Thursday, December 31, 2009

Thoughts - Amtrak at Decade's End

While likely prepared prior to the closest shave in air travel security involving a US flagged aircraft during the past eight years, this quite positive article appears virtually "the day after' in The New York Times' Business Travel section and presents Amtrak corridor services as a viable business travel option;

Brief passage:

There are also signs that passengers are increasingly embracing trains. The number of Amtrak riders has increased steadily since 2001, surpassing 28 million in 2008, though a dip is expected this year because of the recession.

Amtrak estimates it carried 63 percent of travelers flying or taking the train between New York and Washington in 2008 — an increase from 37 percent before the Acela service began in 2000. Amtrak’s market share between New York and Boston was 49 percent last year, compared with 20 percent before Acela.

Amtrak hopes to push those numbers even higher, Mr. Lim said. The railroad plans to introduce free Wi-Fi service on all Acela trains in the second quarter of 2010, then add Northeast regional trains later in the year.

The ability to work on the train is one of the reasons Brian Silengo says he rides Amtrak for his weekly trips to New York from Washington. He uses a cellular wireless card to get Internet access, but as a sales executive for an interactive marketing agency, he mostly values the Acela trains’ reliability.

“They’re very good at getting you where you need to be on time,” he said

I believe there is finally recognition within the "Wonderland on the Potomac" that intercity rail passenger service is here to stay and that Corridor services are what 21st Century intercity passenger railroading is all about. Such services are definitely on the "upswing'. Acela service has been expanded to such extent that 17 of the 20 sets are now used to protect scheduled service, up from only 13 of the 20 within recent memory. All amenities of Acela First Class have been maintained. As noted by The Times, markets such as NY-WAS that had previously been ceded to air transport are again viable. I'm quite convinced that an order for new Corridor Regional Coaches will soon be on the books. There may even be additional Acela cars added to the existing sets.

Here in the Midwest, the additional trains added as part of the 2006 Illinois initiative are "doing well'. I was skeptical at first as it appeared an unpopular (some also say incompetent; all now say disgraced) Governor was buying a few votes - I'm very pleased to note that skepticism on my part has proven unfounded.

But now to address the other side of the business - the Long Distance trains. There is only one reason LD trains have existed in the Amtrak era - and that is political expediency. "No Yuma no moolah" is simply how the game is played. The Incorporators of Amtrak, despite all the "for profit" bluster' knew the enterprise was either going to be funded or it was kaput. Those of us in the industry knew it as well. Those in Congress learned it about a year later.

Amtrak was "sold' to the industry on the strength that there would be immediate relief from passenger train deficits, but that in about five years the LD system would be gone.

Obviously that little timeline proved fallacious. While I was never "privy" to the reaction "on the Eighth Floor (Mahogany Row)" at my road, I'm certain when it was learned that Amtrak had ordered the Superliners, the reaction was "grief, we're going to be stuck with these trains for another thirty years".

But let us consider that Amtrak LD during the Bush administration has survived relatively unscathed when compared with the preceding Clinton. During Bush, only the Sunset East and the Three Rivers were lost. Under Clinton (the so-called Mercer Cuts) all service over the "traditional UP", namely Pioneer and Desert Wind, was lost. To date, the Obama administration is showing that they encourage new services, but that those services will be short distance in nature and scope - and will be substantially funded at Local level.

So long as Amtrak gets its Federal appropriation, which in large part goes towards NECorridor infrastructure, then the level of LD service is quite adequate. But even though "I ride 'em' when convenient and come away with "more positive than negatives" travel experiences, I'm at a loss, and have been so throughout the entire Amtrak era, to see how LD trains can hold relevance to 21st century passenger rail.


  1. To each his own opionion, Mr. Norman, about long distance passenger service, be it right, wrong or indifferent.

    The United States doesn't have top quality LDS because the "powers that are or were" didn't want them. If we had them and they were marketed properly instead of being shoved under the rug, trains such as the California Zephyr, Empire Builder, Capitol Limited, City of Miami, Silver Meteor, and numerous others could fit very well indeed in 21st Century passenger rail.

    Wake up and smell the coffee!


  2. Or else that long-distance trains aren't big enough pork.

    I think that we may end up with this pork problem in high-speed-rail efforts also. To get support, it may be necessary to spend money on efforts in a lot of states, even if it makes the money get spread too thin and some of it gets spent on questionable projects.

    Something similar had happened with freeway building (Stephen Goddard's book "Getting There"). Lots of freeways got built in urban areas, because that's what was necessary to get the support of urban-area Congresscritters.