Archive for the ‘Commentaries’ Category

Going Inside Flynn’s Congress Testimony

September 11, 2020

Amtrak President William Flynn had a lot to say this week during his first appearance before Congress, which was in large part a plea for more money to overcome the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In his prepared statement, Flynn said Amtrak projects it will lose $1.266 billion in ticket sales in federal fiscal year 2020, which would be 55 percent of what it earned in FY2019.

Amtrak’s recovery from the pandemic has been slow and ridership and revenue are still down more than 80 percent compared to a year ago.

“It has become clear that the pandemic’s impacts will extend through, and almost certainly beyond, FY2021 as well, and Amtrak, along with our state partners, are now working to plan for the year ahead,” he said.

You probably have read or heard by now how he said the railroad needs $4.9 billion in federal fiscal year 2021 in order to stave off its planned service cuts to all long-distance trains except the Auto Train.

But buried in his prepared remarks to the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee was this comment about the economics of long-distance passenger trains:

“ . . . in normal times they cover most of the out-of-pocket costs such as fuel, commissary supplies, host railroad payments, and wages and benefits for on-board employees that are incurred by each train that operates over a route.

“Therefore, operating service three times a week rather than daily ordinarily would not produce significant and immediate cash saving.”

That, in essence, is what some critics of the Amtrak’s plans to its long-distance network on a less than daily basis have been saying all along.

So why is Amtrak reducing the scope of long-distance service?

Flynn framed it as a matter of diminished ridership and revenue.

“In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, we hoped that passenger demand would increase appreciably on long-distance routes during what is normally their peak summer season.”

But he said that didn’t happen because of the reluctance of the public to travel during the pandemic.

Ridership of long-distance trains in June and July, excluding the Auto Train, was down by two-thirds compared with the same months of 2019.

“The two-thirds reduction in revenues has had a major impact on long-distance financial performance,” he said.

Flynn said that the long-distance trains lost $475 million in FY 2019 and without providing specific figures said these trains “are incurring huge, additional operating losses for each train we operate –for the benefit of just a third of the normal number of passengers.

“Given that, we felt that it would be irresponsible to continue spending a much larger share of our limited funding to provide the same frequency of service for a much smaller number of remaining passengers, particularly as we entered the fall/winter season when monthly long distance ridership normally declines up to 40 percent from the summer peak.”

The Amtrak president repeatedly in his prepared remarks sought to frame the reduction in long-distance service as temporary.

“One thing I want to make absolutely clear: These long-distance frequency reductions are temporary,” Flynn said. “We are committed to continuing to operate our current long distance network and to improving the service we provide to our long distance passengers.”

He reiterated that another time when he said, “As ridership returns, we intend to restore service frequency to previous levels. We remain committed to our long distance system.”

Not everyone will take that comment at face value. Many skeptics want to believe the service cuts are part of a nefarious strategy to discontinue long-distance passenger routes in favor of corridor services that would be paid for by state and local governments.

The Rail Passengers Association and other rail passenger advocates have been trying to argue that daily operation of long-distance trains is an essential public service during the pandemic.

For now it appears that keeping all of the long-distance trains except the Cardinal and Sunset Limited – which have operated tri-weekly for years – on daily schedules hinges upon Congress giving Amtrak nearly $5 billion for FY2021.

Flynn’s prepared statement suggested that not only does Amtrak want additional money it also seems to want a mandate from Congress ordering it to keep long-distance trains operating daily.

“We will do as directed by Congress,” Flynn said. “If that $4.9 billion instructs us to rescind the furloughs and rescind the service cuts, we’ll do that.”

If no additional funding is forthcoming and Amtrak implements the long-distance train service reductions as planned, Flynn said Amtrak would evaluate ridership and revenue of those trains in February.

He recited in his statement the criteria for restoration of daily service that Amtrak proclaimed in a white paper published about a month ago.

His statement hinted that restoration of daily service would be undertaken on an individual route basis and some trains might not resume daily operation until FY2022.

“If any route is not yet ready to be restored when we conduct our [February 2021] review, we will apply an updated version of the criteria  . . . as part of our FY 2022 planning cycle or sooner, in the event of a dramatic improvement in demand prior to that point,” he said.

It is noteworthy that Flynn also said the future of Amtrak’s long-distance network hinges upon Congress providing capital funding to buy new equipment, saying the equipment used on long-distance trains is more than 40 years old and has reached the end of its useful life.

That equipment must be replaced “if we are to maintain current long-distance service.”

Flynn also called on Congress to give Amtrak the legal tools to argue that passenger trains deserve preference in dispatching over freight trains.

“The greatest threat to the future of our long-distance network is not COVID-19, but rather poor on-time performance that diminishes the value of these services to our customers,” he said.

“The leading cause of delays to our long distance trains is the failure of some of our host railroads to comply with this longstanding legal obligation to provide Amtrak trains with preference over their tracks.”

Amtrak’s host railroads, of course, would have a different view of the matter, but conflict with its host railroads has been going for decades and figures to last a long time.

Flynn was optimistic about Amtrak’s future, but didn’t present much of a vision as to what he sees as the role of intercity rail passenger in America.

Missing from his comments was the sometimes strident and caustic tone that his predecessor, Richard Anderson, sometimes displayed.

He touched on how long-distance trains lose money without dwelling on those losses or villifying those trains. At the same time his commitment to the long-distance network was less a ringing endorsement than a description of something that Amtrak does.

It was, of course, just the first of what are likely to be many statements that Flynn will make to Congress so we should probably avoid reading too much into this statement, which also was delivered under some of the most adverse circumstances any Amtrak head has faced.

As always, though, the fate of Amtrak is up to Congress.

 

 

Ruminating on What if a Rail Passenger Advocate Could Get Appointed to be President of Amtrak

August 24, 2020

Sometimes when I’m driving a long distance I like to think about what would happen if a rail passenger advocate was ever hired as president of Amtrak.

Some rail passenger advocates might think that once settled into the C suite at Amtrak headquarters in Washington that they could pick up the phone and/or write a series of memorandums that would in short order restore freshly-prepared meals to long distance trains, jawbone host railroads into stop putting Amtrak trains into sidings to allow freight trains to pass, and launch new routes and services that have been discussed for years but have yet to materialize.

