.  Is it still the role of NRPC to operate a National Network of passenger trains?  If so, you need to give direction to your CEO to carry out that policy. You may also wish to institute some inquiries regarding the information that was given to Congress regarding the Southwest Chief.

RailPAC will not blindly support NRPC policy; indeed, we will actively oppose the destruction of the National Network, which is a national asset whose full potential is yet to be realized and we will make every effort to prevent the expenditure of any state funds to pay for interstate rail service.

Yours faithfully,

ORIGINAL SIGNED

PAUL DYSON

Paul Dyson, President, pdyson@railpac.org                                  cc RailPAC Board and interested parties

818 371 9516

Amtrak National Network Campaign 2018, Commentary, Issues

Amtrak’s Accounting – George Chilson

Amtrak’s Route Accounting: Fatally Flawed, Misleading & Wrong

The Rail Passengers Association (RPA) strongly believes that the ongoing debate concerning the future shape of Amtrak’s national network has been distorted by its use of fully allocated costs rather than avoidable costs as required by statute. The adverse outcome of using fully allocated costs is the widespread and incorrect perception that Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor is financially self-sufficient and that Amtrak’s need for taxpayer funding results entirely from its operation of passenger trains in the rest of the nation – the National Network, which consists of state supported regional and federally supported long distance routes.

In our companion White Paper, RPA explains why fully allocated costing combined with Amtrak’s catastrophically flawed route accounting system grossly misrepresents – and exaggerates – the public cost of providing passenger trains as a mobility choice for the entire nation. Faulty route accounting has, in turn, led to the popular misconception that the abandonment of long-distance trains will eliminate Amtrak’s need for taxpayer funding. Nothing could be further from the truth. The funding needed for the Northeast Corridor dwarfs that of what’s needed for the rest of the nation. RPA’s white paper explains the history of Amtrak’s route accounting methodology and demonstrates that if Amtrak applied the more economically sound avoidable costing methodology to assess the performance of its various routes, Amtrak’s leadership team would not be working to replace the current national network with disconnected groups of short distance regional trains serving only a small number of major metropolitan areas.

The Rail Passengers Association asks Congress to require Amtrak immediately to halt all route, schedule and frequency reductions as well as recent on-board service modifications; then require Amtrak’s leadership team to explain to, and gain the approval of, the Congress, the states and stakeholders of its vision of the passenger train system and service they envision for the future. Cover, concealment and stealth tactics are appropriate for a military operation but not for a Government Sponsored Enterprise whose purpose is to provide passenger train service to the nation.

For more than 13 years, Congress and other federal agencies have called for more accurate, precise and transparent reporting of Amtrak’s component routes. Numerous arms of government including the Federal Railroad Administration, the USDOT Office of Inspector General (OIG) and the General Accounting Office have all found Amtrak’s route accounting system deficient and not compliant with federal statute requiring disclosure of avoidable costs. The end result has been a false framing of Northeast Corridor services as “profitable” and the rest of the system as “unprofitable.” Neither can exist without federal taxpayer support.

Congress should demand that Amtrak comply with the already in place laws, regulations and Congressional mandates and make public the financial performance of each individual route employing the avoidable cost methodology. In the interim, Congress should require Amtrak to refrain from any further route and on-board service until it reveals its plans for the future system and the economic analysis underlying it to public scrutiny, analysis and agreement. Congress must assert oversight of Amtrak — a Government Sponsored Enterprise – and not allow Amtrak to operate by stealth and deception. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

Amtrak National Network Campaign 2018, Commentary

Anderson to California, Congress, and Amtrak Employees – ********

Just heard from an unimpeachable source that Anderson has told employees that the current operation of the Southwest Chief is unacceptable and will be changed.

Here’s the full text, bold or italics are mine:

We know many of you have concerns about the status of the Southwest Chief. Here’s an update:

We are considering changes to the route and operation of the Southwest Chief. No decision has been made yet on our long-term operation of the entire Southwest Chief route, but a portion of the route faces unique challenges because of extensive operational and capital investment costs required to continue the present service. We are considering all options on how to make this route work, given the changing needs of our passengers, our limited resources and the expectations of Congress to deliver this service safely and efficiently. What we want you and our stakeholders to know is that the status quo is not an option – we or others either have to invest more or make changes.

