5.7.18

WITHER AMTRAK?

Or perhaps it's Whither?  Who knows?  Larry Willis contributes his opinion to The Hill.
Americans across the country want passenger rail services, including more long-distance trains — and for good reason.

While those in the DMV may see Amtrak as just another transportation choice in a wide portfolio of options, in small and rural communities across the country, Amtrak is often the only public transportation option available.

In places like Montana, Kansas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas, Amtrak’s long-distance routes act as a critical link to city centers, educational opportunities, friends, family, and other segments of our transportation system. What’s more, the jobs this carrier and its long-distance routes provide are reliable, pay living wages, and support families and local communities.
I'm not sure the Department of Motor Vehicles is the villain, more likely it's residents of the Official Region that can't see west of the Hudson. The problem with the service through Montana, Kansas, and Arkansas, and much of Louisiana and Texas, is that the regional train service is provided on a space available basis in overpurposed long-distance trains that have trouble keeping time.  Additional frequencies might not be an option, as Trains columnist George Hamlin notes, because those states are sparsely settled.
Unfortunately, however, the potential for even medium-haul corridor services in this region is limited, because most other centers of significant population are too far away.  In both Albuquerque and Salt Lake City, the commuter services effectively capture what limited corridor-type traffic might be available; Albuquerque-El Paso could be a possibility from a distance standpoint, but the traffic potential may or may not be there.

A modest Cheyenne-Denver-Colorado Springs, and possibly, Pueblo corridor might be possible, but again, with the exception of Denver-Colorado Springs, this might be difficult to sustain.  In addition, Amtrak’s “national” services in this region are oriented towards east-west traffic, and the potential corridors mentioned are north-south.  They possibly could provide feeder traffic to the national routes, but there is little or no opportunity to build corridors integral to the east-west mainlines here.

In short, in terms of near-term opportunities for what works best for present-day rail passenger service in the U.S., i.e. short and medium-haul routes with sufficient traffic density, the vast interior of the western United States is essentially the “Great Barrier” to new investment in rail passenger service in this part of the country, outside the commuter services which have already begun to develop.
A few of the larger cities in the Plains also merit air service, under the "Essential Air Service" subsidy, a development that undoubtedly has the enthusiastic support of recreational aviators.  End of the month, go to Oshkosh, you'll likely find a few vendors selling shirts and bumper stickers critical of the Federal Aviation Administration, but there won't be any complaints about the government issue air traffic controllers helping the hobbyists stir up the air.

Meanwhile, Amtrak are antagonizing charter operators, private car owners, and first-class passengers.  Perhaps one ought not suspect malice when the simpler explanation is incompetence, but there is a lot of incompetence at America's Railroad these days.  Trains editor Jim Wrinn calls the roll.
It has to have been a gut wrenching six months at Amtrak headquarters for any new [chief] or staff members, whose tenures have been short or long. Two fatal wrecks. A high-profile grade crossing accident involving a Congressional special. The looming Dec. 31 Positive Train Control deadline, and [airline castoff and current chief Richard] Anderson’s pronouncement that he won’t run his trains on non-PTC compliant lines. The tug of war between corridors and long-distance trains, and in particular the reluctance to spend millions to upgrade the Southwest Chief route across Raton and Glorieta passes in New Mexico. The rapid stripping of station agents as online e-ticketing grows.  The quickly deteriorating reliability of the locomotive and passenger car fleet. A backlog of new dining cars that need to be put into service and a decision to eliminate hot foods and dining cars on some eastern routes. Retiring the Pacific Parlor cars on the Coast Starlight. How many major issues – some beyond the company’s control and others self-inflicted -- can one organization take on in a single year? That’s a big plate. I have to wonder if Anderson looks at himself in the mirror some mornings and asks, “Why in the world did I take this job?”

And that’s not all. He’s angered and alienated a significant part of the passenger train support base by cancelling and banning special charter trains that have been the only way most mainline excursion operators have been able to continue. Without Amtrak’s insurance and blessing, they cannot venture forth. Add in severe restrictions on private car moves, and there are not a lot of fans who are happy with Anderson’s Amtrak. Go on eBay and you’ll find “Fire Anderson, Save Amtrak” t-shirts available for sale.

With so many major issues on the table, I have to ask, what is the overarching priority at Amtrak? Safety? Saving money? Growing ridership? It’s not clear. One thing I know for certain: When the priority is everything, the priority is nothing. Pick a priority. Heck, Anderson could even communicate his vision to the troops and the public at large. I have to think that Amtrak’s Board of Directors has to be supportive of Anderson’s efforts either by encouraging his actions or at least tolerating them. One conversation that must be taking place at high levels is about the long-distance trains and the role they play. Are they transportation? Are they cruise trains? Are they hybrids? Anderson, the former airline executive, cannot see them as transportation, I do not believe. But as a business executive he surely knows that pulling dining car meals on eastern trains and eliminating one of the most fascinating and beautiful portions of the Chief means Amtrak is no cruise train. So, what is it?
Meanwhile, the governor of Illinois is making noises about a private operator of trains between Chicago and Champaign, and possibly the St. Louis service as well.  (Or perhaps this is all one train by way of Decatur and Springfield.)

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