It’s fun to think about because it seems so absurd.

It would be a rare rail passenger advocate who has the political capital and connections needed to be seriously considered for the job.

The most recent three Amtrak presidents – Charles “Wick” Moorman, Richard Anderson and Willian Flynn – all were former CEOs, one of a Class 1 freight railroad  (Moorman) and two from the airline industry (Anderson and Flynn).

Other Amtrak presidents have had similar backgrounds.

Joeseph Boardman had been head of the Federal Railroad Administration; Alan Boyd had been secretary of transportation and president of the Illinois Central Railroad.

Paul Reistrup had held vice president positions at Class 1 railroads; David Gunn had held high-ranking administrative positions at several public transit agencies; W. Graham Claytor had been president of the Southern Railway and secretary of the Navy; Alexander Kummant had held vice president positions at Union Pacific, and George Warrington had headed New Jersey Transit and served as president of two port authorities.

Amtrak has yet to hire someone whose credentials largely consist of writing letters to public officials, testifying at public hearings, churning out opinion columns, and serving as an officer of a rail passenger advocacy group.

But let’s say it did happen. It did once, although not at Amtrak but more about that later.

How a rail advocate would fare as president of Amtrak would depend on a number of variables, including the person’s skill sets and what he/she sought to accomplish.

An advocate who limits his/her efforts to saving what Amtrak now has and incrementally improving upon it might have a better chance of succeeding than someone who wants to transform the Amtrak route network into the type of passenger service that the freight railroads offered on principle routes in the early 1950s.

Experience is important but so are appearances because both are critical to establishing credibility with the stakeholders with whom you will work.

At a minimum, you would need to be able to work well with a board of directors whose members you did not appoint and don’t control.

You also would need to establish good working relationships with key members of Congress and their staffs, and top executives in the U.S. Department of Transportation.

There are others you would work with including state transportation officials, executives of Amtrak’s host railroads, heads of the unions representing Amtrak workers, federal regulators, and transportation trade organizations.

Many of them likely would take a dim view of an “advocate” seeking to accomplish things they view as unrealistic and/or undesirable.

That would particularly be the case with the host railroads. Amtrak and Canadian National have been arguing for years about CN’s dispatching of Amtrak trains between Chicago and Carbondale, Illinois. There is no end in sight to that dispute.

Try to start a new route and the host railroad will voice objections and make expensive demands about capital needs to make it possible to, say, run the Chicago-New York Cardinal daily rather than tri-weekly.

Are those demands ridiculous? Some of them are. But can the host railroad make them stick? Well the Cardinal is still tri-weekly and so is the Sunset Limited.

One common refrains in the writings of rail passengers advocates is that Amtrak management lacks the will to do anything other than preserve the status quo and gives in to too much to its host railroads and Congressmen such as John Mica who was obsessed with how much it cost Amtrak to provide food and beverage service.

Advocate are quick to criticize Amtrak for its failure to be creative, to promote its services more aggressively – particularly the long distance trains – and to try things that the advocate know will result in sharp growth of ridership and revenue.

Why those things will practically pay for themselves, right?

And what rail passengers advocate doesn’t believe that long distance trains are actually profitable but Amtrak is milking them to pay for the money pit known as the Northeast Corridor?

I’d like to be in the room when the new rail passenger advocate president of Amtrak has his or her first session with Amtrak’s accountants and financial staff.

What looked so simple on a railfan chat list might turn out to be far more complex.

A rail passenger advocate once was appointed to oversee a railroad’s passenger service.

It happened in 1975 when Anthony Haswell, an attorney with railroad industry experience who was a founder of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, was named head of passenger services at the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific.

Haswell was unable to make any appreciable improvements in the Rock’s intercity passenger service, which by then was two state-supported trains between Chicago and Peoria, and Rock Island, Illinois, with paltry ridership.

The Rock also had a considerable commuter train operation in Chicago.

What Haswell probably quickly learned was that the environment you work in may not be conducive to implementing your ideas.

The Rock Island was a bankrupt railroad that couldn’t afford to maintain its track, let alone spend money promoting, expanding and improving passenger service.

Haswell later was nominated by President Jimmy Carter to a seat on Amtrak’s board of directors but withdrew after facing opposition from some senators and union leaders.

That should tell you something about how a rail passenger advocate might fare if he/she was nominated to be Amtrak’s next president.

I would expect that a passenger rail advocate who managed to get named president of Amtrak would be overwhelmed and frustrated by the reality of the position.

It might come with some nice perks and seem to have a lot of power, but your authority is constrained in ways you might not have been able to imagine.

It is one thing to have a vision for what intercity rail passenger service in the United States could be but quite another to have the ability and resources to will that vision into existence.

Amtrak Service Cuts Seem to be Fait Accompli

August 18, 2020

Amtrak’s announcement on Monday that all but one of its 15 long-distance trains will transition to less-than-daily service in October had a sense of finality to it.

The company had informed its employees of the move in early summer but held off announcing it to the public, presumably while it planned which trains would operate on what days.

Now that planning is complete.

Of course much can happen between now and Oct. 1 when the federal fiscal year 2021 begins. Or maybe not.

The Senate has taken little action on appropriations bills for FY 2021. This is hardly surprising given that 2020 is a presidential election year and appropriations are highly political.

The failure of Congress to reach agreement on the next year’s budget before that budget year begins is not new.

In the past, the government has been kept operating through a series of continuing resolutions that generally maintain funding at the same level as the previous fiscal year.

Although the House has approved an additional $10 million for Amtrak with a directive to maintain daily service on all routes that have it now, Amtrak management has apparently concluded that that mandate is unlikely to be adopted by the Senate and/or adopted before the start of FY2021 on Oct. 1.

It may be that the House in approving the additional $10 million was merely making a political statement.

The House members who pushed that additional funding through may have done so knowing that it was likely to be negotiated away in talks with the Senate over the FY2021 budget.