We are looking specifically at changes to the Southwest Chief because it requires a lot of capital investment to keep it running “as is.” The Southwest Chief currently loses more than $50M every year, and we will need to invest more than $100M in the next 3-5 years to bring the route to a State of Good Repair and to fully implement Positive Train Control, plus additional operating expenses that will likely add to the train’s annual losses. We are responsible for all maintenance and capital costs for a 219-mile stretch of the route between Colorado and New Mexico. Also, Positive Train Control is not installed on a 348-mile stretch between Dodge City, Kan., and Albuquerque. No other Amtrak route has this combination of operational losses with capital investment needs. And this is an issue for us because we have a clear mandate from Congress, which is stated in the FAST Act, to deliver our services in a cost-effective manner, and we are falling short of this mandate with the Southwest Chief. We have many capital needs at Amtrak, and we have limited resources. We have to balance the needs of the Southwest Chief with the needs of the rest of our National Network, including all of our other Long Distance trains.

We know that many of our customers and stakeholders value this route – and we are evaluating all options. We are continuing to have conversations with members of the Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico congressional delegations and state and local leaders about the various options and funding needs. In addition, we will have senior executives onboard the Southwest Chief next week to talk with our stakeholders along the route.

We will provide updates as new information becomes available. In the meantime, we ask that everyone continue to provide excellent service and hospitality to our Southwest Chief customers and continue to operate safely and with the high degree of professionalism that defines our employees.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

As I warned, victory celebrations for the Chief were certainly premature.  this is just the beginning of a determined effort to eliminate the National Network.

Advocacy groups are working on a response to this, updates will follow.

Previous comments about the Riverside reservation center appear to be premature, but we continue to verify.

Pdyson@railpac.org

 

 

Commentary

RailPAC California State Legislative Resolution SJR-30

RailPAC initiates California State Legislature Resolution to support the National Network and invest in new rolling stock.
Senator Mark McGuire today (Thursday August 9th, 2018) introduced Senate Joint Resolution 30 (SJR 30), drafted by RailPAC, with language that calls for an end to the Amtrak plans to break up the National Network into short corridors funded by the States.  The full language will be posted on line soon and is subject to amendment.  The Resolution already had seven co-authors including Senate Transportation Committee chair Jim Beall.  It has been co-authored in the Assembly by Laura Friedman, (Burbank).  The purpose of this resolution is to send a strong and clear message to Amtrak, the US Department of Transportation, and the Congress, that California supports the National network and wants a fair share of Amtrak’s investment dollars.
This exciting development is the result of the close personal contacts of RailPAC member Richard Spotswood and the regular visits to the Capitol by RailPAC President Paul Dyson, Vice President Steve Roberts, Director Doug Kerr and member Geoff McLennan.  Every quarter we hand deliver Steel Wheels to each legislators office as well as the committee offices and State offices in Sacramento and introduce ourselves to the members or their staffs.
We need your help to get this passed.  CALL YOUR SENATOR AND ASSEMBLYMEMBER. Tell them you are from RailPAC and ask for them to support SJR – 30 (McGuire).
If you need help locating your representatives, go to:
Don’t put this off.  This will come up for a vote in the next week to ten days,
Let’s get this done, and who knows, maybe next year we can get a bill passed.
Contact me with any questions,
+++++++++++++++++
Amtrak National Network Campaign 2018, Commentary

ATK, CEO, OTP, PTC, F&B, BLT, UP, etc. Challenges, challenges.

Commentary by Russ Jackson

Here we are in August, 2018.  What a summer it has been on the nerves of rail advocates!  Just how different has it been from August in 2008, 1998, 1988 or 1978?  Not much.  Each of the symbols in the title of this article are just as important to the future of rail passenger transportation as in any decade.

ATK.  That’s Amtrak, and here we are in the 5th decade where Amtrak has had the monopoly on rail passenger service in this country.  There have been many positives over the years, but there have been many criticisms that recur year after year and never seem to be “solved,” all of which would have contributed to making Amtrak thrive and possibly prevented the dire straits Amtrak has found itself in. Some advocate organizations have whitewashed the shortcomings, preferring to tout the fact that we have a national system of trains for us to ride, and to be too critical risks losing what we have.  Well, here we are in 2018 and what is the foremost problem facing us?  Right, it’s the highest risk of losing the national system than at any time in Amtrak’s history.  This writer congratulates RailPAC’s Paul Dyson, RPA’s Peter LeCody, the U.S. Senators from Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico plus Illinois and California, and the local community leaders along the route of Amtrak’s endangered Southwest Chief for the leadership they have shown to preserve that train, as well as those individuals and organizations in other states who have stood up and joined the fight on other issues from coast to coast.

