Should we take the Long Distance Trains off of Amtrak’s Back?

Analysis by Noel T. Braymer

Amtrak says that they lose over $500 million dollars a year running the Long Distance Passenger Trains. But Amtrak endures this hardship because of the transportation necessity provided by the Long Distance Trains in much of rural America. Amtrak has been hinting that they would like the States to help pay for the costs of the Long Distance Trains to keep them running. This would be much like how States pay for their Short Distance Trains.

Perhaps we should explore changes to the Long Distance Passenger Trains which would take the entire burden off of Amtrak. If the States are going to pay to keep trains  in their State maybe they should have some control over how they are run. This will need to be done in a way so passengers can still connect and transfer to other trains in the country with through ticketing. Local agencies should also have access to Federal Funds for capital improvements on the railroads that these Long Distance Train run on. Most important is by reorganizing the way Long Distance Trains are operated and funded every effort needs to be made to expand and improve service nationally while losses from running the services go down.

A joint powers agency of the States these trains runs in would be needed. This JPA should act like a board of directors. The primary job of these JPA’s should be to hire an operator for the service and oversee how well it does its job. The operators would run these trains like many commuter trains are run by contract with an operator. The JPA’s would have power of the purse and the contract would be up for renewal on a regular basis. Any company with railroad experience could compete for the contract including Amtrak, the companies now running commuter services and even the freight railroads. As part of the contract the bidder would  have to have a business plan to improve service, revenues and reduce costs per passenger. This would include a marketing plan to increase connections to other services. A capital budget for more equipment and service improvements would be needed for each route.

Cooperation between Long Distance operators and Amtrak could be much like how airlines often have alliances with each other sharing flights and ticketing with each other. There will need to be combined ticketing, some shared maintenance and station facilities for this new arrangement to work. Cars and locomotives will have to be bought or leased from Amtrak for start up. This will require legislation and funding for this happen. But if Amtrak is right this will take up to a half a billion  dollars off the Amtrak’s deficit. Amtrak would be paid for services such as ticketing, transferring passenger to its trains and providing maintenance service to other carriers.

For the States and Long Distance Passengers this will provide better and expanded service. This will increase the security that service will not be eliminated. For the taxpayer these means better service with less of a burden to the taxpayer. This will preserve the connections between trains and joint ticketing on trains. Each train could have a unique identity or continue to have the Amtrak brand name but operated by different companies. For the operating railroads that these trains would run on it opens up new possibilities to renegotiate charges for track use and for capital improvements needed to insure smooth operations of both freight and passenger service.

This may not happen all at once. A trial program to test this idea would be a good idea. Perhaps the best trains to start with would be the Coast Starlight. As a long distance trains it travels through only 3 states and all three states have experience and investments for expanding rail passenger service. The Coast Starlight route is also a major traffic corridor for all three states. These factors all make the Coast Starlight a good trial route for testing this plan.

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