Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak long-distance trains’

No Plans to End Long-Distance Trains Amtrak Executives Tell RPA

May 30, 2018

Amtrak executives have pledged to the Rail Passengers Association that the carrier has no plans to discontinue long-distance trains.

The pledge came during a meeting last week between RPA CEO Jim Mathews and Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson and Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer Stephen Gardner.

Anderson said during the meeting that Amtrak will always have long-distance trains and it plans selective upgrades to some long-distance trains. Amtrak will also work to improve meal service aboard all trains.

Writing on the RPA blog, Mathews said that in the wake of the meeting that long-distance trains are no longer targets for elimination for now.

The meeting yielded information about Amtrak’s plans, including selectively upgrading what Anderson termed “epic, experiential” trains such as the Empire Builder and Coast Starlight

Anderson and Gardner also said Amtrak will issue soon a request for proposals to replace the carrier’s diesel locomotives.

Amtrak plans to move quickly to award a contract and begin getting locomotives built and into service.

A similar request for proposals is expected this year about the availability of single-level train sets and diesel multiple units with the aim of getting that equipment under contract and under construction.

This equipment is expected to be used on corridor type service of less than 600 miles and ideally no more than 400 miles.

Gardner described this as a “sweet spot” in which multiple daily frequencies can be offered with an optimized number of train sets so that fares and trip times can be competitive with other modes of transportation.

Although no time frame was given, Amtrak is planning to replaced its Superliner fleet, which Anderson and Gardner described as having reached the end of its reasonable service life.

They acknowledged that Amtrak will not refurbish the interiors of Superliner cars as it has been doing with Amfleet equipment and Acela Express train sets.

Anderson said the Superliners need new frames and therefore management has decided to replace the cars rather than rebuild them.

In a side note, Anderson and Gardner said the refurbishment of Amfleet I cars is nearly finished.

RPA has pressed Amtrak about its food service in the wake of an announcement in April that the carrier would on April 1 eliminate full-service dining on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited in favor of cold meals for sleeping car passengers.

The Amtrak executives said that plan was always considered an experiment and the passenger carrier expects to introduce at least one hot meal offering at some point.

They said Amtrak wants to improve its food service system-wide and is prepared to spend money to do it.

Gardner said that in time Amtrak will upgrade its menus on the Capitol and Lake Shore and offer coach passengers the opportunity to buy meals from that menu in the diner or elsewhere.

In the meantime, Amtrak is seeking to renegotiate its food contracts, upgrade the quality of the food available, and implement a program for passengers to choose their meals ahead of time.

Once chosen, passengers will able to eat their meals when and where they want to eat, whether it be in a dining car, in their room or at their seat.

Amtrak also wants to go cashless, an idea that the carrier has discussed before but never implemented. On-board personnel will be given portable devices to charge passengers for food and beverages.

In a related development, Gardner said the new CAF diners sitting at the Hialeah shops near Miami will soon be in service. He said they are awaiting parts and modification.

Anderson and Gardner elaborated on their congressional testimony about the possibility that Amtrak will not operate on rail lines that are required to have positive train control by late this year but on which the equipment has not been installed.

Gardner said this is not a strategy to discontinue trains or routes, but rather a temporary action until PTC is installed.

Anderson indicated during the meeting that he is laser-focused on implementing an airline-style safety management system by the end of the year, which he said is required of Amtrak by FRA regulation following the National Transportation Safety Board’s implementation recommendation.

He said he has found that freight railroads have a “risk-tolerant” mindset by which “they’re perfectly willing to accept that they’ll wreck a train every three years.”

SMS has been used by airlines to assess individual risks to safe operation and identify specific mitigation steps for each risk.

Anderson said SMS has been proven in the aviation world to not only improve safety but to continuously drive down incidents and risk.

Amtrak plans to identify a range of ways to reach “PTC-equivalent” levels of safety in areas that aren’t fully PTC-compliant.

