Long Distance, State-Supported, and the NEC…now what?

Commentary by Russ Jackson
Comments are those of the writer, not necessarily those of the RailPAC Board.

The three categories in the title of this writing are all tied to Amtrak in one way or another. Amtrak, as we know, is the “National Rail Passenger Corporation,” and is the purveyor of intercity passenger rail transportation. Rail fans and rail advocates know the three category differences. Does the public? Did anyone hear “Amtrak” or “passenger trains” discussed in the campaign that culminated in the election on November 4? Obviously not a major issue for the public, but it is for those of us who value its service wherever it exists. Since there was no outcry from either side of “passenger rail” can it be assumed that the public likes what it has? Not necessarily. It is up to us to keep the “home fires” burning to see that this mode of transportation continues to exist, and whether it is through Amtrak, the state, county or city in which you live, if you/we want it preserved or changed those in charge need to know because they cannot tell from election results alone. Remember, most of those who have good passenger rail service won’t miss it until it is gone.

First, we look at the long distance trains in the west. In the previous post by this writer there was a report of the on time performance problems suffered by Amtrak and its riders this past summer. The problems of the two eastern trains that terminate in Chicago using the Norfolk Southern line west of Cleveland have been partially solved, but both continue to arrive in the Windy City upwards of two hours late. The trains to/from the west that originate or terminate there are doing reasonably well, but there have been some exceptions. Most notable was Train 7, the westbound Empire Builder that departed Chicago “on time” on October 26 arrived in Seattle 16 1/2 hours late, due to problems encountered enroute. The next day’s departure of Train 7 arrived in Seattle 21 minutes EARLY. On October 28 Amtrak announced it had established a “blue ribbon panel” to address Chicago rail gridlock, and is charged with identifying “infrastructure and operational improvements” that “will optimize Amtrak on-time performance and improve freight rail service.” That report is not due until May, 2015. We can only hope problems will not last that long, as the devastating effect on Amtrak train ridership and revenue has begun as a fallout of the situation there.

In regard to the ridership and revenues, on October 27 Amtrak issued a report trumpeting continued growth in fiscal year 2014. Amtrak’s total ridership was 30,921,274 and its total revenue was $2,188,654,846. That’s all well and good, but in the national (long distance) network division ridership declined 4.5% and revenue declined 2.9%. Only one western long distance train (the Sunset Limited) and three eastern (the Auto Train, the Crescent, and the Cardinal) showed increases. Isn’t it interesting that the two tri-weekly trains showed increased demand? What does the future portend for the national system trains? For other rail services? Frank Wilner, writing for Railway Age, said, “Amtrak best find a secure hideaway that is “posted” against hunting, because come January it will be open season on passenger train subsidies.” With the already eliminated funding for high- and higher-speed rail, increases in Amtrak’s allocation may be a pipe dream.

In the “State Supported” division, which includes the three California corridors, ridership decreased 0.6% yet their revenues increased 1.8%. Revenue “increases” includes the state support that the states have kicked in because Amtrak demanded that they do so. Which brings up the Northeast Corridor. Ridership there in FY 2014 was up 3.3%, and revenues up 8.2% according to Amtrak’s report. RailPAC’s Noel Braymer threw out the question, “What is the local match from the NEC States?” URPA’s Glenn Scammel replies that “They leech off of the Amtrak infrastructure each year to the tune of at least $300 million in uncompensated costs, according to the GAO.” While California and the other “state supported routes” pay through the nose now, the formula for state support in the NEC has not changed and, frankly, is not likely to. Just keep that in mind when Amtrak comes back next year demanding more and more from California, Michigan, Illinois, etc. URPA’s Andrew C. Selden (who will speak to the RailPAC November 15 meeting in Sacramento) has long concluded that the NEC is “the smallest, weakest, and by far the most heavily subsidized (in gross and per passenger mile) of Amtrak’s three divisions, while the oft-maligned long distance trains are the largest, strongest, and least subsidized division.”

That brings us to the topic of what CAN be done to protect the two divisions that are under constant critical fire, the long distance and the state supported trains? Obviously, selling more tickets on all trains will go a long way to making them look better. But, the constraints placed on them by “car shortages,” low service frequencies for the long distance trains, and increasing cost allocations to them and the state-supported services will be continuing sore points. To say nothing of the Congress getting in the act by mandating unreasonable demands, such as the Sessions (R-TX) amendment that we have discussed here before that mandated eliminating the worst performing route (the Sunset Limited). Fortunately, that provision was eliminated from the current legislation but can be revived any time, and the Gingrey (R-GA) amendment barring use of allocated funds for food and beverage service support which still remains active. So, the political wars continue and will only get louder in the next year.

Last, there is the topic of “leadership.” During the political campaign much was made of the lack of leadership in Washington. Amtrak has had its share of leadership problems over the years, and the current CEO Joe Boardman has taken his share of the criticism. Amtrak lost one of its most productive leaders when Brian Rosenwald chose to retire. That ended an era of outspoken advocacy for growth of the long distance trains inside the corporation. Trains Magazine’s Don Phillips summarized the situation in the November issue, “Boardman fiddles while Amtrak burns,” saying that Boardman pushes out those who disagree with him, so they have been losing experienced managers, plus, he has “little time to address infrastructure, equipment, and Amtrak’s long laundry list of other problems.” In early November rumors circulated that Boardman’s “successor” at Amtrak could be Joe Szabo, who has been the FRA Administrator, but Szabo denied the rumors and said that “if he had remained in Washington he would never have considered the Amtrak job.” That tells you how exciting the prospect of “leading” this organization is.

This writer is now ready for a long road and rail vacation where what is really going on “out there” will be interesting to discover first hand. Look for a trip report in early December. Meanwhile, have a great Thanksgiving and be thankful that we still have passenger trains we can ride. While they need constant attention perhaps one day passenger trains will not be in so many cross-hairs. They will still be around.

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