Funding for intercity rail passenger service is a mere spec in the federal budget and can easily be overshadowed by higher profile spending priorities.

This is not to say that in the end negotiators might agree to the additional money because of political pressure. Passenger rail spending has some friends in the Senate.

But none of this is guaranteed no matter how many letters rail passenger advocates write or how many phone calls they make.

The passenger train advocacy community has largely and roundly criticized the move to tri-weekly service on most long-distance trains.

Some believe it is merely the first step toward abolishing the long-distance network altogether by depressing ridership.

Yet there are scenarios in which passenger train advocates might wish they had tri-weekly trains.

Amtrak has said it needs approximately $3 billion in FY2021 to support even tri-weekly levels of service for long-distance trains.

If Congress gives Amtrak its original $2 billion budget request, Amtrak has warned that all long-distance trains will be “at risk.”

Although the carrier hasn’t spelled out what that means, it probably would lead to some trains running less frequently than tri-weekly or not operating at all.

Amtrak President William Flynn has repeatedly said Amtrak is “committed” to its national network.

He has not said, though, that Amtrak is “committed” to operating the national network in the same manner that it operated pre-pandemic.

There are a number of issues that have yet to get much discussion in the conversation about tri-weekly service.

Why will there be no same-day connections in Chicago from the eastern long-distance trains and the westbound Texas Eagle? That seems rather odd considering that connections will be available on most days to all other western long-distance trains out of Chicago.

There also has been little discussion about whether some long-distance trains might be restored to daily service late next spring or in early summer but others will not be because they failed to meet the metrics that Amtrak has published.

Trains magazine passenger writer Bob Johnston raised the question in article in the September issue the magazine of host railroads demanding expensive capital investments before agreeing to reinstate daily service on routes that have it now.

Is that a serious concern? It could be but no one at Amtrak has addressed that.

The Rail Passengers Association has raised concerns about Amtrak lacking enough personnel to reinstate daily service after several months of tri-weekly service.

A byproduct of the tri-weekly service plan is cutting Amtrak’s workforce. Engineers, conductors and on-board staff will be furloughed.

Is this a serious concern or just rail passenger advocacy talking points?

There are many scenarios that could come to pass. That doesn’t mean all of them will. But increasingly tri-weekly trains are looking to be a fait accompli.

Long Distance Trains Could Vanish in October

July 6, 2020

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/

Yes, They Might Be Out to Get Them

June 19, 2020

The service cuts that Amtrak plans to make on Oct. 1 remind me of the old phrase “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

In the rail passenger advocacy and railfan communities – they are not necessarily the same thing even if there is some overlap – there long have been paranoid types who think Amtrak, Congress, the Department of Transportation, the highway lobby, conservative think tanks and goodness knows who else is out to kill the long-distance passenger train.

Those fears are not necessarily unfounded because there are a lot of people in government and in the transportation field who believe long-distance passenger trains long ago outlived their purpose.

Chat lists are ablaze with talk about this being the beginning of the apocalypse of the long-distance passenger train after a memo written by Amtrak vice president Roger Harris to employees was leaked.

Harris wrote in the memo that most long-distance trains will be reduced to tri-weekly operation on Oct. 1, the first day of federal fiscal year 2021. The exception is the Silver Meteor, which will operate quad weekly. The Auto Train will continue to operate daily.

The memo contends that Amtrak remains “committed” to the national network and as ridership recovers from sharp drops triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying economic recession that the intercity passenger carrier will restore daily service to the long-distance trains, possibly by next summer.

Harris framed the move as saving money and a political necessity, saying Congress will not continue to fund Amtrak if trains are running largely empty as they have in the past couple of months.

He probably fears – correctly by the way – that as Amtrak funding is debated in Congress that photographs and videos of near empty coaches will begin showing up regularly in some media channels along with talk of a colossal waste of public money.

Some have questioned whether Amtrak’s real motivation is to drive down ridership, run up losses and then point to those as justification for eliminating the long distance trains.

There is some reason to think this could be about to play out. Former Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson was outspoken in his disdain for the long-distance network even as he talked about retaining some “experiential” service that he never got around to defining.

Another Amtrak vice president, Stephen Gardner, also has been critical of long-distance trains, describing them as relics of another era.

Anderson and Gardner, and perhaps Amtrak Chairman Anthony Coscia, favored a different Amtrak made up of corridor services between urban areas, particularly in the South and West.

Before the pandemic began, Amtrak had done spade work in seeking to interest state legislators in supporting Amtrak’s plans to ask Congress for a pot of money to be used to seed the development of these corridors.

Amtrak would front the initial capital costs and help underwrite operating losses for a few years before the states would be expected to pay for the services in the same way that states pay for corridor services today.

But the pandemic and the recession changed everything.

There are some who believe the announcement of plans to operate most long-distance trains on tri-weekly schedules is a political ploy to prod Congress into giving Amtrak an additional $1.4 billion for FY2021 on top of what the carrier has already requested.

Amtrak CEO William Flynn said in a May 25 letter to Congress that long distance trains would operate less than daily even with the additional $1.4 billion and would be “at risk” without it.

The Rail Passengers Association has been sending out emails to its members since the Harris memo leaked asking them to demand that Congress approve the additional $1.4 billion and mandate that long-distance trains now operating daily continue to do so.

I wrote in an earlier post that getting that extra $1.4 billion is going to be tough for Amtrak to pull off during a recession when Congress is inundated with requests for money from suffering organizations and government entities asking their Uncle Sam to help them survive.

If anything, Amtrak might be denied the supplemental appropriation and forced to take an across-the-board cut in FY2021 funding as legislators talk about the need for “sacrifices for the greater good.”

State governments are already cutting spending for their next fiscal years and such programs as education are seeing funding cuts.

Some states that now fund Amtrak corridor services have reduced their spending on them.

It remains to be seen how the politics of the appropriations process will play out this summer during a presidential election year.

Congress often fails to approve a budget before the current one expires and keeps the government running through continuing resolutions that effectively maintain the status quo for a few weeks while negotiations continue.

Long-distance trains have continued to operate daily because Amtrak received emergency aid last spring. That money runs out in late September.

