In an effort to attract more passengers and generate more revenue, Amtrak wants to revamp its national network in order to boost passenger service in the South and West. However, the changes would curtail key long-haul routes favored by many key constituencies.
Amtrak’s goal is laudable – to revamp its train schedule on its national routes in order to add more frequent service between pairs of cities in fast-growing areas of the U.S. Examples of this type of service include routes between Cleveland and Cincinnati or Charlotte and Atlanta. If Amtrak was able to schedule and run more trains over shorter distances, perhaps it could compete with air service and auto travel in those corridors.
Obstacles abound in the path of Amtrak’s plans. One of the biggest is Capitol Hill. The National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) was established by Congress in 1971 and is a government-owned corporation. Its mission is to provide intercity passenger train service throughout the United States. Amtrak was chartered to preserve passenger rail service when the nation’s railroads abandoned that segment of the business. Therefore, any changes to its national network of routes requires Congressional approval – even as Congress simultaneously seeks improved financial performance from the railroad.
Unfortunately, since Amtrak’s founding, various members of Congress have championed specific routes that serve their districts or states or that somehow generate political capital for them. Among these are a number of long-distance routes that stretch back generations. These routes, which serve just five million riders (or 15 percent of the 31.7 million who ride Amtrak annually), have vocal supporters inside and outside of Congress. So even though the number of passengers has faded on these routes – while concurrently prices rose, service declined and air travel made them favored anachronisms – eliminating, or even cutting back on these routes, is difficult at best.
In fact, language urging Amtrak to preserve existing long distance routes was included in the bipartisan spending bill that Congress passed earlier this month.
And if Congressional objections weren’t enough, Amtrak’s plans to alter its long-distance routes would also generate ire from local and state officials that those trains travel through. Local, state and federal officials in those states contend that ongoing passenger train service is a necessity.
Other opponents include Amtrak’s labor unions, which are already upset by cuts to dining service on some long-distance routes. Another stakeholder group that would likely oppose cuts to the long-distance routes are those who believe that those routes define Amtrak’s mission and that cutting them runs counter to the mission.
But perhaps an even bigger obstacle to the Amtrak plan is the potential opposition of the nation’s freight railroads, which own most of the track that Amtrak’s trains travel on (except for track in the heavily traveled Northeast Corridor). Amtrak and these freight lines have had a long-standing dispute relating to on-time performance. Even though the freight railroads own the rails, they are required to prioritize passenger trains on those rails. Delays in freight movement can trigger passenger train delays; passenger train delays cause freight trains to be delayed. The result is impaired on-time performance for both the nation’s freight and its passengers.
While Amtrak has floated some of its ideas as trial balloons, its new ideas will be scrutinized in detail beginning in March, when it makes public a five-year asset management plan that previews how it will replace its aging fleet – particularly its long distance stock.
Amtrak estimates $3.8 billion will be needed over the next 10 years to replace its long distance fleet, including already ordered locomotives. Amtrak’s procurement needs will be a large part of the discussion as Congress debates Amtrak’s reauthorization and capital funding needs.
Congress will be faced with decisions such as whether to replace the out-of-date sleeping, dining and baggage cars used on the longer distance cross-country routes that they want to protect, or to buy rolling stock that is better suited to carrying passengers on shorter trips in more comfort, like those used on Amtrak’s Acela and the regional trains that ply the Northeast Corridor.
Richard Anderson, Amtrak’s chief executive (and former Delta Air Lines CEO) would prefer to grow ridership and revenue in more densely populated areas – areas currently not well-served by Amtrak – while cutting back the longer routes that have so much entrenched support.
In written testimony to the House of Representatives’ Transportation and Infrastructure Committee earlier in February, Anderson wrote, “The demand is clearly there for additional short-corridor service throughout the U.S., which includes both additional frequencies for existing routes and establishing new routes between city pairs. The present network simply does not fit the future.”
Under Anderson, Amtrak seeks to increase annual ridership and revenue while also lowering operating subsidies by following a strategy implemented by his predecessors – a focus on those densely populated corridors of 300-400 miles where rail can compete with flying and driving.
It will be interesting to see which track Congress mandates Amtrak take – or whether legislators try to straddle the rails and end up committing Amtrak to a no-win siding.