This includes such steps as issuing slow orders and spiking or blocking facing-point switches for mainline movement.

Different technologies will be deployed to assure accurate train location, sending the conductor up to the head end or, failing everything else, using buses to move passengers around an affected track segment.

Mathews wrote that his take away from the meeting is that that the nature of Amtrak service will evolve and change over time, but that the carrier is pursuing a growth strategy whose objective is to serve more Americans rather than fewer.

“In any case, the long-term shape of the national network will be determined by Congress, which makes the upcoming reauthorization of the surface transportation bill even more important to RPA and its members,” Mathews wrote.

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Joe Boardman: Saint or Sinner?

May 26, 2018

Former Amtrak President Joseph Boardman received a lot of favorable reviews for a letter he recently wrote to public officials across the country criticizing the Amtrak board of directors and CEO Richard Anderson for what Boardman believes is a strategy designed to dismantle the carrier’s network of long-distance trains.

Typical of the applause was a column written by veteran transportation writer Don Phillips who lauded Boardman for shining a light into a dark place.

“Boardman may be shining such a bright light on Anderson that, combined with growing protests by organized rail groups, Anderson could very well fail,” Phillips wrote.

The column published in Railway Age concluded with Phillips saying he was proud of Boardman and called on rail passenger supporters to send Boardman’s remarks to members of Congress.

M.E. Singer, a principal at Marketing Rail Ltd. in Chicago, had a different take.

It isn’t that Singer disagrees with the substance of Boardman’s fear that Amtrak is maneuvering to eviscerate the long-distance trains, but rather that Boardman is being hypocritical.

Singer argued in his own Railway Age column that it was Boardman and the same board of directors under whom Anderson is serving who left Amtrak in a state of disrepair.

Singer contends that during the Boardman administration the carrier’s best managers were encouraged to take buyouts “during multiple reorganizations that only depleted vital institutional knowledge.”

Although Boardman accused Amtrak of a lack of transparency, Singer said Amtrak also worked in secrecy during the Boardman administration.

“In reality, Boardman barely provided lip service to the long-distance routes, as evidenced by the lack of any pro formas to Congress to factually detail the number of passengers turned away, and loss of revenues, due to the lack of space on those trains; and to identify the need for more equipment to expand frequencies and to meet new route opportunities,” Singer wrote.

Singer contends Amtrak’s board and top management has a “singularly focused” commitment to serve their political patrons of the Northeast Corridor at the expense of the national system.

“What apparently puzzles Boardman is how quickly his inner circle turned their loyalty to the new CEO, Richard Anderson, continuing to focus on ensuring their own survival by placating a very conflicted Board,” Singer wrote.

Neither Singer nor Phillips favors ending the long-distance passenger trains.

Phillips has long argued that the Northeast Corridor is not profitable as Amtrak and many policy makers and public opinion leaders say that it is.

Singer wants Amtrak to be redefined so that it serves all interests, including the national system.

So what should we make of Joe Boardman? Is is a saint or a sinner?

Phillips noted that when Boardman stepped down as president of Amtrak, he had nothing but negative things to say about him, but refrained from writing a column blasting Boardman.

Singer and Phillips are correct in their own way about Boardman. Singer correctly noted that under Boardman Amtrak demanded that the states served by the Southwest Chief on a segment of BNSF track in western Kansas, southwest Colorado and northern New Mexico pay for upgrading the track after the railroad said it would downgrade it to a top speed of 30 mph.

The states landed federal grants and coughed up their own funding to match money contributed by BNSF and Amtrak.

Had Amtrak not recently said it wouldn’t match the latest federal grant obtained by Colfax County, New Mexico, to continue rebuilding the route of the Chief, Boardman might not have spoken up.

Boardman probably considers it part of his legacy that he negotiated a pact with BNSF to maintain the route for 10 years if the states and Amtrak paid most of the money to rebuild it. Now that legacy is coming undone.

