Archive for the ‘Commentaries’ Category

Amtrak Expects to Need $1B in Annual Fed Funding For the Next Decade

May 8, 2022

Back in 2019 when the much reviled Richard Anderson was president of Amtrak, the nation’s passenger railroad talked a lot about how it was on the cusp of breaking even.

A budget estimate that Amtrak sent to Congress in March 2020 even predicted operating profits by 2025. Those profits were expected to grow over the next decade.

But that same month the COVID-19 pandemic took hold and the bottom fell out for Amtrak and other transportation providers.

America’s Railroad, as Amtrak likes to call itself, lost 97 percent of its ridership and Congress responded by providing Amtrak $3.7 billion in emergency funding in federal fiscal years 2020 and 2021 to stave off bankruptcy.

Although COVID-19 and its variants is still around, the pandemic fears have been waning and passengers are returning to the rails.

Amtrak now projects that it will reach pre-COVID ridership and revenue by FY2024, which begins Oct. 1, 2023.

Yet the passenger carrier’s most recent budget estimates submitted to Congress show a shift in the thinking of Amtrak management about its finances.

Gone are the rosy projections of operating profits. Those have been replaced with an acknowledgement that Amtrak will need federal funding of $1 billion a year in the next decade.

The Eno Center for Transportation has published an analysis of Amtrak’s latest budget estimates that provides an overview of how Amtrak now sees its finances playing out in the next several years.

That analysis can be read at https://www.enotrans.org/article/amtrak-concedes-perpetual-1-billion-year-operating-losses/

From my perspective, the most interesting and important points in the analysis written by Jeff Davis are made toward the end because they hint at a coming battle in Congress that some rail passenger advocates may not see coming.

In the past several months Amtrak supporters have been talking up the benefits to intercity rail passenger service of the infusion of money from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The Rail Passengers Association has touted IIJA as an unprecedented if not a once in a lifetime $36 billion investment in passenger rail.

In talking about how transformative this funding will be, RPA has oversold what IIJA is likely to produce. That could be setting up some of its members for future shock.

There is, of course, some truth to the rhetoric being espoused by RPA and other rail passenger advocates. And to his credit RPA head Jim Mathews has hinted that the gains of IIJA could be more fragile than many of his members want to believe.

IIJA has created the potential for expansion of the nation’s rail passenger network. That in turn has led to expectations that have been fed by Amtrak itself proposing an expansive plan known as Amtrak ConnectsUS that would create more than 30 new corridor services.

But expectations are not reality nor do they always become reality.

It is true that the IIJA contains funding that could help launch some of those new services envisioned in Amtrak ConnectsUS.

But what some may not recognize unless they have paid close attention is that IIJA is a capital funding program. It provides not a dime for operating expenses of a single Amtrak train.

Those expenses will be paid for by ticket revenue, public money or both.

Now Amtrak has said that it won’t make enough in ticket revenue to pay the expenses of its trains.

For most rail passengers advocates that is no big deal. They have long acknowledged that passenger trains need public funding and have sought to explain that away by saying that all forms of transportation are funded at some level with public funding.

There is some truth to that if you consider that the infrastructure used by airlines and bus companies is paid for in part with public money.

Airlines and bus companies will counter that they pay their “fair share” through user fees and taxes of the cost of that infrastructure, but that’s a debatable proposition that is at best a half truth.

The public funding of airline and bus operations does not stand out as a line item in a budget as does funding of Amtrak operations.

In his analysis, Davis makes a valid point in writing, “Amtrak can claim with some credibility that Congress, through the IIJA, chose to de-emphasize the issue of operating losses.”

He then makes a side-by-side comparison of what the federal code says about Amtrak operations before and after passage of the IIJA.

At first glance, those changes appear to put to rest the notion that Amtrak is expected to be profitable.

But read the language again. Whereas before IIJA Section  C of 49 U.S.C. §24101 said “Amtrak shall . . . use its best business judgment in acting to minimize United States Government subsidies . . .” the IIJA changed the phrasing to Amtrak shall “maximize the benefits of Federal investments.”

Nothing in the federal code requires Congress to spend money on intercity rail passenger service at all. Likewise, the federal code does not require Congress to spend whatever it takes to maintain the existing Amtrak network forever let alone spend money to expand that network.

That is a significant point because the debate in Congress is not so much about whether Amtrak trains lose money – even if some members try to frame it that way – as it is how much to spend to underwrite those losses.

Since Amtrak’s inception in 1971, some members of Congress have sought to end federal funding of intercity rail passenger service if not put Amtrak out of business.

Those efforts have uniformly failed although at times Congress has reduced its financial support of Amtrak, which in turn led to the discontinuance of some routes and trains.

The last significant shrinkage of routes and services occurred in the early 2000s, the service suspensions that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic notwithstanding.

It is also noteworthy that those early 2000s service reductions came as a coda to the last time Amtrak proposed major service expansions, many of which never occurred.

In the Eno analysis, Davis notes that when the IIJA was adopted deficit spending was not considered by a majority of members of Congress to be a problem because the nation was still recovering from the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But now the nation is facing large scale inflation and budget deficits are one factor that drives inflation.

If, as many political pundits predict, Republicans gain control of one or both chambers of Congress in the November elections, Amtrak funding requests may face a more hostile environment.

It may be that federal law doesn’t require Amtrak trains to make a profit, but that means nothing to deficit hawks. It never has and it never will. They have beliefs about what is a legitimate purpose on which to spend public money and what is not. Intercity rail passenger service is among the latter.

And some Republicans have already signaled what they hope to do about Amtrak.

Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Arkansas) introduced the Returning Amtrak to Economic Sustainability Act, which calls for changing the language of 49 USC 24101 to replace  the word “modern in the phrase “intercity passenger and commuter rail passenger transportation” with “economically sustainable.”

The RATES act would also add the phrase “while ensuring route profitability proportional to the Federal share of investment” as well.

It is uncertain if the RATES Act would make it through a GOP-controlled Congress although it likely would receive a more favorable reception than it has in the current Congress controlled by Democrats.

But even if Democrats maintain control of Congress, lawmakers must still deal with the prospect of having to, as Davis put it, “either write the checks for the billion-per-year operating losses over the coming decade, or else use their annual platform to encourage (or require) Amtrak to pay attention to operating losses if they want to avoid writing those checks.”

That could easily lead to environments such as existed in 1979, in the early 1980s and in the late 1990s when Amtrak budget cuts resulted in service reductions.

Rather than enjoying the fruits of a second passenger rail renaissance in which the nation’s passenger train network expands, passenger train advocates will be faced with fighting to save as much existing service as they can if not having to save Amtrak itself.

Amtrak’s budget projections are filled with figures that show how much money long-distance passenger trains lose per passenger.

Those numbers have been used in the past to argue in favor of reducing if not ending federal spending on passenger trains. Don’t be surprised if those arguments surface again.

Richard Anderson is unlikely to return as Amtrak’s president but the political climate could lead to another Amtrak CEO who thinks as Anderson did and behaves as Anderson did in taking aim at long-distance trains for reduction.

