February’s RailPAC Editorial: Growth is Amtrak’s only option

Growth is Amtrak’s only option
By Noel T. Braymer

Last month we republished excerpts from an article from the NEW YORK TIMES with the headline Surprising Forecast for Amtrak: Growth. This is a sad commentary on the current state of Amtrak that the media would consider a marketing plan for Amtrak surprising. But in any business if you’re not growing, you’re dying. Amtrak now is only getting a small percentage of the huge travel market in this country. The reasons for this stagnation are years of a totally clueless marketing department, a flawed accounting system which hides problems and successes and a fixation by Amtrak to beg money from the Government, while ignoring opportunities to raise income from passenger travel. Growth will make Amtrak stronger. It will increase income; it will increase Amtrak’s value as a part of the transportation system, and widen Amtrak’s political support around the country.

We wish Amtrak President Kummant all the luck in the world. He is clearly on the right track. The proposals on the table will take some time to be put into effect. But there are things, many of them simple which can increase ridership and revenues in a short time. Simply running longer trains where there is already strong demand is the place to start. As Bruce Richardson of URPA has pointed out, having equipment displays at stations draws crowds, introduces people to passenger rail service and draws media attention which generates lot of free advertising. All of which increases ridership and it doesn’t cost Amtrak much.

What is needed is to get the most out of existing resources. The best way to do that is to improve connections and modest extensions of existing services. Connections are like getting two trains for the price of one. Bringing back service on the Sunset to Orlando, Florida is the place to start. Extending the Heartland Flyer to connect with the South West Chief is a simple thing to do. Extending the Palmetto back to Florida restores important connections that should never have been cut. Extending existing trains from Kansas City to Omaha opens up many connections between the South West Chief, California Zephyr and other trains. The Cardinal could be rerouted or use a section to connect St Louis with Indianapolis and the East Coast. This with Kansas City/Omaha connections can provide better connections with both the Chief and Zephyr to more of the Mid West and East Coast.
The greatest obstacle to Amtrak’s future growth is the myth of the “money losing long distance trains.” This myth comes from the flaws of Amtrak’s accounting. Amtrak takes costs, and then arbitrarily assigns them to trains based on route mileage. Long distance trains having long routes are assigned lots of costs. The problem with this is most of Amtrak’s costs are not on the routes of the long distance trains. It is on Amtrak’s own railroad between Washington, New York and Boston. Long distance trains are not the enemy of corridor services. They are the cash cows of passenger service. They generate connecting business with corridor trains and help share the costs of corridor services. Attacking long distance trains is destructive of all rail passenger service!

The North East Corridor can’t be shut down. Too many people in the North East depend on it. But that is not to say that there isn’t room for improvements. The load factors are low on most individual Amtrak NEC trains. Putting more people for longer trips on those empty seats is a top priority. One of marketing’s jobs is setting prices to get the greatest yield. That doesn’t always mean setting high prices. On a train an empty seat after it leaves the station is the same as rotten fruit at a market: you can’t sell it. That’s why airlines often have last minute bargains to sell empty seats. Amtrak Marketing needs to fill those seats. Amtrak can save millions of dollars just by running trains more slowly. Speed is expensive. Most of Amtrak’s fastest speeds are on short track segments which don’t really save much time. The trains won’t be that much slower. What people want are trains that are on time, not late fast trains.

There are more things that could be done to increase revenue. The Northeast is dominated by many commuter trains. Amtrak should work with the commuter agencies to improve connections between Amtrak and commuter trains. Most people don’t live downtown. Commuter service can be an excellent feeder-distributor service for Amtrak. This is something that already exists, and wouldn’t cost much money to set up. Amtrak should look at getting more freight revenues from the NEC Corridor. This can include express on their trains and traditional freight during slow traffic periods. Amtrak owns property as part of the Northeast Corridor. Those properties are often at stations that can be used for joint use redevelopment projects to generate income. Amtrak could improve connections to airports. This most likely would be set up at Baltimore-Washington and Newark Airports. Amtrak could work out deals with Airlines to be the connecting “flight” to other cites by train. This is common in Europe.

Running additional corridor services and getting Federal Funding to upgrade tracks is a good idea. Corridor services will be popular in many populated regions. It will also open more markets for the long distance passenger trains as well as improve trackage for long distance passenger and freight trains. For the future of rail passenger service, it is not a question of getting rid of the long distance trains so we can have corridor services. What we need is expanded and healthy long distance passenger rail service so we can have working rail corridor services.

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