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By M.E. Singer

Since posting in RailPAC on 11 August 2017, “A Nose Under the Tent”-FRA Seeks Competitive Bids to Replace Three Amtrak Long-Distance Routes,” yet another significant issue has evolved in parallel to literally shake the foundation of Amtrak by portending the breaking of Amtrak’s alleged inviolable (pursuant to its own decree) assertion of an exclusive monopoly to operate all intercity passenger rail services.  Despite authoritative voices pooh-poohing any threat to Amtrak with the opening of Connecticut’s “CTrail” between New Haven-Hartford-Springfield, this has the potential to relieve Amtrak of its exclusivity and render it to become one of many competitive factors negotiating over franchises and open access.

Although we have different commuter agencies operating segments of their lines within Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, e.g., MBTA, Shore Line East, SEPTA, MARC, and VRE, CTrail poses a different perspective in chipping away at Amtrak’s “fortress monopoly.” We have already re-learned our lesson from Rep.”Tip” O’Neill that “all politics are local”–the federal politicos for Connecticut sank the unsolicited FRA proposal  to destroy the tranquility of Connecticut and Rhode Island by re-routing the Northeast Corridor.  This year we also learned the value of federal politico proprietorship to issues important to them when the USDOT buckled under Senator Feinstein’s threat to throttle that agency unless it approved the (well planned, well deserved) authorization to fund Caltrains electrification plan. Before that, we had U.S. Senators Blumenthal and Murphy from Connecticut stepping up to ensure appropriate funding for the revamped New Haven-Hartford-Springfield line.

Although apologists will attempt to explain that the CTrail is nothing more than a mere commuter service, I question that is CTrail not the “nose in the tent” re Amtrak’s monopoly, given:

CTrail already promotes the concept of how Metro-North ticketing will be available at Springfield ( MA) Union Station so “from New Haven, passengers will be able to continue to New York City’s Grand Central Terminal via Metro-North, a rail service run by New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority.” So much for Amtrak’s run thru schedules. (Remember, in 1964, the NYNH&H offered 9 thru frequencies between Springfield/Hartford/New Haven-NYC; in 1981, even Amtrak offered 3 thru frequencies; today, Amtrak offers but 2 thru frequencies.)

CTrail promotes the “upgrading and rebranding of Amtrak’s New Haven–Springfield line.” Re-branding Amtrak?

Certainly this is not to apologize for Amtrak, as its obstinance and arrogance over a decade under its non-rail experienced CEO Joseph Boardman, created this untenable position, unchecked by its Board of Directors, allegedly committed to carrying out their fiduciary duties to, as reported in the area media (Meridien Record (CT) of 26 July 2017):

“Amtrak has received plenty of criticism over its operations in Connecticut, both from commuters and from public officials. Malloy (CT governor) even wrote a letter to the Federal Railroad Administration in May 2015 saying Amtrak’s lack of maintenance on the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield line required so much work that service would be delayed from late 2016 to January 2018. The date was pushed out again until May 2018 to allow for double-tracking between Hartford and Windsor, Malloy announced Monday. In the 2015 letter, Malloy also said the total cost of the project jumped by roughly $250 million to $623 million because of the additional work needed along the railroad, which Amtrak owns.”

“Under questioning by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Boardman acknowledged that completing projects on time and budget “hasn’t always been standard practice” at the railroad. But he said a switch in senior management has changed that. Gov. Daniel P. Malloy last spring sharply criticized Amtrak for mismanaging the project. The state ultimately agreed to issue more than $135 million in bonds to cover the overruns and related costs Amtrak has control over construction even though the funding comes from Connecticut and the federal government, and Blumenthal said the railroad owes it to taxpayers to manage the costs. Connecticut, with very limited control, is depending on Amtrak to do its job here,” Blumenthal said. “Connecticut taxpayers will largely pay for this line and will use it. Disputes with Amtrak, which owns the rail bed, have pushed the project behind schedule and over budget, and thrown off the DOT’s schedule for hiring a contractor to run the trains.”

In announcing its decision not to go with Amtrak, who owns the right-of-way, the CT DOT administrator let us know that “the management team in Amtrak’s proposal, meanwhile, didn’t have the type of experience Connecticut was looking for. Amtrak is a legacy railroad,” he said. “They’ve been doing it for lots of years…”

Are we surprised that former Amtrak CEO Boardman, protected by his Board of Directors in his pocket, blew this opportunity for Amtrak, just as other similar situations were deemed by the political Boardman as not important? Given how Amtrak’s Board of Directors was so depended upon being directed by a CEO looking to merely mark time before drawing down a spectacular pension (NOT Moorman), the gate has already been opened. No matter what part of PRIIA points to, whether Sections 201, 209, 213, or 217, what CTrail will inevitably trigger is a full congressional review of what was signed off on back in 2008 when Amtrak pushed the initial PRIIA legislation before unsuspecting, but willing politicos. The only caveat remaining now, as Amtrak has shown the “emperor wears no clothes,” is the question does CTrail create a re-definition of PRIIA merely for the Northeast Corridor, and its appendages, or, has it truly re-opened all routes?

Bottom line–by allowing CTrail to interpret Amtrak’s deemed monopoly on its own Northeast Corridor for inter-state trains, with this current administration looking to shuck off as much federal responsibility and subsidies as possible, it is quite feasible that Amtrak has lost its argument as a unique and exclusive provider of intercity passenger rail transportation.  Accordingly, well informed politicos may indeed understand the alternatives that have historically been denied, such as franchising operations with Amtrak owning the infrastructure, as in this Connecticut-Massachusetts operation. Or, open access to allow all willing comers with the financial and operational heft to participate.

How can these options be wrong for the traveling public?  Passenger railroading as we know it, in all due respect, was always a wide-opened competitive  playing field, until 1971.