By Noel T. Braymer
There are limits due to equipment shortages and funding to what we can expect for service improvements from Amtrak in the near future for the long distance trains. But there are still many little projects that can be done in the near future which will increase ridership, revenue and public support for rail passenger service.
First: extend the Heartland Flyer from Oklahoma City to Newton, Kansas with connections to the Southwest Chief. This is the simplest and least expensive extension of the Flyer and opens many new connections to it, including Kansas City, Chicago and California. This will increase ridership and revenue for both trains
Second: A daily Sunset. This is long overdue. Because of the overhead costs of running a train, no money is saved running with less than daily service. But revenue is much lower with less than daily service. A few years ago, Amtrak tried to get a daily Sunset. It finally cut a deal with the Union Pacific for some changes to the Sunset schedule, which saved Amtrak some money.But as part of the deal, UP demanded that Amtrak not bring up a daily Sunset for a few years. Well that time limit is up. One of the biggest obstacles to a daily Sunset was the bottleneck at the Colton Crossing with conflicting freight traffic from the BNSF. The Colton flyover has fixed this problem a couple of years ago. There are about 35 miles left of single track between Colton and Arizona which UP still wants to double track. But he worst problems are now behind it for the UP.
Third: Bring back rail passenger service on the Gulf Coast. This can be done by either extending the Sunset or the City of New Orleans at least as far as Orlando, Florida from New Orleans. The advantage of extending the City is that its trains stay idle now in New Orleans for almost 24 hours between runs. It would be a better use of this equipment if it were extended to Florida. This would also create a Midwest to Florida service. The tracks and stations on the Gulf Coast were repaired years ago after Hurricane Katrina damaged them 10 years ago. The Sunset is a system train which ran on the Gulf Coast before Katrina. The Gulf Coast route is still part of the Amtrak National System.
Fourth: Make the Cardinal a daily train. Again Tri-weekly service doesn’t save money but reduces revenue. Even Amtrak would like to do this. The problem has been lack of cooperation from the CSX railroad which the Cardinal runs on. The railroads recently got burned in their attempt to push back at Amtrak. A recent Supreme Court ruling said under current law that Amtrak has the power to set regulations on service performance of the railroads for Amtrak service. The railroads for now are in a weaker position to push back against Amtrak.
What is needed is for Congress, Amtrak and the railroads to work out a deal so everyone gets what they want. The railroads want to be paid enough to earn a profit from Amtrak and not have to pay for track improvements their freight service doesn’t need. Amtrak is just trying to stay in business, but wants to concentrates its resources on the Northeast Corridor at the expense of the long distance trains. Congress increasingly is getting pressure across the country with demands for more Amtrak stations and train service particularly on the long distance trains.
Fifth: Extend the Palmetto from Savannah, Georgia to Jacksonville, Florida. This doesn’t require any additional equipment. It will improve equipment utilization, use existing stations and provide connections at Jacksonville to other trains. This was done before in the 1980’s under then Amtrak President Claytor with the Palmetto and it worked fine. It was cut back to Savannah in the 90’s under the same Amtrak Management which was responsible for the start up of the ACELA trains and led Amtrak to almost shut down with almost no cash in 2002. Under Claytor long distance service was increased and Amtrak’s revenues increased while its need for subsidy decreased. Mr. Claytor predicted when he stepped down in 1993 that Amtrak could cover all it’s costs by 2000.
Sixth: A Dallas/Fort Worth section of the Crescent. This would add ridership to the Crescent and create a connections at Fort Worth to the Texas Eagle/Sunset and the Heartland Flyer.
Seventh: Extend the California Zephyr from Emeryville down the coast to Los Angeles. This will open new markets and major new ridership on the popular coast route. This would be simple to do operationally, only one more trainset is needed to the Zephyr fleet. Most of the problems getting this done are political. The Chicago Maintenance Base has opposed this fearing it would lose the Zephyr which is now based in Chicago.
So why have it been so difficult to get quick and easy projects done? It boils down to lack of will on Amtrak management. It is also the result of the emphasis at Amtrak to promote the Northeast Corridor at the expense of the long distance trains. Since the 1970’s Amtrak has manipulated its accounting to hide the costs related to owning the NEC by charging them to the long distance trains. This was discovered in the mid- 1970’s by a member of the then Amtrak Board of Directors. This was also recently pointed out by Trains columnist Fred Frailey:“Congress told Amtrak in 2008 to devise a new cost-accounting plan that better reflects real costs. When Amtrak did so and got ready to run it, the numbers were so startling that implementation was delayed for more than a year until the new system was made to look exactly like the old! Amtrak’s inspector general notes that under the new system, 80 percent of the costs are allocated across the railroad without regard to specific circumstances. The wonder is that Amtrak got away with this, because nobody cared.”
The way Amtrak hides the NEC costs is in the way it allocates costs, which is to transfer the NEC costs to the the other trains, particularly the long distance trains. The game is to threaten to kill long distance trains in order to get enough votes in Congress to fund Amtrak, without making major improvements in Amtrak’s revenue creation. As former Amtrak President Claytor showed, making modest improvements to Long Distance Service can increase revenue more than it increases costs while reducing Amtrak’s deficit.
What is needed for Amtrak to improve its bottom line is more long distance train equipment. The long distance trains can carry more cars, and the trains now are often sold out in many markets much of the year. New services shouldn’t require major new overhead costs. If you add a second frequency on a route, no new stations or maintenance yards or even many new employees are needed. What is most needed is better connections to all the trains. The airlines discovered that in the late 70’s with deregulation and the creation of hub airports. Running more sections on long distance trains is a great way to cheaply get 2 trains for almost the cost of one.
For all of this to happen may require a major shakeup at Amtrak management. It looks like that will be a job for Congress.