Interesting, but not useful

Honestly, I was hoping my negativism had been temporarily exhausted! I felt sure the time had come to outline specific improvements, so we could begin making our presumed railroad passenger renaissance something other than a trite catchphrase.

Sadly, at least one more venture down the road of despair is needful.

Two questions, if I may:

What is Amtrak's role in tomorrow's transportation world? More to the point, what is the passenger train's role?

After almost 39 1/2 years of this stuff, I still can't fully answer question number one. In reality, Amtrak, outside of the vaunted Northeast Corridor and a few areas where strong state support is evident, is but a token; a plaything. Surely, there are a handful of routes and services - niche markets, if you will - that offer a glimmer of hope; but, they amount to little in the way of public service and help even less in reducing carbon footprints and petroleum addictions.

Since the day of its inglorious birth, Amtrak has remained mired in confusion and indecision, bereft of a clear mission and unifying goals. Subsisting on a starvation diet, the 'trak has been given just enough support to guarantee absolute inertia. Even worse, with a highly politicised board at the helm, there is no real reason to believe that Amtrak could find its way clear to do the right things with a real budget even if the cash was made available tomorrow!

From the start, Amtrak was instructed to "save" domestic railroad passenger service ("make the trains worth traveling again," as it were). Because the only location where the young U.S. D.O.T. had shown any interest in passengers was along what became known as the Northeast Corridor (with its famed Metroliner and Turbo Train programmes), that service developed into Amtrak's de facto showpiece; it's raison d'etre.

With no other real input forthcoming from the administrative or legislative branches - and a railroad industry which was convinced the whole "experiment" would self-destruct within a few years - Amtrak bought into the entire 300- to 500-mile corridor routine. Once ConRail's creation gave Amtrak title to the N.E.C., it's future was sealed.

This corridor of corridors has proven to be an endless money pit with some very substantive needs. As Amtrak's main asset, it can't be ignored, even though it bleeds the remaining system of energy in the same way a parasite saps the life out of its host.

I suppose reality dictates that Amtrak's ultimate purpose is that of the N.E.C.'s caretaker, while its role as the officially accepted operator of intercity railway passenger service keeps it in the national network business and makes it the go-to group for any state-sponsored system expansion.

Unfortunately, with its corridor-centric mindset firmly in control, Amtrak views the entire continent as nothing more than a collection of disjointed and uncoordinated semi-independent short haul lines operating between congested urban areas, with a handful of token long distance routes in place to help fill in the gaps and keep a few politicians quiet.

That leads me to question number two.

Of course, since Amtrak IS the U.S. intercity passenger train operator, it muddles the issue. Still, if Amtrak's essential quest is to operate the N.E.C. and any other corridors which happen to sprout, we might safely presume the same sort of future awaits the domestic passenger train.

On the other hand, it's perfectly acceptable to wonder what the future might hold if our passenger trains were unfettered by the N.R.P.C. and its two score years of precedent.

What if it was no longer acceptable to pretend a major city is adequately "served" when only one route passes through its borders? What if places like Saint Paul and Cincinnati and Dallas and Denver received more than a token interest?

What if a true national network was planned and developed as a viable alternative to driving and flying, and operated in such a way that travelers could easily and efficiently use its services in any fashion they desired? [I've never seen the Interstate Highway system described as being ideally limited to journeys of under 500 miles in length and totally unsuitable for cross-country travel! So, why is it that the nation's automotive mode is straightforwardly presented and individuals encouraged to avail themselves of roadway infrastructure in every possible way, while passenger trains are consistently denigrated as offering no practical options for the vast majority of trips?]

What if the folks running the system truly believed in its primary product? What if they actually used it, on a regular basis?! What if those same people understood that a healthy trunk must needs precede healthy branches?

What if a strong desire existed to see the system grow? What if a leadership role was presumed, so that suggestions for network expansion and service improvement might begin originating from within instead of from without?

What if I could feel hopeful that even a handful of these items might be seriously addressed and acted upon?

