By Noel T. Braymer
On September 5th Amtrak CEO in training Richard Anderson gave a series of interviews to the media with some hints of what his priorities will be at Amtrak. These interviews generally covered much the same ground. Here are some excerpts from Mr. Anderson on “CBS This Morning”:
Anderson, previously the CEO of Delta, says he came out of retirement for a job with no paycheck to “serve.”
“More and more mass transit and commuter trains should play a more important role in how we live in urban areas,” Anderson said. “First imperative is to get the infrastructure fixed and the work we did at Penn Station shows Amtrak can do a great job doing this. And we have a lot of investment to make in the Northeast corridor. Second, we gotta clean up our trains, run our trains on time, fix the interior of our trains and grow our services in the regions that provide the highest levels of service to the communities around the country,” Anderson said….
“If we could just get our train speeds up and operate more nonstop service in very densely populated urban corridors, it would be a great service to the traveling public in America. Think about what Acela has done and we’re on the verge of putting a new Acela system in place,” Anderson said.
Well nothing was said directly in this or other interviews about Long Distance trains. Anderson should visit and talk to managers of major passenger rail services in Europe and Asia to see how modern rail passenger services are run and what will be needed to improve Amtrak’s service. These rail services operate at a profit. Running faster trains with fewer stops has been tried several times at Amtrak, 2 or 3 times by Amtrak just between Los Angeles and San Diego. In all cases eliminating stops resulted in ridership declining, not increasing. The problem was always that dropping station stops, reduced the number of markets the train served. Not everyone who rides a train is coming or going from major cities for example like San Diego to Los Angeles. Many are traveling to or from stations in between Los Angeles and San Diego. This is true of any major corridor.
Now there is a solution to filling up express trains that the railroads have used for years. Express trains generally are run with what are called sweep trains. With an express train from say San Diego to Los Angeles , there would be a sweep train running in front of the express. The sweep train would make all stops. At a point roughly midway on the route the express train would catch up and stop at a station next to the sweep train. Here passengers would transfer so people on the sweep train going to Los Angeles would get on the express train. For passengers on the express train not going to Los Angeles, they would transfer to the sweep train to get off before it got to Los Angeles. The same process would happen with express and sweep trains from Los Angeles to San Diego.
It seems odd that Mr. Anderson with his long background with airlines would consider non-stop trains. Airlines don’t fly non stop services anymore. Even if the plane you fly on only goes from say San Diego to San Francisco, many fellow passengers will be making connections to flights all over the United States and the world at San Francisco. Ridership on buses, trains and planes depends on the number of connections it has to markets to attract riders. What the airlines and many other businesses also do to attract business is called yield management. What this does is set prices for airlines seats based on demand. In other words discount tickets prices when business is slow and raise them when demand is high. The point is to fill up planes when business is slow and increase revenue when business is good. Amtrak needs more trains, buses and airports for passengers to make connections with to increase the number of travel markets they offer passengers so they want to travel to with Amtrak.
The closest that Mr. Anderson came to talking about long distance trains on CBS This Morning was “You can’t really privatize it (Amtrak) because there are pieces of it that have to be subsidized,” he said. “You could privatize if you wanted the pieces that are profitable but that wouldn’t make a lot of sense. Look, this is basic infrastructure. I think the subsidy last year for highways was $40 billion, subsidy for aviation was about $16 billion and when you think about what we do and what’s sort of fundamental to public policy, it’s to fund infrastructure.”
This is an interesting admission by Mr. Anderson that the government subsidizes most transportation through its infrastructure. The exception to this are the privately owned freight railroads. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is required by law to put out to bid up to 3 Amtrak long distance train routes for use by private operators. I believe money now budgeted for the long distance train’s subsidy will be available to private bidders who would take over these 3 Amtrak routes . The hope is private operators will do a better job at less subsidy than Amtrak. The irony of this is the subsidy costs to Amtrak for operating their trains on the freight railroads is at best minimal. The freight railroads by law must give Amtrak discounted prices for using their infrastructure. At the very least the freight railroads would like to charge Amtrak more to make some money. Any attempt to increase rail passenger service in this county using the freight railroads will require major investment by government in their infrastructure to avoid conflicts between passenger and freight services as far as the railroads are concerned.
There is clearly a need for government on all levels to pay for transportation infrastructure for a healthy economy. But there will always be disagreements over what is a fair share. Most of the Federal Funding for rail service has and continues to be spent on the Northeast Corridor between Washington, New York and Boston. The vast majority of the rail traffic on the Northeast Corridor is not Amtrak’s, but from the many commuter operators on the corridor. But responsibility for paying for most of the rail and station infrastructure on the Northeast Corridor is Amtrak’s, and by extension the Federal Government’s responsibility.
While Mr. Anderson talked about rail corridor service between large metro areas under 750 miles apart, no so much about long distance trains. In terms of corridor services, those outside the Northeast Corridor such as in California, the Pacific Northwest the Midwest and others are funded in large part by the local states both for operation and infrastructure compared to the states of the Northeast Corridor. Any expansion, let alone support for Amtrak depends on the votes in congress from the majority of States who’s rail passenger service are mostly with long distance trains. Increasingly the “flyover states” are demanding expanded and improved rail passenger service. Increasingly these largely rural regions understand that improved transportation is critical for their local economies too. Considering how many votes in Congress are held by rural areas, it will be impossible to ignore them when Amtrak’s budget is voted on in Congress.