CEO.  That ‘s Chief Executive Officer.  What we have now at Amtrak is a CEO who has come to the railroad with no railroad experience and brought with him executives who have executive experience, but no cultural background in passenger rail.  They are number crunchers, and while that is not totally disqualifying it is not enough for them to be entering a whole new experience without knowing what they were getting into.  Now they are finding out what “rail advocacy” means.  There is a whole industry of folks with memories of what rail passenger service was and should be, and are not afraid to speak up in its behalf.  There isn’t a similar national constituency that speaks for any other transportation mode.  The actions of the current Amtrak CEO this year have taken a toll on riders, company employees and their unions, and communities across the country.  What we now see in August is the “stand up for the national system” crowd is having a positive effect.  Have you noticed that Amtrak’s CEO has been very quiet for the last few weeks?  It “isn’t over until it’s over,” as Yogi used to say.  We can only hope CEO Richard Anderson hasn’t hunkered down waiting for the storm to pass before acting again.  Meanwhile, let’s detail some of the same old problems and see if he has been totally quiet.

PTC.  That’s Positive Train Control, the federally mandated system designed to prevent accidents on the railroads.  PTC is supposed to be implemented on all railroad owners by the end of 2018, and some are farther along in compliance than others.  Amtrak’s CEO is declaring this end of the year date as a mandate on him to preserve Amtrak service on any segment that Amtrak uses, and has threatened loss of service to any that are not compliant.  That includes the historic “Santa Fe” line across western Kansas, southeastern Colorado, and northern New Mexico currently carrying the Southwest Chief and no freight trains south of LaJunta, CO.  Another smaller segment is the line between Dallas and Ft. Worth, Texas, that carries the Texas Eagle and the TRE commuter trains.  The TRE told NBC5 in Dallas in a long report that they are working on implementing PTC, but a “shortage of funds and required equipment” may cause them to not be ready until 2019.  What will Amtrak do in that case or the other similar short segments?  Is the Denver to Grand Junction CO California Zephyr line in similar jeopardy?  Is that the next national system train in jeopardy?

OTP.  That’s On Time Performance.  When in Amtrak’s history has that not been an issue?  Amtrak’s Anderson has said in effect that they are tired of pushing the freight railroads day after day about running the trains on time.  We are tired of it being an issue, but it is inevitable that as long as the passenger trains are running on the lines owned by the freight railroads that conflicts will occur.  The U.S. Senate has passed a measure “to analyze impact of Amtrak’s on-time performance.”  And it passed 99-0.  RailPAC’s Steve Roberts says, “OTP is a major driver of repeat ridership, hence ticket revenue and costs.  Improved OTP would improve a lot of metrics for rail service.  I think the lopsided vote is a testament to the heightened awareness as a result of the Southwest Chief situation.  Maybe there is method (planned or unplanned) behind the Amtrak madness.”  We await the results, but conflicts are bound to happen on any line at any time that are not preventable.

F&B.  That’s Food and Beverage.  One of the first challenges that Amtrak’s CEO thrust upon the riding public was removing the Pacific Parlour Cars from the Coast Starlight.  Rumors persist that Mr. Anderson discovered only one person in the car, who wondered why it was there, then he acted.  Maybe yes, maybe no, but the only “first class” service on the national system disappeared overnight.  Then he changed the meal service on two eastern national system trains, the Lake Shore and The Capitol, and substituted box meals while reducing “costs” by eliminating positions in the Dining cars on those trains.  The firestorm of protest is still being heard.  If we wanted box meals we can get them from Kentucky Chicken, we said,  Now one hot meal has returned as an option, but it still comes in a box.  Look on www.AmtrakFoodFacts.com,  click on a train and see what is offered.  Thankfully that regretable option has not spread to other national system trains.  Yet.  OH, WAIT A MINUTE.  As this is being written we are hearing that the same process is going to be instituted in the Texas Eagle Diner-Lounges in September!  OH OH.

BLT.  That, of course, is a bacon-lettuce-tomato sandwhich, and this writer has called for the inclusion of such a self-descriptive item on Amtrak’s menus (with other similar highly recognized items) because it is so simple, inexpensive, and any rider can recognize it and want to go to the Dining car to buy it.  What we will look at next on this topic is some of the language that “fancies up” some Amtrak menu choices.  When you see “orzo, prosciutto, sopperssta, cannellini, arcadian, julienne, balsamic, quinoa, edamame” on the menu do you understand what is offered?  Many folks do not, and when they are told that it could also be called a high quality ham and cheese sandwich, well, then they understand.  Why do menu writers think they have to be so fancy?  Or, when they write that there is an “antipasto plate” and it contains “prosciutto, sopressata and smoked turkey, smoked Gruyere and aged Asiago cheese, artichoke hearts, stuffed olives, cornichons, grape tomatoes, cillengini and crisp Italkan bread sticks served with Colavita limonlio, cannellini bean salad and salted cheese cake” the only thing I hear is “cheese cake.”  Yum.  Oh, there is no longer any ice cream on menus.  And, where is the “mac and cheese” choice for everyone?  