In short, Boardman might be less concerned with the national network than he is with his legacy even though he claimed to have told the Amtrak board that the most important trains to the passenger carrier are the long-distance trains.

The fate of the long-distance trains will be settled in Congress through a political process.

An aroused citizenry or the appearance of one will be critical in keeping all, some or most of those trains operating for now.

I’m reminded of an old saying: Your friend is your enemy; your enemy is your friend.

As a former Amtrak president, Boardman’s word will get immediate attention and carry some weight.

Boardman may not have been the best friend of long-distance during his time at Amtrak, but he might turn out to be a good friend of those trains right now.

 

Amtrak Committed to Long-Distance Trains for Now, But Not Necessarily Forever

May 22, 2018

Amtrak has indicated to lawmakers and the Rail Passengers Association that it is not planning additional actions that would have the effect of changing its long-distance routes in ways to favor shorter distance travel.

Writing on the RPA website, RPA President Jim Mathews said that “Amtrak is taking steps to commit publicly to a robust nationwide rail service with a national footprint.”

He said those assurances have been made by the passenger carrier in conversations with the RPA and congressional staff, and during congressional testimony.

Matthews cited the example of reports that the Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder would be made into a tri-weekly train as part of a strategy to focus on short-haul corridors.

Many passenger advocates have been alarmed by some recent Amtrak changes, including removing full-service dining with fresh meals prepared on board from the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited effective June 1.

Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson said during an April 19 California Rail Summit that the future of Amtrak lies with 300- to 400- or 500-mile corridors.

RPA has also learned that Amtrak management has begun discussing the long-term future of the carrier’s long-distance routes and that some Amtrak executives are discussing the possibility of allocating more resources to short-distance state corridors. It is not clear how far those discussions have advanced.

Matthews said Senator Steve Daines (R-Montana) asked Amtrak Chief Commercial Officer Stephen Gardner point-blank whether there were plans to reduce the Builder.

“We do not plan to institute tri-weekly service on the Empire Builder,” Gardner replied during a committee hearing on May 16. “Obviously we’re operating under the FAST Act authorization in which Congress authorized our network; any conversations about the broad future of our network is best placed in our authorization context as we approach our next authorization. Amtrak is operating all of our long distance routes, we intend to do that and we will consider any future changes collectively between the Congress, the Administration, and Amtrak as we look at the network ahead.”

Matthews noted that he visited with Amtrak Chairman Anthony Coscia earlier this year and received similar assurances.

Coscia said during that meeting that Amtrak has a mission beyond the balance sheet and pledged that top management is “committed to the mission.”

He also said that Amtrak has a responsibility as a recipient of federal funds to make sure that its long-range plans serve the maximum number of Americans possible, especially those who need mobility and have fewer options, such as the elderly, the disabled and rural residents.

However, Coscia said that demographic shifts that are leading more people to live in dense mega-regions may result in a time when the “legacy national network routes no longer meet the mission; but looking at the map today I can’t identify any that don’t.”

Coscia said Amtrak sees “corridors hanging off the legacy national network routes like a necklace.”

He cited as examples Chicago-St. Louis and Chicago-Minneapolis as having strong growth potential.

During his April appearance in California, Anderson said “there is a place for the long-distance, ‘experiential’ train.”

Anderson said Amtrak has “a responsibility to figure out how to keep that experiential piece of the pie in place” while simultaneously “figuring out how we discharge our mission under PRIIA”—the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008—“to serve the short-haul markets.

Senators Back Amtrak Long-Distance Trains

May 17, 2018

Some senators went to bat this week for Amtrak’s long-distance trains during a hearing on the nomination of Joe Gruters to the carrier’s board of directors.

During the hearing before the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi ) invited Gruters to join him on a trip aboard the City of New Orleans between McComb, Mississippi, and Memphis, Tennessee, so he could see the number of people who depend on the train.”

Gruters said he would “welcome the opportunity to ride a train with you for a couple hours.”