Many presume the passenger train's future rests in corridor operations; but, if so, why hasn't a route between Houston and Dallas (or, better yet, between Galveston and Denton) been placed on someone's wish list? Why hasn't Amtrak reacted to that omission?

Many presume the long distance passenger train's primary purpose is to handle leisure traffic; but, if so, why hasn't anyone identified the need for service between north central Texas and Colorado? [Dallasites go to the mountains to escape the heat in the summer and play in the snow during the winter. It's the city's number one year 'round vacation destination. Where are the planners? Where is the faith?!]

Occasionally, someone will express sincere interest in a train trip. "I just want to take a ride; I've never done it." Embarrassingly, my suggestion is almost always the same: don't choose a destination first, then see if the train goes there; rather, pick up a current Amtrak timetable, see where the trains go, then choose a destination you might be interested in visiting.

It may seem counterintuitive, but it works.

Regrettably, such an approach does more to satiate the desire for a travel experience than to address a real transport need. Left to that level of service, the North American passenger train will never again become an integral part of society.

The concept may be interesting, what with all those dining and lounge and sleeping cars. It's just not very useful to a 21st century traveler.

No; to make these things work, to justify a continued subsidy, to position passenger railroading a part of the solution and not part of the problem, we must move beyond this point.

I'm absolutely convinced we can. I just don't think it will happen before the status quo literally becomes unsustainable. Trains will regain a major position in the national passenger transportation mix. It just won't happen before the pain begins.

Naturally, that realisation tends to give me a negative outlook on life.

Therefore, from now on, I'll try to focus more on what could be instead of what is, and what we can achieve tomorrow instead of what we had yesterday - and lost.

My children are depending on it!


  • You continue to force me into the role of resident kveth, Garl.  Someone has to do it.  

    I'll try to make this relatively brief.  Rather than determine Amtrak's role in the world of transportation, why not decide what the passenger train's role, if any, should be in the future world of transportation?  Amtrak is only a means to the end, not the end in itself.

    Frankly, I'm tired of hearing how "other countries" appreciate passenger rail, blah, blah, blah.  The U.S. is not "other countries."  It has unique societal needs and goals and passenger rail service just may not be one of them.

    Charlie White's idea that railroads be required to take back the passenger service is ridiculous on the face of it.  Can you picture the troglodytes of the right in Congress supporting the required subsidies for such service?  You can't get them to provide sufficient funding for Amtrak.  Charlie is a lawyer, but it must have been years since he read the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution and its wording on "takings." of private property.

    Nowhere in your blog post did I see the word "economics."  It really is a central part of the discussion.  Set the fares high enough to minimize or eliminate subsidy needs and they will be so high as to drive customers away, in which case you will need even more subsidies.  Catch-22.  

    I'm sorry, Garl, but I live in the world that is, not the world that I might wish it to be.  I want my grandchild to have a quality education, I want to have health care so that I can continue to enjoy the lifestyle for which I worked for so many years.  I want a cop on the beat, and a jail cell handy for the bad guys.  I want out volunteer military to have all the equipment and support we can give it; after all, we send them in harm's way.  I want programs that will help my fellow citizens to have decent housing.  I also accept that we do not have an endless supply of money.  Somehow, I have a feeling that transportation is not going to be at the top of everyone's list for allocating our national resources.  That's OK, though, because the railroads are limited only by their access to capital when it comes to building capacity to serve our growing population and economy.  Rail competitors, either on the highways or waterways, are dependent on government to provide them with capacity.

    I think you have the answers already to your questions, which may just make them rhetorical.  The passenger train very well may never again be a significant player in the North American transportation world.  That's too bad, but it may be reality.  Meanwhile, if you haven't already, I urge you to read today's New York Times' article on the guy who was arrested by Amtrak policy for taking pictures to be entered in an Amtrak photo contest.  Is Amtrak dysfunctional?  You tell me.

  • "My children are depending on it!"

    I don't think they are or will be.  Another facet of the whole transportation concept, to me personally, is what is Amtrak and what is it/does it provide.