UP.  Yes, the Union Pacific Railroad.  While the UP is only one of the freight railroads that Amtrak must deal with day by day, month by month, and year by year, the UP is one that can quickly accommodate GROWTH (this writer’s favorite epithet aimed at Amtrak and its non-growth policies), such as a daily Sunset Limited.  The UP’s CEO recently appeared at the National Press Club in Washington DC, and while he is a very articulate spokesperson for the industry and most of the hour interview pertained to PTC and other railroad issues, in the last five minutes questioners brought up Amtrak.  He explained that he intends to accommodate Amtrak trains on the system as long as he has to, BUT, he is not going to be receptive to any new trains.  We have seen that attitude from his predecessors and expect nothing less in the future, requiring a huge amount of effort on the part of Amtrak’s administration and the Congress.   Are they up to it?  Do they want to be?   The are more so now.  Let’s GROW!

Solutions to these challenges are required to make Amtrak a truly national system of high quality train experiences that will entice more riders, bring badly needed new equipment on line nationally, and through realistic marketing will make it possible for this writer and future generations of rail advocates to be proud to support what it can become.  Don’t laugh, that is a must-see outcome of this summer’s debacle too.  As Andrew Selden wrote in Railway Age recently, “A small part of the issue is that Amtrak’s senior managers foolishly misapprehend the character of its customers on long-distance trains as consisting of “discretionary,” “leisure” or “experiential” travelers. These customers, according to Amtrak’s strategy, seemingly also are “dispensable.” That view would be a rude surprise to management at Carnival (or a dozen other cruise ship operators), scores of tourist railroads (like the Durango & Silverton), or any of a dozen airlines that are growing as fast as they can finance new aircraft. All of these carriers are adding amenities, not subtracting them. They staff their stations, feed their customers, build their fleets, and haul away the money they make. But not Amtrak”.  Readers, you must keep on top of the story this summer, and most of you have.  Onward to GROWTH! 
editrail@aol.com

 

Commentary

RailPAC Letter to Amtrak Chair Coscia

RailPAC

Mr. Anthony Coscia                                                                                                            13th July, 2018

Chairman of the Board

National Railroad Passenger Corporation

60 Massachusetts Avenue NE

Washington DC 20002-4285

 

Dear Mr. Coscia:

 

RailPAC is a 501c3 all volunteer California corporation that has, since 1978, campaigned for the improvement of mobility for all by increased passenger rail service.  We support the National Network of overnight trains as well as regional and commuter services.  We are recognized at State and local level as having been influential in the establishment and expansion of rail passenger service in California, and for having considerable expertise among our members.

 

It is our understanding that public policy, enunciated in legislation in 1971 and confirmed many times since, is for the United States to have a National Network of passenger trains, to be operated by NRPC.

It appears to us that, by his statements and actions, your recently appointed CEO Mr. Richard Anderson is not aware of the support for the National Network among many key constituencies, or the negative financial consequences and loss of political support if the national route structure is destroyed. In his interactions with the congressional delegates from Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico, he seems to have been so badly briefed by his staff that the presentation made by NRPC contained deliberately deceptive statements that amounted to falsehoods in their description of the performance of the Southwest Chief. It is hard for my organization to imagine that this is the intention of you and your board.

 

Over the years the National Network of overnight trains has been blamed for Amtrak’s deficits.  We disagree.  The National Network generates more passenger miles and revenue than the Northeast Corridor and is mostly hampered by being starved of investment and freight railroad issues for at least two decades.  You and your Board should remember that the NEC was not part of the original Amtrak and that it was dumped on the company in 1976, because no other agency wanted to take on the crippling backlog of infrastructure repairs.  With $300 – $400 million in yearly maintenance costs and $30 to $50 Billion in state of good repair and capacity needs, it’s the NEC that is the burden on Amtrak, not the National Network.

 

Part of Mr. Anderson’s announced policy is to operate medium distance corridors in “partnership” with the States.  Again, he appears to have been given a very poor analysis of the State’s appetite for participation in such ventures.  Surely the Board, in its experience, does not expect States like Arizona and Kansas to pay for a rail service which is currently a federal program?  Look at recent events in Alabama.  Yet this seems to be what he is proposing. Indeed, if the National Network no longer exists, and with high-speed rail on the horizon what need would California have for Amtrak? The National Network is a federal program and should remain so, even if this requires amending PRIIA legislation.

