Amtrak’s largest, most effective, and least subsidized services, the long distance trains and how to save them

Commentary and a trip report by Andrew C. Selden
NOTE: Mr. Selden is President of MinnARP, and is the newly elected President of URPA. He will be a speaker at the RailPAC November 15, 2014 Conference in Sacramento.

The challenge of operating passenger trains, and in particular the higher revenue long distance trains (Amtrak’s largest, most effective, and least subsidized services) on general purpose railroads appears to be more challenging, and more nuanced, a problem than many rail advocates perceive.
All evidence is “anecdotal” of course, and this is only one anecdote, but having just completed a mid-October round trip on the Empire Builder MSP-SEA-MSP, these were my observations.

Our #7 arrived Seattle about 4 hours late, and #8 arrived St. Paul about 100 minutes late. This is not a sustainable operation. The unpredictable but chronic lateness of the Empire Builder has cost it millions in lost revenues and accommodation costs all caused by congestion delays en route, and Amtrak causes such as holding for connecting trains and dead locomotives. (Our #7, already hours late, sat at Spokane for more than an hour waiting for the “suits” on the east coast to decide whether to attempt the crossing of Stevens Pass and its 2.2% ruling grades with a single P42 (and seven cars) with a low oil pressure condition. Having no good alternatives (BNSF doesn’t keep extra engines sitting around to rescue Amtrak), they eventually sent us with the defective engine and crossed fingers.)

But this does not mean that the Empire Builder cannot flourish, or that BNSF is acting in bad faith in its handling of the Empire Builder.

First and most important, we observed numerous instances everywhere along the line between St. Paul and Seattle of BNSF dispatchers doing everything they could to keep the Empire Builder moving. They were not always successful, but it was not for lack of effort. Z-trains, stack trains, auto-rack trains, oil trains (many oil trains), coal trains, grain trains, merchandise trains–at one time or another, we met or overtook them all, sometimes holding the main and sometimes rolling through a passing track. But always affording the Builder priority. Approaching Minneapolis, our #8 crossed over near Big Lake to run around two eastbounds (one a stack train) only to duck back onto the eastbound main to meet two westbounds, over a distance of less than 20 miles. The same thing happened east of Shelby the day before, and at full track speed. It was superb dispatching and it was done solely to benefit the Empire Builder.

There were four instances on the round trip of the Builder stopping, for waits as long as an hour. One was while #8 waited for a slightly late #7 near Malta. As we later proceeded east, we could see that two intermediate sidings were plugged with BNSF trains waiting on the two passenger trains to get on their way before they could move. What did that cost BNSF? Other times, it became clear that we simply had to wait for open single track ahead.
The sheer number of BNSF trains of all kinds moving on the railroad was astonishing. On the way west on #7, we met or overtook at least a dozen BNSF trains of all kinds just between Minot and Williston.

Across western North Dakota, signs of BNSF’s billion-dollar private investment in its infrastructure were everywhere. A second main track is being built west from immediately west of the Gasman Coulee trestle (west of Minot) 148 miles out into Montana. Parts of it are already in service and it is already being heavily used. In many other places in western North Dakota, new yards and sidings are in place and more are being built. Work progresses on the second main track. In places, tie, ballast and rail trains were working as we passed, and grading was being done in other places.

Unit oil trains were much in evidence, but only as an increment to what appears to be a very robust business of all kinds for BNSF. Cuts of frac sand covered hoppers were also much in evidence. It is simply wrong to say that the oil trains broke the railroad. They may have been the last straw, but it is the aggregate effect of all the traffic that is congesting the line. And BNSF’s solution is the only feasible one, for them and for us. Obviously, BNSF isn’t spending a billion dollars of its shareholders money in North Dakota for Amtrak, they are doing it to support their own rapidly growing business. Amtrak is a collateral and probably unintended beneficiary. But the conclusion is clear that substantial new investment in rail infrastructure, driven by the healthy growth of the freight carriers, is both necessary AND sufficient, in combination with good dispatching and a dose of professional self-respect (which seems to be lacking at certain other railroads), to allow continued operation of Amtrak’s long distance trains over general purpose railroads.

The trend of the host railroads investing private capital into their plants can be accelerated by prudent public policy innovation. First, every state and city that says that it values having Amtrak or other private passenger rail service should be challenged to prove it by enacting property tax abatements and credits for host railroads that make capital investments that benefit the passenger service.

Second, an idea first proposed 25 years ago by Byron Nordberg should be dusted off and implemented. Rather than collect and redistribute taxes through politicized and inefficient programs like RRIF (which Amtrak is now trying to hijack to feed its insatiable need for cash to prop up the NEC), Congress should adopt a tax credit program that awards income tax credits to any railroad that makes a capital investment in its rail infrastructure that directly benefits passenger services (whether or not it also benefits the freight service). States can do the same thing. Qualification criteria uniformly applicable across the country would make the program un-political and purely merit-driven, and freely accessible everywhere. If Congress wants to keep sinking a billion tax dollars a year into the NEC (Amtrak’s smallest, weakest and most heavily-subsidized sector), it is free to do so, but a tax credit program would leverage the opportunity to get new private capital allocated elsewhere in ways that will facilitate growth and continued success in Amtrak’s most productive trains, its interregional long distance services.

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