Long Distance Trains Could Vanish in October

Rail passenger advocates have had much to say about Amtrak’s plans to convert all long distance trains except the Auto Train to less than daily service on Oct. 1.

Some of what advocates have said has struck me as hyperbole, particularly assertions that it is the first step toward the elimination of the long-distance trains.

However, given the general hostility by former Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson and current vice president Stephen Gardner toward long-distance trains, such assertions cannot be dismissed out of hand.

But it wasn’t until I read a column in Railway Age by David Peter Alan that I began thinking that maybe there is something to the notion that making long-distance trains operate tri-weekly is an ominous development.

If Alan is correct in his interpretation of federal law, the situation could be one in which operating the long distance trains tri-weekly is a near best-case situation.

The crux of Alan’s argument is the meaning of the federal law that authorizes Amtrak.

Alan notes that 49 U.S. Code §24706(a) states that Amtrak must give 180 days’ notice before “discontinuing service over a route.”

However, another section of the law, §24706(b)(1)(A), allows Amtrak to discontinue service during “the first month of a fiscal year if the authorization of appropriations and the appropriations for Amtrak are not enacted at least 90 days before the beginning of the fiscal year.”

This might explain why Amtrak CEO William Flynn wrote a May 25 letter to Congress seeking a $1.4 billion supplememental appropriation on top of the regular requested appropriation for fiscal year 2021.

The letter warned that long distance trains were “at risk” without the supplemental appropriation.

Even if Amtrak receives every penny it has requested, Flynn wrote, all long distance trains except the Auto Train would operate on a reduced schedule.

It may be that what Flynn meant is that if the passenger carrier doesn’t get its requested additional funding it will invoke federal law to suspend long distance trains completely during October.

Alan writes in his Railway Age piece that given the way the law is worded “it may already be too late for Congress to increase Amtrak’s appropriation to cover daily operation of the L-D trains and be sure that those trains will, indeed, operate every day.”

He goes on to say Congress has the authority to change or override this law and mandate that Amtrak continue daily operation on long distance trains.

This is what rail passengers advocates are hoping will happen but that is not guaranteed.

There likely are discussions going on between Amtrak and congressional staff members regarding Amtrak funding for FY2021 including the fate of the long distance trains.

It may be that less than daily service of long distance trains is simply a political strategy by Amtrak to maximize its funding in FY2021.

Then again it could be part of a larger strategy to use the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to do what management has discussed doing in the past couple years.

The pandemic has severely depressed ridership and Flynn’s letter to Congress projects that ridership will continue to be below half of normal through FY2021.

There is, of course, a difference between ridership declines that occur naturally and those that are induced by management actions, such as in the name of safety reducing the capacity of trains by half.

It may be noteworthy that at least one major airline, American Airlines, has said it will cease reducing the capacity of its planes even though it pledged to take other steps to protect its passengers.

Alan, who is an attorney and chairman of the Lackawanna Coalition, believes Amtrak’s objective is to rid itself of the long distance trains and transform itself into a series of disjointed corridors with those outside the Northeast funded by the states they serve.

But even those corridors are in peril. Flynn wrote in his May 25 letter that without the supplemental funding, some state services will be suspended or operate at skeletal levels.

In fact that began happening early on during the pandemic and continues to be the case today even if some services have been reinstated this summer.

Amtrak wants the federal government to underwrite some of the payments that states would have made for corridor services.

The appropriations process is highly political and it remains to be seen what will emerge from Congress for FY2021.

Lawmakers have in past years missed the Sept. 30 deadline to approve a budget for the fiscal year that starts the next day but kept the federal government running through continuing resolutions.

It is unclear how that would affect Amtrak’s long distance trains. Congress could mandate keeping the status quo, but Amtrak management might do what it wants to do anyway.

What we do know is that Amtrak launched a preview of coming attractions today when it implemented less than daily service by the Silver Star and Silver Meteor between New York and Miami.

Amtrak is itself a political creature. That became clear when Congress shut down the carrier’s desire to replace the middle of the route of the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief with an 11-hour bus connection.

Rail passenger advocates may have “won” that battle but that doesn’t mean they have yet to win the greater war.

More often than not management gets its way and if Amtrak management is determined to get rid of the long-distance trains it will continue seeking ways to do that even it if claims to not be doing any such thing.

If you want to read Alan’s article, you can find it at https://www.railwayage.com/passenger/intercity/first-in-a-series-has-amtrak-declared-war/https://www.railwayage.com/passenger/intercity/first-in-a-series-has-amtrak-declared-war/

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