Posts Tagged ‘commenaries on transportation’

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.

So What Did Mr. Anderson Mean?

December 11, 2019

Amtrak President Richard Anderson recently gave an interview to the Here and Now program on National Public Radio and a railroad passenger group found in his remarks a commitment toward preserving rail service to all of America and not just a few coastal urban corridors.

As the Rail Passengers Association sees it, Anderson indicated he recognizes Amtrak has a legal obligation to offer a national network.

When rail passenger advocates use the term “national network” they are talking about long-distance passenger trains.

Anderson has been outspoken in the past year that Amtrak’s long-distance trains are money losers and suggested the future of intercity rail passenger is short corridors linking urban areas.

He has hinted that Amtrak wants to eliminate some of those long-distance runners by chopping up their routes into corridors.

An NPR reporter said asked Anderson why if the long-distance trains are the money losers he says they are why that the carrier doesn’t say they are no longer a part of Amtrak’s core business and eliminated them.

Anderson responded this way: “Well, no, that wouldn’t be appropriate for Amtrak because we have a statutory responsibility to provide intercity travel. We also have a statutory responsibility to minimize losses and run this like a business. So we’re at an intersection of both a really important public-policy role and the responsibility to be very good stewards. So, we have to have good answers for rural communities. So we take that challenge.”

But was Anderson saying what RPA claims that he said?

Anderson indeed said Amtrak has a legal obligation to provide rail passenger service but that doesn’t necessarily mean he said that includes long-distance trains.

He said Amtrak needs to have good answers for rural communities, but didn’t say what those will be.

What constitutes a “national network” is a murky concept. There are vast swaths of the United States that lack intercity rail passenger service and haven’t had it for decades.

Amtrak has never served South Dakota. Columbus and Dayton, Ohio, have been off the Amtrak map for 40 years.

Does a national network mean that all 50 states and all principal cities must be served?

Some rail advocates might answer in the affirmative, but that doesn’t mean it is likely to happen.

RPA wants to see Amtrak receive a separate source of funding to grow its network.

The organization rightly fears the corridor services that Anderson is fond of promoting will come at the expense of long-distance routes.

The rail passenger advocacy group said a separate funding source for new Amtrak routes is gaining support in Congress and within Amtrak itself, but it remains to be seen if that materializes.

There have been many proposals over the years for dedicated funding sources for Amtrak, but none of ever made it into law.

Instead Amtrak funding continues to be the annual appropriations granted by Congress that are subject to the vicissitudes of which way the political winds are blowing at the time.

RPA claims Anderson’s response during the NPR program is a subtle but important change from his earlier rhetoric.

The advocacy group is correct in asserting that Anderson’s comment about the need to minimize Amtrak’s losses and run the passenger like a business speaks to a tension between operating a tight ship and the mission of serving communities that are unprofitable.

Getting to where RPA and other rail passengers advocates want to be is a long game that will still be playing out long after Anderson has left his post.

There may be some support in Congress for the type of expansive rail passenger network that advocates want to see – including a mixture of corridor services and long-distance trains – but there remains considerable opposition to it as well.

That opposition is not just in Washington but also in the headquarters of every Amtrak host railroad.

Even if Anderson’s rhetoric has undergone a subtle change, I have yet to see evidence, including in his comments made during the NPR interview that he has changed his mind about the role of long-distance passenger trains in America.

Perhaps Anderson has learned intercity rail passenger service is politically different than airline service provided by for-profit companies and his comments reflect that.

That doesn’t mean that he has come around to the viewpoint that all long-distance trains need to be kept in place in order to maintain a national network that meets the transportation needs of rural America. What constitutes the latter is subject to wide differences in interpretation.