    Without having facts my gut tells me from my experience that it is largely driven by the railfans of the world, those that are old enough to remember pre-Amtrak, or that niche item of "wouldn't it be neat to take a family train trip?"  Which by the way becomes the LAST family train trip.

    I am more talking the Empire Builders, CA Zephyr etc.  It will always be neat to ride through Glenwood Canyon, or over Lake Ponchartrain, or glide down the Pacific Coast.  But to get to some of these places you endure Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma or other less exciting/interesting views enroute.

    I think the intra-city passenger stuff is the future.  Chicago has a great system, New York, LA has gotten better albeit only last decade or so.  But all the light rail system that are popping up all over the country are taking care of, what is in my mind, passenger service.  

    Sleeper service is wicked expensive and is it worth it?  The food is marginal at best when re-heated.  I know Amtrak is trying in these regards.  But I'd rather fly to Denver get on CA Zephyr and head west to SLC and immediately get off and shuttle to the airport because there is nothing east of Denver or west of SLC that interests most in being on a train.

    So the young folks of today are not in anyway going to be dependent on Amtrak intercity service.  Certainly not when the airlines have their rate battles and the consumer wins.  And other than your or my kids taking their kids on a train trip even that is a long shot after they recall the memories of being stuck on a train for days to destination, play around a few days, then back on a train for days.  

    It's not a recipe for success.  Future generations may face rail passenger travel as they will face Social Security.

    Will it/they exist?

  • BTTF:  It's amazing what a dose of reality can accomplish.  You certainly have offered the dose of reality.  Now, let'see if anyone reading these comments (among them, foamers) pays any attention.  Nice job.

  • If it matters, I agree that long haul or even intercity city passenger service is not going to pay for itself in the near future or even ever..The state of Connecticut wants to restore service from New Haven to Hartford and on to Springfield and Northampton at the cost of billions ...If they bought everyone who would use that service a new auto, it would be much cheaper and probably more efficient.

  • And there, candlou, you have - inadvertently - put your finger on the problem of not having a national transportation policy.  Every member of Congress who ever tried to "zero" the Amtrak budget has used the "it's cheaper to give everyone a free car," argument.  Perhaps the numbers are correct.  Do you want to be out on I-91 with all the would-be rail passengers who would be driving cars between New Haven-Hartford-Springfield?  Do you think the air would be breathable?  And how long do you think it would be before the libertarians put up the cry of "pay for your own travels."  I think you would encounter the law of unintended consequences.  The intercity bus companies would want their share of riders and would expect the government to provide subsidies for them, too.  You're right that rail passenger service will not pay for itself now or probably ever.  Not everyone can drive and airlines only serve about 500 airports.  There very well may be a legitimate place for government subsidized rail service - or bus service.  But we need a policy, otherwise everything is ad hoc and that's no policy at all.

  • Garl:  I reread your anguished blog.  It is not the first time you have expressed such frustration.  I hope you won't take this the wrong way, but why are you so emotionally involved?  

  • It frustrates me that I do not have the option of taking a train from Chicago to Las Vegas or Phoenix or directly to Florida.  What kind of thinking removes these popular destinations from being on major routes?

  • LK>"You continue to force me into the role of resident kveth, Garl.  Someone has to do it."

    This site needs a FAQ.  Frequently asked questions.  No, we need a FRQ, "Frequently Repeated Questions." Better yet, it needs a FRQTARS, "frequently Repeated Questions That Are Really Statements."

    Not to pick on Brothers Kaufman, or Latham, BTW.  This applies generally.  We got a lot of messages that go over the same ground.  Ever heard that joke about the prison, where they numbered the jokes to save time?  We oughta number our messages.

  • wsteinhauer:  What kind of thinking removes these popular destinations from being on major routes?

    Money.  Amtrak doesn't have any of its own, and it runs those trains that certain members of Congress really want to see and even are willing to fund on occasion.  Sorry, your preferred routes don't make the cut.  Besides, what makes them popular destinations?  Do any of you who are doing the most whining (sorry, anmccaff, it's whining to me) ever think about who is going to pay for the wonderful trips to these popular destinations on major routes.  Have you harangued your congressperson?  Or, is it just easier to harangue us at this blog?

