By Russ Jackson, Guest Commentator; November 9, 2021
Yes, the big, long-anticipated “Infrastructure” bill finally passed both houses of Congress and was signed by President Biden. Now it’s time to get down to what is actually going to happen as a result of Amtrak getting that huge amount of money. A short summary by the Los Angeles Times says, “$66 billion to Amtrak for maintenance, to upgrade tracks in the Northeast Corridor and bring rail service ‒ including high-speed rail ‒ to other areas of the country.”
Amtrak’s September “Monthly” Report contains some interesting statistics, and is its annual report from October 1, 2020 to September 30, 2021. In the report under the category of Expenses, is a line item called “Salaries,” which is payments to management level employees. It is the only category to show an INCREASE during the past year, up 13% from the previous year. With the company losing “ridership” and “revenue” what justified an increase like that?
“Ridership” shows the Northeast Corridor (NEC) down 28%, State supported trains down 31%, and Long Distance trains down just 17% for the whole year! As for Passenger Miles, the NEC shows (in millions) 754.1 with a total load factor of 37%; the state supported trains were 809.6 and 25%; the 15 long distance trains were 1,294.9 and 47%. Just think of how many Acela and Regional trains run per day in comparison. Oh, and as for On Time Performance the past year, the NEC and State trains were around 83% while the long distance schedule was on time just 51.7%. So, what needs attention?
Now back to the $66 Billion. In that legislation the NEC gets about half. How will that be spent? Granted, the NEC needs to address its huge backlog of deferred maintenance. No doubt the Gateway Project will be funded. But that will just be a drop in the bucket (well, a huge drop…) compared to what is needed on the Corridor, so which expenses keep getting shunted off to other categories in order to preserve the myth of profitability? Just think about something: For years Amtrak management has declared that the NEC “is part of the national system, too.” Do I trust them to spend the money on the national system that the Congress wants?
Euphoria from railfan organizations is justified right now, in that their “success” in “getting it passed” is great for Amtrak. It is also great as a fundraising tool for those organizations, too. (They say the $66 Billion isn’t enough.) Sure, there new locomotives that are committed to being purchased “for the national system.” How many of them will end up only on eastern long-distance trains?
Here in “flyover country” (everything west of the Potomac River) what else can we expect? Well, already announced are 41 projects “to bring rail service to other areas of the country,” each one dependent upon the gullibility of state governments to accept that five-year mandate for total transfer of financial liability to them.
What about the freight “host” railroads who will have to agree to accept each project on its rails? We’ve already seen one of the longest surviving projects, New Orleans to Mobile, almost shut down after rejection by the Norfolk Southern, CSX, and the State of Alabama with outrageous claims, when at one time that line carried eleven passenger trains.
That project has “only” been in the works for 15 years and these objections are just now coming to a head? Think of what will happen to the others on that list of 41! We remember from 25 years ago what the Union Pacific demanded to add one new passenger train (the Coast Daylight from San Francisco to Los Angeles) on the largely dormant section of the Coast Line from San Luis Obispo to Salinas that eventually killed the project. So, what if Amtrak doesn’t HAVE to worry about spending funds on those projects? In the long run, where will those national system dollars likely be spent? Oh, yes, I refer you to the category of “Salaries” above.
With “ridership” taking precedence over increased investment in productivity (passenger miles), the excuse for resuming the downgrading of the long-distance trains is already being speculated, and a declaration that COULD result in the return of tri-weekly trains in the west will be issued this month. Wouldn’t surprise me. Daily service is not mandated in the legislation to my knowledge, just a study.
Deliberate withholding of revenue potential this past year once the pandemic lessened in intensity was poor management decision making. The western trains are still operating with only two Coach cars (remember, a third Coach would require an additional crew person), “Flexible” dining was retained on the eastern long-distance trains plus the City of New Orleans and the Texas Eagle, both of which generate many connecting passengers.
Coach passengers, even those with credit cards, are still denied access to the Dining Cars. Yes, the return of “Traditional” dining is a big improvement, but where is the PROMOTION of what riders can expect? Is Evan Stair and the Facebook “Friends” sites alone in telling folks about the joys of train travel? No, there are others, but he is doing a great job even if he is preaching to the choir. What WILL happen will do so quietly Congress won’t see it or have the chance to react if their attention could be generated. Here are projects that I think warrant high priority. You can guess one that I’ve preached for a long time:
1. Simplify SOME of the Dining Car menu by adding one or two items of lower cost: Yes, the BLT is one since the ingredients are already available and have been so for breakfasts and lunches. Let the Coach riders in! A recent report commented that an airline passenger’s access to food is almost entirely limited to the fast food joints inside the airports. Give all Amtrak customers a chance at affordable fresh meals, but don’t get so FANCY…it isn’t necessary. You salaried executives GET OUT AMONG US TOO!
2. Return service to Phoenix, Arizona, the fastest growing area in the country. When that happens, instead of just Phoenix to Tucson trains, a second daily train must be initiated from Los Angeles through Phoenix to Tucson, eventually to El Paso, and beyond via Midland to Ft. Worth, then to Shreveport, Meridian, Mississippi, and Atlanta as part of the growing southwest passenger base. The cost of rebuilding a line into Phoenix from the west can be accommodated within Amtrak’s new $66 Billion, plus investment from the UP and the state of Arizona. Go to the UP and Arizona with a hand full of cash and say HERE…LET’S DO IT.
3. Add a new train giving a second frequency from Chicago to Kansas City, then continuing on the Transcon route of the old San Francisco Chief via Wichita and Amarillo to Albuquerque, where it would combine with the Southwest Chief the way the Texas Eagle combines with the Sunset Limited by transferring a Sleeper and Coach, resulting in bringing additional revenue and capacity to the Albuquerque to Los Angeles train. Go to the BNSF, Kansas, Texas and New Mexico with a hand full of cash and say HERE…LET’S DO IT.
4. Return service from the east to Las Vegas, Nevada, a huge “destination!” Run a section of the California Zephyr from Salt Lake City, but terminate it in Vegas, allowing passengers to transfer to the soon to be built high speed trains to Los Angeles. (At least I think that will be built.) Go to the UP and the LAS VEGAS folks with your cash and say HERE…LET’S DO IT.
5. Search existing state train schedules like Milwaukee to St. Louis for through services using the existing Hiawatha and Illinois schedules, not requiring additional state or federal money. Same could be said for the proposed Minneapolis-St Paul second service, which could be extended to additional cities after reaching Chicago. Go to the CN, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota and say…LET’S DO IT.
Are they thinking out of the box like this at Amtrak? Hardly. They want to KEEP as much from the 41 projects as possible, and “so what if the 41 don’t get done.” Will railfan organizations be diligent in follow-ups to “what is being spent and where”? They better… remember we here in “flyover country” are watching.
Do I expect to be able to travel Ft. Worth to Los Angeles again in the coming year or so? Yes. The Texas Eagle now has a fifth car, another Sleeping Car, but still has the Diner-Lounge and no Sightseer Lounge. It’s the duty of Amtrak management to think of REVENUE ENHANCING improvements FOR CURRENT CUSTOMERS, not just what ten years from now will (they think) look like. The national system deserves to get its HALF share of the allocated $66 Billion for improvements NOW. Our part of the system needs investment to continue to be the viable transportation choice that it is and improve on it! Demographics about millennials don’t tell the story, it’s time for a commitment to GROW the existing system. LET’S DO IT!