By Noel T. Braymer
Often it is hard to find things to praise when it come to rail passenger service in the United States. But lately there have been a few things to be happy about. Amtrak has its share of problems: many of them self-inflicted. But there has been progress in the last year or two. There are two recent good examples of this.These include ongoing efforts to extend the City of New Orleans east of New Orleans along the Gulf Coast to Florida. There are also efforts to extend the Heartland Flyer between Fort Worth and Oklahoma City up to Newton, Kansas for connections to the Southwest Chief. Now there have been test trains and lots of publicity in the past from Amtrak about extending services. Quite often they end up being public relations exercises and attempts to shake down local governments for funding. It has been some time since we’ve seen efforts to expand service by Amtrak to increase their revenues. Why should this time be different? Well Amtrak has been recently talking to towns across the county that want station stops in their towns. The results have been with more stops ridership has improved. It the last few years Amtrak has been putting more effort to get as much available equipment as possible to expand service during major holiday weekends. The results have been increases in badly needed revenues from these efforts.
There is increasing interest by upper Amtrak management to expand service to increase revenues more than the incremental costs needed to expand service. This was seen in Southern California on the LOSSAN Corridor. For years the LOSSAN Joint Powers Authority (JPA) had wanted to add a 12th Pacific Surfliner round trip between Los Angeles and San Diego. Also the morning train from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo which is part of the LOSSAN Corridor had terrible ridership. But on the return leg for this train which continued on to San Diego had good ridership. Local Amtrak management in Los Angeles worked with the LOSSAN JPA to fix both issues. What was done was a new evening train was run from Los Angeles to San Diego. This equipment is then used for a 4:00 AM departure on weekdays from San Diego which arrives in Los Angeles by 7:30 AM for people needing to get to Los Angeles early in the morning. This train then continues to San Luis Obispo. Using existing equipment, LOSSAN got a 12th round trip between Los Angeles and San Diego as well as 2 full round trips between San Diego and San Luis Obsipo. Revenues have continue to increase with this expanded service.
Recently Amtrak ran a test Heartland Flyer train from Fort Worth to Newton, Kansas with stops at potential future stations such as Arkansas and Wichita, Kansas. An extended Heartland Flyer to Newton would allow connections to the Southwest Chief which runs between Chicago and Los Angeles. The Chief runs in both directions in Newton between 2 and 3 AM. This connection would allow passenger on the Heartland Flyer to connect to most of the Amtrak system from the Chief. Would passengers be willing to make connections at the wee hours of the morning? Amtrak has a connecting bus which has been running for a while between the Heartland Flyer and the Southwest Chief at Newton. Ridership on that bus has been doing very well, with reports of sold out buses on some recent holiday weekends. This will be a fairly simple project to do using the existing equipment with a second crew needed for a round trip.
Amtrak has also been quietly adding improved bus service for the Sunset Limited to Phoenix from Maricopa, with a stop at Tempe. Amtrak has also added bus connections to the California Zephyr at Denver to towns along Interstates 25 and 80 in northern Colorado and along the southern part of Wyoming. These and other bus connections to Amtrak exist but despite limited information about them, people are also riding them.
Northeast Regional Amtrak trains which run between Washington, New York and Boston also have a few trains that serve Virginia with stops at Richmond, Norfolk, Newport News and Lynchburg. By next year service will be extended to Roanoke, Virginia, the costs for doing so is largely being paid for by the state of Virginia. As for the the extension of the City of New Orleans to Florida, I expect this will happen. What improves the odds for this is most of the area this service serves is heavily represented by elected Republicans officials who control both Congress and the White House. Extending the City of New Orleans to Florida will do very well and increase revenues. In an online article from Trains Magazine dated March 3, 2017 “ Amtrak’s Moorman supports Gulf Coast rail service”, Amtrak President Moorman not only supported New Orleans to Florida service. He also supported Amtrak service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans as well as a section of the Crescent splitting at Meridian Mississippi to Fort Worth, Texas. This support was voiced by Mr. Moorman in a letter to the Southern Rail Commission which is politically well connected in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
The future of additional new services on Amtrak are limited by shortages of both passenger cars and locomotives. The cooperation of the freight railroad also can’t be taken for granted. Future expansion of Amtrak service will need more equipment. But with expanded services we will also see more interest and demand around the Country for more Rail Passenger service from other states along other routes.