What to do About Amtrak — Beyond the Usual Suggestions

 

051415amtrakBreaking! There’s a major disaster with possible public policy implications! Scramble the hot takes! (I know I often do.)

Here we go: “Amtrak needs help,” asserts the New York Times editorial page. But maybe the “world will lose nothing if the government winds down Amtrak by selling off its profitable lines in the Northeast to a competently-managed private company and scrapping the rest,” as the Washington Examiner argues. Then again, the Center for American Progress claims “Congress’ refusal to acknowledge Amtrak’s predicament has made American trains so inefficient that it’s actually having a dampening effect on ridership growth.” Yet National Review’s Ian Tuttle counters that “Amtrak’s history of fiscal chaos suggests that the service’s problems are not the product of congressional stinginess, but of a faulty assumption (that America needed a passenger rail service) compounded by decades of mismanagement.”

Just privatize it! (Probably won’t happen.) Just throw more money at it! (Probably shouldn’t happen.) Are there any other options? Transportation blogger Alon Levy offered a different path forward in a fascinating 2012 blog post where he sketched out a hypothetical future in which a profitable Amtrak had surging ridership and high-speed rail. Here are its guts:

Amtrak had initially proposed to spend $117 billion on implementing high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, but backlash due to the plan’s high cost led to a scaling back behind the scenes. After the regulatory reforms of 2013, a new team of planners, many hired away from agencies in Japan, France, and Switzerland, proposed a version leveraging existing track, achieving almost the same speed for only $5 billion in upfront investment. They explained that the full cost of the system would be higher, but service could open before construction concluded, and profits could be plugged into the system.

To get the plans past Congress, President Barack Obama had to agree to limit the funds to a one-time extension of Amtrak’s funding in the transportation bill S 12, which would give it $13 billion for expansion as well as ordinary operating subsidies over six years. To defeat a Senate filibuster, the extension had a clause automatically dismantling Amtrak and selling its assets in case it ran out of money, leading to the first wave of resignations by longtime officials. …

Despite assurances that both the cost and the ridership estimates were conservative, the program was plagued with delays and mounting costs, and to conserve money Amtrak needed to cancel some of its money-losing long-distance routes and engage in a controversial lease-back program selling its rolling stock to banks. The modifications required to let the Shinkansen bullet trains decided for the system run in the Northeast pushed back the completion of the first run from the middle of 2015 to the beginning of 2017 … 2017 was also the last year in which Amtrak lost money. …  To simplify its temporary deals with track owners in Connecticut and Massachusetts, it made a complex deal with the Northeastern commuter railroads in which it took over operations, with existing amounts of state money lasting until 2022. The primary purpose was to allow rapidly moving workers between divisions, away from commuter trains, which were being streamlined to reduce staffing, and toward the growing high-speed rail market. A similar deal was made in California, where Amtrak leveraged its operation of commuter trains in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay Areas and its fledgling profits to take control of the California High-Speed Rail system, whose initial operating segment opened in 2019.

Although industry insiders believed that the takeover was intended entirely to streamline labor issues, in 2020 Amtrak announced a reorganization, in which commuter trains within each metropolitan area would be run without respect for state boundaries or previous agency boundaries. Starting with the preexisting fare union with the MBTA, from which it bought Boston’s commuter rail operations, it entered into fare union and schedule coordination agreements with the major cities in the Northeast and California, allowing the local commuter rail lines to act as complements to the urban subway networks. …

Together with aggressive construction of extensions and long-desired urban commuter rail projections, usually at much lower cost than advertised in the 2000s and 10s, the changes led to a rapid increase in ridership. Together with the commuter lines, Amtrak’s ridership was 700 million in 2020. By 2030, it had risen to 4 billion. By then, high-speed lines opened along more corridors, connecting from the Northeast to Albany, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Atlanta; from California to Phoenix and Las Vegas; and in the Midwest from Chicago to Cleveland, Detroit, and St. Louis. Most, though not all, are operated by Amtrak, with seamless inter-railroad operation through trackage rights, and in many of these cities, beginning with Chicago, the local transit agencies engaged in the same commuter rail modernization afforded to the Northeast and invested in additional rapid transit or light rail lines. The effect on the share of commuters using public transportation to get to work was large. In the Philadelphia region it rose from 12% in 2020 to 36% in 2040, in the Chicago region it rose from 15% to 39%, and in the Los Angeles region it rose from 9% to 40%.