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas), and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colorado) used the hearings to express their concerns that Amtrak will seek to discontinue the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief.

They criticized Amtrak’s decision to withhold a $3 million match from a recently-approved $16 million TIGER grant won by Colfax County, New Mexico, that is to be used to repair the tracks used by the Chief in Northern New Mexico.

“In my view, Amtrak has reneged on what it committed to do … and I believe federal agencies have an obligation to behave with integrity; I don’t see that at the moment,” Moran said.

He read excerpts from an email written by former Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman that charged that Amtrak is seeking to end the train and submitted the entire email for the record.

“This suggests to me that there may be a change of attitude and approach at the Amtrak board and its senior leadership that would be contrary to the congressional mandate about national rail passenger service,” Moran said.

Gardner asked Gruther if, as an Amtrak board member, he would make sure Amtrak followed through on its commitments while accusing Amtrak of not doing so.

He based those accusations on a letter of support for the TIGER grant that Amtrak submitted in October 2017.

Gardner also submitted a Rail Passengers Association statement pointing out that the Southwest Chief’s ridership is up 14 percent from eight years ago.

Wicker also joined ranking minority committee member Bill Nelson (D-Florida) in expressing their desire to see Amtrak return to the Gulf Coast.

Gruters, who owns a public accounting firm in Sarasota, Florida, acknowledged having heard from officials and residents of many Florida communities in support of such service.

[Amtrak board members] “have a fiduciary responsibility to the company but we have our mission set forth by Congress, so I will look forward to working with your team to make sure agreements are upheld and we do the right thing at the end of the day.” Gruters said.

Moran also was critical of Amtrak’s decision to close its ticket office in Topeka, Kansas.

“You cannot reduce service and expect customers to arrive at your doors, and Amtrak is demonstrating that in my view in both instances,” he said.

Some senators, including Maria Cantwell, (D-Washington), used the hearing to trumpet support for positive train control.

Gruters said PTC “is the baseline standard we need to work up to.”

All but one member of the current Amtrak board lacks railroad experience. Member Jeffrey Moreland led the public affairs and legal departments at BNSF.

Like most Amtrak board members, Gruters is a political appointee who helped lead the presidential election campaign for Donald Trump in 2016.

Making Sense of Amtrak’s Anderson

May 10, 2018

To paraphrase a well-known remark made by Marc Anthony in Act 3, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar, I come not to bury or praise Richard Anderson but to explain him.

Since taking the sole helm of Amtrak last January Anderson has become public enemy No. 1 among some railfans and passenger train advocates.

In short order he triggered intense anger by approving such changes as ending everyday discount fare programs, banning most special and charter movements, restricting operations of private rail passenger cars while sharply raising handling fees, threatening to suspend service on routes that do not meet the federal positive train control installation deadline later this year, and ending full-service dining cars on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited.

It is a common belief among his critics that Anderson doesn’t understand railroads because he came from the airline industry.

There may be some truth to that. It is probably true that Anderson does not view intercity rail passenger service in the same manner that many railfans and passenger train supporters do.

It also may be true that Anderson is overseeing a movement toward ending long-distance passenger trains that would leave vast swaths of the country without intercity passenger rail.

That doesn’t mean Anderson knows nothing about intercity passenger rail and its role in the nation’s transportation network as some of his critics would have you believe.

He is just not as convinced as many passenger train advocates that America needs 1950s style streamliners with full-service dining cars, sleepers and lounges.

Having spent much of his career in the airline industry, Anderson came to Amtrak with well-formed ideas about transportation that he would have expressed during his interview with the Amtrak board of directors.

During that interview he no doubt was asked to lay out his vision for Amtrak. He would not have been hired had that vision been incompatible with the board’s own views of Amtrak’s purpose and future.

Anderson may, indeed, have an air travel bias, which would not be surprising given his airline industry background.

He knows most long-distance travel in America is by air. Few business executives travel long distance by rail and most Americans who are not rail enthusiasts rarely, if ever, do so either.

