Can Advocacy Befriend the Class 1s to Save the National Network?By Rail Provocateur (M.E. Singer)
“Recrudescence” is defined as the revival of behavior that had been previously stabilized or settled. As we realize by now, serious advocacy has failed by following a futile doctrine of a collaborative approach with Amtrak. We have witnessed how Amtrak has played a “shell game” with members of Congress and the RPA, withholding complete facts, or, simply reneging on agreements upon closure of such meetings. What advocates and politicos failed to understand was Amtrak’s sclerotic declaration of antagonism and hostility to the long distance trains that define the National Network. Have our options been played out to allay Amtrak’s decision made in solitude favoring the NEC, despite being in defiance of its mission, and at the expense of a national system?
Why has Congress failed to hold Amtrak’s “feet to the fire” over a test of wills with the “Southwest Chief” serving as the domino theory of setting up the other long distance routes to fall after the “Chief” is dismembered? Why has Congress not coalesced to immediately introduce requisite legislation to bring Amtrak in line with its mission as mandated by Congress, such as:
1) Withhold all funding for the Gateway Project connecting New Jersey and New York, as the senators from those states must be required to line-up in support of the National Network of long distance trains.
2) Cease funding the Northeast Corridor to ensure the senators from those 11 states also throw their active support towards the long distance trains.
3) Stop the subsidizing of the Northeast Corridor by the National Network of state-supported trains by requiring all such funds to be spent only in those states remitting payments per PRIIA.
4) Revise the FAST Act and all Amtrak-related legislation to define a long distance train service as a contiguous rail route between end points with no break or change in service. Also, any proposed modification in a long distance route must be reviewed and approved by Congress.
How quickly did Amtrak CEO Anderson walk away from his apparent throwaway keynote address to the Rail Nation Conference last November, when he clearly stated, “The real purpose of the national network is to connect small cities and inland cities to provide the most utility to the most Americans across the country,” Anderson said, addressing the National Association of Railroad Passengers conference at the Millennium Knickerbocker Hotel. “Only 6 percent of the long-distance customers travel from the beginning point to the end point along the route.” (CHICAGO TRIBUNE 11/1/17).
At the time, nobody thought to question Anderson’s integrity and alleged commitment to the National Network. Although this declaration was but months before Anderson initiated the attack (already being finalized as his speech was prepared) on the long distance trains (e.g., discontinuance of Pacific Parlor, PV restrictions, severe limitation of Charter/Special Trains, de-staffing depots, diminished dining service, cutting direct Chicago-New York service for NEC commuter-related repairs at Penn Station, and frontal assault against the “Chief”), we should have seized upon his declaration and pushed Anderson to elaborate upon this alleged commitment to the long distance trains by moving quickly on two issues to evidence such support:
1) Reinvigorating a proforma for Congress to allow for an Amtrak ticket tax dedicated to Amtrak’s long distance routes.
2) Learn from past rail history to initiate a seat reservation charge to derive as ancillary income, just as the airlines have accomplished.
What we should learn from this experience is to identify new opportunities to coalesce in support of the National Network. We cannot stand idly by to see how the Coalition for the Northeast Corridor continues to grab the headlines and drown out advocacy for long distance services by declaring, “Letting the corridor slip further into disrepair could upend the American economy, threaten jobs across the region and undermine President Trump’s pro-growth agenda.” (USA Today 2/12/18)
Instead, just this past week, three such news items appeared that could be tied together and wisely interpreted as giving us the ability to fight Amtrak on its own level–and turf. We should seize this once in a lifetime opportunity that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” by embracing the position of the Class 1s, including inadequate compensation for today’s market value of time sensitive track access and dispatching, imposition of infrastructure costs not required for freight service, etc.
The federal appeals court ruled against the AAR in favor of the FRA/Amtrak to establish their own on-time performance metrics.
Until the Supreme Court inevitably kills the appeals court decision in favor of the AAR, (i.e., could GM make such demands upon the interstate highway system?) perhaps the time is right to start fixing “everything?” As Amtrak persists in perpetuating its broken model that is only acceptable to those served along the NEC, Congress must be solicited by advocates to mandate a full blown independent audit to:
1) Identify and determine how the accounting principles of GAAP are defied by Amtrak’s inappropriate allocation of costs, revenues, and funding. Such an audit will evidence how Amtrak has violated these basic accounting principles by inordinately dumping Northeast Corridor infrastructure and corporate overhead costs on the National Network to make the Northeast Corridor to improve its numbers.