At this point it is difficult to see how the long-distance trains will survive the summer unscathed no matter how many letters, phone calls, texts, emails, social media posts or op ed columns that passenger train advocates create.

At some point it might get down to a choice of tri-weekly service or service suspensions.

In theory the Sunset Limited east of New Orleans was “suspended” after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

It has yet to return and probably won’t now except as maybe a state-funded service over a portion of its route.

Amtrak’s long-distance trains have survived so many budget battles over the past 49 years that it could be easy to think they will always be there because they always have been.

Maybe this will turn out to be like every other battle and the trains will somehow survive intact. And maybe there is something about this go around that is different from all of those other struggles to save the long-distance trains.

Amtrak to Party Like its 1979

June 8, 2020

Amtrak will observe its 50th anniversary next May and it’s anyone’s guess as to what the passenger carrier will look like as it blows out the candles on its cake.

Amtrak says its crystal ball shows there are likely to be fewer trains and ridership that will be about half of what it would be had there not been a pandemic and economic downturn.

In a letter to Congress asking for a $1.4 billion supplemental appropriation on top of the more than $2 billion it is already seeking for federal fiscal year 2021, which begins on Oct. 1, Amtrak President William Flynn said that without the additional funds its long-distance trains  are “at risk.”

Even with the additional money, Flynn said all long-distance trains except the Auto Train will operate on a less than daily schedule.

Amtrak expects to reduce its workforce by 20 percent and to consolidate three trains now using the New York-Florida route into one.

Flynn’s letter raised as many questions as it answered including what “less than daily” service would be.

Once ridership recovers, the letter said, Amtrak would increase the frequency of operation of long-distance trains and bring back some suspended corridor services.

Flynn’s dire predictions are speculative yet plausible. There is widespread agreement in the airline industry that it will take air carriers at least three years to get back to the passenger volumes and routes that existed in late February.

Amtrak expects ridership to steadily increase this summer before nose diving in the fall amid an expected second wave of the COVID-19 being predicted by most health experts.

Getting that supplemental appropriation from Congress is going to be a tough assignment

There is a long line of enterprises in America that have their hands out looking for money from Congress to tide them over during the economic downturn.

Many states are slashing spending as revenues fall far short of what has been expected. Some of those budget cuts are involving funding for Amtrak corridor service.

Election year politics and traditional ideological divides are likely to shape appropriations decisions.

Some conservatives who have long wanted to zero out Amtrak funding will see an opportunity, having a field day pointing out that Amtrak trains are running half empty.

It’s a talking point they’ve made in the past but this time they might have the facts on their side.

Although giving Amtrak nothing seems unlikely, it is not out of the realm of possibility that across-the-board budget cuts might be imposed on many federal programs, including Amtrak funding.

Flynn’s letter was a scare tactic. He is hoping the prospect of large numbers of states and congressional districts losing their trains will prompt Congress to take action. He is not the first Amtrak president to employ this strategy.

But something is different this time. Flynn’s letter hints at even the almighty Northeast Corridor being in trouble.

During past funding fights no one ever thought that ridership in Amtrak’s busiest route would nose dive. But now it has.

Things were so bad during the early weeks of the pandemic that Amtrak canceled all of its premier Acela Express service and dramatically curtailed Northeast Regional service.

There is some talk in transportation circles that the demand for intercity transportation may not going to return to previous levels, particularly among business travelers.

All of that remains to be seen and the answers are going to be years in the making.

In the short term, Amtrak can be expected to continue pretty much as it is today with most long-distance trains operating daily through the end of September.

There has been some restoration of corridor services, but the level of corridor service will be far below what it was in early March.

It may well be that some corridor trains are not coming back for a long time if at all. Some long-distance trains may be operating in their final months.

Full service dining aboard the western long-distance trains was replaced in April by the prepackaged meals that have been served for more than a year on eastern long-distance trains. Full-service dining isn’t likely to return anytime soon if at all.

Although it is not a perfect comparison, I see some parallels between the present and 1979 when several trains were discontinued after a long fight over funding.

Rail passenger advocates are already gearing up to try to save Amtrak’s status quo.

The Rail Passengers Association is urging its members to ask Congress to support the supplemental appropriation for Amtrak and to save daily service for long-distance trains.

Yet Congress is hearing from a lot of people these days because a lot of people and organizations are hurting big time.

There is a risk, though, that the voice of rail passengers advocates will be just so much more noise amid the din or those asking Congress for help.

The Amtrak that will be operating on May 1, 2021, is likely to look quite different from the Amtrak that operated on May 1, 2019, or even that of May 1, 2020.

Flynn’s Success Will Hinge on His Political Skills

March 2, 2020

It remains to be seen what, if any, changes will result from the installation of William Flynn as Amtrak’s next president and CEO next month.

Like the lumbering Boeing 747s that Flynn’s soon to be former company Atlas Air flies in cargo service, Amtrak is not something that can be turned around quickly or rapidly raced upward to cruising altitude after takeoff.

No doubt some rail passenger advocates are happy to see Richard Anderson leave although he’ll continue as an adviser to Flynn through the end of the year.

Anderson at times showed an abrasive personality that made him a lightning rod of criticism.

Perhaps that was what the Amtrak board of directors thought was needed in 2018 but it may have decided that in 2020 a kinder, gentler CEO is needed.

The news release announcing Flynn’s hiring contained the type of laudatory language that is standard in public relations products announcing personnel changes.

There were a lot of words that didn’t say much of substance.

It gave little indication about what role Flynn sees for Amtrak as a transportation provider.

The release tried to portray Flynn’s hiring as a planned succession although that might be boilerplate language that means little.

Anderson’s leaving had been foreshadowed in a Wall Street Journal article earlier this year yet the Amtrak board of directors had not given any public signals that Anderson’s departure was imminent.

Nor has the Amtrak board in public expressed any concerns or discontent with how Anderson has managed the passenger carrier.

The news release and a statement sent to Amtrak employees were filled with the type of self-congratulatory statements about how ridership is up and finances have improved.