 

We cannot say whether Mr. Anderson’s statements and policies are the result of information he is receiving from officers of the company, from direction of the Board, or from other influences. NRPC Board should immediately issue a clarification.  Is it still the role of NRPC to operate a National Network of passenger trains?  If so, you need to give direction to your CEO to carry out that policy. You may also wish to institute some enquiries regarding the information that was given to Congress regarding the Southwest Chief.

 

RailPAC will not blindly support NRPC policy; indeed, we will actively oppose the destruction of the National Network, which is a national asset whose full potential is yet to be realized and make efforts to prevent the expenditure of any state funds to pay for interstate rail service.

 

Yours faithfully,

ORIGINAL SIGNED

PAUL DYSON

Paul Dyson, President, pdyson@railpac.org                                  cc RailPAC Board and interested parties

818 371 9516

Amtrak National Network Campaign 2018, Commentary, The Steel Wheels Column

Amtrak debt free says Anderson – Amtrak FY17 audited balance sheet says otherwise

At the now notorious Los Angeles Rail Summit in April one of Anderson’s most extraordinary comment was that Amtrak is, or shortly will be, “debt-free”.
The FY’17 audited balance sheet, thoughtfully posted on their website, reports current liabilities of $1.6 billion, of which $136 million is the current maturities of long term debt and capital leases, and the rest is other current debt, plus $1.053 billion in various long term debt and capital lease obligations.
Amtrak’s total direct indebtedness thus is around $2.7 billion, plus whatever is secured by the rarely-mentioned mortgage of the NEC to the United States. Plus, of course, the $25 billion (or whatever it is now) in the “State Of Good Repair deficit” in the NEC.
Plus its “other liabilities” on the balance sheet that add up to another $3.2 billion.
Plus $10.9 billion in preferred stock held by the government.
Now Anderson was not appointed to his position because of his abilities as an accountant, but there can be no excuse for the statement that he made.
Thanks to Andy Selden of MinnARP for digging up the facts.
Amtrak National Network Campaign 2018, Commentary

SPLIT AMTRAK – The current structure is dysfunctional – Richard Spotswood

A 21ST CENTURY MODEL FOR AMERICAN PASSENGER RAIL

By: Dick Spotswood.

 

THE DILEMMA: It’s now obvious that Amtrak, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, and its new management under former Delta Airlines CEO Richard Anderson, regards its principal responsibility as making the Northeast Corridor America’s first true high-speed rail route.

That’s a worthy goal and no easy task. Running from Boston south through seven states and the District of Columbia, the Northeast Corridor is the central transportation axis for southern New England and the Middle Atlantic states.

The dilemma is that Amtrak’s mandate is not limited to the northeastern states. Amtrak’s official name is the NATIONAL Railroad Passenger Corporation. Some forget that the rail passenger corporation’s mandate has always been to provide a truly national rail system. Unfortunately, it’s a role that Anderson, the current Amtrak board and much of its senior staff gives mere lip service.

It’s time for America to have two intercity rail passenger operators: The current Amtrak in the eight-state/District of Columbia Northeast Corridor and a brand-new passenger corporation providing a high level of services for the remaining forty-two states.

Amtrak’s current priority, whether it is staff time, innovation, planning or allocation of fiscal resources, is the right-of-way between Boston and Washington. The reality is that the Northeast Corridor is perceived by the corporation as the prime reason for its existence. The national system serves as little more than a useful political device when it comes time for the public passenger carrier to seek federal subsidies.

When times are fiscally tough, those trains provide Amtrak’s current management with a convenient scape goat: blame deficits on long-distance trains. While based on erroneous data, it’s a task facilitated by Amtrak’s dysfunctional opaque accounting system and a political agenda that places the Northeast Corridor as priority one. A correct accounting that includes capital and fairly distributes overhead (management) costs, will demonstrate the Northeast Corridor isn’t a money-maker as Amtrak claims and requires substantial federal dollars. Of course that deals with the inconvenient fact that some of those states commuter lines use the Northeast Corridor far more frequently does Amtrak’s intercity trains.

 

Amtrak’s focus is on this 455-mile stretch of Middle Atlantic-Southern New England mainline trackage. That leaves than the remaining national system’s approximately twenty-one thousand route miles across the American West, Midwest and The South as an unwanted stepchild. So much for so-called “fly-over country.” Some of Amtrak’s limited focus is due to practical concerns; but a big part is an East Coast centric corporate cultural that overwhelms both staff and board. The final element is political

From an Amtrak management and board point of view it concentrating on the Northeast Corridor and especially their Acela high-speed train service provides a manageable project within the professional capabilities of their current staff. Acela has had its problems, not a wholly unexpected development given the pathetic lack of American-based high-speed rail expertise.