If it Can Happen in Pennsylvania Why Can’t it Happen Along the Gulf Coast?

February 23, 2022

The contrast was striking. In a week in which opposing parties butted heads during a U.S. Surface Transportation Board hearing over proposed Amtrak service along the Gulf Coast, officials held a news conference in Pennsylvania to announce expanded Amtrak service between New York and Pittsburgh.

On the surface, the Pennsylvania announcement appears to be an example of how to go about getting intercity rail passenger service.

One key to achieving such breakthroughs is money to fund capacity expansions for the host freight railroad. Another key is a lot of patience. The second New York-Pittsburgh train is five years away from being inaugurated and it has been discussed for at least as many years.

The announcement indicated that talks with host railroad Norfolk Southern over the scope of the capital improvements have some loose ends to tie up.

In theory, those negotiations could break down and result in a situation much like the one on the Gulf Coast where the host railroads are demanding capital improvements that exceed what Amtrak and its state partners are willing to pay.

Yet it seems unlikely that officials from Norfolk Southern, Amtrak, the Federal Railroad Administration, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf would have held that news conference to announce the new train if the parties didn’t think that an agreement was close to being finished.

Pennsylvania officials have been seeking a second daily train to Pittsburgh for years to supplement the New York-Pittsburgh Pennsylvanian, which uses track east of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, that is owned by Amtrak.

The route hosts numerous Keystone Service trains and Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority commuter trains.

The operating agreement that NS and PennDOT are working to complete will define project scope, how freight and passenger rail operations will use the Pittsburgh-Harrisburg corridor, compensation for use of NS track, and liability protection.

Officials have said capacity expansion at NS freight yards is expected to cost between $142.8 million and $170.8 million with much of that being provided by the state.

The state is taking money from a fund to buy new passenger equipment to pay for NS capacity expansions.

In turn, the money from the passenger equipment fund is being replaced by federal grants awarded under provisions of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

If it could happen in Pennsylvania why can’t it happen along the Gulf Coast?

There are a number of significant differences in the two situations starting with the political climate.

Somewhat overlooked in the Gulf Coast case is that while the proposed double-daily New Orleans-Mobile, Alabama, service has political support from Louisiana and Mississippi officials, it has faced hostility if not outright opposition from most Alabama officials, particularly at the state government level.

This split political support has, perhaps, emboldened host railroad CSX into being recalcitrant by demanding exorbitant capital improvements that it knows no one will or can agree to pay.

In Pennsylvania, there is unified political support for rail passenger service and state officials have experience paying for and overseeing intercity and commuter rail passenger service.

That level of experience doesn’t exist along the Gulf Coast. The three states involved have funded corridor-type service on the New Orleans-Mobile route in the past, but eventually those trains were discontinued after the states ended their funding.

It is noteworthy that in Pennsylvania the line to be used for the second Pittsburgh train is a far busier freight corridor than the CSX Gulf Coast line.

Yet the parties have been able agree in principle to a capital improvement plan, something that has yet to happen along the Gulf Coast.

During his testimony before the STB, former NS and Amtrak CEO Charles “Wick” Moorman extolled the virtues of additional Amtrak service to Virginia that was developed during his time at NS.

He held that up as an example of what is possible when the parties work together instead of being at each other’s throats as has been the case with the Gulf Coast service.

Moorman also cited the success of the Virginia trains with their growing ridership.

Left unsaid in Moorman’s remarks is that all of those new Amtrak trains into Virginia are extensions of Northeast Corridor service. The same is true of the Pennsylvanian and the proposed second Pittsburgh train.

The Pennsylvania and Virginia trains had the advantage of building upon existing high levels of intercity rail passenger service in a densely populated area. That is not the case along the Gulf Coast.

Amtrak’s host railroads are sensitive to accusations that they are opposed to hosting passenger trains.

CSX CEO James Foote in his testimony before the STB in the Gulf Coast case claimed to not be opposed per se to the proposed New Orleans-Mobile service. He even suggested CSX would have approved a restoration of the tri-weekly Sunset Limited on the Gulf Coast route.

That train ran between New Orleans and Orlando, Florida, via Mobile until August 2005 when the route was damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Officially, Amtrak suspended the Sunset Limited but it has yet to return and probably will not.

Last summer a Union Pacific executive wrote a column posted on that railroad’s website noting instances in which UP had cooperated with public agencies and Amtrak to host and expand rail passenger service, primarily in California.

At the same time the UP executive decried wide-ranging passenger train expansion proposals such as the Amtrak Connects US plan that he said host railroads see as efforts to impose passenger service requirements on them rather than being collaborative ventures.

What seems clear is that Amtrak’s host freight railroads do not share the vision of rail passenger advocates of the need for a wide-reaching network of passenger trains in the United States.

Class 1 railroad executive don’t spend much time thinking about the need for rail passenger service in the United States. That is not part of their mission or purpose.

That doesn’t mean they don’t have beliefs about where rail passenger service makes sense and where it doesn’t.

We might be seeing in the Gulf Coast case an example of the latter.

Moorman Showed a Way Forward in Breaking the Gulf Coast Service Stalemate

February 18, 2022

If you are a rail passenger advocate you had to be pleased by the testimony of Charles “Wick” Moorman during hearings conducted this week by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board in the Gulf Coast service case.

Moorman, who served as a CEO of Class 1 railroad Norfolk Southern between 2005 and 2015 and as CEO of Amtrak between 2016 and 2017, took what rail passenger advocates will view as a “reasonable” position in a case in which he claimed to be not be taking a position at all.

Yet Moorman was taking sides in the sense that the thrust of his comments were in favor of the proposed double daily Amtrak service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

He did not adopt the CSX viewpoint, which is supported by his former employer, that the addition of Amtrak service to the route without extensive and costly capacity expansion would severely hinder the freight service of the host railroads and, by extension, harm shippers.

Moorman actually extolled the benefits of rail passenger service.

“There is a real need for passenger-rail service, particularly in the South,” he said. “Our highway system is overcrowded in many areas and in an increasing state of disrepair. The appetite for good, environmentally friendly transportation alternatives is growing.”

Nor did Moorman appear before STB members as a disinterested party. During his 16-month tenure at Amtrak, Moorman pledged to Mississippi U.S. Senator Roger Wicker that the passenger carrier would support restoration of Gulf Coast service.

So it is not as though Moorman doesn’t have a dog in the fight.

Nonetheless, Moorman said the parties in the dispute should be able to work out their differences and come to an agreement that benefits each. He called for a neutral entity, this case the STB, to mediate the dispute.

Moorman said during his time at NS the railroad was able to work with Amtrak and state officials in Virginia and North Carolina on expanded service in those states.

He said NS executives had concerns similar to those expressed by CSX and the Port of Mobile about how Amtrak service would interfere with freight service to the port.