If Anderson has a “bias” against long-distance intercity passenger trains, he would not be the first person in the transportation world to have that.

You can go back to the 1960s when Alfred Perlman of the New York Central acted as though long-distance trains were expensive dinosaurs to be removed.

Stuart Saunders of Penn Central infamy also declared that any rail passenger service beyond 500 miles was dead. So did a lot of other railroad CEOs.

Since Amtrak began in 1971 the U.S. Department of Transportation has ranged from outright hostile to benign indifference to Amtrak’s national route network.

What Amtrak appears poised to do under Anderson’s stewardship to the long-distance trains is not unlike the vision that Norman Mineta had when he was Secretary of Transportation.

Mineta pushed the corridor concept and said that long-distance trains should not stop at stations in states that do not help to underwrite the costs of those trains.

That vision did not prevail, but it is part of a long history of antagonism toward long-distance trains.

For that matter, Amtrak management itself has tolerated long-distance trains, but not since the 1970s has a new long-distance route been created.

There is much that we don’t know yet about Anderson’s views toward transportation and the role that intercity rail has to play even if he has been dropping hints about it.

Anderson said at a conference in California of passenger rail officials that Amtrak’s best marketing prospects lie in corridor services of no more than 400 miles served by DMU equipment.

During that same conference, he also was said to have emphasized the high financial losses of long-distance trains and that he must follow the law in making Amtrak a more efficient operation.

During his apprenticeship as co-CEO of Amtrak with Charles “Wick” Moorman, Anderson would have been schooled on the political realities that Amtrak faces, including why the long-distance trains remain in place decades after some believed their usefulness as transportation had expired.

Moorman would have pointed out that these trains continue to run because of long-standing political support. But maybe Anderson already knew that. Remember, Anderson is not necessarily a transportation neophyte.

Of late Anderson has come under fire from former Amtrak President Joesph Boardman, who has accused Anderson and the Amtrak board of launching a campaign to eviscerate long-distance trains.

In an interview with Trains magazine Boardman told an anecdote of how he responded when asked by the board to name Amtrak’s most important train.

“I told them it was all of the long distance trains. Did that ever make it out into the rail community? No, because it wasn’t my job to (do that),” he said.

Maybe Boardman should have made it his job. And that brings me to what may be Anderson’s most significant shortcoming.

Boardman hinted at that when he wrote in an email to public officials across the country that “Amtrak is not really a ‘private business,’ it is a “state owned enterprise.”

It may be that Amtrak was set up in 1970 as a for-profit company and ostensibly it is expected to cover its operating expenses from the fare box.

But in practice Amtrak is more like a government agency, a reality that the U.S. Supreme Court recognized in a case involving a dispute over the efforts by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to establish on-time train standards that Amtrak could use to hold its host railroads accountable for excessive delays.

The head of a government agency does not have the luxury of thinking and acting like a Fortune 500 CEO if he or she wants to be successful.

Yet that is what Anderson has been doing by playing defense rather than offense.

Anderson has done little thus far to share his vision of Amtrak’s future with the public, let alone the constituencies that have lone manned the bulwarks to provide political support when Amtrak funding was threatened.

Boardman touched on this in his email when he said Amtrak “has begun to do surgical communications in a way that does not provide a transparent discussion of what they are doing.”

What Amtrak is doing, Boardman believes, is transforming Amtrak out of the long-distance passenger train business without saying upfront that that is the objective.

If so, it is because Anderson and the board that hired him have beliefs about transportation that are at odds with those held by many rail passenger advocates who don’t want to see Amtrak change much.

Rail passenger advocates have legitimate beliefs and visions, even if they are not always well-grounded in solid economic understanding. But so does Anderson and Amtrak’s board.

Anderson and his critics would agree that Amtrak is in the transportation business, but they have different views as to how that is to be pursued. It has nothing to do with lack of understanding of “railroading.” It has everything to do with ineffectively trying to sell that.

