Amtrak will light 38 candles on Friday and for the first time in years it will celebrate its birthday without the distraction of being under a death watch, real or imagined.
Although Amtrak’s future seems assured for now, nothing is ever certain about Amtrak other than uncertainty. It may be that the current administration isn’t recommending zeroing out Amtrak funding or telling the states to pay for service they now get for “free.” It may be that Congress is inclined to go along with that and maybe even up the ante by giving Amtrak more money.
Yet there are still those in Washington and elsewhere who argue that Amtrak is a waste of money and they are not going to go away quietly. They have not changed their minds.
Skeletal was the operative word to describe Amtrak’s route network on May 1, 1971, and that’s still true today. Amtrak was then and continues to be a combination of urban corridors, short-haul routes linking large cities with smaller cities and towns, and a handful of long-distance routes. On paper this creates the illusion that Amtrak is a national system. It also has assured enough votes for the yearly Amtrak appropriation in Congress, particularly during those years when a president was trying to eliminate it.
In some places, of course, Amtrak has far more service now than it did 38 years ago. This is particularly true in California, in the Pacific Northwest and to a lesser degree in some places in the Midwest, New England and North Carolina. Yet many states today have the same level of service that they had on May 1, 1971. Some routes have not grown in years while others are at the same level as when they began.
It has been an uneasy alliance that has held Amtrak together all these years. Passenger train advocates are not much for airing their internal disagreements in public. The National Association of Railroad Passengers has done a remarkable job of presenting a united front, saying that the California Zephyr is just as important as the Acela Express. Indeed, some passenger rail advocates argue that any conveyance that involves steel wheels on steel rails is not just worthy, but also needed.
Still the interests of those who live in flyover country are not necessarily the same as those who live on the coasts. Look up the writings of guys like Bruce Richardson and Andrew Selden and see what they have to say about the Northeast Corridor or any corridors for that matter.
For much of Amtrak’s life, it has been a struggle to fight off the efforts of various administrations to kill the beast. Even administrations that were not trying to kill Amtrak were content to treat it with benign neglect and let it limp along with just enough money to keep most of the existing system running.
Later this year we may see a renewal of age-old arguments about where passenger rail priorities should be as the federal government doles out the billions in stimulus money for passenger rail. President Barack Obama may speak favorably about passenger trains, but the trains he praises are not long-distance services. He is not calling for a resumption of the North Coast Limited, the Lone Star or the Floridian, to name three long-haul trains that bit the dust nearly 30 years ago.
Nor has the administration said much about how it feels about Amtrak as it is currently constituted. Every administration claims to be in favor of passenger trains, but that is not the same thing as liking or favoring Amtrak.
In a column in the May 2009 issue of Trains magazine, veteran transportation reporter Don Phillips wrote that Amtrak has won the war and it is time for it to get out of the foxhole it has been hunkering down in all these years.
I have a lot of respect for Phillips and I find him to be one of the most even-handed and sane voices out there when it comes to the politics of Amtrak. But I disagree that the Amtrak war is over or that it will ever be over. There may be a cease-fire right now, but we are just one change of administration or a turnover in Congress from the war being re-ignited.
Phillips was right to say that Amtrak needs to transition from a bunker mentality to a mindset of taking advantage of the new era of rail that seems to be blooming in America. But old habits and ways of thinking are hard to break. And old attitudes won’t change easily, including those that consider Amtrak an abject failure because it has never turned a profit in 38 years.
There are plenty of people who would like to throw Amtrak out, take a clean sheet of paper and start over. There are those who are horrified by that idea. Their fear is that they will lose whatever little passenger service they have now.
Where Amtrak goes and how often it goes there is not necessarily its most pressing problem today. As Phillips pointed out in his column, there is much that needs fixing at Amtrak, including its rolling stock. When Amtrak began, it relied on equipment that was a quarter-century old or older. Some of Amtrak’s Amfleet equipment is far older than that today. Amtrak is only beginning to show signs of taking action to replace its equipment and rebuild what it can.
For all of the issues surrounding Amtrak, Friday should be a day to feel the warm springtime air surrounding passenger rail. Of late Amtrak has celebrated its birthday with what it calls National Train Day. It’s a nice way to get people to come down to a station and perhaps interest them in riding a train.
Amtrak is alive today because there have been enough people riding its trains to demonstrate that, yes, people will ride trains. If there really is a new era in rail in America, then Amtrak’s next objective should be to show that there would be far more passengers if it could add more cars to its trains and even run trains to a few more places.