All that by the year 2042! Now, I don’t know to what degree all or any of what Levy outlines is practical or even possible. And, yes, it seems like a highly technocratic approach. But it doesn’t seem unreasonable that a far more logical and rational rail system is a possible. Here is Reihan Salam on the above idea:

One of the key moves in Levy’s imaginary Amtrak revival was a takeover of commuter rail services in the Northeast and California, followed by an aggressive rationalization of route structures and labor practices as the commuter rail services started to be run without respect to pre-existing agency boundaries. In the New York metropolitan area, for example, what had been Metro-North trains could be used on NJ Transit routes and vice versa, thus improving efficiency. Levy’s scenario might seem too good to be true, but the political foundations of his turnaround — reform of the labor regulations that have stymied productivity gains in the passenger rail industry, the use of a trigger that would dismantle the system if it failed to meet concrete goals — are worthy of consideration.

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  1. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Together with aggressive construction of extensions and long-desired urban commuter rail projections, usually at much lower cost than advertised in the 2000s and 10s,

    See, that’s where he loses me.  You can’t just imagine it’ll be cheaper than expected and say “see, profit”!  Show me the last government rail-building project that came in CHEAPER than advertised.

    • #1
  2. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    James Pethokoukis: Just privatize it! (Probably won’t happen.)

    They did it in Britain. There are now over 20 passenger rail operators in Britain, including Virgin Trains.

    Virgin_Pendolino_at_Euston

    • #2
  3. FightinInPhilly Coolidge
    FightinInPhilly
    @FightinInPhilly

    Let it fail. Autonomous vehicles will solve 95% of these transportation problems over the next 20 years and we don’t have to spend a dime on an 19th century infrastructure. If we want a jobs program, we can put the money into paving over the tracks.

    p.s. I ride Amtrak several times a month for work and find the service perfectly acceptable. Though the prices (which subsidize the rest of the lines out west) are obscene. $55 one way to NY is the lowest fare I’ve ever seen (even a month in advance)

    • #3
  4. karenwtn Inactive
    karenwtn
    @karenwtn

    Amtrak inefficient? Let me count the ways. Five years ago my mother and I got reservations to take Amtrak from Denver to Glenwood Springs in September to see the aspens turned and to spend the afternoon in GS shopping and swimming in the hot springs pool. Our train was supposed to leave at 9am and arrive at 1pm. Like a dummy, I did not call ahead to see if the train was on time. It was 2 hours late. Then we were told the lights that signaled an oncoming train were out so we could only go 20 mi/hr. Close to GS we had to stop because there was a rock on the tracks and we had to get a crew from GS to clear it. After an hour we started up and I saw the rock on the side of the tracks. I could have moved it but then I was not in a union.

    The scenery was spectacular and most of the riders were foreign tourists. The rerun trip was not much better. I told my mom that train ridership was not for someone in a hurry.

    • #4
  5. Ricochet Inactive
    Ricochet
    @WardRobles

    There is nothing in this fantasy to stop Congress from dismantling the trigger before the six years is up. If we cannot bear to pull the plug on Amtrack now, how will it get easier then? The only thing Amtrack is good for is to provide a very expensive example of statist failure. I appreciate the scenic train rides up the California coast to Santa Barbara (the only train I ever take), but I cannot ask my fellow citizens to subsidize my vacations in good conscience. Privatize it, then work it out in the inevitable bankruptcy like any other business. Please explain why the rational course of action is not politically feasible. I have a feeling the reason is connected to why the national debt is 18 trillion dollars.

    • #5
  6. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    I would say the fastest path to profitability is to privatize it. No waving magic wands. No additional consolidation. As Misthio said, it worked in Britain.

    • #6
  7. James Of England Moderator
    James Of England
    @JamesOfEngland

    We will have mostly autonomous Teslas next month. We’ll have Google driverless cars in 2017.

    When cheap driverless shared transport is widely available, transportation will be radically transformed. We none of us know what the next step will look like, and the next step is almost upon us, so we probably shouldn’t be engaging in large scale infrastructure reform right now.

    • #7
  8. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    I took Amtrak from New York City to Montreal once, because I thought it would be a fun way to come home from a vacation.

    What a dumb idea that was. I wasted an entire day on the train. That day could have been spent getting a bit more sightseeing in.

    Why, oh why, is there no overnight service for that route?

    • #8
  9. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    Why the heck are people so into saving trains and Amtrak. Did people get so doe eyed over the loss of our great river paddle boats and our extensive canal system?