Boardman Critical of Amtrak Management, Sees It Moving to End Long-Distance Trains

May 9, 2018

Former Amtrak President Joseph Boardman has joined the chorus of those claiming that the current management of the passenger carrier is employing a strategy to dismantle the network of long-distance passenger trains.

In a letter sent to elected officials across the country, Boardman described what Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson and the Amtrak board of directors is doing as a “hedge hog” strategy.

“Meaning that the Board sees an opportunity to ‘hog’ all the federal assistance to complete the Gateway Plan; procure new city-pair “train sets” operating off the NEC to the Southern big cities like Charlotte NC and Atlanta and others; and shortening more routes in order to transfer more cost to the states while abandoning the national purpose of Amtrak.”

Boardman said the strategy is being carried out by using safety as a weapon, making a reference to a comment that Anderson made to Congress that Amtrak would not operate on any route lacking positive train control after Dec. 31, 2019.

Amtrak has since said that it is undertaking safety risk assessment studies of all routes that will lack PTC after that date, either because of a waiver by law or action of the Federal Railroad Administration.

Boardman said these segments are as small a few feet to more than a hundred miles.

In his letter, Boardman charged that following the fatalities in the Cascades derailment in Washington State and the head-on collision in South Carolina between Amtrak’s Silver Star and a parked and unattended CSX freight train that Anderson decided to make his “safety mark” by demanding PTC everywhere Amtrak operates.

Although Boardman praised Amtrak for undertaking the safety risk assessments, he said the threat to cease operating on track without PTC is neither responsible nor acceptable.

“Yes, additional mitigation for those risks which might be ATS (automatic train stop) or perhaps solar powered switch position indicators could be suggested as a part of the ‘risk’ process but it will take time and funding,” Boardman wrote. “It has not been made clear by board policy or CEO direction that service would be continued while those mitigations are funded and completed.”

Noting that some commuter rail services, including New Jersey Transit and Metro North in the New York City might miss the Dec. 31 deadline to install PTC, Boardman said those services will continue under an FRA waiver as work progresses to install PTC.

If those commuter services can continue operating under a waiver, Boardman sees no reason why Amtrak can’t as well.

Groups Fear Amtrak Killing Long-Distance Trains

May 5, 2018

Two organizations that represent private railroad car owners are accusing Amtrak of lacking commitment to support the passenger carrier’s national network.

The letter was sent to Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson and signed by Robert G. Donnelley, president of the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners and W. Roger Fuehring, president of the Railroad Passenger Car Alliance.

It cited what it described as “recent, abrupt, negative changes in Amtrak’s policies toward special trains and private cars.”

The changes, the groups say, have imposed “unreasonable economic costs on Amtrak, car owners, their employees and vendors, and the communities these cars and trains visit.” The letter is seeking a review of current policies.

Last month Amtrak announced new fees and rules for the handling of private rail cars that had the effect of making them more expensive to operate and limiting where and how often they can run.

Amtrak in March also revealed other policy changes that sharply curtailed specials and charter movements, some of which use private rail cars.

Among other issues, the letter offered as evidence comments made by Anderson at a California conference of passenger rail officials that described as high the costs of long-distance trains and their per-passenger subsidies.

These figures, the letter said, “are particularly alarming because heretofore they have been talking points for Amtrak’s critics.”

If the long-distance network was removed, the private rail car groups said, it would result in the loss of Amtrak service to 29 states and a Balkanized network of four isolated pieces.

Such a network, the letter predicted, would lead to a drop in federal support far exceeding the costs of the long-distance network.

“Amtrak cannot afford to continue to act as if it doesn’t need friends,” the letter said.

It predicted that Amtrak’s [fiscal year] 2020 funding will be very tight, citing one congressman as saying that “funding will drop off a cliff’ after the two-year budget deal expires.”

As Political Winds Blow, Long-Distance Trains Go

April 25, 2018

As a general rule I don’t put much stock in opinions on railroad chat lists that “predict” the imminent demise of Amtrak’s fleet of long-distance trains.

