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Does Amtrak propose to cease operations in most of the southern and western states within the next five to ten years?

Below is a new press release from RailPAC, along with earlier correspondence between Paul Dyson, the RailPAC President, and Joseph Boardman, Interim President and CEO of Amtrak.

1017 L Street PMB 217, Sacramento, CA 95814
3 June, 2009

Railroad experts conclude that Amtrak proposes to cease operations in most of the southern and western states within the next five to ten years. That is based on Amtrak’s failure to order replacement rolling stock for worn out trains. For the last 20 years almost 95% of the purchases of locomotives and passenger cars were for trains that run exclusively in the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington DC. Current plans call for refurbishing a handful of out of service cars but otherwise make no mention of the need to replace the aging cars that provide service to most of the states west of Chicago. These trains are already running with a reduced number of seats and sleeping berths in spite of record high demand, resulting in major loss of revenue.

RailPAC’s President, Paul Dyson, wrote to recently appointed Amtrak President Joe Boardman in January asking for an immediate review of this policy. He pointed out that a long term program to replace the old fleet and augment the available accommodation on the western trains would provide jobs and helps meet the new administration’s target of reducing dependence on imported fuels. “Without new cars there will soon be no trains on most routes west of the Mississippi” says Dyson. The expected service cuts will not happen overnight, nor will they receive much fanfare. Instead the economics of running these trains will gradually worsen as old cars are withdrawn from service, and eventually the trains will be discontinued.

2) Here is the reply letter from Amtrak Interim President and CEO Joseph Boardman to Mr. Dyson’s original letter, as mentioned above.
March 24, 2009

Mr. Paul J. Dyson
Rail Passenger Association of California
1017 L Street PMB 217
Sacramento, CA 95814

Dear Mr. Dyson:

This is in reply to your letter of January 16, 2009, regarding the need for investment in equipment to support the development of passenger rail service across the whole of the United States. Since taking up the position of President and CEO of Amtrak, I have been working closely with my team to understand just how we will address exactly the sort of issues you refer to in your letter.

The recent enactment of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA) has provided a solid basis to deal with the sort of issues to which you refer. Three key elements in PRIIA have specific relevance in this case.

First, PRIIA changes the emphasis on funding for capital investment. Whereas Amtrak has traditionally borne the responsibility to secure funding for new equipment, the funding for service expansion is now with the state partners via the new Intercity Rail Grant matching fund program. For the first time, there will be a level playing field with other modes of transportation. Matching funds for capital investments – including equipment – will now be provided on the same basis for passenger rail as has been the case for highway projects. State partners will define their own requirements through their state rail plans as these are required as the basis for funding applications to the federal government.

Second, PRIIA requires Amtrak to constitute a committee to plan for the specification, procurement, support and funding of next generation common corridor passenger equipment. This will cover different types of passengers car as well as locomotives and, potentially DMUs. This committee will be led by Amtrak but will have involvement from state partners, the FRA as well as other interested parties from the industry.

Last, PRIIA includes an authorization of funding to Amtrak for its own capital requirements. This funding will be required to support the development of the Amtrak services outside those developed in partnership with the states.

With these three elements, it is possible to see a route to the creation of the next generation of service across the United States ensuring that the equipment provided is properly aligned with the requirements of the individual states. Amtrak continues to strive to be the preferred partner for working with states on the development of their services. Based on the core capabilities Amtrak has for all aspects of developing, equipping and operating passenger rail services, we are well positioned to continue to support route development across the country.

You raised some additional points about the Northeast Corridor that I wish to address. While other railroads operate more trains and carry more passengers than we do on parts of the Corridor, none run the entire length of the corridor at the speeds at which we operate, or operate anywhere near the train miles that we do, or own as much of it as we do. It is a matter of asset utilization on the most complex piece of railroad in the Western Hemisphere, and recognition that our own needs make it more complex than it would be if it were simply a string of unrelated commuter railroads. Northeastern states do contribute capital support to the Corridor, and PRIIA ensure that, in the future, all commuter railroads on the Northeast Corridor will bear a proportionate share of its operating and capital costs. Also, the recently approved economic stimulus package stipulates that approximately 56% of the capital funding Amtrak will get will go to places away from the Corridor. We learned long ago that regional differences, however heartfelt, among supporters of passenger rail does much more to harm the goal of better train service nationwide than it does to help it.