    • #9
  10. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Valiuth:Why the heck are people so into saving trains and Amtrak. Did people get so doe eyed over the loss of our great river paddle boats and our extensive canal system?

    We like choochoos!

    • #10
  11. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Valiuth:Why the heck are people so into saving trains and Amtrak. Did people get so doe eyed over the loss of our great river paddle boats and our extensive canal system?

    a) There are still over 30 transportation canals in operation in the United States, and I bet there would be pretty big public outcry over plans to shut any of ’em down, especially those used extensively by recreational boaters, like the Erie Canal.

    b) Saving trains and saving Amtrak are two very different goals.

    • #11
  12. user_348375 Inactive
    user_348375
    @TrinityWaters

    Passenger trains are for high density areas like central Europe and Japan.  I enjoyed train service in those areas and used it extensively for business and pleasure.  Amtrak from Portland to San Diego, once, not so much.  High speed rail is starting to smell like light rail; you could buy a fleet of busses and provide more convenient service for far less than the cost of rail.  We whizzed away an inordinate amount to tax dollars in PDX on light rail.  Now we have a public bus service, lightly used, with a bloated union milking it, and light rail trains lightly filled with erstwhile bus riders, riding with huge subsidies.

    The answer?  Kill DOT, Amtrak, the Highway Trust Fund, and most other Federal transportation entities.  If there is a transportation need, someone will build it, knowing we will come.  I’ll bet there are investment dollars out there ready to acquire Amtrak’s rolling stock at a discount, and the Fed rights of way, operate a service efficiently and make money doing it.

    • #12
  13. Mendel Inactive
    Mendel
    @Mendel

    I don’t think example of privatization in England is applicable to the US. The denser geography of Britain, and its denser pre-existing rail network at the time of privatization, are organic factors which don’t exist in the US.

    Indeed, my understanding is that long-distance passenger rail in the US used to be private (some of whom lent their names to the railroads in Monopoly), but that they all went bankrupt – leading to the formation of Amtrak to keep the service afloat.

    Aside from a few exceptional intercity routes, privatization would likely just be a precursor to what needs to happen sometime – the death of long-distance/intercity rail in the US.

    • #13
  14. Kay of MT Inactive
    Kay of MT
    @KayofMT

    Arahant:

    Valiuth:Why the heck are people so into saving trains and Amtrak. Did people get so doe eyed over the loss of our great river paddle boats and our extensive canal system?

    We like choochoos!

    We do, we do! I spent a small fortune for my small grandson and I to ride the Chattanooga Choo-Choo in 1999.

    • #14
  15. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Um, d’you know why the VIA Rail line between Quebec City and Windsor (across the river from Detroit) is listed on this map of United States “high speed” rail?

    Aside from it not being in the United States, I am aware of NO plans to convert those tracks for high-speed rail.

    I used to take the train between Ottawa and Windsor when I was a university student.  It was a 10-hour trip (at best).  The same trip was only 9 hours by automobile, and between 2 and 4 hours by airplane.

    James Pethokoukis:051415amtrak

    • #15
  16. Mendel Inactive
    Mendel
    @Mendel

    The best “intermediate” reform I could imagine would be to financially separate the different intercity lines/regions Amtrak serves.

    Amtrak is a conglomeration of a few lines which might make some financial sense if run well, a bunch of lines which make absolutely no sense, and dreams of high-speed lines which are absolutely fantastical. And since they are all under the same roof, the lines which could be decent are instead rendered mediocre to horrible in order to cross-subsidize the hopeless causes.

    Separating out all of those lines would allow the ones with any chance of success to be run with less hindrance, and expose the true costs of the other 95% of the network for the world to see.

    • #16
  17. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Mendel: Indeed, my understanding is that long-distance passenger rail in the US used to be private (some of whom lent their names to the railroads in Monopoly), but that they all went bankrupt – leading to the formation of Amtrak to keep the service afloat.

    How much did that have to do with regulation of the railroad industry and unions by the federal guv’mint? How much to competition from airlines and buses?

    • #17
  18. user_1008534 Member
    user_1008534
    @Ekosj

    Amtrak v NJ Transit

    Having ridden The Long Island RR, NJ Transit and Amtrak more or less my whole adult life, here is a nice example.

    NJ Transit and Amtrak both have service from Trenton to NYC Penn Station. I think they even run on the same tracks.