Such predictions have been made for decades and yet long-distance trains have survived.

Yes, some have fallen by the wayside over the years, most notably in 1979 and 1995. But numerous efforts to kill off all long-distance trains have fallen short.

With the planned discontinuance of full-service dining cars on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited the prophets of doom are at it again.

But then I read a column by William C. Vantuono, the editor of Railway Age, in which he said he thinks the dining changes being made on the Capitol and Lake Shore are part of a plan to shut down the Amtrak national network and leave only the Northeast Corridor, Midwest corridor trains, California corridor trains and other state-supported services.

Vantuono is not one to make dire predictions, but I took notice when he wrote, “I’ve been hearing about internal plans within Amtrak to discontinue long-distance trains. The best way to do that, of course, is to make the service so unpalatable that people stop riding them. Are we looking at a veiled attempt to drive passengers away? I believe we are.”

But then I read the rest of his column and noticed that he had qualified his “prediction” by saying “maybe, maybe not.”

I later received an email from a friend who sent a link to meeting notes of a presentation in which Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson reportedly said to an audience of 150 passenger rail officials that he wanted to kill the long-distance trains and only operate corridor service of 400 miles or less with DMU equipment.

But when I read those notes I found the rail passenger advocate who took them said, “I noted that he (Anderson) did not specifically say that the long-distance trains would go, only that corridors are the future.”

Finally, I read Trains columnist Fred Frailey’s view that Anderson won’t try to scuttle the long-distance trains this year.

“If Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump couldn’t axe them, why would Richard Anderson even try?” Frailey wrote.

The fact is no one knows the future of Amtrak’s long-distance passenger trains.

Anderson may believe that corridors provide the best marketing opportunities for intercity rail service, but neither he nor Amtrak’s board of directors are free agents in overseeing a company that depends on public money to pay its operating and capital expenses.

Amtrak is, has always been and always will be a political creature subject to decisions made by Congress and, to a lesser extent, state legislatures.

Congress has acted to kill some long-distance trains over the years and has acted to save them in others.

That said there may be good reason to believe that long-distance trains might be on slippery rails.

Anderson told Congress earlier this year that Amtrak won’t operate on routes that fail to meet the federal mandate that positive train control be installed by the end of this year. He also suggested Amtrak might not use routes that aren’t required to have PTC.

Much of this probably is political posturing. At the time of his testimony Anderson was still smarting from the Cascades and Silver Star crashes, which might have been avoided had PTC been in operation.

Yet some segments of long-distance routes either might not meet the PTC deadline. Is Amtrak going to chop up those routes?

Another potential threat is that the equipment devoted to long-distance service is wearing out. Will Amtrak seek to replace it?

Amtrak has rarely shown much, if any, interest in creating additional long-distance routes or expanding service on the long-distance routes it does operate.

Various Amtrak presidents probably have viewed the long-distance network, skeletal as it might be, as insurance for widespread political support.

In his talk to the passenger train officials, Anderson repeatedly said he must follow the law, meaning Passenger Rail Reform & Investment Act of 2015, saying it requires Amtrak to operate at lower cost and more efficiently.

In particular this applies to food and beverage service and an Amtrak inspector general’s report of seven years ago found that the lion’s share of losses on that could be attributed to the long-distance trains.

Anderson and perhaps the Amtrak board of directors might see long-distance trains as a hindrance to their ability to cut costs and operate more efficiently. They also might see the long-distance trains as dinosaurs.

Amtrak will turn 50 in three years. A half century is a long time for any one company to operate with essentially the same business model.

But most companies are not as subject to political pressure as Amtrak. As the political climates goes, so goes the future of long-distance trains or, for that matter, any intercity passenger trains.

Trump Wants to Cut Amtrak Funding in Half

February 14, 2018

Here we go again. The proposed fiscal year 2019 federal budget released this week by the Trump administration proposes cutting in half the federal funding for Amtrak.