In Moorman time at NS, Amtrak wanted to expand to Norfolk, Virginia, and there was concern about how that service might affect the Port of Norfolk. But things got worked out and the port wasn’t harmed.

He attributed that to NS working collaboratively with Amtrak on what rail capacity was needed for the service and ensuring that that capacity was put in place before service began to Norfolk in 2012.

“I felt then, and I still feel now, that these agreements were a win-win for Norfolk Southern, Amtrak and the people who live in Virginia and North Carolina,” Moorman said. “The Amtrak services have been very successful, attracting high ridership leading to additional service increases. And, very importantly, there has been significant public investment in Norfolk Southern’s rail lines as a result of the Amtrak services.”

The STB case for which public hearings were held this week was brought by Amtrak nearly a year ago in an effort to force CSX and Norfolk Southern to the Mobile trains.

In theory, Amtrak is seeking an STB order directing NS and CSX to host the Mobile service now without any infrastructure improvements.

In reality, the passenger carrier is willing to pay for some improvements, including the cost of building stations. The dispute, at least from an Amtrak and rail passenger advocate perspective, is about the scope of those improvements.

At one point CSX demanded $2.3 billion in infrastructure work as the price of hosting passenger service between New Orleans and Jacksonville, Florida, which was the route once used by the tri-weekly Sunset Limited before it was suspended in August 2005 after the route was heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Numerous reports have indicated CSX has since lowered the infrastructure work it wants to the $440 million range, but that is far above the estimates made years ago by the Federal Railroad Administration’s Gulf Coast Working Group.

In his STB testimony, Moorman described CSX’s $2 billion demand, which came during his time at Amtrak in 2017, as “laughable.”

Moorman said CSX argued it would be impossible to host a New Orleans-Jacksonville train and a New Orleans-Mobile train and still meet the 80 percent on-time performance standards required by federal law.

“I was optimistic at the time that Amtrak would be able to reach an agreement with CSX, given the experience I already had working out agreements between Amtrak and the states when I was at Norfolk Southern,” Moorman said.

But his attempts to speak with then CSX CEO E. Hunter Harrison were thwarted by Harrison’s death.

By the time Moorman left Amtrak, he said it seemed increasingly apparent that Amtrak and CSX would be unable to work out a deal.

“And now it appears four years later, at least to me, that very little has changed,” Moorman said. “That is very unfortunate. While negotiations over these types of projects is never easy, they shouldn’t take forever. If you have reasonable people on both sides, they can get [it] done — and I have seen this happen many times.”

Rail passenger advocates had to be cheering after hearing Moorman say, “The one thing that I’ve seen in Virginia is that once states see the benefits of passenger-rail service, they can’t get enough of it. I expect that will also be the case on the Gulf Coast.”

Moorman’s testimony might prove to be persuasive with enough STB members to lead to a decision that favors Amtrak in the Gulf Coast case.

It has the aura of occupying a middle ground that is likely to appeal to STB members who want to avoid having to make a decision that will be subject to further litigation and regulatory proceedings

Since the hearings ended it seems likely that CSX executives and attorneys took note of some of the comments STB members made, which suggested they weren’t buying all of what CSX is trying to sell.

That alone might be enough to convince CSX management that it’s time to adopt a softer stance and to talk with Amtrak about what it will accept and what CSX will accept.

One of the less appreciated facets of the Gulf Coast case is that much of what the various parties and their allies have said in the run up to the public hearings has been posturing that reflected their respective communication and legal strategies.

There has been much talk about the potential precedent the Gulf Coast case might set and what that means for future new intercity rail passenger proposals.

There is much truth to that viewpoint, yet STB members might be more interested in achieving the type of solution that Moorman spoke about in his testimony whereby the two parties come to a mutually agreeable outcome that allows the Mobile passenger trains to operate while granting the host railroads something of value in return.

It may be that rail passenger advocates want the sun, the moon and the stars, if not the entire universe, but Amtrak and its host railroads are more pragmatic about these matters, their public statements notwithstanding.

As David Peter Alan pointed out in an analysis published on the website of Railway Age, CSX CEO James Foote’s visible combative demeanor may have been nothing more than a negotiating tactic often used by parties in litigation in advance of court or regulatory body proceedings.

You play hard ball until you have the opportunity to see the other side’s case and get a reading for how members of a court or, in this case, a regulatory body, are reacting to each side.

It might be that CSX management might decide that it is time for the next phase of the dispute, which is seeking the best possible outcome, something over which it will have more control.

There is always a risk that the outcome rendered by a court or regulatory body might be worse than what you could have obtained in give and take negotiations.

Much has been made about the numbers that CSX has thrown out as to how much capital investment is needed. Testimony this week showed that Amtrak has refrained from giving CSX a corresponding number of how much it is willing to pay.

That’s probably a negotiating strategy on Amtrak’s part reflecting the principle that he/she who makes the first offer in negotiations over money often loses because that number becomes a starting point for negotiating upward or downward.

CSX probably started high knowing that one of two things was likely to happen. Amtrak and its public entity allies would become discouraged and walk away or CSX would have to settle for fewer improvements than it proposed. But that might have been something it was prepared to do all along.

The next step is a March 9 evidentiary hearing at which the direct parties to the case – Amtrak, CSX, NS and the Port of Mobile – will present their evidence.

Everyone will be trying to read the STB members again for more clues as to how regulators are likely to rule if the case gets to that.

In Alan’s analysis in Railway Age, he suggested that mediation is a likely step that will be taken before a ruling from the STB comes down with the agency possibly acting as the mediator.

NS indicated during the hearings this week that it is amenable to mediation and said CSX would be, too.

Alan wrote that the distance between Amtrak and the host railroads on infrastructure improvements probably is not as great as it might seem and could potentially be bridged through mediation.

Provided, of course, that CSX is willing to participate and doesn’t have a grand strategy of “whatever it takes” to get its way, no matter how much time and money that costs in legal costs.

I’m not sure that from a CSX perspective this case is not so much about hosting four trains a day as it is part of a larger context of avoiding more regulation than it already is subject to from the STB.

There might not seem to be a connection, but CSX probably sees in the Gulf Coast case the same type of threats that it sees in the reciprocal switching case that also is on the STB docket. Both cases involve a government agency ordering a railroad to do something it doesn’t want to do in the manner it is being ordered to do it.

As useful as Moorman’s insights may have been, his views had limitations. He stopped well short of endorsing the type of expansive intercity rail passenger networks that rail advocate dream about.

He didn’t say that Congress 50 years ago intended for Amtrak to have access to every rail line in America that it wants to use at whatever cost it is willing to pay or that a government agency orders be paid.

Moorman’s prescription for a cure to the Gulf Coast stalemate was far from a full-throated reiteration of the talking points that the Rail Passengers Association has issued of how government power must be brought to bear to break host railroad opposition to the implementation of multiple new rail passenger routes nationwide.

Negotiating new service into existence is not the same as a government regulatory agency dictating it into being, the latter being something that rail passenger advocates tend to favor.

