Posts Tagged ‘on transportation’

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.

Generational Change Underway at Amtrak

January 25, 2021

Several weeks ago I conducted an online search to determine the age of Amtrak president Stephen J. Gardner.

Some believe you can find anything on the Internet. Well, almost anything.

Maybe I didn’t look hard enough but I never did find Gardner’s birth date.

But extrapolating from the years that he attended Hampshire College as an undergraduate, which are listed in the resume posted on his Linked In page, I concluded Gardner probably was born in 1976. That makes him fortyish.

He wasn’t around when the original California Zephyr made its last trips in March 1970, when South Dakota lost its last passenger train in September 1969 or when the Twentieth Century Limited succumbed in December 1967.

If his parents took him on a trip by train during his childhood, it likely would have been aboard Amtrak.

By the time Gardner was old enough to begin remember much about the world around him Amtrak was well into the transition from streamliner era equipment to Amfleet and Superliners.

He is not old enough to remember a time when the intercity rail passenger service network was far broader than it is today.

As far as Gardner is concerned there always have been between 15 plus long-distance trains in America, not dozens of them.

Likewise, Gardner’s conception of intercity rail passenger service is that it has always been funded with public money, most of it coming from the federal government.

In many ways, Gardner’s career arc seems ideally suited for working at Amtrak because much of his career has been in the public policy making arena.

He worked for a short time in his early adult years for two railroads, but much of his time has been spent working on Capitol Hill as a congressional staffer.

That gives him insights into the politics of Amtrak funding that many rail passenger advocates don’t understand or don’t want to understand.

Gardner’s vision of the future of intercity rail passenger service is something more akin to Brightline, the privately-owned Florida service that developed in a public-private partnership in a densely populated urban corridor.

Until it suspended operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, Brightlight offered frequent, fast service between Miami and West Palm Beach with modernistic equipment that looks like it has been transplanted from Europe.

In his public comments, Gardner has paid lip service to long-distance passenger trains, saying they will always be a key part of Amtrak’s business.

But he also describes a world of corridor services focused on short-distance travel.

In Gardner’s mind the market for long-distance trains is shrinking and those trains create a mismatch among population density, transportation demand and Amtrak’s existing network.

“We are trading route miles for passenger trips by serving a lot of route miles but not a lot of people,” he said in one presentation.

This doesn’t sound like someone who expects today’s long-distance trains to be around in perpetuity as many baby boomer rail passenger advocates would like.

Top executives at Amtrak come and go. Gardner is the fourth person to sit in the Amtrak president’s chair in the past five years.

How long he will continue at the helm of the intercity passenger carrier remains to be seen.

However, Gardner is part of a wave of younger managers overseeing the passenger carrier who do not have the memories of past generations who lived through the last years of the streamliner era.

When Gardner says long-distance trains will continue to be a key part of Amtrak’s business he is making a political statement.

He knows senators and congressmen from largely rural states look out for those trains and so long as that is the case they will continue to operate at some level.

But that doesn’t mean those running Amtrak are fully vested in those trains or believe they should bear a resemblance of the great streamliners of the past other than their names.

One common theme I see in the writings of some rail passenger advocates is a disenchantment with Amtrak behaving as a sort of generic transportation provider rather than acting like a railroad.

This type of change seems inevitable as those who oversaw Amtrak in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s leave.

What we have seen in the past couple years in regards to Amtrak’s national network is reflective of this transformation.

Whether you like him or not, agree with him or not, the life experiences and vision of rail transportation of people such as Stephen Gardner are the future of Amtrak.

‘Amtrak Joe’ Offers a Reality Check

January 18, 2021

President-elect Joseph Biden has yet to take office and already has disappointed some rail passenger advocates.

His $1.9 trillion COVID-19 pandemic relief plan released last week contains not a dime for additional Amtrak funding or, for that matter, airlines or intercity bus companies.

All of those modes of transportation received some funding from a pandemic relief bill adopted by Congress in late December.

At the time, the incoming Biden administration had said it considered that package to be a prelude to another round of pandemic relief in the spring.

We’ve now seen what that next aid package will involve. The Biden proposal does contain $20 billion in assistance for what the president-elect has described as the hardest-hit public transit agencies.

Although those were not named, they are likely to include systems based in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas.

The plan noted that these systems have been devastated by lost ridership and revenue.

Of course a similar scenario has played out with intercity rail, air travel and intercity bus travel.

The Rail Passengers Association issued a statement in response to the Biden plan praising it for proposing aid to public transit.

However, RPA stopped short of criticizing the proposal for ignoring Amtrak.

Instead RPA called for amending it to including funding to enable the intercity rail passenger carrier to resume operating its long-distance trains on daily schedules by next summer.

