14.4.08

THE TRIUNE NATURE OF AMTRAK. Thus does James Coston, of Chicago's Corridor Capital, parse The Passenger Transportation Problem.

In 1971, Amtrak The Father.

You would not know it from what happened subsequently, but Amtrak was popular in those days.

Passenger loads were large, and Operations was struggling to find extra cars for the trains during peak periods.

Every night we put out an 18-car Broadway Limited. The Zephyr and Empire Builder? Same thing. Each train had the longest consists the Union Station platforms could hold.

At the ticket window and over the telephone I turned away hundreds of applicants for coach and sleeping-car space.

Out on the platforms I saw weekend trains leave for Detroit, St. Louis, and Quincy with seven cars or more. Sometimes Amtrak borrowed extra cars from the commuter railroads around Chicago, something that’s no longer possible now that one commuter agency, METRA, owns the entire fleet.

What was happening was that the American people believed that the federal government was going to save the trains—and grow the train system. Pre-1971, when Americans saw the railroads eliminating trains, they got the message and stayed away. Post-1971, when they saw the federal government committing itself to saving trains and growing the service, they started coming back.

I call the Amtrak we knew at that time “Amtrak I.” This is the period when Amtrak looked the way Congress originally designed it, as a pure Train Operating Company—a single nationwide carrier that owned trains but no tracks and had to rent track space from the privately owned railroads.

I don't recall that Amtrak quite as fondly. The rolling stock, all the talk about "making the trains worth traveling again," was clapped out, timekeeping systemwide left a lot to be desired, and many of the remaining trains were subject to the tender mercies of Penn Central or Missouri Pacific or Southern Pacific or Union Pacific dispatching, and to Burlington Northern's fragile permanent way.

Within a short time came Amtrak the Son.

Shortly after startup, however, on May 17, 1971, the seeds of what I call “Amtrak II” were planted. That’s when a new player, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, entered the picture.

Under Section 403 (b) of the Rail Passenger Service Act, Massachusetts agreed to become — not a railroad, or a Train Operating Company—but a “sponsor” of train service.

This meant the state agreed to pay part of the subsidy for a new train that Amtrak itself otherwise would not have paid for and would not have operated. The new train was a Boston-New York frequency operating over the so-called “Inland Route” via Worcester, Springfield and Hartford.

On November 14, 1971, Illinois got into the 403 (b) game by sponsoring the Illinois Zephyr between Chicago and Quincy.

Over the ensuing 36 years 12 more states have jumped into the train-sponsorship game, especially California, which now sponsors 45 daily round trips on five different route segments.

State-supported trains now account for 158 of the 448 weekday departures in the Amtrak timetable. They’re now the company’s fastest-growing line of business.

In December 2007, the state-supported trains carried just under one fourth of all Amtrak’s passengers and produced about the same proportion of its revenue. The state-supported trains represent a sort of mini-empire inside
of Amtrak.

I call this little empire “Amtrak II.” It’s turning into a big deal.

As Mr Coston goes on to note, the big deal, however, does not receive anything resembling consistent treatment either by the national Amtrak organization or by the participating states. Thus California has its dedicated fleet of split-level rolling stock, Illinois and Wisconsin get whatever three-car blocks of working coaches Roosevelt Road is able to cobble together, and the routes selected in the original Amtrak legislation confer favors on some states. Thus comes not the Holy Spirit, but the Public Choice Vampire.
Amtrak III, as everyone in this room knows, is the Northeast Corridor. Chronologically, the NEC was the third province to come into the Amtrak domain, but as most of the critics have complained over the years, it was so much bigger and heavier than the other two components that it became an empire in itself and almost completely overpowered the other two Amtraks that were supposed to be its partners, not its subordinates.
The tale suggests unexploited potential for favor-trading.

Now Amtrak wasn’t just a Train Operating Company anymore. It was a real railroad, with an owned-and-operated network of tracks, stations and yards. And the part of the passenger network that Amtrak now owned was bigger, busier and more expensive than all of its other lines of business and commanded far more of management’s attention, staff and budget.

Essentially, Amtrak became the NEC, the NEC became Amtrak, and both the company’s behavior and its treatment by Congress and the media have become problematic and fraught ever since. All of Amtrak’s meager capital budget goes into the investment-hungry NEC. The long-distance network fails to grow and is even scaled back, while the non-NEC corridors grow only by virtue of state funding. The NEC tail wags the Amtrak dog.

