By M.E. Singer
The recent superficial attempt by The Wall Street Journal at jumping on the Penn Station bandwagon by opining, “Amtrak’s Rolling Train Wreck” (13 April), causes severe cringing and lamenting for the time when every decent newspaper included a knowledgeable transportation writer/editor. Frankly, this article was a parody of past fake news distorting the facts and dissected accordingly in response, as expanded here:
The Long Distance train services are far from being losers as depicted (unless still relying upon a Commodore computer)
Amtrak pays the private freight railroads for only track slots, dispatching, certain passenger-related infrastructure; however, Amtrak does not carry the fiscal burden of the entire infrastructure responsibility, as with the Northeast Corridor (NEC). Despite being overtly hampered by cost allocations against just one daily trip; lack of equipment to increase frequencies and revenues over increased direct costs, this sector continues to serve a purpose by connecting en route “flyover” and rural towns to each other and cities. It is a false premise to perpetually allude to long distance routes as merely serving as an end point to end point service. Contrary to the popular calumny perpetrated how empty the long distance trains continue to be, which is why they lose serious dollars, in reality the long distance train passengers travel an average 800 miles–just as with the airlines. However, unlike the airlines, the long distance trains turnover their accommodations an average of 2.5 times per trip. (Frankly, I experienced this fact on but one westbound “Southwest Chief” in 2013, when the roomette across from me was occupied Chicago-Kansas City-Trinidad-Albuquerque-LA.) Just as the airlines have developed hub-and-spoke systems to achieve connectivity, so does the long distance train facilitate regional inter-connectivity with state-supported routes. If not persistently denied requisite funding, increased frequencies of long distance trains would be the catalyst to increase or expand regional routes of state-supported trains. Already, we are witnessing the success of this concept by the California Joint Powers Authorities to successfully inter-connect regional corridors.
With the closing of The Carnegie Deli in Manhattan, where do the New York/New Jersey politicos and media go for their information these days?
This starts with the misleading concept in this article referencing the Amtrak Reform Council, as it was not composed of the original “A” team members picked for their acute political capabilities. They walked when it became quickly clear how the outcome was politically preordained (including ex-NJ Governor Christine Todd Whitman). Also interesting is how no correlation was made from when the Amtrak Board of Directors terminated their very competent CEO in 2005, David Gunn, and used that position for political appointees from NJT, UP, and FRA, as we fondly remember the selection of the Acela over off-the-shelf equipment, the endearing claim of a “glide-path towards solvency,” and deterioration in safety. Amtrak was left rudderless until October, 2016, with the arrival of a new CEO with real railroad experience, Wick Moorman, ex-CEO Norfolk Southern.
As the governors and senators of New York/New Jersey are so quick to now pine about the inadequate investment in Amtrak, what will it take for them to achieve a complete epiphany to link their direct concerns over the NEC with the long distance national system? Where is the logical realization that Congress dumped the NEC on Amtrak in 1976; however, never properly funded Amtrak for the massive infrastructure maintenance and improvement required? To fill that gaping void, Amtrak shifted funding from the National System to support the NEC. Where is their follow through to understand how Penn Station is dominated by extensive Long Island Railroad and New Jersey Transit commuter operations, given that Amtrak runs only 4 trains per hour? So, how did Penn Station become strictly a federal/Amtrak problem, deliberately neglected for so many years by these same politicos? In reality, the commuter lines operating along the Northeast Corridor, including into Penn Station, have enjoyed a free ride until Congress finally mandated in December, 2015, after so many years of having its intent delayed, payment to Amtrak proportionate to the commuter schedule operations. One cannot help but think that despite the Northeast Corridor being an economic facilitator, and Penn Station declared the “regional economic engine,” that such past hesitancy by these politicos to take action to protect the NEC was due to the reality check that this would trigger the Northeastern states paying significantly more to operate their commuter lines.