The Biden proposal is just that, a proposal and not a guarantee. It will be up to Congress to approve the plan, which is subject to change as it makes its way through the House and Senate.

There is no guarantee that Congress will adopt another pandemic relief plan at all. Biden’s Democratic Party controls both house of Congress by thin margins.

There will Republican opposition and not all Democrats will necessarily be on board with everything the new administration is proposing.

Biden, who is known by some as “Amtrak Joe” because of how he used to commute to Washington by train has just given rail passenger advocates a reality check.

Some advocates, including RPA, have hailed the possibilities of what might happen with a president who supports passenger rail.

A letter I received from RPA last week claims Biden has a vision for a “second rail revolution” and “will be looking far beyond just paving roads to secure our transportation future.”

That was last week. This week RPA was writing on its website that the Biden plan falls far short of the “resources needed to tackle the immediate crisis.”

By that RPA means a billion dollars to restore long-distance trains to daily service.

The Biden administration has signaled that it will release another plan a few months from now that will propose infrastructure improvements.

Presumably, that proposal will benefit rail passenger service by providing capital dollars for such things as new equipment and route development.

In the meantime, Amtrak and the rest of the transportation network looks to remain much as it has been of late with fewer flights, fewer intercity bus services and less-than-daily Amtrak service in many places.

Airline industry observers have been writing for months that they expect it will take up to four years for the air service network to return to the level it was in early 2019 before the pandemic took hold and the travel market all but collapsed.

Rail passengers may not like it, but the Biden pandemic relief plan has shown them that restoration of suspended Amtrak services may be following a similar track.

Less-than-daily trains and fewer corridor services are likely to be with us for a while longer and maybe quite a while.

The Biden administration might be thinking that public transit has higher priority because it enables people to get to work. For some workers, it is their only option to get to work.

Much of the Biden aid package is oriented toward bolstering state and local governments. The thinking appears to be to take care of that first and as the economy recovers and the pandemic is tamed then travel will recover as business travel resumes and pent-up demand for leisure travel explodes.

Only then will we be seeing more flights, more bus service and more daily Amtrak trains.

Rail Passenger Future Gains Some Clarity

December 29, 2020

With the signing of legislation this week granting another round of federal stimulus funding and giving final approval to federal spending for fiscal year 2021, we now have some clarity on what the nation’s rail passenger system will look like over the next several months.

It is likely to look a lot like it does today, meaning it will be more Spartan that it was a year ago with long-distance trains continuing to operate on less-than-daily schedules and reduced levels of corridor service trains.

Amtrak was granted $1 billion in pandemic emergency funding, which Amtrak CEO William Flynn characterized as a band aid that will get the passenger carrier through to the spring when he said additional funding will be needed.

That’s the same level of emergency funding Amtrak received from the CARES Act adopted last March in the early weeks of the pandemic.

The latest emergency aid given Amtrak bans it from furloughing additional workers or reducing services further, but that is not the same thing as a mandate to restore service that has already been suspended or recalling workers who have been furloughed.

In a statement, Flynn tied service restorations, employee recalls and moving ahead on capital projects to Amtrak receiving additional funding next year.

As for FY 2021, Amtrak received $2.8 billion of which $1.3 billion is for the national network and state-supported corridor services.

That is not much more than the $2 billion the passenger carrier sought back in February before the pandemic began and well short of the $4.9 billion for FY2021 that it sought last October.

The legislation contained a policy rider expressing the sense of Congress that Amtrak is to operate long-distance routes in order to provide connectivity throughout the intercity passenger carrier’s network and provide transportation to rural areas.

That is far from being a mandate to restore daily operation to trains that shifted to less-than-daily operation, primarily tri-weekly, last October and July.

The rail passenger advocacy community may be united in believing that less-than-daily long distance trains are a bad idea, but Amtrak management is doing it anyway.

The downsides of less-than-daily service have received a lot of ink and bandwidth from railroad trade publication and railfan magazines, but that hasn’t moved the needle of Amtrak management’s behavior much if at all.

Amtrak has shown some sensitivity to the accusation that reducing long-distance trains to less-than-daily service is part of a larger plot to eliminate those trains.

In interviews and congressional testimony Flynn has tried to frame the service cuts as a temporary response to plunging ridership triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic that has also devastated ridership of airlines and buses.

He and Amtrak Chairman Anthony Coscia have sought to underscore that Amtrak is committed to having a national network.

That is not necessarily a commitment to operating that network at the same level of service that existed at the beginning of 2020 or even operating that network in perpetuity.

Flynn’s most recent statement about the latest emergency aid said nothing about when daily service will return to long-distance routes.

