Amtrak long-distance trains: the kinda good, the pretty bad, the really ugly

Commentary by Russ Jackson

We passenger rail advocates prefer traveling cross-country on one or more of Amtrak’s long-distance trains whenever possible. We do it because we love it. We do it because we want them to be a part of the continuing heritage of this great country. We do it because we want that transportation alternative. We expect Amtrak to preserve that picture for us, and for the generations that follow us. What kind of job are they doing to help us in that regard?

The kinda good…
Well, for one thing, until this summer Amtrak had done an above average job of on time performance for the western long-distance trains. Thanks to the weather in various parts of the country that fell apart, with the California Zephyr taking the biggest hit, down to 25% in August compared to 66% OT a year ago. Miraculously passengers kept on coming to ride it and the other similarly affected trains, although the ridership was somewhat lower. The crews, the food, the ambiance of these trains, the customer’s enjoyment of their trips, and their willingness to shell out big bucks to ride yielded a new system record of over 30 million riders in FY 2010. For many small communities the long distance trains were their only “ticket out” and are a lifeline of transportation for taxpayers there and wherever Amtrak has a presence.

Amtrak's Sunset Limited arrives in Maricopa, Arizona

Financially, Amtrak has had good luck squeezing money out of Uncle Sam to keep the system going. Congressional support for Amtrak has been steady, going back even to the Reagan era when his budget every year was “zero” for Amtrak. State Governors and other officials do not want “their” trains cut, and to do so Amtrak would face opposition to their Northeast Corridor. But, can that support be counted on in this era of budget cutting at all levels of government? Can Amtrak claim it deserves more money than other necessary items? No, they will have to take their fair (or maybe unfair) share of the country’s burden. The legitimate question is what will they do with what they get? Amtrak will continue to exist, but with a company that begs for federal funds while it earns almost 70% of its income from ticket sales, amounting to $1.9 billion last year, is the correct answer to hack away only at the long-distance trains? What about the corporate structure, now at 17 Vice Presidents?

The pretty bad…
For over twenty years this writer has agonized in print about the various recurring traumas that Amtrak seems to have every year. While that is good fodder for a journalist, it is getting very tiring having to continuously write about the problems Amtrak seems to acquire, many of which are self-inflicted wounds due to their lack of foresight, non-aggressive pursuit of non-governmental income, and a no-growth attitude outside the Northeast Corridor unless paid for by the states. On October 29 Trains Magazine writer Fred Frailey wrote on his blog, “When push comes to shove, what Amtrak will axe.” If ever there was a wakeup call for long-distance train advocates, that article is it, because according to Frailey, Amtrak and its President, Joe Boardman, have established its three priorities as: the Northeast Corridor #1, the state-supported trains #2, and the long-distance trains a distant #3. What Frailey calls the “defining moment” was in a Senate hearing this year, “when asked by Susan Collins, R-Maine, why Amtrak’s deficit for 2011 was rising despite increased ridership, that Boardman blurted in response, “It’s the long-distance trains.”

Which trains are in the most jeopardy? You can probably guess correctly that the “tri-weakly” Sunset Limited and Cardinal top the list, followed by Silver Star, Crescent, and the Southwest Chief. We have known for too many years, and Amtrak finally acknowledged to the RailPAC meeting in Los Angeles this year, that if the Sunset Limited were daily its financial performance would skyrocket. Critics have jumped unfairly on the huge “loss per passenger” of that train and now that idea is in concrete and quoted at will. As RailPAC President, Paul Dyson, correctly observes, Mr. Frailey did “no questioning of the numbers, no comment that cutting the l/d trains dumps more overhead onto what is left, and how can anyone swallow that the short distance trains do better than l/ds unless they count the state subsidies as revenue?” When Amtrak cut the Pioneer, the Desert Wind, and before that other trains, they found and now some will admit that it did not help the bottom line. There was no effect on the fixed costs of the company. When the tri-weekly Texas Eagle was “saved” and run daily it became one of Amtrak’s most successful trains. Can Amtrak’s loss figures be believed? That is a topic we have discussed for too many years, and privately knowledgeable people now concur that Amtrak’s accounting process is highly suspect, something we have known since 1984. Frankly, it’s the no-growth attitude of the past ten to fifteen years that has caused the most trouble. Evidence of that is the purchase of no cars that will spur the growth of revenue from the long-distance trains in the West as has been detailed in RailPAC and URPA publications.

The really ugly…
When identifying the negatives at Amtrak, none can be more important than its relationship with the freight “host” railroads that carry these long-distance trains. In the past the BNSF could be counted on to be the most cooperative, while the others were hostile in varying degrees. When Gene Skoropowski was head of California’s Capitol Corridor he and his deputy and successor, David Kutrosky, through very hard dedicated work developed a good relationship with the Union Pacific which continues to this day.

There now is justifiable suspicion that opposition to Amtrak’s long-distance trains has hardened at all their “host” railroads, frustrating those at Amtrak who are working to improve the current service. The Union Pacific has continued its rejection of the Amtrak plan for a daily Sunset Limited unless it is paid $700 million for improvements, has rejected technical improvements of the 3-day schedule, and even improvements to the Texas Eagle-Sunset Limited schedule that would reduce the train’s long layover at San Antonio, which they instigated when they had problems a few years ago. They have been rejecting schedule improvements for the Coast Starlight. Needless to say in California the UP has been stretching out the approval process for the Coast Daylight. The CSX railroad has dug in its heels about several improvements back east. The Norfolk Southern has said no to Amtrak’s request to improve the Crescent at Atlanta and the Capitol Limited connection at Pittsburg, PA. Now even the BNSF is into the rejection mode, denying Amtrak’s request to reroute the Sunset Limited onto their tracks via Fullerton, some of which is publicly owned. The Southwest Chief is likely on Amtrak’s “hit list” above not totally because of its financial performance, but also because of the dispute developing over maintaining the BNSF line through Raton Pass and across Kansas, resulting in a possible reroute onto its Transcon line through Amarillo and Wichita or possible elimination. If Amtrak throws in the towel on the Chief, that would cause the smaller communities along the historic route of the train to lose important transportation. Those communities have now awakened to that possibility. When this writer visited the officials in Las Vegas, NM, last year they were surprised to learn that there was a chance of being without the train. They all know it now, and a meeting will be held on November 10 in La Junta, CO calling for a “Southwest Chief Coalition” dedicated to securing funding for the needed track improvements to keep the train on its historic route that these communities depend on.

There are few good, some bad, and many ugly days ahead. All rail passenger advocates like us must be aware of what is likely to be coming from Amtrak in the next few months. They have already said there would be “schedule adjustments” in January. Those decisions may already have been made, and they will be Amtrak internal decisions, not Congressional mandates. Can we count on having the travel opportunities on the long-distance trains we have had and expect? Don’t count on it.
Photo by Richard Strandberg

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