 

It’s even consistent with the innovative plan proposed seven years ago by House Transportation Committee chair John Mica (R-Florida) and Rail Subcommittee chair Bill Shuster, R-Pennsylvania, to privatize development and operation of the Northeast Corridor. Whether operated, as now, as a quasi-public agency or, as Congressmembers Mica and Shuster proposed as a private railroad, the Northeast Corridor has the volume of passenger traffic and the potential for increased freight services that should make it a viable stand-alone railroad under either scenario … if properly managed

 

 

CULTURE: The corporate cultural aspect of the dilemma is harder to quantify, but very real. The men and women who manage Amtrak are based in Washington, D.C. Most have spent the bulk of their professional lives in those very same Middle Atlantic States. When they, their friends and family think of rail, they naturally focus on what they personally are familiar with.

They ride Northeast Corridor trains with some frequency. When they look out the windows of their Washington Union Station-based national Amtrak headquarters, they see the Northeast Corridor fleet, along with excellent Maryland and Virginia commuter operations. The few long distance trains to Florida, the Midwest and the South appear as oddities with weak constituencies. They are easy to ignore and can even be entirely written off with little political or bureaucratic risk … so far.

It’s so easy for most of us residing in the bulk of the continental United States to forget but Northeasters suffer from a provincialism that regards much of America, even California, Chicago or Dallas, as a backwater. They vaguely understand that New Orleans, San Francisco, Chicago and for the well-traveled, perhaps Seattle or Denver, do exist. More often these far-off exotic locales are out-of-sight and out of mind. They consider us “the Coast,” “The Far West” or “the planes.” These are defined anywhere west of Buffalo or south of Richmond. We live in cities and town where Northeasterners go on vacation but certainly not where they perceive many Americans actually live.

The very notion that real live people live in small towns like Whitefish Montana, Ottumwa Iowa, Lamy, New Mexico, Meridian Mississippi or even Santa Barbara, are incomprehensible to the good folks of all socioeconomic classes who live and work in or between Washington, Manhattan or Boston.

As long as that East Coast culture represents the world view of Amtrak managers, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation or its privatized successor will be “national” in name only.

POLITICS: The politics of all of this is understandable. In the eight Northeast Corridor states Amtrak and commuter rail is a big deal. Much of the Middle Atlantic States voting public utilizes this rail service and makes it known to their elected officials and the press that they consider passenger rail a priority. Just like their constituents, their elected officials personally use the system and “get it.”

The lamentable but inevitable secondary result is that federal support for rail passenger service tends to be aimed only at those services that Eastern Congressmembers and their constituents personally experience. Ditto for the good folks at NARP.

Unfortunately, the unintended result is that the national long-distance system and those corridors outside of the Northeast are ignored or wrongly dismissed as underutilized anachronisms.

That’s certainly the positions of Amtrak’s new senior management.

 

The negative effects of this Southern New England-Middle Atlantic orientation is visible on every Amtrak long distance train resulting in an inconsistent (at best) on-board passenger service.

Old equipment poorly maintained all staffed by a mixed bag of employees is the norm. While  some Amtrak’s employees are highly dedicated and professional, too many – especially Amtrak’s new management led by former Delta CEO Richard Anderson – emulate the worst traits practiced by indifferent private passengers railroads or government bureaucrats, a scenario directly stemming from a management preoccupied with the Northeast Corridor.

To any impartial follower of the national rail passenger scene, it’s clear that unless a prompt order is made for new long-distance passengers cars, the national service will wither away within a decade. That’s how long the present roster of coaches, sleeping cars and diners have left before being hauled off to the scrap heap. Given the huge lead time in ordering any new equipment, the current delay by Amtrak management to address this critical need is appalling.

Likewise, senior Amtrak managements doesn’t even possess the basic budgetary tools necessary to evaluate the costs and expenses of long distance services. Their current muddled accounting system provides none of the methodologies widely available to regional transit systems, not to mention airlines, to analyze and accurately inform management of the incremental costs of each of segment of their services.

Wildly inaccurate information is disseminated that too often appears to be grossly biased against any passenger services not based in the Northeast and likewise biased in favor of Northeast Corridor trains.

