By Noel T. Braymer
Wick Moorman will be busy in the next few months in his transition as President of Amtrak. There are lots of problems at Amtrak for him to learn about. He will need to assemble his own management team to get needed changes made at Amtrak. His most immediate issues will be to improve Amtrak’s revenues and improve Amtrak’s equipment reliability of its trains. At the same time there is growing demand around the country for more rail passenger service. This is seen with increased local political action to get Washington’s attention for more rail passenger service. There are many issues holding back these efforts. First of all is lack of funding. There is also a shortage of equipment for expanded service. And the railroads are not eager to have more passenger service on their tracks. Much of the efforts of late by Amtrak studying different route improvements was in the hope of Amtrak getting more funding from the States. The fact is improved Long Distance Rail Passenger service can be self supporting and improve Amtrak’s bottom line. This was done by former Amtrak President W. Graham Claytor back in the 80’s when he turned around Amtrak’s history of rising deficits with modest improvements of Long Distance Rail Passenger service.
The local effort getting the most attention now is from the States along the Gulf Coast between Louisiana and Florida to bring back rail passenger service which was suspended over 10 years ago after Hurricane Katrina and never restored by Amtrak. The best option for the Gulf Coast is not to return triweekly Sunset service from Los Angeles to Orlando. Instead what is needed is to extend the daily City of New Orleans from Chicago via New Orleans to Orlando. This would greatly add ridership to the City of New Orleans by adding many more travel markets to the route. Also increased daytime service on this mostly overnight train will also increase ridership. This would provide connections to most of the upper Midwest from Chicago to the Gulf Coast and Orlando. Such connections are missing now from the Midwest. From Orlando there should be connections on the Brightline rail passenger service opening next year between Orlando and Miami.
The problems doing this are of course funding, lack of equipment and getting cooperation from the railroads. This and other improvements will require the efforts of Congress to develop funding sources to buy more equipment and make track improvements to allow smooth operations with mixed passenger and freight traffic. To get support in Congress will require service improvements around the country to as many congressional districts as possible and not limited to a few areas.
One project that Amtrak is on record supporting is a daily Cardinal which is now run triweekly between New York, Washington, Indianapolis and Chicago . The reality of life is with overhead costs little money is saved with triweekly service, but revenues are much lower with less than daily service. What has been stopping Amtrak from running a daily Cardinal is opposition by the railroads. If equipment can be found and Mr. Moorman is able to negotiate a deal for daily service on the Cardinal this would a fairly simple project to bring about which would increase ridership and revenues for Amtrak. What would make the Cardinal do even better would be a section added to this train breaking off at Indianapolis to St. Louis and Kansas City. This would open up more connections to more trains as well as create more travel markets.
There has been much publicity of late of efforts in Colorado to create service for the city of Pueblo to the Southwest Chief. Amtrak for now is proposing to run a section between La Junta and Pueblo which would only provide service between Pueblo and Chicago. This would mean no connections to New Mexico, Arizona or California which are at least as big a market as between Pueblo-Chicago. If the State of Colorado is able to fund improved track work it makes far more sense to reroute the entire Southwest Chief to Pueblo to provide service to the west as well as the east of Pueblo.
There is great interest in Oklahoma to extend the state supported Heartland Flyer trains between Fort Worth and Oklahoma City up to Kansas City. Doing this will be expensive and Oklahoma is having trouble now as it is paying to keep the Heartland Flyer running to say nothing of Kansas’s budget problems. A more economical solution which would generate more revenues would be to extend the Heartland Flyer to Newton, Kansas for connections ( granted in the middle of the night) with the Southwest Chief in both directions. This would provide connections between the Southwest Chief, the Sunset and Eagle trains, These longer length trips would generate more revenue than service between Oklahoma City and Kansas City. Connections would still be possible overnight via Newton between Fort Worth and Oklahoma City to Kansas City.
One project which is long overdue is a daily Sunset. Almost 8 years ago when Amtrak brought up a daily Sunset to the UP, the main problems were lack of double tracking on a busy intermodal line serving the Ports of Los Angeles/ Long Beach and the at grade crossing of the UP and BNSF of their busy mainlines at Colton. The Colton flyover has since been built which has eliminated the congestion that often led to freight trains backed up to UP’s Colton yard. The only thing stopping Metrolink from adding more trains on the BNSF between Riverside and San Bernardino now is the BNSF wants Metrolink to pay to extend the triple tracks between Fullerton and Riverside up to San Bernardino first. The other major problem on the UP has been the single tracking between Los Angeles and El Paso. In the last 8 years many miles of double tracking has been added by the UP on this line. There is still 33 miles of single track in Imperial County, California well east of Palm Sprints on this line and about the same amount of single tracking in Arizona. There is also the problem of the single track bridge over the Colorado River at Yuma. Track capacity for now isn’t an issue for the UP with traffic now way down. This also means the UP has no incentive to spend money to add more double tracking on this or any of its lines.
So what can be done about the issues of buying more and new equipment and giving the railroads incentive to double track and have more passenger trains on their tracks? There is a lot Congress can do. It could appropriate funds for more equipment and track work. But there is also much it can do with the tax code to create incentives while not directly adding to the Federal Budget. Amtrak could lease new equipment which legislation by Congress could be made easier to do. Leasing is used by most transportation companies buying planes, trains, cars and trucks. It is a form of financing which allow companies to finance equipment which is paid off from the revenues created with the new equipment. This is more rational than saving money to pay purchases by cash. Financial institutions love to approve leases since they get the tax credit for making a major capitol purchase. This would be a way to use a tax subsidy to buy more locomotives and rail cars for Amtrak. Amtrak doesn’t qualify for tax credits when it gets government funding to buy equipment.
The Federal Government can issue low interest loans for buying equipment and track work. Amtrak is doing this now to buy new trainsets to replace their Acela equipment. Congress could also grant tax credits and or deductions to the railroads which improve their tracks and allow more passenger rail service on their lines. This would give the railroads an incentive to have more passenger service. For now by law, with Amtrak the railroads have to give a discount when Amtrak runs its trains on the freight railroads. Making problems worse for the freight railroads is often Amtrak trains break down or just run late which causes problems. None of these ideas are original with me. But given the politics of rail service, these are some of the more likely way Congress will support more rail passenger service without increasing the Federal Budget.