Nor is Moorman’s characterization of the success of intercity rail passenger service in Virginia necessarily going to translate to the Gulf Coast region.

There are significant differences in the contexts of the two regions, the political cultures of the states involved, and the nature of the travel markets.

Nonetheless, Moorman’s more middle of the road approach with a thumb on the side of the scale favoring the proposed service, might be a viable blueprint for getting the trains rolling into Mobile.

Are We Really Going to Miss Amtrak P42s?

February 15, 2022

Amtrak P42DC No. 68 awaits its next move outside the engine house in Chicago on May 20, 2013.
The Charger era at Amtrak is just getting underway. Shown are a pair of ALC-42 locomotives in Chicago (Amtrak photo)

The February issue of Trains magazine had a list of things that railfans need to seek out in 2022 because they are endangered.

Among them are Amtrak P42DC locomotives. Yes, they are serious.

Like many railroad photographers I can’t wait for the day when Amtrak trains are no longer dominated by the ubiquitous P42s in their blue and silver Phase V livery.

It seems as though those locomotives have been around for about as long as Amtrak has even though they actually date to the 1990s. I have hundreds of photographs of the P42s, particularly those in the Phase V livery. I am more than ready for a new look to Amtrak’s motive power.

Well, it’s true the P42 is endangered although it is far from being on the verge of extinction.

Amtrak in 2019 placed an $850 million order with Siemens Mobility for 75 ALC-42 Charger locomotives and last week announced it would buy 25 more.

The plan is to use the Chargers to replace P42s and P40s in the national network. That means primarily long-distance trains but some corridor trains will also see ALC-42 Chargers on the point, including the New York-Pittsburgh Pennsylvanian.

The ALC-42 Chargers are similar to the SC-44 Chargers used to pull Midwest corridor trains. They have similar appearances but the specifications of the two models are different.

The Charger era at Amtrak got off to a less than auspicious start on Feb. 8. ALC-42 Nos. 301 and 302 were assigned to pull the Empire Builder out of Chicago that day but when No. 7 departed Chicago Union Station a P42DC was on the point and Nos. 301 and 302 were relegated to trailing unit duty. The explanation given was the 301 had technical issues with its positive train control system.

That hiccup notwithstanding, the Charger era is here although it will be more than a year and maybe two years before the ALC-42 becomes the dominant everyday motive power.

In the Trains article, author Chris Guss argued it is time to document the P42 because although they may seem mundane now they will be appreciated later.

He wrote that he heard friends say decades ago that they wouldn’t photograph another train led by a pair of green Burlington Northern SD40-2s because they seemed to be on every train.

Guss said those sentiments made sense at the time, but now those BN “green machines” have given way to BNSF wide-cab “pumpkins” and some photographers – himself included – regret not documenting the green SD40-2s more often.

It’s a valid point. By the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, the boxy-looking F40PH locomotive was the Amtrak standard and many photographers tired of them, too.

The EMD-built F40 gave way to the Genesis line of GE-built passenger locomotives. The first of those was a class of 40 P40 locomotives that began arriving in 1993.

The Genesis family expanded with P32DMAC units that were ordered to replace FL9s in New York. The P42DC came along in 1996.

Altogether Amtrak has had 207 P42s (roster numbers 1 to 207), 17 P32s (roster series 700), and 43 P40s (roster series 800). Those figures include units “retired” due to wreck damage or sidelined for other reasons.

All models in the Genesis family were introduced in the Phase III livery. That gave way to Phase IV starting in 1997, which lasted only a few years until Phase V arrived in 1999. 

If I have any regrets, it is that I didn’t photograph more of the Phase III and Phase IV Genesis units.

The dominance of the Phase V era coincided with my interest in railroad photography intensifying, something that began to happen about 2004.

The F40 era didn’t vanish overnight and neither will the P42/P40 epoch. During the 1990s it was common to see a P40 working in tandem with an F40. Similar mixed motive power consists can be expected to occur with combinations of ACL-42 and P42/P40 units.

What you are unlikely to see, though, are ACL-42s mixed with SC-44s. The latter units are owned by state departments of transportation and were bought by those agencies for the express purpose of pulling corridor trains that they fund.

The Chargers in Midwest corridor service carry Illinois Department of Transportation reporting marks.

The Genesis era is likely to last through at least 2024 when Amtrak expects to take delivery of the last of the original 75 ALC-42s ordered in 2019.

Officials have not said how long it will be before the next batch of 25 ALC-42’s begin to arrive.

The first ALC-42s have arrived wearing a Phase VI livery that is intended to be used by only a handful of the units. Amtrak plans to introduce this spring its Phase VII livery that will adorn the bulk of the Charger fleet.

If there is anything to be excited about with the changes coming in Amtrak’s motive power fleet it is the prospect of documenting locomotives in something other than Phase V.

It is not so much that I have grown bored with the P42 as such but I’m tired of the Phase V look.

The next two to three years will present opportunities for railfan photographers to document some interesting views including likely to be short-lived combinations. That will include combinations of P42s and ALC-42s with mixed liveries.

Amtrak also released last year a few P42s in one-off liveries including the Midnight Blue look for No. 100. No. 46 wears the Phase V scheme but with a gold 50th anniversary herald. No. 160 has the modified Phase III livery used to introduce the P32-8 locomotives in 1991. Earlier this year P42 No. 203 received a tribute livery to Operation Lifesaver.

But perhaps the most sought after one-off livery is the “Day One” scheme applied to ALC-42 No. 301, which mimics a look applied to Penn Central E8A No. 4316 for ceremonies held on May 1, 1971, to trumpet the arrival of Amtrak.

Of course a handful of P42s are still out there in retro Phase I, Phase II, Phase III and Phase IV liveries that were brought back to celebrate Amtrak anniversaries.

Among the interesting factoids about the new Chargers is that the initials denote Amtrak Long-Distance Charger.

The Chargers have 4,200 horsepower capability, which is less than the SC-44, but the ALC-42 has larger fuel tanks and increased head-end power.

Amtrak and Siemens have touted how the Cummins QSK95 prime mover of the ACL-42, which is built in Seymour, Indiana, is Tier 4-compliant. The locomotives themselves are being assembled in Sacramento, California.

I’ve photographed the SC-44 Chargers numerous times and one characteristic I’ve noticed about them is how bright their headlights are.

They are brighter than any freight locomotive headlight I’ve seen coming down the tracks. I also have noticed the ditch lights of the SC-44 flash in a slower sequence than those of freight locomotives.

I’m looking forward to documenting the transition era between the Genesis and Charger eras but I’m still not sure I’m going to pine for the days when every Amtrak train had a Phase V livery P42 on the point.

Simply put, I have enough photographs of those locomotives and I don’t think I will miss them all that much once they’re gone.

Article by Craig Sanders

On the Eve of Hearings in a (Maybe) Critical Case

February 14, 2022

Over the next two days members of the U.S. Surface Transportation are going to be hearing a lot of exaggerations, half truths, contradictions and hyperbole as they listen to a long list of witnesses testify in the Gulf Coast passenger train service case.