He told Congress in October that daily service might be restored in May “when financially possible.” That is hardly an ironclad promise.

In looking back at the fight over the past few months over rail passenger service cuts a couple of conclusions come to mind.

First, without public funding there are not going to be passenger trains of any kind. That particularly has been illustrated by the service cuts in state-supported corridor service.

The Chicago-Detroit corridor went from three trains a day to one, which reduced service to the lowest level it has been in the nearly 50 years of Amtrak operation.

Other corridors that had multiple daily frequencies saw service cuts as well and a few state-supported corridors that were suspended have yet to resume operations.

Second, passenger train advocates continue to lack the political clout needed to realize their visions of an expansive intercity passenger rail network.

Advocates have done well at keeping Amtrak funding at a suitable level to maintain a skeletal level of intercity rail passenger service but have failed to prevent Amtrak and its state partners from making service cuts when ridership and revenue plunged during the pandemic.

Congress has not shown a willingness to unlock the federal piggy bank to open-ended levels of financial support for intercity rail passenger service.

Getting intercity rail passenger service back to where it was in early 2020 is going to be a long, hard slog.

The end of the pandemic may be in sight, but it might take much longer to get there than many want to believe.

Although it seems likely that significant numbers of people will want to travel again, airline industry observers have talked about a four-year time frame to get air service travel back to where it was before the pandemic took hold.

It is not unrealistic to think intercity rail service might be operating under a similar time frame.

It may be that pent up demand will move that up slightly in the next year or two but that is going to hinge on how quickly the economy grows and how soon larger numbers of people feel confident that traveling and unfettered social interaction are safe again.

‘Amtrak Joe’ May Favor Passenger Rail, But That Doesn’t Mean a Pending Passenger RenaissanceHeadline

November 24, 2020

President-elect Joseph Biden is known by some as “Amtrak Joe” because during his time in Congress he commuted to Washington aboard Amtrak.

Biden took an interest in the intercity passenger carrier and former Amtrak President Thomas M. Downs told Trains magazine this week he believes Biden will be supportive of Amtrak’s national network.

The Biden administration won’t be taking office for another two months and it remains to be seen what policy positions it will take and how those will affect rail passenger service.

I would not expect, though, Biden’s election to presage the type of robust passenger rail renaissance that rail passenger advocates have dreamed about for decades in which federal funding spigots gush forth billions of dollars to fuel large scale rail passenger expansion.

What might be more realistic is the type of stimulus funding for specific improvement projects that the Obama administration pushed through Congress in its first two years.

That did not, though, result in any expansion of Amtrak’s long-distance network and only a minimal effect on corridor services.

It remains to be seen what the new administration’s position will be toward federal funding of intercity rail service, particularly the long-distance routes. Past administrations have sought to shift funding for the latter to the states served by those routes.

There has been just enough political support of federal funding of the long-distance routes on both sides of the aisle in the House and Senate to keep that funding flowing. I would expect that to continue during the Biden years.

I would expect a Biden administration to be less hostile toward funding Amtrak’s national network.

You won’t see budget proposals calling for replacing long-distance trains with buses as a first step toward phasing out federal funding of the long-distance network.

Biden budget proposals might seem to favor expanding the national network through a proposed infrastructure program.

But don’t expect to see anytime soon, if ever, increased frequencies of service on existing routes, say, two or three trains a day between Chicago and New York, or new long-distance routes.

Likewise, what position will the Biden administration take on supporting federal funding for corridor service? Many passenger advocates want repealed a federal law requiring routes of less than 750 miles to be paid for by state and local funding. Getting that done won’t be easy.

A Biden administration will be receptive to spending federal dollars on such Northeast Corridor projects as the Gateway Project to build new tunnels leading into New York City.

There is a long list of capital improvements for the NEC on Amtrak’s wish list, yet it remains to be seen how many of those will benefit from federal funding directed their way with the help of Biden administration support. Some probably will but not necessarily all of them.

The future of rail passenger service hinged on how much money Congress is willing to spend on it.

We’ll get a preview of that soon because lawmakers must approve another continuing resolution to extend authorization for federal spending in fiscal year 2021, which began more than a month ago, or approve an FY 2021 budget plan.

Amtrak has been adamant that without more money than it asked for earlier this year – just over $2 billion – it will have to furlough more workers and make additional service cuts.

It is not yet a sure thing that Amtrak will get the additional funding it wants.

There continues to be talk about another round of emergency pandemic spending and, of course, Amtrak wants a cut of that, too.

Yet the same conservative senators who opposed a stimulus package before the election can be expected to continue to  balk at what they view as excessive pork barrel spending that further balloons the national debt.