Question: why do representatives of the central, southern, and western states keep appropriating money for regressive transfers to influence peddlers, high-value hookers, and Ivy League collegians? Or is the vote-trading more subtle: your Acela trains, our reliever airport, their interstate highway.

Whatever the political dynamics, there is plenty of blame to go around.

Although the Penn Central was represented as a merger of equals, in fact it was more of an absorption of the smaller New York Central into the much larger Pennsylvania.

And while the New York Central was a relatively healthy railroad for its time, having been slimmed down and built up to profitability by its dynamic and reform-mind president, Alfred E. Perlman, the Pennsy was a much larger and very troubled railroad, a huge, bloated and sick corporate dinosaur run by the largest collection of brain-dead managers ever assembled in a single American enterprise.

Remember, the Pennsylvania Railroad first lost money in 1946, the busiest year in the history of the U.S. railroad industry. Demobilized soldiers and sailors were jamming the trains to reach home, and industry was returning to peacetime production. It was virtually impossible for an American railroad to lose money in 1946, yet the Pennsy managed to do it.

AND it kept paying dividends. This was one big, sick dumb railroad—and as the ‘50s turned into the ‘60s the Pennsy got dumber and sicker. The Penn Central bankruptcy kept the Pennsy on life support until the mid-70s, but when Conrail was established and staffed with an elite corps of the nation’s top railroad managers, the last vestiges of the Pennsylvania Railroad were expected to go away.

But they didn’t. At the very moment when the Pennsy was scheduled to die, the USRA preserved its DNA and injected it into Amtrak. When the Northeast Corridor was given to Amtrak, a whole phalanx of Pennsy managers and Pennsy thinking went with it, and inside Amtrak they got a whole new lease on life. Or life support. In effect, Amtrak got a Pennsy transplant. The dead got up and walked, and because the Pennsy-run NEC was the biggest and busiest part of Amtrak, the whole company became something of a three-headed zombie.

But the real villain here is not the ghost of the Pennsylvania Railroad, nor is it the planners at USRA who shed the corpse of the Pennsy onto Amtrak while they built the world’s most successful freight railroad, or even the Pennsy managers themselves.

The real villain is Congress, and a succession of presidential administrations, both of which, then as now, refused to consider the idea of transportation planning and transportation policy as a national responsibility.

Thus the history. Read and understand the article. Then consider the work that has yet to be done.

John R. Stilgoe, Robert and Lois Orchard Professor in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Harvard Graduate School of Design, predicts that trains will once again play a key role in shaping American life. Based on an analysis of real estate investment patterns along railroad corridors, Stilgoe predicts that trains will make an important comeback, and not only for long distances but also back for freight, mail and express packages.

Stilgoe's arguments are based on the increase of estate prices along railroad lines. According to him, investors are purchasing everything from derelict buildings to gravel plots, which can be easily transformed into parking lots when the time is right, and he expects the time will be right when there are 150 million more Americans (i.e., 2050). By then, no more land will be available for roads, and available roads will be full (see also: Europe). Not to mention that if these new railways can get speeds above 90mph, the notions of urban and extra-urban settlement will be altered.

John is a fellow O Scaler. I want to extend his remarks in a way regular readers will find familiar. In many of the corridors of the central and western states, operation at 90 mph or above is a real possibility. It doesn't take fancy equipment (off-the shelf diesels have 103 mph gearing) or fancy signaling (think steam Hiawathas tripping semaphores). It takes the courage to change some of the safety regulations and the discipline of clearing the times of first-class trains, which can include intermodals.

It also takes a change in thinking. Instapundit's Glenn Reynolds, who found the article, contends that the return of railroads to prominence has been in progress. On the freight front, yes. Passenger, not as much, not yet. At Saturday's ferroequinology conference, I teased some people with tales of the world's finest railroad, an easy drive from Lake Forest. I was referring to Union Pacific's Gibbon Junction to the Powder River Basin trunk, three and four tracks that are unlikely ever to see a passenger train. The railroad as we have come to understand it is a wholesale provider of bulk transportation. Passenger trains are only slightly less inconvenient than peddler freight trains.

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