 

As AMTRAK critic Andrew Seldon has long pointed out, accounting gimmicks were designed to minimize the costs and maximize the revenue generated in the Northeast Corridor, preordaining that one will always be perceived as a “winner” and the other a fiscal “looser.”

“Lying with numbers” is an old trick in the transit business. It’s the use of seemingly unbiased figures to justify actions that coincide with the agenda preset by staff and well-positioned board members.

While the Northeast Corridor address a crucial if limited segment America’s mobility needs, current Amtrak management tends to ignore other corridors. The mere fact that it is “understood” at Amtrak headquarters that the Northeast Corridor’s infrastructure requirements and operations will be financed by the national system, while California, Illinois, North Carolina, Maine or the Pacific Northwest need to be “partnered” with local state funding sources, is a classic example of the geographical bias inherent the current set up.

The causes of this failure are multiple and bipartisan, but its undeniable that zero progress has been made.

 

SOLUTION: TWO SEPARATE RAIL PASSENGER COMPANIES: Just continuing the status quo is not only unfair to the other forty-two states it puts untenable pressure on Amtrak’s current staff and board. It’s also a guarantee that American passenger rail will never be a competitive travel option as it is in so much of the economically advanced world. They are now being asked to serve two masters: the Northeast Corridor, and a national system of long-distance trains and “emerging” corridors. It’s too much to ask, and in the long run unsustainable.

It’s time to dissolve Amtrak. It’s very name “Amtrak” has developed in the public such a negative, bureaucratic connotation that it should become the latest “fallen flag.” Why else does Amtrak in the East focus on the weird word “Acela” to describe their premier service.

In its place, two alternative models are suggested.

One involves transforming the present National Railroad Passenger Corporation into a new, slimmed down entity. Either remaining in the public sector which much state involvement or as a taxpayer assisted but private enterprise run corporation, this new NORTHEAST RAIL would be allocated the sole responsibility of perfecting a southern New England -Middle Atlantic passenger service stretching from Boston south to Washington or perhaps even to Richmond, Virginia. If the Northeast Corridor is privatized, there is little doubt that the needed management staff will be lean.

Note that NORTHEAST RAIL will assume all of Amtrak’s rights and obligations in the current  Northeast Corridor. The current Amtrak staff so oriented to the Northeast Corridor – though significantly “right-sized” at the headquarters level – would form the core of Northeast Rail’s management team.

Simultaneously, a new rail passenger corporation needs to be established. For now, let’s call it AMERICAN RAIL. It too will assume all of Amtrak’s rights and obligations that exist outside the Northeast Corridor.

Its purpose will be to assume responsibly for all aspects of a new independent passenger railroad. That entity will operate and secure federal financing for all long-distance and corridor services in America west and south of the Appalachians. It should combine aspects of public funding with the actual service perhaps operated by private operators on a line-by-line basis.

It will better for all concerned if NORTHEAST RAIL concentrates on what it knows best – the Northeast Corridor. At the same time, much of America, particularly at a time when the understanding of the travel and environmental importance of AMERICAN RAIL, a truly national rail network, could benefit from an organization focused on its own needs and priorities.

 

The name AMERICAN RAIL signifies a fresh start and new direction. It should have its headquarters anywhere but Washington. Chicago, the traditional hub for western and mid-American rail passenger services, would be a fine location as would St. Louis or even New Orleans. With its own separate board of directors, new management and working with new private sector operators, AMERICAN RAIL would not compete with NORTHEAST RAIL but serve as its national connection. It will be the conduit for operation of all current state-supported services outside the Northeast Corridor.

 

With innovation the watchword, AMERICAN RAIL should lead to way to new routes and more frequencies all in new passenger cars and locomotives operated by a freshly recruited and trained staff and management equipped with a private sector-style customer-first approach. They be more like the customer-friendly cruise ship industry that the nickel-and-dime the passengers airline cartel. Is there risk of failure? Yes, but right now the risk of the ultimate demise of Amtrak’s long-distance service seems assured.

 

 

THE DIVISION The new railroad’s mission will be the operation of all American intercity passenger trains outside the Northeast Corridor.

Certain services ancillary to NORTHEAST RAIL’S heartland, such as the New York to Buffalo Empire Service, the Down Easterner Route from Boston to Portland, Maine and the once-a day service extending east from Richmond to Newport News would be subject to amiable negotiations. If NORTHEAST RAIL considers those lines essential part of their bailiwick … and the states involved concur … they should continue to operate them. This plan envisions a non-hostile division resulting in two new, independent but cooperating entities.