Amtrak has hinted at breaking even this year on an operating basis which should be not confused with making a profit, something that has never happened in the company’s 48-year history.

More than likely Flynn was hired because of his executive experience rather than his views of the role of rail passenger service in the United States.

If asked, he’ll say all the right things about how the future of rail service is bright.

But I would be surprised if Flynn’s hiring means that certain things that have been lost during the Anderson regime, such as full service dining cars on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited, will make a comeback.

Don’t expect the new rules Amtrak just implemented to make it tougher to get refunds or change your travel plans to go away.

Private car owners and those wishing to charter an Amtrak train probably won’t see significant changes in Amtrak rules and policies.

In short, I don’t look for Flynn to herald the second coming of W. Graham Claytor Jr.

It may be that Amtrak’s directors decided Anderson had become too toxic on Capitol Hill to win the type of budgetary and policy victories that Amtrak is eyeing.

The passenger carrier has an ambitious legislative agenda that is tied in with a new surface transportation bill that Congress needs to pass to replace the one that expires on Sept. 30.

Among other things, Amtrak wants funding to establish new corridor-oriented services, laws that would gives it a stronger position when talking with his host railroads about on-time performance, and capital funding for new equipment and infrastructure.

There had been speculation earlier that Anderson’s replacement would be current Amtrak senior vice president Stephen Gardner.

Instead, Amtrak’s board hired another airline executive. Flynn has four decades of transportation industry experience but it is worth noting that he has spent his career in the private sector.

Such Amtrak heads as David Gunn and Joseph Boardman had experience in the public sector.

Amtrak may on paper be akin to a private company, but given its reliance on public funding it has much in common with a non-profit agency even if it tries to operate like a private company.

Ultimately, what is important is that Amtrak’s CEO understands not just how railroads operate but how to play the political games inherent in being an entity that has two boards of directors – the one that hired you and the members of Congress who control your funding and so much about the environment in which your company operates.

Grand Plan Could be a House of Cards

January 28, 2020

Amtrak has yet to release its grand plan of urban oriented corridors with multiple daily frequencies but has dropped hints in recent months about what it will look like.

The most recent hint came in a legislative hearing in Kansas. A senior Amtrak public affairs executive indicated the passenger carrier will seek millions, if not billions, from Congress to help states pay for the capital and operating costs of the new services Amtrak would like to provide.

That would include extending the Heartland Flyer into Kansas and creating a new route between Atlanta and Nashville.

Amtrak President Richard Anderson has said there are numerous unserved and underserved urban pairings, many of them in the South and West, which could be part of this new network.

But he has yet to release an actual map of those routes.

In advance of the release of the Amtrak plan, which is expected to be part of the carrier’s proposal for a surface transportation bill Congress is expected to take up later this year, the carrier has apparently launched a public relations tour of states that would benefit from it.

The strategy appears to be to seek political support among members of Congress from those states.

So why do I keep thinking it’s all a pipe dream?

There is no assurance Congress will approve the funding Amtrak is banking on to help pay for its urban corridor network.

That’s critical because in the Kansas legislative committee hearing an Amtrak official acknowledged that the cost of starting these new routes is more than states are going to be willing to pay.

But consider also some recent developments in places where states are already funding corridor service, have funded it in the past or where funding for new service is close to becoming reality.

In Missouri the state transportation director told lawmakers the Show Me State is in arrears in paying for the twice daily Missouri River Runner service between St. Louis and Kansas City.

The Missouri Department of Transportation has suggested increasing funding for Amtrak service, but one lawmaker suggested instead the legislature rethink funding Amtrak at all.

Although Anderson cited Chicago-Indianapolis as an example last year of the “new look Amtrak” when testifying before a congressional committee, the Indiana legislature declined to continue funding the Hoosier State between the two cities and it ended after its last trips on June 30, 2019.

In Virginia, the news of late has focused on a plan to expand Amtrak service as part of an ambitious $3.7 billion project.

But in the southwestern corner of the state efforts by officials in Bristol to get Amtrak service extended to their city have stalled in part because host railroad Norfolk Southern walked away from the negotiations.

A proposed service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, has encountered opposition from within Alabama.

The governor declined to support that state’s share of funding for the service even though the neighboring states of Mississippi and Louisiana have agreed to provide funding to match a federal grant.

The service may be doomed if the Mobile City Council votes today against a resolution to approve $3 million in local funding for operating expenses of the route for three years.

It may be that funding will materialize in Alabama. NS will come back to the table in Virginia and the Missouri legislature will agree to provide the funding MoDOT wants.

Yet one of the Missouri lawmakers who is skeptical about continued funding of Amtrak summed up what all of these cases have in common when he said budgeting is about setting priorities.

No one would disagree with that but there is wide disagreement about whether passenger rail is or should be one of those priorities.

If Amtrak’s still-to-be released plan is to succeed, it will hinge on getting buy in Congress, state legislatures and host railroads.

In some instances, states will be asked to make a financial commitment for something they’ve never funded before.

There are sure to be some who will argue that limited public dollars are better spend on other priorities such as education, public health, public safety and highways.

I’ve long wondered if the urban corridors concept being pushed by Anderson and others at Amtrak is a ploy for something else.

It might be discontinuing long-distance trains or finding source of funding that can be used to collect “overhead” costs that go toward other Amtrak priorities.

There is a popular theory in some rail passengers circles that the national network is being used to prop up the Northeast Corridor so Amtrak can continue the fiction that it is profitable.

Anderson and the Amtrak board of directors might sincerely believe they can talk Congress into giving them the money that a Kansas legislative committee was told about recently.

And if those funds fail to materialize?

The urban corridors network will fall like a house of cards. Yet I’m not sure it wasn’t always a house of cards anyway.

The $25,000 Question: Was Amtrak Doing the Right Thing or Trying to Avoid Answering Tough Questions?

January 28, 2020

It didn’t take Amtrak long to back pedal away from an effort to charge a group of passengers, half of them using wheel chairs, a $25,000 service fee added atop tickets that normally cost $16 per person.

