By Noel T. Braymer
In a recent article posted by Trains Magazine, Amtrak President Wick Moorman said that he promised his wife that his time as Amtrak President would be brief. He said that his main efforts were to improve Amtrak’s organization to make it more efficient and look for a successor to replace him as soon a possible. One area where Mr. Moorman can start the process of improving Amtrak’s bottom line well into the future is to improve and expand its Long Distance Train service. Despite what Amtrak has claimed over the years, the Long Distance Trains don’t require subsidy. They have long been a good source of revenue for Amtrak. With government for now dominated by Republicans, any improvements to Long Distance Trains needs to be done in a way which has minimal impact on government spending. Also in rural states with Republican local government, there is strong support for expanded Long Distance Trains service in their local communities. This process will take some time. But it will need to start while Mr. Moorman is still at Amtrak.
There are 3 things that are needed to expand Long Distance Trains service in this country. Here they are in the order that needs to be done.
1. Amtrak needs new and more Long Distance equipment.
Particularly needed is new Superliner style bi-level equipment which are the most productive. The longer distance services in the West generate the most passenger miles and the most revenues. The newest Superliner cars were delivered in the early 1990’s and most of the Superliner cars go back to the early 1980’s. Buying new equipment will allow Amtrak to carry more passengers and earn more revenue. It will also improve the reliability of the service while reducing maintenance costs and equipment down time. The best way to do this without begging Congress for funds will be to buy new cars and locomotives through leasing. This is how most transportation services get their equipment. Most airline lease, they don’t buy their planes. Just with new and additional Long Distance equipment Amtrak will be able to increase revenue and reduce costs.
2. Improve relationships with the host railroads.
If anyone can improve relationships with the host railroads and expand rail passenger service, it will be a highly respected retired Railroad CEO like Wick Moorman. He admits that this is one of his goals as Amtrak President. What the railroads want is more money for running Amtrak trains, and fewer hassles from late trains which are often not in good mechanical condition. To improve Amtrak’s finances, it needs to carry more long distance passengers. To do this it will need more equipment and serve more markets to increase its sales. This can’t be done without good relations with the host railroads needed to expand service.
3.Expand Long Distance Rail Passenger service.
Do the simple things first. Amtrak has wanted to run the Sunset and Cardinal trains daily for quite some time. The main hold up to doing this is opposition from the host railroads. With better relations with the railroads plus fewer problems with Amtrak on their roads, this can be accomplished. Running these 2 trains daily will greatly increase revenue and ridership with little impact on increased cost. The overhead costs of running a train 3 says a week is almost as high as running daily. But daily service brings in more revenue than 3 days a week service. There is broad local public support to return rail passenger service along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. This service would be most productive as part of an extended City of New Orleans to Orlando. Not only would this serve daily the residents along the Gulf Coast, but it would provide connections to the upper Mid-West and serve Orlando which is one of the largest travel markets in the world.
There is major support to extend the Southwest Chief to Pueblo, Colorado. This should be done as soon as possible. The present plan calls for a section to run between Pueblo and La Junta which only serves the route east of Pueblo. The rational thing to do is to reroute the Chief up to Pueblo to serve the entire route and improve bus connections north to the Denver Metro area. There is interest in extending the Heartland Flyer to Kansas City through Oklahoma and Texas. What might be done is extend the Flyer to Newton, Kansas on to Kansas City by way of Wichita. At Newton passengers would be able to make connection to the Southwest Chief in both directions. What would complement this service would be a section of the Crescent split off at Meridian, Mississippi to Dallas and Fort Worth. This would create a mini-rail hub at Fort Worth for connections to Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York, Kansas City and Chicago between the Sunset/Eagle, Heartland Flyer and Crescent.
There are several other routes worthy of consideration for expanded service. These few have been highlighted since they are the closest to being ready and/or have broad local support.