  • wsteinhauer:  What kind of thinking removes these popular destinations from being on major routes?

    LK>"Money.  Amtrak doesn't have any of its own, and it runs those trains that certain members of Congress really want to see and even are willing to fund on occasion.  Sorry, your preferred routes don't make the cut.  Besides, what makes them popular destinations? "

    He has a point - the LA- Vegas route gets so much traffic that it's being looked at by at least two private operators.  (Which doesn't invalidate your point, of course: AMTRAK isn't structured to chase private capital, and congress won't touch a route that might pay for itself.  The Right thinks that is interfearing with the Market-God, and the Left usually has some more needy soul, at least in their mind.)

    LK> "Do any of you who are doing the most whining (sorry, anmccaff, it's whining to me) "

    It's only whining once they understand the issues, and then beg like a starved puppy anyhow.  That's why I think, seriously, that the website could use a FAQ.  Then when the 8,536, 427th person asks the same damned question, we can just point them toward the answer board.

    LK>"ever think about who is going to pay for the wonderful trips to these popular destinations on major routes.  Have you harangued your congressperson?  Or, is it just easier to harangue us at this blog?"

    Slacktivism in action.  (Or is that "in inaction"?

  • A lot more than one person or even 100 people need to find Chicago-Vegas or PHX-FLA "popular" destinations.

    I think a route from my house to work would be a great idea.  But I haven't pushed for it for some reason.

  • Depending on where you live and where you work, BTTF, I might be a second for having a route between your home and your job.

  • Garl and Larry, you are both right….and so is my contention that Amtrak is structurally dysfunctional and said structure will turn the most well-intentioned professional into a frustrated and defeated employee.  I believe that ignoring Amtrak and virtually constructing alternative futures for passenger service in this country may save us all continued frustration, high blood pressure and agony as we see lost opportunity upon lost opportunity pass by.  Amtrak is a legal construction which can just as easily be deconstructed: our object is to have a viable travel option using the present, past and future rights of way established for freight and passenger rail use.  Perhaps, as mega mergers are discussed, and freight economics call for beefing up certain routes with diminished use of other routes, denser passenger traffic could be routed to the lesser used routes.  Perhaps, a far sighted administration will understand that freight rail is now, and  in the future, an absolutely essential component for any economic growth in this country. Infrastructure investment in increased rail capacity is the most economically effective and efficient way of  assuring that said growth will not be strangled by transportation knots in our national rail system.  The fact that, along with laying more rail to improve freight capacity, passenger dedicated rail and/or slots in the improved capacity  can be engineered into this investment is a bonus.  

    An experienced academic economist told me the other day that if the US were to bring home the troops presently stationed in Germany, So. Korea, Japan, etc., and the rest of our 100 + overseas bases,  and station them here at home bases, we would cut out trade deficit in half!  Is it politically doable?  Probably not, but some problems should be looked at from different perspectives in order to find doable ways & means of assuring safety and economic stability/growth.  “FAQ’s” deny the possible new perspective to a much massaged theme, be it balanced budgets or transportation policy.

    This is the anniversary of the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA), which has in its relatively short life time, transformed America for, I believe, 18 million citizens directly and the entire population indirectly.  When first proposed, opponents said that the changes physically needed  e.g. infrastructure, would be impossible to enact because of the vastness of the obstacles and attendant costs.  Nevertheless, it happened; curb cuts, ramps, power assisted doors, etc., are commonplace and serve able and disabled alike, without too much dispute.  When I would be urging groups to make a facility accessible to those with disabilities the realists would say: “Do you see any disabled people in this building? Why spend the money!”  To which I replied: “ Exactly right! Without accessibility there never will be disabled persons in this building.”   Today, we have about 74 million Americans entering their “golden” years with attendant disabilities, but also with 75% of the nations disposable income.  Do you see the parallel here to the passenger rail quandary?  The market for good passenger rail service from Chicago to Florida will never be tested if it isn’t there!  It has been 40 years since the demise of widespread passenger rail service: this is a different world, no more 16 cent gasoline, virgin superhighways, disregard for environment, compliant oil provider nations, and a minor population percentage 65 + in age.

