By Noel T. Braymer
Politics have long played a major role for Rail Passenger Service in this country. From the start of Amtrak there has been an ongoing political battle over rail passenger service between “Blue States” (with Democratic majorities) and “Red States” (with Republican majorities). The Blue States with more large cities often have short distance trains but with large numbers of passengers. The Red States are generally served more by long distance trains. Often when there are budget battles the long distance trains on Amtrak are held hostage with threats of being abolished if full funding isn’t granted for the short distance trains, particularly in the Northeast. These battles between long distance versus short distance trains produces no winners, only losers for the American traveling public.
Over the years Amtrak has cut back long distance service (but never on the Northeast Corridor) in attempts to save money. This has never worked. On paper the long distance trains seem to lose a great deal of money for Amtrak. This is because trains on Amtrak are charged a share of Amtrak’s overhead by their train miles. Long distance trains get charged a great deal since they travel more miles than short distance trains. The problem is cutting long distance trains does nothing to reduce Amtrak’s overhead. Cutting long distance trains only leaves fewer trains to charge Amtrak’s overhead to. Cutting long distance trains also reduces more revenue than it saves in avoidable costs.
The good news is we are increasingly seeing grass root organizations being formed that have or want long distance passenger train service all around the country. The leaders in these towns understand how vital transportation is to the economic growth and health of their communities. They have often felt the impact of when Amtrak service is disrupted or cut. A good example of this are the local efforts to keep the Empire Builder going between Chicago, Minneapolis, Seattle and Portland. The last 4 years or so have not been good for the Empire Builder. Floods along the route and major rail traffic congestion in large part due to the “oil boom” in North Dakota turned the Empire Builder into the least reliable passenger train in America.
A major problem for the Empire Builder was regular flooding at Devils Lake in North Dakota. Things got so bad that in 2009 the BNSF said if the lake flooded again it would reroute the Empire Builder unless Amtrak paid $100 million dollars to raise the railroad above flood level. This would leave the towns of Rugby, Devils Lake, and Grand Forks without rail passenger service if the line was abandoned. After flooding shut down service around Devils Lake in 2011, BNSF got an agreement with Amtrak and North Dakota that they would each pay a third of the cost of raising the railroad above flood level at Devils Lake. In December 2011, North Dakota was awarded a $10 million TIGER grant from the Federal Government and constructions work began in June of 2012.
At the same time this was happening, freight train congestion hit a peak with a growing economy and the oil train boom which delayed other many trains. With this on-time performance for the Empire Builder was nearly non-existent. This year things have greatly improved. The raising of the tracks around Devils Lake is finished. The BNSF has accelerated its efforts to double track its mainlines in the northern United States and oil train traffic has declined. As far as the Empire Builder is concerned, local efforts were needed to insure it was saved and continued along its historic route.
Much the same play book is now being seen on the Southwest Chief in New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas. With the Chief more than 3 towns are at risk of losing rail passenger service. A couple of years ago the BNSF announced that unless Amtrak paid $100 million to upgrade the tracks on the route of these 3 states that goes over the Raton Pass to passenger trains standards, the Southwest Chief would have to be rerouted. There was hope from other towns along the BNSF mainline east of New Mexico that they may get Amtrak service. The BNSF made it clear that any attempt to reroute the Chief would require about the same amount of outside funding as fixing the route through Raton. Towns along the Raton route have gotten together to find ways to to raise money to fix the tracks and save their rail passenger service. In southern Colorado the city of Pueblo has been a major supporter of the Chief to also reroute it to serve their city. Not long ago this would have been thought impossible given the heavy coal train traffic on the BNSF line through Pueblo. But with the recent and rapid decline of demand for coal, this may not seem unrealistic now. Not all of the money has yet been raised, but the BNSF has stopped talking of ending service through Raton for the Chief.
A different story is playing out along the American coast of the Gulf of Mexico between New Orleans and Orlando. After Hurricane Katrina hit the region 10 years ago the tracks and stations were heavily damaged, At this time service of the tri-weekly Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to Orlando was pulled back to New Orleans. Since then the tracks and stations east of New Orleans have long been repaired but Amtrak has refused to restore service on this long distance Amtrak system train. The leaders on this route have been stepping up their efforts to get rail service restored. Amtrak has been pushing a plan to get the states on the Gulf Coast to pay it a subsidy to run a short distance train between New Orleans and Florida. Service in the region only makes sense if there are connections via New Orleans and Jacksonville to Orlando, the rest of Florida, the Eastern Seaboard, upper Midwest to Chicago and the West Coast. More markets mean more ridership and revenues. That’s what the airlines do.
Here is a quote from Coastal officials want passenger rail service back on track AL.com-Jun 12, 2015 “This isn’t about nostalgia or rail fans, it’s about economic development and it’s about commerce,” said John Robert Smith, chairman of the board with Transportation for America – a non-profit alliance that pushes for grassroots support of progressive transportation policy in the U.S.”It’s about security and evacuation and movement of goods in and out before and after tropical storms and hurricanes,” Smith, a former long-time mayor of Meridian, Miss., added. “It impacts southerner’s lives on many different levels.”
This is from “The Hill ” website for August 28th: A provision in a multiyear transportation bill that was approved in July by the Senate would provide funding for a study of the feasibility of restoring the service, which used to make stops in Alabama and the panhandle of Florida before it headed south to Orlando.
Advocates of restoring the dormant Gulf Coast Amtrak service are hoping to win support for the language in the House when lawmakers return to Washington in September. “The Senate has passed a very good bill that does two things: It creates a $100 million fund for states to access for services which were annulled (Sunset Limited) or under threat of downgrading of discontinuance (Southwest Chief),” a group called Friends of Sunset Limited to Florida wrote in a Facebook post as the Senate was approving the highway bill, which is known as the DRIVE Act, in July.
“Also restructures the Amtrak Board of directors by creating better regional representation,” the group’s post continued. “Two directors each would come from the Northeast Corridor, States supporting passenger service and most importantly for us, areas served by long distance service.”
This is clear evidence that local efforts are finally having an effect in Washington to provide funding to improve and expand rail passenger service around the whole country. Cutting trains doesn’t save money and weakens a national rail passenger system, even for the Northeast. The key to rail passenger growth doesn’t come from Washington. It starts at the local level and takes pressure to get Washington to do the right thing.