Thank you for the invitation to your upcoming meeting on May 2. I look forward to speaking with the group.
Joseph H. Boardman
President and Chief Executive Officer

3) Here is RailPAC President Dyson’s response to Amtrak Interim President and CEO Boardman, president to president.

2nd June, 2009
Mr. Joseph H. Boardman
President and Chief Executive Officer
60 Massachusetts Avenue NE
Washington DC 20002


Dear Mr. Boardman:

I am reviewing your letter of March 24, 2009, your public comments since then and the remarks you made at our meeting this past May 2 in Los Angeles. In rereading your March letter I see many references to “state partners” and “requirements of the individual states”. I see nothing that directly answers my question about rolling stock for the interstate trains that I referred to in my January letter. And while there is reference to commuter railroads on the NEC paying a proportional share of operating and capital costs, I don’t see any requirement that the NEC states pay a proportion of the expenses of the Acela or Regional trains. You do mention PRIIA funds for Amtrak’s “own capital requirements” but you make no suggestion as to how these funds might be invested. Your public statements since, and your comments at our meeting and answers to questions there have thrown no more light on the question that I asked then and repeat now: “When will you order cars for the western interstate trains?”

I have attached for your information a resolution passed unanimously by about 235 NARP and RailPAC members at the end of the May 2 meeting. After 41 years in transportation I have seen plenty of companies come and go. The ones that are on their way to exiting the business are those that do not invest in their rolling stock. I would be delighted if you can convince me that I am wrong, and that you have every intention of replacing the worn out cars and locomotives of the western interstate trains and of growing the business. What are your intentions?

I don’t know who wrote the sentence in your March 24 letter “We learned long ago that regional differences, however heartfelt, among supporters of passenger rail does much more to harm the goal of better train service than it does to help it”? Long ago we had a lot more service in the west, including to major cities such as Phoenix and Las Vegas. The trains that still run have much shorter consists even though trains are frequently sold out. What we now have are very real “regional differences”, except that they are “heartfelt” by Amtrak management, not by passenger rail advocates. It is Amtrak management that has consistently undervalued the western trains and invested most of the capital dollars in the NEC. At the same time they have downgraded the western trains and in the accounts have heaped average system costs on them that they really don’t generate to set them up for failure and the opprobrium of Amtrak’s critics.

Mr. Boardman, you’ve had a few months to digest a lot of information and advice from many quarters. You’ve taken the helm at Amtrak at a time when it is about to receive an unprecedented amount of funding, and when it has more political support then ever in its existence. It may well be that your Board, Executive Committee and many of your managers view the NEC as the real railroad and the western overnight trains as anachronisms. Yet it is these same trains that are maintaining consistent revenue during the recession while the Acela has lost significant ridership. If you have decided that the western overnight trains should be allowed to fade away as equipment becomes unserviceable then the communities served by them are entitled to know your policy and to react as they see fit. Doing nothing, with no new rolling stock order, is tantamount to abandonment by Amtrak of interstate service to 23 states.

We look forward to an early, and I hope positive response, to these issues.
Yours faithfully,
Paul J. Dyson

4) This is the resolution, passed in Los Angeles on May 2, 2009 referred to by Mr. Dyson.

Whereas the Rail Passenger Association of California is deeply concerned that there has been no new investment in rolling stock for the Coast Starlight, Sunset Limited, California Zephyr and Southwest Chief (the western overnight trains) since 1991, and

Whereas currently up to 95% of Amtrak’s capital investments go to the North East Corridor trains and infrastructure, and

Whereas there is a growing demand for rail passenger travel and these western trains are often sold out, and

Whereas old equipment is expensive to maintain, is subject to mechanical failure, and is unattractive to passengers, and

Whereas without new investment these trains and other routes will eventually be withdrawn for want of serviceable equipment,

Therefore the Rail Passenger Association of California calls upon the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (“Amtrak”) to meet its obligation to provide a national network by allocating a reasonable proportion of its capital investment budget to purchase new coaches, sleeping cars and dining cars for the western overnight trains, to a common design that can also be used for corridor services.

(Thanks to Bruce Richardson, URPA, for compiling this post.)