    Interesting to note is the role conservatives played in passing the ADA: Bob Dole and Justin Dart were no flaming liberals!  True conservatives core values are efficiency and effectiveness in government, as well as in transportation modes. Passenger rail can be a natural fit for their support in any new Federal role in some aspects of a National Transportation Policy which includes a reasonable, and defensible role, for passenger rail be it higher speed and/or high speed service.  Note: It was Bob Dole’s wife, Elizabeth, who, as Sec. of Transportation saved that wonderful Union Station in Washington, DC, and with an entrepreneurial additive of food courts and stores made it into the epitome of a self-sustaining public building anchoring the NEC long & intermediate rail service with seamless connectivity to intra city subway.

  • Thanks, oamundsen, for a meaty comment, particularly as it stimulates thought.  You make a lot of sense, and I, for one, can agree with most, if not all, that you say.  Yes, Amtrak could be deconstructed, but I'd want to see what alternative would be adopted before I'd go along with eliminating Amtrak.  You may have seen that the House this week "unanimously" voted a resolution recognizing and praising the freight railroads for all they do for our society. This is the same House that has not seen fit over the past several years to hold a hearing on the railroads' request for an investment trax credit for capital spending that increases capacity.  We have the Republican candidate for Governor of Ohio calling for a shift of some rail grant funds to highway.  He did not propose any off-setting fuel or excise taxes, which the truckers don't pay now.

    I could go on, but I think readers get the message now.  As long as transportation infrastructure is viewed as public works spending and not as part of a comprehensive transportation system, we will continue to have the blather from the libertarian right that opposes everything and anything that doesn't pay its way.  If it paid its way, my capitalist friends would line up to finance transportation infrastructure projects.  Government is supposed to provide for the public those services and projects that benefit the entire society.  For those who constantly prattle that government should be run like a business, I point out that it is not a business.  So, back to rail passenger service.  It does not pay its way and probably never will be, whether provided by Amtrak or some other entity.  That doesn't mean we shouldn't have it; it does mean we need to engage in a serious debate over how much of it we should have.  Unfortunately, too many of us are preaching to the choir at this site.  

  • As these discussions do seem to return to the same point time and time again, here's my regurgitation.  

    With a slightly different perspective to consider.  Previously I asked participants to comment on privately run national service bus companies competing with subsidized semi-national passenger rail companies. (It almost seems like this should be phrased the other way round, but remember the Highway subsidy was presumed to be offset by the federal law mandating Amtrak access to private infrastructure).  I'll admit I was not totally satisfied with the few replies I rec'd and the depth of explanations offered.  

    At the risk of being ignored again, I ask readers to consider the national private express delivery services (NPEDS) which currently exist and, in some cases, thrive in the U.S.  It is easy to appreciate the considerable initial capital requirements a start-up NPEDS would need to establish the network required to compete with Fed-Ex, UPS and the likes. Their operating (including equipment maintenance, depreciation, and capital-cost replacements) costs, on the other hand, would be expected to be easily covered by the costs associated with sending a package.  

    I recently had a 350 lb. package transported door-to-door across a route of more than 600 miles for ~$250. I can't confirm all the modes of transport used to complete this delivery, but the schedule suggests the plan DID NOT include a freight railroad.  I realize there is a significant difference in costs associated with moving freight as opposed to people but fundamental economics figure prominently in both and the economies normally associated with single-mode operation and rail versus road are also purposely ignored.....

    My point here is related to the advantage of an established infrastructure. Amtrak, and any State Commuter operator for that matter, rely on an established infrastructure.  I'm still struggling with the arguments that moving people on intercity passenger trains in the U.S. on shared freight corridors is or is expected to be prohibitively expensive.  I'm not talking about speeds higher than the currently FRA sanctioned 79 mph as the higher speeds require capital investments and consume freight capacity.  I'm talking about running intercity passenger trains on existing lines with currently unused capacity.

    I'm prepared now to be quietly ignored or politely engaged....