By Russ Jackson, 2022 Guest Commentator for 2032; June 13, 2022
Imagine! “Back to the Future?” Cool! That about describes what I think it would be great to do to see what passenger rail is like, as long as I could come back to “now” and report it. I’ll pick a year…let’s say 2032? Why not. Here’s what I probably “found”…
1) Amtrak still doesn’t care about “flyover” country but has been forced to actually work to improve some of the long distance trains that connect the country
2) The “host” railroads care, BUT, they still care more for their freight traffic because Amtrak’s trains are a miniscule part of their business
3) Thanks to the continuing work of Rail Advocates the public cares about the trains that serve their towns, and while they don’t ride every day, the train is there when it is wanted and needed ‒ where they are still running
4) The Congress does really care about “flyover” country because they “gave” Amtrak $66 billion in 2021. What did the country get for all of that? Studies, studies, studies … but sadly, very little positive action.
Imagine! In 2032 the Northeast Corridor, from Washington to Boston, has hundreds of daily trains, and it is still Amtrak’s number one priority first, last, and always. The NEC does carry the most riders, by far, but each trip length is very small compared to a long distance/inter-regional rider out here in “flyover country,” and therefore it takes more NEC riders to generate the same revenue. The NEC is still running at a loss.
Imagine! The rest of the country isn’t very fortunate. A deal was cut with the “host” railroads to change the California Zephyr between Denver and Oakland where it is being run by the Rocky Mountaineer. The Coast Starlight and Empire Builder are still successfully running, but a deal back east has eliminated some of Amtrak’s long distance trains. Amtrak has kept only the Auto Train, Capitol Limited, Carolinian, and the Silver Meteor. Fierce negotiating was still continuing about the future of other long distance trains while “I was there,” but at least the ones still operating in 2032 ALL have:
1) Daily schedules with no exceptions
2) Full-size Dining cars open 24 hours a day to ALL passengers onboard
3) A Sightseer Lounge car is open to everyone’s enjoyment of the scenery
4) A transition dorm car accommodates the working crew
5) A baggage car is also used for package delivery to/from staffed stations
6) Demand-management actually results in additional Sleeping cars and Coaches
7) NEW double-deck cars arrive on the property daily to replace the Superliner fleet.
Imagine! What went on in the next ten years to get to what I “found” in 2032? Did Amtrak agree that it MUST CONTINUE TO GROW? Doesn’t sound like it! In the Southwest some changes” have been made” of a positive nature, probably using “Connect U.S.” money.
1) Southwest Chief. Its route across Northern New Mexico has been assured continuance, and a new connecting train now runs from Denver to the Chief’s station in LaJunta, Colorado. What’s also new is the Grand Canyon Railroad sends a daily tourist train from Flagstaff to Phoenix!
2) Sunset Limited. Although the train runs daily and ridership and revenue are booming, unfortunately its return to Phoenix is still hung up for funding. “Arizona Rail” is running daily round trips between Phoenix and Tucson and plans expansion to Wickenburg and Buckeye, then south to Nogales, giving the argument that the Sunset Limited “need not return” to the Valley of the Sun and should remain in Maricopa.
3) Texas Eagle. The train is being properly promoted and business is up. The Heartland Flyer has been expanded to Chicago, part of Amtrak’s new second frequency on the route. I saw that negotiations are still under way for a Dallas to Atlanta train.
Imagine! Now that I am back from the future, what I found in 2032 was: The public SEES that Amtrak CARES about its riders and delivers a QUALITY product. Possible? I can imagine, can’t I?