By Noel T. Braymer
Recently the staff of Trains Magazine had an interview with Amtrak President Wick Moorman and his plans to fix Amtrak before handing it over to a yet unnamed successor in hopefully the near future. This was discussed in a recent blog from Fred Frailey on the Trains Magazine’s website. This is a quote from Mr. Frailey’s blog
“I get the impression from our conversation with Moorman that his day-to-day attention will be directed first of all to securing funding for needed improvements to the Northeast Corridor, which Amtrak owns, and secondly to improving Amtrak’s relations with states that support the shorter-haul trains. It’s fair to say most states which pay for Amtrak trains feel they are overcharged based on what they get in return. Indiana has rebelled, putting marketing and equipment of the Hoosier State in the hands of short line operator Iowa Pacific Holdings. Other states would like to do the same, but don’t know how. Frictions between Amtrak and the states are a sore that begs to be healed, and this appears to be high on Moorman’s agenda.
As for long-distance trains, he recognizes that they are Amtrak’s face to the world. But they are not where his energies will be concentrated.”
Concentrating on the NEC has been Amtrak’s priority since the 70’s which has gotten Amtrak in the mess it is in now. The Long Distance trains are long overdue for improvements and are the best hope for Amtrak to get broad based support nation wide. This is particularly true in the current political environment which will be dominated more by those who want to cut spending, not increase it. What is most annoying is the blindness of Amtrak that Long Distance trains are not the problem: it is the Northeast Corridor. Not so much the Amtrak trains on the Corridor, but the many commuter services on the tracks which Amtrak own. The commuter trains don’t pay their full cost to Amtrak to use the NEC which is mostly paid for by the US Taxpayers. Only a small fraction of the trains on the Corridor are Amtrak’s.
The fact is Amtrak’s Long Distance trains more than pay for themselves. In the early 1990’s Amtrak was in excellent financial shape when it had its largest network of Long Distance trains with the newest equipment. When Amtrak has cut back Long Distance service it has failed to save money. Instead Amtrak’s revenues always got worse. There is increasing demand around the country for expanded Long Distance Rail service. For this to happen will require additional new passenger cars and locomotives. Amtrak doesn’t need to beg the government for money for this equipment. Most transportation companies lease their equipment. Amtrak can finance the lease for new equipment from the revenues gained with this new equipment and the saving from lower maintenance costs. As it stands now Amtrak often turn customers away because the Long Distance Trains are often full and there is no room for more paying passengers. Just adding more equipment to existing trains with more marketing will improve Amtrak’s bottom line.
It is interesting that Mr. Frailey brings up increasing complaints from the States about Amtrak’s charges to subsidize their short distance trains. Amtrak makes money from the States ( mostly outside of the NEC) operating these short distance trains. What Amtrak charges these States is higher than what would be charged by private operators who now dominate operation of most commuter services around the Country. In a time when many States are having budget problems, something will have to give to keep these State supported trains, or else these trains will be cancelled. In the case of California, the Pacific Surfliner trains are already recovering 75% of their costs and this percentage is likely to get very close to break-even. If the local Joint Powers Agency where to privatize many of the costs of equipment and maintenance of the Pacific Surfliners, they might quickly find themselves operating the service at a profit.