2) However, the independent audit will not stop at Amtrak’s own “shell game” of allocations. This audit should also identify how Amtrak pays the Class 1s, as it is time to rectify the assumptions and demands Amtrak has been allowed to parlay over the decades on these privately-owned firms. A competent independent audit should identify what costs are the Class 1s forced to swallow that are not appropriate; that bend the curve towards inappropriate confiscation of private property by Amtrak; or, simply beyond what would be normally expected for a lessor to pay to intensively use such private infrastructure? To what extent are the Class 1s not reimbursed to maintain their infrastructure for the sole benefit of passenger trains; how different is the payment structure for Amtrak than the commuter railroads?
As Amtrak has elected to selectively violate legal agreements with states over the sharing of infrastructure improvement costs; to overtly deceive Congress and the media over track segments that have waivers for PTC; to surreptitiously plan to decimate the National Network, than it must be held accountable for the imposition of inappropriate costs upon the Class 1s. At some point, we must demand–and achieve-full accountability, oversight, and transparency of Amtrak. Auditing both Amtrak and how it pays the Class 1s will provide the requisite sunlight so critically missing these days.
This past week was the announcement of a draft for a infrastructure plan by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Shuster.
Beyond the obvious need to think beyond a straight tax on fuel, and instead to have a formula for mileage and weight, what about getting innovative for those most capable of paying any infrastructure related tax; to alleviate the burden imposed upon the Class 1s?
Although the Class 1s are thoroughly taxed by every jurisdiction for their property and activities; as well as required to pay out of their Capex for the congressionally unfunded mandated PTC, what about the airlines? Although this may not be the first topic at the breakfast table between Shuster and his airline lobbyist gal, given how the airlines have benefited from the federally built and maintained airline traffic control system, why not tax airlines for their use by traffic volume of the air traffic control system?
Whatever happened to Congressman Fazio’s proposal to tax every transaction on Wall Street, which could be a dedicated fund for all modal infrastructure? Or, does that receive the same wink and backslap as the hedge funds and carried interest forward powers to be?
Just these two concepts would go a long way towards relieving the over-taxed Class 1s and funding infrastructure by those who have historically enjoyed a very long, free ride.
Amtrak to invest $370 Million to accelerate maintenance on the Northeast Corridor
Makes one wonder how much from PRIIA remittances by non-NEC states was surreptitiously directed to subsidize the NEC (given how Amtrak has miraculously cut its overall loses since collecting on PRIIA)?
Instead of going to the NEC, what if PRIIA funds were required by Congress to be spent only in those states making such payments? Would that not expedite the sorely needed infrastructure improvements required for passenger to share freight right-of-way, including construction of separate mainline track dedicated for passenger? Instead of imposing upon an unwilling “partner,” (Class 1s) states in lieu of Amtrak would identify and prioritize rail projects important to their state–and region. This could only facilitate improved and extended inter-regional intercity services; consequently, certainly extend the economic benefit to the Class 1s.
Preventing the axe-wielding management from “The Shining”
As the real stakeholders of Amtrak, the American taxpayer must rely upon Congress to keep Amtrak within the “guardrails” and not forsake its overall mission. But how many more threats and disruption to the National Network will Congress accept before it calls in its marker and requires a different model to ensure appropriate oversight, accountability, and transparency for national passenger rail services?
To achieve our immediate goal to insulate the long distance trains from those whose only skill has been to manipulate and hide the facts, we need to respond now and work with and support the Class 1s economically and politically. If the Class 1s see the economic benefit to this strategy, it would be in their interest to join us in support of the long distance trains. (For those who point to the OTP issue, to what extent did Amtrak enhance this issue due to broken engines; delaying disembarking and boarding by opening only one set of doors at an en route depot?)
Their is the basis for funding the long distance routes and the inter-regional state-supported routes if we can clean-up Amtrak’s accounting ledgers and prevent the butcher (Amtrak) from putting both thumbs on the scale when weighing the price for the National Network.