The defendant host railroads, CSX and Norfolk Southern, and their allies, will exaggerate the effects that new double-daily Amtrak service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, will have on the freight operations of those railroads. They will overstate how much work is needed on their track to enable it to host passenger service.

Amtrak and rail passenger advocates will exaggerate the benefits of and need for intercity rail passenger service not just along the Gulf Coast but everywhere.

The hearings are not designed for STB members to question or cross examine those speaking in an effort to root out the fallacies of their arguments.

The witnesses have a limited time to speak – as little as three minutes for many of them – and the hearings are but one step of a long process. Additional hearings will be held next month at which the direct parties to the case will present their evidence.

Ostensibly the case, which was brought by Amtrak against NS and CSX in March 2021, is about the passenger carrier using the power of the STB to force two recalcitrant host railroads into allowing the Amtrak trains to use their tracks.

That includes what level of capital projects are needed to enable the passenger trains to operate without unduly interfering with freight operations of the host railroads.

Much of what has been written about the Gulf Coast has zeroed in on the precedent that could be set in the STB’s decision.

The direct parties to the case, Amtrak, CSX, NS and the Alabama port agency that operates the Port of Mobile, understand this, which is why they have been fighting unusually hard in a dispute that is now into its sixth year.

From an Amtrak perspective, what is at stake is the meaning of its legal right of access to use the property of a host railroad.

From a host railroad perspective, what is at stake is control, particularly who gets to determine the level of capital improvements needed on a rail line to host passenger trains. The host railroads want to control that and not have those decisions made by government regulators.

All of this assumes that in deciding the Gulf Coast case, the STB will issue a determinant and definitive ruling on the scope of Amtrak’s legal right of access to the property of a host railroad.

Rail passenger advocates want that right of access to be as broad as possible. Host railroads want a narrow interpretation.

From my distant view, it might be that the STB will make a narrow ruling in the case meaning it will decide the Gulf Coast case on the merits of that particular case without issuing the type of far-reaching interpretation that each sides seems to want.

If the STB does that, that favors host railroads because it would preserve the status quo. That would be true even if the STB orders CSX and NS to host the trains and, in effect, decides that their demands for capital improvements were excessive.

That would be a source of great frustration and consternation for rail passengers advocates who fantasize about an expansive intercity rail passenger network that resembles the interstate highway system. They will have, to use the cliche, won the battle but not the war.

I have purposely used the term “property” in this analysis because when STB members retreat to their conference room later this year to deliberate they will be mindful that they are ruling on the scope of the federal government’s authority to dictate to private property owners – in this railroad companies – what one or more parties who are not co-owners or even stockholders of that railroad company can and cannot do with that railroad’s property.

STB members will not enter those discussions with minds that are blank slates. They have had years of practice in their previous jobs to work out their philosophical views on what should be the role of government agencies, whether regulatory, legislative, executive or judicial in regulating private property owners.

In this county owning property means a lot, particularly if a property owner is wealthy and has the financial resources to fight for his or her interests in courtrooms, legislative chambers, executive branch offices, and even in the “court of public opinion.”

That is something to keep in mind as you anticipate the STB ruling.

The STB members also are aware that they will not necessarily be the last word on the issues before them in the Gulf Coast case.

Parties who are unhappy with the case outcome are likely to take their grievances to court, to legislative bodies, and to executive branch officials.

It is not that STB members will be looking over their shoulders at what other powerful government officials might do. It is to say STB members are aware that their authority is constrained at some level by others.

Of course it is not out of the question that the parties in the case might settle their differences before the STB issues its ruling. It happens often in criminal and civil cases alike, particularly when you fear being on the receiving end of a really bad decision by a jury or judge.

Much of what will be said during this phase of the Gulf Coast case hearings is about various stakeholders asserting tribal identity, giving voice to their vision of how things ought to be, and trying to draw lines in ever-shifting sands.

I won’t hazard a guess as to how the STB will rule but I will predict that it probably will turn out to mean not as much as the parties hope that it will. There are powerful forces at work and have been for decades that have kept intercity rail passenger service in a state of relative status quo.

Intercity rail isn’t going away, but it’s not going to expand exponentially either.

Rail Passenger Funding, Running Amtrak on Time, New NS President Didn’t Impress Some Workers

January 17, 2022

Bit and pieces of insights into the workings of railroad world . . .

I recently received in my email inbox a message quoting Evan Stair of the Friends of the Southwest Chief group in which he suggested that the promise of new and expanded service contained in the Amtrak Connects US plan is largely a mirage.

Stair, whose group has been promoting additional Amtrak service along Colorado’s Front Range and extending the Heartland Flyer north of Oklahoma City to connect with the Chief in Kansas, was commenting on a Bloomberg News story in which Amtrak President Stephen Gardner said the plan to add 39 new routes will require state financial support.

Amtrak has estimated the plan will cost $75 billion to implement.

In his interview, Gardner characterized the federal government as the capital partner but the ongoing operating expenses are the responsibility of the states and Amtrak.

And Amtrak has made clear that it’s responsibility to pay operating expenses will only last at best for five years. After that states will be on the hook to pay operating expenses as is the case now with state-supported corridors on the West Coast, in the Midwest and along the East Coast.

“I frankly believe the Amtrak Connects US program will result in few, if any new routes,” Stair wrote. “States are unlikely to commit to long-term operational dollars without some federal operational matches.”

Stair is probably right about that but could have gone even farther. It may not be realistic to think that states that are not now and/or have never paid Amtrak for corridor service will do so in the future even with a short-term Amtrak funding match for operational expenses.

Yes, I’m talking about you, Ohio.

Speaking of Amtrak, Canadian Pacific CEO Keith Creel told a Midwest shippers conference in Chicago last week that he was “proud” of having reached an agreement with the passenger carrier to allow for the prospect of additional passenger service on routes operated by CP and it merger partner Kansas City Southern.

As reported by Trains magazine, Creel also talked about how CP has become one of Amtrak’s best host railroads in dispatching its trains on time. It wasn’t always that way.

“Five years ago, six years ago, we didn’t lead the industry in Amtrak service,” Creel said.

He went on to say that his 30 years as an operating officer taught him that it’s not easy for a freight railroad to coexist with passenger service.

“I understand the conflicts sometimes and the tradeoffs sometimes when you mix high speed passenger rail with what is, in comparative terms, low-speed freight rail,” Creel said. “I understand the track geometry challenges, I understand the speed challenges. But I also understand that if you prioritize right, and there’s tradeoffs, and balance in a partnership, you can succeed. And that’s the approach we’ve taken at CP.”

Creel’s comments suggest that having the right attitude is key to running passenger trains on time and if CP can do it so could the other Class 1 Amtrak host railroads.

Yet CP doesn’t host as many Amtrak trains as its Class 1 brethren and doesn’t host any long-distance trains over thousands of miles.