    One way, adult rush hour fare:

    NJ Transit website says 15.50

    Amtrak website says 32.00

    • #18
  19. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Mendel:I don’t think example of privatization in England is applicable to the US. The denser geography of Britain, and its denser pre-existing rail network at the time of privatization, are organic factors which don’t exist in the US.

    The population of the United Kingdom is about 64 million people.

    The population along the Boston-Washington D.C. corridor alone is about 106 million people.

    That corridor, at least, could easily be privatized.

    California is a bit trickier, as it has about 64% of the UK’s population while also having 174% of the UK’s land area.

    Still, I have faith that private operators would be able to innovate and find savings that Amtrak has no incentive to find.

    Also, the fact that a particular franchise operator goes bankrupt is not evidence that privatization “doesn’t work”.  In the UK, about 35 operators have gone defunct since privatization.  The government has had to take over some routes when no private operators wanted a particular franchise.

    • #19
  20. Walker Inactive
    Walker
    @Walker

    I have occasionally used the Capitol Corridor Amtrak between Sacramento and the Bay Area. It’s a scenic ride that takes about 2 1/2 hours to SF. It was getting expensive though, even with a senior pass, and if I travelled with others, even with the cost of driving and parking it couldn’t compete. Friends then told me about Megabus. I had my doubts, with visions of Greyhound and “Ratso” as a fellow passenger. However, I am now one of their biggest fans. It’s a double decker bus, clean, has wifi, with “normal” passengers, is quicker than the train, only $4.75 one way, AND, a private service!!! The cons are that there is only one location in each direction (but both linked by transit), and only 4 trips per day in either direction. The buses are full!!

    You make your reservation in advance and a Megabus employee is at the bus checking you in. Since it’s a bus, it gets on the HOV lane and is in SF in an hour and a half!! Now I realize that the Northeast Corridor carries far more people than Sacto to SF, but who’s to say that a dedicated right of way on the current highway system with maglev couldn’t be constructed on the Northeast Corridor with a system of articulated busses carrying commuters to major transit hubs along the way. An automated maglev guideway would be far less expensive than fixed rail, and could be privately funded or receive a low interest govt loan for a period of years. Just saying.

    • #20
  21. Yeah...ok. Inactive
    Yeah...ok.
    @Yeahok

    It will remain funded. Outside of teacher’s union, the only other union that welcomes low skilled gays.

    • #21
  22. Ricochet Moderator
    Ricochet
    @OmegaPaladin

    If I wanted to save Amtrak, I’d start by making them right to work, and also get some freight rail execs and foreign consultants to work on reliability and timeliness.

    Amtrak’s big niche is that it is much cheaper to give people reasonable seats on a train, and it has much more rapid boarding than a plane.

    I ride the Chicago – Milwaukee line regularly – it is a nice blend of comfort and cheap.

    • #22
  23. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @JudgeMental

    The unprofitable lines really do need to be closed.  For some of them, I have seen figures showing that it would literally be cheaper to rent each ticket holder a car and let them drive.  No ride sharing needed… each member of the family can have their own and it’s still cheaper.

    • #23
  24. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    I want to travel by train—I love trains—but there are practical reasons why I don’t:

    1.  Arrival & departure times:  Unless you are going from or to a major city, you could either get on, or be dropped off at o-dark-hundred at a station that . . .

    2.  Is unstaffed.  There are many stations that are unstaffed, which means no one to help you if there are problems with your tickets, or the thugs that are threatening you because . . .

    3.  Many stations are in unsavory neighborhoods.  Even if the stations were staffed, security would be a big problem.

    4.  No parking.  Oh sure, there are places to park, but no long-term parking such as at airports, plus there are the security issues

    5.  Cost.  If I were to travel overnight, I want a compartment with an enclosed bathroom (if traveling with the wife or a cheerleader).  I’ve done overnights with a cabin twice on a Russian passenger train.  It was nice, but walking to the end of the car in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom was an adventure.  Oh, back to cost—expensive!  Even with “gummint” subsidies, private staterooms on Amtrak cost a lot of bucks.

    • #24
  25. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Stad:

    Even with “gummint” subsidies, private staterooms on Amtrak cost a lot of bucks.

    How long do you plan on being on this train that you need your own stateroom? We’re talking about Boston-to-Washington here, not the Trans-Siberian Railroad!