How much money the Biden administration will be able to get for transportation spending will hinge on the makeup of the next Congress. Democrats have retained control of the House of Representatives, albeit by a slim margin.

In a best-case scenario for Biden, the Senate will be split 50-50 between the two parties with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking tie votes. Yet Republicans may well continue to control the Senate.

In his interview with Trains, Downs predicted it would be some time before Biden’s influence over Amtrak and passenger rail will be felt.

The incoming president’s initial agenda will be dominated by responding to the pandemic and other pressing national and global needs.

How many times a week Amtrak’s Southwest Chief operate is not on that list.

Perhaps the best that will happen during a Biden administration is Amtrak’s route network eventually will return to whether it was in January 2020.

Most long-distance trains will operate daily again and all of the suspended state-funded corridor service will be restored. That won’t happen overnight.

I expect more studies, lots of speeches and many proposals couched in how environmentally friendly passenger rail is.

Those don’t cost much, but when it comes down to actually paying for those ideas, that’s another matter altogether,

That why rail passenger service in the United States remains limited and will continue to be so other than, perhaps some incremental changes.

Railfans and Sports Fans: They Have Much in Common, Including Frustration at Being Ignored

October 18, 2020

It’s a spring evening in 1975. I’m sitting in a class at Sangamon State University, now known as the University of Illinois-Springfield, listening to Gerald Rawlings, a staffer in the Bureau of Planning of the Illinois Department of Transportation.

He was talking about transportation systems in the Prairie State when he said something that at the time struck me as odd for a government planner to say.

It is the height of absurdity for planners in the Bureau of Planning of the Illinois Department of Transportation to talk about the future of Illinois coal reserves when those reserves don’t belong to them.

He seemed to be saying that what he did as a planner was a waste of time and, by extension, the public money being used to pay him and the expenses of his office.

Yet I remember Rawling’s comment because it contained a hard truth that not everyone considers when talking about things they care about but don’t control.

Railfans in general and rail passenger service advocates in particular are much like rabid sports fans.

They are passionate about “their” teams and many are not shy about expressing their ideas of how the owners should be spending their money and how management should be doing its job as though the fans have an ownership stake in the team.

Owners tolerate this because fans can be a source of revenue. Fans buy game tickets, team-themed merchandise and concession stand products.

Even a fan sitting at home watching a game on television is money to the owner because the more people who watch the game the more valuable the rights to broadcast those games become.

But while owners might at times acknowledge the views of fans they are not going to give up control of it. That frustrates countless fans who think they know better than owners and managers how the team ought to be run.

It can be quite entertaining to read or listen to the views of those who don’t own a railroad company about how those who do should be operating and managing their property.

They have been out in full throat since late May when Amtrak announced it would scale back the frequency of operation of its long-distance trains to tri-weekly.

A popular view is that it is part of a plot to kill the long-distance passenger trains by driving away business.

Amtrak denies that, but it is not out of the realm of possibility given some of the public statements made in the past couple of years by former Amtrak president Richard Anderson and current senior vice president Stephen Gardner about their desire to transform Amtrak into a more corridor-oriented business.

There are valid arguments to be made that less-than-daily passenger train service is not an ideal business practice.

Yet Amtrak management has chosen to do it, ostensibly as a money-saving move during a time when ridership and revenue are way down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There may be other motivations that management is not talking about publicly.

The critics have been decrying Amtrak’s plans on social media sites and in the printed and website pages of such national publications as Trains and Railway Age.

The Railroad Passengers Association has flooded my inbox with email messages urging its members and friends to exhort Congress to force Amtrak to run the trains daily.

Although legislation to force the carrier to maintain daily service on long-distance routes has been introduced it continues to languish in Congress.

There is nothing wrong with lobbying lawmakers in favor or your pet cause. The Constitution encourages it in the First Amendment, which grants the right “to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Yet some of those social media posts and magazine articles are veering into the realm of “height of absurdity” territory by advancing ideas that have little to no chance of being adopted given the realities of the political system.It’s fine to write in social media posts what you want to see Amtrak do, but be careful about getting too caught up in your views.

They are just ideas about decisions that are not yours to make. Those who have the authority to make those decisions are free to ignore your views and more than likely they will.

That is not to say that decision makers can’t be persuaded to come around to accepting your ideas.

But I see in many of these writings little reason to believe that the authors of these posts or magazine articles have a good grasp of what it will take to get there let alone a viable plan.

Going Inside Flynn’s Congress Testimony

September 11, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

August 24, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Other Amtrak presidents have had similar backgrounds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why those things will practically pay for themselves, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amtrak Service Cuts Seem to be Fait Accompli

August 18, 2020

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

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

Now that planning is complete.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long Distance Trains Could Vanish in October

July 6, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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