Perhaps the best that can be expected is that the host railroads could do better than they do, but dispatching is a balancing act and there will be times when a host railroad puts its own interests ahead of avoiding delaying Amtrak for what the host sees as a relatively short period of time.

Speaking at the same shipper’s conference, new Norfolk Southern President Alan Shaw told a story of how on his first day in his new post he decided to go out into the field and meet and greet NS operating employees in Toledo, which is the largest NS crew change point on the system.

 “I wanted to thank [the employees] for their dedication to Norfolk Southern and our customers, and I wanted to get their input into how we fix service and how we continue to improve our productivity,” Shaw said.

As reported by Trains magazine on its website, Shaw said he approached some workers sitting outside the crew room.

He was wearing khakis, boots and a collared shirt and the workers thought he was an operations supervisor.

 “So I walk up and introduce myself. They told me their names, and one of the guys said, ‘Well, what do you do?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m the president’. And he looks at me, and I’m like, ‘Not Joe Biden president, but president of Norfolk Southern.’ And the other dude pulls out his phone, and he’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, I see the announcement. Congratulations!

“So that made me feel good. And then the one guy looks at me and says, ‘What craft did you come from?  . . . Were you mechanical, or engineering, or a conductor, or an engineer?’

“And I was like, ‘No, I started in finance.’ He was really not impressed with that. He goes, ‘Man, at some point, we’re going to have a craft employee running the railroad.’

“It is somewhat humbling when you go out there and talk to them, because they’ve got their own expectations.”

Shaw is right about that, but expectations are not reality. It’s possible that a future railroad president might have worked as a craft employee at an early point in his or her railroad career, but it is not realistic to think that C suite executives will be pulled from the ranks of operating or maintenance employees.

If you want to be a railroad president you need to have spent extensive time in such areas as finance, law or marketing and moved up the ranks in those departments.

Operating employees are not the only railroad stakeholders who have expectations and the expectations of some stakeholders carry more weight than those of others.

Shaw told another story about his first conversation with members of the railroad’s board of directors.

 “Their primary message to me was, ‘Don’t mess up,’” Shaw said. “Now, it was a little more forceful than that. I’ll let you use your imagination what the real verb was that they used.”

I think we can easily figure that one out.

Analyzing Amtrak’s Revamped Dining Service

August 3, 2021

Amtrak returned full-service dining to five long-distance trains a month ago, all of them operating in the West and parts of the Midwest.

I haven’t had an opportunity to sample the revived full-service dining, but a two-part report written by Bob Johnston, the passenger correspondent for  Trains magazine was published last week on the magazine’s website and offers some insight into the service.

Johnston generally gave Amtrak high marks for its revamped dining car menus and service.

One key take away from his report is the food has improved in quality over that served in dining cars before full-service dining was removed in late spring 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that sent Amtrak ridership plummeting.

A chef working the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief gave as an example the flat iron steak which he said is “the same cut, but these (served now) have more marbling and are a lot more dense.”

Other changes have included the addition of colorful garnishes, more seasoning and multiple sauces. Vegetables served with entrees were described as fresher.

The steak still comes with a baked potato but patrons can request a creamy polenta, which the chef said compliments the Bordelaise sauce served with the steak.

Before the pandemic, dinners came with a lettuce salad but that has been replaced with a choice among three appetizers: A tossed-to-order salad of baby greens and tomatoes topped with a brie cheese; a lobster cake, or a green cheese tamale.

As before, dinners come with a desert. Unlike before, dinners now come with one complimentary alcoholic beverage.

Yet in some ways full-service dining is little changed from what it was before the pandemic. Entrée staples still include the flat iron steak, chicken breast, and salmon. There is also a tri-color cheese tortellini pasta dish.

Not everything is prepared fresh on board. The lobster cake comes precooked and frozen so the kitchen staff merely heats it onboard.

The Trains analysis, which was based on sampling meals aboard the Southwest Chief, said the changes to breakfast and lunch have been a little more subtle.

Back is French toast, which can be ordered with whipped cream. There are made-to-order omelets.

However, passengers still can’t order eggs over easy or get toast at breakfast. Both were eliminated in the 1990s.

Full-service dining is available only to sleeping class passengers. Coach passengers are confined to the snack-heavy café car.

At the time that Amtrak announced the return of full-service dining to the western trains it also said it planned to add fresh selections to café cars. Those additions have yet to be made.

And it remains unclear when or if full-service dining will return to eastern long-distance trains or the Texas Eagle.

The Trains analysis aptly noted that some passengers aboard those trains are onboard for more than four meal periods.

Amtrak has hinted that full-service dining might return to eastern long distance trains late this year or in 2022. Officials said the carrier wanted to gauge passenger response to the new menus on the western trains before looking to implement them elsewhere.

As for when or even if coach passengers will be able to dine in the diner, Amtrak has been noncommittal. Officials said they were studying that but suggested it might take the form of allowing coach passengers to buy meals on a take-out basis and/or have them delivered to their coach seat.

The Trains analysis offered a glimpse of two conundrums posing a challenge to allowing coach passengers back in the dining car. It would require additional staff in the kitchen and dining room in order to create faster table turnover.

Another factor is pricing. Before Amtrak instituted flexible dining in June 2018 on the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited, dining car menus had prices. The current dining car menus on the western trains do not show prices because the clientele already paid for their meals in their sleeping car fare.

As I’ve written in previous posts, most of those dining car prices were quite high with some entrees costing more than $20. Even breakfast was quite pricey for what you got.

The Trains analysis suggested some less labor intensive food selections would have to be added to the menu that could be sold at lower cost.

Many, if not most, coach passengers are unwilling to pay or unable to afford the prices Amtrak charged in dining cars in the past.

There will always be coach passengers willing to pay those prices to have the dining car experience. But they are not necessarily a majority of the coach clientele.

Amtrak’s food and beverage service is an evolving process that isn’t moving as fast or necessarily toward the destination that many rail passenger advocates want it to see.

The dining car experience is still not the same as it was before the pandemic or, in the case of eastern long-distance trains, since the onset of flexible dining with its limited choices.

Amtrak management has not talked about the prospect of doing what the passenger carrier did in the 1990s when dining car menus featured regional offerings associated with a region of the country the train served.

That lasted a few years then fell by the wayside as Amtrak management went to a standard dining car menu for all trains with diners.

For now, the dining car experience is available only in the West and only to those with the means to afford sleeping car fares.

Dining service is an emotional subject for some passengers and passenger train advocates, particularly those above a certain age, who wax nostalgic about all of the people they enjoyed conversing with over a meal and lament having lost that.

Some remember a time when railroads used their dining service as a marketing tool and offered meals that rivaled in quality what was served in the better hotel restaurants.

They tend to believe as an article of faith that full-service dining is critical to drawing more people aboard the train and boosting Amtrak’s revenue.

Johnston, the Trains passenger correspondent, falls into that camp. In his piece he argued that reviving full-service dining on such trains as the Lake Shore Limited, Capitol Limited, Cardinal, and City of New Orleans would give “travelers in some of the country’s top population centers more incentive to ride.”