    A private operator could borrow an idea from the airlines and install super-nice pods for first-class passengers. Fit more people in the first-class car, while (arguably) improving the experience over the old-style staterooms.

    aircanadafirstclass_wideweb__470x3110

    What you’re describing doesn’t sound far off from having one’s one private Pullman. By gum I should HOPE it costs a bit more than an economy seat!

    • #25
  26. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Misthiocracy:

    Stad:

    Even with “gummint” subsidies, private staterooms on Amtrak cost a lot of bucks.

    How long do you plan on being on this train that you need your own stateroom? We’re talking about Boston-to-Washington here, not the Trans-Siberian Railroad!

    What you’re describing doesn’t sound far off from having one’s one private Pullman. By gum I should HOPE it costs a bit more than an economy seat!

    Sleeper class on Amtrak long distance trains is in no way comparable to having your own private pullman car.  (The company I work for owns four private cars.  I’ve been in them.  They’re REALLY nice. Really, really nice!  Like actual wood-burning fireplace in the bar car nice.  )

    If you can be flexible with your travel dates, sleeper class on an Amtrak long distance run [Empire Builder, San Francisco Zephyr, Southwest Chief] can be done reasonably cheaply, depending on your definition of reasonable.  I’ve done several end-to-end trips on those trains with one or more of my kids with both of us in a sleeper for well under a thousand dollars.  And when you consider that sleeper class includes all of your meals in the dining car (and you see the prices on the menu!), on at least one of those trips I think it was cheaper to be in a sleeper than in coach.

    • #26
  27. Pilli Inactive
    Pilli
    @Pilli

    Amtrak experience:  The Coaster from LA to San Diego used to run on time only 54% of the time.  Its operation was contracted to Amtrak.  The contract was given to a private operating company.  In the second month of their operation, on time performance was at 98%…for the exact same trains and equipment.  The pay incentives for Amtrak crews almost guarantee the trains will be late.

    Another Amtrak experience:  Train 5, Chicago to Emeryville (SF bay area) has 11 hours of pad built into its schedule.  That means that Amtrak expects the train to actually arrive at stations along the way earlier than announced but that if they arrive later they will still be counted as on time.  If Amtrak would adhere to what it “expects”, you would arrive in Emeryville 11 hours earlier.

    • #27
  28. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Miffed White Male:

    If you can be flexible with your travel dates, sleeper class on an Amtrak long distance run [Empire Builder, San Francisco Zephyr, Southwest Chief] can be done reasonably cheaply, depending on your definition of reasonable. I’ve done several end-to-end trips on those trains with one or more of my kids with both of us in a sleeper for well under a thousand dollars. And when you consider that sleeper class includes all of your meals in the dining car (and you see the prices on the menu!), on at least on those trips I think it was cheaper to be in a sleeper than in coach.

    Just for reference (and prices can vary dramatically for different departure dates of the same train):

    May 2014, fare for one adult and one child in an economy bedroom [roomette] from LA to Chicago was  $596.

    April 2013, One adult and two children in a “standard Bedroom” (which includes an in-room toilet and shower) from Seattle to Milwaukee was $856.

    Both of those trips are two nights en route, and the fare includes all dining car meals on board.  Also in both of those cases I was shopping for the absolute cheapest [sleeper] railfare I could find for that route without regard to departure date – the whole point of the trip was to take the kid(s) on a train ride.  For different departure dates the same room could easily have been double that.

    • #28
  29. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Miffed White Male:If you can be flexible with your travel dates, sleeper class on an Amtrak long distance run [Empire Builder, San Francisco Zephyr, Southwest Chief] can be done reasonably cheaply, depending on your definition of reasonable. I’ve done several end-to-end trips on those trains with one or more of my kids with both of us in a sleeper for well under a thousand dollars. And when you consider that sleeper class includes all of your meals in the dining car (and you see the prices on the menu!), on at least on those trips I think it was cheaper to be in a sleeper than in coach.

    I assume that for a person who takes that sort of long-distance run, the ride itself is the vacation, rather than merely a method for getting from a to b.

    As such, a private operator could easily turn these sorts of routes into luxury excursions, and jack up the price accordingly, thereby ensuring profitability.

    Something like the Rocky Mountaineer in British Columbia.  It’s a private train, in an area with very low population density, and it makes money.

    https://www.rockymountaineer.com

    • #29
  30. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Miffed White Male:

    …the whole point of the trip was to take the kid(s) on a train ride…

    All the more reason it shouldn’t be subsidized by federal taxpayers!

    • #30
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