Commentary, Issues

Sunset Limited in jeopardy is serious business: Part 1, Comments by RailPAC member Steve Roberts

I wanted to emphasize that the comments made by Russ Jackson and Paul Dyson on the seriousness of the Sunset Ltd. amendment are not overstated. (Note: See their commentaries also on The whole long-distance network is at risk. Also this is a battle unlike any we have seen in the past for the following reasons:

1.) The Libertarian/Tea Party courting legislators now take pride in eliminating programs that serve their districts (except Cold War era weapons systems, irrigation projects, highway spending, etc.). Cutting Amtrak is a high profile way to show their budget cutting credentials to voters and this provides a road-map for the discontinuance of other long-distance routes;

2.) A significant number of legislators whose districts are served by long-distance trains are courting conservative support by calling for the defunding Amtrak (which is why you never see any funding for additional Superliner cars – it is always deleted from the Amtrak capital budget);

3.) With freight traffic rising dramatically don’t overlook the freight railroads influence in this effort. Make no mistake, they want the long-distance passenger trains gone, it is worth millions to them in capacity increases without capital investment. The idea that they would welcome passenger trains on their key mainlines with additional payments is wishful thinking. Every year the freight railroads leave millions of dollars in on-time performance incentive payments on the table;

4.) Historically, except in the case of national security, Congress has paid great deference to the wishes of its members for activities in their districts. Since few in Congress understand network connectivity, the Sunset Ltd. amendment is seen as a regional issue supported whole-heartedly by most members from states effected. If successful, the “regional” approach could be taken to target the long-distance trains one-by-one;

5.) Congress makes policy for Amtrak and hires managers to carry out these policies. An Amtrak manager advocating for different priorities beyond what Congress determines will be out the door – just ask Dave Gunn. He fought Congressional priorities and was out the door faster than an Acela Express rolling on the New Jersey speedway.

So there will no help (except as private citizens) from Amtrak management.

Because of the perceived “regional” nature of this proposal this is a battle that will have to be fought and won primarily by rail advocates in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Louisiana. Another key ally are the Texas Eagle supporters since, without connecting revenue from the Sunset Ltd.’s through cars, the Texas Eagle will be third on the discontinuance list (after the Cardinal). Californians have just one key point of influence. The 23rd Congressional District , (near Bakersfield and Tehachapi) the district of Rep. Kevin McCarthy, House Majority Leader. RailPAC members in the 23rd District need to go the “extra mile” in pointing out the true motivation of this amendment (the ultimate discontinuance of all long-distance trains by increasing costs and reducing revenues).

Other California RailPAC members (and those in states not served by the Sunset Ltd.) need to point out to their legislators that a vote for the amendment to discontinue the Sunset Ltd. is a vote to ultimately eliminate all long-distance rail service. This is because:

1.) The costs listed for the Sunset Ltd. include many joint and common costs (i.e. Beech Grove Shops) allocated to the long-distance as a group. These allocated costs will not be “saved” by discontinuing the Sunset Ltd. they will simply be reallocated to the the long-distance routes increasing their losses. The only way to save costs associated with the long- distance trains as a group is to discontinue all long-distance rail service. Route related station and maintenance facility costs (i.e. Los Angeles) will not be saved but reallocated to the Pacific Surfliner and other routes. This will increase subsidy payments for the state of California. Overall corporate joint and common costs (i.e. Website, reservation center costs, etc.) will also not be saved but reallocated to all other routes;

2.) The Sunset Ltd. is part of an interconnected nationwide network. Riders don’t just travel between stations on the route of the Sunset Ltd. they connect to other trains and generate revenue on those other trains. If the Sunset Ltd. is discontinued it means less revenue on the Coast Starlight, Pacific Surfliner, San Joaquin’s, Texas Eagle, City of New Orleans and Crescent.

The result is little if any near term budget savings from discontinuing the Sunset Ltd., costs are just allocated to other routes, revenues reduced which increases losses on other Amtrak routes.

RailPAC members also need to point out that the amendment forbidding subsidies for food and beverage service is counter-productive. A significant amount of the “expense” of on board food service is the infrastructure required to deliver food and beverages to trains in a safe and timely manner. The only way to save these expenses is to eliminate all on-board food and beverage service, including on Northeast Corridor trains. Food service is an integral part of the rail service package. Without food service ridership and revenues decline more than costs are decreased. This increases the operating subsidy. Also this has been tried several times before and the results have always been the same, a worsening of the financial results for the train route.

The resolution of these amendments will not come until the House-Senate Conference on the Transportation Funding Bill. The situation could become worse for the 2016 budget if the Republicans control the Senate. It is unlikely that Democrats will call for 60 voles for a “regional” proposal such as the Sunset Ltd. amendment and it is doubtful that the President will veto the entire transportation funding bill to save one long-distance train.

NOTE: Steve Roberts was employed at Amtrak Public Relations, and worked in the West and the NEC. He now lives in the Bay Area.

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