Inability to assess opportunity costs within the throes of Penn Central accounting standards
How was the opportunity cost determined to build more Acelas by the Obama Administration in its final hours? Given the fact that the new Acelas will not dramatically offer increased speed and faster schedules, perhaps instead of pushing for $2.85B construction work at Alstom’s Hornell, NY plant, the economically savvy Senator Schumer would have been wiser to pursue the re-building of the Northeast Corridor, given the well known decrepit condition of its bridges and tunnels? To avoid the perpetual problems exacerbated by a growing lack of interest elsewhere in the nation, the Northeast Corridor should become the responsibility of U.S. DOT and not bleed the entire Amtrak system. Let the U.S. DOT be concerned with maintenance, dispatching, and ensuring monthly collection from the commuter lines; prorating Amtrak’s actual limited operational exposure. However, the politicos of the Northeast must appreciate the intended linkage between the NEC and the National System. Without the National System, as exemplified by the long distance routes hitting so many political enclaves, the attitude of the people and their politicos outside the Corridor will amplify what ex-U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas said in 2003, “either a national rail system or no system.” Given how the nation has lost its bi-partisan, what’s in the common good outlook, their will be no empathy, even with the threat of the NEC becoming a “rails-to-trails” program.
Just as Governors Cuomo (NY) and Christie (NJ) now seek independent verification that the Penn Station tracks are safe, if they hope to achieve their desired results for Penn Station, Hudson River tunnels and Portal Bridge, it behooves these politicos from New York/New Jersey to join us “at the level of grass where the goats graze” by requiring forensic audits while Moorman is still CEO to implement recommended changes. Such audits must be conducted by independent, external sources to delve into the on-going issues that are widely believed to be the “Gordian Knot” artificially presenting the long distance routes in the worse possible case, and dis-incentivizing state-supported routes. Audit issues to include:
1) Is their more than one Generally Acceptable Accounting Principles (GAAP) defined and applied to allow for NEC infrastructure expenses not to be included before declaring the Corridor profitable?
2) What is the extent of cost shifting from the Corridor to long distance routes? How do cost allocations for the Northeast Corridor and corporate overhead/expenses overly impact long distance and state-supported routes?
3) How will those costs be allocated without long distance routes?
4) Without the long distance routes, how much will state-supported route costs increase?
5) How much of state-supported route payments go towards the Corridor?
6) How can Amtrak’s opaque cost methodology be transformed into a true transparent cost system to relieve the long distance and state-supported routes of the unnecessary economic burden of carrying the NEC? Is their a model to evidence the exponential growth opportunity of frequencies and route expansion based upon a transparent cost structure?
Linking the Northeast Corridor to the National System-identifying options
Instead of Amtrak purchasing equipment, why hot lease or secure through P3 (public private partnership)? For equipment and the NEC, what is the potential for investment by pension funds, insurances, sovereign funds, and even benefiting from the tax to be secured when corporate profits are re-patriated from overseas? Close the loophole for the “paper entrepreneurs” using tax-free municipal bonds to build for their own private business enterprises, e.g., sports stadiums. Before allowing one tax dollar of investment into any Hyperloop or infrastructure for autonomous vehicles, we need to achieve a national transportation policy. It is time to appreciate a bygone era when Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island authored the book, Megalopolis Unbound; endeavored in just 7 years to create the Northeast Corridor Rail Improvement Project initiated in 1969 with the Metroliners and TurboTrains between Washington-New York-Boston.
Following Senator Pell’s vision, encourage package express firms (e.g., FedX, UPS, DHL) to provide turnkey equipment to operate dedicated trains on Corridor during the night. As well, Amtrak itself could Increase revenues by operating a more coherent, efficient package express program than prior attempt. Amtrak should be competing with “Chinatown” curbside buses on Corridor with new Tourist Class. Also, is it time to outsource catering and first class; to re-negotiate labor contracts? (Note-closing long distance routes requires 6 year severance to labor.)
As a source of revenue for Amtrak, should Congress interpret the Passenger Rail Investment & Improvement Act (PRIIA 2008) to encourage vetted private operators to bid on franchises or open access, to directly compete with each other and Amtrak; provide turn-key operation (equipment, crews, etc)?
Judging by the comments of readers to this mis-informed article in The Wall Street Journal, the public at large has no concept of facts and reality here, questioning why Amtrak cannot be coupled to freight trains, why Amtrak schedules are so slow-and late, or not understanding if the long distance trains were cut, so too would be their track slots at the preferred pricing. Indeed, to paraphrase Robert Frost, ‘we have promises to keep, and miles to go before sleep” to fix the perceived problem of the long distances passenger services.