That in turn would generate more cash for Amtrak, Johnston asserted. How much more? He didn’t say because he doesn’t know.

There is much Amtrak knows about its finances and passengers that it doesn’t share with the public, arguing that that information is proprietary.

It probably is true that the upgraded dining service has boosted the morale of Amtrak food and beverage workers as the article suggested and resulted in happier passengers.

Yet as the pandemic and the politically-motivated attacks on Amtrak food and beverage service of past years have shown, all of that can change virtually overnight and probably will.

Infrastructure Agreement Cuts Money for Amtrak Expansion

June 29, 2021

As details about the $978 billion compromise infrastructure plan that President Joseph Biden and a bi-partisan group of senators announced last week, the future for Amtrak service is looking less rosy than it was last March when the passenger carrier released its Amtrak Connect US plan.

Nonetheless, it’s still a promising future albeit one that is less grand in scope.

Back in the spring, the Biden administration was talking about Amtrak getting $80 billion, much of which would be used to expand its network and increase service.

But the plan announced last week contains $66 billion for passenger and freight rail to share, which means that although Amtrak will be getting a funding boost, it won’t be nearly as much as some had hoped for.

The bi-partisan plan calls for allocating over the next five years $579 billion in new spending of which $312 billion will go toward transportation.

Of the new transportation spending, public transit would receive $49 billion; ports and waterways, $16 billion; roads, bridges and major projects, $109 billion; and airports, $25 billion.

Other spending includes $266 billion for infrastructure spending on water, broadband and power.

Although the plan has bi-partisan support in the Senate, it will not necessarily have smooth sailing through Congress.

Some Republican opposition is inevitable and it remains to be seen if the bi-partisan coalition will hold and if senators in both parties in the coalition can get their colleagues to go along with it.

Already there has been one dust up in which Republicans were reported to have been angered by

Biden’s remarks that the infrastructure deal was tied to Congressional approval of a separate Democrats-only $4 trillion plan to spend trillions more on health care, child care, higher education access and climate change programs.

That plan is contingent on changing the U.S. tax code, something Republicans have strongly opposed.

During his remarks last week, Biden said he would not sign the bi-partisan infrastructure plan without also signing legislation for his American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan.

After GOP discontent about that spilled into the news media, the White House backpedaled, insisting that Biden had misspoken.

“I gave my word to support the infrastructure plan, and that’s what I intend to do,” Biden said. “I intend to pursue the passage of that plan, which Democrats and Republicans agreed to on Thursday, with vigor. It would be good for the economy, good for our country, good for our people. I fully stand behind it without reservation or hesitation.”

To win the support of some moderate Republicans and Democrats, Biden had to give up some of the funding for transportation that he initially had sought in his infrastructure plan.

 Nonetheless, a White House fact sheet about the revised infrastructure plan contends the infrastructure plan contains funding that would modernize and expand transit and rail networks across the country.

 “The Plan is the largest federal investment in public transit in history and is the largest federal investment in passenger rail since the creation of Amtrak,” the White House said.

All of that may be accurate, yet it is becoming clear that the ambitious route expansions envisioned in Amtrak Connect US will be scaled back.

Even when the plan was announced earlier Amtrak had indicated it was a goal of what its network would look like by 2035.

Some commentators suggested the plan was more something to aspire to than a set of realistic objectives.

For its part, Amtrak was supportive of the bi-partisan infrastructure plan. “Amtrak is ready to support this vision for greater public transit,” an Amtrak spokesperson said.

Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari said the passenger carrier is excited to be on the offensive instead of having to constantly defend itself and its spending. 

Amtrak’s chief marketing and revenue officer, Roger Harris, had told Business Insider in mid June that the $80 billion plan was “extremely ambitious.”

However, even getting a portion of that would be “revolutionary,” he said.

That sounds like what you say when your pie in the sky dream collides with reality.

If things work out with the bi-partisan infrastructure plan then Amtrak will have additional money to expand some of its network.

It may be that the expansions that actually come about will occur in those states that have expressed a willingness to put up money to pay for new service.

Expansion is less likely to occur in states where state officials and legislators are apathetic, indifferent or even hostile toward spending money on supporting new Amtrak service.

Aside from money, what Amtrak also wants out of Congress is better leverage against its host railroads.

That would play out in two ways. First, it would give Amtrak more power to go after host railroads that consistently delay its trains or fail to give them preference over freight traffic.

Second, Amtrak wants more legal tools to force host railroads into hosting new service.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, is leading the effort to give Amtrak a right to have federal courts settle disputes with host railroads. 

“Right now they’ve got it the way they want it,” DeFazio said of Amtrak’s host railroads.

“So we’re going to change the law and give Amtrak better access.”

It remains to be seen how successful DeFarzio will be in doing this and whether those changes will withstand a court challenge that would likely be brought by the Association of American Railroads.

DeFazio is correct in saying host railroads like the balance of power they have with Amtrak and are not going to give that up willingly.

The legislative fight will play out this summer and fall, but the larger battles will take years to resolve if they ever are.

Amtrak Anniversary Saturday: Where Were You and What Were You doing May 1, 1971?

April 30, 2021

Where were you on May 1, 1971? Did you do anything to observe, document or celebrate the transition between freight railroad operation of intercity passenger trains and Amtrak operation?

Maybe you were too young to remember or to have been aware of the day that Amtrak began. Or maybe you had yet to be born.

I was a senior in high school on the day Amtrak started. It was a Saturday just as the 50th anniversary this year is falling on a Saturday.

At the time I was living in Mattoon, Illinois, which would be a stop for Amtrak trains operated between Chicago and New Orleans, and Chicago and Carbondale, Illinois.

I recall seeing from my backyard the first New Orleans-bound Amtrak train from Chicago.

I was disappointed that it looked exactly like the Illinois Central City of New Orleans of the day before with locomotives and passenger cars wearing IC chocolate brown and orange with yellow striping.

Like all teenagers I was naïve about how the world worked. I had read in newspapers about this new Amtrak operation that was to begin on May 1.

Yet I was expecting the trains to look quite different than they had. In fact, it would be more than a year before I saw a passenger car or locomotive that had been repainted into Amtrak’s livery.

Aside from seeing the first Chicago to New Orleans Amtrak train I also saw the last IC passenger train to complete its final journey.

The last northbound City of New Miami had left its namesake city on April 30. Trains that left that day were to continue to their terminus.

Therefore, the last pre-Amtrak train to finish its trip that was not slated to be part of Amtrak would not halt for the final time until May 2.

The City of Miami would not be joining Amtrak. Instead, it passed through Mattoon around 3 p.m. just as it had for many years and rolled into history. The number of trains making their final runs was a major focus of news coverage of the coming of Amtrak.

Sometime that summer cars from other railroads began showing up in the consists of the Amtrak trains that served Mattoon.

It had always been a thrill for me to see whenever I could passenger cars from other railroads. It wasn’t something I got to see often.

That June, I began college although I wouldn’t begin living on campus until late August.