Actually, it might be more accurate to say the passenger carrier turned tail and ran away from the fee once it began receiving national attention that turned up the political heat to an unbearable level.

As is typical in these situations, Amtrak sought to spin it by framing it as a wrongful application of policy.

If the heat gets high enough, blame a rank and file employee for making a mistake. You might even call it an honest one. Then you apologize.

Yet there is much we don’t know and may never know about what led to this fee.

Amtrak may have appeared in the end to have done the right thing, but let’s not overlook that it reversed course in part to seek to avoid having to answer some tough questions, including why the fee was so high in the first place.

To recap the facts of the situation, a group of 10 members of Access Living, a Chicago disabilities group, wanted to travel together aboard a Lincoln Service train from Chicago to Normal, Illinois, to attend a conference.

Half of the group would be traveling in wheelchairs. It is not that Amtrak can’t accommodate those in wheelchairs, but it is not set up to handle large groups of wheelchair passengers who wish to travel together in the same car.

Each Amtrak coach has space for just one wheelchair. That means that the group had to be spread out over multiple coaches or seats needed to be removed to enable then to be seated in the same car.

The Chicago group has traveled via Amtrak before and the passenger carrier removed seats to accommodate them.

It is unclear how much above the regular fare the wheelchair passengers had to pay for those past trips.

One news account quoted a member of the group as saying they paid a few hundred more while another account quoted an Amtrak employee as saying the carrier absorbed the cost of removing the seats.

The group contacted Amtrak group sales last month to buy tickets and was told by a sales agent that a new policy meant they would have to pay a fee to have seats removed to accommodate additional wheelchairs in the same car.

The fee was an eye popping $25,000. When the group protested, the sales agent wrote back to say it was in line with the carrier’s policy pertaining to reconfiguring a rail car.

“With the removal of seats, it can be quite costly,” the agent wrote.

The group then turned to the news media. Initially, Amtrak stood behind the fee, telling National Public Radio it has a policy of adding “an additional fee when any group requires reconfiguration of our rail cars.”

Amtrak also suggested the group split up with some members riding one train and others riding another operating three hours later.

That stance lasted a day or two. Not only did the story get picked up by other news media it also drew the ire of Illinois U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth who described the fee as outrageous.

Duckworth is not just another senator. She lost both of her legs after the U.S. Army helicopter she was co-piloting in Iraq was shot down.

She uses a wheelchair and has taken a great interest in legislation affecting the rights of the disabled.

Duckworth also is the ranking minority party member of the Senate Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on transportation.

After she demanded a meeting with Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson, Amtrak lawyers contacted an attorney for Access Living and offered a deal.

The carrier would remove seats, drop the fee and even offer a buy one get one deal.

The group accepted the offer. Amtrak later said it was dropping the policy that led to the $25,000 fee in the first place.

“After further review, Amtrak has determined to suspend the policy in question,” said Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari doing his best impersonation of a referee in the National Football League.

“It was never meant to be applied to this situation. And we apologize for the mistake.”

A news story noted that Magliari spoke shortly after protesters gathered outside an Amtrak station in Illinois and chanted, “We will ride.”

The story seemed to have a happy ending with the group making the trip on Jan. 22 to the conference aboard Amtrak.

Adam Ballard, an Access Living transportation policy analyst, said everything went smoothly.

“Everyone got on the train really great,” he told NPR. “We were treated like kings and queens. There was extra staff to help with bags and work the wheelchair lifts.

“And they had extra staff on the train to attend to our every need. So it was not the typical Amtrak ride.”

Of course it wasn’t. It is no surprise that Amtrak decided to bend over backwards in an effort to save face. That is the substance of good public relations.

It also was an attempt to make the situation and its attending bad publicity go away.

It will, but will anyone in a position of authority ever demand that Amtrak provide a detailed bill showing why it costs $25,000 to remove a handful of seats from an Amfleet or Horizon coach?

There are fees that are designed to enhance revenue and there are fees that are designed to discourage certain customer behavior.

The $30 that airlines charge to check a bag on a flight is an example of the former. People grumble about it but they either pay it or take as much as they can aboard with them stow it in the overhead bins or under the seat ahead of them.

However, the $25,000 fee Amtrak wanted to impose on Access Living sure seemed like discouragement. It came across as the type of exorbitant fee someone dreamed up knowing a group such as Access Living couldn’t or wouldn’t pay it.

It not as though Amtrak would have to hire additional personnel to remove the seats. That task would be done by regular employees.

How long does it take to unbolt seats and put them aside on a shop floor? Amtrak would have you believe it’s a very complex and expensive task.

Amtrak is not unique in saying that something is expensive without having to prove it.

Companies of all kinds routinely engage in this behavior to pressure their customers to behave in ways favorable to the company.

What Amtrak doesn’t want to admit is that it wanted to force Access Living to do things its way because it didn’t want to remove the seats.

It either saw removing seats as a hassle and/or it could lead to lost revenue.

Under ordinary circumstances, if a group of 10 disembarks at Normal the seats they occupied from Chicago become available for sale to new passengers boarding in Normal or some other station downstream.

But the chances of selling that space to other wheelchair users probably were slim. It could be days before that space gets back into revenue service.

Amtrak CEO Anderson has been aggressive about cost cutting and revenue enhancement. He has his agenda of trying to do what he can to make Amtrak’s finances look better, which he sees as a bargaining chip to talk Congress into giving Amtrak more money.

The carrier has a lot of decaying infrastructure in the Northeast Corridor that needs to be replaced and that won’t come cheap. It also wants billions to finance its new urban corridor oriented network.

Although Anderson tries to run Amtrak like a private company, the passenger carrier can’t survive without public funding. That creates the perception in the minds of many that it is a public agency.

It didn’t help that the way the $25,000 fee came across in the news media and on social media was that of a heartless organization trying to bully a small group of handicapped citizens into submission.

That’s not how Amtrak would explain it but at some point high-ranking executives at the carrier, perhaps including Anderson himself, concluded that they couldn’t win this public relations battle. So Amtrak went into high gear damage control.

It is tempting to suggest that poor management at Amtrak led to this situation. There may be some truth to that given Anderson’s desire to squeeze every nickel and pick up every dime.