As the administration did a year ago, it is taking aim at long-distance trains, calling for funding of those to be slashed and for states served by the trains to pick up that funding.

But even the Northeast Corridor would face federal funding cuts, seeing its funding reduced from $328 million to $200 million.

Total Amtrak funding would be $538 million. Congress appropriated $1.2 million for Amtrak in the current fiscal year, which runs through Sept. 30.

The Trump administration proposed a similar budget cut for Amtrak last year, but Congress ignored it.

Amtrak issued a statement saying the proposed cuts would negatively affect the more than 31 million people who ride Amtrak.

“As the budget process progresses, we look forward to working with the administration, Congress, state partners and other stakeholders to consider these proposals and the impacts they could have on this important part of the nation’s transportation system,” the passenger carrier said.

Amtrak said it remains focused on running efficiently, saying that it covered 94.7 percent of its total network operating costs through ticket sales and other revenues in fiscal year 2017, but it must rely on some level of federal funding.

In a 160-page budget narrative submitted to Congress, the White House Office of Management & Budget said that having states share the burden of funding Amtrak would make “states more equal partners with the federal government, and would strengthen the responsiveness of Amtrak to the communities they serve.”

The narrative contends that along with cuts to Amtrak funding the administration “proposes reforms to Amtrak to improve efficiencies and effectiveness of long-distance routes.”

“State contributions to long distance routes is only one tool in the menu of options,” the administration said it will be exploring.

Moorman Looks Back on his Amtrak Tenure

December 5, 2017

You could say that Amtrak co-CEO Charles “Wick” Moorman is a big fan of his fellow CEO Richard Anderson.

Moorman

“We really hit a home run in that Richard Anderson agreed to come on board,” Moorman said during a speech last week at the RailTrends 2017 conference.

Moorman cited Anderson’s leadership skills, saying Amtrak needs his aggressive nature.

During his presentation, Moorman also said Amtrak has made progress in such areas as safety, maintenance and customer service.

The former CEO of Norfolk Southern also singled out the passenger carrier’s new chief financial officer, William Feidt, who Moorman said has brought discipline to Amtrak that was lacking.

Moorman said Chief Marketing Officer Tim Griffin understands marketing a passenger service as well as revenue and yield management. “We have a first-rate management team now,” Moorman said.

Griffin and Anderson have both worked in the airline industry with Anderson having been a former CEO at Delta Air Lines.

Moorman, who will leave Amtrak soon, said that although the passenger carrier is developing a better safety culture, it continues to trail Class I railroads in those efforts.

He also said that Amtrak has a spotty record in delivering on capital projects

Amtrak needs to be a better steward of its assets, including its rolling stock and facilities.

“Shabby chic can be fashionable, but not on a passenger train or in a train station,” Moorman said.

Pointing out that much of Amtrak’s equipment had a worn-out feel to it, Moorman directed the interiors of Amfleet I cars to be refurbished after he learned that it would be relatively inexpensive.

In time, the refurbishment program will be extended to cars used on long-distance trains.

One lesson that Moorman said he learned from Anderson from the airline industry is to consistently upgrade the interiors that passengers see.

“You don’t want to know how many 40-year-old airplanes you’ve flown,” Moorman said.

In fiscal year 2017, which ended on Sept. 30, Amtrak reduced its operating loss to just under $200 million, which covers 95 percent of its expenses. Moorman said the goal is to reduce the operating loss to zero.

It will seek to do that by bumping up ridership and revenue. However, he said that will be a challenge to achieve if the current less than desirable on-time performance means that Amtrak service is unreliable.

Moorman said a two- or three-hour delay for a freight train doesn’t mean much, but is unacceptable for a passenger train.

He said Amtrak and its host freight railroads need to work more closely to reduce delays while the freight railroads need to realize that to a certain extent the public’s perception of American railroading is shaped by Amtrak and the level of service it provides.