I sometimes saw Amtrak trains during my trips home and during school breaks and made mental notes as to how they had changed or not changed.

My first opportunity to ride an Amtrak train did not come until late 1972.

In looking back I recall having had a sense of something historic occurring but I’m not sure I realized the gravity of it.

I wish now I could have done more – far more, actually – to have experienced and documented those historic days.

But I didn’t have a camera, didn’t have much money, and didn’t have anyone who could have taken me to ride and/or photograph trains in their final hours.

Besides, I was in school and the only time I might have been able to do that would have been on weekends.

So I just followed what was happening by reading about it in the newspapers. I did, by the way, save some of those newspaper stories from April 30 and May 1.

Fifty years later I’ve ridden most Amtrak routes at least once and made thousands of photographs of Amtrak trains and related operations.

More than a decade ago I started collecting Amtrak system timetables and have a nearly complete set.

In fact the last printed Amtrak system timetable still sits on my desk. Dated Jan. 11, 2016, I refer to it often when looking up information for stories I’m writing about Amtrak.

My collection also includes some Amtrak memorabilia, including dining car menus, annual reports, and route guides.

My Amtrak photo collection may be vast, but not nearly as comprehensive as I wished that it was.

I wish I had photographed more or had the opportunity to photograph more widely during Amtrak’s first decade, which I still consider the most interesting one in its history.

Much of my collection of things Amtrak was prompted by my research for a book that was published by Indiana University Press in 2006 titled Amtrak in the Heartland.

I have had a keen interest in Amtrak since it began, probably because I’ve always had a passion for passenger trains.

In many ways, the company that calls itself America’s Railroad and I came of age at the same time and have grown older on parallel tracks.

I can’t remember a day when I wasn’t interested in Amtrak and can’t envision a time in which my interest in the history and current day affairs of the carrier will ever wane.

So, happy anniversary Amtrak; it’s been quite a ride we’ve had together.

Commentary by Craig Sanders

More Hope Than Plan at This Point

February 3, 2021

News outlets in Ohio over the past few of days have reported stories about Amtrak service expansion plans in the state.

The intercity passenger carrier has been reported to be planning five new corridor services including Cleveland-Cincinnati via Columbus and Dayton; Chicago-Cincinnati via Indianapolis; Cleveland-Detroit (Pontiac) via Toledo; Cleveland-New York via Buffalo, New York; and Cleveland-New York via Pittsburgh.

Most of these routes would have multiple daily frequencies including four daily roundtrips on the Chicago-Cincinnati route.

The 3C corridor service would be three daily roundtrips while the Cleveland-New York service would be two daily roundtrips via Buffalo and one roundtrip via Pittsburgh.

Amtrak would fund these services through a program for which it is seeking $300 million from Congress.

For its part, Amtrak has been issuing a written statement to reporters seeking information that is far less detailed.

After stating that corridor services of 500 miles are the fastest growing segment of its network, the passenger carrier has said, “We have developed a visionary plan to expand rail service across the nation, providing service to large metropolitan areas that have little or no Amtrak service.

“We are working with our state partners, local officials and other stakeholders to understand their interests in new and improved Amtrak service and will be releasing that plan soon. We will call on Congress to authorize and fund Amtrak’s expansion in such corridors by allowing us to cover most of the initial capital and operating costs of new or expanded routes”

And that’s it. The statement did not provide any details about specific routes and service levels.

The specific information came from All Aboard Ohio, an advocacy group that has long sought without success to push for creation of a network of passenger trains in the Buckeye state.

But is this proposal the “game changer” that some on social media are calling it?

It could be but keep in mind it is simply a proposal. There is no guarantee Congress will approve funding for the corridor development program and no guarantee that any of the proposed Ohio trains will ever turn a wheel.

AAO public affairs director Kenneth Prendergast acknowledged in an interview with Trains magazine that the five corridors that his group has identified are “more of an outline or goal than a plan.”

Amtrak officials have been meeting with local officials throughout Ohio to discuss the corridor program proposal. Similar meetings have been held in other states, including Tennessee and Kansas.

Based on what Amtrak government affairs officials said during state legislative hearings in those states, Amtrak would front the costs of route development and pay operating expenses on a sliding scale for up to five years.

State and local governments would have to begin underwriting the service starting in the second year and assume all funding after the fifth year.

If you read the Amtrak statement carefully, it says the passenger carrier would pay for most of the initial capital and operating costs.

That is not necessarily the 100 percent federal funding factoid that AAO described in a post on its website and it officers have been talking up in news media interviews.

In fairness, though, the AAO post later said that Amtrak might pay up to 100 percent of the initial capital costs and up to 100 percent of the operating costs for the first two years.

Given that Amtrak has yet to release details about the corridor development program and has yet to formally ask Congress to fund it, there is much that remains unknown.

And given that the Amtrak statement falls short of saying it will pay all costs of getting a route up and running it is reasonable to conclude that state and local governments would need to pay something, although we don’t know yet what that would be.

One guess is local and state money would need to help fund station development.

Not even AAO expects the proposed services to come to fruition anytime soon.

Writing on Twitter, AAO said it can take three to six years to get a route started depending on its complexity.

In the meantime, AAO has said it will seek a “small appropriation” in the next biennial budget to pay for state-level planning of the five proposed corridors.

It is not clear whether Gov. Mike DeWine and Ohio legislative leaders would be receptive to that.

AAO argues that DeWine is more inclined to be supportive of passenger rail than was his predecessor, John Kasich.

As a gubernatorial candidate in 2010, Kasich adamantly opposed using a $400 million federal stimulus grant the state had received to start 3C service.

Upon being elected, Kasich returned that money to the U.S. Department of Transportation although not before making an unsuccessful pitch that the state be allowed to redirect the grant toward highway development.

AAO contends that DeWine has asked the Ohio Department of Transportation to put passenger rail “back on the radar.” But the scope of DeWine’s support for passenger rail has yet to be publicly articulated.

It is all but certain that once concrete proposals are introduced in the legislature authorizing spending state money on rail passenger service development that opposition will arise from opponents decrying wasting public money.

Another unknown is what demands the host railroads would make to agree to allow these trains to use their tracks.

We know that in the past host railroads have submitted lists of millions of dollars of infrastructure improvements as the price of acceptance.

How necessary those improvements were is debatable, but the demands seemed exorbitant enough to discourage the proposed service.

Such pricey demands have thwarted efforts to operate the Chicago-New York Cardinal and the Los Angeles-New Orleans Sunset Limited daily rather than tri-weekly.

Some of the articles and social media posts about the proposed Ohio corridors have noted that President Joseph Biden is an avid supporter of passenger rail and is expected to release an infrastructure proposal later this year.

Passenger rail advocates are hoping to use that as the springboard to shake loose billions of federal dollars for passenger rail development.

It may be a time to be optimistic yet nothing is certain. At best Amtrak’s proposal represents hope. But as we’ve seen in the past, those hopes can be a very fragile thing.