Some middle level manager should have recognized that if a $25,000 fee being imposed on wheelchair users went viral that Amtrak would suffer a great big black eye.

But middle level managers are not always courageous enough to put their jobs on the line. Some would rather curry favor with the managers above them by being all in on company policy.

As those who initially dealt with Access Living probably saw it, the group might protest but in the end would capitulate.

More often than not when Amtrak pulls the rules on its passengers they have no viable recourse. They don’t know how to get their plight publicized on NPR or gain the attention of a powerful policy maker.

But someone at Access Living is media savvy and Amtrak apparently didn’t take that possibility into account.

These types of situations will continue to occur so long as those whose job it is to enforce rules and policies lack authority to make exceptions when discretion is called for and/or lack the foresight to be able to see the consequences of how the company’s behavior could be seen by others if they find out about it.

It is unclear what the episode involving Access Living means long term for passengers with disabilities traveling as a group.

As one member of Access Living commented to a reporter, getting around can be pretty tough for those in wheelchairs even in the best of circumstances.

Underlying this story is that Amtrak wanted the Access Living travel party to change its behavior to fit Amtrak’s needs rather than Amtrak doing all it reasonably could to meet the group’s needs.

Most people traveling together would like to sit together. It wasn’t as though the Access Living members showed up one morning at Union Station and demanded accommodations on the next train out.

They contacted Amtrak weeks before they planned to travel in recognition of the fact that it takes time to arrange accommodations for a group of wheelchair passengers.

An overarching issue that Amtrak probably would like to dodge for now is what obligation it has to accommodate those with disabilities. That is not necessarily an easy question to answer because at some point it becomes a matter of character.

Amtrak is not insensitive to the needs of those with disabilities. It has been reconfiguring its stations in recent years to better accommodate passengers with disabilities and has taken other steps to be helpful to them.

But a fault line lies where the carrier has to forgo revenue and incur an expense in order to accommodate those with disabilities as they wish to be accommodated.

Amtrak said it suspended its policy which is not necessarily the same thing as repealing it.

The suspension might buy time to let things die down or to rethink and revise the original policy.

It remains to be seen if Amtrak management sees what happened with Access Living as a fluke and goes about doing business as usual or a sign that it needs to make some hard policy choices that come with price tags it doesn’t want to pay but must to avoid a similar PR train wreck down the track.

The Tennessee Passenger Expansion Waltz: A Serious Proposal or Just a Talking Point for Public Consumption?

January 18, 2020

The news this past week that an Amtrak executive spoke to a Tennessee legislative transportation committee is being seen by some as the first tangible step that Amtrak is moving to seek to implement a vision that CEO Richard Anderson has been articulating for more than a year.

Anderson and Amtrak senior vice president Stephen Gardner have spoken in interviews and occasional appearances about transforming Amtrak’s route network to one more focused on corridor service between urban centers, particularly growing metropolitan areas.

They repeatedly have hammered home the point that many of the nation’s fastest growing cities are unserved by Amtrak or underserved by trains arriving at inconvenient hours.

Such talk has alarmed many rail passenger advocates who see is as code language that means dismantling the carrier’s long-distance routes.

Indeed Anderson and Gardner have been bad mouthing long-distance trains, saying they lose money and could be restructured into the type of corridor services they have described in principle.

Amtrak’s aborted efforts to truncate the route of the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief by creating a bus bridge between western Kansas and Albuquerque is often cited as Exhibit A of Anderson’s plan to kill long-distance passenger trains aside from one or two “experiential trains.”

Waltzing in Tennessee

The appearance of Ray Lang, Amtrak’s senior director of government affairs, at a meeting of the Tennessee House Transportation Committee was significant for a number of reasons, but two in particular stand out.

First, it was the first time Amtrak has named a specific route that fits the criteria that Anderson and Gardner have been talking up.

That route would link Atlanta and Nashville, but Lang also talked about extending a pair of Midwest corridor trains to Memphis.

Second, it offered concrete proof that Amtrak expects state and local governments to pay for its vision of the future of rail passenger travel.

It is not clear why Amtrak chose Tennessee as the opening act for what promises to be lengthy process.

Perhaps Amtrak has quietly sounded out other states on their interest in ponying up money for new rail passenger service and we just haven’t heard about it.

Or perhaps Amtrak projects the Tennessee routes as among the most likely to succeed.

The news reports out of the Volunteer State generally portrayed a favorable reception to Amtrak’s proposals with some legislators speaking well of the prospect of rail passenger service where none exists now.

Atlanta and Nashville have never been linked by Amtrak and Tennessee’s capitol has been off the Amtrak route network since the Floridian makes its final trips between Chicago and Florida in early October 1979.

Amtrak probably viewed its road show in Nashville as a first step. It might also have been seeking to gauge the interest of Tennessee lawmakers in funding the service.

An Amtrak spokesman and CSX executive said as much.

“We are also talking to current state partners regarding how additional frequencies might be implemented,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari to Trains magazine.

“This is the first we’re seeing of this,” CSX State Government and Community Affairs VP Jane Covington said during the committee hearing.

Covington said it was her understanding that Amtrak was trying “to simply gauge the state’s interest.”

Whatever the case, nothing is imminent and there is no assurance that the routes discussed will ever operate.

There are numerous hurdles the service needs to clear starting with the willingness of Tennessee legislators to spend the money to underwrite the operating losses of the trains, which have been estimated at $3 million annually.

State and local governments also will likely be asked to advance money for capital expenditures on such things as stations.

Warning Shots Fired

Other players in the process will also play a role in whether the trains operate.

Chief among them is would-be host railroad CSX.

CSX’s Covington fired a warning shot across the bow in saying, “introducing passenger trains to heavily used freight lines will be a complex, costly process.

“And I understand that you guys are hearing from your constituents about the crowded roads, and you’re obviously looking for solutions to that. But we want to make sure you do it in a way to make sure it doesn’t backfire and divert freight off the rails and onto the highways.”

That’s another way of saying that CSX will demand some very expensive infrastructure improvements as the price of agreeing to host the trains.

