Commentary by Russ Jackson
Yes, I know, that’s supposed to be a funny headline. But, here we are, three months into the new year and two months into a new national administration, so what do we know about Amtrak’s future? Many articles and commentaries have been written with everything from rosy predictions to forecasts of dire consequences. This article will be no exception, and regular readers of this byline should not be surprised that it includes some of both. I’ve been doing that for over 30 years now.
We all knew that when Wick Moorman took the reigns of Amtrak last year that there would be changes made, and that is what happens in any organization when there is a new “chief.” So, what do we know now? It was very quickly apparent that the Northeast Corridor was taking precedence over the long distance trains. In his comments to various writers he spoke at length about the NEC needs, and gave what I call lip service to the national system. So, we said, “what else is new?” Then came a surprise when he said he favored the proposed service along the Gulf from New Orleans to Florida that has received much local support. He called for an extension of trains 58/59, the City of New Orleans, as a daily train on that route. Very good, we all said, then he added he favored a daily extension of a section of trains 19/20, the Crescent, from Meridian, MS, to Ft. Worth, TX. Very good thinking, we said, knowing that in both cases these growth projects had been proposed long ago. Growth, we said, at last! And, since it was from a man of the South we said it was something he knew about.
Good for Wick! Never mind the difficulty involved in first getting the states along the Gulf to cough up the money for that extension (something that is not necessary as it is would run on tracks that were already part of the national system prior to hurricane Katrina in 2005 and should just have been re-instated years ago). Or, that the Crescent section would run on new trackage that would be less than the 750 mile requirement that must govern new train mileage be paid for by the states. At least Wick was thinking growth for the long distance trains. Nothing was said about the other routes that could be tweaked to increase revenue, like extending trains 821/822, the Heartland Flyer, to Newton, KS, (oh, that would require the states to kick in, they say), extend the Southwest Chief via Pueblo, CO, a daily Sunset Limited and Cardinal, or the many other things that can be done.
Wick did tell Congress, and we agree, that a “New Era” of Amtrak investment in “our aging assets” was required, to “continue to provide reliable services and network operations.” He was referring mostly to NEC construction projects, but included “construction of a fleet of new or rebuilt diesel LOCOMOTIVES to support Amtrak’s national network.” (All caps by this writer) No new cars for the west, just locomotives, leaving the long distance car fleet size as is. He did tell some that the long distance trains are vital as they preserve service to small communities along the way. We totally agree with that, too, but what will preserve that service is for the system to grow by attracting more passengers! So, what we heard next was that the positions of the route managers for the western trains, Erik Smith, Jay Fountain, etc., were being eliminated in the grandiose reorganization plan already adopted. WHAT? The only place that any improvements to on board service were taking place were at the hands of those managers, and the rail advocacy community in the West was enthusiastic about their plans, their willingness to meet with the traveling public and attend our meetings. They were gone, we heard, and RailPAC President, Paul Dyson, summed it up perfectly when he said, “Positions like Erik’s, with people of his and his colleagues’ caliber certainly pay for themselves. Higher morale, better product, less waste, more repeat business!” But WAIT. We learned a few days later from RailPAC’s VP Long Distance Services James Smith that those positions were reorganized and will continue, BUT, each manager will now have three trains instead of two. That dilutes the ability of each to serve individual train needs, but at least the positions were retained. We learned that Wick Moorman had come to Los Angeles for three days, presumably to convey that decision. In Paul Dyson’s words, “two steps back and one step forward.” All in the name of cost containment, not revenue growth.
Then came the budget proposal from President Trump that slashed domestic programs while increasing defense related ones. Not unexpected, but Trump’s Budget Director’s philosophy was there for all to see. He cut into departments and programs that his people deemed to not be effective, “so why keep them?” Singled out were the Amtrak long distance trains for elimination. It kinda reminded some of us who were around then of what President Reagan’s Budget Director tried to do in the 1980’s, when Amtrak was “zero’d out.” But with the help of the Congress, DOT Secretary Elizabeth Dole, FRA Administrator John Riley, Amtrak President Graham Claytor, train riders, and material supplied by rail advocacy organization URPA, Amtrak survived. Is that system still in place? Well, the riders are there, and they continue to ride because they want to and need to. An example of that is ridership (not the best indicator, but one easily understood) on trains 21/22 the Texas Eagle increased 23.2 % so far this year with a corresponding increase in the train’s revenue of 14% on a train that is exactly the same as last year. BUT, what does the Congress and the administration know? Only that the long distance trains are “losers.” Why is that? Andrew Selden says, “This is the result of decades of Amtrak’s big lie about (financial) results and the collusion of organizations that failed to repudiate it.” The chickens have come home to roost, and there is a large group of Members of Congress who have grown up hearing “money losers”, as well as a large holdover group of them who always have opposed Amtrak getting any money. Those groups are now in charge. While it is early in the process, as everyone says, it will take a miracle in this writer’s judgment for Amtrak’s long distance trains to rise to the level where its needs are equal to the demands of so many other programs. Wick, you have your hands full and whether or not you succeed as Amtrak President, regardless of how long you are there, will be determined this year. You know that and we know that.
Let me conclude this by including a paragraph written by Noel Braymer in the RailPAC weekly e-newsletter on March 20: “While Amtrak trains on the NEC may operate at a profit, the cost of owning and operating the NEC where most of the trains are non Amtrak commuter trains sucks up most of the subsidy Amtrak gets. Since the 1970’s Amtrak has charged much of their NEC overhead costs to the long distance and state supported trains to hide the full impact of the costs of the NEC. These accounting practices are ‘why’ the long distance trains ‘lose’ so much money. The reality is Amtrak has never saved money from cutting long distance trains. When Amtrak has done so, they ended up worse off financially.” Just wait to see what happens to Amtrak when all those long distance “losers” are gone and they have no place to hide the cost of the NEC. Some insiders at Amtrak know that, but it may be too late to convince the powers that be. OH, what would they do with all those idle Superliner cars? Well, they would make good dormitories for workers building the wall along the Mexican border. 🙂