The private sector components of both plans is an acknowledgment of the new leaner 21st Century structure of government and the ruinous divide that in the past few years has seen with passenger rail identified with the Democrats and vilified by many Republicans. A serious effort needs to be taken to depoliticize the topic of passenger rail.

Creating allies in the private sector without alienating labor is a difficult but essential component of this strategy.

This approach will result in two new entities that should create their own new corporate cultures.

While some may consider that scenario optimistic, there is zero doubt that if Amtrak’s status quo is maintained no progress will ever come to pass.

The most difficult aspect will be the division of essential federal operating and capital subsidies between the two new companies. There is no doubt that even if there is significant private sector involvement, federal dollars will remain an essential part of the puzzle, just as it has decades when it comes to air, highway and barge modes of passenger and freight mobility.

Congress is entitled to a voice even with much private sector participation. Yet, there is no valid reason that rational minds can’t prevail resulting in mediated solution acceptable to Congress and the Administration without raising regional passions.

Greater involvement by the individual states could assist in all of the above described goals. One dares to think that federal funds might even be allocated on a per-capital basis, rather than the traditional allocations which relied more on history than rationality.

 

MANY BENEFITS, FEW NEGATIVES: This concept is a win-win for all except some current management employees at Amtrak’s Washington headquarters who will find themselves redundant.

 

Rail labor will benefit. Not only will there be no layoffs of operating personnel, there is a distinct prospect of additional employment associated with more routes and greater frequency. Certainly the manufacturing sector will benefit from equipment purchases to replace worn out passenger cars and locomotive.

 

Small town America will benefit. Not just from additional routes and frequencies, but from American Rail, a new rail passenger company focused on their long-neglected needs. Likewise, larger Midwestern, Southern and Western states will be rewarded from attention to their emerging corridors linking major and medium sized cities.

 

 

Northeast Corridor states win from Northeast Rail, an operation undistracted by what’s proved to be an incompatible a long-distance system.

 

The bulk of America benefits from a new system focused on the needs of Western, Mid-western and Southern states needs and desires with new management open to innovative public-private partnerships.

 

MOVING FORWARD – NEXT STEP: It’s my suggestion that the Rail Passengers Association (RailPAC) of California and Nevada members contemplate this plan aided by the preparation of professional-quality research reports. The end result would be consideration of adopting the notion of dissolving Amtrak and replacing it with the two new entities, NORTHEAST RAIL and AMERICAN RAIL as RailPAC’s official position.

 

We would then urge other rail advocacy groups to join with us.  Sad to say, it’s doubtful that NARP, almost as East Coast centric as the current Amtrak leadership, would be supportive. NARP’s history, understandably, has been to defend and justify Amtrak management. The time for that self-defeating approach has clearly ended.

 

An essential early step is to secure bipartisan sponsors in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives to serve as our proponents. It’s naive to think that Amtrak’s current board and senior management will not oppose this move. Substantial bipartisan Congressional and Administration support is essential if this proposal is to be taken seriously. Just getting the debate off the ground is not an easy task. We can’t do it with just the old friends of passenger rail. Simultaneously, we need to expand by adding others, e.g., Republicans and the business community, who have in recent years opposed or indifferent to passenger rail, but were supportive in the past.

 

WHAT’S TO LOSE? At the very least, debating this proposal will cause many in the rail community to think about Amtrak’s current dysfunctional structure and understand its long-term implications which include the ultimate demise of all long-distance rail. A vigorous public conversation will have the salutatory side effect that Amtrak management will likely never again take the West, Midwest and the South for granted as they have done so often in the last few decades.

 

At best, such a bold discussion will spark others in the rail passenger community to rethink old approaches and faulty assumptions. Ideally this will all lead to a more sustainable vision of a vibrant twenty-first century truly national rail passenger system.

 

Dick Spotswood

Mill Valley, California

May 1, 2018

 

 

 

Commentary

LAUS Summer Train Fest – But where are the advocates?

Take a look at the announcement for the Summer Train Fest:

http://thesource.metro.net/2017/06/14/union-station-summer-train-fest-to-be-held-saturday-july-15/

As I write we have not received an invitation, even though we were regularly invited to National Train Day activities.  Apparently we have to be approved by Metro, Metrolink and LOSSAN, possibly Amtrak as well although since Amtrak laid off all their marketing staff they are unlikely to participate.  And since Amtrak is also doing its best to eliminate private cars from its trains I hear the organizers are having a tough time lining up much of a display.

Whatever happens, I’ll be there representing RailPAC, and I’ll have information to distribute about the Southwest Chief, and other hot topics.  If you care to join me please contact me at pdyson@railpac.org.

Paul Dyson