More than likely the price tag for those projects will be more than state lawmakers are willing to pay for a service that Amtrak said will lose money.

Another player will be the Illinois Department of Transportation, which funds the trains now operating between Chicago and Carbondale, Illinois, that Amtrak has proposed extending to Memphis.

Amtrak spokesman Magliari said it would be relatively easy to have the southbound Saluki and northbound Illini serve Memphis because Amtrak already has crews based in Carbondale who operate the City of New Orleans on host railroad Canadian National between Carbondale and Memphis.

But what looks easy or even possible on paper may not be so in practice. IDOT will want assurance that its interests won’t be harmed in any rescheduling of the trains.

An unknown about the additional service to Memphis is whether the state of Kentucky would be willing to help fund trains that run through their state.

Looming in the background is the Sept. 30 expiration of the current surface transportation act that authorizes Amtrak funding among other things.

No one in Congress has yet released to the public a draft surface transportation bill and details about what those drafts will ultimately contain have been scarce.

“It’s going to take anywhere from 12 to 24 months to redo the surface transportation bill,” said Amtrak’s Lang in the legislature hearing.

He reiterated the rhetoric that Anderson and Gardner have been using in suggesting that without a restructuring of its route network Amtrak will wither away.

“We think this presents us an opportunity to really transform the company,” Lang said.

Magliari echoed that theme in his interview with Trains when he said the passenger carrier is engaging in outreach efforts to enlist future support from states now underserved by outlining what routes might be viable.

History Lessons

At the time that Amtrak began in May 1971, the only intercity passenger service between Nashville and Atlanta was the former Georgian of the Louisville & Nashville.

That train operated with single coach between St. Louis and Atlanta and had a travel time of seven hours between Nashville and Atlanta.

Amtrak’s Chicago-Florida route served Nashville but not via Atlanta.

The planners who set up Amtrak’s initial route network considered operating between Nashville and Atlanta but declined to do so due to difficult operating conditions, including a top speed of 40 miles per hour between Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Atlanta.

Another complication was that Amtrak would need to build a station in Georgia’s capitol city.

The Floridian was one of Amtrak’s most troubled trains and then Amtrak President Paul Resitrup said in 1977 that its future was hopeless unless it could be routeded via Atlanta.

In April 1978 Amtrak announced a preliminary plan to route the Floridian via Atlanta, but it fell apart when L&N refused to host the train, citing freight train congestion.

The Southern Railway demanded $20 million in track improvements as its price for hosting the Floridian to Atlanta.

The Floridian never made it to Atlanta before its 1979 discontinuance.

In October 1989 Congress directed Amtrak to study resuming service between Chicago and Florida via Atlanta.

That plan has the support of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, which hosted a conference at which then Amtrak President W. Graham Claytor Jr. said the train would only become reality with financial support from the states along the route.

That never materialized and opposition from CSX and Norfolk Southern torpedoed a demonstration route during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta.

Claytor was involved in another effort to revive passenger service to Atlanta in the early 2000s.

That proposal was to extend the Kentucky Cardinal to Nashville from Louisville and a test train ran over the route in December 2001.

Amtrak told CSX it wanted to extend the Kentucky Cardinal over the 181-mile route once owned by L&N and used by the Floridian.

Claytor told a congressional committee he was bending over backwards and making every effort to get passenger service to Nashville.

Apparently Claytor couldn’t bend far enough or do enough because Amtrak still hasn’t returned to Nashville.

Political Strategy

All involved have been careful to emphasize that the proposed Nashville-Atlanta service is still in the idea stage.

Much needs to happen to make this train a reality and a best case scenario is it will be four to five years – or more – before the Music City Peach or whatever name it is given appears in the Amtrak timetable.

You have to wonder just how serious Amtrak is about its vision of bringing frequent daylight service to unserved or underserved corridors linking growing metropolitan areas.

Lang said this week in Nashville, “Our route map doesn’t really reflect where the nation’s population has shifted to — places like Nashville, Louisville, Columbus and Las Vegas that we don’t serve at all.”

Those make for good talking points, but Amtrak management must know based on its experience in working with host railroads how obstinate and demanding they can be.

It also must know that asking states for money is one thing but getting it is another. Remember the Hoosier State?

The Rail Passengers Association commented on its website on Friday, “CSX is required by law to host Amtrak trains, but has the ability to price state DOTs and Amtrak out of the market if it so chooses.”

RPA, Amtrak and anyone who has paid any attention at all to the behavior of Amtrak’s host railroads knows how they have wielded that power on multiple occasions.

Rail passenger advocates by nature must put on an optimistic face so RPA also said this about Tennessee service expansion proposal: “State officials will have to act accordingly, and work to bring all stakeholder groups onboard.”

That is much easier said than done particularly given that Tennessee has never funded Amtrak service and it is not know how committed state policy makers are to seeing through what Amtrak has proposed.

Has any else noticed that no one is talking about whether the Nashville-Atlanta service will need funding from Georgia, another state that has never funded Amtrak service?

This is not to say it can’t be done, but it won’t be easy and going into this process the odds are stacked against the prospect.

Amtrak’s top management probably has convinced itself that it really can have the type of network that Anderson and Gardner keep harping about.

But are they serious? Or is this just another talking point to be used to strategic advantage to provide political cover as management goes about scuttling the long-distance trains?

Amtrak could offer its plan to, say, carve up the route of the Capitol Limited into a Chicago-Pittsburgh service funded by Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

When that funding fails to materialize, Amtrak can say it tried to “save” service to those states but their elected lawmakers declined to pay for it.

Don’t blame us, go talk to the folks in Harrisburg, Columbus, Indianapolis and Springfield because they’re the ones who made the decision.

It remains to be seen if Amtrak is actually going to release a master plan that spells out what specific new services it envisions.

That plan, if is exists, will look impressive and get a lot of people excited just as the Amtrak road show in Tennessee did this week.

But I can’t help but wonder if it will be just another plan that winds up sitting in a drawer somewhere as Amtrak shrinks to a company with service in the Northeast and a few other state-supported corridors.